§ Lord Castlereagh moved the order of the day for the first reading of this bill.
said, he would oppose in every stage this arbitrary, impolitic, and uncalled-for measure. After what had passed in the House that night—after the statements of various members, and from various parts of the country, he was surprised that the noble lord opposite should move the first reading of this, bill as a matter of course. He was surprised that no defence was offered, that no explanation was given, that no facts were stated, for the purpose of inducing the House to enact a measure which suspended all the benefits of the constitution, which enslaved the country, and placed the liberty of every man in it at the disposal of ministers. If it could be shown that nothing else would save us but the measure in contemplation—if it could be proved that the ultimate security of the nation demanded a temporary suspension of its rights—if a case of strong and paramount necessity could be made out, lie would be the last man in the House or the country to oppose a concession of increased power to the government. But, he would ask, had any such case been made out? Had any danger demanding the proposed remedy been clearly substantiated? He had a few observations to make on the report as laying the ground of the powers claimed by ministers, in which he was anxious not to be misunderstood. He would not discredit that report, nor the members who composed the committee from which it originated, although he was surprised that his right hon. friend (Mr. Ponsonby) should have disgraced himself by accepting of a place in it, and sitting in the same com- 709 mittee chamber with the noble lord opposite. Could his right lion, friend think himself in safety with the noble lord? [Hear, hear!] He meant no reflexion on the private character, but alluded to the public conduct of the noble lord. Did his right hon. friend not remember the noble lord's conduct on a former occasion, when he induced his right hon. friend to grant him his support? The noble lord came down to the House at the beginning of the last war against the people of France, and by professing to have no designs against the people of that country, by declaring that there was no intention in the allies to force upon it a government, by stating distinctly that there was no wish entertained to restore the old abuses and the Bourbons, he procured the support of his right hon. friend. He made all these professions, and produced these effects by them, at the very time that he had a declaration in his pocket that belied them: he declared there was no engagement to interfere with the choice of the French people, at the very time that he had made this country a party to an alliance for the restoration of the family they had chased from the throne. His right hon. friend should have remembered these things, when he was nominated a member of a committee in which the noble lord sat. He was free to say, that had he been nominated a member of that committee, no inducement on earth would have led him to risk his character by acting with the noble lord [Hear, hear!].
He would now enter into a brief examination of some parts of the report, the charges it contained, the alarm it was calculated to spread, and the manner in which it was drawn up. He would, in doing so, declare, that he was perfectly unbiassed; that he belonged to no party; that he would make his strictures upon it, not as a party report, but would view it as coolly as if it referred to the Popish plot. It must, in the first place, excite some degree of suspicion and jealousy against it, that it was drawn up on ex parte evidence, and resembled so much other reports, the allegations of which were found to have been false or grossly exaggerated. In 17941, charges of the same nature were brought forward, the characters of individuals were disgracefully traduced, accusations of treason were levelled against them; they were sent before a jury of their countrymen, with all the suspicion 710 attached to them, arising from a previous sentence of condemnation by a committee of parliament: and in the face of parliament, that had declared them traitors, they were acquitted; no treason was found; the evidence was declared false or insufficient. This was not all; another report was drawn up by a secret committee in 1812, that contained charges against individuals. When its allegations, however, came to be examined on oath, nine-tenths of them were found to be false. This committee itself was divided about the examination of witnesses, and the matter in dispute was laid before the House. His ever lamented friend, Mr. Whitbread, stated, that the Luddites had been excited in some instances by government officers, who were hired for their detection and apprehension; and he laid before parliament facts to confirm his statement. Had, therefore, a strict examination taken place, as he recommended, could any man doubt that parliament would not have disgraced itself by finding itself imposed upon by false testimony— by making up a report filled with falsehoods, and producing such a collection of trash as it had produced? If the evidence taken before two former committees of the House on these recent occasions had turned out so completely unfounded; if, when examinations were afterwards taken on oath, it was for the most part overturned, what security had we that the allegations on which we were now called to legislate, on which we were required to sacrifice the rights of the people, and surrender the benefits of the constitution, were founded in truth? Were we not authorized in believing, that the evidence before this committee was of a similar kind with that laid before others; and that this report might be as erroneous as former ones? He understood that before the secret committee only one witness had been examined, namely, the lord advocate of Scotland, who had produced a paper, which he begged might not be made public.
The first tiling that he would remark upon was that part of the report which stated, that at the denounced meetings, the most blasphemous expressions and doctrines were openly advanced, profane and seditious parodies of the Liturgy and Holy Scriptures were recited. Blasphemous and seditious doctrines he detested and abhorred as much as any man, and would go to any reasonable length to put 711 them down; but he thought our present laws were sufficient for this purpose, and would not consent to enlarge the powers of ministers under the pretence of stopping evils which the present laws could arrest. The laws against blasphemy were severe; why were they not enforced? Where was the attorney-general, that he did not institute proceedings against the guilty persons, and procure punishment? Was the whole nation to be exposed to the tyranny of ministers? Was a new code of despotism to be enacted merely because we had an attorney-general who was too timid, or too negligent in the performance of his duty?—The next thing on which lie would make an observation or two was that part of the report which stated, that the disaffected looked out for those people among whom the greatest distress prevailed, to excite inflammation and discontent. If they looked out for distress, he was sorry to say, that they could too easily find it: they could not long search in vain. Thanks to what was called the Pitt system, distress and ruin met us every where, in the cities, on the high roads, and in villages. There was no necessity to go about for proofs of misgovernment. After what he himself had seen, after what many hon. members had described, after what met the view of every person in society, there was no further evidence required of the ruinous and impolitic nature of the system on which the affairs of the country had for the last twenty years been conducted. There was no other food for discontent necessary, nor any necessity for the haranguing the disaffected, to heighten complaints, or point out the means of relief.
He could not help remarking upon that plan of rebellion and insurrection which the report attributed to them as means of obtaining redress, or taking the management of the country into their hands. "A plan was formed," says the report, "by a sudden rising in the dead of night, to surprise the soldiers, and in the terror which would be thereby occasioned, to set fire to the town in various places, and to take possession of the barracks, the Tower, and the bank." How was this mighty project to be accomplished? Could a hope be formed of success? Could there be the least danger apprehended from such wild and absurd projects? Could they suppose that they could overpower a garrison without spreading an alarm in a case where a single watchman would not be 712 surprised? There were barracks in several parts of the town: there were barracks in the Park, and in other places: could they all be surprised at once? Could armed men be expected to start up from the ground in the neighbourhood of each of these garrisons, to surprise the sentinel, to attack a force of nearly 5,000 (which existed about town), to burn their barracks, to destroy every vestige of their power, to seize their arms, and turn them against their fellow-citizens? He was willing to admit that some wild, mad, desperate, and mischievous enthusiasts might discuss the probability of success attending such enterprises in ale-houses; that they might, in their ignorant and intoxicated societies, start such absurd ideas, but could there be any danger from such instruments? Was there not strength enough in the existing law to restrain their attempts; and because they were so frantic and foolish, was the liberty of the whole nation to be placed at the disposal of ministers? [Hear hear]. But it seemed that their next attempt would have been to blow up the bridges. How was this to be done? How were the strong works of Westminster bridge, Waterloo, and the rest of those massy structures to be overthrown? What preparations were made for the mighty undertaking? Why six men in a waggon, having an old stocking, in which there was a little powder [Hear, and a laugh]. Could these absurdities be repeated without exciting contempt and ridicule? This pompous display of burlesque design in the report, compared with the instruments and the means of execution, put him in mind of a perfomance which, perhaps, the right lion, gentleman opposite (Mr. Canning) would remember better than he could: he meant the attack on the Abbey of Quedlenburg [in the Anti-Jacobin]. To describe this enterprise in the style of that performance, there would be—Scene, Spa-fields—time, morning—enter waggon, with six men and the ammunition stocking, (a laugh.) From Spa-fields they must proceed to blow up the bridges, without sappers or miners; they must take the bank, defended by its guard; they must advance to summon the Tower, defended with artillery, and manned with soldiers; they must overpower all opposition, and take possession of the town. Was not such an absurdity, gravely advanced in the report, sufficient to throw discredit on the whole? Then there came the story of the pikes; and great danger 713 was apprehended from the manufacture of such deadly instruments. He believed firmly, that the account given of these pikes, in Mr. Hunt's Petition, was the true one—that they were fabricated, not to attack the citizens of London—not for the purpose of rebellion and insurrection— but to defend a pond against depredation. He lent a more easy credence to this story, because he remembered, that in 1794 (the secret committee of that day having like them discovered deadly instruments) there was said to have been found eight tailors and one pike in Tooley street in the borough. Mr. Graham, who went to search the house where these materials of rebellion were found, declared that no mother ever looked with more delight and complacency on the face of a favourite and only child than he did upon this pike. Was not this account of pikes sufficient to excite the contempt of every rational man in the country? Then came the mighty subscription, which was to support, encourage, and invigorate this dangerous conspiracy; and here it must be allowed there was a little improvement in the finances of rebellion since 1794. At that period the sum subscribed for carrying on the projects of treason was 9l. 16s.; now it amounted to no less an extent than 10l., being 4s. more. He supposed, as they were to burn the barracks, they had previously robbed the military chest for such a supply. "Shame, shame, to those who could produce this absurdity to parliament, and, on the ground of its importance, call upon us for a surrender of our liberties."
He now came to the conclusion of the report, where it stated, that, "few, if any of the higher orders, or even of the middle class of society, and Scarcely any of the agricultural population, had lent themselves to the more violent of these projects." A more vague, indefinite, obscure, and unjust insinuation was never heard; a more scandalous statement never appeared in the report of any committee. If there was a single individual why not mention it? Was there one gentleman, he would ask? Was there one nobleman? Was there one man of property? Was there one in the middle ranks of life? If there was any one he ought to have been named. If there was none, then this part of the report insinuated a falsehood. He charged the report with a gross falsehood [Hear, hear]. Was the House to resort to the same arts, to get quit of its errors, as another House. Was it to pursue a 714 mean shuffling course; was it to say that a word was brought in, or a word left out as suited its purpose? The whole people were in this report libelled and arraigned: they were traduced in their characters, and were to surrender their freedom by such trash as this— "trash" which was only fit to be trampled under his feet. Yet upon vague and absurd allegations, the invasion of the constitution was justified and measures were to be passed, "by which he might be apprehended and imprisoned tomorrow, by the command, and during the pleasure, of the noble lord; who declares that we are responsible to God and mart for the encouragement we give to any plan for reducing his power or supporting the liberties of the people. Parliament, on such trash, was called upon to suspend the constitution, and to surrender the rights of the people into the hands of ministers. "Though those," said the hon. gentleman "in whom I have the greatest confidence were to require such a sacrifice—though ministers, whose conduct I was convinced had always tended to promote the public good—though my own friends—made the demand, I would oppose them, till they showed, in the necessity of the case, a justification of their proposals. I will never consent, therefore, to surrender the rights of the people without such necessity into the hands of such ministers as the noble lord who would abuse the power intrusted to them, who had already embrued their hands in the blood of their country, who had already been guilty of the most criminal cruelties."—
spoke to order. He felt it his duty to call upon the hon. member to state which individual member of the present government had criminally imbrued his hands in the blood of his country?
said, he charged the members of his majesty's government, in their official situations, with having before called for the very same powers which they now required, and with having abused the trust then reposed in them, and afterwards covered their misconduct with a bill of indemnity.
