§ The order of the day having been read, for taking into consideration the Report of the Committee of Secrecy,
rose. He assured the House, that in the whole course of his life he had never performed a more painful duty than that which he was then called upon to discharge. It had frequently been necessary for him in extraordinary exigencies of the state to call on parliament to take extraordinary measures to meet those exigencies. But it was peculiarly painful and grievous to find, that after having passed through all the dangers and pressure of war it became necessary, notwithstanding the return of peace abroad, to require the adoption of proceedings that might insure the continuance of tranquillity at home. He certainly should have hoped, that after the dreadful record of the sufferings of mankind which the French revolution had afforded, after the proofs which had been given during the fast twenty-five years, that those who engaged in such hazardous enterprises brought down not only destruction on their own heads, but ruin on their country; it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to find any individual so dead to all sense of private feeling and public duty; so prone to be operated upon by artful and wicked individuals, as to engage in schemes of a similar tendency, and to render the immediate and powerful interference of parliament necessary, in order to maintain the public peace. But much as he or any one else might have flattered himself on this subject, it was perhaps not surprising, looking at the nature and spirit, and course of the revolution to which he had alluded, to discover that there were men, who, without any natural pretensions, had pride and audacity enough to imagine that they were competent to fill the first offices of the state, and to make themselves masters of 591 the destinies of their country. This spirit was characteristic of the times in which it was our unfortunate lot to live. On the other hand, however, there were many circumstances of consolation in the nature of the existing manifestation of that spirit. If we could not say that we had traversed the whole period of revolutionary danger, we might at least congratulate ourselves on having surmounted the most trying difficulties and hazards in which the constitution of the realm had been placed. If the whole danger had not passed by, at least we had passed its acme. Although we were compelled to admit that a treasonable disposition existed, it must be allowed that it chiefly prevailed in the inferior orders of society. Looking to the history of the revolutionary spirit in this country, it appeared to have been gradually descending from those higher and better informed ranks, in which it formerly betrayed itself, to those lower orders in which it was now principally to be found. The poison now operated only on those classes to which an antidote could perhaps be more easily discovered, and more effectually applied. From the Luddites—from the Spenceans—the country had heard doctrines so absurd on the face of them [Hear, hear!], that, however, they might be rendered availing by designing men, it was evident that they originated in sheer ignorance. It was certainly gratifying to feel that those doctrines contained within themselves such a principle of counteraction. But still the House would abandon its duty if it slept on the danger without providing some active and effective remedy against it. For, while he contrasted the different orders of society in which the revolutionary feeling existed now and formerly, he by no means implied that lie did not think much of the talents and ability of those designing individuals who took advantage of the existence of the present feeling. There was no lack of talent on the part of those who were engaged in these criminal enterprises. Let the House read the libels which degraded all existing authorities, which vilified every thing sacred and established, they would not trace in them a vulgar understanding. The men by whom they were written, how- j ever perversely, however mischievously disposed, were men of evident ability. In support of this assertion, he need only appeal to his hon. and learned friend near him to state the difficulty which he en- 592 countered in dealing with those libels.—But this was not all. There were many men, distinguished in station and abilities, who, if they were not connected with those meetings, conducted themselves in such a manner as to countenance their principles and their proceedings. These persons, who had distinguished themselves by their efforts to excite and inflame the public mind, were recognised by the conspirators as their allies—as embarked in a common cause—and though they did not render themselves liable to the operation of the laws, yet, in the deliberations of the conspirators, they were referred to and named familiarly amongst themselves as those who, under a new state of things, should compose their committees of public safety—[Cries of Name, name!] He did not feel it his duty to name any one. He would distinctly allow that the committee had not seen the slightest evidence to show that any individuals of the higher ranks were members of any of the combinations to which he had alluded; but the persons actually combining considered that such individuals so effectually aided and abetted their purposes, as to be persuaded, that as soon as an insurrection should have overturned the state, those individuals would be ready to declare themselves, and to put themselves at their head. Though these individuals could not therefore be charged at the bar of their country, yet in the eyes of God and man they stood responsible for the calamities which might fall upon the land, and for the lives which deluded individuals might pay for the treason which they had thus encouraged.
Having said thus much, and not wishing to occupy a larger portion of time on this subject, he should proceed to give the House a fair, and not exaggerated description of the nature and extent of the dangers which menaced the country; and direct its attention to the remedy which his majesty's ministers thought fit to recommend to parliament. It ought always to be borne in mind that the report of the secret committee had not been drawn up by one class of men alone; and that it was an unanimous report. It did not go beyond the state of the case; and when a committee so composed unanimously declared that a conspiracy existed which endangered the existence of the constitution and the dearest interests of the country, it might well be credited that it only went as far as it was supported by evi- 593 dence. If the basis of the information before the House amounted to this, that a conspiracy of so extensive a nature and so dangerous a tendency existed, having for its object not only the subversion of the government, but the destruction of every moral and social principle, he apprehended that he was justified in assuming, that it was a conspiracy not remotely looked to, as likely to be carried into execution under future circumstances, but one of a desperate character, on the point of exploding, and which in fact had exploded.—For although the conspirators had not been joined to the extent which they expected, yet they had conceived that the general means which they had provided, were sufficient to enable them to make the attempt with a rational prospect of success. The House could not doubt the sincerity of their conviction that it was possible for them to succeed, because when men hazarded their lives in any cause they had always something which appeared to them to be a rational ground of hope. There was now therefore a degree of proof which had never before been possessed when parliament had been called upon to adopt precautionary measures. In no instance, except perhaps in Ireland, had conspiracy proceeded so far as to levy war, and by the force of arms to attempt to seize on the metropolis, and on the executive power of the state. From this, however, he drew the omen, that the period was approaching when the evil might be entirely extinguished. It bore a character of desperation, which it had not assumed in former days. The fact of a conspiracy was therefore established, with the fact of an attempt and effort in arms. It would be confining the extent of the peril within too narrow limits, to consider that it sprung from the meeting of the 2d December alone. If the fact of a conspiracy rested only on the events of that day, and he saw nothing organizing in the other parts of the country to support that effort, he might have thought with the gentlemen opposite that it was contemptible in itself, and that the state was not under the necessity of resorting to extraordinary measures. But it would be disguising the truth from the House to narrow the danger to the single effort made in the metropolis, or to separate it from others going on at that very moment under the pretence of seeking for parliamentary reform. He would not deny that many individuals throughout the 594 country had a reform of parliament really in view; but most of them looked at it merely as a half measure, or a veil to the carrying on of their designs. All these various societies intended to co-operate together in order to control the constituted authorities of the state, and impose upon the nation, by physical force that change, whatever it might be, which they considered necessary. It was not requisite to follow the Spencean or Union, or Hampden Clubs (or by whatever other name they might be called) through all their ramifications, or to bring legal evidence before the House how they acted in all their secret proceedings. But would any man in the country or any member in that House deny that those Societies existed and acted on a principle of extension and combination; and that the greater mass of them, though under the name of reform, and particularly the Hampden Clubs, served only as vehicles to communicate revolutionary principles? Some were undoubtedly sincere in their wish for reform, but it was in evidence before the committee, that even these admitted individuals professing the Spencean doctrines to become members. It had been clearly made out that a wicked conspiracy existed in the country for the subversion of the constitution and the state. It had been proved that a strong effort had been made in arms to attain the object in view, and it appeared that the individuals who were deeply implicated in the crime of treason, had been the most active to procure meetings for the apparent purpose of parliamentary reform, particularly that of the 2d of December. The petition of one individual who had taken a prominent part in the meetings in the metropolis, was before the House. It was not for him to assign the motives which actuated that individual: but this he would say, that, admitting all the statements in that petition to be true, they did not negative what he had asserted, that the project of the first meeting in November was formed with the view of feeling the pulse of the public, and that the public in November not appearing sufficiently ripe for the purpose in view, December was considered as a period when the poison might be more likely to be poured with effect into the public mind, and that for the purpose of the effort which they were equally ready to make in November. It appeared from the report, that that 595 effort was only part of the hopes of the conspirators, and that they had other hopes which were not closed yet—hopes which were founded on being able, if not by a desperate effort to seize the ruling power, at least gradually to poison the public mind, more especially in the manufacturing districts. If there was one part of the country which ought to dread revolution more than another, it was that part of the people to which they addressed themselves; for though, in the convulsions attendant on a revolution, the agricultural class might struggle through the difficulties which more or less affected the whole community, the manufacturing class had always been reduced to the lowest state of beggary and degradation. If there was one class of men therefore more interested than another in preventing a revolution, it was the manufacturing class. But unfortunately evil disposed persons availed themselves of the facility of reunion and combination which this class possessed, and they seized the moment of suffering to pour their poison into their minds.
