William Cowper (16..?-1740), the eldest surviving son of the Hon. Spencer Cowper (1669-1728, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Attorney General to the Prince of Wales and Chief Justice of Chester), served as Clerk of the Parliaments with responsibility for the operation of the House of Lords and House of Commons. He advised the Speaker and Members on parliamentary procedure. The position had been held formerly by his uncle, Sir William Cowper, a lawyer and Whig MP; Cowper acquired the reversionary interest in 1715.
Although the role had a relatively nominal salary of £40, Cowper’s earnings were supplemented by the fees he received for parliamentary services. In 1717-8, Cowper earned £279 for ‘delivering to the Chancery and Rolls Chapel several Acts of Parliament’, and a similar amount in connection with private members’ bills. And given his responsibility for allocating parliamentary appointments, he received appropriate recompense from those selected. These were sometimes substantial: several appointments commanded salaries of up to £400.
Cowper also occupied a senior position within the London magistracy. He was elected chair of the City of Westminster bench in 1723, a post he held until stepping down in December 1727; and chair of the Middlesex County bench in 1729 and again in 1730. A few months later Cowper was appointed Patentee to the Commission of Bankrupts, a role described by the press as ‘very valuable’. He was re-elected to chair the Middlesex bench in 1733 and the same year appointed one of several commissioners charged with a review of the Courts of Justice. Cowper’s loyalty to the government was beyond doubt and his Charge to the Grand Jury of Middlesex delivered in January 1723 provides a particularly apposite example of a loyal address:
It ought always to be a Matter of particular Distinction… that Justices would be vigilant to detect and produce to Punishment all those who… attempt the Subversion of the Great basis upon which stands all that is or can be dear to England and Protestants… It is… for our Religion, our Liberty and our Property.
An address delivered on 30 June 1727 to George II and reported verbatim in the London Gazette was similarly clear in its exhortation ‘to preserve our current constitution in Church and State’. Another three years later to his fellow magistrates was analogous:
The Magistrate… is trusted to uphold the Honour, the Dignity, and the Majesty of the State; to see that Order is observed; that equal Right be done according to known and approved Law; and ever to bear in Mind the high Nature, and vast importance of this Trust; and whoever assumes… such Powers upon any other Principle, is, and should be treated as, a Subverter of Peace, Order, and good Government, of the world, and an Enemy to human Society.
The parallels with the 1723 Constitution’s Masonic Charges and subsequent catechisms are evident. Not only was a Mason ‘a peaceable Subject to the Civil Powers… never to be concerned in Plots and Conspiracies against the Peace and Welfare of the Nation’, but one would additionally
be a good man and true, and strictly to obey the moral law… be a peaceable subject, and cheerfully to conform to the laws of the country… not be concerned in plots and conspiracies against government; and patiently… submit to the decisions of the supreme legislature [and]… the civil magistrate.
As the first Secretary (1723-27), and later as Deputy Grand Master, William Cowper was central to the reformulation of Modern Freemasonry and the promotion of the 1723 Constitutions.