HC Deb 22 January 1808 vol 10 cc83-94

Viscount Hamilton appeared at the bar, and presented the Report of the committee to whom the Address voted last night to his majesty was referred. Upon the motion that the said report be brought up,

Mr. Macdonald

said, that he could not suffer that last stage of the address to pass without recording his dissent from its substance. He could not express approbation of the expedition to Copenhagen, because no grounds had been laid before the house to justify it. It had been said yesterday, that the eyes of Europe were upon the British parliament, and it would be unfortunate, therefore, if its first act, by coming to a blind decision upon this question, should be such as to disgrace it. There was not time, he contended, between the Treaty of Tilsit, and the sailing of admiral Gambier, for ministers to have received intelligence of the engagements entered into at that treaty. The armaments and stores collected at Copenhagen, therefore, were not provided in consequence of such engagements. Ministers ought to produce to the house the information upon which they had acted; for if they had received it from any of our ministers at the Northern courts, those gentlemen were now in safety. He regretted that his majesty's speech had not held out any prospect of peace; and he thought it inconsistent that ministers should adhere to forms which obstructed peace, whilst they rejected all forms in their attack upon a neutral nation.

Mr. Fuller

said, he did not think it fair to attack ministers as to the expedition to Copenhagen. If the same conduct had been adopted towards the fleet of Spain, upon a former occasion, this country would not have had to fight the battle of Trafalgar, where the gallant Nelson had lost his life. He could not blame ministers for having taken the precaution which they had done, but, in his opinion, they had hardly done enough in not taking advantage of their knowledge of the Tilsit negotiations. Call him the Crown Prince, or the half-a-crown Prince, or what you would, it was certainly most absurd to say, that he and his confederates should be believed in every assertion they were pleased to make, and that not one word coming from our own government should be credited. He believed that the right hon. the chancellor of the exchequer was really a man of honour and integrity, and that no man could, with justice, venture to dispute it. He was certainly convinced, that what he had set forth was the real fact, and that if he were to give up his original source of information, some person or persons world be sacrificed. He gave him full credit for his conduct upon this Occasion, and he should conclude by saying to him, as some gentlemen, on the opposite side, would never cease to urge objections against the measures of the existing government, 'never mind them, pursue your duty, and leave them where you find them.'

Mr. Hibbert

wished, that the speech and the sentiments of ministers had breathed more the spirit of peace. He would neither despond nor encourage despondency; but we ought to look at the situation of the country. The doctrine of our independance on commerce was safe and good, so far as it shewed that we had, besides commerce, an object worth defending, and the means of defence; but dangerous and to be reprobated in that house, if it taught indifference concerning the sources whence experience proved us to have derived much of our wealth and naval power. But, even the converts to these new theories ought to look with satisfaction towards peace, inasmuch as it would enable us to transfer to our rivals whatever portion we pleased of the evil of our foreign commerce.—Was it doubted, whether British commerce was suffering? The industrious inhabitants, of Yorkshire would in part answer the question. It had been observed, on very sufficient authority (Mr. Milnes), that their Petition did not originate in party spirit. Surely, it was on that account entitled to the more consideration by ministers; it was indeed the natural expression of the feelings of a laborious and loyal people, wrung from them by distress which they had endured long and patiently: shew them a sufficient cause and they will endure still more and longer. No such cause was explicitly pointed out to them in his majesty's speech. Let it be considered, too, that the war was assuming a new character of furious inveteracy, not experienced since the times of barbarism. Was it possible that any one in that house could regard with complacency the privations and the sacrifices which this new mode of warfare must inflict upon all classes of people, not in these kingdoms only, but throughout all Europe? and was it politic to subject this country, both at home and abroad, to the imputation of wantonly and unnecessarily prolonging this universal scourge? If we could not now clearly make out our case to be that of defensive war, must we not at last admit, that we continued the contest merely for the chance of events, that might enable us at some time or other, God knows how or when, to treat on terms of more advantage? But the chances of war should be coupled with its inevitable evils in our calculations, and it would be politic also to consider what might be the chances of peace. Did peace present no probabilities either at home or abroad which might better our situation and render us the fitter to cope with future difficulties? Might not peace loosen some of those bonds in which the states of Europe are now enslaved, and lay the foundation of new alliances against new, encroachments? or, looking at home to our sister Island, might not even a few years of peace present to us the opportunity of allaying the discontents of Ireland, and of securing for us her faithful and hearty support in any new contest? a support which might render us fearless about the event.— Negotiation had been spoken of as a dangerous experiment, a situation to be shunned; and the last negotiation had been branded as disgraceful from its length. Whatever disgrace might result from a patient perseverance in the attempt to give peace to Europe, this country had at least retired from that negotiation with the highest reputation for strict honour and. inviolable fidelity to engagements; a character, which, if it had been maintained, might have given us the best title to the confidence of foreign courts, and have fixed a value upon our alliance: advantages incalculable whenever the occasion may arise for resisting, under better auspices, the encroachments of France. It were well if this character had now remained to us; that we had persevered through every stage of this disastrous contest, taking for our maxim "Malo me forunæ pœniteat quam Victoriœ pudeat," so that at the termination of the struggle, if we had neither extended our territories nor our influence in Europe, we might yet have boasted that we had not embraced the principles nor stooped to the means of our adversary. This boast, he feared, we now could not make; from all that yet appeared, from all that ministers would suffer the house to know, we had blemished the integrity of our cause by an act, which neither in its origin could plead that necessity which is paramount to justification, nor in its accomplishment displayed advantage or splendor sufficient to veil, however imperfectly, the depravity of its character. The hon. gent. protested against any approbation, to be implied front the terms of the address, by those on that side of the house, of the expedition against Copenhagen: he considered them as unfettered, whenever that and other questions connected with the address, should come under the distinct consideration of the house. On the subject of peace he earnestly besought ministers to reflect that an industrious people could only support a war so protracted and so arduous, under the hope of peace; a hope which must be extinguished, unless ministers should prove themselves disposed to peace, upon fair terms, and open to negotiation for the purpose of obtaining it.

