March 16 1812: Disqualifying Bankrupt Members of Parliament

On March 16, 1812,  leave was sought in the British House of Commons to a bring a bill that would cause the seat of any member to be vacated if he became a bankrupt [1].  Leave was granted and eventually the bill was passed in 1812 as 52 Geo HI c 144. This act provided that a member of Parliament who became a bankrupt had to vacate his seat unless the bankruptcy was rescinded within twelve months of the date of the bankruptcy or his creditors were paid their debts in full within the same period.  As noted below, a form of this law still applies to MPs in Britain but not in Canada.

In one sense, the legislation appears to be somewhat redundant since in 1812 a member had to satisfy a property qualification to be elected. A bankrupt also faced the possibility of being imprisoned in debtor's prison. Members had to have an annual income of at least £300 derived from the ownership of land to be able to serve in Parliament [2].  MPs were also not paid a salary. It was only in 1858 that the property qualification was removed in Britain. Members of Parliament first received salaries in 1911 with these salaries initially set at £400 per annum. 

Charles James Fox
In practice, the property qualification for MPs was often ignored in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. It was believed that such leading parliamentarians as Pitt, Fox, Burke and Sheridan would not have met the property qualification but were allowed to serve. The great Whig leader Charles James Fox, a notorious gambler, is reported to have said that the enforcement of the property qualification "would exclude talents from obtaining entrance into the House.'' [3]  

It seems likely that the bill to disqualify bankrupt members was occasioned, in part, by the fact that the law that applied to Irish members already had such a disqualification. It did not seem proper to have, in the words of one member, that "English members should have privileges to which the Irish were not entitled." Some members objected to the bill on the grounds that the existing economic distress meant that the bill would result in a "a great stigma on bankrupts, which, in the present state of the country, he could not think was altogether proper."

To this day a person may not sit in the British House of Commons if he or she is a bankrupt or has an equivalent status [4].  Canada does not appear to be have such a disqualification for members of parliament[5]In the United States there are examples of bankrupt Congressmen [6] (fill in your own joke here) with the only disqualifications or qualifications being those that are provided by the Constitution [7].

The debate of  March 16, 1812 is reproduced below: 

BILL RESPECTING MEMBERS WHO BECOME BANKRUPTS. HC Deb 16 March 1812 vol 21 cc1315-6 1316
Mr. Thompson moved for leave to bring in a Bill for declaring the seats of members, who should become bankrupt, vacant after a limited time. He did not think it necessary to preface his motion with any long speech. It was quite right, he thought, that a beggar should not be a member of that House. Its dignity and independence required that some measure of the nature of the present motion should be adopted. His Bill only went to assimilate the law of England to that now existing in Ireland. If an Irish member became bankrupt, his seat became vacant in six months after his bankruptcy, unless he produced a certificate from the commissioners. He did not know why English members should have privileges to which the Irish were not entitled.
Mr. Baring was of opinion that the preferable mode of proceeding would be for the House, in the first instance, to go into a committee to enquire into the privileges of members. He thought that adopting this measure at once would be to pass, in the public opinion, a great stigma on bankrupts, which, in the present state of the country, he could not think was altogether proper.
Mr. C. W. Wynn approved of the proposed measure, though the period of six months might not be sufficient in many cases to enable a correct idea to be formed as to the state of the bankrupt's affairs. He was, however, a friend to the measure, and thought that the publicity attendant on bankruptcy was one strong reason for the House adopting it.
Mr. Lockhart also approved of the measure.
The question was then put, and leave given to bring in the Bill.


1.    This issue of bankruptcy and House members was raised on January 31 1812 but it appears that it was not pursued until March 16. There is a further record of a debate in the House of Commons on March 23, 1812 dealing with the second reading of the bill.  

2.  The poet Robert Southey was elected in 1826 to a Rotten Borough, but refused to serve, in part,  because he did not meet the property qualifications. It is likely that he did not  serve because the position did not pay.  

3.    Most of the information in this paragraph is taken from a fascinating Committee discussion of the issue from the British House of Commons found here.

4.    In England and Wales, MPs subject of what are called Bankruptcy Restrictions Orders have to vacate their seats. The same applies in Northern Ireland to persons adjudged to be bankrupt. In Scotland, the bankruptcy equivalent is to have one's estate sequestered.  For further disqualifications see here

5.   The Parliament of Canada website provides the following disqualifications with respect to members of Parliament:
The Canada Elections Act sets out a series of disqualifications that apply to electoral candidacy. Inmates of penal institutions serving sentences of two or more years are disqualified from seeking election.  Until 1993, patients suffering from mental disease were ineligible to be candidates during the period of confinement or while under the protection and supervision of a guardian. Certain officials such as sheriffs, clerks of the peace, or county or judicial district crown attorneys may not seek election.   Similarly, federally appointed judges (citizenship judges excepted) and election officials are disqualified from voting and seeking election. Members of provincial legislatures and territorial councils are also ineligible to run in federal elections. An appointment to the Senate disqualifies a person from being a Member; no violation of this has occurred, although Senators have resigned their seats on occasion to seek election to the House. 
A person found guilty of any corrupt electoral practice under the Canada Elections Act within the previous five years, such as knowingly making a false declaration respecting election expenses, exerting undue influence upon a voter at an election, or inducing voters by promises of valuable consideration, food or drink, is disqualified from seeking election for seven years following the date of the conviction.  A person guilty of any illegal electoral practice under the Canada Elections Act, such as wilfully exceeding the legal spending limit, failing to submit a return respecting election expenses, or consenting to be a candidate when ineligible, is disqualified from seeking election for five years from the date of conviction.  
6.        The current Democratic Representative Ruben Hinojosa  from Texas' 15th district filed for personal bankruptcy in December 2010.  

7.   Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution sets three qualifications for members of the House of Representatives. Each representative must (a) be at least twenty-five years old; (b) have been a citizen of the United States for the past seven years; and (c) at the time of the election be an inhabitant of the state they represent. Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution sets three qualifications for senators. Each senator must: (a) be at least 30 years of age; (b) must have been a citizen of the United States for at least nine years before being elected; and (c)  must reside in the State he or she will represent at the time of the election. The Fourteenth Amendment also provides that a federal or state officer who takes the requisite oath to support the Constitution, but later engages in rebellion or aids the enemies of the United States, is disqualified from becoming a representative.


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