Page images

cisely as they were before. The requiring unfair then was it to call the bill, as it had of a licence had been stated as, in all cases been called, “ an extinction of the right an intolerable evil: it was, nevertheless to petition," when, in fact, that channel singular enough, that not to require a li. through which petitions usually came, was cence was now considered by the right still left open! He declared he was as hon. gentleman as a still worse evil, on ready as any man to admit broadly, that account of the partiality of the principle. supposed or real grievances might, as matHe would ask, what was the partiality ? ter of right, be presented to parliament by Was it that all other meetings but those all ranks of people. He must, however, that were licensed were to be abolished? No at the same time remark, that he did not such thing: they were merelyto be put un consider those to be the best friends of the der some new restrictions, which should constitution, or of the lower ranks of the make them more resemble the regular people, who were always goading them to meetings, which were not to be subjected bring forward petitions, and encouraging to a licence. But to come to the main the agitation and discussion of public af. question-it was distinctly this. First, fairs; among those, too, who, of all men, does the bill so abridge and limit the right from their education, their habits of life, of petitioning parliament, as to leave it in. and their means of information, were msufficient for the purpose of affording due disputably the least capable of exereising eonstitutional security Secondly, does sound judgment on such topics. The right the bill impose any ineffectual, superflu. of petitioning then remained as formerly, ous, and unnecessary restraints? In order excepting in certain cases, to which he to judge upon these questions, he would had alluded. consider what were the limitations imposed With regard to the observations made by the bill on this right of petitioning. A by the right hon. gentleman in his interfer: previous notice of the intended meetings ence for procuring a more equal represenwas, in certain cases to be required. The tation of the people in parliament he would meetings of corporate bodies were not re- do him the justice to say that he never quired to give any notice whatever ; had encouraged the wild, visionary, and meetings called by a certain number of mischievous plan of universal suffrage and justices; meetings called by the lords lieu- annual parliaments. He had felt, what tenants of counties, or by sheriffs, were every man of sense and observation must all excepted from the obligation. It had feel that the House of Commons, combeen said, however, that these last were posed as it was, was the virtual representaservants of the crown, and because ser- tion of the people of England : the sole vants, therefore, in the interest of the matter in doubt was, whether the members crown. But how did this observation ap- had such an identity of interest with ply? A sheriff of a county was under no those who had no voice in election of reinfluence either of dependance, or expec- presentatives, as would secure to the latter tation, or gratitude. The office of sheriff the consideration, to which, as Englishwas considered as an onerous and expensive men, they ought to be entitled ? In the office, which few persons liked, and from meetings held upon that subject formerly, which many wished to be excused. Was though some of them had not been reguit fair then to describe a meeting called larly convened by the sheriffs, he well reby a sheriff, as a meeting called by one membered that their proceedings were who was a mere tool of the crown But, looked to with more jealousy than the pro. besides, what was the fact ?— The fact ceedings of those meetings which were as. was, that meetings were, according to the sembled in a regular manner.-So little present custom, called by these very she had been urged in opposition to the proriffs, and a great proportion of the com

visions of the bill, that it was unnecessary plaints of the country actually found their for him to argue much in their defence. way to parliament through this channel ; The notice to be given of meetings held a way which was still left open. This, he avowedly for the discussion of public measaid was the best proof that meetings of sures, had been so modified as to retain this sort were not unavailing. He be- little of that formidable appearance which lieved it had commonly happened, that gentlemen at first represented it to bear : much the greater proportion of peti. indeed, the hon. gentleman himself had tions to parliament came through the she. confessed, it was that part of the bill to

", and those of another kind were which he saw the least objection. So ne:lly thought more suspicious. How cessary did public advertisements, in order to convene large bodies of men on politi- been alluded to by the judge (the late cal questions, strike him to be, that the lord Mansfield) on the trial of lord George clause would seem a superfluous precau-Gordon. Without insisting, for the pretion, if it were not for the peculiar con- sent, on the illiberality of the suggestion, struction of the corresponding societies, its inconsistency was glaring, and it might which, by their divisions and sub-divi- be proper to consider, in another point of sions, had not only the means of secret view, how a meeting convened by a communication, but also of prompt exe- sheriff could be esteemed a meeting held cution of their designs, however alarming, only by permission of his majesty's minishowever dangerous.