Mr.M A. Taylor

should take another opportunity of stating his sentiments on the Danish Expedition, and should content himself declaring them in passing, that as an Englishman he felt disgraced by it. He had risen only to state what he knew of the proceedings in Yorkshire. He had been applied to by very respectable delegates from that county to become the chairman of their meeting, but had declined, and endeavoured to dissuade them from their purpose of petitioning for peace. He assured them, that such a proceeding would do no good, and might embarrass government in the negociation which he supposed was then carrying on. To his arguments they had replied, that they were starving, not only from the effects of the war, but of the late Orders in Council. He advised them, instead of petitioning against the war and the Orders in Council, to petition for the removal of the king's ministers. [Hear! Hear!] He repeated that he had given this advice, and he contended that there were men to be found in that house, who would conduct the affairs of the country with greater honour and more prospect of peace than the present ministers.


rose merely for the purpose of asking for an explanation from minisers upon one point in the speech, which, according to his construction of it, appeared utterly irreconcileable with truth. They had been told, that as soon as the Treaty of Tilsit had been signed, his majesty had been apprized of the design of the enemy to employ the Danish fleet against this country, and the speech added, that it then became the duty of his majesty to place that fleet out of the reach of the enemy. The Treaty of Tilsit had been signed on the 7th of July, and it was not till the 8th of August that the intelligence of that event had reached this country. Admiral Gambier sailed from England on the 26th of July, and what he wished to be informed of was, whether ministers had received the intelligence of the Treaty of Tilsit in sufficient time to allow of the necessary delay in moving troops to the coast, providing transports, embarking, &c. previous to the sailing of the expedition; that he believed to be impossible: the speech front the throne was not to be discussed in that house alone, it would go forth to Europe, and be combated paragraph by paragraph, by men who would not want dexterity in examining its contents, and it was therefore the more necessary to correct the anachronism, and not send the speech forth with its own refutation. In philosophy, the cause preceded the effect, here the effect preceded the cause. He desired to know, therefore, Whether ministers had information of the secret articles of the Treaty of Tilsit previous to the sailing of the expedition, or Whether their information related to any engagements entered into previous to the signing of that treaty?

