Sir F. Burdett
having moved the order of the day for resuming the adjourned debate on the Petitions presented for a Reform of Parliament,
§ The Speaker
said, with the leave of the House, he begged to state, that since the former evening of debate, he had caused the several petitions to be assorted and classed according to their respective form and contents. The total number of the petitions was 527. Of these there was one to which no name at all was subscribed—two had no names signed on the papers on which they were severally written—twenty-eight contained the same allegations and prayer as the petition from Quick, which the House rejected on the 29th of January—468 were printed petitions—of the remaining twenty-eight there were eleven containing the same allegations and prayer as the petition from Halifax, which the House rejected on the 31st of January; and four containing the same allegations and prayer as the petition from Hollingwood, which the House rejected on the 13th of February. The remaining thirteen were in various other forms. With the permission of the House he would therefore suggest that the first question before them was, whether that 992 petition could be received which had no signature attached to it.
said, that such a petition was a nonenity, and of course could not be received. The motion therefore was negatived. The Speaker said the next question was, whether the two petitions having no signatures on the same paper could be received? They were also refused. The next question was whether the twenty-eight petitions expressed in the same words as the petition from Quick should be received?
Sir F. Burdett
considered that this question deserved the most serious attention. By the law of the land, the subject had a right to petition the King and both Houses of Parliament. The bill of rights had secured this inestimable privilege to him, and it had been always regarded as one of the greatest bulwarks of our liberties. In the petitions then before the House, various grievances were complained of; but, particularly, the want of a proper representation of the people. On a former night, the House had objected to several petitions on the same subject, on account of certain expressions that were introduced into them. The noble lord opposite had objected, that the petitioners said, the present House of Commons did not represent the country. This was so comprehensive an objection, that the House had better say at once, it would not receive any petition for a reform of parliament. In what way could the petitioners ask for relief, if they were to be precluded from stating what was so notoriously true? On former occasions, strong suspicions only were entertained, that seats in that House were bought and sold; but never till of late had this shocking and disgraceful practice been brought to light, and the fact established beyond the power of contradiction. "You, Sir," said sir F, Burdett, addressing himself to the Speaker, "have expressed your strongest disapprobation of this vile traffic, and shall the people, then, be told, that they must not complain of such things r There are no words, Sir, that the people can employ on this subject, which your own indignation has not anticipated. If our ancestors, as you well observed, would have started with horror on hearing of these practices, why may not the people now complain that the House of Commons does not contain a fair and legitimate representation of the country? Other gentlemen had objected that the petitioners introduced 993 words merely to insult the House instead of confining themselves to the grievances of which they complained; but was it fair to search out matters of this kind, and to look over all that part of the petition which complained of real grievances? Finding however, that different gentlemen objected upon different grounds, it was impossible for him to know what would be agreeable to the House. Some hon. members certainly did not like to be told that they did not represent the people; but it was equally certain, and they themselves knew, that they did not sit there as the representatives of the people, nor could the people hope to have any grievances redressed by their exertions. He must contend, then, that these petitions ought to be received. If the House thought otherwise, it was of the utmost importance to the country that they should come to some decision, in order that the people might know in what language the House would be inclined to lend their ears to grievances.
said, that the objection to the petitions was, that the petitions went out of their way and brought into their petitions irrelevant matter, for the express purpose of casting censure and insults upon the House. He read, as an instance, that part of one of the petitions which called the debates in the House "tedious, protracted, and disgusting." Matter more clearly objectionable could not be conceived. What the hon. baronet required as to the House prescribing any form of language, or stating in some rule what language would be objectionable, it was impossible that it could be done. To suppose that the House should formally state every possible variety of words, phrases, or sentiments which would be objected to, was absurd. The House must judge on each case as it came before it, whether the petition contained a bona fide expression of grievances, or any matter insulting to the House. There were various shades. Some allegations might be made in offensive terms, the substance of which might be stated without offensiveness. Many of these persons stated, that if parliament had been reformed, the war would not have taken place. But no war could be cited that was more popular than the war of 1793. But the House must consider every petition as standing by itself as to its language, its substance, and all the circumstances attending it. Was there any other court of which it could be expected that it would sit and hear its conduct im- 994 peached and objected to in the grossest possible terms of abuse? Was it not notorious that a form of petition had been advisedly and upon concert drawn up in the particular terms, and that copies of it had been circulated with wonderful industry to all parts of the kingdom, even the most remote? Were not the copies so circulated accompanied by a communication or recommendation from a society, he could not say signed by the hon. baronet but at least stamped with a fac simile of the hon. baronet's signature? If the House were in any case to relax its rules, it ought to be where the petitioners intended not to insult the House, and not in a case like the present, where the terms were purposely and carefully selected, as those which were thought worse than the House could possibly tolerate. If the House were to attempt any such things as to lay down a rule as to the language and words which it should consider objectionable, it would only give those persons an opportunity of choosing words by which any such rule might be evaded, and then they would come to the House with language quite as offensive, or more so, and say that it was not within the rule. On the whole as it appeared to be the duty of the House to maintain its dignity, and to stand by those rules which their forefathers had observed, he thought it would not be enough simply to negative the motion, but that the House should mark its indignation at such conduct; and he therefore moved, as an amendment, "That the said petitions be rejected."