I have then to say that if it has been asserted that I ever criminally imbrued my hands in the blood of my country, the hon. member has stated that which is false.
§ Lord Milton
rose to order. He anxiously hoped the business between the hon. gentleman and the noble lord 715 would go no farther. He did not take upon himself to state what ought to be done, but he could not help recalling to the recollection of the House what had last fallen from the hon. gentleman. The hon. gentleman had then stated, not that the noble lord had criminally imbrued his hands in the blood of his country, but that ministers had acted criminally under the law for suspending the Habeas Corpus act, and had afterwards obtained a bill of indemnity.
wished to know the nature of the imputed criminality. If he had been guilty of a crime of the nature of that ascribed (as he had understood) to him, it was that which no bill of indemnity could cover. He therefore repeated, if such conduct had been imputed to him, the hon. member had stated a falsehood.
submitted that it was open for the hon. gentleman to explain the words he had used. At present it appeared he had brought a criminal charge against the noble lord. It must be understood there was a wide difference between a charge of criminality, and a charge of having done that which was merely illegal. An act that was illegal might be justified, and a bill of indemnity given as soon as it was asked. It was very different where criminality was charged. If the hon. gentleman, having asserted this, meant to keep to his words, he ought to name a day on which he would bring the subject under the consideration of the House, and endeavour to make the charge out. If, however, he only meant to say, that the noble lord, as a member of the government, had been a party to measures which made it necessary that a bill of indemnity should subsequently be called for, in that case he should hope the language which had been used, might be passed over, as having unintentionally fallen from him in the heat of debate.
however much he might regret that the charge should have been made at all, if he had heard the hon. gentleman correctly, he had not directed it personally against the noble lord, but against his majesty's government. He might have misunderstood his hon. friend, but the impression made upon his mind was, that he objected to trust the power now called for in the hands of ministers, who had already imbrued their hands in the blood of their country. It sometimes occurred, that a long debate took place on language used by an hon. member, 716 before it was ascertained what the expressions called in question really were. If he recollected what had been said by the hon. gentleman, his charge was directed against the government, for having done that which made a bill of indemnity necessary. To such a charge he begged that it might be understood, he was not in the slightest degree disposed to become a party; but still he must say he considered such language not to be disorderly, nor such as ought to have subjected him to interruption from the noble lord. He, however, begged again to say he could not admit the justice of the charge, either against the individual or the government.
§ Mr. Brand
said, it certainly did strike him that the hon. gentleman had used the word "criminal." Whether the application of such language to the noble lord or to the government could or could not be justified, he would not stop to inquire: but at all events it had appeared to him that the word was not applicable to that with which the hon. gentleman had connected it. He did not think it could be used to mark that which he meant to express. What he intended to charge the noble lord and the government with, was clearly this, that they had done that under the law for the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act, for which it was necessary that a bill of indemnity should be brought in to screen them from the consequences. Now, saying this, he could not mean to accuse them of any thing criminal, as that would not be comprehended in the act of indemnity, which only protected them from actions which might otherwise be brought against them, on account of things done while the Habeas Corpus act was suspended.
§ The Speaker
apprehended the point of order depended on this question: did the hon. member mean to charge his majesty's ministers in the aggregate with imbruing their hands in the blood of their country, or with other acts of criminality, or did he make this charge against one individual of the government? If the charge was made against the ministers in the aggregate, there was no breach of order; but if it was against one individual, then there was a direct departure from those rules which governed the debates in that House. The hon. member would perhaps be good enough to satisfy the House, in which sense his words were to be taken.
rose, in order to comply with the wish just expressed by the Chair 717 Thus called upon, he had no hesitation in saying,—but lie begged to assure the House he would be the last man alive to retract any thing he might have said, from any regard for the consequences which might ensue, so far as they could affect himself,—he had, however, no hesitation in saying, that the charges in question were meant generally, and were not intended to be confined to one individual. When he had spoken of a minister imbruing his hands in the blood of his country, he had not meant to speak of the two hands belonging to any individual member of the government, but lie spoke of all that administration in whose time those scenes had passed in Ireland, which he should ever sincerely lament, and under which this very law was called for. If he had known that to use the word "illegal" would have been more correct than to use the word which had been so particularly noticed, he should have been glad to adopt it. It had been remarked that the word "criminal" did not apply to any thing that could be covered by a bill of indemnity, and as it was with reference to this that he had spoken, it followed that "criminal" could not be the expression which he wished to use. The charge was certainly meant to be general.
when he interrupted the hon. member, had thought the charge which he had made was directed personally against him. Now that he had heard the hon. gentleman say life meant it generally against the government of which he was a member, he had no cause to complain. He was satisfied the hon. member had not retracted any thing that as a man of honour lie had asserted and was bound to maintain. He had no right personally to object to any charge which the hon. gentleman might think proper to bring against that administration, but he had no hesitation in saying that the charge of cruelty if preferred against it, was false. In doing this, however, he meant no offence to the hon. gentleman, and he trusted the course he was taking was not disorderly. The hon. gentleman, he thought, could not complain on the present occasion, as in describing the charge in question to be false he did not deal more harshly with that, than the hon. gentleman had dealt with the report of the committee, which had the sanction of so many of the hon. gentleman's friends, who indeed were parties to it.
had not charged ministers 718 with cruelty in their arrests under the law for the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act, but he had complained of the cruelties which had occurred in the Castle-yard at Dublin, and under the eyes of some members of the government.
again spoke to order. The hon. gentleman was again speaking to facts alleged to have occurred in Ireland. If the hon. gentleman was disposed to make these the subject of discussion on any future day, he should be ready to meet and to answer the accusation now insinuated; but he would appeal to the House, and to the feelings of the hon. gentleman himself, if the peace of the country ought thus to be trifled with, and if it was right that the characters of public men should thus be assailed by insinuations mixed up with other matter.
avowed, that he did not mean to pursue the subject; but as the noble lord had met his charge of cruelty with a negative, he thought himself called upon to state some facts in justification of his conduct in making it. Pie might have been betrayed into too great a warmth of feeling, and might have used violent expressions, which he was sure the House would excuse. He meant to say, and he persisted in the declaration, that it would be fatal to public liberty to put the powers which the bills before the House would convey if they passed into acts, into the hands of men who had formerly possessed them, and who had outraged the rights of the people, and notoriously abused their trust. He therefore should feel it his duty to oppose this bill in every stage.
§ Mr. Frankland Lewis
rose to explain the grounds on which he should feel it his duty to give his vote. He did not come to the decision without serious regret. He should vote for the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act, with a full conviction that he was parting for a time with the great safeguard of our liberties. He should give his vote with reluctance, but he decided as he had done, because, in the balance of evils between a temporary suspension of our rights and the endangering their ultimate security, the former was the least formidable. He had only to choose between evils. He was anxious to show the reasons why he thought so; but he was sensible that in enlarging upon them he should merely be going over topics already discussed. He would vote for the suspension, therefore, because he thought every establishment that was connected‡719 with the freedom, the happiness, the order, or the interests of society, was in imminent jeopardy. Whatever might be attributed to the committee, it could not be denied, that it was composed of men of integrity and worth, men anxious to perform their duty, and men who, without the means of judging, would never have come to the conclusion that they had done. The House must take upon their authority, what they took upon proof. If it was necessary, however, to look for proofs of disaffection and danger, could we not see every where flagrant and lamentable proofs? Did we not see them in the wide dissemination of books of the most dangerous tendency and blasphemous character; abounding in the most demoralising maxims and the most fatal doctrines, tending to the overthrow of religion, of law, of order, and of property? Could any one shut his eyes to the profane parodies of the most sacred services of the church obtruded upon general attention, sold at every corner, spread not only over the population of the towns, but transmitted by post to the country, and scattering infection over the most secluded villages? These things justified the greatest apprehension. This dangerous spirit that was gone abroad was not new; it was a remnant of what was seen in 1795. It was then suppressed, but it was cherished in the bosoms that first conceived it. It was then, as now, masked under the character, of reform [Hear!]. Reform had allied itself now with the dangerous sect of the Spencean philanthropists. This sect might be despised for the absurdity of its doctrines, but it was dangerous from their captivating quality: it was as formidable in one sense as contemptible in another. From these sources proceeded our danger. But what was its magnitude? Was it of such amount as to justify the suspension of our most sacred law? He would not enter into a comparison of the dangers formerly and now; although he did not see that war very much increased them, or rendered a suspension bill more necessary then than now. What were the dangers we had at present to contend with? They proceeded from the public distress, which must always generate public discontent. Demagogues had fixed upon the discontents to turn them to their own use; and he was sorry to say, that they had no limit but our distress. The pressure arose from various causes, which did not admit of an immediate remedy; it 720 arose from the change in our currency, from taxes, from the state of agriculture, and a variety of other sources, that legislation could not immediately reach. It had been said, conciliate; but how conciliate men who entertained the Spencean doctrines, and whose system could only be realised by a general distribution of the property of the country into new hands and different shares? A most important question he admitted it was, whether the laws already in force were or were not sufficient to provide against the danger. This was a question which he certainly did not feel himself competent to resolve; but what he knew was, that whenever the country had been considered to be in imminent peril the Habeas Corpus act had been suspended [Hear, hear!]. What he meant was, that there never had occurred a crisis of great internal commotion, or of external war, in which this measure had not been resorted to. In his opinion an equal danger existed at the present moment. It was not enough to revive the act of 1799, at a time when all law and all property were exposed to the same hazard.
believed, that this was the first time in the history of parliament, that a bill sent from the Lords to that House had been objected and argued against, without its being read. How was it possible its contents could be ascertained by the House? He objected to this mode of proceeding, and entreated the House to suffer itself to be informed upon the subject.