ters. That sheriffs were appointed by liis It had been much insisted on, that a majesty, from lists made out by the main objection to the bill was, that these judges of assize, of the persons most meetings were hereafter to be held under capable of serving that office, was certainly the inspection of magistrates. The force true. Although the office of sheriff was of this objection would surely be done an office of dignity and honour, were he away, when it was considered that this to ask, whether his majesty, in conferring provision only set all other meetings on it, bestowed a favour which called for any the same footing with those which had great gratitude on the part of the receiver, always been authorized in their corporate he believed that in most instances he capacities; for in regular meetings the should be answered in the negative. sheriff was necessarily and of course Added to this, when the appointment always present. The next point com- was once conferred, the king had no plained of had been the mode of dispers- power to remove the person appointed ing meetings. Was it possible for the sheriff; and upon the whole, there was House not to have felt the danger of scarcely any office which was attended some late meetings, and did they not feel with a greater degree of independence. the necessity of checking them! If they Other magistrates who exercised offices did not, he would only say, that this was for which, as all our law.writers declared not the time to trife: if they did not the nation was indebted to them, and seize the opportunity of applying a pre- who, in the service of their country, every ventive, they might soon lose the power day exposed themselves to insults and of exercising their own functions in that dangers, he could not but lament that

any House. For this reason it was highly professional gentleman should be found to necessary to grant new discretionary speak of them with such undeserved inpower to magistrates-a degree of addio dignity. It well merited the close examitional power, guarded by the degree of nation of gentlemen, to what extent, and additional responsibility attached to them. to what extent only, the powers of magis. He owned he felt some astonishment at trates under the present bill went to one argument coming from a quarter prevent meetings, if their designs seemed from which he least expected it, a decla- calculated to obtain redress through any ration that struck at the very foundation other medium than the legislature, and to of the administration of public justice in disperse them, if the magistrates were of this country. A learned gentleman of opinion, that the proceedings held, or the the first professional talents, reputation, speeches delivered at any meeting had an and practice, had urged as an argument illegal tendency. In fine, the sole object against the bill, and put it in a general of the bill was, that the people should and unqualified manner, that the magis- look to parliament, and to parliament tracy of the country were necessarily cor. alone, for the redress of such grievances rupt; an invective against a body of as they might have to complain of, with a persons, to whose exertions, in their confident reliance of relief being afforded situation, the country owed the most them, if their complaints should be well signal services. With equal surprise he founded and practically remediable. That had heard the same learned and honour- it should be understood that the condi. able gentleman who, while he arraigned tion of no man was so abject, but he could the discretion granted to the magistrates find a legal means of bringing his griev. under this bill, acknowledged at the ances before his representatives in parliasame time, that they were already autho- | ment, and subject them to their considerised to exercise the same powers under ration; but that he would not leave a door the existing laws, namely, the riot act, open, through which a torrent might rush and a statute of Henry 4th which had in, and overwhelm the constitution. It

Yeas { Mr. Sargent


Noes Mr. Whitbread


behoved them to take care that menaces | able Practices Bill.] Nov. 16. Mr. Pitt were not conveyed to parliament under moved, That the Bill from the Lords, in. the pretext of petitions, and that they tituled “ An Act for the Safety and Prewere not made the vehicles of indirect servation of his Majesty's Person and Golibels, fabricated at meetings convened vernment against treasonable and sediunder the pretence of very different ob- tious Practices and Attempts,” be now jects, by men whose real purpose it was read a first time. Mr. Sheridan expressed to undermine and subvert the constitu- his determination to oppose the Bill in tion.

every stage. The gallery was then clearMr. Pitt concluded by saying, that, ed, and the House divided : upon the whole, a just comparison ought

Tellers. to be made between the evils that might follow from this bill, and the dangers that

Mr. Ryder

170 might arise, were the House to reject it.

The balance being struck on this alternative, the next question was, whether it

} 26

Mr. Jekyll - was not necessary that the people should On the motion, “ That the Bill be read know it was to parliament alone that they a second time," the House again divided : must look for any alteration of the law,

Tellers. and that, when their grievances were

Mr. Wallace known and stated, they would not look to Yeas

151 parliament in vain for redress. The

Mr. Canning House and the public were equally in- Noes

SMr. Christian Curwen

25 terested in this bill, and so was every class

Mr. Lambton of the people, as fair and constitutional The Bill was then ordered to be read a petitioners ; it therefore only remained second time on the 19th. When strangers for gentlemen to decide whether they were admitted to the gallery, did their duty best for the interest of their Mr. Sheridan was speaking. He asked, constituents or not, by entertaining or whether such a necessity did exist as jusrejecting a bill founded on such princi- tified the bill in question? If it did exist, ples.