Mr. Pym

observed, that it would have been proper, before ministers involved us in fresh wars, for them to consider, whether the cause of them was just. He might approve of their conduct as to the Copenhagen expedition completely, when further information was laid before the house, but, with only such facts as those that had hitherto been stated, he could not possibly acquiesce in that part of the address which implied a tacit acknowledgment of the propriety of their proceedings, and on that account he should wish, that that part of it should be left out. With regard, to the question of peace or war, it had been said, that because we had a most triumphant navy, and were at war with all the continent, this was not the hour to make peace. For his part, however, he did really believe, that this was the very Moment, above all others, when it was both our interest and our duty to try to procure it ; it being recollected, that we had been no less than 15 years engaged in an arduous warfare. He was sure that the people of this country now ardently longed for it, and he believed, too, that the inha bitants of the continent were also completely tired of war. He was convinced that we might have had peace long ago, had effectual means been adopted to obtain that great and most desirable object.


had intended to say but a few words on the present occasion, but from the turn which the debate had taken, and the opinions which had been last night expressed concerning the negotiations at Tilsit, and particularly by his right hon. friend opposite, (Mr. Bathurst) opinions which he was surprised to hear from that quarter, he had,felt it his duty to state his sentiments on this subject. His majesty's ministers had declared, that shortly after the negotiations took place at Tilsit, his majesty had been apprised of the intention of the enemy to turn the Danish and Portuguese fleets against this country, and that then it became the first duty of his majesty, as protector of his kingdom, to prevent those navies from being employed to aid the designs of the enemy. His majesty had told them, that he had been apprized of such intentions of the enemy; and what were they to do, but, as they approved of his measures, to assure his majesty, that they participated in his regret that hostility could not be avoided, whilst they congratulated him on the success With which that hostility had been attended? It had been said, that sufficient grounds had not been stated to justify the measure; but he would ask any man acquainted with public business, whether the nature of our government was not such, that the government could not proceed if it did not often act upon grounds which could not, consistently with the interests of the country, be made public? Upon this ground he would give his confidence to government, without regard to the persons of whom it might be composed. Upon the same grounds he would have given his confidence to the late government, though it was known, that he had not been in the habit of concurring in their measures, if they had made his maj. declare in his speech, that he had sufficient grounds for the measures they might adopt. Did not every man of common sense know, that measures of war were often taken, when no information could be divulged or was even received to justify them? The difficulty of procuring intelligence in the present instance, rendered it still more necessary not to expose those sources which yet remained to us. He was conscientiously of opinion, that more inconvenience had arisen to this country, from im- provident grants of information, and from the government being so urgently pressed for the production of papers, than from any other cause. This he would assert without reference to any set of men: 'Nullius addictus jurare in verba magistri.' He was old enough to remember the American war, and he could state from opportunities which he had of personally knowing the fact, that in consequence of the production of the papers relative to the sailing of the Toulon fleet, on the motion of a gentleman of very high talents, now no more, (Mr. Fox) the French had been enabled to cut off a source of intelligence, which this country had possessed in Holland since the reign of queen Anne. Was there not enough on the face of such papers, to enable the enemy to trace the source whence they might have, been received? He would give credit to government for having received the intelligence. On that fact he would rest his foot, and give his approbation to the measure. Admitting, then, the fact, that such arrangements were formed as had been stated, the next question was, whether we were justifiable in following them up with an attack upon Denmark; and this, he asserted, did not admit of doubt. He shrewdly suspected, that there had been a great deal of collusion for a considerable time, between the ministers of Denmark, for of the Crown Prince he wished to speak with the respect due to his rank, more especially as he was nearly allied to our own most gracious sovereign. But setting this presumption altogether aside, he contended, that the existence of so powerful a fleet in the hands of so weak a power was itself a sufficient justification of the measures of precaution which had been adopted. Deprecating the repetition of such discussions as they had heard, of the principles of abstract right, more worthy of schoolboys than of statesmen and legislators, and upon which the philosophers of the continent so much insisted, while at the same time they showed themselves so insensible to the principles of wrong, he declared that, as an impartial man, sitting upon the great process of his country, he would bring in his verdict—not guilty. The circumstance of the Danish army being assembled in Holstein at the time the attack was made on Zealand, he thought might have been contrived in order to preserve appearances, and to disguise their future intentions, and he could very well account for the surprize of their government on seeing the island of Zealand surrounded so rapidly and unexexpectedly with a naval and military armament, from the tardiness which they had been accustomed to witness in our former expeditions. At any rate, their avowed inability to defend themselves against the power of Russia some years ago, when on that very account they went to war with this country, was a satisfactory proof that they could not do it now against the combined powers of Russia and France; and it would hardly be maintained, that we ought to have sat quietly still and seen them marshalled among our enemies. It was not to be forgotten too, that a negociation preceded hostilities, and that they had the option of delivering up their fleet in deposit, or of going to war with this country. The great moral maxim of "Do as you would be done by" was equally applicable to nations and to individuals, and he had no hesitation in saying that, had he been a Dane, he would not have felt his honour compromised in acceding to the alternative offered by the British government.—Upon the other prominent topic in the speech, he declared it as his firm opinion, that there was no probability of obtaining from the present government of France, any terms of peace compatible with the honour and security of this country; of this he had been convinced ever since the. Treaty of Amiens, which he had supported merely by way of experiment. But after the experience we had of the dispositions of the enemy, in the short interval of hostilities, he was persuaded, that on the day on which peace should be signed, our real dangers would commence. At the same time, he thought, that no opportunity ought to be omitted of negociation, were it merely for the purpose of informing, the people, who knew but little of the political interests of the country, of what we were fighting for. He advised ministers, however, in any negociation, to take a high ground, and that of the most perfect equality. At present, he sincerely deprecated all petitioning on the part of the people, because it could do no good, and would only tend to embarrass government and embolden the enemy.