§ Mr. Smyth,
of Cambridge, said, he had waited with great attention upon the reasoning of ministers and their advocates, to discover any thing like an adequate reason for the adoption of the violent and dangerous measures now proposed in the shape of a bill for suspending the constitution, for shutting up the mouths of his fellow-subjects, groaning under the weight of their taxations and sufferings. Their hypothesis he could not allow. They took it for granted that the country was in that alarming state of insubjugation that called for these measures; and a right hon. gentleman (Mr. Canning) had said on a former night, that it was matter of historical notoriety how frequently the active few had overpowered the heedless many, and effected by this activity the overthrow of powerful states, in despight of the wishes of the greater part of the population of such countries. The argument, he must observe, bore strongly 721 against the part he feared the ministers had acted in the transaction. If they had, as he found, been inactive and had slumbered upon their posts, they had ill performed the part of the accredited watchful guardians of the public welfare implicitly confided to their care. Great was the responsibility they had drawn down upon themselves, and severe must be the censure of the country upon that negligence. The French Revolution had been adduced as an instance to illustrate the right hon. member's hypothesis; but he would tell him, instead of the active few in France, it was the active many, who wrested from the powerful and tyrannic few that reform in their constitution, if such it might be called, which had been loudly called for, until at length the public became impatient, and in their hatred of the tyranny of past times, bore down all the mounds which formed and supported the fabric of society. And yet all this was done notwithstanding that the rulers in France never had wanted those extensive powers to arrest and confine suspected, or indeed any description of persons. If the noble lord or the right hon. gentleman wished to know the real cause of the French Revolution, he would tell them it originated in the want of an Habeas Corpus act in that kingdom—in the want of a constitution adapted to the progressive improvement and information of society at that period. Frenchmen then, like Englishmen at this day, would have felt such an act as the great bulwark of their liberties, their pride and glory. Great terror had been affected at the progress of the Spencean doctrines. He felt convinced they would have fallen innocuous had they been published during the ordinary state of society; but in the present irritated, and almost frenzied crisis, these doctrines no doubt had operated with increased effect upon the minds of starving labourers, artificers, and mechanics. Upon the complaint respecting the atrocity and blasphemous tendency of the libels, and other productions issuing from this body of theorists, he had only to ask why were they not prosecuted by the proper law officers? The attorney-general had conceded to these productions such uncommon "addressfulness" (he believed this was the term applied) that it was impossible to fix upon the treason. But would it not be far more just and fair, if it were found so difficult to frame an indictment upon the offence, to amend the defect in the laws as they at present stood? 722 This would be more equitable, than for the alleged offences of a few, to rob the community of the benefit of the trial by jury. There had been certainly much done to alleviate the present distresses of the country. When had the hand of charity been so widely and generously extended? But if at a time of universal distress, a just measure of gratitude had not been returned for the unprecedented benevolence which it had awakened (and never had benevolence opened its arms more widely) was this to justify them in making so alarming an inroad on the best securities of the constitution? The principle of our criminal code had ever been, that ten guilty ought to escape, rather than that one innocent man should suffer. The proposed measure, however, went upon a different principle; and assumed, that no matter how many innocent persons suffered provided public security was attained. It was evidently a great departure from the maxims of our ancestors, and one of which he knew no examples, unless in times of rebellion or threatened invasion by a foreign foe.
could not think there was much weight in the first objection raised against the committee of secrecy, —that his noble friend (lord Castlereagh) was one of its members. The hon. gentleman opposite (Mr. Bennet) had seemed to be surprised that a right hon. gentleman near him, one of his own friends (Mr. Ponsonby) could venture to sit in the same chamber with the noble lord. If, indeed, he really thought the right hon. gentleman could have any difficulty in doing this, if he thought his right hon. friend could not but suspect the motives of the noble lord, he (Mr. Robinson) could draw no other inference from the unanimity which had ultimately prevailed on the subject of the report than this, that that report had been extorted by the weight of evidence which had been submitted to the committee. For he could not think where it was supposed such grounds for jealousy existed, that any thing would have brought their labours to such a termination, but the conviction that the allegations set forth in the report were thoroughly justified by the facts which had been disclosed. If he stated this to be the impression that he had, it would be saying but little, as it might be supposed that he had gone into the committee with a bias on his mind, which naturally inclined him to take this view of 723 the question. But, in justice to himself, he must say, that this supposition, however natural, was not well founded. He must say, that up to the time when the committee was appointed, he had not felt much alarm on the subject of the disaffection which was stated to pervade the country. He had not believed that arrangement, and those extended combinations to be in existence, which had been developed in the progress of the inquiry. He had therefore gone into the committee with a mind prepared fairly to estimate the value of the evidence which might be given before it, and impartially open to conviction.
It was very common to throw odium and ridicule on the reports of the committees of that House. It was not difficult to do this, as from a variety of circumstances, it was frequently impossible for them to make such a statement as should on the face of it carry conviction to every one. They were, for instance, in many cases compelled to keep names back, and to withhold from the public, for a time, various facts on which their conclusions were founded; and thus situated, the utmost they could do was to draw up such a report as the whole of the members of the committee could subscribe to, and leave the public to draw their own inferences from the allegations put forth under the sanction of their authority. Some gentlemen were disposed to undervalue the report as to the extent of the dangers which called for the interference of parliament, and in particular as to the plans of the Spenceans. Than these, it was said, nothing could be more absurd; but it seemed to be forgotten, that contemptible as they were, they had once already been the subject of the report of a committee of secrecy. It had been reported to the House in 1801, that the existence and the principles of such a society demanded the vigilant attention of parliament. The society of that day which had thus been noticed, might, in some trifling points, be distinguished from that which now existed, but these were of little or no importance. He believed, for instance, that the persons then associated were called Spensonians instead of Spenceans, and the principles asserted at the two periods might vary in some few instances, but essentially they were the same, at least so far as regarded the pretended right of the people to a general distribution of the property of the coun- 724 try. To this extent the disaffected of that day had gone;—the projects therefore of the Spenceans were not now to be considered as new. Formerly these persons were made the instruments of mischief, which was happily connected by restrictive laws. These restraints, the principles of which he had been speaking, had survived, and after being laid by for some years, were now again openly brought forward. That they had formerly been in active operation, — had been checked by the restraints imposed by parliament, and had now again made their appearance furnished strong reasons in support of the measures now recommended to the adoption of that House. An hon. member had said on a preceding night, that the Spenceans would have been unworthy of notice, had they not been persecuted into importance. Where, he would ask, was the persecution? It was not to persecution that they owed their importance; but such doctrines would always be formidable to the state in the hands of wicked men, because they would always be most palatable to the ignorant. They went to amalgamate in the ignorant mind all that was bad, with all that it might be hoped would counteract that which tended to evil, an amalgamation most subtle in its progress, and most tremendous in its effects.
But the Spenceans were represented to be too few in numbers to be of much importance. A noble lord had supposed there might be about a hundred fanatics of that description; he (Mr. Robinson) knew not what information the noble lord might have received on the subject, but was inclined to believe if he had added thousands to the hundred, he would not have over stated the fact. Those who professed the principles of the Spenceans, were not merely those who belonged to societies so called. Many others who met under different names had the same object in view. He was far from wishing to speak against those societies, which honestly met for the purpose of seeking by constitutional means, to redress what they regarded as evils in the state; but he thought it right to state that there were many associations called Hampden Clubs in different parts of the country, which, though outwardly disguised, as institutions of a different character, in reality came to the same thing. That which to him appeared most of all alarming—that which he thought most loudly called for the in- 725 terference of parliament, was the system of administering unlawful oaths, which was now found to be so widely extended. By these, all that was base—all that was weak and wicked in the passions of men, had been combined, and brought to unite in the cause of mischief, with that little of good which might still remain to those who were prevailed upon to take these oaths. Among those who were thus worked upon, there might be some who were not disposed to go along with the conspirators to push matters to the last extremity, and who, when acquainted with the dangerously extended and wicked designs which their associates had formed, would be inclined to abandon the cause, and return to the paths of honesty. These persons, however, when about to do this, remembered what they had sworn, and were clinched by the unlawful oaths which they had taken. It might seem like a contradiction, but it was this feeling of conscience,—this vestige of a good disposition which thus held persons not originally intending to do what was wrong, fast to those whose designs were the most wicked, that he considered was most to be dreaded. He held there was nothing in the combinations known to exist which had yet transpired, that tended so much to make these societies formidable. Another most suspicious circumstance was this;—the societies of which he had been speaking, kept lists not merely of their members, which it was natural to expect they would do, but also lists of those persons who would not unite with them. Why should they do this if some mischief were not intended? Such a practice would never have been resorted to, had it not been their intention whenever they had the power, to wreak their vengeance on those who were not of their party.
An hon. gentleman (Mr. Smyth of Cambridge) had said the measure now in contemplation had never before been resorted to but in time of war, or in the case of open rebellion, and that consequently our present situation was very different from what it had been at any former period, when the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act was thought necessary. He admitted the absence of war made a great difference between the present and former situation of the country, but because such difference existed; it did not follow that the bill was unnecessary. Formerly it was argued the disaffected looked for assistance front abroad, which they could not hope 726 for now. This was an argument (as it appeared to him) for rather than against the bill, for if, as heretofore, the enemies of the state no longer depended upon foreign aid, what was the fair inference? Why, that they felt stronger in themselves than they had done till now; as before they never hoped to succeed but by means of assistance from abroad. He did not mean to say, that in reality they had any prospect of success. God forbid that he should for a moment entertain an idea that such was the case, or feel alarm for such imaginary peril; but still he would contend, that the conduct of those of whom he had been speaking as distinguished from that of those who had formerly cherished similar designs, proved greater confidence in their own strength, and made it the more incumbent upon parliament at once to put them down.
Speaking thus, he endeavoured to express what he most sincerely felt. When every one knew that such conspiracies had been formed, and no one denied that something of the kind was in existence, though different opinions as to the extent of the danger might be entertained, it was the duty of that House to be on its guard in time. He would treat with tenderness the deluded, carefully distinguishing them from the deluders, but he thought a measure like that now submitted to parliament was due to the well disposed, and the House owed the protection such a law would afford to those who were not of the number of the wicked. An hon. baronet had said he wished the existing danger to be met by calling on the people to arm themselves, and thus form a new kind of police. Possibly to some persons this might appear a very good plan; possibly if adopted it might fulfil all the wishes and expectations of the hon. baronet, with whom it originated, but he must observe that the persons thus called out, could not resist those to whom they were opposed without fighting, if resistance should become necessary. He therefore considered this would be a very dangerous experiment. Thus to array large masses of the people in hostility to each other would be the way to create a civil war. To prevent this he thought it would be better to strengthen ministers by giving them the powers they required. Those who lived in parts of the country where no disturbances had occurred, might doubt that there was a necessity for having recourse to such a measure. He might have said so for himself, 727 judging from what he had seen, in that part of the country where he resided, and doubt-Jess many other gentlemen might do the same, but it was impossible to contemplate the introduction of associations like those of which he had had occasion to speak, into so many places, as it was known had received them, without feeling a species of dread for the consequences which naturally led the mind to search for new laws to meet the evil. For himself he must say he did not think any thing short of the measures proposed by government would suffice to restore tranquillity to the country, and enable those who did not wish to engage in schemes which must end in their ruin, to live unmolested, and try, by the exertion of their honest industry, to lift themselves above the calamities which they had now to deplore, and which though they were made by the bad an excuse for outrage, had not yet induced the good to approve of their proceedings. Those who thus withheld their countenance from those acts urged and encouraged by the desperate and the disaffected, must look to such an act for security, and the protecting arm of parliament, ought to be stretched forth in their behalf.
§ Lord Althorp
considered it almost impossible for any man to argue fairly on the present question without some knowledge of the facts upon which the report was founded. With respect to the amount of the apprehended danger, there certainly was room for much diversity of opinion; and it could not, he thought, be denied, that the absurdity of a doctrine was at least one circumstance against the probability of its success. When called upon to legislate in former emergencies, some men of note were, or were supposed to be, participators in the conspiracy: here it was admitted by the report, that there were few, and according to the new construction of it, none of that description, who were even remotely connected with it. In the present case, if one obscure delinquent were removed, it never could be discovered whether he had not an equally obscure successor. The only circumstances which he had ever known that could justify such a. measure, were those which took place in the year 1795. To some of the minor and subsidiary measures of the noble lord he had no objection, for he disliked all public meetings convoked by unknown or anonymous authority; but he was decidedly hostile to a suspension pf the Habeas Corpus act, under the existing 728 circumstances. We might boast of an admirable, and perhaps, an unequalled system of magistracy, but magistrates themselves did not always distinguish between what was directed against the government, and what was directed only against the ministers. It was remarkable, that at the time of the mutiny in the fleet, this measure was not deemed necessary. A connexion, was however, then supposed to exist between the mutineers and persons in the metropolis, and other districts of the country: but the circumstances were still thought insufficient by the ministers of that day to warrant such a proceeding, because it was not believed that the disaffected held any correspondence with foreign countries. It was not judged proper, therefore, even at that period of alarm, to remove so important a bulwark of the constitution. Upon the most mature and deliberate consideration he felt himself conscientiously called upon to vote against the bill.
