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only two things which could save the leaves a mere privilege to meet under the country. He hoped that the country good pleasure of a magistrate. It is a dewould not be lulled into a false security, grading permission, the acceptance of and suffer these bills to exist.
which declares the absence of all right. Lord Mulgrave said, that the noble Now, here my unconquerable objection marquis had admitted the existing danger, to this bill is brought to a point. This but had urged that the present bills were very right is such as from its nature must unconstitutional. In this he differed toto continually be asserted in every commu-. ccelo from his lordship. He entered into nity that holds itself free. Admitting the a history of the precedents, and insisted extenuation pleaded, namely, that the particularly on the act of the 13th Charles bill only restricts the right for a certain 2nd, forbidding the solicitation of more time, and in a certain degree-if parliathan twenty names to a petition. This, | ment can remove the landmarks of the he said, was not repealed by the Bill of constitution for a short way, it may reRights; and it had been so ruled by the move them entirely. One favourite asserjudges on the trial of lord George Gor- tion in behalf of the measure was, that don. The present bills, therefore, which those who opposed it deserted their sovemet the necessity of the times, did not reign : an assertion, which ministers used go beyond the existing laws.
upon many other occasions, and by which The Earl of Moira said, that for all they had deprived the king and the peohonest purposes the bill was superfluous. ple of the best of services, and terrified As the law stood before, a magistrate or seduced many well-meaning persons present at any meeting, where it should | into a support of their conduct. The be asserted, that grievances might be re- greatest service which it would be in his medied by other means than through power to render his majesty, would be King, Lords, and Commons, not only had to advise him to withhold his assent from the power to interfere, in all the extent the bill. authorized by the new bill, but he would Lord Thurlow began with noticing the have been subject to prosecution, had he variety of misconceptions that had taken not interfered; for the words would have place respecting the bill, and in no parti. been treasonable in the individual using cular more than in the idea that it them; and had they met the apparent trenched upon that important principle of concurrence of other persons present, British liberty established by the Bill of the meeting instantly became a treason Rights, the right of the subject to discuss able assembly. Hence I regard this bill public grievances, to petition, complain, as a direct infraction of the constitution. or remonstrate, or otherwise address the I admit that the affectation on the part of king, or either or both Houses of Parlia. the London Corresponding Society, of ment respecting them. So far from that adopting all the forms and phrases which being the case, the bill set out with redistinguished the Jacobin Club, rendered cognizing that principle in the plainest and the society a proper object for the vigi- broadest manner. Much had been said lance of government. Punish as many of with respect to the different modes prac. the members of that society as shall indi. tised to obtain petitions for or against the vidually offend against the laws; as to their bill: long experience had taught him absurdities, they are not the objects for that on occasions where considerable difpenal infliction, and will be best chastised ference of opinion prevailed, and both by the ridicule of the public. But if sides were equally eager in supporting I'would not have the mass of that society their own opinion by every possible punished for the transgressions of a few means, a good deal of misrepresentation of its members, much less can I pro- would be resorted to. Perhaps, therenounce, on account of the imputed of- fore, the fairest way of considering the fences of the Corresponding Society, a degree of weight due to the petitions in sentence of privation from just rights general was, to hold that the petitions on against the whole people of England. It one side of the question, were as much is in vain to say that the right in question to be relied on as the petitions on the other. is still to exist, but only qualified. A | He could not concur with those who arqualified right is a solecism : a right may gued, that the consequences that had have certain bounds; but within them its arisen from the propagation of Jacobinical exercise must be at the free will of him principles in France, afforded a sufficient who possesses the right. The new bill, justification for the legislature of this
country to enact new laws with a view to abuse was open to punishment. Had it the prevention of similar effects here. He been otherwise the freedom of the press thought they had nothing to do with what instead of an advantage, would have been had passed in France, as far as related to the most intolerable tyranny. Montesany influence it ought to have on their quieu, in his Spirit of Laws, said, that the proceedings in parliament. It was their existence of freedom in England depended duty to govern their conduct in legislation, on the freedom of petition, and the freedom with a view to such laws as were expedi- of the
If the people feel the pres. ent and necessary to the good order, the sure of particular laws, and are not at liwell-being and the happiness of the peo- berty to petition for their redress or reple. The contrary doctrine was not only monstrate against them, they are slaves unfair in principle but impracticable in indeed. To declare, therefore, that "the itself, as the genius and character of the people have nothing to do with the laws two nations were extremely dissimilar, but to obey them,” was as odious as it was and it was idle to suppose that the two fallacious, and when he said that, he by countries were to be governed in the same no means intended any reflection on the way. The doctrine was, besides, some right reverend prelate, who in the course what insulting to Englishmen, whose loy: of a recent debate had made use of the exalty was not more general than sincere and pression; the handsome, manly, and libe. ardent, and who were more likely to be ral explanation, which the right reverend induced by the horrors experienced in prelate* had since given of his meaning, France, to abstain from excesses that not only reflected the highest honour on might lead to the same consequences, his good sense and candour, but cured than to make the conduct of the French the declaration of all possible exception. the model of their imitation. With re. -The people had an undoubted right to gard to what had passed in the societies interfere with the laws in the manner pres. alluded to, that was a matter of which he cribed by the Bill of Rights, and recog. professed to know nothing. If they had nized by the present bill; as far, theredistributed seditious papers, the present fore, as that went, the bill was unobjeclaw would reach them with a sufficient se- tionable, but it was what followed that verity of punishment. The case, how
