In the latest blog for the Georgian Lords, Dr Charles Littleton considers the way in which 18th-century elections were frequently decided on the results of petitions in Parliament, after the initial returns were challenged.
The weeks before this year’s election in the USA have been marked with commentary considering the potential for voter fraud, disenfranchisement, and the role of the courts. Although on a much larger stage, this USA election has had many of the features of the numerous disputed elections that came before the House of Commons in the 18th century. Attempts to reverse the results of elections were a normal part of parliamentary business, as every new Parliament began with a flood of petitions seeking to unseat freshly returned Members, either by trying to disqualify their voters or complaining of fraudulent methods at the polls. The high number of election petitions submitted throughout the first half of the 18th century attests to the period’s partisan bitterness and battles to control the Commons. In 1705, petitions relating to 31 controverted elections came before the lower house. This had increased to 82 after the 1715 election, rising to a peak of 99 after 1722, and then, after the Tories realized that they would have little return for their efforts, declining to 61 in 1727. John Hervey, 2nd Baron Hervey, felt that the treatment of election petitions following this election showed that:
The manifest injustice and glaring violation of all truth in the decisions of this Parliament surpass even the most flagrant and infamous instances of any of their predecessors [Hervey Memoirs, i. 102]
The following election in 1734 saw the prime minister Sir Robert Walpole’s majority cut by 32 through victories by Tories and opposition Whigs. Sixty-nine election petitions were submitted to overturn these results, including one from the ministerial candidates defeated at the Wiltshire borough of Marlborough. This borough’s franchise lay in the members of the corporation, who in 1734 numbered twenty-two. Fourteen corporation members had cast their votes for the Tories while the remaining eight voted for the government candidates.
Key to the electoral success of the Tories at Marlborough was its lord of the manor, Charles Bruce, Lord Bruce of Whorlton, heir to the earldom of Ailesbury, and an active campaign manager for the opposition during the election. So effective was Bruce electorally, Walpole had developed a particular animus against him, and even swore to his colleagues ‘that no Member of Lord Bruce’s recommending, if returned, should keep their seats’. [HMC Egmont Diary, ii. 167] Bruce’s rival in Marlborough, and the petition’s principal promoter, was Algernon Seymour, Lord Hertford, heir to the dukedom of Somerset. In preparation for the petition he requested that soldiers be brought into Marlborough ‘to show the town that my interest is not so despicable’. For his part, Bruce methodically compiled lists of over 500 MPs and assigned lobbyists, chosen from among his friends in the peerage, to work on those most needing persuading.
Bruce’s lobbying efforts paid off. The government’s majority in divisions on the Marlborough election case went from 45 on 12 February 1735 to four on 27 March. The following day the Commons resolved without dividing to reject the petition and confirm Bruce’s candidates. A principal problem for the government was that one of the central charges in the petition had already been determined in the court of King’s Bench and lawyers in the Commons refused to support an attempt to have a parliamentary vote overturn a judicial ruling. The Tory Edward Harley, later 3rd earl of Oxford, exulted that Walpole, deprived of the support of his ‘tools’ had been forced to ‘give up the question’. ‘This was a great blow upon the Court, and especially on Lord Hertford’s interest in this borough’, he continued, which meant that ‘Lord Bruce has obtained the borough’. [Tory and Whig, 7]
In contrast, the county of Yorkshire was the largest constituency in England, with at least 15,000 freeholders holding the franchise in 1734. Lord Bruce, leading an alliance of Tories and opposition Whigs there, hand-picked the Tory Sir Miles Stapylton, 4th bt., to stand for the county. Stapylton came top of the poll in May 1734, but only beat the losing candidate by 197 votes. The Whigs quickly prepared a petition for Parliament which sought to disqualify more than 1,600 of Stapylton’s 7,896 votes. It alleged that over 1,000 were cast by freeholders whose holdings were not worth 40 shillings or whose land lay outside the county.
Hearings on the matter were interminably adjourned throughout 1735, and Stapylton in the meantime submitted a counter-petition to void no fewer than 2,200 of his rivals’ votes. Walpole knew that the battle was becoming increasingly unrealistic, as it would require too much expense and time to prove the petition’s charges. He quietly urged it to be dropped but its main backer, Thomas Watson-Wentworth, earl of Malton (and later marquess of Rockingham), refused to desist and hearings on the petition finally began in January 1736. By the end of April, though, after only half of the 1,600 votes objected to had been treated, the government abandoned the cause, which was seen by his rivals in Yorkshire as a humiliating rebuff to Malton. Once again, Walpole was unable to realize his avowed intention of unseating through petition every Member ‘of Lord Bruce’s recommending’.
Ultimately, defeat in an election dispute ended Walpole’s career in the Commons. Only 43 petitions were submitted after the 1741 election, but the loss of one against the opposition victory in Chippenham was enough to force his resignation. On 28 January 1742 the ministry lost by only one vote a division in initial proceedings on this matter, and five days later another division was conceded by an even larger majority of sixteen. Walpole took this as a vote of no confidence and saved himself accordingly. He was raised to the peerage (as earl of Orford) on 6 February and resigned five days later.
The many petitions against disputed elections in the 18th century were not just a tawdry and blatantly partisan sideshow of parliamentary business. The battles over them could shape the characters and destinies of British governments.
W. A. Speck, ‘”The Most Corrupt Council in Christendom”: decisions on controverted elections, 1702-42’, in C. Jones, ed., Party and Management in Parliament, 1660-1784 (1984), 107-21.
C. Jones, ‘Lord Bruce and the Marlborough Election Petition of 1735: An Aristocratic Lobbying of the House of Commons and a Blow against the Ministry of Sir Robert Walpole’, Parliamentary History 38:3 (2019), 362-86.
C. Collyer, ‘The Yorkshire Election of 1734’, Proceedings of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society 7 (1952), 53-82.