The Lord Advocate
of Scotland said, he should not trouble the House at any length, but there were some circumstances that had come within his knowledge, which he felt it his duty to communicate. In that part of the Island where he resided, his attention had been called so early as last November, to the efforts that were assiduously made for disseminating publications which contained the most reprehensible matter, though not of such a nature as authorized him to bring the subject under the cognizance of a court of law. The object of those publications was, to familiarise the minds of the people with a contempt for the heads of the government, with a contempt for the government itself, and with a contempt for that House. It was endeavoured to make the manufacturing classes, who were out of work, instruments in the hands of designing persons, to overturn the government. Petitions also were sent down to Scotland, especially to those districts where the manufacturers had no employment; and along with those petitions, speeches ready made, to be delivered at public meetings that were to be convened. Intelligence was received that a settled system prevailed for inflaming the discontented and distressed into open violence. Directions were accordingly given to watch those persons who had been conspicuous in the seditions of 1795; and early in January information came, that secret meetings were held in Glasgow, by those very individuals. He was further informed, that a secret conspiracy was organized 729 in Glasgow, which had communications with societies in this country.—That conspiracy was held together by means of a secret oath which he would read to the House: —
"In the awful presence of God, I, A. B. do voluntarily swear, that I will persevere in my endeavours to form a brotherhood of affection amongst Britons of every description, who are considered worthy of confidence; and that I will persevere in my endeavours to obtain for all the people of Great Britain and Ireland, not disqualified by crimes or insanity, the elective franchise at the age of 21, with free and equal representation and annual parliaments; and that I will support the same to the utmost of my power, either by moral or physical strength as the case may require: and I do further swear, that neither hopes, fears, rewards, or punishments, shall induce me to inform or give evidence against any member or members collectively or individually, for any act or expression done or made in or out of this or similar societies, under the punishment of death, to be inflicted on me by any member or members of such society. So help me God and keep me steadfast." [Hear! hear! from all sides of the House.]
That oath was administered to many hundred individuals in the city of Glasgow and its neighbourhood. Notwithstanding, however, the communication of that intelligence, it was not in a form which authorized him, at that time, to give directions for arresting the parties. To show their malignant intentions, he would mention the following fact. Some persons to whom the oath was about to be administered, felt scrupulous upon that part which related to the using of physical strength, and to that which declared the penalty of death if any thing was divulged. A meeting was immediately called, and a motion made to leave out those words; but it was rejected unanimously, and the original oath adhered to. The result, however, had been, that a variety of persons were now apprehended; but he should be imposing on the House, if he were to state, that because those individuals were taken, one-tenth of the persons were apprehended who were implicated. He pledged his character as a public officer, that it was known to government when those individuals were taken, that there were others moving in a very different sphere of life connected with the conspiracy, some of whom he trusted would yet be apprehended.*730 Believing, therefore, that the conspiracy was widely extended in Scotland, and not confined to Glasgow, he never delivered a more conscientious opinion than that the passing of the present bill was necessary, to prevent the effusion of the blood of the citizens of this country. The whole mass of the population was so contaminated, that if a riot were to commence, it would be impossible to foresee what might be its termination. He deeply lamented the great misfortune which called for such a measure; but in the best days of our constitution it had been resorted to, for the purpose of protecting that freedom we now enjoyed. No man venerated the principles of the revolution of 1688 more than he did, and it was because he did so venerate them, that he implored the House to suspend for a time that great bulwark of cur constitution [Hear, hear!].
§ Lord Milton
said, he felt no regret at a charge made against him that he had been duped by the papers laid before the committee of secrecy. He still retained his opinion as to the nefariousness of certain designing persons in the country, nor did he want the assertion of the learned lord to convince him of the dangerous nature of the proceedings of the disaffected. He was, indeed, considerably surprised at the course taken by that learned lord, for if he recollected right, the members of the committee of secrecy had, at the express request of that learned person, agreed to expunge from their report the oath which he had now divulged. This was extraordinary, and required explanation. He did not know, however, but circumstances might since have arisen to render its publication less likely to prove detrimental to the public service [Hear, hear! from ministers]. Still it looked like a coup de main, and as if the oath had been kept out of view to be brought forward on the present occasion [No, no! from ministers]. He had stated before, that he had no doubt of the nefarious objects of many designing men throughout the country; but he denied that the intentions of such persons, however wicked, were a sufficient ground for removing the great bulwark of our liberties. It was not sufficient to say, that bad men had, in their vain imaginations, contemplated the overthrow of the government; for when was the time that some persons did not exist whose desperate folly or wickedness would lead them to subvert all established order? It ought to be made out, that the danger likely to 731 accrue to the constitution was Such as could not be resisted by any other means than by the suspension of that very constitution. This suspension act was now, for the first time, with one single exception, attempted to be passed in a period of profound peace; and the exception was itself a precedent that spoke strongly against the present measure; for it was occasioned by bishop Atterbury's plot—a plot in which a great part of the leading gentry and many of the nobility were in different degrees involved [Hear, hear! from some noble lord whom we could not see under the gallery]. The noble lord under the gallery, did not seem to relish the subject; but it was nevertheless quite certain that the nobility and gentry of that day were, to a great extent, adverse to the reigning family. And, as to the quality of the plot itself, he would read a passage from the speech of George 1st, on opening the session of 1722, which would show at least on what ground the ministers of that day asked for the suspension of the great characteristic of the constitution. The speech says, that "the conspirators have by their emissaries, made the strongest instances for assistance from foreign powers, but were disappointed in their expectations. However confiding in their numbers, and not discouraged by their former ill success, they resolved once more, upon their own strength, to attempt the subversion of my government. To this end, they provided considerable sums of money, engaged great numbers of officers from abroad, secured large quantities of arms and ammunition, and thought themselves in such readiness, that had not the conspiracy been timely discovered, we should, without doubt, before now have seen the whole nation, and particularly the city of London, involved in blood and confusion." [Cries of Hear!]. How different was this state of things from the present, when we were all so alarmed at the miserable plots of these wretched Spenceans. Could any man doubt that the ministers of those days would not have acted like the ministers of the present time? In a time of real and imminent danger, they were so far from showing an eagerness to suspend the Habeas Corpus act, and so little did they distrust the loyally of the majority of the people, that they did not come to parliament for any extraordinary powers till near six months after the discovery of the conspiracy. Could any man be blind to the immense difference between the im- 732 portance of that conspiracy and the designs of the present plotters against the state? At that time the duke of Norfolk, the earl of Orrery, and the lord North and Grey, were among the conspirators, and the well-known duke of Ormond was himself to head an army of foreign invaders? Such was the motive, and no less a motive was sufficient to induce sir Robert Walpole to suspend the constitution; and for this reason, as well as for many others, none could doubt that sir Robert Walpole was a great man. In the year 1744, there was another suspension of the Habeas Corpus act; on which occasion lord Chatham and lord Lyttleton (then Mr. Pitt and Mr. Lyttleton), and another person, whose name it was not necessary for him to mention, had strenuously opposed it. Yet the suspension was then only for three months; and, indeed, so great had the jealousy always been of preserving this great prop of our liberties, that even in that dangerous year, after the Revolution, parliament would not suffer it to be suspended for more than three months, and that by successive renewals of a month each time. All these circumstances made a strong impression on his mind, that our ancestors set a greater value on this shield of the constitution than their careless and forgetful descendants. He said forgetful, because they appeared from their indifference to have forgot how, and at what cost, that constitutional bulwark had been obtained. It was a curious circumstance, that the want of such a bulwark had been one of the great causes of the French revolution. The people of France had been anxious to acquire such a safeguard for their liberties, and if the monarch had not by mistaken men been induced to refuse such a concession, perhaps that revolution would never have happened. But, however that might be, he would ask, whether any man in his senses could think of comparing the present state of England with its state in 1793? At that time there was an active correspondence with clubs in this country, and direct incitements were held out from foreigners, that recourse should be had to physical force. Oaths were framed, and passed current, quite as terrible as that quoted by the learned lord, and depots of arms were proved to exist in different places. Under such circumstances it was thought proper to suspend the Habeas Corpus act, and yet that suspension was suffered to expire; nor was it renewed even on the occasion of the 733 dangerous mutiny in 1796. He could not but think that too much importance was attached to the wild notions of these visionaries, of whom so much had been said. History would show, that neither in this or other countries was the Spencean plan without a parallel. Doctrines as absurd, and equally assuming religion as their basis, had been frequently propagated. Germany had its Anabaptists—men who contemplated schemes of visionary reform with a bible in one hand, and a battle-axe in the other; and yet what became of them? They were let alone, and their opinions died away of themselves. Our own country presented instances of enthusiasts not dissimilar. There was the insurrection of Wat Tyler, which though it had not religion for its basis, yet had its origin in some scheme of general reform, of a nature not very different from that of modern times. The noble lord concluded by saying, that he should give his vote against the bill; for to do otherwise would, he thought, be voting against his country. "I feel," said the noble lord, "great pain in giving this vote, though I cannot express the cause of it" [Hear, hear!]. The noble lord sat down apparently much affected. He was supposed in the last sentence to allude to a difference of opinion between himself and his father earl Fitzwilliam.
The Lord Advocate
of Scotland explained. He said it was only that morning that his majesty's government had thought it advisable to publish the oath which he had read to the House.
expressed his regret that parliament had not been earlier assembled to meet the difficulties with which ministers were undoubtedly surrounded. That the spirit of turbulence had not subsided was evident from daily experience; and only that morning he had seen posted a handbill with the inflammatory title of "The Triumph of Justice over Unjust Judges." He was convinced that, had government been more alert, the police might have been placed upon such a footing as to render the aid of the military necessary only in extreme cases; but no investigation of the subject had been instituted, and it might become the duty of parliament to interpose; indeed, upon a late occasion it had been his wish that the House should have taken the punishment of certain civil officers who had been grossly negligent of their duty into its own hands. He complained that efforts had been equally 734 wanting to embody the yeomanry in the disturbed districts. Ministers might say, that some time since such a remedy would not have been proportioned to the disease; but their excuse was like that of the man who, after his house was consumed, said that he had not sent for the engines because the fire might have been extinguished at first by a wash-hand-basin of water. The real question was the degree of danger to which we were exposed. Was the danger sufficient to justify the measure? In his opinion it was; and as long as danger existed, the nature of it, whether external or internal, was of no consequence. It appeared, from undoubted evidence that the most treasonble correspondence had been carried on by means of clubs and delegates; and a connexion was thus kept up between them as the deliberative, and the people at large as the executive body. Surely this was sufficient to induce the House to arm ministers with additional power; and to those who required evidence, he should reply, that if it were disclosed all clue to detection would be destroyed. He illustrated this observation by reference to the case of Despard. Some hon. members had referred to periods of our history, when no suspension of the Habeas Corpus act was thought necessary; but at those times no such general disaffection and discontent existed as at the present moment. If it was allowed to continue unchecked, the consequences might be dreadful; the lawless scenes of 1780 might be restored; and, when once the shedding of human blood had commenced, the popular fury was uncontrollable. The noble lord who spoke last had adverted to the mutiny at the Nore as a case in point, forgetting that the mutineers had not only no correspondence at home, but none abroad; and that a cordon of troops had been stationed on the banks of the river to intercept any communication, should it be attempted. He had referred also to the Anabaptists of Germany, whose doctrines, he said, had peaceably expired, forgetting that those doctrines had existed as long as the individuals who entertained them, upon whom the most grievous tortures and the most cruel deaths had been inflicted. The instance of Wat Tyler was equally unfortunate; for the rebellion had not been terminated without the greatest personal danger to the sovereign, nor until 30,000 had taken up arms against him. Those who ridiculed the 735 recent disturbances and the premeditated attack upon the Tower, would do well to recollect that not many years had passed since a stronger fortress in another county had yielded to the onset of an infuriated rabble. The suspension was necessary to stop the progress of the evil; and he believed that no man would wish to delay until it was necessary to meet the organized rebels in the field of battle. In the present times many dangers threatened that had not existed at any former period; and he conscientiously gave his support to the bill, because he felt convinced that it might be the means of preventing an actual rebellion.