Mr. Windham

expressed a wish, that he could agree with the right hon. gent. on all the topics of his speech, as much as he did on that with which he concluded. He deprecated as much as the right hon. gent. all petitions for peace, and for the same reason, because they could do no good, and might be productive of much mischief. Peace no doubt was in itself desirable, and it was not to be supposed that any government could be insensible to the motives of those who were most desirous of it, even though they were expressed much less strongly than in the petitions that might come before the house. He was prepared, however, even to go farther than the right hon. gent. and to declare his opinion, that honour in any peace which should now be concluded, might be considered as totally out of the question. Safety now was all that we need look for, and this was all that he would ask: Now give kind dullness, memory and rhyme, We'll put off genius till another time. Could peace be made on terms that would put the country into any reasonable state of safety, he for one was willing "to put off honour till another time." He was sorry that on the other topics which the right hon. gent. had introduced into his Speech, he was under the necessity of widely differing with him. He had laid down certain doctrines of generality which he was persuaded were very different indeed from the practice of the right hon. gentleman, and which, from the industry and eagerness with which they were diffused, formed, in his opinion, one of the most alarming features of the present times. It really seemed as if we had arrived at a new epoch of the world, and as if we were about to adopt a system directly the reverse of that which had been hitherto acted upon. The right hon. gent. appeared to treat anciently received principles with as little ceremony as any revolutionary French Committee had ever done, and to take leave of them with telling us, that all these old-fashioned doctrines are changed and exploded. He would still, however, venture to profess an attachment to the old maxim, of honesty being the best policy; a maxim which was just as true when applied to the conduct of nations as of individuals. Nor did he think it sufficient merely to profess it; it was equally essential to act upon it. But an open and public renunciation of this principle was an alarming symptom indeed, and infinitely more fatal to the cause of public morals than many practical deviations from it. It was a state of most hopeless depravity, when people began to adapt their theory to their practice. He advised ministers to stop short in this new career; for he assured them, that they could cut but a poor figure when compared with the enemy, who, from long practice, had ac- quired such a proficiency as to make it in vain for us to attempt now to contend with him. Whatever hopes the hon. gentlemen might entertain of themselves in that respect, he was afraid they would find the country very unhandy and indocile, and too stiff in its old habits of honesty and fair dealing to follow them with any advantage. We were past the age of learning. It was much better for us to stick to our old principles, and to resolve that if it was our fate to die, we should at least die with honour. With respect to the refusal on the part of ministers of declaring the grounds on which they formed their opinion, it had never been disputed that government might receive information, which it would be in the highest degree improper for them to publish. But then a question arose, whether in such cases they ought or ought not to act upon their information? This in some cases might be decided in the affirmative, and in others not. He suspected, however, that in the case in question, instead of preparing troops for an expedition, they had prepared the expedition for the troops. Finding that they had got money in their pockets, they resolved on spending it. They did not know what to do with the army which they had collected, and after some reflection, they said, "God bless us, let us go and attack the Danish fleet." He did not, however, mean now to enter into a discussion of the merits of the question, and his only object in rising was to reprobate the new system of morality which was so assiduously propagated, and which, if propagated with success, would prove a lasting injury to the world.