This being the nature of the danger which they had to apprehend, he would now point the attention of the House to the measures which his majesty's ministers had thought it advisable to propose for the purpose of meeting that danger. First of all, though the motion with which he should conclude did not extend so far, he considered himself in candour bound to state to the House the whole system of measures which his majesty's ministers felt it their duty to recommend to parliament, for the purpose of strengthening the hands of the executive. He should begin by alluding to a bill which had been introduced into another House—if that bill should he transmitted to them, he should feel it his duty to support the temporary suspension of the Habeas Corpus act. There was no measure which he could propose that would inflict upon him greater personal pain, or a heavier load of responsibility. There was no measure which ought to be viewed with more suspicion by the legislature—it was a measure which ought not to be recurred to but when justified by the fullest and most absolute necessity. Although it was a measure of which the constitution of the country had frequently recognized the necessity, yet he admitted that there was no measure which the House ought to show such repugnance in adopting, for the privilege of 596 Habeas Corpus was that which, above all others, nobly and proudly distinguished the British constitution. While government assumed to themselves the whole weight of the responsibility consequent on such a proposition, he must contend that the House would be betraying their duties to the country, if they did not arm for a time the executive with this power, because it would give them the support which was of all others the most effectual, in a period of exigency, to enable them to watch over the safety of the state. Perhaps the necessity of this measure might grow out of the difficulty in establishing the crime of treason, which was placed under so much greater jealousy of proof than any other, requiring a concurrence of evidence of most difficult attainment. To establish treason, it was not only necessary that it should appear under substantial forms, bat there should be two witnesses to each overt act. The state might be in possession of the knowledge of an overt act, for which in other cases they could send the individual committing it to trial; but it was very different in high treason, there they often could not interfere between the danger and the result, and they were stopt short in their attempts against machinations, at the very moment when those machinations were on the point of deluging their country with blood, and when they might have legal evidence in the case of any ether crime, though not of that particular crime—and an arrest of the individuals would be unavailing when by a writ of Habeas Corpus they might immediately be brought into a state allowing them to renew their desperate efforts. It was obvious to every man who knew any thing at all of that law, or the working of the constitution, that it was impossible for any government, during its continuance, to deal with conspiracies against the state, without being fettered in all their operations by it. And, therefore, though no individuals on the other side of the House could feel more reluctance than he did to encroach on the charter of the liberties of the country, he would say that never within his own experience, during the last 25 years, was there such a necessity for the suspension. At the same time that he thought the necessity of the times justified him in calling for a suspension of the law, he should propose that suspension to the legislature with every guard against abuse; and that the interval of suspension should be as 597 short as possible. And therefore in the I introduction of this measure he should not propose its extension beyond the present cession, that it might remain with parliament, before the act expired, to renew it for a longer period if they should deem it advisable, but if otherwise, that it should expire. He should also wish to render it a local measure. It was a circumstance of great gratification to his majesty's ministers, that they had not to state to the House any necessity for extending the operation of this measure to Ireland, and that the internal situation of Ireland was at present tranquil to that degree, that he hoped the people of that country had at length drawn a useful lesson from their experience; and were determined to set a noble example to the rest of the united kingdom.
Having referred to the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act as a measure of indispensable duty, imperative on his majesty's ministers and on parliament, he should now proceed to advert to other measures which he considered equally indispensable to enable the executive to do their duty at the present crisis. A law was passed in 1795 under circumstances similar to the present, when an atrocious attempt was made against the person of the sovereign, in his way to parliament, in the exercise of his sovereign duty, an attempt which had lately been so disgracefully renewed. A law was then passed for the better security of the life of the sovereign, which made direct attacks against the sovereign liable in the same manner as attacks against the meanest individual—because, whatever safeguards were placed by the law against charging an individual with constructive treason, there could be no reason for rendering the proof of a crime against the person of the sovereign more difficult than a crime against the meanest individual; and there could be but one opinion in the House of the propriety of providing that the same legal protection should be afforded to the regent, as was afforded to the sovereign. Their object, therefore, was, to extend the provisions of the act of the 36th of the king to his royal highness the Prince Regent, or such other person as should be in the exercise of the sovereign authority. It appeared in this, as well as in former treasons, that much was built on the hope of debauching and seducing the soldiery and sea forces. The House could not but agree with him in -thinking, that it was necessary, above all 598 things, in protecting the state, to secure the soldiers from attempts to seduce them from their allegiance. Those who attempted to seduce soldiers from their duty, were guilty of one of the greatest crimes, and no crime ought to be more severely punished than the one which, in defiance of oaths, endeavoured to make the military the perjured instruments of the accomplishment of the views of such individuals.
