§ Sir M. W. Ridley
opposed the motion, and stated, that, independent of his determined hostility to the bill in general, he yet more particularly objected to the preamble now affixed to it. When the House was called upon to vest extraordinary powers in the hands of his majesty's ministers, it was incumbent on the latter to lay strong grounds for such a proceeding. It was to be expected, that the facts on which they relied should be fully set forth in the preamble of their proposed measure; and that no doubt should exist as to their correctness and authenticity. In the present instance, however, the preamble was a false and unsupported libel upon the character of the country; and he would defy any of the right hon. gentlemen opposite to support the allegations it contained. It stated, that assemblies had been held in several parts of the country, under pretext of petitioning the sovereign and parliament, but were really to serve the purposes of factious persons, and to produce riots and disorders. But where were the proofs of those assertions? In what part of the island had that been the case? If he were to look to the numerous meetings held in every part of the country, it must be in the recollection of the House, that there was hardly a single instance wherein the members, presenting their petitions, did not speak of the good order that generally prevailed at them: and it was really too much, if one unfortunate instance had occurred of riot and disorder, that the whole country should be branded by one sweeping allegation of disloyalty and disaffection. Some symptoms of disorder might have appeared in part of the kingdom, but they arose solely from the pressure of distress, and not from any spirit of disaffection to the government. If he looked for proof of this allegation, even to the meeting at Spa-fields, which was unhappily the source of tumult and outrage, while he lamented the disgraceful scenes displayed in London on the 2d of December, he must still express his satisfaction, on perceiving that the laws then in existence had been sufficient to check the evil almost in its commencement, and to prevent any pernicious consequences. The hon. gentleman who presided over the city, assisted by an hon. alderman, a member of the House, had, as it were by their own personal exertions, stopped the career of riot, and dispersed 1085 the authors of the tumult, almost without the interference of the military; and in so doing, they had merited the praise and gratitude of their fellow citizens; and had practically demonstrated the efficacy of the present laws, when duly executed. There appeared not the least desire among the people to evade or outrage the law of the country—and no where could he find a better proof of this disposition, than by referring to the unhappy scene that took place a few days since, and which was the dreadful consequence of the riots; and the forbearance and tranquillity exhibited by the people on that occasion was the more to be regarded, as the circumstance was one particularly calculated to agitate the minds of the populace. He did not mean to impute any blame to the government, for directing the law to be carried into execution—but he regretted that it was not more speedily acted upon—for, in that case, the example would have had a much stronger effect on the minds of the people; as they must all be aware, that the delay of punishing, after crime had been committed, while it led the guilty to entertain unfounded hopes of mercy, occasioned many, who would otherwise be deterred from the perpetration of offences, to conduct themselves in a criminal manner. He mentioned this case as one of the strongest that could be adduced, to prove that the people were ready to pay a due obedience to the law, as it now existed, if it were properly administered.—However much the fate of this unfortunate man affected their feelings, and although his execution was attended by numbers greater than had ever been collected on any previous similar occasion—yet no riot, no tumult took place, nothing beyond the bare expression of those emotions with which the scene impressed them, was observable. If they looked to the riots in the country, politics would be found to have had little to do with them. In Somersetshire, the disturbances were evidently occasioned by the distressed state of the people—and they were immediately put down by the activity of a single magistrate (an hon. bart., a member of that House, and whom he then saw in his place), whose conduct deserved the highest praise. This circumstance still farther showed, that the laws were sufficiently strong to guard against the danger of popular tumult, and did not demand any additional enactments. But he should be told, that instances might occur, in which 1086 those additional powers would be found necessary. Who was to judge of those instances? A firm magistrate might conceive the present law quite sufficient; while one of a timorous nature would imagine, that stronger powers were necessary. Surely they must recollect, that the chief magistrate of a great town (Liverpool), filled with fear and apprehension, on account of what he saw at a former meeting, had refused to call the inhabitants together, although a regular requisition was numerously and respectably signed for that purpose. If the fears and apprehensions of magistrates were thus to outstep the bounds of reason and discretion—if they were to be allowed to put their veto on meetings legally demanded—if they were to interpose between the people and their representatives in that House—and if these new and extraordinary powers were to be given them in aid of such an object—the consequence would be, that the right of petitioning would become a nullity. He meant to say nothing of the particular magistrate, whose fears and apprehensions had carried him so far; but there were individuals who might think the enactments of this bill afforded them a very good opportunity to get rid of meetings altogether, as a proceeding pleasant and palatable to those whose political opinions they adopted. Such an extent of power (which might be found a very convenient instrument for the gratification of private feeling), should not be lightly placed in the hands of any set of men. At the present period of unexampled suffering, instead of closing the door against petitions, it ought to be thrown open as wide as possible. Some clauses of this bill appeared to him to be exceedingly objectionable. But, when he recollected the debate of the previous evening—when he recollected the able speech of his hon. and learned friend, which, for eloquence, for soundness of argument, and clearness of statement, could not be surpassed—when he recollected that, with all these combined powers, his hon. and learned friend found it impossible to bring the House to agree with him in his first resolution—the truth of which no man could deny—"that trade and commerce were in a state of unexampled distress,"—when he recollected this, he felt it was in vain for him to expect that attention would be paid to any observation which he might make on the measure before the House. Still, however, it was his duty 1087 to state the objections he felt to particular clauses. He particularly deprecated the power which was given to magistrates to stop any person promulgating sentiments at a meeting, to which they might object. This clause rendered the people as little masters of their tongues, as far as the expression of public opinion went, as they were at present of their liberties. The bill also was partly permanent, partly temporary. Would it not be better to divide it into two bills?—a temporary One, for the prevention of seditious meetings,—a permanent one, as far as the Spencean principles were concerned—if such a measure could be of the least benefit. About 30 years ago, when the pamphlet of Mr. Spence was first promulgated, at Newcastle, he was member of a society called the Philosophical Society, which was established in that town. At their meetings each member, in rotation, read an essay of his own composition—and, according to the rules of the society, Mr. Spence, at one of their meetings, read, as his contribution, that paper which had created so much noise. It was not noticed by the society; but a few days afterwards, Mr. Spence thought proper to publish it, and the consequence was, that the society expelled him—and his conduct was so generally reprobated, that he was ultimately obliged to leave Newcastle. Nothing was heard of his plan for many years, until some months ago. He was desirous of stating these circumstances, in consequence of some remarks in an anonymous publication (the Quarterly Review), and in justice to the present Philosophical Society of Newcastle. The Society, of which Mr. Spence was a member, was one totally different from that now established in Newcastle, under the same title. Of the members of that Society he would say, that no individuals in England were more loyal, or were less inclined to countenance the wild fancies of Mr. Spence and his followers. As a proof of the correctness of their principles, he begged leave to state one fact:—A few months ago, the person who acted as the librarian of that Society, published one of the most indecent and blasphemous parodies on the Liturgy of the Church of England that could be imagined. But, the moment he was discovered to be the author of it, he was removed from his situation, by the unanimous vote of the Society. So much he felt himself bound to say, in defence of the character of that respectable body.— 1088 To return to the bill now before the House, he felt it his duty to oppose its passing into a law, containing, as it did, so many unjustifiable provisions, wholly uncalled for by the existing circumstances of the country. He had heard of the rise in the price of the funds being ascribed, in another place, to the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act; and he presumed that the improvement was expected to be promoted by the enactment of the present bill; but even though that should be the fact, he should be sorry to see it take place, at the expense of the liberties of the country. On these different grounds he should propose, as an amendment, to leave out the word "now," and insert after the words "be read a third time," the words "this day six months."
§ Sir J. C. Hippisley
rose to correct a misapprehension in the last speaker. The disturbances in Somersetshire did not arise from any pressure of poverty, for the larger number of the persons engaged in them, were in full work; and he had every reason to believe, that they were induced to revolt from their employers and their country, by the dissemination of mischievous publications, many of which he knew had been circulated among them, and were found on their persons. At the same time, he was warranted in saying, that, taken as a mass, there was not a more loyal population in the country than the inhabitants of Somersetshire.
§ Mr. William Smith
contended, that the remedy provided by this bill went far beyond the necessity of the case. The reports of the two Houses he considered as the pillars upon which it rested; and as that of the committee of the other House had been laid on their table, he might be allowed to refer to it. He observed, that it accused those persons who supported the principle of universal suffrage of a design to subvert the British constitution. It appeared to him, that this was to charge these persons with a very heinous crime; and that it ought not, therefore, to have been advanced on slight grounds. He believed it to be an accusation, the truth of which it was impossible for the committee to prove. Several different towns and cities were named, as places in which this design was supposed to be entertained; and amongst others, Norwich, the city which he had the honour to represent, was included. He felt it to be his duty to his constituents, and to the country at large, to repel assertions which were so well cal- 1089 culated to create alarm and confusion, coming as they did from such high authority. It was evident that pains had been taken to connect the two offences of blasphemy and sedition, and to represent them as combined and disguised under the cause and principles of reform. Upon this subject he had a very singular letter in his possession, which he had received from a respectable individual at Norwich, and which might, perhaps, explain the reason of that town having engaged the attention of the committee. This letter, with the permission of the House he would read. It was as follows:
"I sit down to answer that part of thy letter which relates to the subject of reform. The mention made of Norwich, in the report of the Secret Committee, has occasioned a little investigation—the result of which is as follows:—A few days before the meeting of the society a handbill was distributed, containing a blasphemous parody of the Nicene Creed—which was sent up to lord Sidmouth, as a specimen of the sentiments here, I understand it came out about 20 or 25 years ago, amongst the Jacobins with whom——then associated.—[Mr. Smith here observed, that he had the name before him, but he did not wish to mention it.]—It slept ever since, till it was published a short time ago, with names altered, to suit the present period; but not by the desire or direction of any political party, society, club, or body of individuals whatsoever. It was the spontaneous speculation of a starving printer, a well known advocate of the court party, who hoped, by that means, to put a penny in his pocket—and he fully confessed the whole matter to me. It was not exhibited or sold in shops—but was hawked about by persons in his employ. The circulation was stopped soon after its appearance—so that it can, in no degree, represent the religious or political state of Norwich. But I think its having been sent up to lord Sidmouth was the probable reason of such honourable mention being made of Norwich in the report of the Secret Committee."
