HC Deb 20 April 1812 vol 22 cc478-81
Mr. Elliot.

Mr. Speaker; I hold in my hand a Petition from a most respectable, most loyal, and, if honourable ancestry be an object of consideration, a very illustrious portion of his Majesty's subject.—I mean the Roman Catholics of England, who have been pleased to express a wish, that I should be the bearer of their claims to this House. It must be to them, as well as to you. Sir, and to the House, a melancholy recollection, that two years ago these claims were in the hands of one, who bad the means of doing ample justice to any cause, however great and momentous its importance.

Of those splendid talents and powerful and efficacious virtues, we are now bereft —by dispensations which we are not permitted to scrutinize; though, to the narrow views of human judgment, it would seem there never was a period in our history, when the country stood so much in need of such eminent and distinguished qualities, to sustain it against the awful tide of danger which is beating against it. The details of the grievances, of which the petitioners complain, will be found in the petition presented by Mr. Windham, in the year 18110; and it is not my intention, on this occasion, to expatiate at any length on the various topics which grow out of this most copious and productive subject. It may, nevertheless, be not improper for me to recal to the recollection of the House, that the Roman Catholics of England stood in a different predicament from that of any other persons of the same persuasion in any part of his Majesty's dominions. In Canada, the Roman Catholics are on the same footing with their Protestant brethren. In Ireland (I lament to say it,) there are still restrictions on the members of the Roman Catholic Church; but the Catholics of England labour under disabilities, from which their fellow subjects, of the same faith in Ireland, are exempt. The English Catholic cannot vote for a member of parliament; he is shut out of all corporations; he is inadmissible to degrees in the universities; he is not allowed to act as a magistrate; he is excluded from all offices, both civil and military, and so is incapable of serving his Majesty in any commission, either in the army or navy. This is the situation or rather this is the state of disfranchisement of persons, whose names cannot be read by Englishmen without kindling, in their breasts, emotions connected with the memory of the past achievements and ancient renown of the country. This is the predicament of the descendants of those, who, when the Roman Catholic faith was the established religion of the realm, were the roost strenous opposers of foreign influence; and who were not only the proud assertors of the external independence of the kingdom, but were among the founders of our domestic rights and liberties. This is the condition of those, whose ancestors, even in the midst of the religious feuds and animosities which succeeded the Reformation, were still admissible to the martial professions; and not only accompanied, but in some instances led our fleets and armies to battle and to victory, against invading enemies of the Catholic persuasion.

The petitioners state, that "in affection to his majesty's sacred person and government; in zeal for the cause and welfare of the country; in detestation of the views and designs of any foreign power against the dignity of the crown, or the welfare or independence of the kingdom; the English Roman Catholics yield to no portion whatever of his Majesty's subjects." They therefore solicit, respectfully solicit. Sir, to participate in the remaining rights and privileges of the constitution, that they may be enabled more efficaciously to rally round the fortunes of the country, in this hour of its need and peril. With these views, they throw themselves with confidence on the wisdom, the policy, the justice, and I hope I may add, on the hearts and feelings of the members of this House. I propose now only to move, that the Petition do lie upon the table; not meaning, however, to deprive myself of the right of adopting further proceedings on it, in case it should hereafter appear to to me to be my duty to do so. I therefore, shall move, that the Petition be now read, previous to its being laid on the table.

The Petition was then read; setting forth,

"That the petitioners humbly beg leave to represent to the House, that, at the time of his Majesty's accession to the throne, the laws in force in this kingdom against persons professing the Roman Catholic religion were sanguinary and oppressive; and that several of these laws have been repealed by the acts of the 18th and 31st of his present Majesty, but that many are still in force against them, from the effects of which they severely suffer; and that the only ground alleged for continuing these laws in force against them is, their adherence to their religious principles; but the petitioners humbly beg leave to represent to the House, that this adherence ought not injustice to expose them to penalties or disabilities, as they hold no principle which is adverse to his Majesty's government, or the duties of good citizens; they have taken the oaths and signed the declarations prescribed in the acts which have been passed for their relief, and in them have explicitly disclaimed every principle inconsistent with their duty to their king or their country that has ever been charged upon them; and the petitioners submit to the House, that their uniform and irreproachable conduct, and particularly their refusal of those oaths, the taking of which would at once place them on a level with their fellow subjects, are much stronger and more decisive proofs of the integrity of their principles than can be manifested by any oath or declaration whatsoever: and that, in affection to his Majesty's sacred person and government, in zeal for the cause and welfare of the country, in detestation of the views and designs of any foreign power against the dignity of the crown, or the welfare or independence of the kingdom, the English Roman Catholics yield to no portion whatever of his Majesty's subjects; and praying, that the House will take into consideration the penalties and disabilities to which the English Roman Catholics are still subject, and grant them such relief as shall in their great wisdom be deemed expedient." Ordered to lie on the table.