proof should be given. Before the suspenMr. Mainwaring approved of the prinsion of the Habeas Corpus act, ministers ciple of the bill, and had long seen the had moved for a Committee of Inquiry, necessity of some such measure. But he upon the report of which committee they objected to the clause which gave such afterwards proceeded. If the report was an extensive power to magistrates to dis necessary then, it was more indispensable solve any meeting, according to what at present, for upon what possible prinmight be their idea of its propriety. He ciple could they call upon members to wished their powers should be more assent to the strong measures which were clearly defined, or

or rather that they then offered them, unless they established should have no such powers. He also their absolute necessity. What authority, disapproved of the clause which pro- then, was there for the introduction of hibits all discourses and lectures, unless this bill? Did any man think that the evilicensed by a justice of the peace. Some dence taken in the House of Lords, and places of public entertainment, which the address which followed, were sufficient were of the most moral and instructive to give sanction to two bills of such magtendency, came under this head, and he nitude and importance? He was confirmed thought it a severe hardship that they in his opinion by subsequent events, that should be subjected to the control of a the present alarm had been created solely magistrate.

by ministers, for the corrupt purpose of Îhe question being put, “ That the Bill libelling the country. In 1792, for simi. be now read a second time," the House lar purposes, similar reports of plots and divided :

conspiracies had been industriously cir.. Tellers.

culated. In the course of the trials which Yeas Mr. Solicitor General

followed, he had witnessed the most comMr. Neville


plete proof that the whole of these atroMr. Erskine

} 43

cious acts originated with the informers, reporters, and spies employed on that

occasion. At those trials he found the 1

Debate in the Commons on the Treason- whole idea of a revolution to be forged;

Noes { Mr. St. John

that the informers, reporters, and spies, till they had lost the common feelings and one and all declared, that they never had the common character of humanity; and suggested that such danger was existing. they were provoked and instigated by the At that time, intelligence of a third plot evils which surrounded them till they bewas noised-a plot which was investigated came enraged beyond all moderation. by the magistrates acting on behalf of go. The nature of the people of both coun. vernment, and in some degree confirmed tries was directly opposite; it was there. by their proceedings. This supposed fore impossible that similar enormities plot, after all, consisted in an intended could ever happen in England. Au hon. assassination of his majesty at one of the gentleman had said the other night, that theatres, with a strange instrument that desperate evils must have desperate remewas never found, and by men who were dies. He acknowledged the truth of the afterwards released. That they were not maxim; but the existence of the evils guilty, was evident, or they would not should be proved before the deduction have been released in the manner they was drawn from them. That the popular had been. Such had been the third spe- meetings and the outrage on his majesty cies of forgery resorted to. To come to had any connexion, he peremptorily dethe present times, he was obliged again nied. At the late county meeting for to recur to his majesty's speech from the Hertfordshire, an hon. gentleman (Mr. throne. When that speech was delivered, Baker) had, in his opinion, acted with it was plain that ministers had no idea of great impropriety in coupling the conthe existing panic. Though he gave them gratulation to his majesty with a charge credit for great ingenuity, he was utterly against the societies. 'An hon. gentleman at a loss to imagine how they could pre- (Mr. Canning) had asserted, that the sume, in consequence of one desperate doctrine of king-killing was preached at outrage committed by some misguided Copenhagen-house. If it were true that individual, or, at the most, upon their such doctrines had been preached, proown confession, by a few thoughtless mis- secutions must have been commenced, or creants, to deprive so loyal, so patient, so the magistrates and the executive governsubmissive a people, of their dearest and ment would have been guilty of scandalous most sacred right? Every one of these neglect. He was, therefore, warranted considerations afforded ample reason to in disbelieving it. So far, however, was believe the present to be neither more the fact different from the assertion, that nor less than a forged plot.-If the mi- it was generally known that no such pernister adhered to his assertion, that a nicious doctrines were practised; on the treasonable plot was actually in existence, contrary, the persons present, all of them, and flew from an investigation of it, was professed a spirit of loyalty to his mait not natural to conclude that he could jesty, notwithstanding their declamations not prove it? But the right hon. gentle against his ministers, against the war, and man always flew off to France for his ex- in support of a parliamentary reform. amples. He enumerates all the instances The chancellor of the exchequer had of treason, murder, and rebellion which that evening said, that inflammatory hand. had arisen from popular assemblies in bills were swarming in every part of the France; and then asked, whether similar métropolis. These hand-bills might be, causes would not produce similar effects and possibly were, written and published in England ? Was it not a libel on the by some of the spies for their own profit English people to argue in that manner? and advantage. Let it be recollected that There was no parity whatever, not the the spies themselves confessed in a court smallest analogy. Would they attempt of justice, that to encourage and deceive to assimilate slavery with freedom, or others they were the loudest in a cry for compare despotism with a well regulated reform, and the most forward to use inand limited monarchy? He would always flammatory language: where, then, was deprecate such wretched, narrow, mi- he to find proof that those hand-bills serable modes of reasoning.