said, that after all the distresses and privations which the people had so patiently endured, they had received that return which they did not expect, namely, a suspension of the constitution. The House had been led to adopt certain measures which the state of the country did not justify; and which, he firmly believed, were only intended to prevent persons from meeting to state their grievances. No instance whatever had occurred of any disturbance at any of those meetings; but ministers had a particular object in alarming the timid. They now called upon the landed gentlemen to rally round them; but what was the situation in which those gentlemen stood? Why, it was neither more nor less than this—that they were about to be plundered of their property by the fluctuating state of the currency. The hon. member below had said, that the war of 995 1793 was extremely popular. Yes, ministers then found means to frighten the country, by giving out that Buonaparté was coming in a great hurry to invade us: and now they told the country gentlemen that the Spenceans were about to seize on their estates, and therefore, they should rally round the ministers. He hoped, however, that this delusion would not last. It was impossible, he thought, that men of judgment and experience should not soon see through it. The petitions then before the House complained of real grievances, and it would be a most offensive measure if they should resolve to reject them.
was surprised to hear the noble lord say, that ministers had found means to prevent public meetings, for, unless the names of the members for Westminster had been forged, there was to be a meeting to-morrow, not to desire the people to rally round ministers, but to address the Prince Regent for their removal. The noble lord had said, there had been no riot or disturbance at any of the public meetings; but surely he must have been out of the country for the last six months, or he could not have been so ignorant of what had taken place. The language of these petitions was a direct insult to the House; and, therefore, he should vote for their rejection.
§ Mr. J. Martin
thought the less offensive mode would be, not to reject the petitions, but to vote that they could not be received on account of their irregularity.
Sir Gilbert Heathcote
said, the House ought not to refuse to pay attention to the petitioners, merely because they alleged that the House did not represent the country. Great offence had been taken atone of the expressions in these petitions; namely, where the petitioners spoke of "the disgusting debates in that House." He would now ask, upon a day like this, when it was known that upwards of 500 petitions were to be considered, what was the situation of the House? Most of the gentlemen had retired to take their dinners very comfortably, and the petitions of the people of England were treated with contempt.
§ Mr. Bathurst
said, that the absent members, as well as those then present, knew the nature of the objections to the petitions—objections on which every member had already made up his mind. It was therefore no insult to the people. The 996 only insult in question was the one offered to the House by the language of the petitions. The petitioners, if they chose, might easily re-state their complaints in proper language, and then they would be received.
put it to those who complained of the thinness of the House, whether the House had not something to complain of as to the conduct of the petitioners? There was no right which he held so sacred as the right of petition, and the conduct of these petitioners had a direct tendency to bring the right of petition into contempt. The petitioners well knew that their petitions must be rejected, and the House on behalf of the people of England, was called upon to reprobate their conduct.
§ Mr. Babington
agreed that the language of the petitions was so objectionable, that they ought not to be received; but he thought the House should have so much tenderness towards the petitioners, as not to pass a direct vote of rejection.
§ Mr. John Smith
said, that although he must disapprove of the language of the petitions, yet on the ground taken by Mr. Babington, he would vote against their rejection.