Mr. Matthew Montague

vindicated the conduct of Ministers in withholding the information of which they professed to be in possession, upon the constitutional provision, which, by granting to the king the prerogative of declaring war, necessarily declared him the sole judge of the grounds on which he ought to go to war.

Mr. Wm. Smith ,

after touching lightly on the Copenhagen business, commended the conduct of the noble lord who was member for Yorkshire, in discountenancing petitions for peace. He would have acted in the same manner if a petition had been proposed in the city he had the honour to represent, though the interests of the inhabitants of that city suffered as much as the interests of any other part of the community, by the continuance of the war. This he would do, in the confidence that his majesty's ministers would omit no opportunity of restoring peace. If he should find that any fair opportunity was neglected, then he would encourage the petitions, with a view to compel ministers to negociate.

Mr. Secretary Canning ,

in answer to a question put by an hon. gent. over the way (Mr. Eden) admitted, that though lord Gambier had sailed from the Downs on the 26th of July, ministers had not received the intelligence of the signing, of the Treaty of Tilsit before the 8th of Aug following. Ministers had not said that they had in their possession any one secret article of the Treaty of Tilsit, but that the substance of such secret articles had been confidentially communicated to his majesty's government, and that such communication had been made a long time previous to the date alluded to by the hon. gent.: as to the inference attempted to be drawn from the advanced state of preparation in which the armament was placed prior to the Treaty of Tilsit, it was notorious, that that armament was then equipping for an entirely distinct object, till the secret intelligence had been received, which made it the duty of ministers to employ that armament in the service in which it had been so successfully engaged.

Mr. Whitbread

was sure that the words of the Declaration against Russia went to rest the justification of the expedition to Copenhagen on the secret articles of the Treaty of Tilsit, though his hon. friend had clearly made out a gross anachronism in attributing the expedition, that set out on the 26th of July, to the effect of a treaty that was not known in this country till the 8th day of the subsequent month. But the right hon. secretary had now confessed that ministers had not in their possession the secret articles, but that they had the substance of those articles. Here he would ask one question, why not state that substance to the house and to the country? for the argument under which ministers tried last night to entrench themselves, namely, that the very fact of communication would disclose the source of it, could not at all apply now; for there was no necessity to give this substance to the house with any reference whatever to the source from whence they had derived it; they could easily state that substance generally, without any mark of designation. A right hon. gent. (Mr. Yorke), had thrown out a doctrine on the topic of public and national morality, from which he entirely dissented, and he was sure, that had that right hon. gent. been a Dane, he would have shed the last drop of his blood sooner than have surrendered the fag end of a cotton rope to England, required in the manner in which the late demand had been made to Denmark. As to peace, he wished that petitions would crowd from, all parts of the empire, and multiply upon the table, unless ministers would satisfy the country of their willingness to enter into a negociation on secure and honourable terms; which he believed were to be had now as readily as at any other period of the war. But there was one thing had fallen from the right hon. gent. to which he must advert: with regard to the tender, the option, as it was called, that was made to the Danes—that if they gave us their fleet, we would defend them from the French; how! we defend them; who were not able, after seizing their fleet, to keep possession of Zealand for one winter! The Danes must now see, that had they been mean enough to have acceded to our proposals, we could not have fulfilled our stipulations, and that, therefore, we were determined either to rob or to defraud them. He did think that ministers were bound, as they regarded their own honour, but much more as they regarded the honour of the country, till their time unstained, to give to parliament and to the world, the fullest and the most complete information as to the pretended mystery that led to an attack on a neutral and independent people, unprovoked (apparently at least), and certainly unprecedented in the annals of this country. The right hon. gent. had deprecated this call for papers and information, and thought it injurious to the public service. He could only say, that he believed the great cause of many of the evils with which this country had been afflicted, was owing to the system that had prevailed too generally for the last 15 years, of holding back from the public the papers and documents which had been, upon almost every important occasion, vainly moved for in that house. He should. conclude with repeating his conviction, that ministers had never received, either in substance or in form, the secret information which they alleged they had received, and to which they had attributed that fatal and disgraceful expedition.—The Address was then read and agreed to, and ordered to be presented to his majesty by such members as are of the privy council.

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