"The Greater The Power, The More Dangerous The Abuse"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: In 1768 one John Wilkes was elected to the House of Commons for Middlesex. At the time of his election he was still outlawed by a court conviction, for, as something of a demagogue, he had been in difficulty in 1764 over political publications. As a result of his unsavory past, in which pornography also figured, the House of Commons voted to expel Wilkes as morally unfit to serve in Parliament. His constituency reelected him four times. Three of those times he was expelled; on the fourth occasion the House of Commons declared his opponent duly elected, contrary to the actual vote of the people. Although he had no regard for John Wilkes, Edmund Burke spoke up in Parliament in opposition to the action of the House, an action he declared to be unconstitutional. As usual, Burke was speaking as a conservative who believed that order and liberty could be had only by limiting personal and group action to what is within the law. For the House of Commons to deviate from their constitutional powers was, in Burke's view, a threat to the whole fabric of the British system of government. And so he spoke against that action to his fellow members of the House of Commons:

. . . The substance of the question is, to put bounds to your own power by the rules and principles of law. This is, I am sensible, a difficult thing to the corrupt, grasping, and ambitious part of human nature. But the very difficulty argues and enforces the necessity of it. First, because the greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse. Since the Revolution, at least, the power of the nation has all flowed with a full tide into the House of Commons. Secondly, because the House of Commons, as it is the most powerful, is the most corruptible part of the whole Constitution. Our public wounds cannot be concealed; to be cured they must be laid open. . . .