§ Sir Samuel Romilly
would not long occupy the attention of the House, but he could not prevail upon himself to give a silent vote upon the most important question that had been discussed since he had had a seat in parliament. All parties were agreed upon the inestimable value of that part of the constitution which it was proposed for a time to annul: and there were few that denied that at present great evils existed, and that those evils required a speedy remedy. The question was therefore reduced to a very narrow compass, viz. Was this a case in which it was necessary to have recourse to such a remedy, and was the remedy adapted to the nature of the evils? The first point must depend upon a preliminary question, whether other means had been duly resorted to, and whether those means had failed of success? The noble lord had repeatedly declared, that the utmost vigilance of ministers had been exerted; but it was now quite clear, from subsequent intelligence, that that ut most vigilance, in truth amounted to nothing. It was admitted by the noble lord, that these traitorous designs bad been proceeding for a considerable time befere the aid of parliament was required; yet, although ministers had been fully apprized of the attempts upon the loyalty, the morals, and the religion of the people; though they had been in possession of the libellous and blasphemous publications so industriously circulated among the lower orders; yet up to the present moment, not a single prosecution had been instituted against the authors. The excuse of the attorney-general for this procrastination was most extraordinary and curious: in truth, he said, the libels laid before him were so numerous, that he 736 could not see where prosecutions were to end. Where they were to end, he (sir S R.) did not pretend to decide; but it was not very difficult to determine where they ought to have begun. The libels might be numerous, but if they were, nothing had been publicly known of them till lately; and the more numerous the more urgent was the necessity that some of the authors should be severely punished, as a terror and an example to the rest. He entreated the House to recur once more to the consideration of all that had occurred, previous to the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act in 1794. Very different then had been the conduct of government, for that measure had not been suggested to the House until after prosecutions had been instituted for sedition at evey quarter sessions in all corners of the kingdom At that period, at least parliament had not been required to suspend the rights of the subjects of the crown until recourse had been had to the existing laws. He much doubted, indeed, if those laws had not been too severely enforced, some notorious criminals ought to have been selected, instead of the indiscriminate and sweeping punishments awarded against every petty offender. He was surprised to observe the smile of contempt on the face of the hon. and learned gentleman intended as it was to deride the censure of conduct directly opposite to that which he had thought fit to pursue. The learned lord advocate of Scotland, to the surprise and dismay of his friends, had produced an oath taken at Glasgow by some deluded persons, with the existence of which oath it appeared that ministers had been some time acquainted. Were they not aware that the most severe punishment known to the law might be inflicted upon individuals subscribing that oath? Did they not know that it was felony without benefit of clergy, unless the person taking the oath, within 14 days afterwards abandoned his associates, and betrayed their purposes? As to the question, whether this suspension were adapted to the existing evils, the only individual who had contended that it was so, was the hon. member who spoke last: he contended that, as sufficient evidence could not be procured to convict, it was therefore proper to give ministers unlimited power to imprison. As the delinquent could not be brought to trial, he was to be punished without it. On the contrary, he(sir S.R.) contended, that this measure was in no 737 way calculated to meet the evil. Government could fix upon no individual of leading influence or talent, whose arrest would check the progress of disaffection, and defeat the operations of the minor agents: all were alike insignificant, and the extent to which the infection had spread, and was spreading, was the real evil. Would the imprisonment of two or three poor wretches prevent the diffusion of the poison through all the intricate ramifications, by which it was conveyed to the public mind? If indeed they were publicly tried, regularly convicted, and exemplarily punished, something would be gained—others would be deterred, for the fact would be known; but the mere unheard-of confinement of two or three mechanics would effect nothing in stopping the active mischief of particular individuals. In 1794 the state of things was widely different in another respect; then no petitions were presented humbly praying that parliament would reform itself; but a convention existed to serve as a substitute for parliament. In 1799 it was again suspended, but the country was then threatened with invasion; the disaffected then refused to acknowledge any parliament at all, and in its place substituted the National Assembly of France, which boasted of its secret and active correspondence with this country. The object then was not to reform, but to supersede parliament. Much as he censured the adoption of this measure now, he was not one of those who thought that the Habeas Corpus act ought never to be suspended; under some circumstances, the suspension might be most wise and necessary, and those circumstances had existed when, on former occasions, persons of great consequence and influence were in league with an enemy, and when their arrest paralyzed the traitorous designs of all their dependants. But was such the case at present? Where could ministers find one man of influence or consequence among the disaffected of our day? Where could they find even a man of the middle rank of life, among the vulgar, ignorant, and deluded wretches against whom ministers were about to launch their vengeance? How then could this suspension be useful, unless indeed this government followed the example of a state it had recently supported, against the avowed wish of the people, in which not merely obnoxious individuals, but the inhabitants of whole villages and towns, had been thrown into dungeons. 738 Was not this, he confidently demanded, a most powerful reason for refusing what was now required? Would the House intrust ministers with a power by which persons of low rank and obscure occupations, in shoals, would be placed at the mercy of every truckling informer? The noble lord had adverted on a former night to the names of individuals in higher stations, who had been placed by these infatuated reformers upon what they termed the committee of safety or conservative body; but because misguided and illiterate men had had the audacity, without the slightest authority, to place upon this list persons of the most undoubted loyalty and of elevated rank, did it afford such a presumption of guilt as to justify the bold declaration of the noble lord, that in the eyes of God and man they were answerable for all the consequences of rebellion? Undoubtedly, the names of those most respectable persons were found there, on account of the sentiments they were known to entertain; and the noble lord, and a right hon. gentleman after him, had explained the declaration as a caution to certain individuals against supporting popular doctrines; which was as much as to to say, that no man was to argue in favour of parliamentary reform, the liberty of the press, or any other topic displeasing to the other side of the House, unless he wished to fall under the dreadful denunciation of the noble lord. He [sir S. R.] was not fond of making personal allusions, and he was the more unwilling now, because the noble lord had this night shown a remarkable soreness upon some points; but he could not help just observing, that there was a period, even of the noble lord's life, when he might have had the misfortune to fall under his own denunciations, and to have been included in a list of a committee of safety. The liberality of the noble lord's opinions at one time, and the pledges of championship in the cause of parliamentary reform, given by him at an early period of his political life, before he had entered into office, or had been planted in any of the hot-beds or nurseries for young statesmen, might have rendered even him responsible in the eyes of God and man for the consequences of disaffection and rebellion. But the noble lord had got a seat in the cabinet; which put him out of the way of such perils. Reverting more immediately to the question he called upon the House not to withdraw a protection from-'the lower classes, to 739 which they were as much entitled as the most exalted individual he was then addressing. It was impossible to calculate upon the abuses to which the measure might be subject; and at its expiration the minister would only have to come down to the House with a bill of indemnity, and his responsibility would be at an end. Our ancestors had never consented to the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act but in cases of extreme danger; and the proposal was now the more alarming on account of the precedent it would establish It was now for the first time laid down, that under any circumstances of alarm the rights of Englishmen were to be dispensed with. Yet, in the years 1767 and 1768, when, according to the letters of Dr. Franklin, great distress, unusual scarcity, and alarming riots prevailed, no person had ever dreamt of suspending the Habeas Corpus act. Now, however, in time of profound peace, it was contended, that the race of Englishmen was so degenerate that they were incapable of their own protection; and in consequence of their weakness and pusillanimity were willing to make a voluntary sacrifice of their dearest rights into the hands of his majesty's ministers. True it was, that dangers threatened the country: but he would ask, was there no danger in empowering a few individuals to imprison all the rest of the subjects of the Crown, and that too without the slightest responsibility? Was there no danger in this suspension, when the standing army was so overgrown, and when already government possessed more influence than it had ever before enjoyed? Was there no danger even to general liberty, when foreign states, already sufficiently disposed to check its growth, should see this once free country placed under the absolute dominion of its ministers on account of the absurd schemes of a few miserable Spenceans? Was there no danger in public opinion, and that even to ministers themselves? Were they well assured that this measure would have, in truth, the effect of strengthening their weak hands? Would not the people see through the artifice of those who, under pretence of public security, were only endeavouring to secure themselves? In every point of view, he thought the suspension objectionable: the dangers might be great, but the existing laws had not yet been tried; and if tried he was convinced that they would be found sufficient for every purpose of national protection.
