It was Burke, perhaps more than anyone since then, who defined the characteristics of the political mind of the late eighteenth-century English Radicals. He was of the opinion that "our representation is as nearly perfect as the necessary imperfection of human affairs and of human creatures will suffer it to be." But a portion of those who now demanded an inquiry into the state of representation based their criticisms of the constitution
" ...on the supposed rights of man as man. As to the claim of right, the meanest petitioner, the most gross and ignorant, is as good as the best; in some respects his claim is more favourable on account of his ignorance; ... he sues in forma pauperis.... They who plead an absolute right cannot be satisfied with anything short of personal representation, because all natural rights must be the rights of individuals; as by nature there is no such thing as politic or corporate personality; all these ideas are mere fictions of laws, they are creatures of voluntary institution; men as men are individuals, and nothing else.... It is ridiculous to talk to them of the British Constitution upon any or upon all of its bases; for they lay it down that every man ought to govern himself, and that where he cannot go himself he must send his representative."
There is no end to their claim, Burke insists. "Give them all they ask and your grant is still a cheat..." Not only is the House of Commons not representative, according to their principles, but they refuse to stop there. "How come they neither to have the choice of kings, or lords, or judges, or generals, or admirals, or bishops, or priests, or ministers, or justices of peace?"
The beginning of the Radical movement, so roundly abused by Burke, corresponds to the period of growing tension in the relations between the American colonies and England. Like the Levellers, more than a century before their time, the first Radicals were furious at the state of the House of Commons and based most of their demands, which hardly seem striking today, on the need for parliamentary representation. Thomas Paine, in his Rights of Man (1792), denied that the Revolution of 1688 was anything but a changing of places, and declared that the settlement ensuing would have to be torn up in favor of a new settlement on the basis of reason and the natural rights of man.
In so far as we are concerned with the new Radicals here, their activities were divided into the periods of the decades before the French Revolution and the decades of the reaction to the Revolution. In neither period did the ideas of the Radicals change substantially, but the resistance they encountered to their ideas were magnified in the latter period by the wave of revulsion against and fear of Jacobinism. Many of the political leaders who had given some support to Radical reforms in the first period were alienated or frightened by the period of reaction, so that the end of the century saw a Parliament which was changed little from that of the early seventeenth century. The proposals to consider a petition of the Society of Friends of the People for reforms of representation, introduced by Charles, Lord Grey in 1793, included recommendations for liberalization of the franchise to include householders, the holding of elections on a single day rather than over a period of time, and payment of the wages of representatives from the public treasury. The recommendations received the support of only forty-one members of the House.
The triumph of virtual representation was assured; the reformers had to wait another thirty years to make a new beginning. Looking at the state of representation a few years later, an enthusiastic editor of Jeremy Bentham's Plan of Parliamentry Reform could with bitterness point out the contrast between Old Sarum with no inhabitants and two members of Parliament, and Yorkshire with nearly a million persons and two member, and comment:
"This is what the determined enemies to Reform call virtual representation. Why do not the Oligarchy form themselves into a Grand Eating Club, to eat for the whole nation, and then tell the starving people they are virtually fed."
The beginnings of the Society of the Bill of Rights in 1769 to support the candidacy of Wilkes for Parliament developed very quickly all the essential elements in the program of what we call direct democracy from our experiences with the Levellers. The basic dogma was the idea of personal representation, the belief that every man had within him the right to vote. Every man was thought to possess a natural reason which made him fit to judge political issues. Liberty, so the Society held, much after the fashion of Rousseau, consisted in frequent elections: the Septennial Act, said Cartwright, suspended "the political liberty of the nation for six parts in seven of human life." Parliamentary representatives were delegates -- the "proxies" and "attorneys" of the people who elected them so that they might "transact its business and receive its wages." Such representatives should make no pretense of independence or originality of action. A much extended suffrage was demanded, especially in the boroughs.
Although there was some sentiment among Radicals in favor of Pitt's Reform Bill, others, like Jebb, thought that it was "deficient with respect to any probable good effect in stemming the torrent of corruption." Furthermore, Jebb denounced any moderate reforms as shams, practically speaking, and believed in completely explicit instructions from constituencies to their representatives. The following, which he drew up for use of the candidates running for Parliament from Westminster in 1782, is illustrative: "I do declare upon my honor, that upon a fair signification of the wishes of a majority of my constituents, I will either act in conformity to their instructions or embrace the first opportunity of resigning my seat." As shown here, the attitude of all direct democrats in respect to the relative position of the constituent and his representative is to make out of representation what was originally the relationship between baron and King under Magna Carta, that is, presentation. Jebb introduces the idea of initiative and recall, of which there was some hint in the ideas of the Levellers and which is a logical extension of the demand for individual "presentation." He insisted that if the counties in common council declared the Parliament dissolved, its dissolution would be a constitutional fact. And if the same common council of the people passed regulations for the conduct of elections, such regulations could by-pass the Commons and go directly to the Lords and King for approval, after which time they would become part of the law. Most radicals at first did not espouse the elimination of the Lords and Crown.
Richard Price, for example, circumvented the unrepresentative features of the Crown by preaching that the Crown was more of a servant than a sovereign, and the Crown owed its office to the choice of the people (Revolution of 1688) and therefore was the only lawful sovereign on earth. Price claimed further that representation is the only source of legitimacy in government and that the only way to achieve such legitimacy is through the efficient administration of a system of elections.
Later Radicals did not find such a painless way of reconciling representation and monarchy, and Radicalism soon displayed its natural tendencies of republicanism and anarchism. The development of these later tendencies after 1790 coincided with the period of reaction and the French "terror," and met the full force of hostility from conservatives and nationalists. But during the preceding generation it seemed as if Burke's ideas against instructions to representatives would lose out and that the delegation theory would win. Annual Parliaments and extended suffrage were frequently and seriously discussed in the Commons and at many public meetings. The House of Commons in 1780 resolved that they should consider petitions for the redress of grievances and remedy the grievances. Instructions to representatives were common in the popular boroughs and it was by no means the activities of Burke which put a stop to them, as Lecky states; rather, it was the reversal of the ruling sentiment in the country brought on by the effects of the French Revolution.
The reform plans which Pitt attempted to introduce in the Commons in 1783 and 1785 were a good example of the synthesis of representative ideas which England had reached by the time of the French Revolution. They combined Radical recommendations for rational districts and penalties against corrupt practices with middle-class ideas of increased representation for the growing cities and with rural demands that the counties be given a share of the representation taken from the rotten boroughs. Finally Pitt proposed to compensate the owners for the loss of their "property."
By 1790 Pitt was opposed to reform and after that time the liberal consensus was lost completely. Proposals for changes failed to reach a vote in 1790 and 1792, while they lost by majorities of 241 in 1793, 165 in 1797, and 142 in 1800. The next hope of the direct democratic ideas of direct representation came in America; Bentham burst out enviously:
"Look to positive experience: behold it in the American United States. There you have, not merely democratic ascendency in a mixed government, but pure democracy, and nothing else. There you have, not one democracy only, but a whole cluster of democracies; there, all is democracy; all is regularity, tranquillity, prosperity, security: continual security, and with it, continually increasing opulence, enjoyed with practical equality."