§ On the main question being put for the rejection of the petitions, it was decided in the affirmative. On the question being put,
§ The Speaker
intimated to the House that the next question for its consideration was, that the 488 printed petitions be now read.
rose to move, that these petitions should be rejected, and to express his surprise that the hon. baronet should have presented such petitions to the House, after the repeated decisions that printed petitions could not be received. There was no rule more strongly established, than that which ordered that no printed petitions should be received by the House. That rule was begun to beaded on in 1656; it was again recognised in 1793, and afterwards so late as the year 1813, in the case of a printed petition from Nottingham, on which occasion the hon. 997 baronet had been himself one of the tellers on the division that then took place, when the rule was confirmed by 75 votes against 11; and a few days afterwards, a petition from a major Cartwright, praying for leave to present a printed petition, was rejected. He wished the entries on the journals in these cases to be read. [The clerk then read the entries of the 30th of June and 7th of July 1813]. If the rule was not already established, what now took place would have rendered it necessary. Considering that the House had, so late as 1813, come to this decision, he could only think that these printed petitions were now sent for the purpose of being rejected, and, if possible, of exciting some exasperation in the people. The fact was established on the report of the secret committee, that this was one of the means resorted to for the purpose of exciting to acts of sedition and rebellion. The House was therefore called upon on this occasion to mark its displeasure at such petitions being now presented. He therefore was of opinion that these petitions ought to be rejected.
§ Sir W. Geary
contended, that the rule of 1656 applied solely to private petitions, and therefore could not bear upon the present question. He decidedly differed from the petitioners in their view of the remedy for the public grievances, but still be considered they were right in stating openly and with candour their notions of the corrective. With regard to printed1 petitions, he would put this plain question to the House. If they were anxious honestly to know the opinion of the great body of the people on an important subject, what more desirable course could they adopt than to have the petition submitted to the people put in that form which gave the best security of the question being fully understood? To put them in a printed form, was, in his opinion, best calculated to produce that effect. He was convinced the petitions ought to be received.
§ Mr. W. Quin
considered the rule of 1656 applicable, inasmuch as every petition not proceeding from a recognized public body must be considered private.
Sir Francis Burdett
felt aware, that he should be only wasting time in discussing the question at present, seeing the treasury benches and those behind them, so full, and those on his own side of the House so empty. But having already delayed the question so long, he thought he 998 might be deemed blameable if he deferred it any longer. It was satisfactory to him, however, that the cause itself stood on such strong grounds that nothing had been said to impugn it; and he thought the hon. gentleman who seemed so conversant with this subject, and so extremely well versed in the journals of the House (though indeed he had unluckily selected an entry that by no means suited his purpose), might have recollected that a private order did not bind the House on all occasions, and more especially did not bind it in the case of petitions of the utmost importance to the subject—petitions against a grievance the most dangerous and inveterate of any, namely, the corrupt state of that House. However, the rule of 1656 could now be of no force whatever; the rule was framed by Cromwell's creatures, placed in that House by himself, and not one of them allowed to enter parliament till he was furnished with a ticket from the soldiers who surrounded the doors. That was not a period from which a precedent could be drawn for the guidance of future times. The rule in question, too, related only to private petitions and was aimed against a practice that prevailed at one time, of prejudicing the sentiments of members, by distributing printed petitions on private matters; and it was in order to prevent the printing and circulation of petitions, and the canvassing members with such views, that the rule in question was framed—the rule on which the whole argument against receiving these petitions rested. A foundation more sandy on which to rest an argument against receiving the sentiments of thousands of petitions it was impossible to conceive. The hon gentleman had referred to the discussions that took place in 1793; and how did they apply? Previous to Mr. Grey's motion for a reform of parliament, a petition was presented from the city of Norwich, by Mr. Hobart, and he (rather extraordinarily for the presenter of a petition) started a doubt, whether the petitition, being printed, could with propriety be received. The doubt was immediately caught at, in the same manner as at present. The Speaker being applied to, referred to this order, as proving that it was against the practice of the House to receive printed petitions. Mr. Fox said, that no such order was directed against public petitions and that private petitions only were within the construction and spirit of the rule. Of nine members who 999 spoke on the subject, five were for receiving the petition, two were against it, and two doubtful. Mr. Sheridan then requested the hon. member who had presented the petition to withdraw it, for that day at least, in order lo allow the more time to the important motion that was coming on to be discussed; the petition was in consequence withdrawn, so that nothing was settled by this entry of 1793. The discussion itself stood only on the doubtful rule of Cromwell's parliament. In 1813, reference was made to this supposed rule of 1793, and a division certainly took place, which could be now of no force, as it went on the supposition of a rule that never existed, or existed only in such a manner, that it could not be made the ground of proceeding at the present moment. If, then, no order existed against the practice, we must come to the reason of the thing; which, after all, was of much stronger avail than any order whatever. When we considered this part of the question, no objection whatever could be found against the reception of printed petitions, or none which might not with equal force be urged against the reception of written ones; on the contrary, there were many objections to written petitions which could not be adduced against petitions that were