§ Mr. Fox
rose, agreeably to his notice of yesterday, to call the attention of the House to the petition of certain persons, styling themselves freeholders of Middlesex, complaining of the return for that county.—The hon. member began by stating, that the point to be considered by the House was one so clear, and so little liable to any possibility of difference of opinion, that he did not conceive it necessary to occupy the time of the House with any detailed arguments. It would not, he conceived, be attempted to be denied that acts, of parliament were, in every case, to be interpreted in a manner, as nearly as possible, agreeably to the precise letter, and if this was admitted as a general principle, it could not be denied that such a mode of interpretation was more especially proper, when the act itself was framed for the express purpose of putting an end to vague ideas of the intentions of the legislature. The House had, on the present occasion, a very simple duty to perform. They had only to lay out of their consideration every idea but the positive mandatory injunctions of the act, and then their decision could not, even for a moment, become a matter of doubt. Gentlemen, he was convinced, need not be reminded of the circumstances which originally gave rise to the 389 Grenville act. It was an act expressly founded on the bad opinion entertained of the House of Commons in the exercise of its judicial powers. It was an act originating in constitutional jealousy, and designed to correct an evil, the existence of which all parties admitted. Having said this, it was proper for him to add, that the act, which originally encountered the strongest opposition, had, from experience, been found productive of the most beneficial effects. Those who had originally resisted it with the greatest zeal, had seen reason to alter their opinion, and those who were, in the first instance, its warmest opponents, had become its most sincere admirers. He had no hesitation in admitting that he himself was among this number. It was, therefore, not to be denied, that the origin of the act was 3 virtual admission that the House collectively were very bad judges of law, so far as it concerned the mode in which the fairness of elections was to be decided. After the passing of the Grenville Act, in the first instance, the obvious conclusion was, that all discretion was taken away from the House, and that every thing connected with election petitions was to be regulated by the precise provisions of the act. It was quite impossible to dispute the truth of this position. So much, however, was the legislature impressed with the idea that this was the clear meaning of the act, that it was judged necessary to bring in a bill to put this matter, if possible, in a still clearer point of view.—By the act of the 28th of his Majesty, the power of the House in receiving or rejecting petitions was clearly defined. In that act it was exactly stated what was the description of petitions on which the House were to proceed, and what was the nature of those which could not, consistent with the spirit and provisions of the original act, be admitted. In the original act, it was positively intended that all power of preliminary judgment should be taken away from the House. It was declared, that if petitions were of such and such a nature, they should be laid before a Committee; but that if they were of a different description and character, they should be declared inconsistent with the provisions of the act, which was to regulate all proceedings relative to controverted elections. These original provisions might, perhaps, in strict interpretation, have been conceived to be sufficient; but lest any possibility of mistake should arise, lest any circumstances should occur which might endanger a recurrence to the decision of the House, which was taken for granted to be highly liable to error; the: 28th of his Majesty had in view the direct 390 prevention of any such inconvenience. It was meant to declare all preliminary decisions beyond their reach. It was to bind the House to receive petitions under certain specified circumstances, and to reject others in which particular allegations were not distinctly laid down. With this view of die subject, he felt himself called to state his preliminary objection to the House's entertaining the petition. The House was bound by positive statute; and, if so, he was not to be told of precedents, which, even if they did exist, could prove nothing against a direct enactment of the legislature. But, with respect to precedents, he really could not conceive that, in the short interval of sixteen years since the passing of the act of the 28th of his Majesty, such precedents could be found, or attempted to be urged on the present occasion. Admitting, however, that they exist, it would be monstrous and absurd to urge them as reasons for contravening a law drawn up in clear, intelligible, incontrovertible terms. To limit the jurisdiction of a court, and to direct the mode in which its future proceedings were to be regulated, might be wise, under particular circumstances. After these regulations were formed, however, they must be obligatory. It was needless for him to impress on the House the absurdity of first forming rules for the direction of a particular court, and then suffering the decisions of that court to go directly in the face of the previous rules for the conduct of its proceedings. In this case the original act was rendered totally ridiculous, and the decisions of a court defeated the regulation which was meant to prevent its irregularities or errors. The clause in the act on which he rested his motion, was one so couched, as, in his mind, to remove all possibility of doubt, ft struck him as being one of the most simple and conclusive in the Statute Book. In the clause of the act it was distinctly declared, that the House were not to admit to the consideration of a Committee, a petition in the body of which it was not stated, on behalf of those who signed it, that they had a right, at the time of the election, to vote as unexceptionable freeholders. Now, in this case, the persons signing the petition in question had done no such thing. If they had even claimed their right indirectly, there might have been some room for consider ration, how far the petition could, consistently with the law of Parliament, be received. But here there was nothing actually alleged, which could at all authorize the House in receiving the petition. It was, forsooth, signed by free holders He did not mean to 391 deny, that those who signed the petition were freeholders, or that they might not have bad a right to vote. But why had they pot stared this in their petition? He himself was a freeholder of Middlesex at the time of the election, but under circumstances which prevented him from exercising his elective franchise. Many others, he believed, were in a similar situation; and how then was the House to presume, that those who signed the petition were not in the same circumstances, since they had not themselves produced any proofs of their qualification at the time of the election? There were many persons freeholders now, who were not entitled to vote when the election took place. It was the simplest process in the world for the petitioners to have declared, in the body of the presume, their right of voting, if they did at the time of the election possess it; but it was too much to call on the House to presume their right, in express contempt of an act of parliament. A freehold property of forty shillings a year was what the law required as a qualification to vote for a county member; but, in the first instance, the House had nothing whatever to do with this qualification, when a petition was first laid on their table. He would, in illustration of his opinion, put a strong case, which, in proportion as it was strong, would more clearly illustrate his idea of the meaning of the act. If a petition were presented, not by the real freeholders of Middlesex, but by a tumultuous crowd assembled at the door of that House, assuming the name of freeholders; even if an outrage of this audacious nature were practised, his would affirm, that, in the first instance, the petition must be received and sent to a Committee. The paper, such as it. was, purported to be the petition of Middlesex freeholders, and the House had no authority to take cognizance of the fraud in the first instance. It was with the Committee to ascertain and to punish such an attempt to impose on the legislature, liven admitting that the present petition were signed by Sarah or Jodah, instead of William and Thomas, Mill it must go to the Committee, and with them rested the ultimate decision. The petition contained allegation?, and till his Committee had determined on its merits, the House had no right to presume that they were false. With the fact the louse could have DO interference. The law requited that every petition should contain certain allegations, and the question was, whether those who signed the petition had complied with its requisitions. Had they claimed their right to vote 392 at the last election? If they had, then the argument was at an end. If they had not, then the question was equally resolved, unless the House were disposed to decide in the face of a positive law. The petitioners might be very respectable individuals, as he had no doubt they were, and it might appear, on examination, that their right to vote was undoubted; all this might be safely admitted, and still the question would stand precisely where it did before the matter was agitated.