He now came to a branch of the question which, when formerly agitated, had caused much discussion, and on which great difference of opinion had prevailed. What he alluded to was the debates in 1795 and 1799. But he was sure that all the considerations which weighed on the minds of the legislature at those periods, and induced them to pass the vote which de-dared the illegality of all secret associations for political purposes, and of all affiliations which admitted to a fraternity with such associations other classes of persons, whose sole object was the application of what they called "physical force," for the purpose of bloodshed and rebellion, would be acknowledged to occur more forcibly on the present occasion. The House had not hesitated, in 1799, to declare such associations illegal, by a law not of a temporary nature, but permanent and unrestricted as to the time during which it was to continue in force. It was far from the wish or the intention of the legislature by that act to oppose any obstacle to the exercise of constitutional rights. What it was wished to oppose was, to put down that system, springing out of the French revolution, which sought, by means of societies and affiliated societies, to excite the people to rebellion against every government. That law considered the very principle of affiliation and fraternization so abhorrent to the spirit of our constitution, that the law against them was made permanent; but it had become inefficient by the accidental circumstance of the act of the 36th of the King then in force being only a temporary act, and it so happened that some of the operative clauses in the act of the 39th referred to the provisions of the act of the 36th, the existence of which was therefore necessary for the operation of the act of the 39th, in its executory clauses. When the act of the 36th expired, the intention of the legislature was from this circumstance defeated, and the act of the 39th of the king became in-operative. With respect to this part of the subject, therefore, parliament would find it now not only neces- 599 sary to revive the act of the 39th of the king, but also that of the 36th, commonly known by the name of the Sedition act. At the time when the Sedition act was passed, several meetings of a very alarming nature had been held in the neighbourhood of the metropolis at Copenhagen-house and elsewhere—and threatened the most serious consequences. But none of the meetings at that time had proceeded to acts of open violence. The legislature then did what was very wise, in anticipating the designs of the agitators, and preventing all the mischiefs and calamities with which the country was threatened. But, in the present case, there was no need to exercise so much foresight; it was not necessary now to calculate on the probability of the acts of open violence, which, in 1795, when this act had been passed, were only guessed at and expected. Those acts of violence which, in 1795, had only been contemplated, had in the present case been put into execution. There was no extremity to which they had not now either actually proceeded, or at least they had gone so far as to make any doubt or hesitation as to their designs impossible. All the artifices—all the preparations—all the precations which could make such crimes most dangerous, had in the present case been resorted to. A mob was assembled—their basest passions were appealed to—their cupidity inflamed—their most lawless appetites promised to be gratified—the means too were pointed out, and these agitators watched in the countenances of the deluded rabble the effect of their harangues, till they found them wrought up to the perpetration of the most horrid excesses and crimes. All this had actually been done. There were not only at these meetings the orators, but also those who absolutely went there to watch the effects produced upon the people. After all this, he would say that it would be most besotted, if parliament were to wait before it put these laws into force, till it should see there was really occasion for them by a repetition of the crimes. When, under less menacing circumstances, the legislature had thought it necessary to enact the laws to which he alluded, there could be very little doubt whether, in the present times, it was not the duty of parliament to make these laws efficient, and to give that power to the government which it had formerly given. There had grown out of that law a good effect, which he hoped would likewise spring from it on the pre- 600 sent occasion. It had been the means of preventing the exercise of the right of petition (which this act was, by no means, intended to infringe upon, but which, on the contrary, parliament was bound by every means to facilitate)—it had prevented that right from being made, the indirect means of corrupting the public mind, not merely corrupting, but leading it on to the perpetration of every atrocity, high treason, felony and rebellion.—He had no doubt, that when parliament spoke to the public on this subject, in the authoritative language of the law—when it was pronounced by parliament that by such means a few designing men were attempting to lead the many to the commission of such dreadful crimes;—when this was done, he had no doubt that all those criminal acts would expire under the moral influence of the law; that the public mind would be enlightened; the instigators would fall into merited disgrace, and such a change would be produced where the mischief was now begun, that it would not even be found necessary to put in force, or to inflict the penalties which the act imposed. Many of the misguided individuals who now frequented improper meetings would probably abstain from visiting those meetings when they should be declared by parliament the repositories of crime. This branch of the remedy must also extend to the mode in which these pernicious doctrines had been disseminated. The most extraordinary and systematic assiduity and industry had been used in the circulation of blasphemy, every species of infidelity, and sedition; and for the destruction of all those moral and religious principles on which alone the well being of any state could be founded. From the means used for this purpose, he deemed it necessary to have all seditious clubs and debating societies placed on the same footing as to criminality as they had been by the act of 1795. The same system which then prevailed was now renewed. There was scarcely a room in any public house which was not occupied by some meeting of this kind. It was certainly with much regret that he found that some persons of such a rank in society as left them no excuse on the ground of ignorance, should have gone to Hampden Clubs, and made speeches containing doctrines which, to say the least, were of the most mischievous description. If ever there was a society that deserved to be marked with reprobation, and to have its name held up to the same execra- 601 tion as had been branded already by the legislature on such clubs as the United Irishmen, the Corresponding Societies, and others of the same kind—the Spencean was that society. A noble lord opposite had chosen to say that this society did not consist of more than a hundred members. He could only say, that there was evidence before the secret committee, which proved that at one point of reunion of this society in the metropolis, the number was far greater than that at which the noble lord thought proper to estimate it; and this had appeared from no other evidence than that of the very officers of the society who had, with a strange alacrity, made all their statements and disclosures with the utmost readiness. These men seemed to think, that when they called themselves Philanthropists, the very name must disarm suspicion. It was one characteristic feature of these reforming societies, that they all professed the most unbounded benevolence, they were all Philanthropists; all their plans and projects, no matter whether directed against our persons or our properties, were, if we believed them, conceived in loving-kindness to the human race. They made no scruple of avowing that the object of their society was the destruction of private property; and thus, by a singular perversity, this society or association -was formed on principles, the direct tendency of which was the destruction from its very foundation, of the fabric of civil society.—As to the other societies, known by the name of Union Societies, it had been alleged by some individuals that the London Union Society had ceased to exist. On this subject he wished explicitly to state, that the committee had been put in possession of documents which proved the existence of Union Clubs at Sheffield, Mansfield, and other placed, which represented themselves as branches of the Union Club in London. And this had been distinctly proved, that as late as December, 1816, by the payment of 20s. to the Union Club at Sheffield, or any the other places, the person who paid this sum was made an honorary member of the Union Society of London.—But really it was impossible for the House to attend to all the shuffling, special pleading shifts to which these societies resorted as to their names; for they seemed to have a wonderful facility at changing names. No matter as to the name, whether they called themselves Union Clubs or Hampden Clubs, they seem all actuated by the same spirit, they all passed the same resolutions,‡602 and the House must not attend to their paltry nominal distinctions—they must not be cheated by such means. The legislature would actually be drivelling if it attended to any such distinctions. The most pernicious doctrines might be hid under harmless names. But these societies were all founded on the same principles, or had all adopted them, and were therefore all equally deserving the reprobation of parliament. The Spencean doctrines were recognized and inculcated by all of them, no matter by what name they called themselves. And why the Spencean doctrines? Why was it on this that they all more especially agreed? It was for this—because they were founded on the principle of plunder and participation of property.—It was by plunder that they hoped to work on the mind of the poor deluded trades man. They were all on the same agrarian principle—the equal division of property—the simultaneous rising of the parishes—, the hunting down of the landholder:—nay, so beautiful was their system, that the poor land-holder was not to be destroyed, but when he had been stripped of his property, he was to be made a pensioner of the public. If it were not that it would be unreasonable to trespass so far upon the time of the House, he could produce the creed of this society, not written in the style of illiterate, low-bred mischief makers, but with an air of eloquence that would astonish the House. The doctrines which these societies wished to impress upon the minds of the people with respect to the division of property, reminded him what Bounaparté had promised to his soldiers, when, at the commencement of the campaign, he declared to them that a particular tract of the enemy's country should be appropriated to them and shared amongst them. This promise had never been performed, and it would be exactly so with the poor deluded victims who might be seduced to enlist in the army of these Philanthropists. The system was evidently nothing but a cloak under which to fight against what were called the privileged orders, the land-owners, and those monsters, as they were termed, the fundholders.
On the whole, the measures which he should propose, as the most wise which parliament could adopt, were—1st. The temporary suspension of the Habeas Corpus act. 2nd. To extend the act of 1795 for the security of his majesty's person, to his royal highness the Prince Regent, as 603 the person exercising the functions of royalty. 3rd. To embody into one act the provisions of the act of 1795, relative to tumultous meetings and debating societies, and the provisions of the act of the 39th of the King, which declared the illegality of all societies bound together by secret oaths, or if not by secret oaths, which extended itself by fraternized branches over the kingdom; and to make it enact, that the nominating delegates or commissioners, under any pretext, to any other society of the kind, should be considered as sufficient proof of the illegality of such societies or associations. 4th. To make such enactments as should be thought most effectual to punish with the utmost rigour any attempt to gain over soldiers or sailors to act with any association or set of men, and withdraw them from their allegiance.
He was anxious that the House should observe the distinction which he wished to make as to the duration of these measures. Some of them it would be thought wise to enact as permament laws; but others might be merely for a time. Particularly, the law against seditious meetings and debating societies was one which ought not to be continued longer than should be thought absolutely necessary to obviate the present temporary danger. When that law had been first introduced, the time during which it was to continue in force had been limited to three years from the end of the session when the act was passed. On the present occasion, he anxiously indulged the hope, that by the complete exposure of the nature of the doctrines which had been so industriously inculcated, the associations in question would fall to pieces by their own absurdity, and that it would not now be necessary to extend the duration of this measure so long as at the time when it was first proposed, and when the country had a double contest to maintain, against a foreign, as well as this domestic enemy: he would therefore wish this act to endure till after the commencement of the next session of parliament, when it might be renewed if circumstances should seem to render it necessary, or if not, it might be suffered to expire.