was to be deprecated. · The restraints it ever was, in his opinion, not precisely the threw around the exercise of that constisame, in point of mischievous effect, with tutional right which it broadly acknowrespect to speeches delivered at popular ledged were alarming and dreadful indeed. meetings. Whenever he heard of a speech The bill, therefore, was to be objected made before 30,000 persons, the first thing against as establishing a bad precedent that occurred to him was, that it was im- under countenance of which a variety of possible that one thirtieth part of the au- bad laws might creep into the state, and dience could hear it. No great apprehen- defile the pages of the Statute book. He sion need, therefore, be entertained of the recollected that in 1782, when a motion dangerlikely to result from such harangues; for a reform in the parliamentary repre. but writings or printed papers might be cir- sentation had been rejected in the House culated throughout the kingdom, and read of Commons, and the previous question again and again till the poison worked and moved upon it, the people were immediproduced those consequences most to be ately informed by men of celebrated chadreaded. He would therefore have the racters, and popular weight in the country, laws in being enforced against libellous that their petitions had been rejected by and seditious writings, and he had no the mode held most obnoxious, as the doubt they would be put an end to. The means of getting rid of a question of imspeeches in question he could suppose portance, and were called upon to meet were insolent and impertinent, but were in districts, and to discuss the best means they so dangerous as to call for the present of rendering their application to the bill? It was the glory of the English law, House more successful; but it was not that there was no previous restraint on the then contended, that their intention was people in the exercise of the important pri- to overawe parliament, or do more than vilege of meeting to discuss grievances to awaken in the people a due attention to and petition parliament respecting them. a subject that involved their dearest and That privilege stood precisely on the same most invaluable rights. He recollected ground with the freedom of the press. Its use was free and unrestrained, but its * The Bishop of Rochester. See p. 267. :
also, at the time when Mr. Wilkes which might by an ignorant magistrate be was declared incapable of sitting in the construed“ to incite hatred and contempt House of Commons, though returned again of the government and constitution, as by for Middlesex, some people who were law established ?" and, acting upon that zealous in his cause went so far as to de- misconstruction, he might take the party clare that no resolution of the House into custody and dissolve the meeting. It would be binding, and no act would be in had been said, that if the magistrate exforce whilst Mr. Wilkes remained exclud- ceeded or abused his authority, he was ed. At different times he had heard doc- liable to punishment; but under what trines broached and insisted on, that were circumstances would a prosecution come equally extravagant and alarming, but he into court upon such an occasion ? The did not remember to have ever once prosecutor would come into court with a heard it hinted that such bills as the pre- halter about his neck, and no man surely sent were necessary to restrain them. The would risk the carrying on such a suit, power and extent of the existing laws had unles he had a mind to be hanged.--His always hitherto been deemed sufficient for lordship pointed out the distinction bethe correction of abuse, the punishment of tween the extent to which the provisions offences, and the prevention of danger.- of the bill went, and that of the provisions The bill was liable to such objections in of the act of Charles 2nd, and that of the wording of its clauses, that it either be- George Ist, commonly called the Riot act. trayed great negligence in those who drew By the latter, the persons assembled for an it up, or afforded suspicion of its originat- unlawful purpose, did not incur the peing in an awkward motive. The distinc- nalty of felony unless they continued totion taken between the different species of gether riotously and tumultuously for one public meetings, was at least novel. It hour after the act had been read ; by the gave great powers to justices, and though present bill, if an assembly met for the it recognized the right of the people to mere discussion of public topics, continumeet in order to discuss grievances, and ed together peaceably to the number of petition, it surrounded the exercise of that twelve or more for one hour after proclaright with restrictions equally unprece- mation made, commanding them to dis. dented and severe. It mentioned descrip- perse, they were guilty of felony, and the tions of magistrates and meetings which magistrate was ordered to put them to he could not comprehend the meaning of death, or at least saved harmless, if upon What officer was the convener of a county resistance any of the persons so continuin Scotland ? and what was meant by a ing together lost their lives. This, therecounty meeting? A meeting might, in- fore, was in his mind an insurmountable deed, be held in a county, but it could not objection to the bill. But, exclusive of this be styled the petition of this or that county ; grand objection, the authors of the bill the House always received it as the petition seemed to have paid no attention to the of those individuals who annexed their explicitness of its clauses; in the language signatures to it. The powers given to the