The enor

were published or circulated by the somities committed by the French people cieties, unless they would suffer him to were occasioned by the despotism under know from whom those hand-bills came, which they had so long groaned; their and how they were obtained? When ooce excesses, when they were free, were to a government encouraged spies and inbe attributed to their former slavery: formers; it became a part of their busithey had been oppressed and ground down ness to commit such forgeries and create such terror. The right hon. gentleman sedition, why not prove it? If it could might say, that the business of spies and not be proved, the thing, he said, was a informers was a respectable and necessary forgery. To this publication the name of trade; no man, however, would pretend citizen Lee, as printer, was annexed; and that it would ever be much respected, and it was notorious that Lee was usually emtherefore such odium and such suspicion ployed by the Corresponding Society; must necessarily attach to it. With the and in this instance, the hon. gentleman solitary exception of Watt, he conceived should show that he was not, as usual, it expedient, that ministers should sup- engaged by them. It was plain from all port their spies, as was formerly the prac- the proceedings of the meetings, that the tice with those who brought up thieves, government was the great obstacle in their and instructed them while young in steal. way; that at government they aimed all ing, to share their profits. He had him- their efforts; and therefore government self heard a man declare, that in the heat was obliged to endeavour to secure itself of his zeal and loyalty, he appointed ano- from the attacks of weak, insidious, and ther to watch those whom he suspected, dangerous men. The daring attack on for which he gave him a guinea a week, the king, was a blow at monarchy; nay, but that at last he brought him accounts it struck at the root of the constitution. so alarming, that he gave him two He wished to ask the House, whether the guineas a week. Such would inevitably general notoriety was not enough to jusbe the case, and we should go on from tify them in the measure? Was not that worse to worse, and all would be imput- the ground of the Riot act? What were able to the same cause. He mentioned we to think of the conduct of our anthe immense meeting which had that day cestors with respect to the gun-powder been assembled in Palace-yard, and the plot ? Did they go into evidence about order and decorum exhibited on that oc- that plot? Had they done so, the House casion; yet, if the meeting had been held of Commons ought to have been gunbefore the opening of the session, he powder proof. Such was the case with should not have been surprised if it had the present bill: the notoriety wa, such, been used as an argument for the neces- that to go into proof would be risiculous. sity of the bill. He wished Mr. Canning The parliament of Copenhagen house, and would come into his committee, and prove the parliament assembled in St. Stephen's, that the societies did preach the doctrine Westminster, could not exist together. of king-killing; because, in that case, a The British parliament, as consisting of prosecution would be instituted, and the king, lords, and commons, would be truth be investigated by due course of crushed for ever, if they did not crush law. He concluded by moving, " That the unconstitutional parliaments in ques. a Committee be appointed to inquire into tion. the existence, extent, and danger of the Mr. Jekyll said, that nothing in the Seditious Meetings, referred to in his ma- nature of proof or necessity had been jesty's Proclamation on the 4th of No- offered to justify the present measure. vember.”

No connexion had been established beMr. Powys said, that the House had tween certain proceedings of the Corresnot, it was true, nor need it have, specific ponding Society, and the outrage ofevidence of the treasonable designs of the fered to his majesty. The gunpowdermeetings. The notoriety alone was enough plot, which had been urged as a preceto justify the legislature in resorting to dent for acting without inquiry, was not a strong regulations, to prevent the conse- very fortunate instance; for the gunpowder quences that might arise from such in- was actually found, and the overt act was flammatory assemblies. The hon. gen- indisputable. If he saw the name of citleman had stated it as a grievance, to tizen Lee to any libellous hand-bills, did connect the outrage offered to his ma. it follow that they were not the contrivjesty, and the doctrines preached at the ance of ministers themselves ? In the meetings alluded to: this was the very ; instance of Oates, the ministers of Charles plea used by the societies themselves. the 2nd had, for their own purposes, enThe hon. gentleman had stated an alter couraged, or framed similar machinations native respecting the publications handed to those of the present administration. about at one of the meetings; viz. either That they were really the production of that there was sedition, or there was not. ministers, and propagated for their deThe hon. gentleman asked, if there was signs, was confirmed by the supineness of

« PreviousContinue »