In calling the attention of the House to this important subject, he had endeavoured not to over-rate the danger with which these associations threatened the country; he held them in the contempt and disgust which they deserved. But then, the evil 604 having come to such a height as to require the interference of parliament; when the legislature was called upon to put it down, and to free the people at large from the bondage to which a few mischievous individuals endeavoured to subject them, prompt and efficacious measures were necessary. If it were properly dealt with, all this treason would soon decay; if parliament took from the conspirators their hopes of success—if they were made to feel that the legislature watched their proceedings, and had both the power and the resolution to arrest the progress of their diabolical designs, then the evil would be overcome. He hoped that the spirit of the laws, and of those to whom the execution in this particular case was to be intrusted, would be sufficient assurance to the House against any sinister use being made of the extraordinary powers with which the proposed measure might arm any of the branches of government. He particularly alluded to a noble individual in another House, of whose wisdom and moderation the parliament and the country had had such ample experience. In submitting these measures to the House, he was fully aware of the odious nature of some of them, and he felt the utmost repugnance at being obliged to bring forward such propositions. But as the very excellence and distinctive mark of the British constitution was the power of extending or modifying the laws so as to meet existing dangers, he felt that the ministers of the crown would betray their best duties if they allowed any feelings of repugnance on their part ro prevent them from coming forward with those measures—from using those precautions, no matter how odious, to any particular class of men, which the dangers of the times required, which were demanded for the safety of the state. It was in the discharge of this paramount duty, yet still with painful reluctance, that he had called the attention of the House to the report of the committee. Upon that report he rested the necessity of the measures which he thought it expedient to propose for the adoption of the House; and the first proposition on which he called for its opinion was, "That leave be given to bring in a bill for the more effectually preventing Seditious Meetings and Assemblies."
, under the circumstances in which he now felt himself called upon to offer himself to the notice of the House, felt extremely apprehensive, that in stat- 605 ing his sentiments, something might inadvertently escape from him, which, as a member of the committee, he ought not to divulge. All that he had therefore to request was, that if any thing of this kind should fall from him, the noble lord, or some other member of the committee, would immediately interfere and stop him. The noble lord had said what was quite true, when he stated to the House that the committee were unanimous. And he would say, as the noble lord had said, that there was nothing affirmed in the report which he (Mr. P.) did not firmly believe to be founded in fact. All that the noble lord had stated to the House, as far as he (Mr. P.) knew, was quite correct. The noble lord had then proceeded to mention the several remedies which he thought most fit to be applied to the present distempered state of the country: and these he sought in the revival of the whole or some parts of the provisions of three or four acts of parliament. It was proposed to extend to the person of the Prince Regent the same protection which in certain cases the legislature had deemed necessary to the person of the King; and in this extension, for his own part, he entirely concurred.—He thought it better that this protection should be afforded by a separate act of parliament, than to legislate upon the subject generalty, by incorporating the person of his majesty with the person of the Regent, because in the spirit of our laws there were certain attributes in the crown which were not in the person of the Regent. To that measure, proposed by the noble lord, which related to the crime of seducing troops from their allegiance, he also agreed—When parliament gave the crown a military force, it assumed the power of giving or refusing it—but when it was given to the king it became the king's army, and the law must not leave matters so loose with respect to it, as to allow the possibility of any question arising, whether it should be the army of the King or the army of the mob.—The noble lord then proposed to unite two acts—the act of the 36th of the King, which had expired, and that of the 39th, which still existed—and by the amalgamation of these two acts to compose a fit remedy for the present evils. On this point the noble lord had stated his intentions in such a way, and had been so little explicit, that it was not possible for him at present to deliver any positive opinion. But this much he would say, that 606 he would not make any objection to the introduction of the measure. In short, such was the impression made upon his mind, that he wished to go every length which duty and propriety would allow, in strengthening the hands of government on this occasion.—As to the various societies which had been mentioned by the noble lord, foolish and criminal as they were, he agreed that nothing could be more absurd or contemptible. Yet he could well imagine, that if these societies were allowed to run on and extend themselves, they might in the end become far from contemptible.—He agreed that social meetings, originally intended for good purposes might easily be perverted to something very bad and mischievous. But while he thought this, he wished to guard himself from being construed to pledge his support to all the details of the measures of the noble lord, although he gave his cordial assent to their introduction.—But he was sorry to say that there was another bill to which he could not assent, for the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act would meet with an opposition from him as perfect and as firm as his support to the others. This measure, however, he should not debate by anticipation, as it was not likely to come before the House on this night. With respect to the communication which had been made to parliament, it had his perfect approbation. If he had been in the cabinet, he would have advised a communication of the very same kind. So far as that communication went, he thought it right. But he wished that the noble lord had exercised a more chaste and prudent forbearance in stating what had been done by individuals at those societies. It appeared unbecoming in the noble lord as a minister and a member of the committee so to express himself as to draw down suspicion on the head of any man. The committee had not involved the name of any particular individual, and the noble lord must pardon him when he said, that he had gone beyond his duty, in stating to the House what seemed as if the committee had found that the names of some individuals of high rank were involved in the proceedings of these committees. If the committee had traced these proceedings to any person—however high his rank—they would have had manliness and firmness enough to have stated the name of any individual so implicated. He did not feel it proper to say any more at present on that subject. He might, 607 perhaps, have mistaken the meaning of what fell from the noble lord. He did not know against whom the noble lord meant to excite suspicion, but certainly his words tended to excite suspicion against some one. On the whole, these were the only parts of the noble lord's speech to which he could not agree. As far as he understood the measures proposed by the noble lord, they met with his approbation, excepting only that which went to the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act. As to the last, from the very first proceedings of the committee, he was convinced that there was nothing to call for such a remedy. It was a power with which he would not intrust any ministry, although composed of his dearest friends, unless he saw that without it there were no means sufficient to protect the government and the constitution.
, in explanation, disclaimed the intention of casting any imputation on particular individuals. It certainly appeared to the committee that the conspirators in their proceedings had looked forward to the appointment of some committee of public safety, which they imagined might be composed of certain individuals, who it was thought improbable would be connected with them. This afforded a fair ground for him to throw out a caution to such individuals as might be the objects of the expectation to which he had alluded; and that was all that he had done.