of special pleaders, they had failed to justices under this bill were novel, and li- “ hit the bird in the eye.” A penal law liable to serious abuse. It would be stupid should always be clear and explicit, in the House to say that any body of men whereas the language of the bill was pe. were immaculate. The bill gave magis. culiarly vague and inconclusive. Theretrates the power of taking all persons into fore, although the bill recognized the right custody, “who should hold any discourse of petition, and affected to guarantee that for the purpose of inciting and stirring up liberty, it was at best a liberty in fetters. the people to hatred and contempt of the He sincerely wished that any essential person of his majesty, &c. or the govern- abuse of liberty should be punished; but ment and constitution of this realm, as by the offenders should be punished in their law established.” If those words were al proper character, and not degraded to the lowed to stand in the bill, there was an end description of felons, without any necesat once of all discussion with a view to sity sufficient to warrant so severe a change parliamentary reform. How was it possi- of situation. ble in agitating that question to forbear The Lord Chancellor said, the greater mentioning the inequality in point of im- part of the learned lord's speech was a portance, inhabitants, &c. &c. between the strong argument in favour of going into a county of Yorkshire and the borough of committee, when the clauses might be deOld Sarum, without derision and ridicule, bated, and any alteration thought necessary might be made: at present, the prin- | strike out of all the records the word ciple of the bill was the sole object of their monarchy, and insert commonwealth. consideration. The learned lord had said, | According to them our laws were absurd; that the legislature of this country ought and all indictments drawn up in the king's not to let what passed in France influence name were infamous libels, and insults on their proceedings. He, on the contrary, the people. When they come to state what maintained the necessity of observing it as they mean by reform, and bring forth a general rule. The learned lord had also their plans, they then tell us of universal said, that the genius and character of the suffrage; that is, the universal, indefeasitwo nations were dissimilar, and that it ble right of men, which cannot be bartered was absurd to suppose that the subjects of away. In order to reform, they say, you both could be governed by the same laws. must put an end to boroughs and corporaUpon that principle he had refused to tions, and divide the kingdo.n into factions. take a salutary warning from what had Does not all this tend to involve us in the passed in a neighbouring kingdom. Was miserable state of France ? Experience man so different from rnan on the different had shown that the existing laws were not sides of the Channel, that similar associa- sufficient to put a stop to the evil; and tions in each, professing similar principles, thence arose the necessity for the present assuming the same forms, and affecting measures, which, he must contend, did not the same style and terms, were not likely exceed that necessity. to be attended with similar effects? Would The Earl of Lauderdnle said, he conthe Protestant divines of England declare sidered this measure as chiefly dangerous, that they apprehended nothing from the because it was connected with a system of avowed Atheism and scandalous prophane- encroachment, of which every step ought ness practised in France ? Would prudent to be watched. One encroachment was politicians see no danger in the general only intended to pave the way for another. confusion which would necessarily result It was said that this bill was meant only to from the propagation of doctrines and sys- last for three years. But did the House tems of government destructive of all order, believe that ministers would stop there? all subordination, all property, all security, At the expiration of the three years, it and all happiness ? Would the learned would be contended, that these measures lord venture to assert that they ought had been attended with no danger to li. to remain supine in the midst of the tri- berty ; and some measure of a complexion bunes of the London Corresponding So- still more arbitrary would be proposed. ciety-in the midst of seditious and in- He considered the bill as not so formidable flammatory harangues, and libellous pam- in itself; for its absurdity defeated its misphlets and papers ? The most vigilant chief. It was chiefly alarming, because government could not keep pace with the it broke the grand line of demarcation, actions of that society in this country: and paved the way for measures still more heap prosecutions on prosecutions, there dangerous to the liberty of the subject. would be no use in it. It had ever been For what purpose could a stab be aimed at the practice of wise governments to anti- the vitals of the constitution, except with a cipate and supersede, by preventive regu- view to its utter destruction? So much had lations, in order to render the evil imprac- the right of petitioning been respected in ticable. He was no enemy to the liberty former times, that it had even been deterof the press, so truly described by the mined that petitions containing libellous learned lord; at the same time he must matter, and libellous hand-bills distributed observe, that the libels that had issued at the door of the House, should not be from it went beyond all bounds, and that prosecuted. The learned lord, who it was lenity to introduce preventive laws. seemed better acquainted with French hisa The London Corresponding Society called tory than with English law, seemed to for a reform, when it was clear a revolu- have formed his notions of petitioning, tion was their object. What had been the from the maxims of Robespierre, who atrocious nature of the hand-bills distri- passed a decree against petitioning. The buted by the society? They described bill would tend to render the functions of the constitution and government as a mo- the magistrate more odious, and his pernarchy, but not a monarchy limited and son more insecure. The true ground of free. The House of Lords they pro- the bills was, that ministers had plunged nounced useless, the Commons corrupt, the country into a situation of unexampled the judges corrupt, and recommended to calamity; and now, in order to screen VOL. XXXII.]