—The only point was to consider how far the petition was drawn in such terms as could bring the consideration of its merits under the provisions of the Grenville Act. There might be a great appearance of equity in the case, but still the law must be permitted to have its force. If cases of equity were to supersede statutes, the beneficial effects of which were universally admitted, legislative provisions were a mere nullity. The honourable gentleman here noticed the petition which he had himself presented on the subject of the conduct of the high bailiff of Westminster, in the famous contested election of 1784. He believed, that there never was a case laid down in any petition of more obvious and striking equity than that petition contained. The majority of the House were convinced of this, even while they resisted the admission of the petition. They rested their opposition solely on the ground of the allegations which it contained, not being such as the Grenville Act had specified to be necessary, previous to the introduction of any petition. So sensible were the House of the necessity of rigidly adhering to the previsions of the act, that a petition confessed to be equitable in itself was rejected, and a short time afterwards a new act was introduced, to remedy an admitted inconvenience. As the law now stood, the matter was reduced to the simplest principles. Whatever was the matter of the petition, the House were to leave it wholly to the Committee. They were not to deliberate or decide. They were to admit or reject a petition, not because the admission or rejection was wise, or the contrary, not because it was or was not founded in equity, but because the provisions of the act Were peremptorily mandatory, and were not under any circumstances to be disobeyed. The legislature was now strictly bound to the observance of a particular mode of proceeding, and it was quite absurd to think of getting rid of it. He had heard of petitions of a description similar to the present having been admitted, and afterwards submitted to a Committee, For his own part, he was ig- 393 norant of the existence of such precedents; bat even if they did exist, their existence did not at all invalidate his argument. It might have happened accidentally, but was that to be seriously urged as an argument to shew, that when an error was discovered it was not to be rectified? If the act unequivocally pointed out a particular mode of proceeding, was a precedent directly in the teeth of its provisions to be brought forward to justify subsequent irregularity? It would hardly be contended, that if an evil was found to exist, that no means should be taken to correct it, because it had escaped observation in a variety of preceding instances, and when the means of correction were at once easy and efficacious. The proper mode of administering the correction in the present instance was by discharging the petition. On this matter, his own mind was completely satisfied. He wished, if there should be two opinions, which he hardly expected, that gentlemen who should take a view of the subject different from what he did, would explain what other meaning could be attached to the clause of the act than that which he attached to it. If the construction which he had put on the clause was not correct, he was desirous of being informed what description of petition it was, to which the clause was referred, He really was at a loss to conceive, how the act could express any meaning, if the meaning which he had affixed to it were objected to. He would put a case in illustration of his opinion. He would put the case of a petition signed by persons who were merely copyholders, signing a petition, in the body of which petition, they claimed a right of voting at the election. It was clear that they had no right of voting, and perhaps gentlemen would immediately contend that such a petition was to be instantly rejected as a matter of course. He could not, however, at all accede to this opinion. It was clear that the petition would be found to be eventually frivolous; but it did not at all follow, that in the first instance it was not to be submitted to a Committee, to judge of its merits. There was another case still more important, the consideration of which, indeed, would in all probability form the basis for the final decision of (he Committee of the Middlesex petitions. This was the case of the joint tenants, which was known to have excited a great deal of interest. If it had been the case of a body of electors who were in a situation to be rated, but had never actually paid the rate, presenting a petition, he was not at all prepared to say that the House would be entitled to reject the petition, be- 394 cause they entertained an opinion that the petitioners would ultimately fail in proving the fairness of their claims. The same principle he would apply to a petition from persons claiming a right of voting at the election for the county. It would not be argued for a moment, that a petition from these joint tenants was to be rejected, because the House might imagine that their claim to the right of election was altogether erroneous. Such a decision would be equally irregular and unjust. It would be prejudging what was afterwards to come before the Committee. It would be an attempt to execute that very office which, by the passing of the Granville Act, the House was declared incapable of performing with fairness and impartiality. The House could not argue the question of the competency of any petitioners complaining of an undue election. They had not the evidence on which any fair decision could be formed. They were not the court before which the general question was to be tried. It was very clear that copyholders had not a right of voting; but of a petition signed by copyholders, the House were not entitled to bold an opinion. He mentioned this case from its being so clear, and when he stated this, he meant to include in the observation the incompetence of the House to assume to themselves that right of determining the merits of petitions, which was reserved for a special tribunal. Whether petitioners had, or had not a right (o vote, was the subject of future consideration. The House had a simple task to execute. They were to determine, whether a petition complied with the terms of the act. In the present instance, he trusted, that he had shewn that the petition was irregular, and he should therefore conclude with moving, that the order of the day for the consideration of the petition of certain persons, stating themselves freeholders of Middlesex, be read.—The order was read accordingly.—Mr. Fox then moved, that the said order be discharged.—The motion being put from the chair,
The Chancellor of the Exchequer
rose to reply. He had listened with the utmost attention to all that had fallen from the hon. gent., and the result was, that the impression which he felt yesterday, when the subject was first mentioned, had not only remained unimpaired, but was now considerably strengthened and confirmed. He was ready to concur heartily with the hon. member in his views of the importance of the subject, both as it respected the propriety of adhering rigidly to the provisions of every act of the legislature, and the necessity of avoiding all restraint on the right of the sub- 395 ject to lay their petition against any supposed infringement of their elective franchises before Parliament. He allowed that the Grenville Act was founded on a principle of jealousy and distrust of the judicial proceeding of that House, and that the intention of the act was to annihilate the existence of discretionary powers of decision. But it was his very conviction of this meaning of the act, which at present made him particularly desirous of resisting the motion now submitted to the House. He thought that the interference proposed was of a very dangerous and unconstitutional nature. It would be nothing short of breaking in upon a regular course of precedents, and counteracting the fundamental principles of all the laws for arranging the exercise of the elective franchise. As to the persons entitled to petition, he had a few observations to submit to the House. After the passing of the act of the 10th of his Majesty, the number of persons conceiving themselves entitled to petition under the set was so great, that the table of the House was covered with petitions, and very material inconvenience was experienced. It was to remedy this inconvenience that the 28th of his Majesty was passed. In that act, the persons entitled to petition were designated; but he wished to ask of the hon. member, whether he meant to affirm, that the act expressly required that, persons petitioning should expressly state their right of voting in the body of the petition?
