HC Deb 25 February 1813 vol 24 cc742-7
Mr. William Elliot

moved, "That the Resolution of the House of the 22d of June, in the last session of parliament, relative to the Laws affecting his Majesty's Roman Catholic subjects in Great Britain and Ireland, might be read." The said Resolution being read.

Mr. Elliot

said, he had taken the liberty of having this Resolution read, not only because it referred to a Petition which he was about to present, but because it was a vote which must carry with it more than ordinary weight in the future discussion of this momentous question—a Resolution which passed that House at a time when much religious ferment existed throughout the country, and which was decided after the House had refused the Catholic Claims—(Hear, hear!)—but it now stood an honourable memorial upon the records of that House, of the change which had taken place in the minds and sentiments of that House—a change so great, which after some years of long, repeated, and elaborate discussion, had at last obtained the sanction of the legislature: a change of sentiment which four of the most illustrious statesmen that ever graced the annals of the British senate, concurred in, namely, Mr. Burke, Mr. Pitt, Mr. Fox, and Mr. Windham. The Petition he had now the honour to present, was from the same body of persons, for whom he had the honour of presenting a similar Petition last year—the Roman Catholics of England. They then took the liberty of enumerating their grievances, to which he should now shortly advert. The House must be aware that in one quarter of our dominions that principle of policy had been pursued which he should be happy to see extended to all; in Canada there was no distinction on the ground of religion, all there participated equally in the rights and privileges of a British subject, and it must be recollected that in that great convulsion which severed America from the mother country, Canada alone stood firm. In Ireland there still remained a remnant of that unprosperous policy; but the Catholics of England, who were the old stock of all the illustrious families of this country, who were always distinguished for their loyalty and attachment to their sovereign, still laboured under all the disabilities which had ever existed against them. They were excluded from holding any office under the crown; they were excluded from holding any civil office in the country; they were excluded from degrees in the universities; and the respectable Roman Catholic country gentlemen were living in hospitality among their tenantry, but prohibited from acting in the magistracy. The Roman Catholic freeholder was prohibited from voting for members of parliament; they might go into the army, but in order to procure rank the English Catholic must go to Ireland, and there he might obtain the rank of colonel, but no more, and if he again returned to this country, his disability was revived—if the English Catholic went into the navy, by going to Ireland he might arrive at the command of the squadron now lying at Cork; but if by any accident he touched on the shores of England, he was again liable to all the pains and penalties.—There were some persons who had a sort of superstitious reverence for this principle, and hugged themselves in it, as if it were the very talisman of the constitution. But the last parliament had thought differently, and had felt that these restrictions were an eternal disgrace to our statute books, and ought to be repealed. These petitioners trusted the present parliament would follow up the spirit of that resolution, and remove those disabilities. Among the signatures to this Petition, were the names of some of the most illustrious families of this country—they professed a different religion; different only from ours, so far as we had rectified and purified it—but in their ecclesiastical policy they were in many respects nearly alike, as well as in many other of their forms and ceremonies. All they asked for was to be admitted to the rights and privileges of a British subject. It must be recollected that when a weak monarch betrayed his country, the Roman Catholic nobility, and a Roman Catholic parliament, supported and maintained the constitution. Who displayed the glory of England in the ever memorable battles of Cressy, Agincourt, and Poictiers, but the Roman Catholic nobility? Who resisted the Spanish Armada, and opposed a papal power, when threatening an invasion of this country? The Roman Catholic nobility: and it must not be forgotten, that for a century and a half they were admitted to the legislature, and took an active part in the councils of the nation. They were supported by this country in Corsica—they were established in Canada—and more recently, not only with our money and our influence, but with our troops, we had supported a Popish people against an ambitious and tyrannical invader—we were not only fighting with Catholic soldiers in our pay, but Catholic generals in our service. He hoped therefore, that this House would take their Petition into its serious consideration: it would thereby secure to itself immortal honour, lay the foundation of our future peace and harmony, and ensure the strength and safety of the nation.

Mr. Yorke

expressed his surprise that the right hon. gentleman should think it necessary to enter into so many topics that might occasion debate, merely on presenting a petition. It was not his intention now to reply to the remarks just offered, but he rose merely to state, that before the House entered regularly upon, the discussion of the Catholic Claims he should move that another document, besides that produced at the request of the right hon. gentleman, should be read, and as often as the subject should be debated he should submit the same motion; it would be that the 9th, 10th, and 11th sections of the Act of the 1st of William and Mary, chap. 2, commonly called the Bill of Rights, be read.

Mr. W. Smith

rose merely to observe, that the body of persons to whom he belonged, the Protestant Dissenters, had on former occasions availed themselves of the assistance of the right hon. gentleman (Yorke), and he was sorry to find that upon the Catholic question their opinions were completely at variance. The Catholics and this Dissenters differed it was true on points of faith, but in loyalty to the executive, and in attachment to the constitution, there was no distinction between them, and as a Protestant Dissenter he pledged himself never to stand up in that House exclusively to obtain the removal of the laws operating against the Dissenters, without coupling with it a motion for the restoration of their rights to the Roman Catholics, who were equally entitled to relief.

The Petition was then brought up and read at length by the Clerk, as follows:

To the Honourable the Commons of Great Britain and Ireland, in Parliament assembled,

"We whose names are under written, Roman Catholics of England, humbly beg leave to represent to your honourable House—

"That in the fourth session of the last parliament, the Roman Catholics of England presented a petition to your honourable House, stating the principal grievances under which they labour; and humbly praying relief:

"That in the last session of parliament, your honourable House came to a resolution for taking into its most serious consideration, early in the then next session of parliament, the laws affecting his Majesty's Roman Catholic subjects in Great Britain and Ireland, with a view to a final and conciliatory adjustment.

"That your petitioners, fully confiding in the aforesaid vote of your honourable House, feel themselves called upon, in justice to their families and themselves, again to solicit your attention to the many penal and disabling laws to which the Roman Catholics of England are subject, for adhering to tenets purely religious; while they can confidently assert, without fear of contradiction from any part of their conduct, that in loyalty and fidelity to their sovereign, in attachment to the constitution, and obedience to the laws of their country, they yield to no class what-ever of his Majesty's most loyal subjects.

"That your Petitioners, in thus again approaching your honourable House, beg leave to repeat, that they are actuated not more by a sense of the hardships and disabilities under which they labour, than by a desire to secure, on the most solid foundation, the peace and harmony of the British empire; and to obtain for them-selves opportunities of manifesting by the most active exertions, their zeal and interest in the common cause in which their country is engaged, for the maintenance of its freedom and independence.

"That your petitioners beg leave to remind your honourable House, that they have cheerfully and readily taken the oaths, and signed the declarations, prescribed in the acts which have been passed for their relief; and have expressly disclaimed by them, every principle inconsistent with their duty to their king or their country, that has ever been charged against them.—And they further beg leave to observe, that the refusal of those oaths, the taking of which would at once liberate them from all the penalties and disabilities of which they complain, incontrovertibly prove how sacred they hold the obligation of an oath: your Petitioners also humbly conceive, that further securities cannot reasonably be required from them; but this, with a perfect spirit of conciliation, they leave to the wisdom and decision of the legislature, trusting and feeling confident that the legislature will never do or render nugatory its own work, by accompanying the relief granted, with any clause or clauses, to which your petitioners cannot conscientiously assent.

"Your petitioners therefore most humbly pray, That your honourable House will take into its consideration, the many penalties and disabilities to which the Roman Catholics of England are subject, and adopt such measures for the total repeal of them as your honourable House shall, in its great wisdom and benignity, deem expedient."

It was then laid upon the table.