He would leave the House to judge, therefore, in what degree this hand bill could be considered as a proof of the religious or political sentiments of the people of Norwich. Yet, upon no other grounds, as he firmly believed, than the transmission of that paper to lord Sidmouth, was Norwich introduced into the report as one of the places where disaffec- 1090 tion prevailed. He should not think it necessary to enter into any vindication of the Union Society at Norwich, with whose innocence, as to any unconstitutional or revolutionary designs, he was perfectly acquainted. One word more, however, he would say with respect to the man by whom the blasphemous paper was circulated. It was known, that since he had had the honour of being connected with Norwich he had stood many contested elections; it was also known that he had never come in upon what was called the government interest, but upon the opposition. Now he had taken the trouble to look into all the poll books for those elections, and he had found the name of that man voting against him upon every election, and giving his support to the ministerial candidate. He would not tell the attorney-general his name, but if he found him out, he had no objection to appear upon his trial, and state that fact in mitigation of punishment.
The hon. member then adverted to that tergiversation of principle which the career of political individuals so often presented. He was far from supposing, that a man who set out in life with the profession of certain sentiments, was bound to conclude life with them. He thought there might be many occasions in which a change of opinion, when that change was unattended by any personal advantages, when it appeared entirely disinterested, might be the result of sincere conviction. But what he most detested, what most filled him with disgust, was the settled, determined malignity of a renegado. He had read in a publication (the Quarterly Review), certainly entitled to much respect from its general literary excellences, though he differed from it in its-principles, a passage alluding to the recent disturbances, which passage was as follows:
"When the man of free opinions commences professor of moral and political philosophy for the benefit of the public—the fables of old credulity are then verified—his very breath becomes venomous, and every page which he sends abroad carries with it poison to the unsuspicious reader. We have shown, on a former occasion, how men of this description are acting upon the public, and have explained in what manner a large part of the people have been prepared for the virus with which they inoculate them. The dangers arising from such a state of things are 1091 are now fully apparent, and the designs of the incendiaries, which have for some years been proclaimed so plainly, that they ought, long ere this, to have been prevented, are now manifested by overt acts."
With the permission of the House, he would read an extract from a poem recently published, to which, he supposed the above writer alluded (or at least to productions of a similar kind), as constituting a part of the virus with which the public mind had been infected:My brethren, these are truths and weighty ones:Ye are all equal; nature made ye so.Equality is your birthright;—when I gazeOn the proud palace, and behold one man,In the blood-purpled robes of royalty.Feasting at ease, and lording over millions;Then turn me to the but of poverty,And see the wretched labourer, worn with toil,Divide his scanty morsel with his infants,I sicken, and indignant at the sight,'Blush for the patience of humanity.'He could read many other passages from these works equally strong on both sides; but, if they were written by the same person, he should like to know from the hon. and learned gentleman opposite, why no proceedings had been instituted against the author. The poem "Wat Tyler," appeared to him to be the most seditious book that was ever written; its author did not stop short of exhorting to general anarchy; he vilified kings, priests, and nobles, and was for universal suffrage and perfect equality. The Spencean plan could not be compared with it; that miserable and ridiculous performance did not attempt to employ any arguments; but the author of Wat Tyler constantly appealed to the passions, and in a style which the author, at that time, he supposed, conceived to be eloquence. Why, then, had not those who thought it necessary to suspend the Habeas Corpus act taken notice of this poem? Why had not they discovered the author of that seditious publication, arid visited him with the penalties of the law? The work was not published secretly, it was not handed about in the darkness of night, but openly and publicly sold in the face of day. It was at this time to be purchased at almost every bookseller's shop in London: it was now exposed for sale in a bookseller's shop in Pall-mall, who styled himself bookseller to one or two of the royal family. He borrowed the copy, from which he had just 1092 read the extract, from an hon. friend of his, who bought it in the usual way; and, therefore he supposed there could be no difficulty in finding out the party that wrote it. He had heard, that when a man of the name of Winterbottom was some years ago confined in Newgate, the manuscript had been sent to him, with liberty to print it for his own advantage, if he thought proper; but that man, it appeared did not like to risk the publication; and, therefore, it was now first issued into the world. It must remain with the government, and their legal advisers, to take what steps they might deem most advisable to repress this seditious work, and punish its author. In bringing it under the notice of the House, he had merely spoken in defence of his constituents, who had been most grossly calumniated; and he thought that what he had said would go very far to exculpate them. But he wished to take this bull by the horns.
Much had been said on the existence of a Hampden club in London, but what were the names of some of the persons who belonged to the Hampden Society? One of them was major Cartwright; another was a very respectable man, an officer in his majesty's government, a very near neighbour of his in the country; another, who was also his neighbour, was descended from one of the oldest families in England, and possessed about 10,000l. a year landed property. This club so constituted, was known to many of his Norwich constituents, who sent up two or three delegates to attend a meeting in London: but lie had no hesitation in saying, that when those persons came up to the club and did not find those gentlemen whom they knew and expected, they turned on their heels and went home. This was the only ground on which his constituents at Norwich had been mentioned in the report; and he would now ask the House, whether they had not been most unjustly dealt with? With respect to the bill before the House, its penalties were wholly disproportionate to the offences its authors wished to prevent. He had the authority of his right hon. and learned friend who sat near him for saying, that all he saw in the committee did not warrant the measure before the House; and therefore, he should vote for his hon. friend's amendment, for the purpose of postponing the further consideration of the bill.
said, he had already expressed his assent to the measure now before the 1093 House, and he had heard nothing, during the present debate, that could induce him to alter his opinion. Indeed much of what had been offered, did not bear at all on the question. The hon. member who spoke last, had thought fit—in order to divert the attention of the House from the serious consideration of an important subject—to amuse them with a criticism on two anonymous works—two works which, though they did not bear the name of any author, were, he believed, as the hon. member had insinuated, the productions of the same hand. But, was it liberal—was it fair—was it manly—on an occasion like the present, to introduce an extract From The Quarterly Review, and a trifling poem, to the notice of the House? What had they to do with the question before the House, or with the hon. member's constituents at Norwich? He (Mr. Wynn) had been for many years, intimate with the gentleman (Mr. Southey) who had thus been attacked; and from that intimacy he had derived, and did still derive, the utmost pleasure—The hon. gentleman, in his opinion, had acted with some degree of irregularity in dragging him before the House, without his knowledge, and, consequently, without his consent. True it was, that the poem alluded to was written by him at the early age of nineteen. It was intended for publication; but the author had listened to the better advice of his friends, and it did not appear. What became of the manuscript he was perfectly unconscious of, until he saw the work printed. Was it fair, then, lie asked, was it manly, to arraign this gentleman with such severity? What was put into the mouth of the person introduced in the poem was, in point of historical accuracy, very correct. But, was it just that these sentiments should be quoted as the opinion of him who produced the work? Was it fit—was it just—to say, that because at the age of nineteen—at an era when the heat of politics affected most men—he was betrayed into the composition of a poem which he afterwards disapproved, that, therefore he was to be reproached all the rest of his life, as a man without principle? Was he, because he had altered certain opinions, to be condemned for ever?—Neither to his former opinions, nor to all his opinions now, did he subscribe. But this should be observed, that he maintained his opinions by argument—and by argument they ought to be answered. He 1094 thought there were public methods by which controversy might be carried on with more justice, and with more advantage, than by personal reflections on an individual, in a place where that individual could not be present to make his defence [Hear, hear!].
§ Mr. W. Smith
, in explanation, said, that the hon. gentleman must have totally forgotten his observation, or he would not have made the remarks he had offered. He had distinctly said, in effect—"God forbid I should say that any man ought to be blamed for a fair change of opinion; but I censure those who, having changed their opinions, conceive that no severity of language is too strong to be made use of against those who still adhered to their former sentiments."
did not understand the hon. member to have used any such language. He conceived him to have thrown out severe and unjust censure on those who had receded from a particular set of opinions.
§ Lord William Russell
felt himself called upon to say a few words on the present occasion, and he confessed it was with some surprise he heard his hon. friend accused of introducing irrelevant matter. He thought his hon. friend had kept as close as any man possibly could do to the question before the House, and that he had argued the question on the fairest grounds. He was firmly persuaded there had been no case made out to justify the extraordinary provisions which the legislature were adopting, and he, for one, could not consent to surrender the liberties of his country, even to his nearest and dearest friend, on such loose assertions as the report of the secret committee contained, a report, which was evidently composed of ex parte evidence. He had been told in the report, that the morals of the country were endangered by the publication of blasphemous hand-bills and pamphlets, but he would ask where in such a case were the law officers, and why did they not execute those powers with which, their country entrusted them? for surely had they discharged their duty, as the country had a right to expect they should have done, such was the moral and religious feeling of the country, that no doubt a jury would instantly have convicted the offender. Allusion had been made to certain districts of the country, which were said to be friendly to riotous measures, but it surely would have been highly pro- 1095 per to have placed the members for these districts on the committee of secrecy, as from local knowledge, they must be qualified to put that committee in full possession of facts. If disturbance really existed, he confessed the remedy seemed desperate. He was not a young member of parliament. He had sat in that House many years; and he felt great pleasure in declaring, that he had never before seen so desperate a remedy applied to the wretchedness and distress of the country. The rights of the people, for the protection of which all governments should exist, were trampled under foot and despotism prevailed. It was impossible for the country to part with more liberty if it at all was meant to continue it in existence. Let them look to the circumstances under which at any former period the Habeas Corpus act and that glorious privilege of Englishmen, the trial by jury, had been suspended, and then ask themselves whether the adoption of similar measures was warranted by the present state of England. The circumstances of 1688 were widely different from the present, for then, the people had the privilege of meeting and discussing their rights, but now they were deprived of that blessing, and prevented from meeting under the pain of death. In 1699, when the suspension took place, there was cause to justify its taking place, when it was recollected how active the exiled sovereign was to recover the throne he had abdicated, and how irritated the Scottish nation were in consequence of the massacre of Glencoe. In 1715, it was equally necessary, when it was recollected, that the country had at that time been threatened by invasion from France, for the purpose of recovering the throne for the enterprising young pretender, and that there existed a rebellion at home. Besides, the then reigning monarch had only recently come to the throne, and had not as yet been rooted in the heart of his subjects. But certainly there existed no analogy between these times and the present. The lord advocate of Scotland had told the House that the plot in Glasgow existed so long back as November, and if this was the case, one might ask, with great justice, what had ministers been doing, and why had they indulged such criminal negligence? Why had they not met parliament sooner, and taken the advice of that branch of the constitution, instead of acting as they had unfortunately done for the country? Their criminal 1096 negligence and ignorance ought not to pass unnoticed; and least of all should the representatives of the people consent to surrender their liberties, Entertaining a decided opinion, that there was no foundation for the report of the committee, he should support the amendment of his hon. friend.