§ Mr. Fox
having answered this question in the affirmative,
The right hon. gent. resumed, and contended that this was not what he, conceived to be at all in the contemplation of the legislature at the time the act was framed. All that was meant by the clause was, the general designation of freeholders should be observed. If the general qualification of the freeholders, and their right to vote was stated, then be would argue, that the plain, direct, common sense meaning of the clause was satisfied, and the mandatory injunctions of the act were fulfilled. The hon. gent had expressed his opposition to any argument drawn from precedents; but, for his own part, he thought that there was no more fair or parliamentary mode of construing the meaning of acts of the legislature. The people of this country would have reason to complain that they were hardly dealt by, if after the lapse of thirteen years, in which numerous instances of petitions drawn up in similar terms being admitted to a Committee, they were, in consequence of a mere inadvertency, to be deprived of a most im- 396 portant constitutional privilege. The precedents were indeed so numerous, that during the first session after the meeting of Parliament, subsequent to the passing of the act, there was hardly one to be found of an opposite description. He alluded here to the petition presented after the general election in 1790, and particularly noticed the petitions from Sterling, and Orkney and Shetland, which were both drawn up in terms similar to that now the subject of discussion; there was, however, no objection to their being submitted to the consideration of a Committee.—A number of other petitions at that time were drawn in terms by no means the same as those which the hon. member contended to be essential. In many of them the petitioners described themselves as legal electors, or as freemen, but not as confining to the terms on which so much stress had been laid. The House were satisfied that the common sense meaning of the act had been fulfilled, and the petitions were sent to a Committee, for a decision of their merits. With all this body of precedents in their possession, he trusted that the House would not consent to entertain the hon. member's proposition. Cases of a much weaker sort than that now before the House had been sustained. The petitioners had, prima facie, a right to be considered as electors from their common law right as freeholders. It would, he considered, be very unjust to consider them disqualified, from the mere circumstance of their omitting to state in so many words, that at the last election their right existed in full force. It would bear particularly hard on them at the moment when they were prepared to support their allegation, and to vindicate their claims as freeholders, to be stopped short, as the hon. member had proposed, and thus be debarred all opportunity of asserting their most valuable constitutional rights. They had, at farthest, only been guilty of following what was a common practice; they had framed their petition on the same principles as that of which the Journals afforded numerous examples, and for this they were to be deprived of an opportunity of obtaining the redress of a grievance of the most serious and Oppressive kind! While he contended for the claim of the petitioners to have their petition laid before a Committee, it was far, indeed, from his intention to affirm, that before that Committee their claims were without examination to be admitted. It was before the Committee that the real merits of the question were to be decided. In admitting the petition now, the House hazarded no opinion of any description. They left 397 the whole question open for the fullest consideration. If the petitioners had assumed a false character; if they had imposed on the House by claims which were false, they would not eventually triumph by this fraud. Their falsehood would be detected, and they would softer the punishment which their duplicity would richly deserve. If they were women; if they were minors, or if their qualification was below the legal standard, then their petition must of course be rejected. It was too much, however, to presume, that they were disqualified, in the total absence of all evidence to establish such a position. In receiving the petition the House would he guided by practice. In rejecting it they would do what was equally rigorous and unjust. The right hon. gent. concluded by giving his decided negative to the motion.
§ Mr. Francis.
—Sir; it appears to me that the question, whether this petition ought or ought not to be referred to a Committee, is a question of positive law, and cannot be determined by any other rule or principle. The legislature has foreseen and provided for the case. We have no right to enter into any considerations external or collateral to the specific provision of the law. There is no appeal from the rigour of the Act of Parliament to the equity of this House. We have no legal competence to proceed in any petition against an undue return, in which the petitioners do not distinctly state or allege that they had a right of voting at the election. These petitioners have not made that allegation. But the Right Hon. the Chancellor of the Exchequer asserts, that these petitioners have followed the example of others; that the course of the House has been to proceed in petitions, in which the allegation of right has been omitted, and that they ought not to suffer because they cannot have been misled by following the practice of the House as they find it in the Journals. Certainly the right hon. gentleman's doctrine conveys an excellent instruction to the present and to all future petitioners, "Do not look into the Act of Parliament, never inquire what the law prescribes, or how it directs you to act. All you have to do is to examine the Journals of the House of Commons, and govern yourselves by the precedents or course of proceeding. as you find it in those Journals." This, though not so delivered in terms, is the real result and amount of the right hon. gentleman's doctrine. Then, Sir, I ask who, and what is the House of 398 Commons, whose authority is set above that of the legislature? Why, Sir, it is, or rather it was a tribunal, whose decisions in matters of elections were so notoriously partial, whose disposition or capacity to try contested elections with fairness was so universally doubted, whose integrity on such, points was so much distrusted, that the legislature found it necessary to take the whole jurisdiction of such causes out of their hands; and who, by concurring in the act, that deprived them of their power, confessed that they deserved to lose it. I am not disposed to trust any thing to the discretion of the House of Commons, on questions, in which the legislature places no confidence in them; and, even if I were so disposed, the supreme power of Parliament has left me no discretion on the subject.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer
begged leave to have the precedents read by the clerk, to which he alluded in the course of his speech, and in which no claim, with respect to the right of voting at the time of election, had been set up by the petitioners, although their petitions had been taken into consideration, and decided on by the House. The first was that of the 3d of December, 1790, presented by freeholders of the County of Stirling; the second that of the 8tli of December, in the same year, presented by freeholders of the stewartries of Orkney and Shetland; and the third that of the 14th in the same year, presented by the freeholders of the county of Radnor. There was also another from Worcester, precisely of a similar nature, presented the 30th of October, 1796. It further appeared, that there were two cases of the same kind which had occurred during the present Parliament. The first was the petition of freeholders of the county of Caermarthen, on the 1st of September, 1802; and the second related to the freeholders of Stirling. It should not be forgotten, that fn the Committee to which they had been referred, a question was started, similar to the one started that evening by the hon. gent.; yet, notwithstanding the discussions arising from the question, the Committees proceeded, and the petitions were not only taken into consideration, but that from the freeholders of Stirling was renewed. The Chancellor of the Exchequer concluded with observing, that he could cite many other cases in 1790, and 1796, of a nature precisely the same as those which had been read, but he felt ii his duty not to trouble the House with any precedents in addition, which he 399 trusted would prove satisfactory and decisive.