themselves from the consequences of their magistrate ?-And to disperse the meetmisconduct, they had recourse to these ing, to enforce military execution; and measures in order to deprive the people of remark how many kinds of obstruction England of the right of remonstrance. may take place in a large assembly short
The House divided: Contents, 63 ;- of actual violence; for it is not to be ex. Proxies, 46—109. Not-contents, 15:- pected that Englishmen will, on the first Proxies, 6–21.
mandate of a corrupt and worthless ma
gistrate, disperse like a troop of slaves, Dec. 14. The bill was read a third Yet, in every such instance, you put it time. On the question, that the bill do in the power of a magistrate of this despass,
cription to enforce the most severe penal. The Duke of Bedford rose and said :- ties, wherever the British spirit shall The bill, my lords, now stands before either undauntedly step forward in the you exactly as it is to pass into a law. arduous task of asserting its outraged In the course of the discussion which it rights, or tempering its energies with has undergone, it has been divested of se- prudence, shall calmly remain on the deveral obnoxious clauses. The exception- fensive, and assume the inflexible, but able principle, however, still remains. No unoffending attitude of opposition to ca. one denies that it imposes some restric- price or tyranny.
With such a power I tions on the right of petitioning. The bill would not trust the man whom I most gives a power, which is liable to abuse; loved. To such a man I might trust my it is in vain to tell me that it will not be own life, liberty, and property ; but not abused. I never will confide such a those of my countrymen. I feel that power while I am ignorant for what pur- though I am not delegated from them, I poses it may be applied. The ground am delegated for them. With respect to urged for adopting this bill has been the the outrage on his majesty, what did the outrage against his majesty's person. It evidence brought forward go to prove ? has been boldly asserted, that, previous That the persons any way implicated in to that event, the propagation of sedition that outrage were very few in number. was notorious, and that it may be imme- It seemed to be the wish of ministers to diately traced to doctrines which were prove that the outrage was entirely the openly preached. I as boldly contradict act of a band of ruffians. Supposing that the assertion. Upon that point we are to be the fact, was it fitting to enslave therefore at issue. How, then, is it to the whole people of England for the of. be established ? By proof; by investiga fence of a few desperate individuals ? tion. These have been refused; and mi- Was their guilt a justification of those nisters did well to refuse them: for they new and cruel punishments which were were aware that their measures were not enacted by this bill? The bill is defendcalculated to stand such a test. Had ed as a measure of prevention. This arthey been in possession of those proofs gument for increasing the penal code, in which we required, would they have re- order to prevent crimes is founded on a fused them? If the circumstances of the most despotic principle, and is an innotimes imposed upon them the necessity of vation of the most dangerous nature. It bringing forward new acts of restriction, is contrary to that spirit which guided the and of making fresh additions to the penal legislative proceedings of our ancestors, code of the country, would they not, if contrary to the whole tenour of our laws. possible, have endeavoured to secure our It is to be recollected, that laws, in order concurrence? The present measure is to be just, ought to fall equally upon all liable to be grossly abused, and, I am ranks of the community. The present afraid, with impunity. I do not wish to bill is chiefly calculated to restrain the enter into any invectives against the cha- lower orders; and it will become the racters of magistrates; it is not, however, House to recollect the relative situation to be concealed, that many of those to in which they stand to that class of sowhom so large a power is to be given by ciety. We may be well said to fatten by the present bill, are known to be corrupt the sweat of their brows. To them we and interested men. And to persons of are indebted, not immediately indeed for this description, you give the power to the situation we hold here, but for all arrest an Englishman while he is speak- those appendages which render that situing. And in case of any resistance or ob- ation desirable; riches, honours, and struction, what is the power you give to the power. They can do without us; we