Sir Francis Burdett
said, that having so very different an impression from reading the report of the committee of secrecy, from that of the noble lord opposite, or the right hon. gentleman near him, and being far from possessing the same confidence in the ministers of the crown which some seemed to possess, he could not refrain from entering his protest against the new infringement of the constitution, which the House was called upon to sanction. Seeing so much exaggeration of well known facts, and such unauthorized insinuations against persons who were innocent; believing that an attempt was made to create alarm for no other purpose than as a ground for measures which would prevent the people from demanding their rights, he felt that he should not be doing his duty if he did not oppose in limine these new regulations which ministers had proposed, He called them new regulations, though they might plead precedent in their favour, because the circumstances of the country 608 when they were first enacted, bore no resemblance to its condition now, when their re-enactment was contemplated. It seemed to him absurd and ridiculous to pretend that there was any necessity for new laws to suppress or guard against the efforts of a few wild enthusiasts. These new propositions formed part of the chain of encroachments upon the constitution which the absurd and foolish delusions by which the gentlemen of England had been alarmed were intended to disguise;—but was it really to be imagined that any danger could arise from the absurd project of Mr. Spence (a project which existed 20 years ago, but which had been revived for the occasion), to take the property of the country from the present proprieters to divide among the followers of the new doctrine? The gentlemen of England were surely not so tame and foolish as to look on and see themselves stript of their inheritance; but if that were apprehended, the measures proposed by the noble lord were not calculated to meet the evil. Why did not the noble lord, if he dreaded such an evil, take the constitutional means of adverting it, and arm property for its own defence? As the noble lord was so fond of reading pamphlets, he recommended him to read the excellent tract of sir William Jones, on the constitutional means of suppressing riots. By arming the people of England in a constitutional way, they might set at defiance the Spenceans, without throwing themselves into the power of the sect of Expenceans, of whom the noble lord was one—who were now, in reality, taking their property from them, while they set forth this contemptible plot to blind the eyes of the people, and enable them to consummate their ruin. As the pamphlets of the reformers and of the Spenceans and indeed all which could be raked together had been introduced as indicative of the feeling of the people, he might be allowed to allude to one which was supposed to speak the sentiments of the ministers. This pamphlet was called "Reform the Watch Word of Revolution." The writer of this pamphlet, after talking of the happiness which would result from a state of peace, observed, that the immediate interest of the governments of all the countries in Europe on the same principle on which they had restored the ancient government of France, which he (the hon. baronet) thanked God they had not altogether been able to effect, stimulated them to prevent in this country a revolution which threat- 609 ened the tranquillity of Europe. The writer then warned the people to beware "lest they might lead to the introduction of a foreign army into this country, and thus turn into a complete despotism the government they were striving to reform." He did not know whether the measure thus pointed out by this ministerial writer formed a part of the holy league of which the noble lord was a champion—and which was indeed a conspiracy of all governments against people of all nations. If the system on which the noble lord called on them to enter were pursued, then indeed foreign armies might be found necessary to sup-port the government against the hatred and anger of the people; for a native one Would not be prepared to plunge their swords into the bosoms of their countrymen; although it had been so much the fashion to separate the army from the people; and thus not only to habituate the country to standing armies, before unknown to the laws, but to hold such standing armies up as the special and only preservers of the public peace. If this system were pursued, all freedom would be at an end. Whatever might be the prescribed forms of the constitution in every country in which there were standing armies—in which the government alone was armed, and the people unarmed, that constitution must become military and despotic. But if the excellent plan of Sir W. Jones, which was framed in the real spirit of the constitution, were introduced, the country would possess an armed force sufficient for all purposes of security, and the arms too would be in the hands of people best interested in the preservation of the public peace. But how was the suspension of the Habeas Corpus necessary? If the absurd pamphlet of Mr. Spence, which the noble lord had described as being written with such ability, had the effect of inducing the proprietors to give up their lands, it would be an effect which reasoning had never before produced in the world. But if it had that effect, volenti non fit injuria, the landholders, being contented, Mr. Spence's followers might divide the land among themselves, and thus in either case there would be no harm to be apprehended from such pursuasion. But as to the attempts to carry the plot into effect by force—they had been told of treasons and conspiracies, and associations, without one iota of proof: but there were laws against treason, against conspiracies against blasphemy—there were great powers, un- 610 constitutional powers as he thought, lodged in the government for the prosecution of libels: the government might lay hold of any writer, and appoint every part of the court which tried him;—the judge, the attorney-general, were appointed by the crown—the special jury was selected by the officers of the crown. If these checks upon the press were not sufficient, but new measures were to be enacted to subject it to a more severe control, it was nonsense to talk of the liberty of the press; it would be better at once to say that they would not endure it—that the public mind was come to such a state, that the freedom which our forefathers might enjoy, we were not fit to possess—it was better to do this than to entrap the people, and punish by ex post facto laws, as the noble seemed to intend to do. As to the treason and conspiracies particularized in the report, they were for the most part what had been retailed in every newspaper many months ago. If they were pregnant with such horrid consequences, why had not the noble lord sooner resorted to parliament for a remedy? Had he not by this remissness become a party to the conspiracy? Why were they not revealed in the king's speech? In that speech, on the contrary, they were told of the resignation of the people, a new virtue for which they had great need, when they were dying absolutely for want. The virtues of the people in the short time which had passed since that speech, seemed to have vanished, and there was nothing but treason and discontent in the country. As to the clubs of which he had been a member, he was now, on account of his connexion with them, branded as a traitor and conspirator. He repelled this charge; he owed no allegiance to the corruption in that House, or to the Borough-mongers, by whom it was constituted; he was not aware that there was a man in the country more free from the slightest treasonable feeling than himself. It was however plain from this, that the dread of reform was the ground of the measure submitted to them—and for that were the unconstitutional measures of coercion to be resorted to to prevent the people from expressing by petition the grievances of which they had so much cause to complain. He (sir F. B.) was chairman of the Hampden Club—that club now held up as the mother of all treason. It was treason too, as they were told, to corres- 611 pond on the subject of reform with persons in other parts of the kingdom. Mr. Pitt had not been of that opinion, when, after the American war, be attempted to excite the whole country in favour of parliamentary reform. Mr. Pitt, in a declaration, which had perhaps some influence on his (Sir F. B.'s) mind, foretold, that without a reform in parliament the country had no security against wars more profligate than that which had been then concluded (though he did no foresee that he was to carry the system of corruption to a higher pitch than it had ever before attained), and by arguments unanswered and unanswerable, showed the necessity of the measure, for which the clubs, now stigmatised as traitorous, continued to contend. The object of the friends of corruption was, to excite the selfish feelings of men of property, and to urge them to rally round the government to defend it against the people—and they were told that a hatred was excited amongst the people towards the privileged orders. He knew of no privileged orders but the House of Peers, in which no persons except the Spenceans, had ever wished to make any change. All other classes were the commons—all were equal in the eye of the law—and against all equally was the system of corruption directed, and for none of them was there any security, but by a reform in parliament. It appeared also that he (sir Francis Burdett), though, until he was reminded of it, he had forgotten it, had been a member of a Union Society.—That body had only, it appeared, uttered one address, and had expired, and on this account also he was branded as a traitor and conspirator by the noble lord, whereas he (sir F. B.) accused the noble lord as a subverter of the constitution, as a person detected in practices subversive of it, for which he deserved impeachment, and for which he would have been impeached, had not the notorious extensiveness of the crime extenuated his personal criminality. The noble lord had done more to bring into hatred and contempt the constitution, than all the clubs, whether Hampden or Spencean, and all the trash which the committee had raked together. The noble lord (he meant no personal imputation on him) was an old offender. He (sir F. B.) warned the House to pause before it crossed the threshold, which led to the fatal course which the Irish House of Commons once pursued. The same 612 bloody track which the noble lord marked out in Ireland they must follow, if they once abandoned the constitution. The transactions in that country were deeply engraven on the memory of every man. They were matter of history, horrible as they were to relate. The scenes which passed were terrible; they curdled the blood; he was afraid to describe them, lest the effect of the description might be, to lead to violence. Scenes such as those, though the noble lord referred to them with as much calmness as if he had been taking a cup of tea, would remain a stain in English history! He warned the House against suffering itself to be led into the same path. The noble lord had been not only a retail dealer in seats in parliament in England, but he had sold the Irish parliament by wholesale. He rendered it so odious to the House of Commons, so odious to the Irish people, that they were anxious to get rid of its parliament altogether, and the noble lord then turned round and advised it to do one act of justice, by committing suicide. It was in vain to deny it. He had heard with his own ears the speaker of the Irish House of Commons offer to prove at the bar. Adverting to the report of the secret committee, it appeared to him that the words in which the treasonable plots were described were extremely loose, vague, and indefinite. Those plots were said to be confined to the lower classes. Few, if any, it was said, of the higher classes were engaged. Few, if any!