§ Mr. T. Grenville
took an historical review of the custom of Parliament which preceded, and the motives which urged to, the introduction of the Act of the 10th of his present Majesty, commonly called the Grenville Act. The grounds of that act be described to be a strong jealousy of the discretion which the House had previously exercised in deciding upon election returns, and petitions relating thereto. The surrender of that discretion to Committees to be appointed by the House, precluded, in his apprehension, such a decision upon the ease then under discussion as the motion of the hon. gent. (Mr. Fox) called for. According to the form of proceeding which prevailed previous to the enactment of the law he referred to, he believed it would be found that the general, he would not say the invariable, rule was to receive petitions from those only who claimed the right of voting at the elections to which their petitions related, and who had an interest in the decision of the same. The cause of the change produced by the Act of the 10th arose from the strong persuasion which existed in the mind of the author of that act, that it was necessary, for the best purposes, to limit the authority of the House upon Election cases. The course prescribed by that act had gone on without any alteration until the period when the Act of the 28th of the King, upon a clause on which the motion professed to be grounded, was brought before the House, in consequence of its appearing that, notwithstanding the many advantages which resulted from the act of the 10th, to which the respectable mover of the bill of the 28th bore ample testimony, yet that in the instance of persons presenting petitions, it was safe and prudent to resort to the old established custom that prevailed antecedent to the former act, and to restore to the House some part of the discretion of which it had deprived itself by that act. From that consideration arose the clause now under debate, and, KS it struck his mind, the petition to which the motion alluded to, was not, in the point of formality so much insisted upon, inconsistent with the custom to which, after an experience of 16 years, the House, by the act of the 28th, had thought proper to recur.—This observation he put as to the equity of the case, and, with respect to the actual mandatory words of the clause, as they were described, by the hon. mover, he put against this construction of that clause, the practice of the 400 House since the clause was enacted. From that comparison it appeared, that the interpretation given by the hon. gent. had not been acted upon. If the practice of the House had conformed precisely to the letter of the act of the 28th, he confessed that he would have felt more satisfied and pleased; and if in the petition referred to in the motion, that letter had been strictly complied with, it would, of course, have been more satisfactory, in order that the most invidious should have no room to cavil; but as a doubt did appear to exist, the best mode in his judgment, was to refer to the custom of the House previous to the passing of the act of the 10th, and also to the manner in which the law of the 28th had been acted upon, in order to assist in the solution of the question now under discussion, and to enable the House to determine upon the interpretations most fair and equitable to adopt. As to the application of the words of the clause to the terms in which the petition was drawn up, which it was the object of the motion to reject, he was decidedly against it, and in addition to the reasons he had already stated, he said, that there was another strong and powerful motive which operated upon his mind, to prompt him to the vote which he meant to give, and it was this, that it did not appear possible that the least inconvenience, hardship, or injustice could result to any individual, by allowing this petition to be proceeded on in the ordinary way, while it could not be denied that it would be serious injury to the petitioners to exclude them from the investigation of the subject of their petition, by acceding to the present motion. The petitioners only desired that their case should be sent to trial, and the object of the motion was to shut them out from that which they had a right to claim. Tinder circumstances where there existed any doubt as to the construction of the letter of the law, or the practice upon that law, he could have no hesitation in deciding in favour of the petitioners; and he would put it to the candour of the House whether such was not the more equitable mode of proceeding; for he was persuaded that according to the general understanding, the form of the petition was not liable to all the objections which were started against it. The question was now raised for the first time, and, although much ingenious argument had been offered in favour of the motion, from the reasons he had stated, it ought not to be adopted.
§ Mr. Jekyll
expressed his concurrence in the sentiments of the hon. mover, and his 401 surprise at the inferences drawn by the right hon. gent. who had just sat down, from facts which admitted of quite different conclusions. That any member should entertain a doubt upon the construction of the clause, which formed the ground-work of this motion, was to him a matter of astonishment. Nothing in legislation could be more clear and mandatory in terms, than the words of the clause in question. As to the case of Carmarthen, referred to by the right hon. gent. (the Chancellor of the Exchequer), it did not appear to him, a fair analogy to that before the House, It was, in fact, confounding the jurisdiction of a Committee with that of the House. The question now under consideration was, whether a petition should be proceeded on at all, and that was a question with which a Committee had nothing to do; for alter the case was referred to them, they were bound to proceed upon it. From this the learned gentleman argued; that the allusion to the conduct of the Committee upon the Carmarthen petition was not applicable to the case before the House. In the course of the discussion before that Committee, he recollected that nearly the same grounds of objection were taken, and the same topics started as those which were heard to-day. The precedents quoted by the right hon. gent. on the Treasury Bench, to shew the practice of the House, in contradistinction to the letter of the law, were particularly relied upon, and this led his mind to inquire what Was to be understood by precedents, and according to his opinion a practice which had gone on without any litigation as to its propriety, without any discussion upon its merits, could not be considered in the light of precedents. Yet this precisely was the nature of the precedents cited upon the present occasion. This was the first time this question was raised. "The blot was hit," and the House was called upon to consider the construction of the act of the 28th, to which ins hon. friend referred, and to determine whether, ex vi termini, the petition in question was consistent with the clause of that act so often alluded to. The House should not suffer itself to be withdrawn from the fair consideration of the words of the act, by precedents which, in fact, proved but (he malus usus applied to it; but should rather imitate the conduct pursued by a court of law in the case of corporations, where, when a quo warranto is applied for against any corporation, the practice is, not to decide by any usage that might have prevailed, even if it had existed for 50 years, but 402 to look into the words of the charter, and upon that to ground the decision of the case.
§ Lord Archibald Hamilton
observed, that having read the Act of the 28th of his Majesty on this subject, be could not hesitate a moment in affirming, that it was so clear and explicit on this point, that scarcely any argument was necessary. A laudable desire was expressed on the other side, for the rights of the people to petition this House. But, however much it might be wished, that the present petition should be received, it could not be properly done in the face of an Act of Parliament; nor, indeed, when there was so serious an objection against it, would it be doing justice to the other party to hear it. He was of opinion, that though the petition should be rejected, the parties were not deprived of the means of redress. It was well known, that nothing could be more frequent in the King's Bench, than to set aside a rule or declaration, merely for an informality. But the party had still the right to come forward for redress, having amended what was wrong.