§ Mr. Finlay
was deeply convinced of the necessity and propriety of the measures proposed by ministers, when he considered the great mischief which the meetings lately held in the country had produced. The country had a right to expect that ministers should take some effectual measures at a crisis so important as the present, and they had accordingly taken these measures. Unwilling as he or any British subject must be to relinquish any part of that glorious liberty which had been transmitted to us by our memorable ancestors, he still thought it was much better to give up for a time a share of that liberty, than run the danger of losing all. He would rather trust his majesty's ministers with the liberties of the people than he would trust those who were endeavouring to set the country in a flame. He could say, with respect to Glasgow, which he had the honour of representing, that the report of the committee was not over-* charged, for there existed plots there; but he certainly felt it his duty to say, in contradiction to the recent assertion of the learned lord advocate, who must have been misinformed on the subject, that there were no persons of rank concerned in these plots, as there were none but those of the lowest class. There was not in his majesty's dominions a class of men more loyal than the inhabitants of Glasgow as a whole, and he believed the disaffection had been produced by the low, miserable state of the wages given for labour, which had afforded an opportunity to the designing to operate on the distressed. In this bill there was nothing to prevent meetings from being held provided certain regulations calculated for securing the public peace were obeyed, He thought where a magistrate apprehended that there was likely to be danger from a great concourse of people, he acted very right in declining to call a meeting. He lamented the necessity of such measures, but considering them to be indispensable, he felt himself bound to give them his support.
§ Sir Samuel Romilly
expected to have heard some gentleman on the other side 1097 state the grounds on which they meant to support the bill; but he found they were content to have it passed with as little observation as possible, in a house much thinner than any in which a measure of such importance ought to be discussed. He should not, however, be deterred by this circumstance from stating his opinions. He considered the meetings of the people as one of the most important parts of our constitution. It was owing to these meetings that Englishmen possessed the high character they had acquired above all other people in the world. It was owing to this privilege that their entertained so warm an affection to the government and constitution of the country; and it was impossible to restrain the expression of public opinion, without diminishing that attachment to the constitution, and taking away that affection to the government, which was one of the noblest characteristics of the people. These public meetings had often produced the greatest benefits to the county. What, he would ask, had prevented ministers from renewing the property tax? If it had not been for the public expression without the doors of that House, that most oppressive and vexatious tax would have been superadded to the present great and almost intolerable burthens. And what had obliged the king of France to discontinue the abominable African slave trade? The treaty of 1814 was another proof of what the public voice could accomplish. It was the popular expression out of doors, which extended the laws of humanity and justice to the farthest quarters of the globe. Let the House recall that glorious circumstance to their recollection: let them remember, that it was not the representatives of the people, but the people themselves, out of doors, who compelled the French government to give up that odious traffic. The House was not then acting upon the confidence they reposed in the secret committee, whose report was said to be founded on secret evidence. The question before them was, what had been the evil of public meetings, what the danger of private societies; of oaths that had been administered, of writings that had been circulated? Now, in order to form an opinion on this question, they had all the same means of judging as the secret committee. Were not all the proceedings of these meetings published in all the journals, and circulated through the country? Had not every member, therefore, an opportunity 1098 of ascertaining what had passed at those meetings, and what resolutions the people had passed? And what was the danger? Meetings had been held in every part of the country; but no where was there any disturbance, except, in one solitary instance, in the metropolis. It was true, that a disposition to tumult would always exist among the poorer classes whenever they were pressed with any great distress. Their situation was then so bad, that it could not be worse; and they were ignorant enough to think, that by tumult they might render it better. A disposition to tumult also often existed in the heats that were occasioned by misled religious enthusiasm. But though the present distress exceeded all bounds—though in many instances it had driven the sufferers to the commission of felonies, and other breaches of the laws, yet at none of the meetings that had been called had any tumult arisen. Whether this peaceable demeanour was a consequence of the general diffusion of knowledge, or of any other cause, he would not decide: but the fact was, that there had been no tumult at any of the meetings called on the subject of parliamentary reform, or other subjects. In the first assembly at Spa-fields there had been some acts of violence, such as were often committed in a great metropolis; but it was very doubtful if they were connected with the object of that meeting. At the second meeting, it appeared, that there were persons desirous of exciting tumult, and who had absolutely reckoned on the possibility of disorder; but so falsely had they reasoned—so ill had they calculated, that though the greatest excitements were held out—though flags were displayed and leaders offered, they could only inveigle a few miserable wretches to follow them; and in vain attempted a general insurrection. He did not mean, to say that meetings on those occasions were harmless, or that no restraint ought to be laid upon such assemblies; in fact, he thought, that obscure persons should not be permitted to call meetings for the purpose of taking the chance of whatever might result from them. He agreed with the bill in this respect, that seven householders al least should be requisite to call a meeting: he might have thought, that even a greater number might have been named; and if farther it had been ordered, that these meetings should not be adjourned from time to time, to the terror of the peaceably disposed persons, he should 1099 have had no objection. But what did this bill effect in the main? Instead of calming, it seemed as if calculated to provoke and inflame the people. It provided, that if seven householders should call a meeting by notice, and inadvertently let it appear that they called it for the purpose of effecting a change in the government, the magistrates were not to prevent such meeting, they were to suffer the people to come together, and then, after an hour had elapsed, the justice of peace, who beforehand had seen that it was an illegal meeting, was to disperse the assembly, and that with the terrible power of inflicting death, if the dissolution did not take place instantaneously. The second provision enacted, that any one magistrate should attend, and as soon as he heard any thing likely to excite hatred or discontent towards his majesty's government (a learned sergeant had said, as soon as he believed there was an intention of that nature), he might proceed to take into custody the individual that attracted his notice; and if that person, perhaps some inflamed and misguided individual, made any resistance; and if the people did not instantaneously disperse, they were to incur the fearful penalty of death. Now this, he maintained, was a deliberate cruelty, to permit a meeting of this nature, and after the parties were heated past the power of reflection, to consign to the punishment inflicted on the most grievous and deliberate offences, individuals who were per-haps called together and met in the vain but anxious hope of procuring by a petition immediate relief from parliament for all their distresses; little thinking, perhaps, that parliament would on that subject pass to the order of the day. The noble lord had said that this bill contained no more than what was the law already—that a justice of peace, if he heard any thing seditious uttered, might take the party offending into custody. If that was the law he could only say, that a similar bill passed when some of the most distinguished men who ever sat in that House were present, (Mr. Pitt, Mr. Fox, Mr. Sheridan, the present lord chancellor, the late Irish lord chancellor, the master of the Rolls, and other individuals of the highest eminence), and so extensive was the innovation then deemed, that it called forth the most anxious discussion; and was considered one of the most important measures that had ever passed through the House; and was very far from being regarded with the apa- 1100 thy which seemed to attend it at present. The bill itself was most curiously framed; there was one clause which pointed out what the duty of magistrates should be on these occasions, and never had there appeared such a master-piece of legislation: "Every justice of peace is hereby authorized to do all that which he is authorized to do," all that which by law he was otherwise enabled to do; so that the unfortunate magistrate who looked to this act for his instructions, would find them rather indefinite—"that he had power to do what he had power to do." It might be said, that a former act contained the same words: but if mischief ensued from this want of precision, it could be no justification that the same expression existed in an act passed twenty-one years ago. But it was because this act pointed out too clearly what magistrates were encouraged to do, that he must altogether refuse it his support; for although persons assembled together above the number of twelve had been under former acts liable to severe punishment if they failed to disperse on a momentary summons, yet he could not esteem that any foundation on which the present measure could rest with propriety. It had been said on a former occasion, that this act was copied from the riot act, and the riot act had been held up as an established and constitutional law. It was possible that act might have produced good effects, though this was exceedingly doubtful; but the present act did not in any way proceed on the riot act, for that was directed against those who had been already criminal—who, after an actual breach of the peace, were still riotously assembled. That was an offence for which they might have been legally indicted before the act passed. He desired not to be understood as making an attack on the riot act. The solicitor-general had stated, that that act had been found exceedingly useful, inasmuch as no person had ever been executed under it. Indeed, it might be considered to have had excellent effects, if it had ever prevented riots; but since that act, and as if in defiance of it, we had seen the most dangerous riots that ever had existed since the time of Charles 1st, and in which the act had been altogether inefficient. In the year 1780, the riot act was not even read—not from any apathy on the part of the magistrates, but because the riots were so formidable that it had been vain to attempt the reading, and even the terror of the act was absolutely 1101 null. Indeed, for the most part, people never knew whether the act was read or not, the reader being inaudible in the tumult, whenever the reading was rendered necessary; so that any established signal which could speak to the eyes would be in all cases more effectual. Again, the riots at Birmingham, in 1793, lasted a fortnight or three weeks in defiance of the riot act, and with unrestrained control. The reason, therefore, given by the solicitor-general, to show that the act had been useful, namely, that no person had been executed under it, was altogether fallacious: for the lion, and learned gentleman meant to infer from thence, that the act had succeeded in preventing or dispersing meetings in time, and to obviate the occurence of violence and the consequent necessity of punishment, which had notoriously not been the case. But, at all events, that act was no authority for inflicting so severe and cruel a punishment on parties engaged in popular assemblies as was now proposed. Besides, the penalties inflicted by the riot act were worse than nugatory; for we knew that unless juries were constituted very differently from what they were at present and ferocious prosecutors arose such as never bad existed, the punishments menaced would never be carried into execution. As far as the Spenceans were concerned, the bill was all in vain. The poorer orders of the people had, if possible, the greatest interest in the security and inequality of property. However they might partially and for a time, be blinded to the knowledge of this incontrovertible truth, by ignorant and presumptuous enthusiasts, the certainty of it must, in the long run, be brought home to their conviction. But they could only be taught this by reason; and the more extensively they came to be educated, the more they would gain a chance of weighing the productions of enlightened men against the unmeaning nonsense with which it was sometimes attempted to mislead their understanding: but if they did not arrive at the perception of this great truth by reason, they could be no more taught it by force than a fortified town could be taken by syllogisms. He would say with the noble lord whose ancestors had acquired immortal glory by the exertions and fortitude they had displayed in defending the constitution of the country that we had parted with enough of our liberties already; and there never was a time when those liberties were more valuable or more necessary. After the lives 1102 we had spent, the treasure we had exhausted, and the protracted sufferings we had endured,—afterwe had attained all the objects for which it now appeared this glorious war had been commenced, we had relinquished personal security, in giving up our Habeas Corpus act, and boasted trial by jury—we found our manufacturers starving, and our revenue unequal to our expenditure—we had forfeited our ancient character for hospitality in a peace alien bill, which submitted every foreigner, who might visit the country, from motives of traffic or curiosity, to the caprice of a few individuals,—and lastly, we were called on to stop the meetings of the people, and deprive them even of the consolation of complaint.