—.were there any? If there were, why were they not named? What right had the committee to insinuate a charge which it could not substantiate? Of the committee, from their report, he could not judge favourably, though it contained some names which he respected. Some gentlemen were chosen from that side of the House it was true, but without meaning any disrespect to them, he would say that they were notorious alarmists. It was not long ago that a noble lord who was one of them declared that he never heard reform mentioned without its shaking every nerve in his body. Like Dame Quickly, who could bear cheaters, but not swaggerers, he shook, "an twere any aspen leaf," at the very idea of reform. To a committee thus composed he could not give sufficient credit, to deliver up every man in England to an absolute and unconstitutional power. One of the stories of the Union Society had been laid great stress 613 upon in another report, but had been left out in the report of the Commons. A petition had been presented on that subject to another place, in which the secretary of that society had offered to disprove the report of the House of Lords. By not making this story a part of their report, the committee of the House of Commons, it seemed, did not support the report of the lords. He suspected that if the whole report were investigated, and proper persons examined, it would be found to be equally without foundation. It was curious to perceive how, in all tyrannical governments, their transactions were carried on in the same way. They might be tempted to ask of the plots now presented to them, as had been said under one of the Roman emperors—Quo cecidit sub crimine? quisnam Delator? Quibus indiciis? Quo teste probavit? Nil horum. Verbosa et grandis epistola venit.It was said in the report, that the traitorous associations were confined to a few individuals, and to particular districts. It would be better then, if any law must be passed, to have some special law to confine the particular persons alluded to, to keep them in bondage till the alarm had subsided, or till the purposes for which the alarm had been excited by the noble lord were answered, than to deprive the whole kingdom of the benefits of the constitution. One of the measures proposed was for the protection of the Regent's person. He agreed, that all the protection which the law afforded to the king should be extended to the Regent—but he saw no reason why the alterations which had been made in 1795 in the old treason laws should have taken place. The laws said, that when so mighty a power as the government was raised against an individual, it was proper he should be fenced round by peculiar protections. The effect of that alteration in the laws was, to take away these protections, and he could not therefore approve of it. Another of the measures was a gagging bill. As the object of these measures was to secure the parliament against reform—he thought it would be better if the attempt to reform the House were at once declared treason. They should then know whether they were freemen or slaves. In the mean time, he should do his duty, and take every step which he deemed conducive to that desirable end—a reform in the House of Commons, without which he believed in his conscience there could 614 not much longer be a security cither for person or for property in this country.
§ Mr. Elliot
said, it was with great reluctance he consented to trouble the House on the present occasion, and he trusted he should experience their indulgence for a few words, as exhibiting the reasons for his conduct on measures, which he should be sorry that the House should rashly embark in without a consideration of their necessity. He should not answer the speech of the hon. baronet, which contained not the strict argument and deep reflection which the subject demanded, but a declamation against the tenor of the proposed measures, as measures hostile to the constitution. But when it was conceded to the hon. baronet that they were hostile to the constitution, they were not much advanced in the consideration of them. The measures were not proposed as speculative improvements on the theory of our constitution, but as essentially necessary to its safety. The House might be in that condition too often incident to human affairs, that of choosing between difficulties. When a part of the community were perverting the constitution to its destruction, it was to be considered whether a temporary suspension of a portion of our privileges might not be necessary to the permanent security of the whole. It was purely a question of danger; whether it was such as would justify the adoption of such a law. On one point he differed from his right hon. friend; and that was as to the extent and the magnitude of the danger. Certainly if there existed a regular defined plot, with arms and leaders ready to break forth—indubitably it was a question not for parliament but for the field. That would be at once a state of civil contest; but it was against the approach of such a crisis that they were now called on to provide. The nature of the present danger was this— there was a systematic attempt to corrupt morally and politically the lower orders of the people. By some the lower orders were treated with contempt; but to alienate the physical force of a country from the moral to separate the population of a country from its establishments was indeed a matter of no small moment. So divided, the people would be in a condition to become the instruments of any agitators, and such persons were to be found in such times and in all countries. This was the object of the present efforts—the means were by immoral and blasphemous publi- 615 cations—by associations—some declaring openly for the overthrow of society and property, others with plans of wild and visionary reform as their guise. Among the reformers indubitably there were many respectable and worthy men; but many of the societies made reform a cover and an instrument for the most mischievous and criminal projects. It was said that they had not attacked any branch of the constitution but that House. Why? because they well knew that if they once overcame that House, the aristocracy would be as dust and chaff before them. It was said that these societies were nothing, because they were of a partial nature; but their effect would be measured when their union and combination were weighed. Let any one consider in his own neighbourhood. Manchester for instance, the effect of a society of the lowest of the people meeting for discussions on the foundations of government and society, the extent of obedience due to the civil power, and meeting the most delicate questions on resistance or submission; and suppose another society at some distance corresponding with it, and entering into its designs; would there not be reason for apprehending danger? This was the real state of the case. There were several combinations over the country, some of them of a malignant nature; arms had been provided the soldiers had been tampered with; and would any man tell him that there was no danger?—danger that struck at the root of social order; danger that required the strongest measures to repress it? He therefore concurred with his right hon. friend as far as he went, and was disposed to go farther, and to yield that power into the hands of ministers which his right hon. friend seemed disposed to deny them. Not that he in ordinary cases would give up his personal liberty or that of the country into the hands of any ministers, especially ministers in whom he had never reposed much confidence, if he did not believe in his conscience that there were strong grounds for the measure. He did so, however, to protect the people from themselves, to preserve that grand and generous system under which they enjoyed a degree of happiness and liberty never before enjoyed by any other nation. Nor in saying this did he libel the people of England, for, with respect to the great body of them he was convinced that, whatever arts might be employed to distract and delude them,*616 the constitution under which they lived was still deeply engraved on their hearts and cherished in their affections. But though the great body of the people was sound, those who were acquainted with history had not to learn that active minorities had often overthrown great empires. It was for the eventual protection of the people and of their liberties that he should now consent to grant to the crown extraordinary powers; for if at present, when there were so many manufacturers without work, so many discharged sailors and soldiers, and such a mass of general and irritating distress, the means of inflammation were not crushed, it might be afterwards necessary to put such a power into the hands of government as would amount to despotic sway. The hon. baronet had observed that the persons who had been chosen on the committee from that side of the House were alarmists. He had so often been thus designated, that it had become a sort of argumentum ad hominem. He confessed that on the subject alluded to be had for 25 years entertained the same sentiments. He therefore allowed, that he might have a prejudice in favour of opinions that had flowed in a perpetual current through his mind for so long a period; but if the proposition was true, as applied to him on one side, might not a proposition of a contrary nature apply to the hon. baronet on the other? If he had seen dangers where there were none, had not others seen none where they really existed? and while he was accused of being too sensible to fear, might he not advise others to take care that they were not too confident of security?
§ Mr. Lamb
denied, that the report was what it was called, a libel on the people of England. It took the utmost care to distinguish between the sound part of the people and the incendiaries; between those who endeavoured to delude them, and the more worthy part of them, who had not been misled or excited. The hon. baronet had called him and the other members of the committee notorious alarmists. Thus, to use nick-names, was, he thought, not just, not wise, not parliamentary, not gentlemanly.
rose to order. To say that I the conduct of another member was not gentlemanly, was not, he conceived, consistent with the order of the House.
