§ Earl Spencer
said, he had to present a Petition from the county of Northampton, which had been agreed to at a public meeting convened by the High Sheriff. The petition was in favour of the measure of Reform now before the other House, and the petitioners prayed, that their Lordships would pass that measure when it came up to them. The petition was signed only by the High Sheriff; but the meeting was numerously attended, and the petition spoke the sense of a majority of the county. The noble Earl presented a similar petition from Towcester, Northamptonshire.
The Earl of Westmorland
(who came into the House shortly after this petition was presented) said, he felt himself in a very disagreeable situation, from his not having been present when the petition from the county of Northampton was presented. He knew very well that the course he was now pursuing was somewhat irregular, but he would attempt to bring himself into order by moving that the petition be taken into consideration at a future day. In the first place, he wished to tell their Lordships that he did not concur in that petition; and, secondly, he wished to rescue the gentry of the county of Northampton, generally, from the discredit of having supported a petition in favour of a tyrannical and arbitrary measure ["hear, hear!"]. Yes, he intended to be heard; noble Lords might take his word for that. The objections to that measure were of so grave a character and so numerous, that be could not deal with 1581 them properly, except in a speech too long for an incidental discussion of this kind. He, therefore, would only say, that he did not concur in the measure, and endeavour to rescue the gentry of the county from having concurred in it. He thought the measure was both a revolution and revolutionary. He held, that there were two principles which could not be violated without departing from the Constitution. The first was, that no man could be divested of a legal right except a known crime had been proved against him; the second was, that the poorest man in the land, however low he might be, was quite as much entitled to the pro-lection of the laws as the highest person in the country. These were principles in which he had been brought up, and he would ever stand up in defence of them. And yet this measure was one which went to the disfranchisement of all the people of England who happened not to be freeholders, or not to come within the favoured and arbitrary limits of the measure. The measure, therefore, was contrary to the British Constitution. The whole of the lower orders of England were stamped with the mark of degradation by this Bill. He trusted, that when the people were properly informed upon this subject—when they knew that they were to be made Helots in their own land,—they would rise up against this extraordinary measure. As to the disfranchisement of the close boroughs, that, consistently with the British Constitution, could not be done. "Non meus hic sermo," said the noble Lord; "it is the argument of Junius, and let those who find fault with it, find fault with Junius, not with me." Junius argued the question of the, close boroughs very fairly and very well. First, Junius put the objection, and dealt with the anomaly; but then, on to their side, he said, "Now I don't know, perhaps I should like to disfranchise them; but then, if I were to allow that, how do I know that you or I will not be disfranchised next?—if I allow the principle, I cannot tell how far it may be carried." He contended, that the Parliament deserved gratitude, not degradation in the eyes of the people. It had removed 25,000,000l. of taxes; it had repealed every law against the liberty of the subject; and had abolished every sort of division and distinction amongst all classes of his Majesty's subjects. This 1582 was what the Parliament had done, and he believed that the people were grateful for it. He thought, that this was a sufficient excuse for his not having joined in that petition which the noble Earl had thought proper to present in his absence. It was a mistake to say, that the petition was signed by the High Sheriff; it was signed by the High Sheriff's deputy, and the High Sheriff' himself was not present at the meeting. This meeting was called by certain persons in the Great Hall, which was a place larger than that House; there were a great number of persons present; and a great disturbance ensued. The Sheriff adjourned the meeting into the open air, and then, in consequence of ill health being unable to attend, left his Under Sheriff to perform the business. One party got up this petition; another party met at one of the inns, and signed a declaration, in which they expressed their alarm at this measure, and protested against it. Now, what he must take the liberty of saying was this—namely, that in the Hall the voice of the meeting was against the petition, and that, with the exception of about thirty, all the gentlemen of the county of Northampton who were present went and signed the protest. As many as fifty of the gentry and clergy, and about 400 other persons signed the protest. He said, therefore, that the petition did not express the sense of the county.
§ Earl Spencer
said, that he should not have presented the petition in the absence of the noble Earl, if he had known that the noble Earl wished to be present at the presentation of it. He came down at the usual hour, and presented the petition in the regular way; and as the noble Earl had not favoured the meeting with his company, and still less with the expression of those opinions to which he had to-day given utterance, it was not unnatural that he should not have supposed the noble Earl to be very much interested in the petition. The petition had been sent to him from the Under Sheriff with a letter, in which it was said, that the High Sheriff requested he would present it to their Lordships. Whatever might have been the prayer of a petition so forwarded to him, he should, if it were respectfully worded, have felt it his duty to present it. With regard to the meeting, it had certainly been held in the Town Hall at first; but any one who had seen the Town Hall would know 1583 that it was nothing like so large as that House, and, on this occasion, it had somehow or other been filled, before the doors were opened, with persons whose conduct plainly showed that they were there for the purpose of exciting a disturbance. An adjournment to the Market-place was resolved on; and then a party absented themselves from the meeting, and drew up a declaration, which he was informed, had been carried round the town and signed by the lowest persons. To that he did not object—for he agreed that the lowest had just as good a right as the highest had to the expression of their opinions; but he contended that those who had remained with the meeting that was presided over by the regular authority, ought to be considered as the county meeting, and that the petition which had proceeded from them ought to be considered as the petition of a meeting of the county regularly advertised, and convened with the usual formalities.
The Earl of Winchilsea
said, that he did not rise to occupy their Lordships with his opinions about Parliamentary Reform, or about the Bill on that subject before the other House of Parliament; but connected as he was with the highly respectable county of Northampton, and with the highly respectable gentlemen who signed the requisition, he did feel himself called upon to vindicate those gentlemen from that unjust aspersion which the noble Earl had cast upon them, in accusing them of having lent their support to a tyrannical and revolutionary measure. He deprecated violent language alike on both sides, upon a measure in which the country was so deeply interested; and he was extremely sorry that the noble Earl should have characterized such a measure as tyrannical and revolutionary. Still more did he regret that the noble Earl should have aspersed honourable men, by saying that they were tyrants and revolutionists, which was the plain consequence of the accusation that they had supported a tyrannical and revolutionary measure; for, whatever might be the warmth of the noble Earl's attachment to the Constitution, the noble Earl's character was not, and could not be, higher than the character of many of those upon whom he had cast this aspersion. For his own part, he gave to every man who differed from him on constitutional questions the fullest credit for being actuated, by no 1584 other motive than the welfare of his country. He should always do so, and he hoped that others would do the same. He would not trouble their Lordships then with any observations upon the Bill; nor should he have addressed their Lordships then at all, but that he felt himself called upon to relieve a respectable body of men from an aspersion, which he trusted that the noble Earl himself would, upon reflection, regret that he had cast upon them.