§ Mr. Bathurst
reminded the House that the principles and designs of the Spenceans, however it might now be attempted to represent them as too insignificant to call forth any feeling other than contempt, had appeared of sufficient importance in the year 1801 to demand the vigilant attention of parliament. These societies had been put down by the bills formerly brought in, to check practices similar to those which had lately prevailed; they had lain dormant for some years, and had at length recently revived, and been called into active operation. Under these circumstances, he could not but think the measures which had proved effectual to repress them before, ought again to be resorted to now. Those gentlemen deceived themselves who believed the doctrines of the Spenceans to be wholly speculative. He was satisfied that they entertained the hope of reducing their absurd theory to practice, and that they aimed at nothing less than the confiscation of the property of the country. They were the projectors of the late attempts at insurrection, with which it was seen they had ventured to connect the symbols of the French Revolution. These persons carried their ideas on the propriety of changing the order of things further than ever Paine had done; for he had but contended, that the people were entitled to political rights which were withheld from them; he had never gone so far as to assert those natural rights which were claimed by the Spenceans, and which involved a general division of properly. The observations which had fallen from the hon. member for Norwich, he did not consider applicable to the bill now under the consideration of the House. It was natural 1103 that the hon. gentleman should wish to defend his constituents when he thought they were aspersed; but that of which he had complained, was contained in a report made by a committee of the other House, for which the House of Commons could not be responsible. In that report, however Norwich had only been mentioned as one of the places where doctrines of a dangerous tendency were professed; and the noble persons who made that report had so qualified what they had felt themselves called upon to say on that subject, that they had done no more than represent certain clubs to have been held at Norwich, in which the persons there assembled, while professing to meet to discuss the expediency of a reform in parliament, in reality meditated the overthrow of the constitution. This was substantially what was stated in the report, but the people of Norwich had not been accused generally of sending forth, or of countenancing, blasphemous or seditious publications. Such a charge however the hon. gentleman seemed to think had been preferred by the secret committee, but, as he had already said, it was of associations hostile to the existing order of things that they had spoken in their report, and not of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent publications. The statement therefore which had actually been made, was not affected by that of the hon. gentleman's correspondent. Unless his memory failed him, that parody on the Nicene Creed, which had been mentioned, though it had been sent up as having been circulated about Norwich, was not said to have been traced to the societies of which he had had occasion to speak. He was confident that what had appeared in the report was not at all founded on the parody; for he firmly believed that production had never been laid before the committee. It was however well known, that that publication had been circulated with great industry through all parts of the country.
The true ground on which the bill before the House was to be justified, he took to be this, that it left the people free to express their sentiments on all public affairs in a constitutional way. He would put it to all who heard him, if after the passing of this act, there would be anything to prevent the people from expressing their opinions in a regular way on all topics connected with politics, as freely as ever? Those meetings called in a constitutional manner by the proper con- 1104 stituted authorities, would be wholly untouched by this bill. This could not be denied, and indeed this very circumstance had been made a matter of charge against his noble friend. It had been asked, since such a measure was resorted to at all, why were meetings like those to which he had just alluded, to be left untouched? The answer was plain and obvious—because they were known to the constitution. Such meetings would be as free as ever from restraint. They would of course be subject to the interference of the magistrates in the event of any disturbance taking place. They would be subject to the riot act, and to the common law of the land; but they would not be affected by this bill. But it was said, where was the necessity for this bill? The meetings held all over the country, it was asserted, had not led to public disorders. On this subject the hon. and learned gentleman who spoke last had said every member of that House was as competent to judge as the members of the secret committee could be, since the whole of the proceedings at such meetings were constantly laid before the public in the newspapers. The hon. gentleman opposite might know enough of what was passing in different parts to go into a discussion on this subject; but nothing known from the reports of the proceedings at public meetings could make him content to lose that ground while arguing on this measure, on which he thought those who defended it had a right to stand, the report of the committee of secrecy. The reports which had been unanimously made to the two Houses he could confidently assert (and in this he was borne out by the description given by a noble lord of the state of that part of the country from which he came) had under stated rather than over stated the dangers which menaced the nation. This had been admitted by one hon. gentleman opposite, and had been further corroborated by the testimony of another hon. gentleman, who had but just arrived from the country, where he resided.
With respect to what had been said of its having been in the power of government to adopt precautionary measures which might have prevented the disturbances which followed the public meetings held in the vicinity of the metropolis, he had to reply, that those who contended ministers, with the intelligence they had received, ought to have interfered sooner, assumed them to have possessed that in- 1105 formation before the trials of the rioters took place, which in truth they did not obtain till after they were over. Because in the reports the subject had been historically arranged with the dates at which the several occurrences had taken place; it had been supposed that at those dates government was apprized of what was passing. It had therefore been said, "If such and such things were known in October or November why were not measures taken to guard against consequences like those which had ensued" "Oh," it was said, "possessed of such information, why, if parliament was not sitting at the time, why did you not immediately advise the Prince Regent to call them together, why did you put off the meeting of parliament till after Christmas?" This was very easily said; but what was thus recommended, could not so easily have been done. That intelligence which they were blamed for not having communicated to parliament before Christmas, they themselves had not received till the month of January was far advanced. It was therefore impossible for them to have called parliament together to take this subject into their consideration sooner than they had done. It was known, indeed, that there had been a riot, but the combinations which existed throughout the country had not then been discovered, nor had the connexion be-these and the Spa-fields meetings been ascertained. The same thing might be said with respect to what had occurred in Scotland. Nothing had appeared of an alarmingly seditious nature, in the periods which had been referred to; much less had that dangerous oath transpired which had been produced to the committee. It was true some disturbances had broken out in Brecknockshire and other places, but these were supposed to have been occasioned by a want of employment, and by the general pressure of the times. Their true character was not known till a much later date, when they were discovered to wear a very different complexion from that which they had at first assumed, It was then that the Spencean partition of property; the annihilation of the national debt; and the breaking up of the public funds were discovered to be the changes which the conspirators really contemplated, and which they afterwards attempted to carry into execution by calling meetings to consider of a parliamentary reform, with a view of inducing those who attended them, to turn to other objects, and become the instru- 1106 ments of their treasonable designs. The failure of the attempt, did not prove that such practices ought not to be guarded against by additional measures of precaution.
Those gentlemen opposite who gave the committee credit for understating the danger of the case, rather than overstating it, would bear in mind, that even in that report it was stated that the failure of the plot had not caused the conspirators to abandon their designs. On positive evidence they had advanced this assertion, and they had declared their belief that the same parties were ready to attempt the same thing again. Why, he would ask, should those who viewed what had already taken place with horror, wish that the country should run the risk of the next effort at insurrection being more succesful than the last? The hon. and learned gentleman opposite, did not think we were in that state of perfect safety, that no risk would be run if parliament were not to interfere on the present occasion. He did not think that any persons ought to be allowed to call public meetings when they pleased, on any subject connected with politics, and whenever they thought proper to assemble a multitude. He (sir S. Romilly) objected to these things; he thought the intervention of parliament necessary to a certain extent, but the present bill, he contended, was not called for by the occasion. He (Mr. Bathurst) did not suppose there was any danger of the government being overturned in a single night, but as danger was admitted to exist, and as the extent of it could not be precisely defined, he thought the hon. and learned gentleman, when he objected to this measure, was bound to show some mode short of that which was now proposed, by which the evil could be met, without having recourse to the severity complained of in the present bill. When an orator addressed the mob from the hustings or other place from which those who took the lead in these popular meetings usually spoke; when such a person should excite the multitude to acts of outrage and plunder, he wished to know what but a law like that now in contemplation, could effectually check the evil, and with whom but the magistracy of the country could, a discretionary power to disperse such an assembly be safely entrusted?
As to the character of the individuals who took the lead on such occasions, he had to observe, that it was not what they 1107 were in themselves, but what they became in haranguing these tumultuary meetings, that made the provisions, contained in the present bill, necessary to put them down. There was a great difference between the importance which belonged to one of these men, when alone, and that which was attached to him when he found himself at the head of ten or twenty thousand persons, whom his voice might, in a moment, excite to riot and plunder; and means must be taken to enforce the law in one case, which were not called for in the other. Prevention was better than cure, and it was therefore obviously the best policy to endeavour to preserve the public peace by strong prohibitory penalties.—For the danger to be apprehended from these societies, it was to be remembered, that it had been stated, in the report of the committee, that designing men, professing but to wish for a reform in parliament, were anxious to take advantage of the present distress, to inflame the minds of the people, in furtherance of their ultimate object, which was nothing less than a revolution. This they were justified in assuming, if they might be allowed to stand by the report of the committee. No answer was given to such a statement by the assertion that many persons had innocently attended these meetings. The report owned that this was the fact; but it added, that it but too often happened, the minds of these persons were perverted by others, and they were induced to become the instruments of the disaffected.
It was said, that the report cast an unfounded imputation on the conduct of the people generally, and that those that sought a constitutional reform, were confounded with those who wished for a revolution. The report, however, while it called for a measure like that now before the House, had described the great majority of the people to be sound, though it had to lament, that many had been seduced to lend themselves to favour the views of designing men. Out of doors it was generally felt, that the course now taken by parliament, was for the benefit of the people; and public confidence had revived since the Houses had met, and adopted those measures to afford them protection, which the loyal and well-disposed had a right to expect. But it had been said, that the provisions for dispersing rioters, contained in the bill, were too strong for the occasion. The terrors of this severity, it was found by expe- 1108 rience, had produced the most salutary effects, and the riot act had had the merit of making it unnecessary to institute any prosecutions under it. The hon. and learned gentleman had argued against the riot act from its supposed inefficiency in 1780. Unfortunately, at that period, (principally through the remissness of the magistrates of the city), popular tumults rose to a great height; the mob destroyed the Catholic chapels, and committed many other outrages, and it was found impossible to read the riot act; at least it must be felt, when the whole of the streets, leading from that House to Guildhall, were filled with people, as many could remember was the case; that to read the riot act at Westminster, unless it could be heard at Guildhall, would be useless. This, however, was no argument against its efficacy; and the principles of the bill now before the House, were the same as those of the riot act, though the circumstances contemplated, as likely to call for their application, might be different.