§ Mr. Tierney
said, it had been his practice, when any matter was doubtful, to open the door as widely as possible for its discussion, and he entreated the House to see what the hardship would be, and it must fall on the petitioners, if this petition was now rejected. It was worth while to look at the course which this proceeding had taken; no objection whatever was started against this petition when it was presented. What was the reason why the hon. gent. who now brought this motion forward, had stifled all those feelings which he knew he had upon this occasion in favour of substantial justice, and to insist on the dry letter of the law? It certainly must be his superior sense of duty to support the regularity of the proceedings of that House. But why had he not told these petitioners of this informality sooner? If he had said at the time of presenting this petition, that the petition could not have been received, because the words were not in it which the hon. gent. contended the act required should have been in it, the petition might have been rejected without any hardship on the petitioners; so that the formality of the proceedings of the House would have been preserved, and substantial justice might have been done to the parties complaining at the same time, for then another petition might have been presented, and the words, now said to be wanting, might have been supplied. But what was the 403 consequence of being silent then and loud now, if the House should adopt this motion? That of placing the petitioners in a situation in which they could never have their complaint heard at all. The House would recollect that the parties were brought into this situation by the act of the House itself, in which the hon. gent. had acquiesced, as well as every other member. No objection was made to this petition when it was presented the last session. The petitioners would have been subject to a penalty of 200l. if they had not renewed it in this session, that was in other words, if the hon. gent. was right in his motion, there would have been a penalty of 200l. attaching on these petitioners, if they did not repeat the offence, that of renewing an irregular, illegal petition. It was said, that the spirit of the Grenville Bill, as well as the letter of if, required it should be stated in the petition, that the petitioners had a right to vote at tile election, which this petition did not; and, therefore, this petition ought now to be rejected. If that was so, he could not help remarking, there would be a great hardship on the petitioners, and that by the course which had been taken to bring forward this motion; and it would look very odd if, on the very day before the petition was to come on, and a Committee to be ballotted to try the merits of if, a gentleman could get up hi the House of Commons and persuade the House that the petition, on account of its informality, could not be heard at all. Besides this, if the order for taking this petition into consideration, was discharged, it would appear strange upon the Journals, for the informality of the petition would not appear upon the Journals; ail that would appear there would be, that the petition had been presented in one session of parliament, and ordered to be taken info consideration on a given day, that the same petition was renewed in another session, according to the rules of the House, and that on the day before it was to have been taken into consideration, it had been rejected. No reason for its rejection would appear at all. Nothing would be seen to govern the future proceedings of the House by way of precedent, but, merely, that the House had received a petition in one session, made an order for taking it into consideration on a given day in another session, and had, on the day before the time for taking it into consideration, rejected that petition; a precedent which he thought would be dangerous. As to the wording of the act of parliament, if the act of parlia- 404 ment had set down the precise words to be used in such a petition, and they had not been inserted, the argument would have been invincible; but the act of parliament did not so provide, and the hon gent. did not say so, he only insisted that the petitioners must state themselves in such a way, as to shew that they had, or claimed to have, a right to vote at the election of which they complained. There being no form of words pointed out by the act, what were the petitioners to do? They naturally thought they should do that which others did before them. He could not conceive what could be the use of a precedent, if a poor ignorant man was not to be guided by it in drawing his petition in such a case as this; and, more especially, if that was a precedent received and adopted by the House immediately after the passing of the bill, and followed up by several others, without any objection, for thirteen years together.—Now, as to the substance of the petition, it appeared to him to be sufficient. The petitioners called themselves "Freeholders of the County;" from that the obvious inference was, that as such they claimed the right of voting at the election of which they complained. Would it not then, on a mere dry technical objection, be hard to shut the door against them? By rejecting this petition now, there would be great and manifest injustice. By receiving it, there would be no injustice whatever to any one human being for all that could be done by the House, by entertaining this petition, would be to give it a hearing. His mind was satisfied that the substance of this act of parliament had been complied with in this petition. As to that part of the object of the act which was stated by the hon. gent. namely, that of preventing strangers from presenting petitions against the elections of members of parliament, he thought tint the best remedy for that was the provision of the act which made them pay costs. They stated themselves not to be strangers, but that they were freeholders of the county of Middlesex; upon which the only doubt that could be entertained was, whether they were not persons who had become freeholders since? That was matter for the inquiry of a Committee. The general current of petitions; I was, that the petitioners were electors, and it might be said that they were minors then, but that they had become electors since; but that would be matter for the investigation of the Committee. But he should have; thought, that the hon. gent. who had brought forward this motion, would have said, that he suspected the persons who had 405 signed this petition were not freeholders, but, on the contrary, he had stated, that he hid no doubt they were freeholders; and the act of the House had decided, it thought they were, by receiving the petition. He was, indeed, confident, that the hon. gent. who made this motion would be desirous if he succeeded in it, to have some legislative provision, for the purpose of allowing these petitioners a hearing; for, really, if this petition was informal, it was the fault of the House that the parties could not be heard upon it, for the petitioners had stated it in the common form the House had been accustomed to receive it, that they were freeholders of Middlesex, and, whatever difficulty there was in receiving the petition under the authority of the act of parliament, the House did not tell them of it while it Was in their power to correct the error. Now he asked for no legislative provision, for the purpose of hearing these petitioners, for he had not the least hesitation in giving his negative to the motion of the hon. gent. and, in so doing, he should give a conscientious vote, for sending this matter to a committee, in order that the merits of it may be tried.
§ Mr. Serjeant Best
said, he felt himself hound to vote for the affirmative of the question now before the House; and it did appear to him to be a question of infinite importance, and much beyond the point of the merits of the case. The House was now hitting in its judicial, and not in its legislative character. That House, although a supreme court of judicature, was as much bound, by the law of the land, as she meanest court in the land, and indeed it was more dangerous for such a high court to do any thing contrary to law; than any other court, on account of the example of it. Now, considering this question as a lawyer, he could not say there was much doubt upon it. He was sorry, indeed, that the objection had occured, for it might deprive the freeholders of the county of Middlesex of redress in this case; but whatever right they might have, and however they might he infringed upon with impunity, it was better to surfer that inconvenience and adhere to the general rules of law, whatever might be the effect of such rules in a particular instance, than to bend such rules to suit the rule to any motion, real or imaginary, of she substantial justice of any particular case. A great deal had been said on the equitable construction which ought to be put upon this statute. He did not assent to this doctrine, for he conceived that all acts of parliament should be construed with 406 strictness by that court which was to judge of its own power as it was derived under such acts. He had heard it said, that nothing which was done by Parliament could be undone by any power but that of Parliament, and Parliament might be induced to do something in this very case if the petition should be rejected: but that had nothing to do with the present question; and, as to an equitable construction of an act of parliament, especially when proposed to that House in judging of its own power under it, he objected to the principle altogether, because equitable constructions were very vague in their nature, and what appeared equitable to one man might appear quite unjust to another, and therefore it would be extremely dangerous to construe acts of parliament upon the vague notions of equitable construction, on the determinations of the House, upon questions relating to the extent of its own power. As to what had; been said on the subject of precedents, he did not assent to it, for they appeared not to have been in force more than sixteen years, nor were they uniform, for there might be twenty instances, even in that time, of petitions being different from those which had been quoted. He had looked into many upon this subject lately, and the result of his research entitled him to say this upon the current of precedents upon this subject. He agreed it was not necessary that the petition should state, in express terms, that they had or claimed the right of voting at the election of which they complained; but then he insisted on it, that it must be collected from the petition somewhere, that the petitioners either had, or claimed to have, a right to vote at the election of which they complained, otherwise mere strangers might complain as well as electors, a grievance which the legislature intended to prevent. Precedents were well enough to be resorted to, if the act of parliament was dark, or obscure; in such a case it would be well enough to look to former decisions; but if the act of parliament was clear, whatever number of precedents; there might be, they could be of no force against the meaning of such an act, for that would be to set up the judicial authority of t that House against the authority of an act of parliament, that was allowing one branch of the legislative power to annul the solemn act of the whole.