The Solicitor General
considered that the evil now proposed must be resorted to, in order to prevent a greater evil. He agreed that it was necessary, before a law was passed on this subject, to see what the existing laws were; for if the present laws were perfectly sufficient to prevent the evil, it was improper to have recourse to new measures. He denied, however, that the laws were sufficient to protect the country against the dangers which now threatened it. The House did not before suspend the Habeas Corpus act, because there were not laws in existence: he took upon him to say, that that act had been suspended from time to time, though every law stood upon the statute book as it now did. With respect to the observation, that the law officers had not commenced prosecutions; if the existing laws were not sufficient, the neglect of the law officers was no reason why new measures should not be resorted to. As for himself, neither in that House, nor out of that House, should he be deterred from doing his duty from the fear of any reproach or censure that might be cast upon him. The law officers, he maintained, were not justified in commencing prosecutions till they found sufficient evidence to ensure their success. One of the evils of a free constitution was this—that we had no means of preventing crimes, but only of punishing them when they were committed. Prosecutions however had now been instituted; and many persons would have been prosecuted before, if the necessary evidence could have been furnished to the Crown. As far as his judgment went, no prosecution could be maintained against the societies, from the manner in which they were constituted. His hon. friend had said, that none of the higher classes were implicated in these crimes; but he begged leave to state, that the conspiracies, such as these, were not the less dangerous because they were conducted by the lower orders only. A multitude of the lower classes congregated together, was often more dangerous and ferocious than if it were under the control and direction of some of the higher orders. But low, and weak, and ignorant, as these conspirators might be thought to be, he could assure the House that there were, however, such marks of continuity, of skill, contrivance, and ingenuity in their designs, as would do honour to wiser heads, if they were employed in a better cause. If there was no master workman behind to move these 741 puppets, they were nevertheless as dangerous as if they were persons of greater rank and of more enlightened understandings. With respect to riotous proceedings in former times, it should be recollected, that, in 1780, it was the mere ebullition of a mob on a particular subject: there were then no oaths, no tests, no declarations, no subscriptions, no meetings, no delegates, which marked an organized system for the purpose of destroying the principles of the constitution, and of depriving every man of his property, and endangering his life. Besides the public had not then witnessed those disgusting and horrible scenes which had taken place in France, and which, by-the-by, had their origin in the formation and organization of such clubs and societies as were now existing in this country. An hon. member had said, there was nothing in the report to show that any danger threatened the country: but he had forgotten this— that it was stated in the report, that it was one of the contrivances of those persons to try their forces, and then see whether they could carry their schemes into execution. It had been urged that the number who appeared in Spa-fields on the 2nd of December was very small; this he would readily admit, but it should be remembered the few who appeared that day were part of a gang, whose object was to try and persuade as many as they possibly could to arm, and to associate all who unhappily permitted themselves to be deluded enough to do so. That this was not an imaginary view of the intentions of those people, but that such really was the case, might be seen by the numbers who in various parts of the country anxiously expected the arrival of news from London, that they might thereby regulate their proceedings. Nor was the absurdity of the Spencean system any argument against measures being taken to prevent its propagation. It was an undoubted fact, and no man conversant with the history of the human mind would dispute it, that the more absurd and wild theories were, they were the more dangerous, especially when in the hands of desperate and infuriated individuals. Indeed this was consonant to what experience had always shown to be the case. In looking to the commencement of the French revolution, were there ever, he would ask, more visionary, more absurd, and more apparently impracticable schemes than were there attempted? Yet these schemes 742 succeeded, and were attended by consequences, the mere recital of which must appal the stoutest heart. These schemes had been carried on by a rabble, by a mob of the lowest orders, whose excesses in the metropolis of that ill-fated country were too fresh in the recollection of all to require being mentioned. Now when such, by painful experience had been demonstrated to be fact, he, for one, must say, he was bound to express his fears, lest by apathy or indifference to the present portentous appearances in this country, we should bring down on our heads the same evils. Decidedly convinced that at this time there existed a conspiracy to overturn the constitution, and a society to divide the land, he begged to express his firm opinion that a temporary suspension of the Habeas Corpus was necessary to guard the country against the impending danger, and to preserve that constitution which those wild, and mischievous and traitorous persons were endeavouring to destroy.
§ Lord John Russell
rose and said: —
I had not intended to trouble the House with any observations of mine during the present sessions of parliament. Indeed, the state of my health induced me to resolve upon quitting the fatiguing business of this House altogether: but he must have no ordinary mind whose attention is not roused in a singular manner when it is proposed to suspend the rights and liberties of Englishmen, though even for a short period. I am determined for my own part, that no weakness of frame, no indisposition of body, shall prevent my protesting against the establishment of the most dangerous precedent which this House ever made.
Sir, I am the more convinced of the danger in which the constitution stands from the manner in which the question has been treated by an hon. friend below me. From a person of his intelligence, candour, and information, I expected an excellent judgment on this subject. But to what do his arguments amount? I will venture to say they are so weak and superficial that I would not upon the strength of them vote for a turnpike bill. He tells us, that reform wears a most dangerous aspect because it is moderate—because it proposes to go step by step? Let my hon. friend consider to what this argument leads: it leads to the rejection of every species of reform, because it is innovation. In this 743 point of view, there was danger in the proposition made last night to reduce two of the lords of the admiralty, and my right hon. friend who proposes to abolish the office of third secretary of state is a monster of terror and alarm. Another argument of my hon. friend was, that the danger must be great because the distress was great, and that the discontent was to be measured by the distress. And upon this sort of argument à priori does he propose to take away the liberties of the people of England! Without waiting to ask whether they have been loyal, whether they have been patient under suffering, and enduring in the depth of misery, he turns to them and says, "Because you are starving, you shall be deprived of the protection of the law, your only remaining comfort." Yet upon such arguments as these, for he had little other, did my hon. friend rest his support of this bill. He told us he would not enter into the historical question, and that he knew not if the existing laws were sufficient to remedy the evil. On these two points, however, I think it necessary to dwell a short time before I give my vote. Upon looking back to history, the first precedent which strikes us, is the precedent of the enactment of this law. The year before this law passed a plot was discovered, which, though it has since been mentioned only as an instance of credulity, bore at the time a most alarming appearance. Not less than two hundred persons, many of them of the first rank, were accused of conspiring the death of the king. The heir presumptive of the throne was supposed to be implicated in the conspiracy, and foreign powers were ready with money and troops to assist in the subversion of our constitution in church and state. Yet at this time did the lords and commons present for the royal assent, this very bill of Habeas Corpus, which for less dangers you are now about to suspend. We talk much, I think a great deal too much, of the wisdom of our ancestors. I wish we would imitate the courage of our ancestors—They were not ready to lay their liberties at the foot of the Crown upon every vain or imaginary alarm.
The able manner in which the history of the various suspensions of the Habeas Corpus which have taken place has been commented upon by my noble friend behind me, renders it unnecessary for me to enter upon that part of the subject:—one principle seems to have guided our legislators on all these occasions. It was this,— 744 that when persons within the country were plotting with an enemy from without, the success of their machinations could only be prevented by detaining their persons till the danger of invasion was past. Thus, when just before the first suspension of this act, king William informed his parliament that James had sailed with a French fleet for Ireland, the effect of leaving his adherents at large till legal proofs of their guilt could be procured, would have been that they might have joined James, or made an insurrection in his behalf. On the various occasions, too, when the Habeas Corpus act was suspended during the late war, the system of anarchy prevailing in France was always specified in the preamble of the bill; and in the preamble of the Sedition bill in 1799 it is expressly stated, that a conspiracy has been carrying on in conjunction with the persons from time to time exercising the powers of government in France. Indeed, it is manifest that some fear of foreign aid, some dread of an invasion from abroad, or a competitor for the throne supported by rebellion, is an essential circumstance to render this measure necessary. For else why have a Habeas Corpus act at all? The very purpose of the law is, to protect the subject in all common cases of treason and sedition, and if it is to be a mere matter of holiday parade; if it is to be used only when the sky is bright; if every rumour of conspiracy and alarm of disaffection is to be sufficient ground for its suspension, then the Englishman who tells foreigners that his constitution and his laws are better than those of his neighbours is a lying boaster.
Now a few words as to the present danger and the sufficiency of the existing laws to meet it. The report of the committee refers to two objects—to the plot which broke out in Spa-fields, and to the system of clubs and combinations now carrying on. As to the first, though the story is told in very pompous language in the report, we know the fact to be that a few miserable mal-contents attempted a riot—that one man summoned the Tower and that another party which went to the Royal Exchange was defeated by the lord mayor and sir James Shaw. So that whatever the danger may have been previously, it is now past. The insurrection was tried and failed. Now, Sir, what better proof can there be of the excellence of the present laws? An attempt was made to overturn them; the people refused to join in it, and it was immediately quelled. What better evidence 745 could we desire of the sufficiency of the I constitution to repel the dangers which menace it? I was therefore surprised to hear the noble lord say, that a reason for the present measure was, that a plot had exploded. This would be an excellent argument to a jury before whom one of the conspirators was tried, but it surely cannot be a good reason to the legislature for altering the present law. If a man's house has been saved from lightning by a conductor, he does not immediately take it down to put up something else. If a traveller is attacked by a robber whose pistol misses him, and whose person falls into his power, he does not consider himself in the same danger he would be in with the pistol still aimed at his head.
As to the clubs and combinations which are said to exist, I should admit they were dangerous but that they cannot proceed a step without committing an unlawful act. All societies which administer unlawful oaths are illegal by the 39th of the king. The blasphemy and sedition said to be openly avowed, are punishable by common law. The attorney-general has been asked very naturally what has been done to repress these offences, and he has told us, that it is only lately discontent has assumed this shape, and that prosecutions are now instituted. Why then, Sir, should we adopt the stronger remedy till we see the effect of the milder? The House should pause m its judgment. It is the tendency of those invested with authority to suppose that every disturbance in the system is owing to want of power, and not to the defect of wisdom. They readily suppose the fault to be in the law rather than in their own minds. Hence there no sooner appears the least commotion in the state than they bring forth the whole artillery of penal statutes which is set apart for solemn and extraordinary emergencies.Could great men thunder,As Jove himself does, Jove would ne'er be quiet;For every pelting petty officer,Would use his heav'n for thunder; nothing but thunder!I will only say one word more as to the cry for reform, of which so much use has been made. I would make another use of this cry. The House must soon discuss the whole question. It is not difficult to foresee, that the majority will decide in favour of leaving the constitution untouched. Anxious as I am for reform, I am still more anxious that the House 746 should preserve the respect of the people. If they refuse all innovation upon ancient laws and institutions, it is not to be denied they will stand upon strong ground. I beseech them then not to cut this ground from under their feet—not to let the reformers say, "When we ask for redress you refuse all innovation. When the Crown asks for protection, you sanction a new code; for us you are not willing to go an inch—for ministers you go a mile. When we ask for our rights, you will not touch the little finger of the constitution; but when those in authority demand more power, you plunge your knife into the heart!"
contended, that there was sufficient evidence of danger to justify the measure. The report of the committee showed the existence of extensive associations for the purpose of undermining the principles on which the fabric of society was founded; and it was the duty of the legislature to provide the means of preventing the evils that were to be apprehended, rather than to leave them to be put down by force.