It had been said, that the bill was unnecessary, as meetings in favour of a parliamentary reform had been held in many places, where those attending them had peaceably separated; and that, in fact, no disturbances of any moment had occurred, with the exception of those connected with the proceedings in Spa-fields. In answer to such arguments, however, it might fairly be asked, how it had happened, that, in different parts of the country, the Bank and the Tower were expected to be taken, as the consequence of the second meeting at that place, which actually had led to an attempt at insurrection. How were these expectations excited? and how were these things so connected with a parliamentary reform, as to account for that disappointment, which had been openly avowed when news arrived that the riots had been suppressed? These things had been proved in the committee; and it had appeared, that the meetings which had previously taken place, had been quiet, in obedience to directions which they had received, as they had been cautioned to abstain from all disorders, and to remain tranquil till the successful outrages in the metropolis should give the signal for them to march to London. This was the plan, part of which it had been attempted to carry into execution. The hon. and learned gentleman had ridiculed one clause of the bill, as he contended it went "to impower the 1109 magistrates to do, what they were impowered to do." The clause alluded to, was intended to enable magistrates to attend public meetings in their vicinity, though they might not be within their ordinary jurisdiction, and to authorize them to act there, as they were authorized to act in their own district. This enactment was analogous to one, impowering a justice of the peace in one county, to exercise the same functions in another. To enable them to act with effect in such cases, it was necessary to arm them with strong powers. But it was said, to authorize the magistrates to forbid public meetings, would answer every purpose in view, as well as enabling them to disperse the multitude when actually met. But suppose such a prohibition should not be attended to—suppose a body of the foolish Spenceans should meet for the purpose of dividing the property of the gentlemen near them—ought not the magistrates to have the means of putting a stop to their proceedings? Ought the magistrate to be placed in such a situation, that he must be compelled to suffer seditious harangues to be made to a mob, in defiance of his prohibition? Yet this would be his situation, unless he were impowered to say, in the first instance, "You have met against my advice and opinion, and the consequences of the law be upon you, if you do not forthwith disperse." It had never been intended to subject literary bodies to any inconvenience by this bill: but it was felt, there would be some difficulty in making those shades of distinction, by which they were to be exempted from its operation in the bill itself. The Royal Institution, and other chartered bodies, were excepted; and the only inconvenience which would attend the meetings of any literary society, would be this:—they would be obliged to procure a licence, for which they must pay a shilling. If the report of the committee was believed to be true, the House would feel itself called upon to adopt the measure now before them, as one applicable to the present case, and as one necessary to prevent confusion, plunder, and bloodshed. It had a particular object in view, which was not met by the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act. That act was passed for other purposes. The bill now under consideration, was intended to guard against seditious meetings, by preventing multitudes from assembling for one purpose, under circumstances that made it proba- 1110 ble, their proceedings were likely to be perverted, and made subservient to the accomplishment of another. These explanations would, he trusted, satisfy the House of the propriety, and of the necessity, of such a law, and induce them to sanction the third reading of the bill.
said, that the declaration of the hon. member for Glasgow, that the men implicated in the disturbances at Glasgow were none of them above the lowest order, gave him much satisfaction, as he had understood the lord advocate to intimate that persons above that class were concerned. This had been his opinion when in the committee, and he had been surprised to hear it asserted so often, that the committee had advised the adoption of stronger legislative enactments for the repression of that spirit of disaffection. No such recommendation had ever taken place, but by the unanimous vote of that committee they had avoided any such recommendation, and left the matter open to the discretion of his majesty's executive government.—Enough had been done already by the enactment of three different restrictive laws, one of which he could not imagine ever to be justifiably resorted to except when the constitution in all its branches was in the utmost peril. As to the nature of the conspiracy, he could not speak freely; for it was impossible, with regard to public justice, to do so; but the fair result of all that could be collected from the best authorities was, that many had unfortunately lent themselves to the projects of designing and disaffected men, but that the mass was not disaffected. The moment such a conspiracy was known, it was overthrown, especially under the eye of so vigilant and energetic a government as that of this country. There was neither rank nor talent to render it formidable; neither influence nor wealth to give it permanency and sinew. Why, therefore, government had proceeded to suspend so many parts of the constitution, he could not comprehend.—Some parts of this measure were, and some were not objectionable. A restriction upon such meetings was called for, because, even in the hands of the petty agitator, destitute of influence or wealth, they might be perverted to the worst purposes. No one magistrate, however, should have been intrusted with the powers granted by this bill. This had been the subject of an amendment in the committee, which he had much regretted was negatived. But 1111 that clause was most objectionable, which gave the magistrate the power of construing that which he was afterwards called officially to act upon—the clause, stating that should a magistrate, attending upon the notice, hear any person holding such conversation or discourse as tended to bring the government of the country into hatred and contempt, he should proceed to act as the statute directed. Now, it would not be very unlikely, that at a meeting for petitioning this House upon a reform of its constitution, a magistrate, not very squeamish and friendly to the existing administration and state of things, might, in the fair course of argument, where the speaker introduced strong language, think the language tended to bring government into hatred and contempt.—Most of the dread felt by the members of the committee originated in the circumstance of the detection of persons administering secret oaths. For if they had no improper objects, why should they be concealed? The bill as applying to this part of the report, was proper enough; but it should have been divided into two bills, as the subject consisted of two parts. Against that part of the bill, giving to a single magistrate a power unprecedented in our history—to be subsequently followed up by the heaviest penalty of the law, death without benefit of clergy, he felt it his duty to enter his most solemn protest.
§ Mr. Serjeant Best
considered the provisions of the bill competent and justifiable. The objection of the right hon. gentleman to confide such ample powers in one magistrate, was obviated by the necessity of the times and the case, in the first place; and next, by the consideration that such extended powers were granted but for a very limited time. In many districts it would have been difficult, if not impracticable, to enforce those provisions, were it requisite to call in more than one magistrate for that purpose. There could not be a doubt that, according to the law as it stood, a magistrate might apprehend any person making use of seditious expressions; but according to the present law he had not a right to go to any particular place where he might suspect seditious expressions were likely to be used. But by the bill now under discussion, the magistrate was expressly authorised to go to all meetings—he had a right to be present, which he had not before, in order that he might be enabled to ascertain the character and tendency of the proceedings carrying on.
§ Mr. Calcraft
thought it not too much to ask, on behalf of the people of England, the same security in the exercise of their highest constitutional right, that belonged to the humblest pauper in the land. No one magistrate could send a miserable pauper from one parish to another, or license an ale-house; it required the concurrence of two magistrates for these purposes; and certainly if they were to clog public meetings with the attendance of magistrates, they ought at least to take as strong precautions against an abuse of power, as had been taken in the cases to which he had alluded. He objected to the whole of the bill as it at present stood, with the exception of those parts of it which related to the taking of secret oaths, to persons calling large meetings of the people together without notice, and to adjourned meetings. He said boldly and broadly, that no case was made out for abridging the liberties of his fellow-subjects, in the manner proposed to be done by this bill. The people had borne with exemplary patience the severest and most agonizing distress. At the numerous meetings, large beyond example, which had been held in all parts of the country, where was any thing like riotous conduct manifested? It was too much to assume in the face of this peaceable and orderly conduct, that the people ought to meet no more, except under severe restrictions—that a power ought to be given to one magistrate to disperse any meeting, and to apprehend whom he thought proper. Surely it was not asking too much, if they were to delegate such a power, that it should at least be delegated to two magistrates instead of one. Allowing, with gentlemen on the other side of the House, that malignant spirits hail been at work in the country, and had endeavoured to avail themselves of the sufferings of the people, still no riots had taken place any where but in the metropolis. And, after all, in what did that riot consist? In the plunder of two shops, and the summoning of the Tower by one man. The Tower affair was denied by the lord mayor, who was no incompetent judge of what passed on that day. If even one man did summon the Tower to surrender, could it be seriously made the foundation of a suspension of the rights of the subject, and; the enactment of gagging bills? His majesty's government ought to be ashamed to make such a ridiculous proceeding the ground work of new legislation.—He owned that he was not much afraid of any 1113 proposal for continuing these measures after the expiration of their prescribed existence. Ministers would never venture to propose it. The history of the plot had spread over the country, and appeared to every one almost so perfectly ridiculous, that they never would dare to come before parliament for a renewal of the bills. An hon. member had said he parted with apart of his liberty for a time, for the sake of preserving the whole for ever. Circumstances might, indeed, call for such a sacrifice, but at present a case had not been made out sufficient to induce him to lay such restrictions on the liberty of the people, as those in this bill. It was deserving of remark, that though much was said of the disaffection existing in the country, those members who came from the places which were reported to be the theatre of it, from Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Nottingham and Lancashire, always acquitted their own neighbourhood of being in a disturbed state. Although he did not object to some parts of the bill, as it was undivided, he was under the necessity of voting against the whole.
§ Mr. Peter Moore
could not allow the bill to pass without protesting against it, in the name of the people of this empire. He had been long enough a member of that House to remember three green bag plots, opened with the same pomp as that recently exhibited, all of which terminated in the same evaporation of smoke. Was the country to be thus trifled with, and induced to surrender its liberties, for the prolongation of that base system which was created in 1792? He denied the necessity for these nefarious measures—and the report on which they were founded was a libel on the country; and in this opinion he was fully confirmed by what had passed during the discussions on the subject, and, above all, by the speech of the right hon. gentleman opposite. Several gentlemen had defended the parts of the country to which they belonged from the imputations cast on their public meetings by the report. Though his constituents were not involved in the imputation, he would yet say, that in their recent conduct they preserved the same peaceable, upright, and righteous conduct that had ever distinguished them. If a conspiracy did exist, it was one not against the throne or the constitution, but against the trustees of the people, who neglected and abandoned their interests. If such measures as the present were introduced by 1114 his best friends, he would say to them—"I love you in your private capacity, but I abhor you in your public one."
rose and said:
Although the clearest exposition of the object and motives of this measure was afforded to the House on its first introduction, and although every objection that has been made to it, appears to have been refuted in the course of the debate; I cannot allow the question to be put without explaining the grounds upon which I give my support to this measure, and without disclaiming the grounds which, in spite of so many disclaimers, are still insisted upon by some gentlemen opposite, as the real grounds on which the measure is proposed.—I do not vote in favour of this bill because it permanently abridges or restrains that right of petition upon which the hon. and learned gentleman (sir S. Romilly) has pronounced so warm and so laboured a panegyric: on the contrary, I give it my cordial concurrence, because it affords the most important protection to that right; rendering it more effectual for its legitimate purposes, by preserving it from abuse and pollution. I hold as high as that hon. and learned gentleman the sacred right of petition; and if I consent to any regulation of it, it is because I feel that some temporary regulation is necessary to fence round this invaluable right of the people, and to secure to them its future, full, and lasting enjoyment. That hon. and learned gentleman is not now to learn that, as by some mysterious operation of Providence, evil often produces good; so, on the other hand, out of the greatest good, when perverted and abused, arises, not unfrequently, the most fearful and permanent evil.