§ Mr. Lamb
corrected himself, and observed, that if this language was not con- 617 sistent with the usage of parliament, he would then say, that the hon. baronet's expressions were not in accordance with his usual good taste. If he were to retort upon the hon. baronet, and call him, in return for notorious alarmist, a notorious jacobin, it would not be decent or parliamentary; and yet there might be as much reason for this charge on the hon. baronet as for that which the hon. baronet had brought forward against others. The lion, baronet had alluded, not very properly, to a noble friend of his on a former debate, but he had entirely mistaken his meaning. He would not attribute motives to any one; but without meaning any thing disrespectful to the hon. baronet, he might say, that to censure as the hon. baronet had done, and to deal about general imputations and insinuations, required, in order to justify it, a degree of talent, of wisdom, and of purity, which, with all his wishes to think well of the hon. baronet, he could never recognize him to possess. With respect to the report he would say, that he firmly believed the truth of its facts, and the justness of its inferences. It was founded on the best evidence that could be procured; and was very much qualified in the mode of its expression. There appeared to the committee to be danger, and danger of the most alarming kind. The danger arose from clubs determined to carry their objects by physical force. It was not the Spencean plan that appeared on paper, with all its absurdities about it; but it was a general system of combination, cruelly oppressive in many cases, and highly detrimental to the interests of the country. Many had relied on the absurdity of the Spencean plan as destructive of its danger; but he was afraid he could not pay so high a compliment to the people in this or in any other country, as to suppose that the absurdity of a project, if the end seemed desirable, was a sufficient argument against any attempt to realize it. It was certainly wild and visionary, if viewed in all its parts; but its commencement in plunder might not be so objectionable to its adherents. It might be said of it, as was said of reform, that once begun, the extent of the proceeding could not be anticipated. Some persons would go the length of Brentford, and others would pass on to Windsor. So the Spenceans might seize the property of the country, and wrest it from its present possessors, whatever might afterwards become of them or it. When the Spenceans got 618 the estates, they might imitate Napoleon, who, when he was advised not to enter the palace of the Thuileries before his coronation as emperor, exclaimed, "I will enter it to-morrow, and I shall not go out so easily as the last inhabitant."
Sir F. Burdett
explained. He did not mean alarmist in a bad sense; but jacobin could not be used in a good one, as it generally passed for cut-throat.
§ Lord Milton
, in explanation of his meaning on a former debate, said, that he used the expression about reform touching a chord that vibrated without his control, not for the purpose of declaring that he was alarmed at reform, but for stating that it was a subject on which he was almost always disposed to speak long, and in delivering his sentiments on which he might be tedious to the House.
§ Sir S. Romilly
wished the House to consider the subject maturely before it adopted the measures proposed. What was the nature of those measures which were intended to be taken? It ought to be shown in what way the new remedy was to be applied. He was not disposed to underrate the evils of the country, or the dangers that arose out of them. He felt that the evils were great, and the dangers formidable. When he so spoke, it became him to say what he meant. These dangers, then, did not appear to him to threaten the constitution. The persons mentioned in the report were too insignificant; they could not carry their designs into execution. The danger appeared to him to threaten individuals. His right hon. friend had not succeeded in proving to him the necessity of suspending the Habeas Corpus act, nor had the noble lord shown the necessity of his other measures. There was great danger of rashness in legislating; and if there had been a due consideration of what the law was as it at present existed, and how far government had endeavoured to carry it into execution, he was convinced that the committee would not have recommended any change. The noble lord was mistaken in his speech in supposing that no law existed against secret meetings. There were strong, efficacious, and severe enactments against such seditious or secret meetings, against societies that took oaths, against societies that corresponded or had an interchange of delegates, against societies that required contributions of money; and all persons who were found guilty were liable to transportation for seven 619 years. All these clauses were embodied in 39th of the King, c. 79, which was still in force. The hon. and learned gent, read read the act itself, which he said was still the law of the land, and sufficient to suppress all dangerous clubs, societies, or meetings. The clause against debating societies had dropt out of this act by the expiration of 36th of the King, from which it was adopted, but every other part of it yet remained in force. How was it that these societies had been thus allowed to grow up when government had such means of suppression in the act in question? The concluding paragraph of the report "that the utmost vigilance of government, under the existing laws, was found inadequate to the dangers," was very remarkable, and showed that the committee were not aware of this act, or did not know what efforts government had used. If these laws were not effectual, what could be effectual? What steps had been taken by ministers to enforce them? The only other part of the report referred to blasphemous and seditious libels. It should be known here likewise, how far existing laws had been enforced before new powers were claimed. If the noble lord thought the present law was inefficacious, he certainly proceeded upon an uninformed and a narrow view of the subject. Punishment for a second offence in publishing libels was very severe. Why had not prosecutions taken place for a first offence, so as to lay the foundation of a punishment for a second, if it should be repeated before a new law was claimed for a severe visitation on a first? He did not urge extreme proceedings in enforcing laws, but he thought their whole extent should be tried before the legislature was called upon to make new statutes. An extreme desire to procure conviction might he hurtful, as in a case at the Old Bailey, where a person (Watson) was put on his trial capitally for an offence of which, on the statement of the case to the learned judge, he was acquitted; and from this circumstance, although his crime was great, the sympathy of the spectators exhibited itself in a kind of indiscreet triumph. There might be too much severity as well as too much relaxation in the execution of these laws; but it was necessary to know whether every thing had been done that might prove effectual, before they were declared ineffectual. It was taking away from the subject the benefit of the Habeas Corpus act and trial by jury, for an abuse which was only presumed or al- 620 leged. It was destructive of that part of the constitution which we were bound most anxiously to guard, and which, in his opinion, if parted with without proofs of its absolute necessity, would be an abuse of the trust committed to that House, for which they would be unable to justify themselves to their constituents. He had no doubt that there were many persons who were labouring to degrade his majesty's government, but the House should take care to show the people that they were no parties in the object; and that they were most anxious to preserve those great bulwarks of their liberties, the Habeas Corpus act, and the trial by jury.
entirely concurred in the opinion, that the more convenient opportunity for discussing the subject would be when the bills were on the table. He could assure his hon. and learned friend, that it was with great reluctance that his majesty's government proposed any measures of additional severity. The act to which his hon. and learned friend had alluded would still remain in force; but it was necessary to introduce the one proposed, because there were persons who engaged in practices that ought to render them liable to punishment; but who, by studying the enactments of the act in question, were enabled to keep clear of it, and defeat its object. It was therefore necessary to have a new mode of describing its operation. In answer to his hon. and learned friend, as to what had been done under that statute, he could say, that government had been long and anxiously looking to the subject; and that they possessed information of all the mischievous; proceedings of the different societies. He agreed with his hon. and learned friend, that there was not to be apprehended any danger of the destruction of the constitution of this mighty empire from such proceedings; but that, in the protection of that constitution we might be under the necessity of witnessing scenes of bloodshed; and plunder, unless the laws were made more adequate to prevent them. With respect to prosecutions against societies, since he had been in office, there had been none; not that he had been unaware of the existence and objects of these societies, but that he felt he had not evidence, as the law stood at present, to prosecute them to conviction. He should wish that he might not have occasion to be called on to do any thing against them in his official capacity; but he was not unprepared to 621 state the ground on which it was intended to alter the act. With respect to prosecutions for libels, he was glad to have an opportunity of explaining himself: it was a point on which, he was sure, every member of the House must desire to have information. Having seen the most offensive, mischievous, blasphemous, and demoralising tracts and pamphlets, he had no hesitation to say, that in the exercise of sound discretion, a number of those publications had been passed by without legal notice. He knew not whether he should be able to justify himself; but his rule had been to institute as few prosecutions as possible: for it should be recollected, that his majesty's law officers did not stand now in the same situation as that in which their predecessors did. If prosecutions were to be instituted for all the blasphemous, wicked, and seditious libels that were sent to him by magistrates and others, one law officer of the crown would not be sufficient to prosecute one-twentieth part of them. He would venture to assure gentlemen, that if a cart load of these infamous publications were to be examined, any gentleman not a lawyer might say, "this is a blasphemous, and that a seditious libel;" but if he were to attend a consultation, he would go out of it fully convinced, that so adroitly were the libels formed, that with the joint assistance of the best legal advice, it would be deemed scarcely possible to bring the libellers to conviction. Even children of tender years were employed by the Spencean meetings to deliver their publications, against whom any steps that might be taken would be deemed an infringement on the liberties of the people. But let it not be supposed that on account of this forbearance no libels had been found that were actionable. So far from it, he could state, that there were prosecutions now carrying on, and he really did hope to be able to bring some eminent delinquents to justice, or at least he would bring them before a jury of their country. Some of the blasphemous publications on our liturgy and the sacred scriptures had so lately appeared, that it was quite impossible to do it sooner; nevertheless, he would rather sin on the side of doing too little, than be accused of running down his majesty's subjects by ex-officio prosecutions. The right hon. and learned gentleman then entered into an explanation of the case of the elder Watson, alluded to by Sir S. Romilly, in order to show that the official proceeding against him was 622 strictly conformable to law, and could not have been conducted otherwise. After the information given before the magistrates, and after the grand jury had found a true bill, it was absolutely necessary to bring him to trial on the charge for which he was indicted. It was his firm belief, that the prosecutions for seditious and blasphemous libels were by no means so many as the sound part of the people would wish, but he maintained that the existing laws did not afford the means of effecting this highly desirable object.