printed. Printed petitions were read and comprehended with much greater facility and accuracy than those which were written; and every man was able to see and understand what he was to sign. Printed petitions were not so liable to be altered as written ones, and every man who signed them must feel greater assurance that nothing but what he had signed would be presented to the House. The Bill of Rights, which ensured the right of petitioning to the subject, did not attempt to shackle it in any way, or to prefer one mode of petitioning to another. It did not require a goose quill to be made use of rather than a steel pen; or say that one sort of ink should be made use of rather than another. The printed form, he would contend, was the best. The king had no objection to receive a printed petition; the House of Lords had received a printed petition, and had actually made an entry of the receipt of one shortly after the Nottingham petition had been withdrawn in the House of Commons; though they certainly had said that it should not be drawn into a precedent; but why this reservation was made he could not conceive. 1000 And should the House of Commons reject petitions after this, and obstruct the right of petitioning in the most dangerous manner? Formerly no objections were made to any paper that was offered: but this course having produced inconveniences, an order was made in 1780 that all petitions should be signed; but no order was made that they should be written, by the signer; and all the reasons of the thing were the other way, indeed, if any such order had been made, there was the strongest reason on the present occasion for suspending such an order, even though it were suspended with a reservation like that of the House of Lords, that the instance should not be drawn into precedent. A case of such magnitude as the prayer of 468 petitions would justify the suspension of any order on a point of practice, but in reality, the House could not make that order, it could not obstruct the right of petitioning. Even as to irrelevant or casually offensive matter, the House ought not to be too nice on all occasions; that, however, was not the present question. But no reason whatever had been given for the rejection of petitions, merely because they were printed. The hon. gentleman who spoke last had recommended a very odd way of getting rid of the difficulty. "Can't you," said he, "call the petitions private, and then reject them by the rule of Cromwell's parliament?" Certainly, the petitions might be got rid of in that manner; but they could not, in any rational sense of the word, be called private petitions. Sir Francis said, he felt the difficulty of a person, who had to prove a self-evident proposition; like a man who was called on to prove he was innocent, when, in fact, it was the other side who should have shown him to be guilty. Gentlemen on the opposite benches should show why these petitions ought not to be received. A lecture had been read to him, and he had been told he ought to refuse to present a petition, if it was couched in language the House had before rejected. On this point, however, he had acted to the best of his judgment; and he should never present a petition the less because the House had rejected its fellow. The laws of that House were not like those of the Medes and Persians, irrevocable; and it frequently happened that a vote given on one day had been reversed the next, by the complaisant concurrence of gentlemen on the treasury benches. In the affair of lord Melville, 1001 the House had one day, at the instigation of Mr. Pitt, voted that his lordship should be tried by a jury; and the very next day on the same minister's representation, revoked the trial by jury, and ordered an impeachment. He, therefore, might reasonably hope to find the House in better humour on some occasions than on others, and might fairly expect that a petition rejected one day might stand a chance of being received the next; and, certainly, if a petition couched in terms that had been rejected came from a distance, he should feel it his duty not to send it back, but at least to offer it to the discretion of the House. As to what had been urged with so much vehemence concerning petitions that had been sent down into the country for signature, what objection could possibly be made to such a practice? The petitions must be drawn up somewhere, for it never could be supposed that all the thousands who signed could each draw up their own petition; it was sufficiently in their power to dissent from the terms of a petition by refusing to sign it; and what more could be required or expected? It might as well be contended, that a bond already drawn up and presented for signature, was not the bond of the person who signed it, as that these petitions did not contain the sentiments of their subscribers. They were much more easily read when presented in a printed form: and if they were not drawn up ready for signatures, how could their contents be acquiesced in or dissented from? Could it be seriously supposed, that a man without influence could prevail on thousands to sign against their inclinations, for the sake of furthering some project of his own? Besides, how did ministers act on such occasions themselves; how did they get signatures to their petitions and declarations? Did they not go about to taverns and bankers shops, thrusting their printed declarations into every hand, and compelling signatures from those who feared their interests might suffer if they refused? With them, indeed, all practices were considered fair; with those who wished to check them in their career of ruin, all was complained against as foul. Upon the whole, a body of public opinion had been raised on facts which admitted of no denial, that the representation in the House of Commons was altogether corrupt. Gentlemen might rail, but they could not erase the signatures from the bond, or stem the torrent of general reprehension. They might contend, that 1002 some monster of terror—some magician with his wand (who, in fact, was no other than a very honest-hearted individual, acting, in all things for the best), could issue his petitions north and south, and countervail all the efforts and tricks of ministers. But, if they wished to consult the dignity of the House (not the dignity of being hated, as Junius called it), if they wished to preserve the respect and affections of the people, without any hateful admixture of the oderint dum metuant, they would never reject the prayers of the subject, because they were offered in a form of all others the most convenient and the least objectionable. Arguments of this sort, he was aware, would carry little weight in a quarter where the sic volo, sic jubeo was sure to carry a majority; but he felt it his duty to take a division on the question, however small that division might prove.