The hon. and learned gentleman has reminded us of the public meetings which took place last year, and which prevailed against the supposed pre-existing disposition of this House on the important question of the property tax. In one view, I am much obliged to the hon. and learned gentleman for this recollection. The effect of the petitions upon that occasion may, indeed, fairly be adduced as a just and pregnant instance of the influence of the people on the deliberations of this House;—of the sympathy and common interest existing between the great body of the people and their representatives.—That influence, I have no doubt, remains as powerful, and that community 1115 of interest is as strongly and as deeply felt at the present moment, as it was last year. But how does this example apply to the measure now under consideration? Let the hon. and learned gentleman, or any man, show me if he can, the provision in this act which, throws an impediment in the way of the exercise of such legitimate influence on the part of the people. Such provision does not exist. Pass this bill, and let another subject arise on which the country could properly desire to express its sentiments, and it will be found that the people have not lost one particle of that influence; nor has the constitutional mode of exerting it been in the slightest degree infringed.
It is indeed possible to fancy instances of abuse, as has been ingeniously done by an hon. gentleman (Mr. Calcraft) over the way; but these instances are the creatures of imagination, not of probability. Is it to be believed that any magistrate, with the eyes of all his neighbours fixed upon his actions, and in the face of the whole country, watched by the most jealous observers, and liable to the severest scrutiny;—is it to be believed that any magistrate, so situated, would turn the powers given him by this bill to so base and wicked a purpose as that of serving a political party?
If, Sir, I support this measure for the purpose, not of abridging the right of petition, but of guarding it from perversion and abuse, it is not that I apprehend the danger of abuse from the great mass and body of the people. That the bill is directed against the great mass and body of the people, has been regularly asserted from the other side of the House, and as regularly refuted from this side, in every stage of our proceedings. The imputation has been of such frequent recurrence as to become stale; and the repetition might well be spared, until some novelty can be adduced to refresh and enliven it. For my part, I beg to be understood as giving my consent to this bill in behalf of the great mass and body of the people of England;—to interpose a barrier between them and their deluders; to erect a temporary fence between them and those who have marked them for their prey, and by drawing a line of demarcation between the sound and the infected, to stop the ravages of the most malignant pestilence that ever threatened to spread havoc through the land. If the spreaders of this infection have failed of the success on which 1116 they calculated, because the mass of the people are sound at heart, because, under all their sufferings, they have shown how difficult it is to stir them up to tumult and disorder, is it not the more incumbent on us to come to the aid of that sound and suffering part of the community?—Is it not our duty to guard them, by protective laws, against the designs of those who, taking advantage of temporary difficulties and warm feelings, are employing every kind of artifice and irritation, to excite them to riot and rebellion?—Yes, Sir, I admit that the instances are few in which these malignant spirits have succeeded; but I am not therefore disposed to allow that the evil consequences have been so slight as to render it unnecessary to interpose a bar against the spreading of the contagion.
The hon. gentleman who spoke last has gone back to points of difference which had seemed to be entirely set at rest; and has once more called in question the report of the secret committee. He is for rejecting that as a foul libel, which, on previous occasions, has been deemed an unquestionable basis for our parliamentary proceedings. Sir, I would not be thought to take an ungenerous advantage of the hon. gentleman; but so often as this discarded topic is brought forward, I cannot undertake always to meet it with the same arguments. I must therefore content myself, on this twentieth occasion, with referring the hon. gentleman to his own friends who were on the committee.
A noble lord (lord W. Russell) is of opinion, that we have already done enough to meet the evil of the times; and calls on government to pause before they ask for larger confidence or further powers. If, Sir, the noble lord and the House had been led on from bill to bill, from step to step, and in ignorance of what was to succeed, then might it fairly be objected at any period, that now was the time to stop. But this is not the case. The House will not fail to recollect that all the four measures which have been under our consideration were proposed at once; and that in the explanations of their nature and tendency, each was treated with its relations to and bearings upon the others. The House were thus enabled, not only to contemplate the whole at one view, but to deliberate on the propositions offered to them both separately and relatively to each other. Nothing could be more candid and fair than this proceeding.
1117 In the same spirit of candour I agree with the right hon. gentleman (Mr. Ponsonby), whose opinions ever have, as they deserve, great weight in the House, that the measures cannot be said to come from the direct authority of the committee. The committee, undoubtedly, left to the constitutional advisers of the Crown to propose such measures in consequence of the report as they, on their responsibility, should deem necessary for the safety of the country. But thus much the committee as undoubtedly did:—it distinctly affirmed that the existing laws are insufficient. So far its authority went, and what followed? Two out of the four bills proposed, have received the general concurrence of both sides of the House, and the suspension of the Habeas Corpus has been carried by a large majority. Here, however, the noble lord is disposed to stop; contending that, having parted with so much liberty, he cannot afford to give up any more. To this the reply of the hon. member for Glasgow (Mr. Finlay) appears to me most satisfactory: "I part with a portion of my liberty for a time, that I may secure it all for ever."
The hon. gentlemen on the other side, seem afraid that they are giving too great powers to ministers; and they are willing to impute to us an anxious desire to take upon ourselves this new burthen of responsibility. Good God! Is it possible for a moment to imagine (I have on a former occasion asked this question—but I must repeat it, in answer to the repetition of the charge) that we ask these powers as a boon? Would any man covet such an arduous task that could, consistently with his duty, avoid it? It is an overwhelming, though necessary duty, that we take upon ourselves. When the executive power requires to have its arm thus strengthened, God forbid that it should be with the view to a wanton exercise of that strength! God forbid that their call should be answered on any other ground than the conviction that extraordinary mischiefs can only be subdued by extraordinary means!
It is true that the Habeas Corpus act is suspended. The treasons now at work, but hitherto not easily to be laid hold of, may—and I doubt not will—be abashed by dread of the power which that suspension gives. But we are now dealing with the abuse of public meetings. The present bill is wanted to prevent the dissemination of sedition with impunity. Who*1118 besides the noble lord and the hon. member who spoke last but one, has denied the existence of abuses in public meetings? The hon. and learned gentleman (sir S. Romilly), and the right hon. gentleman (Mr. Ponsonby), have fairly and candidly admitted that they required restraint. Whatever odium therefore is to be thrown upon those who contend that the abuses of public meetings loudly call for regulation, let it be remembered that in that odium are included the hon. and learned gentleman, and his right hon. friend. I do not mean to say that they would have applied precisely the remedies now proposed; but in sentiment they avow their entire concurrence with his majesty's ministers, and have even stated this their conviction more strongly than any gentleman who usually votes with government. The rest is matter of detail, comparatively of little importance. With only three or four exceptions therefore we are all agreed that popular assemblies require additional control; and I trust it will go forth to the world that this conviction has been avowed and supported chiefly by those who, on other occasions, are the open antagonists of ministers, and the professed advocates of the liberty of the subject.
And why is it that popular meetings require extraordinary control at the present moment? Because the great multitude of the individuals who attend them go there with the intention to subvert the constitution?—because they go with a disposition to be led on to acts of outrage? No. But because, in the peculiar circumstances of the country, there is an unusual degree of inflammability in the public mind;—because there are incendiaries abroad who would avail themselves of this extraordinary inflammability to kindle the fires of rebellion in every corner of the kingdom. This is the true reason why restraints ought to be put upon popular assemblies; this is admitted on both sides of the House to be the truth; and so far both sides of the House travel together in harmony. See then to what a small point the question narrows itself,—to that of the particular regulations to be adopted,—to the detail of the treatment to be pursued in applying the remedy to the disease. It is true that great distress prepares the minds of the sufferers for listening to every fantastic and delusive project. This state of mind, deeply to be lamented and deeply to be commiserated, exposes the unemployed manufacturers and artisans 1119 to be misled by the artifices of enemies, who, neither sharing, nor commiserating, nor wishing to relieve their distresses, consider them only as prepared by those distresses to be the instruments of the most nefarious designs.
Even the benevolent exertions of the wealthier orders of the community, and that last and best exertion of benevolence, the diffusion of knowledge among the poorer classes, are turned by these corruptors into evil. Education itself, the greatest of all blessings in a state (because the safety of a state depends upon the morals of its inhabitants, and those morals upon instruction) has been thus converted into one of the blackest curses that could afflict mankind. What crime can be imagined of deeper dye than thus to cloud and overcast the dawn of moral and intellectual improvement? To what can such a malignity be likened but to the stratagems of illegitimate and barbarous warfare; where, instead of employing the fair and acknowledged weapons of hostility, the savage enemy poisons the well-springs,—the sources of health and life!
Gentlemen, however, who do not dispute the malignity of the purpose, differ as to the extent of the evils produced. In the opinion of the hon. gentleman (Mr. Calcraft), for instance, the meeting of the 2nd of December does not furnish any pretext for such measures as have been adopted, and as are now under discussion. That meeting was, as we all believe and know, called professedly to discuss grievances, but was—by others than those who called it—turned to open insurrection and rebellion. The hon. gentleman attempts to ridicule these proceedings. He is in truth rather hard to be satisfied on the score of rebellion! To him it is not sufficient that the Tower was summoned; it ought to have been taken: the metropolis should not have been merely agitated, but in flames. Pie is so difficult with regard to proof, that he would continue to doubt until all the mischief was not only certain but irreparable. For my part, however, I am satisfied when I hear the trumpet of rebellion sounded; I do not think it necessary to wait the actual onset before I put myself on my guard. I am content to take my precautions when I see the torch of the incendiary lighted, without waiting till the Bank and the Mansion-house are blazing to the sky. To me it appears advisable to provide security for the future, after an attempt, however abortive, 1120 rather than to speculate in perfect inactivity on the chances of success another time. I think it more advisable, I think it more humane, I think it better for the country, better for the deluders and for the deluded themselves, to stop short of the consummation by which it seems the hon. gentleman can alone arrive at conviction—the consummation of irretrievable ruin.
But is it to the metropolis alone that the mischief is confined? Certainly not. If any thing in the report laid before the House is more distinctly proved than another, it is the connexion and correspondence between the agitators in the metropolis and in different parts of the country. This is demonstrated by that expectation of evil which hung upon the public mind in various districts distant from the metropolis, and from each other, a few days before the meeting of the 2nd of December; by the anxiety and agitation which crowded, the high-ways leading from certain towns to the metropolis, at the time when the intelligence of that memorable day was expected to arrive. That there are ramifications of conspiracy far and wide through the country, no one who has read the report can doubt, unless he be fenced and guarded against the evidence of facts by the most determined incredulity, and the most hardened mistrust. But even were it not so,—were there only a single instance of such tumult and such peril—tumult so disgraceful, so tremendous—peril so narrowly escaped,—would it not be charity to prevent the continuance and the diffusion of such an abuse of public meetings, when this too could be done without touching upon the permanent privileges of the people? It is not against legitimate petitioning that we are providing; it is not against the peaceable promulgation of opinions, however absurd; but we call on the country to array itself against that physical force by which these mischievous delusions are to be propagated and maintained. The language, indeed, is the language of supplication, but the attitude is the attitude of menace; it is Jacob's voice, but Esau's hand.