—Now, he said, it was impossible to look at this act of parliament without seeing that there was but one construction to be put upon it. The act of parliament gave the House directions 10 decide whether a petition complaining of an 407 undue election or return should be committed or not, and it stated what such a petition shall contain, and without which the petition should not be sent to a Committee, for it said that no proceeding shall be had on a petition—not that it shall not be decided upon, but that no proceeding can be had on it unless there be said there in, that the persons who complained were persons who claimed a right to vote at the election: and it was impossible to set up the practice of the House against an act of parliament. Looking at the preamble of the bill which governed this case, if was easy to see what was the inconvenience which the act stated it to be the object of the act to avoid, it stated, that frivolous petitions were presented by those who had no right, &c, and to prevent that practice, it was enacted, That no petition shock be proceeded upon, unless the persons presenting it has an interest in the event of the election, it therefore appeared to him to be quite impossible to entertain a petition, which did not state that interest in the petitioners at the Shoe of the election. It was said, that the. House had drawn the party into this difficulty by receiving; the petition in this session. He did net feel the force of that observation; as well might it be said that a court of justice had drawn a suitor into a difficulty, by permitting his suit to be. carried on perhaps for twelvemonth, and finally deciding, after objection taken arid argument upon the question, that the case did not come within the jurisdiction of the court. There were individual sacrifices that were indeed to be lamented when they happened, but they must be made for the preservation of the consistency of the law But it appeared to him, that these parties were, not without redress in this case, for there was no act of Parliament which limited the times of presenting an election petition; there was only a resolution of the House to that effect. It was easy or for the House to get rid of that resolution, as it applied to this case, and to say, that the parties shall have leave now to present another petition, which might be done immediately, conformably to the provisions of the act of Parliament. There was no difficulty for the House to dispense with it's own resolution in this particular, and so do away at once the hardship of the case—a thing which had been done very often in order to avoid an extreme hardship in other eases, and the House had a right to make its own rules subservient to justice at any time.—That would be removing all doubt. upon the subject; bur if the Hour's had no jurisdiction in ibis case to entertain this pention, as he conceived it had not, then it would be 408 in vain to send the petition to a committee, because the committee, which was but an emanation of the House, could not have any authority delegated from the House more than the House possessed, and therefore the decision of the committee could not be binding This would be die necessary consequence of following the course proposed by those who wished to send this petition to a committee. He said that this was not a case within the act of Parliament, and therefore that all the House did upon it must in law be null and void.
The Attorney General
said, that perhaps the monstrous injustice of this case might have had some influence upon his judgment, for most unquestionable it was, that monstrous injustice would he done to the petitioners, if the petition should now be rejected. If the argument upon which the motion was founded was wrong, the reason which was proposed by the hon. gent, who moved it would be worse even than adopting the petition, supposing ins objections to it to be well-founded, because it would be trespassing more upon the act of Parliament, than even a wrong adoption of this petition, which he maintained they were not; it would be open for the committee to consider the merits of the petition. If they were wrong in receiving the petition, the judgment of the committee would correct them, whereas if they were wrong in rejecting the petition, the question would be shut for ever. He thought, therefore, that in a question where these was a considerable degree, of doubt, the House would do we'd to send it to a committee, rather than decide for themselves; for, in the one ease, the error might be corrected, and in the other, it was impossible. From the year 1788 down to the present time, the practice or the House upon this question did not create any doubt whatever; for, petitions similar to the present had been frequently entertained, and it might be called an interpretation of the law by that House, and by receiving such petitions, they may be said to have pronounced judgment upon tins statute. The case was not such as his hon. and learned friend over the way (Mr. Jekyll) stated it; for lie had compared ibis case with the decisions of courts of justice upon cases of quo warranto, &c Between the proceedings of courts of justice in such cases, and the decisions of the House upon questions of petitions, he perceived no analogy; for court? or justice, in cases of quowarranto, had frequently decide, that individuals were worng, in the apprehension of their own rights, but, in this case, it was the practice of the House which had decided 409 upon the forms of petitions that were presented to it; besides, it the practice of the House for so many years was inconsistent with the true spirit of the act of Parliament, he was of opinion, that the best mode would be to pass another act, specifying the very words which such petition should contain, rather ban now, by a single vote, overturn that practice; because in that case the House could not be said to be legislating; for itself; for they must have the concurrence of another House of Parliament, as well as the royal absent, before such vote could have the force of Jaw. As to the preamble of she act, the grievance to be avoided was, that persons should not be allowed to petition, who did not at least claim a right of election, that nobody should be allowed to call in question the merits of an election, but those who claimed the right to vote at it. Now this was not all which electors were obliged lo do upon presenting a petition, they were not only obliged to state an apparent right of election, but before they could succeed in the object of their petition, they were bound to prove it. The committee could go into the question as it related to both these questions; namely, whether he statement in the petition was such as the act required, so as to entitle the petitioners to inquiry; and, second1y they could examine the proofs. But the House could go only into one of them, viz. whether the statement was sufficent to satisfy the spirit of the act. All that could be stated to the House was mere matter of form in such case, for the House could not inquire into the merits of the subject. This House could not inquire, whether the petitioners had a right to petition or not. It could only inquire whether they had regularly stated and claimed that right, and in that view, he was of opinion, that in the present case it was Sufficiently stated, and he thought that question a very important one. When he said that the spirit of the act was complied with, he meant, that in substance the petition did contain an allegation of the petitioners having a right to vote, and it was manifest to them, that a single dash of the pen. might have answered all the objections of the hon. gent, himself the petition would have been perfectly correct—the object was, that none but those who claimed a right to vote, should be permitted to petition. Now, he was of opinion, that the petitioners, by stating themselves to be freeholders, of the county, had in substance told the House they claimed the right to vote by entertaining this petition, it only said, that this subject should be inquired of by the Committee, and as to the practice of the House, which the 410 hon. gent, seemed to expect, in presenting petitions, it was pretty clear that a reference to the right, of the petitioners to vote at elections, existing in them at the time of the election, was very seldom stated in the petition. It was a course seldom followed by any of the petitions since die passing of the last bill; but now he Collected from the hon. gent, (who whispered across the table) that, therefore, all such petitions were in themselves wrong—if it was nor, he entreated of the House to look at the injustice of rejecting this petition now. for it would be a great hardship indeed, to alter the course of proceeding at this moment, and to tell these petitioners at once, for the first lime, that their petition could not be received just on the eve of their trial;, without any notice whatever, and without any intimation whatever, to the people of this country that such petitions were wrong; the people of tills country had a right to expect that the House of Commons would not be in the habit of receiving petitions inadvertently and improperly, had a right to take it for granted, that all the petition the House of Commons had received for the lat thirteen years had been regularly received, and they had a right to complain that they had been very improperly treated and deluded by that House, if by its vote it should now tell them that this petition must be rejected. The inconvenience of it would be indescribable, for all other petitions of a similar nature must share the fate of this petition; there were perhaps twenty of them remaining, and none of them could be received if this was rejected. Such he believed to be the case of perhaps one-half of the petitions now remaining; of Durham, Aylesbury, Hereford, Stirling, and various other places. It, perhaps, might appear that not one of them contained the allegation required by the hon. gent, of the right to vole at the election; besides, he said, that in his opinion, the present petition did in fact satisfy the object of the act of Parliament, bin if it did not, it was at most but a doubtful case, and if so, there was every reason for sending it to a Committee.