contended, that if the House believed the hon. baronet really wished the petitions to be received, they must perceive that he had not argued the cause in a way to ensure their reception. The hon. baronet had presented them in the face of a rule, the existence of which was publicly known; and he had said nothing to show that the rule did not form a part of the practice of parliament. It was, indeed, a little extraordinary that the hon. baronet should cavil at the expressions of the rule in question, as he himself was one of the tellers on the division that took place shortly after the question came before parliament, on the Nottingham petition. He would contend, that these were private petitions in the parliamentary acceptance of the word private, and within the obvious construction of the rule; and the hon. baronet could not show a single usage to the contrary. He had, indeed, shown the usage of the other House; but that was in a case which was expressly prohibited from being drawn into a precedent, and therefore told against the hon. baronet. Anxious as he was to receive the petitions in question, and to preserve in all its privileges the right of petitioning, yet he thought the systematic trade of framing petitions, and calling meetings for the purpose of breaking the peace of the country, ought by every means to be checked in its growth. God forbid that he should impute to those who signed these 468 petitions, any settled design against the government of the country; they were most of them, he believed, deluded individuals; but he knew that designing men 1003 went about the country, availing themselves of the rights of the people, for the purpose of calling meetings, in which they might exert every faculty, and rouse the passions of the people, for putting them in movement towards a general rebellion. Meetings, such as these, must be brought under the eye of the law; and it was necessary that the House should hold fast to the established rule, and not relax it, in order to give facilities to individuals who were employed in this metropolis for the sole purpose of fabricating petitions to excite discontent. There never was a moment in which it was more necessary to consult the dignity of parliament; and as it was clear that the rules and practice of the House were against the entertaining of printed petitions, he should vote against the motion.
§ Mr. Smyth
wished to give every latitude to the admission of petitions, but he could net help thinking that the hon. baronet, whatever his intentions might be, was actually following that course which was most calculated to defeat the right of petitioning. When the petitions of the people bore marks of conveying their own sentiments, the House ought to receive with indulgence any expressions they might contain; but the case was very different when they came in terms which appeared to have been dictated. It appeared, that in 1813, the House had come to a decision founded on former precedents, against receiving printed petitions, and he saw no reason for now reversing that decision.
§ Sir E. Brydges
observed, that when the House saw all the petitions, not only couched in the same words, but (with scarcely any exception) printed b}' the same printer, it afforded strong presumptive evidence that such petitions did not speak the sense of the people from whom they professed to proceed. He should therefore oppose their reception.
§ Mr. Boswell
opposed the motion. The House could not be surprised at there being such a similarity in the form and expressions of these petitions when they were aware that they had all proceeded from the same hand and mind. The helpless old gentleman, whom his friends in Westminster called the polar star of reform, had lately became a wandering star for the purpose of enlightening the manufacturing districts in the north of England and in Scotland, in which districts he had promoted meetings, at which he presided, and 1004 urged the presentation to parliament of petitions for reform. These petitions were all sent by a preconcerted arrangement from the manufactory in London. The way in which these petitions were usually signed, might be inferred from one which he had happened to look at, purporting to be from a Hampden Club, the two first signatures to which, were those of an overseer to the poor and an old woman.
§ Mr. Peter Moore
said, he had heard no sufficient reason assigned for not receiving these petitions. The order which had been read against receiving private petitions printed and circulated, was perfectly intelligible. There were many instances in the courts below of objections to the circulation of printed applications, founded, he supposed, upon the same ground as the order of 1656. They were objected to on the same principle as tampering with a jury would be considered objectionable. If there were really fears of the existence of a secret fire, concealment was not the best way of extinguishing it. If any machinations were going on against the state the best way was to give every encouragement to petitioning, in order that the House might not remain in ignorance of the opinions and feelings of the country at such a crisis; but he was far from placing any confidence in the assertions in the reports which had been presented to parliament, which he considered as gross libels on the people. He saw no just ground either on precedent or reason, for objecting to printed petitions, and should therefore support the motion.
§ The House divided:—Yeas, 6; Noes, 58; Majority against receiving printed petitions—52.