Sir, the mischief, as it is new, so we trust it may not be lasting: a temporary affliction may be met by temporary measures, and we therefore propose so much of this bill as relates to the regulation of public meetings only for a limited time. Such a measure has no tendency to injure the right of petitioning; this 1121 right has before been so restrained, and it has survived in unimpaired vigour.
In all free countries it is necessary (and the more necessary in proportion as they are the more free), that there should exist the power of resorting to some such measure as that of the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act, and laws similar to that now proposed. It is thus that in Rome the dictatorship followed, within 12 years, the establishment of the consulship, on the abolition of the regal power. There must be in every State the means of its own conservation. It is in this sense only that my colleagues and myself asked for the suspension of the Habeas Corpus. It is in this sense only that the House of Commons granted, or ought to grant, such a power to Ministers. It is in this view only that we recommend to the House of Commons to pass the present bill;—not (as I have so often said, but as cannot be too often repeated) for the extinction of the sacred right of petition, but for its protection and preservation; to preserve it in its purity, its sanctity, and its force,—by protecting it from prostitution to the purposes of anarchy and ruin.
§ Mr. Brougham
rose to avail himself of the last opportunity the forms of the House would afford him of expressing his decided disapprobation of the bill under consideration; and he should have contented himself with merely protesting against the measure, had not some observations which had fallen from the last speaker rendered it necessary for him to say a few words, with the view of setting the House right as to some of the arguments used by the right hon. gentleman. The right hon. gentleman had said, that all who had spoken in opposition to the bill, with three exceptions, concurred in the necessity of some regulations for public meetings. All, however, that he and his lion, friends had admitted was, that the provision for seven householders signing a requisition for any meeting might be very properly enacted, in order to prevent persons not resident in the place from convening meetings for mischievous purposes. Such was the restriction, if such the right hon. gentleman wished to call it, to which he was disposed to agree. But, had that precautionary measure any thing in common with a regulation which gave the power of preventing a meeting to one magistrate, though, as it had been well observed by his hon. friend, the member for 1122 Rochester, the authority of two magistrates was necessary even to pass a pauper—a regulation which enabled a magistrate to disperse a meeting at his pleasure, and arrest the persons who spoke? An hon. and learned friend of his had, it was true, asserted, that magistrates already possessed the power of arresting, given by this bill; but that assertion, he must say, was founded on a mere quibble. They certainly possessed no such power by law. He could understand the power of the magistrate to arrest for a breach of the king's peace; or even (though on that point there were great doubts) for seditious words tending to an immediate breach of the peace; but these were cases totally distinct from the power which the present bill, by implication, gave of arresting upon words being spoken, tending, in the magistrate's opinion, to bring the constitution and the government into contempt.
He entertained the greatest respect for that most useful body of men, the justices of peace; their services were of high importance to the country; and we should be the slower to criticise their conduct in office, when we recollected that those services were gratuitous. Nevertheless, he could not, without the utmost apprehension, see them invested with a power of construing the words used in public meetings as might best suit views of interest or of subserviency, or an officious zeal, frequently most dangerous when wholly disinterested. Was it conceivable that the right of petitioning could remain as sacred as the hon. gentleman himself admitted it ought to be preserved, if any justice might interrupt the exercise of it by commitment, the instant he thought words had been uttered in the course of a discussion, which in his apprehension had a tendency to reflect upon the established government? If abuses existed in the constitution, they could not be canvassed without the certainty of words being used liable to such a construction. Was it then meant that no meeting shall henceforth be holden to petition against existing defects in the government? Better say, at once, there shall be no more petitions for reform. Nay, discussions of measures of malversations, of acts done contrary to the existing constitution, might give rise to expressions which an over-zealous magistrate would be very likely to interpret in the same way. It was not at all necessary to suppose corruption or dishonesty in the justices, in order to be alarmed at the powers thus 1123 given them—ignoranceand prejudice might do as great mischief; and the right of petitioning must henceforth be exercised variously in each district, according to the discretion, that is, the habit and principles, the temper and caprice, of its magistrates.
The right hon. gentleman who spoke last had said, that the ministers were not much pleased at the suspension of the Habeas Corpus; that they looked upon it as a fearful, rather than a valuable gift. He would endeavour to relieve him from his uneasiness, and to show him that his alarms, as to the uselessness of that power were as groundless as those of the report seemed to be. He did not believe, for his own part, that there would be many arrests, or that it had ever been intended to arrest many persons; but in adopting that measure, there were two purposes in view. The one he took to be the desire to increase a wholesome dread, which the ministers above all others were interested in spreading over the country. The other was, to divert the attention of parliament and the country from the pressure of taxation; to prevent the present session from being like the last a session of rebuffs—a session of defeat to those who attempted to impose taxes, and of victory to those who promoted economy, to silence also the demand for parliamentary reform. For when such important questions came nightly before the House, as that of the life or death of the constitution, or at least of its suspended animation (for the right hon. gentleman had compared these measures to the appointment of a dictator;) when questions of such fearful magnitude were constantly before them, it was impossible that they could attend to subjects, which, though of themselves important, were in comparison, with the former, trifling indeed. One only of the numerous notices on the subject of retrenchment had, in fact, yet been brought forward. This should be some solace to the ministers under the weight the parliament had laid upon them—they might well be comforted under the severe affliction with which parliament had visited them, of placing almost absolute power in their hands. The Bank used to complain piteously in nearly the same manner of the restriction which prevented them from paying their debts. To be sure, it was a constraint that brought its sweets with it—so did the present calamity to the ministers, It had operated a diversion in 1124 their favour, and given them, as far as their places were concerned (which they set a due value upon), a quiet instead of a stormy session.
But this was not all. Once more let the right hon. gentleman be comforted—if the storm had been laid within doors, it had still more effectually been calmed without. The tongues and the pens of all who spoke or wrote upon public affairs, must feel the influence of these measures. Every one who rose in a meeting, or sat down at his desk, to attack the measures of his majesty's ministers, now knew that he did so with a halter about his neck—and was aware that if he passed a boundary undefined in its extent, a line invisible to all eyes but those of the cabinet or the attorney-general, on the morrow his personal liberty was at an end. Everyone, therefore, felt the temptation to say as little as possible, at least if his sentiments were unfriendly to the gentlemen opposite. And thus those gentlemen (and among the rest the right hon. gentleman (Mr. Canning) who had certainly less cause to dread such attacks than many of his colleagues) might now look at any political publication with perfect composure of mind. But though he threw out this reflection to console them under the increased burthen of their cares, it was no comfort to him and to those who valued our free constitution. He was aware that the powers of the bills were most likely to be exercised against persons whom he had individually but little reason to regard; men of (with a few exceptions) considerable talents certainly, and some influence with the people, but in whose opinions he could not concur; whose practices he often despised, and at whose hands he had himself received much injustice and obloquy. But he cared not in whose person the constitution was menaced or violated. Let it even be in the persons of the men he most heartily contemned; in them he would defend it to the last; by them he would stand as fast as if the attack were levelled at the same constitution in the person of his noble friend (lord William Russell), by whose family the like struggle had been maintained both in the past and present times.
The right hon. gentleman who spoke last had idly resorted to the Roman history to show that in extraordinary emergencies governments should be endued with extraordinary powers for their protection. It needed not the example of the dictatorship to 1125 prove that state necessity disregarded law. Nor if an authority had been wanted, would the instance of a military commonwealth, in a barbarous age, have been a very happy one. But he admitted the position, and if a case could be made out of imminent danger to the existence of the constitution, he should, with the member for Glasgow, be willing to give up a part of our liberty to save the whole. No man would be found to deny such self-evident and very trite maxims; but all depended upon their application to the case in hand. Was the constitution now struggling for its existence, in the midst of plots, conspiracies and rebellion? This was the whole question and it brought us back to the much discussed merits of the select committee and its report. Now he begged the House to recollect what had taken place in former cases of reports, in order to obtain a clue for guiding their inquiries as to the probability of the stories detailed in the present instances. They would find abundant reason for being cautious how they trusted all the alarming particulars that had come out of this year's green bag.—It might be recollected, that the report of 1812 was like that lately laid before the House,—occupied with statements of conspiracies and affiliations; statements, too, which were founded on less questionable authority. There were, however, many things asserted in that report which subsequent information proved to have been erroneous; and on looking back to which, it was difficult now to comprehend how they could have been credited. It was stated, that in the extensive heaths which divide Lancashire and Yorkshire, men were trained to arms by torch-lights that posts were established at certain distances, which kept up regular communications with each other, and that in the night the evolutions were carried on by the help of blue lights. It was said, that men had been seen exercising in a field. When in that part of the country, he heard of information having been given on this subject to a magistrate; and, from the nature of it, he believed it came from the same source as that on which the assertions in the report were founded. A person, who had been riding during night, declared, that he heard a sudden clank of metal resembling the sound made in drawing a number of sabres; and that, on turning round, he saw a whole regiment of cavalry performing evolutions. The magistrate to whom this information was 1126 communicated, being a man of sense, who was not easily frightened out of his understanding, it occurred to him that if a regiment of dragoons had been exercising in the field where the informant said he had seen them, they must have left behind them some traces of their manœuvres. He accordingly sent persons to inspect, who, to their surprise (being believers in the movement) found that the grass in the field was standing erect, and ready to be moved, precisely in the state in which it had been seen on the preceding day. [A laugh.] But what the report stated respecting Mr. Horsfall's murder, deserved the particular attention of the House.* That murder took place about a month before the report appeared, in which the whole population were charged as tainted with that crime. The report states, that the population, instead of helping him, flocked round him, when he was wounded, and insulted him; but having had the honour to be employed as counsel in the case, he could assure the House that there was not one word of truth in what the report contained on this subject. If any one doubted what he stated, he would refer them to the short hand account of the trial, which had been published under the authority of his majesty's government by the solicitor for the treasury, who attended at the trials. They would there find, that instead of insulting Mr. Horsfall, the populace, that is, two individuals who happened to pass by, rendered him every service in their power. They assisted in putting him into a cart, conveyed him to a public-house, and sent for a surgeon to dress his wounds. Now, this was surely sufficient to warrant his doubting the accuracy of reports. He would impute no intention of deceiving to any one; but surely the consequence of receiving ex-parte evidence must be, to open a wide door to deception. It created a temptation, to busy, meddling persons, to come forward with their tales; who, either because they were alarmed themselves, or wished to alarm others, had always some strange and dreadful story to tell. An instance of this propensity to communicate one's own fears (for he must presume the alarm wasreal) had lately occurred in the House. An hon. and learned friend of his, not now in his place,* For the Reports of the Lords and Commons in the year 1812 see, Vol. 23, p. p. 951 and 1029.1127 (the lord advocate) had read an oath, in his place, said to have been taken in Scotland. It was seated, that this oath had been kept out of the report, lest the parties concerned should be put on their guard and escape; but what was his surprise on finding that every hint the parties could have obtained by the insertion of the oath was conveyed by the terms of the report itself. The exhibition of the oath was therefore made at a time when the bringing of it forward was likely to have an effect on the decision of the House. In the report of 1812, there was also an oath, which some one, he believed the chancellor of the exchequer, had read to the House, with something of the stage effect given to the Glasgow oath; but he did not propose the suspension of the Habeas Corpus, nor any such measure as that before the House; all that he proposed was, to make the taking such oaths felony, and so the law still remains. It was remarkable, however, that the oath of this year, at which gentlemen had stared wildly, and cheered loudly, as if they never before had heard any thing so terrible, was considerably less frightful than the oath of 1812. To keep up the present alarm as much as possible, the agents of ministers at Edinburgh had made an application to the court of session, to remove the persons who had been arrested under the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act to the Castle of Edinburgh. This was done with the view of producing an impression, as the Castle is the place of confinement for traitors. The court, however, refused to place men apprehended for sedition in that situation; and disdaining to make themselves parties to political measures, rejected the application. When he saw all these schemes resorted to for the purpose of taking away men's reason by alarm, he could not help withholding his assent to any measures connected with an object so unjustifiable.