Sir F. Burdett
complimented the noble lord who preceded the last speaker. The name of Russell was dear to every Englishman; and it was peculiarly gratifying to hear the noble lord, with so much manliness and ability, supporting those rights in the defence of which his reverend ancestor lost his life. He was anxious to make a few observations on what had fallen from an hon. and learned gentleman on the other side, in one part only of whose speech he could agree, namely, that in which the hon. and learned gentleman asserted that the proposed measure was not brought forward for the purpose of strengthening the Crown. Neither, he was persuaded would it be beneficial to the people. In his opinion it was calculated solely for the benefit of the ministers, who having brought the country into inextricable difficulties, found a general demand for retrenchment of their profligate expenditure. The extravagance of which ministers had been guilty, was ten-fold more destructive of the landed: property of the kingdom, than the newlyraised and visionary mischief apprehended; from the disciples of a weak man who died twenty years ago, who never dreamed that, he should make such a noise in the world, and from whose absurd tracts no real danger could ever be anticipated. The Expencean party, as he would deno- 747 minate them, came to the same point as the Spenceans whom they denounced. The Expencean system had already entailed on us a debt, the interest of which amounted to the whole rental of the country; and yet, instead of attempting to conciliate, instead of endeavouring to diminish those grievances, the existence of which they themselves unblushingly confessed—when it was proposed to retrench a useless lord of the admiralty, they made what they called a stand against the proposition, and preferred resorting to such measures as that to which the House was then unfortunately called to give its attention. The hon. and learned gentleman had contended, that it was necessary to arm ministers with this despotic, detestable and mischievous power, because, he said, there were criminal persons in the countiy, the guilt of whom government had not the means of proving. According to him men were to be punished, not because they were guilty, but because there were no means of proving them guilty. Was there ever doctrine more odious and more abominable, held in any assembly or under any tyrant on earth?—The hon. and learned gentleman also in common with all who recommended this encroachment on liberty, referred the House to the scenes of the French revolution. With those this country had nothing to do. It was the principles of the English constitution which were at stake. Attempts were made, in the report of the secret committee, to connect the Spenceans with the friends of parliamentary reform.—This was, on the face of it, most absurd; for it was distinctly stated, that the Spenceans considered, if the reformers should succeed in their wishes, that the country would merely get rid of one set of rogues to make room for another. The impiety of the French revolution had likewise been much dwelt on. For his part, he knew nothing that could equal it, but the impiety which had lately been practised in this country, in the prayer which in solemn mockery, implored of heaven to guard the Prince Regent from the pestilence that walked by day. He (sir F. B.) knew of no pestilence except that pestilence which met the people at every corner, which visited their fire sides, which partook of their meals, which accompanied them to their beds, which contaminated every thing they touched—the pestilence of insupportable taxation. And then it seemed the people were afflicted 748 with "madness," and whence did that madness proceed? From suffering. Did that suffering demand nothing but measures of coercion, to prevent complaint, but not to afford relief? That such would be the case was evident, if they believed the high law authority by which they had been told, that a reason for passing this measure was, that there could be found no offences capable of being punished; and this was asked, though the powers of ministers were already enormous. Could the attorney-general want to add any thing to the monstrous power he possessed over the press, in filing ex-officio informations for libel, and in having the selection of the jury which was to try the defendant. The example of that power had even been cited in foreign countries as a reason against establishing the liberty of the press. It was argued, that the freedom of printing in England could not exist, unless extraordinary powers like those possessed by the attorney-general were given; and that the dreadful sentences, which were the consequence of a conviction for libel in England, proved, that the want of the liberty of the press was not to be regretted. The hon. and learned gentleman thought the riots of 1780, when London was set on fire, and the streets ran with blood, nothing compared to the present danger. This present danger was constantly in the mouths of the hon. and learned gentlemen on the other side; but they would never condescend to tell the House in what it consisted. There were societies and clubs in different parts of the country. He knew there were, and he hoped there always would be. It was from these societies the petitions before the House for reform had come, and it was this petitioning that constituted the offence which the noble lord and the hon. and learned gentleman wished to punish; but having no law for that purpose, they now asked the House to allow them to punish it without law. This was the whole secret of the miserable plot, and the report before the House. The alarm was raised for the purpose of diverting the House from the due consideration of the claims of the people; and if ministers succeeded in effecting this diversion, they would gain their object. Soon after his return to this country, the noble lord had described the vessel of the state to be sailing gallantly, with her colours flying, and no timber injured. She was now, however, a 749 mere hull, her rigging destroyed, and her whole condition so crazy, that "the rats instinctively were quitting her;" but yet the noble lord trusted to her righting, and hoped that at least, patched up by this measure, she would carry him through his ministerial voyage for another twelve month. If, however, the noble lord thought he could deter the people from petitioning for reform, by any such proceeding, he was quite mistaken. The noble lord might fine and imprison—he might erect a gallows in Palace-yard, or in the lobby of the House of Commons, but he could not physically gag the mouths of the people. If it was true, that the great mass of the population of the empire was infected with the principles reprobated by the noble lord, could lie shut it up? Had he prisons sufficiently capacious? Buonaparté erected eight additional bastiles in France; but the noble lord must do much more, for our gaols were already overflowing. Though the report stated that there were few, if any, persons of consequence liable to the charge of treasonable practices, it seemed to regard the whole population of the country as fit to be placed under restraint. When he saw the description of persons who had been apprehended, such as Dr. Watson, Mr. Preston, &c. he was certain that ministers could not feel any apprehension from the machinations of such men, who, to use the noble lord's expression "degraded the dignity of treason." The report, however, stated the great dangers to be dreaded from them. Among other extraordinary and impossible things, these persons were to destroy the bridges. He wondered that they were not accused of an intention of setting the Thames on fire. The hon. and learned gentleman had talked as if a sort of reproach had been made against the Crown lawyers, because they had instituted no prosecutions. It would have been a singular charge indeed to have accused any attorney-general, not excepting the present, of disinclination to prosecute; and it was a proof of so little modesty in the hon. and learned gentleman to take such a reproach to themselves. The remark that there had been no prosecutions, was not made with the view of wishing the hon. and learned gentlemen to resort to the exercise of their professional duties; it was made to show, that as they had not prosecuted, they had no proof of any offence. They alleged that the persons 750 who wrote the publications so much complained of were so cunning, that they could not be caught in a libel. What was this but saying that there was no libel to prosecute. A worthy alderman had been so alarmed by these threatened mischiefs, that, with great good humour he willingly gave up all his constituents to be imprisoned at the pleasure of the Crown. The terror of the worthy alderman must be as great as that of an alderman of former times, commemorated by Burnet, who was so frightened at the rumour of a popish plot, that he declared he should not be surprised if all the citizens of London should get up some morning with their throats cut. As to the argument that the measure would not be abused, because the power would be placed in the hands of a noble lord remarkable for the mildness of his disposition, it was most absurd. There was, in fact, little difference as to the hands in which arbitrary power was placed. Its tendency was to corrupt the good. There were many instances of the best-natured men becoming inexorable tyrants. He well recollected what had been done by former ministers who had been invested with the undue power proposed to be bestowed on the noble lord and his colleagues. Under their authority innocent men had been confined for years in dismal and unhealthy dungeons. A young man of the name of Lemaitre, a watchmaker, aged only 17, had been arrested when the Habeas Corpus act was suspended in 1795, and he was confined during seven years. When the time came for indemnification—if such a case, which cut off seven years of youthful life, and was a destruction of every prospect, was capable of indemnification— the noble viscount (Sid month), who would have the enforcement of this bill, procured a law to be passed to protect his predecessors against all actions that might be brought against them; thus shutting out the unhappy victim of their tyranny from all means of redress. The power which the noble lord sought, was not a power to apprehend guilty persons in order to try them, but a power to commit the innocent, without being obliged to bring them to trial at all. It was a melancholy consideration, that the frequent introduction of such laws familiarized the minds of men so much to the exercise of tyranny, that their abhorrence of it diminished daily. He well recollected, that the first suspension of the Habeas Corpus act, was very strongly opposed in that House. The second time 751 the resistance to the measure was much less; and at last the suspension of the law which protected the personal liberty of Englishmen came to be considered as one of the common orders of the day. To no minister would he confide such a power. By no minister could it be advantageously exercised, even with a view to the attainment of those objects which it professed to be intended to attain. If property was really threatened, let property be armed in its own defence. That would be the way to keep the peace; and on this subject he would advise ministers to read a short but excellent pamphlet, which, though written a long while ago, was very applicable to modern times—he meant sir W. Jones's tract on the legal mode of suppressing riots. Even if there had once been any danger, that danger had passed away. The noble lord himself confessed that it had "exploded:" so that he was more alarmed than the man described in the Spectator, who arrived at the headquarters of an army the day after a battle. The very hand-bill quoted in the report I was issued above four months ago! He could not help thinking that that handbill proceeded from the same Police-shop whence emanated that other production, commencing with "Spa-fields Row," and ending with "Go it, my Boys!" the; tendency of which was to induce men to commit criminal acts, with a view probably that they might be subsequently punished. As to the hand-bill quoted in the report— "No Regent, No Castlereagh—Off with their heads! So much for Buckingham [A laugh]!" Although it might be very well for a minister to persuade the Prince Regent that his own fall involved that of his royal master, yet no other man could j be so absurd as thus to associate the two t persons, and to suppose that they could be liable to the same fate; and he therefore strongly suspected that this document was of ministerial, or at least of magisterial invention. He could see no plot, but the plot of ministers to raise a false alarm, to calumniate the character of innocent individuals, and to deter the country from pursuing the course necessary to its salvation. This was the only conspiracy that he could discover. The report of the committee was so general in its allegations, that it was impossible to answer them. What was meant by "affiliated" Societies a term derived from the phraseology of the French Revolution, for the sole purpose, of exciting alarm? He had himself for a long 752 time been chairman of the Hampden Club. Was that a breach of the intended law? If so, and if the operation of the law was to be made ex post facto, he might perhaps come under the operation of the law himself. A right hon. gentleman had said yesterday evening that he spoke under the control of public opinion. He (sir F. B.) in the case which he supposed, should speak under the control of the suspension of the Habeas Corpus. The probability, however, was that that would not influence him any more than public opinion seemed at any time to have influenced the right hon. gentleman to whom he had alluded. If the bill should be read a second time, he would endeavour in the committee to provide, that whoever might be the victim of government in consequence of the measure, should merely suffer the detention of his person, and should be spared the infliction of torture in the mode of that detention. He referred to secret and solitary confinement. Was not solitary imprisonment in damp and dismal dungeons torture? If any hon. gentleman thought that was not torture, the most malignant wish that he entertained towards him was, that he might experience it for a single week. In answer to the argument which might be urged, that the bill was but for a few-months, he would say, that were it but for twenty-four hours, he would still endeavour to introduce into it a provision to protect any individual who might be rendered liable to its operation from the hardships which he had mentioned.
said, that the question before the House, practically speaking, lay within very narrow limits. He should therefore take very little notice of the speech of the hon. baronet who spoke last, further than to say that with all the respect which he felt for the rank and talents of that hon. baronet—talents which had not been impaired even by the society which he had during the latter years frequented, that he must be excused for saying, that it would seem from his speech that the salvation which the hon. baronet wished for the constitution would prove its destruction, and that what the hon. baronet had that night said within the walls of the House must be considered not so much addressed to parliament as to certain persons in another place [Loud cries of Order, order!].
§ Lord Stanley
was sorry to interrupt the noble lord, but as long as he had a seat in that House, he would never refrain from 753 calling to order any one who attributed to an hon. member an intention of addressing a speech made within those walls, to any other body of persons than to the House of Commons. Whatever opinion the noble lord might entertain of the arguments of the hon. baronet, there was certainly nothing in them which appeared to indicate a covert design of inflaming the passions of people out of doors.
denied having imputed to the hon. baronet the design of inflaming the passions of the people. What he had said was, that on this, as well as on former occasions, the speech of the hon. baronet was not intended to convince the minds of that House, but to produce an effect elsewhere.— [Cries of Order, order! Chair, chair!]
§ The Speaker.