—He thought, that upon the principle of the Grenville Act, the House ought to send this petition to a Committee. If the party stated in his petition that which on the face of it shewed that Ire had no by claim to vote at the election, the House would at once say it should not go to a Committee, because, in that case, there would not be nothing to try; but if he did state a colourable title to vote, then the House would not decide the question. but send it to a committee to be tried. Here, in commonsense 411 and common language, the petitioners told the House they claimed the right to vote, for they told the House they were freeholders of the county, and they complained of the election; they considered it a grievance, and they asked relief; they stated themselves to be in a situation in which they had a right to vote at the election of which they complained, and therefore he said their case came within the sense of the act of Parliament, consequently that the petition should be received. He then quoted the case of the election for the county of Carmarthen, which he said was precisely in point; this very objection was taken, but it was over-ruled by the Committee, and that decision of the Committee had never been questioned by the House. But if that had not been so decided, there would have remained about this case, at least a sufficient degree of doubt to induce the House to send it to a Committee, because, otherwise, the question would be closed, arid the party could never be heard, which would be a ease of infinite hardship and injustice; so much I so, that the hon. gent himself, who made the motion, would, he was confident, regret the success of his own motion. He asked, what the public would have thought of this case, if it were the case of his right hon. friend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, if such a petition as this had been presented against him, and he were to suffer it to be received, suffered a day to be appointed for its discussion, and (hen, on the very day before it was to be taken into consideration, he was to start up, and tell the House that, many of the petitions which had been received by the House en the subject of elections, while he was in the chair, were improperly received; that now, for the first time, he must tell the House so, and that he must insist upon the law which prohibited the House from proceeding on such a petition. He apprehended that such conduct in a person connected with government, weald surprize both the House and the public, and yet such was the nature of the present motion; for these reasons he should vote against the present motion.
§ Mr. Fonblanque
supported the motion. It only required to look at the petition and at the act, to be convinced that the terms of the statute bad not been complied with. This was a question of great importance, both as it respected the parties and as it respected the practice of the House. But the question was. whether by their own discretion, the House were to set aside an act of Parliament. He then read part of the act, and observed, that it was impossible any one could think 412 that this petition had complied with its demands. If the act was vicious, it might be repealed or altered; but as long as it was an act, it ought to be observed. His learned friend (the Attorney General) had said, that this would be a "monstrous injustice to the parties. It would be, indeed, a very great hardship, but it would be better that this hardship should be inflicted, than that an act of Parliament should be infringed upon. His learned friend had said, that the Committee had the power of judging whether any thing was wrong in the petition; but he contended this was not the case, as it would by this means be assuming the authority of the House, and might perhaps at least presume to reverse what the House should hive adopted. Pie wondered that precedents were so much relied on, when the act itself was clear and explicit. It had been said, that the form of the petition was not of importance, but who did not know that a "dash of the pen" was of the last consequence in many things. The petitioners might say that they were aggrieved, but they did not state upon their petition the very qualification that proved that they were aggrieved.
observed, that he was of opinion that the motion ought to be negatived, upon these grounds. The object of the act was to prevent the House from being harassed with improper petitions, and stated that none such should be proceeded upon. But the House had received many petitions since, not strictly conformable to this act, and in this very business they had proceeded upon already; and therefore the objection to it came too late. Pie admitted, that had it been urged when the petition was first presented, it could not have been so easily answered. Since this was a motion certainly not very honourable for justice to the individuals, it was only a case of necessity that could compel its adoption. But the objection now was too late, and therefore he gave it his decided negative.
§ Mr. Dallas
thought this a case of much importance, and that it ought to be seriously considered. He thought the question as it stood now, was very different from what it would have been if the objection had been made when that petition was presented; for if the House had rejected it then, it would have been competent, and very easy for the party to have presented another petition free from objection, but now that was become impossible, and the injustice of the case would be enormous if the petition was rejected now, for there would be no remedy left. If the reasoning of the hon. gent, who moved this question, was adopted by the 413 House, it would be telling the people of England that the House by overlooking an act of Parliament which told the House its duty, had deceived a number of petitioners, but there was now no help for it, for on a sudden they had seen their error, and all petitioners who had been governed by their decisions upon this point, could not have their cases stated. He thought the House was not driven by imperious necessity to any-such desperation. It might have been desirable, that the petition had been more specifically worded; but he did not think, that the act of Parliament prevented the Mouse from sending this petition before a Committee, for which reason he should vote against the motion.
said a few words upon the subject of precedent, and observed, there was not one exactly like the present case.
said, that it had been stated that the words of the act were not of a peremptory or mandatory nature; that it was now too late to state the objection, and it might properly come under the cognizance of the Committee. Had gentlemen, however, perused the words of the act, they must at once have seen how unfounded these observations were. The clause was peremptory and clear. It first declares shat no proceedings should be held under the petition, unless the persons by whom it was signed had therein asserted their claim to the right of voting at that election. And secondly, imposes a personal obligation on them, within fourteen days, to enter into the proper recognizances. If such were not entered into, the Speaker was directed to report the same to the House; and on such, report, the order for taking the petition into consideration was immediately to be discharged. It was clear that in neither of these cases was the point to go before the Committee for their decision, because no discretion was even left with the House as to those particulars. On the report of the Speaker, that the petitioners had failed to enter into the recognizances required, would it be contended that the House was entitled to exercise a discretionary power? To say that they knew the petitioners' credit to be such, that there was no necessity for recognizances being entered into, and that therefore the petition might still be entertained? They unquestionably could not. All discretionary power was then gone from them, and the petition must be discharged. The whole question for the consideration of the House at present was, did such words occur in the petition as warranted them, under the enact- 414 ment of the statute, in entertaining it? It was no answer to say, that they had proceeded for fourteen years, without attending to the statute. Now that the point was brought before them, they were bound to determine it. The only question was as to the words of the petition. He should therefore suggest to the honourable mover to alter his motion, and put in it this form, "Dots the petition contain words suficiently expressive of the requisition in the stalute, that the petitioners therein claim to have a right of voting at that election?"