The right hon. gentleman had talked of the mischief arising from public instruction. [Cries of No, no.] He was sincerely glad he had misunderstood him. He should deeply have regretted, had such an opinion gone abroad with the sanction of the right hon. gentleman's authority. But if this was not the import of the statement, he really hardly knew what meaning he could attach to it; for he had unquestionably mentioned the diffusion of education as one cause why the minds of the people were more easily made the 1128 prey of agitators. Now, in whatever way this sentiment was wrapt up, he must meet it with a broad denial. Far from admitting that the knowledge, happily spreading far and wide among all ranks, even the lowest of the community, was the bane of public tranquillity, he viewed it as the antidote; he saw in it the best preventive of popular fury, and the surest preservative against the arts of designing men. While even the mob were well informed, the right hon. gentleman in vain declaimed upon the perils of our situation from changes produced by free discussion. It was a favourite commonplace of his, which he brought out in all varieties of figure. Tother night it was a stone rolling down hill, and oddly enough crushing him who was pushing it from above. To night it was a poison, and also a torch. But he (Mr. B.) denied that the maniacs who would spread such a venom, could now find subjects liable to its infection; and he was confident they who sought to fling the torch, would discover no combustible train to inflame with it; for the universal improvement which had of late years been produced among the people, had predisposed them to quiet and calmness; nor could he in any other way explain the marvellous patience which they displayed in bearing such unparalleled distresses and burthens, hardly to be endured. This was the cause, in all probability, of their extraordinary good conduct; but it in no degree lessened its merit. Yet, how did parliament reward them? To that House they looked with unwearied confidence, unabated by disappointment, and uninfluenced by the hardships they suffered, or the attempts made to delude them. And the House, instead of inquiring into the causes of their sufferings, passed to the other orders of the day at its last meeting, and to night passed a bill to gag them!—Much had been said of the former season of alarm. He also appealed confidently to it for support; that crisis offered a perfect contrast to the present. The report of 1794 stated as the grounds of alarm, the war with France, then raging most disastrously for our arms; the invasion threatened from her coasts; the communication of the disaffected here with the French government; the clubs of Paris; the infectious nature of the dangerous principles patronized by that government; and, above all, the determination of the discontented not to seek relief by peti- 1129 tioning parliament. Not one of these grounds of alarm now exists; and to the last and principal ground, the events of the present day afford the most signal contrast—the people never were so anxious to petition; and the table of the House was never so loaded with their applications. Thus it seemed, that when the people refused to petition, their rights were suspended for their disaffection, and now, when they looked only to the House for relief, it passed bills to stifle their complaints. He hoped no harm would come of it; but lie conjured the House to stop in this course through which the ministers were hurrying it; and to reflect on what his hon. friend, the member for Rochester (Mr. Calcraft) had justly termed the insatiable nature of power, which seldom failed, after it had gotten as much as you would give, to use the force it had obtained by fair means, in order to wrest what you wished to withhold.
said, he had never stated any opinion unfavourable to the general diffusion of instruction.
adverting to the impatience expressed by the House to come to the question, expressed his regret at their haste to decide on so important a subject. The passing of this bill was the last stab given to the constitution. If this bill passed into a law, it would erect every magistrate in the country into a petty tyrant. This anticipated conduct of the magistrates, and the cruelties that might result from such tyrannical laws, were not imaginary. He had received a letter from Glasgow, giving an account of two of the persons who were taken up there for high treason. One of them was a student of divinity, who had written him an account of his treatment. This student of divinity was very different from the parsons to whose conduct he alluded on a former evening; for no less than twenty of his fellow students, signed a declaration expressive of their high sense of his character, and good principles. His name was M'Arthur. He stated, that he was taken up on the 22d of February, that he was apprehended by an officer upon a warrant that had not the insertion of his christian name, that he was carried before the sheriff; and that, though nothing was substantiated against him, he was sent to prison, where he was put in a dreary cell, with a bed in it so damp, that he could not with safety sleep in it. 1130 He was thus treated at the very time that he had just recovered from indisposition, occasioned by an affection of the lungs. The weather was cold, and he felt its severity. He complained that, from malice or some other cause, his food was supplied very irregularly and unseasonably; that his breakfast, though brought early in the morning, was not delivered to him till one or two o'clock in the afternoon, and his dinner was supplied in the same negligent manner. In short, he suffered the utmost degree of severity, without any thing to justify suspicion, or to prove guilt. The other person, whose case was described, was of the name of Weir. He was put in a cell surrounded with water, without any thing to rest upon. Nothing was found against him; and after suffering for some days, he was likewise discharged. Ought not responsibility to light somewhere? Ministers were so weak, that they were obliged to throw it off themselves; but should not the House take care that the aggrieved should obtain redress, if not from them, at least from the instruments of their tyranny? The House ought to form a resolution against the passing of any bill to grant indemnity to persons who had abused their power, or to shut out those who had suffered from obtaining their legal remedy. These tyrannical acts would not be abrogated if they passed. They would be like the bank restriction act, endless in their, duration. He would prefer undisguised despotism to the condition of this country, deprived of the bulwark of its freedom, and exposed to the petty vexations of magistrates; and would think Algiers a good exchange for England.
§ Mr. Finlay
was glad he could contradict the information of the noble lord; or at least assure the House, that it was a gross exaggeration. The person first alluded to had been well treated; he had been first put into one room of the gaol on the debtors side, and then removed to another; but in both of them there was good accommodation. He could appeal to some members of the House acquainted with the Glasgow gaol, and one hon. member opposite who had visited it whether it was not clean, healthy, and well-arranged. He could not speak to the case of the other person; but he was convinced, from the humanity of the magistrates, and his knowledge of the prison, that the statement of the noble lord was either totally unfounded, or grossly exaggerated.
, as he had been alluded to by the hon, member, was ready to bear testimony to the good state of the gaol; but if the bed was damp and wet, the prisoner might suffer nevertheless. The account given by the noble lord accorded with one that he (Mr. B.) had received. The character given of this person ought to have exempted him from such treatment, or even from suspicion.
§ The House divided:
|For the third reading||179|
|List of the Minority.|
|Aubrey, sir John||Martin, John|
|Atherley, Arthur||Monck, sir C.|
|Barnett, James||Moore, Peter|
|Bennet, hon. H. G.||Newport, sir John|
|Baillie, James E.||North, Dudley|
|Brand, hon. T.||Ord, Wm.|
|Brougham, H.||Osborne, lord F.|
|Calcraft, John||Ossulston, lord|
|Calvert, C.||Peirse, H.|
|Carter, John||Ponsonby, rt. hon. G.|
|Cochrane, lord||Prittie, hon. F. A.|
|Curwen, J. C.||Romilly, sir S.|
|Duncannon, visc.||Rowley, sir W.|
|Fazakerley, Nic.||Russell, lord Wm.|
|Fergusson, sir R. C.||Russell, R. G.|
|Fitzgerald, lord W.||Sefton, earl of|
|Fitzroy, lord John||Smith, John|
|Folkestone, visc.||Smith, Wm.|
|Hughes, W. L.||Waldegrave, hon. W.|
|Hornby, Ed.||Wilkins, Walter|
|Jervoise, G. P.||TELLERS.|
|Lemon, sir W.||Ridley, sir M. W.|
|Mackintosh, sir J.||Sharp, Richard|
§ The Bill being read a third time,
§ Sir John Newport
opposed a clause introduced by the attorney-general, which enacted that the provisions of the act should not extend to Ireland. Sir John said, that in Ireland there were societies called Orange Societies, which were in hostility to three-fourths of their fellow-countrymen, and were bound together by secret oaths, and by oaths of qualified allegiance; he therefore wished that the provisions of the act respecting illegal Societies should extend to Ireland.
said, that it had been already distinctly declared, that Ireland was in such a tranquil state as not to require any such unusual restraint; and also that it was quite unnecessary to extend to Ireland any enactment respecting the safety of the king's person. That as to Orange Societies, he very much regretted their existence, and felt persuaded 1132 that what was said on a former occasion relative to them, would prevent their further extension; that on that occasion it was not thought necessary for parliament to interfere, and that doing so now would provoke resentment.
The question, that the bill should not extend to Ireland was then carried. Sir M. W. Ridley moved the following amendment to the preamble of the bill:—"Whereas assemblies of divers persons collected for the purpose of exercising their undoubted right of offering petitions, complaints, remonstrances, declarations, or other addresses to his royal highness the Prince Regent, or to both Houses, or to either House of Parliament, have of late taken place; and whereas riots may be apprehended from large meetings of persons suffering under the pressure of distress at the present time." This amendment was negatived.—Mr. Ponsonby moved, that instead of the words "one or more justice or justices," there should be inserted in the bill "two or more justices." This motion was negatived. He then moved, that instead of the words "constitution and government," there should be inserted the word "constitution" only, omitting the words "and government."—This motion was also negatived. The bill was then passed.