I certainly apprehend it to be the rule to consider all speeches delivered in this House as addressed to the House only.
said, that the decision of the Chair should always regulate his conduct. He could only say that the general feeling in the House seemed to be, that the hon. baronet's speech was such as he had described it. The substance of that speech, the attempt in it to treat with ridicule the present alarming state of the country, was only consistent with the hon. baronet, who had many years ago, during the late war, endeavoured to ridicule those treasons, which if they had been treated as lightly by parliament as they had been by the hon. baronet, the constitution would long ago have been overturned, and that House would now have lain prostrate, the victim of treason and rebellion, under the mask of reform. He begged pardon for having detained the House on a subject foreign to the question before it. But, really, it was matter for serious consideration to find the dangers which now threatened the country talked lightly of—to hear even ridicule endeavoured to be thrown on the attempts against the person of his royal highness the Prince Regent—attempts of a nature so criminal, so abhorrent to human nature, as scarcely to be credited as having been made in any civilized country—to hear those plots attempted to be made the subject of laughter which threatened the subversion of the constitution, and which had threatened the lives and properties of the people of England. And this was done too, when the truth of all that was contained in the Report—when the existence and the 754 alarming nature of these conspiracies was admitted by almost every member of that House; and when the committee before whom the evidence had been laid—a committee composed of members from both sides of the House—had unanimously agreed that the danger was so great, that the existing laws were insufficient for the safety of the constitution. If the House agreed to the other three bills, and rejected the one now before them, they would withhold the particular arm which it was eminently important should be entrusted at the present Critical moment to the executive government. He disclaimed, in the largest sense, any intention of making use of the bill for purposes of punishment. Such a notion could never enter into the imagination of the most infatuated minister. He wished to know whether a conspiracy existed in this country or not? The hon. baronet was consistent, but he really did not see on what principle the right hon. gentleman below him (Mr. Ponsonby) could oppose the measure now before the House. He did not wish to argue the question with the hon. baronet, but with those who believed in the existence of danger to the government of the country, and who thought that remedies ought to be applied to meet that danger. He himself believed that a conspiracy existed in the country for the subversion of the constitution. He was convinced that that conspiracy was great in point of numbers, that the members were bound together by oaths involving the horrid principle of inflicting death on those who revealed them. He believed too, that if the societies engaged in this conspiracy were not soon put down, they would be capable of struggling by force against the laws and government of the country. He believed that the conspirators thought they were strong enough on the 2nd of December to accomplish their purpose he believed they afterwards adjourned the execution of their intention to the 10th of February. He would put it to the House, whether on the eve of an insurrection, embracing many parts of the country and the metropolis, they wished the executive to sit with their arms folded and make no effort to arrest it till it exploded against the state? Did they wish ministers to suffer it first to explode, and blood to flow in the country? Was it not humanity to snatch the leader from the head of his troops before he could lead them against his majesty's peaceful subjects? He 755 thought the safety of the country imperiously demanded the measure: he disclaimed it as a punishment; and if the executive were not armed with this power, he was convinced they would not have the means of protecting the country against a bloody and most disastrous catastrophe [Cries of Hear, hear!].
began by stating the hardships under which he laboured, in being obliged, not only to combat the gentlemen opposite, but also the charge of imbecility brought against him by his hon. friends around and behind him. He could assure those who thought him weak, that all his faculties, such as they were, were as perfectly enjoyed by him when he sat in the secret committee, as ever they had been in the whole course of his life. He consented to go into that committee, because he considered it a public duty, standing, as he did, at the head of a respectable body of gentlemen in that House as the person in whom they could confide. If he had refused the offer of going into the committee to see the evidence on which such reports of danger to the state and government of the country were founded, he should have considered himself culpable. When he had first heard intentions attributed to the persons alluded to in the report, he was of the same opinion with that which some others now entertained, but he was afterwards fully convinced that absurd and nonsensical as the thing might appear, it was actually true. It was very unlikely that he should agree with the hon. baronet on the subject of parliamentary reform, but he had never heard any speech of that hon. baronet less liable to the imputation of the noble lord, than his speech of to-night. It was one of great ability—it contained nothing objectionable—nothing unparliamentary—and if the noble lord had acted wisely, he would neither have coped with that speech, nor quarrelled with him who made it. He believed the powers vested in the government of the country at present sufficient to keep the peace of the country without this measure; and one main ground for that belief was the fact communicated by the lord advocate, of the having seized on the central committee of Union at Glasgow. Having, therefore, got possession of the whole extent of the insurrection, in so far as Glasgow was concerned, it must be owing to their own imbecility if they did not at once completely crush it. He hoped the law would be allowed to take 756 its course. The surest way to put a stop to the mischief was, to let the law take its course, and to let punishment fall on crime. He put it to ministers, if they could for a moment conceive that this conspiracy originated in the native and homebred desperation of the great body of the common people concerned in it, or whether they did not think it originated in extreme distress acted upon by malignity? If every time when distress gave rise to disturbances the consequence was to be the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act, it would become a part of the ordinary legislature of the country. He had a reverence for that law amounting almost to superstition —he believed it the great bulwark of British liberty—that which brought home to the poorest man in the country the value of the British constitution. On all former occasions when the suspension, or in other words, the power of arbitrary arrest and detention was given, there was either foreign war, a disputed succession, or a rebellion existing in the country. The present was merely a conspiracy of famine acted on by malignity. The circumstance of its being confined to the lower orders was the greatest argument against the measure, for they might remain month after month and year after year in dungeons without the House knowing any thing of it. He knew too well, that in former instances of suspension, men as innocent as any in that House had been long kept in gaols. He wished the people to understand, that there was no set of men in public life in this country who countenanced them in any criminal designs against the state. He wished that he could make his voice reach to those deluded men. He would tell them, if they wished for liberty the measures they were pursuing tended to destroy that liberty—that it was by similar means public liberty had always been destroyed in other countries. The object of every individual in a state was the security of his person and property, and his domestic happiness; and the object of every government was the promotion of these objects. All governments were a trust for the benefit of the people; and the only way to make liberty odious to the great body of any people, was the commission of those excesses which destroyed the security of property and every thing that man most desired. If the nonsensical plan of equality and partition were to be successful, those who promoted them would themselves be the greatest 757 sufferers. But while he wished to put a stop to the spreading of this delusion among the people, he never would consent to deliver up that people at the mercy of any government—at the mercy of persons who never would appear in open court against them, and on whose evidence they might be incarcerated in gaols as long as the government pleased.
§ Lord Lascelles
agreed with the right hon. gentleman that the present discontents arose out of the distress of the country; and when he mentioned reformers as taking advantage of that distress, he did not class them all under the same head; there were among them some high and respectable individuals: whether their measures were prudent, he would not now discuss, but he believed their intentions correct. There was, however, another class of reformers not so well disposed: these men did not find an opportunity for pressing the subject at all times; when things went well, we heard nothing of them, but when distress had already excited discontent, they were ever roost clamorous. Some of the latter description had certainly taken advantage of the present calamities; they assembled parties under the pressure of want, and told them, if they signed petitions for reform, their wants would be relieved; having signed, they might be considered as enlisted under the banners of those reformers; and many of them, after a first enlistment, were led on by degrees to go farther. But he believed the people themselves, who suffered, were sound; and, if they knew whither their leaders were going, would probably stop short. Most sincerely he wished the legislature could relieve their distresses. It was true, great future advantages would be derived from the pursuit of economy; but as to any effectual immediate relief, it was out of the compass of human power to afford it. We must, therefore, look on to further distress, and the continuance of it; the minds of the people would be worked up by those who had designs of their own to involve all in deeper ruin. The object of the bill, therefore, which had his support was not injuriously to affect the lower orders, but to preserve them from being led astray by those delusions that were set as a snare to entrap them into their own destruction.
§ Lord Stanley
opposed the bill. Ministers, he said, had known of the mischiefs long enough before. They knew of the proceedings in October, November, 758 and December. He would readily agree to the bill for protecting the Prince Regent, and for preventing the seduction of soldiers and sailors. The sedition bill opened too large a field for him then to enter upon. To the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act he would not give his assent.
rose, amidst reiterated cries of question, to state, that he had quite made up his mind as to the course ministers were running, which would bring the country to ruin. He would give his humble opinion, that it was the duty of that House and of the country to petition for the removal of the present ministers. The question lay between military despotism and the dangers and distresses of the country. With respect to his opinions, he would own, that he had experienced a sort of malicious satisfaction at seeing, for ten years past, that the hopes of the opposition were disappointed by their being kept out of power. He was now, however, decidedly of opinion, that their restoration to place and power was the only means of giving us a chance of escaping degradation and ruin. As to that part of the evidence which had been brought forth that night, and at first, he supposed, intended to be secret, it did not appear how the document was come by. Was it from the arrested persons? The individual who produced it might himself in doing so have been guilty of perjury, and might therefore deserve no credit. Such an individual was capable of any thing. The report as it stood was worthless. There should be a change in men in order to effect a change of measures, if we wished to avoid despotism, degradation, and ruin.
§ The House divided:—
|Majority for the first reading of the bill||175|
§ The bill was then read a first and second time, after which the House adjourned at half past two o'clock.
|List of the Minority.|
|Anson, sir George||Brougham, Henry|
|Atherly, Arthur||Browne, Dom.|
|Aubrey, sir John||Burdett, sir F.|
|Bennet, hon. H. G.||Burrell, hon. P. D.|
|Baring, sir Thomas||Calley, Thomas|
|Baring, Alexander||Calcraft, John|
|Barnard, viscount||Calvert, N.|
|Birch, Jos.||Calvert, Charles|
|Brand, hon. Thos.||Carew, R. S.|
|Carter, John||Philips, George|
|Cavendish, lord G.||Piggott, sir A.|
|Chaloner, Robert||Ponsonby, rt. hon. G.|
|Cochrane, lord||Power, Richard|
|Coke, Thomas||Prittie, hon. F. A.|
|Curwen, J. C.||Portman, Edward|
|Duncannon, visc.||Pym, Francis|
|Dundas, hon. L.||Ramsden, J. C.|
|Dundas, C.||Rancliffe, lord|
|Ebrington, visc.||Ridley, sir M. W.|
|Fazakerley, J. N.||Romilly, sir Sam.|
|Fergusson, sir R. C,||Rowley, sir W.|
|Fitzgerald, rt. hon. M.||Russell, lord W.|
|Fitzroy, lord John||Russell, lord G. W.|
|Folkestone, visc.||Russell, R. G.|
|Guise, sir W.||Scudamore, Robt.|
|Gaskell, Benj,||Sharp, Richard|
|Grosvenor, Thos.||Sefton, earl of|
|Hamilton, lord A.||Smith, John|
|Hanbury, William||Smith, Wm.|
|Heathcote, sir G.||Smith, Robert|
|Heron, sir Robt.||Smyth, J. H.|
|Hughes, W. L.||Stanley, visc.|
|Hurst, Robert||Spiers, Arch.|
|Jervoise, G. P.||Shaw, sir James|
|Lambton, J. G.||Tavistock, marq.|
|Langton, W. G.||Taylor, M. A.|
|Lemon, sir W.||Taylor, Charles|
|Lyttelton, hon. W.||Teed, John|
|Marryat, Jos.||Tierney, rt. hon. G.|
|Methuen, Paul||Walpole, hon. G.|
|Mackintosh, sir J,||Waldegrave, hon. W.|
|Madocks, W. A.||Webb, Ed.|
|Martin, John||Althorp, viscount|
|Milton, vise.||Macdonald, James.|
|Molyneux, H. H.||PAIRED OFF.|
|Monck, sir Chas.||Foley, Thomas|
|Moore, Peter||Gordon, Robert|
|Mosely, sir O.||Lloyd, J. M.|
|Newman, R. W.||Pelham, hon. C. A.|
|Neville, hon. R.||Ponsonby, hon. F. C,|
|North, Dudley||Powlett, hon. W. V.|
|Nugent, lord||Russell, lord John|
|Ord, Wm.||Townshend, lord John|
|Ossulston, lord||Wharton, John.|