§ Sir William Pulteney
said, lie agreed with the honourable gentleman who spoke last, that that would be the fair way of stating the question, and if it were so put, he should have no difficulty in saying, that the petition did substantially comply with the act, and upon that ground he should give his vote against the motion. With regard to whether the Committee had a right to discuss: this point or not, he should not enter into that consideration at present, but should give his vote upon the ground he had already stated.
§ Mr. Fox
expessed his surprise at the extraordinary nature of the arguments adduced on the other side. He was concerned to see so much indifference prevail on a question of so much importance, and that gentlemen had so completely lost sight of the question before them. It was not what was justice to this or that party which they were called on to determine, but what was the duty incumbent, in such a case on that House. An, hon. relation of his (Mr. Grenville) had said, that the intention of the act was to restore to the House the rights which it possessed previous to the statute of the 10th of the King. Whatever might have been the intention of the Legislature in this respect, he maintained, however, that such intention it had not carried into effect. The Legislature had there clearly and explicitly prescribed and laid down to the House, how they were to act, and had invested them with no discretionary powers whatever.—Another hon. and learned gent, had admitted the necessity of some statement, similar to that pointed out in the act, being contained in the petition, but how did he get quit of this? By saying, let it go to the Committee, and be there decided. The legislature, however, had drawn a clear line of distinction between the duties or that House and of the Committee. To the House it had said, "You shall not proceed on any petition in which the petitioners do not claim a right to vote at the election against 415 which they petition." To the Committee it had said, "You shall decide on what shall be sent to you by the House," The learned gen. (Attorney General) had characterised the omission as one which might be corrected by a "dash of the pen." This, however was no answer. There were no omissions or flaws, which a greater or smaller "dash of the pen" might not on the same principle supply and retify. The act clearly pointed out to the House what must he stated to them, before they could proceed in such petitions. Had the petitioners in the present case used words; to express such a meaning? No. They had not even stated that they were-aggrieved. "Oh" but says an hon. gent. "if they had not been aggrieved upon what principle can we presume that they would have petitioned?" The act, however, declared, that let their grievances be ever so great, if not described in a particular way, they were not entitled to be heard on them in that House. The decision of the Carmarthen Committee had been referred to, but as he was not acquainted with the grounds of it, he should not express an opinion upon it. he would, however, ask, would that Committee have presumed to find the petition frivolous and vexatious? Had they done so, what would have been the answer of the petitioners? We never pretended to have any right to vote at this election We felt ourselves aggrieved indeed as Englishmen, as electors of Middlesex, as electors even of Carmarthen, though not at the time of the. election, but we have never in our petition stated any claim to a title to vote at the election petitioned against." This clearly would be a satisfactory answer. The House was unwarranted in entertaining the petition even for a moment. It had been objected that he had not made his motion in suficient time. He wished he had attended to the objection at the time, and he would most unquestionably have made it. The charge, however, equally applied to every other member of the House. The argument of the hon. gent, was, "You have missed your time, and cannot now take the matter into consideration." Such language might do extremely well among parties. If it were the business of the sitting member to make the objection, this might have been an exceedingly good answer. When made to Parliament, however, it was completely inapplicable. They were called on to consider whether they discharged their duty, if they set aside an act of Parliament merely for the convenience of persons who had neglected lo comply with its enactments. What 416 else were they doing in the present instance? He would defy the best judge of the interpretation of the English language, to point out words more clearly, more imperative and commanding, than those on which his motion was founded. An hon. gent, had charged him with not having even said that he did not believe that the petitioners were not freeholders of Middlesex. He really thought the hon. gent, not serious, when he made this remark. What had the House to do I with the fact, whether they were freeholders or Dot? They had no title to inquire into it. Had the petition been signed by Susan and Mary, and a number of names, not one of which, it was evident, could be freeholders or electors, still they were bound to receive the petition, if it described the petitioners in the manner provided by the act. It had been so found for him in a petition I presented by the electors of Westminster. In God's name, what could be done under this act, but discharge the petition? The petitioners had not even by inuendo insinuated that they had a right to vote. A person might present a petition saying he was a householder, a freeman, or any other term which he chose to adopt, but it must be impossible for the House to know that such title gave him a right to vote in any particular place for a member of Parliament. If he had stated: himself to be an inhabitant, would that hare been thought sufficient? Would the House have gone into a question of law, and heard evidence, for the purpose of establishing such a point? The idea was ridiculous; but it must follow, if the enactment of the statute be not adhered to, which requires the petitioners explicitly to describe themselves as having a claim to the right of voting. He regretted that a noble lord who had been much engaged in election committees (Lord Gienbervie) was not in his place, that the House might have heard his opinion on the subject. If the House negatived his motion he should feel it his duty to apply for appeal of the act, that they might not have petitions flying in the face of for every day. At to the regret so pathetically expressed by gentlemen, that the petitioners should lose the opportunity of vindicating their rights merely from an accidental circumstance, that had received a very satisfactory answer from the learned Serjeant under the gallery, who had pointed out to them how frequently such foreclosures occurred in a court of justice. Notwithstanding the doubt which almost every gentleman had expressed on the subject, he must again declare his conviction, that not the most distant degree of 417 ambignity was perceptible to him on the most minute investigation of the act. As to the form, he had no objection to have the question put in the manner suggested by his hon. friend (Air. Sheridan). The hardship which agreeing to the motion would throw on the people of England, he could not conceive. He had been told that Ids motion did not deserve favour it asked none. Were gentlemen to enter into the argument, they would find, that, however harsh the maxim it would still prevail that ignornntia legis non excusat. He then proposed to have the question put as suggested by Mr. Sheridan, when—
§ The Speaker
rose and observed, that there was already a question before the House, and until that was disposed of, no one could, consistently with order, be received.
§ Mr. Fox
apologised by saying, he certainly did not mean to propose any such question, without the leave of the House. [Here there was an urgent call of Question!Question!] Mr. Fox observed, he was well aware that there were many gentlemen who would vote upon this question, who were better inclined to vote for the conclusion of a syllogism, than fur the component parts of it and it was not difficult to divine how they would decide in the present case. This was what was usually termed Royal voting It reminded him of a story of Ptolemy, king of Egypt, who wanted to be extremely earned, without the trouble of much consideration, and upon asking Euclid, or some such bum drum fellow, how he might become so, was answered, "that there was no royal road to mathematics." He concluded with expressing his hope, that the House would not, by its decision this night, violate the letter and spirit of an act of Parliament, passed for its own guidance, by assuming a discretionary power of dispensing, in any case, with its positive letter, and obvious spirit and meaning, and thereby create a precedent, which would, to ail intents and purposes, annul that act, and open a door to endless litigations. The question being put on Mr. fox's original motion;
§ the House divided, Ayes, 24; Noes. 06; Majority 72.