observed, that the report was not confined to the proceedings of one description of societies, but described an evil resulting from a combination of causes, for which the law at present furnished no adequate provision. There was undoubtedly a law for the punishment of riots. But there was none at present to prevent them. He knew of no provision made by any statute that could be applied to these societies, which acted independently of each other, though upon principles common to all, and assuming even the same denomination. Had his hon. and learned friend looked into the 39th of the King, cap. 79, with his usual accuracy, he must have seen, that those associations to which he had referred were not within its meaning; and his own opinion was, that they had been organized for the purpose of evading it. The object of the act was certainly to prevent unlawful confederacies, but it did not extend to societies which communicated with each other by delegates at public meetings, and this was an omission in that act. The new bill was intended to make such societies as had delegates illegal, which the law, as it at present stood, did not. It appeared, therefore, to him, that his hon. and learned friend had mistaken the nature of the measure.
§ Mr. Brougham
declared, that although suffering under severe indisposition, yet having listened to the noble lord's new-plan of legislative measures, and the conversation to which their disclosure had given rise, after hearing the concessions made by his right hon. friend, natural perhaps to him as one of the committee upon whose report these measures were founded, he must express a very material difference of opinion from his right hon. friend; to whom however he was persuaded no one could impute to him the intention of showing the slightest disrespect. That diversity of sentiment which it must always 623 give him pain to entertain might proceed from his ignorance of the evidence, from his being compelled to look at the report, and the report only; and if that should appear not satisfactory, the necessity he was under of opposing the practical result, which was no other than a suspension of the British constitution. There were some circumstances, certainly, which tended to make him a little inquisitive, as to the grounds upon which the report was framed, and one of these was, a remarkable difference between the conclusions to which two of his right hon. friends, who concurred in that report, had come, and which had been stated to the House; the one thinking that the evidence did not call for a temporary repeal of the Habeas Corpus act, and the other thinking that it j did. This appeared to him a very important difference, because it showed that those who alone had access to a knowledge of the evidence, upon whose report they were to act without further inquiry, did not agree in the same conclusions. This difference must proceed from different views of the extent and amount of the danger, which was in fact the whole substance of the question. He knew not, then, how to estimate the magnitude of that danger, when he found two such distinguished and enlightened members of the committee opposed to each other toto cœlo with regard to the measures necessary for repelling it. Another ground for the suspicions he entertained was, that although the existing laws were stated to be insufficient, it did not appear that the committee had satisfied themselves whether the utmost vigilance of government had been exerted in enforcing them. On the face of the report itself, many things appeared calculated to destroy its effect. Let the House advert, in the first place, to that passage in which the most scrupulous care might have been expected, that in which reference was made to the degree to which treasonable attempts had been traced upwards in society. To this point public attention had been naturally directed; every man was anxious to learn who and what were the conspirators; but the report, instead of satisfying this curiosity, merely informed them, that "a few only" of the higher orders, or even of the middle classes of society, were engaged. If the committee had meant any thing by these expressions, it was incumbent upon them to have spoken out, to have declared their meaning explicitly, and not to have 624 launched these charges, or rather these insinuations, vaguely and in directly, when they called upon the House to pay down their constitutional rights by instalments, to submit to a gagging bill to-day, to the punishment of libel by transportation to-morrow, and to a total suspension of the constitution on the day after. Required, as they were, to give unlimited credence, their entire faith, to the accuracy and justness of their report without being permitted to know the evidence on which the committee had proceeded it was to be lamented that any part of that report should be of a vague and unsatisfactory nature. When he considered the very small extent to which actual insurrection had gone, and the smallness of the means by which it had been proposed to maintain it, it did appear marvellous to him, that twenty-one hon. gentlemen should upon such evidence gravely require the assent of the House to the danger arising from the absurd and visionary speculations of the writer named Spence; because some foolish individuals who had adopted his absurd principles had met at Spa-fields with a numerous body of persons in distress, and because it was said that a plan was in agitation to proceed from thence to pillage the bank, after which their military ardour was to lead them a step farther, to attack the Tower, and take it by a coup de main, without having any thing like guns, though a man had certainly ordered a few hundred pike-heads to be made. But it was scarcely-possible that any body could believe such an absurdity, as that these persons, unarmed, and without a single sapper or miner amongst them, were to proceed to destroy the bridges. Without having been in any of those battles which had immortalized the duke of Wellington and his soldiers, he did think he had sufficient knowledge of engineering to declare that the story was made a little too strong for credibility, when it was said that with such means the Spenceans were to destroy those immense piles of architecture which connected both sides of the river. It appeared that gentlemen had entered on the subject of the report with a sort of impression that there was very great practical danger all over the country. He would not deny that the utmost vigilance was necessary to meet the discontent of the people, who were at this moment in a state of unparalleled distress from being thrown out of employment at the conclusion of the war. There were also, he 625 readily believed, a few mischievous persons willing to avail themselves of that discontent for their own private and wicked purposes. But before new laws were enacted it was worth inquiring whether the constitution, as it now stood, was not sufficient to meet the evil, and whether the executive government was not armed with adequate power, considering also the civil and the military police at its disposal, to ward of a danger even much greater than this? In support of this conclusion he need refer only to the conduct of ministers themselves, in order to see whether the danger was real or imaginary, and the alarm professed at it genuine or pretended. His opinion was, at least, that they wished to make the most of it; for they had advised a farther prorogation of parliament at the latter end of last November, when these same disorderly meetings were taking place in the metropolis; and when, to use the language of the report, the rioters "had assumed the symbols of the French revolution." Tri-colored flags seemed indeed to be great engines with the Spenceans, and one of their best matured schemes was to encourage the manufacture of ribands of three colours. One would have thought that the wearing of! so visible a badge was not the surest bond of any criminal combination; and when he saw observations of this sort mixed up with statements of a design to blow up bridges, and to take fortresses, with no more ammunition than had been found in an old stocking, and which had exploded therein, he could not help regarding it as rather a strange production, and not likely to obtain the greatest degree of credit. An hon. friend of his, who always spoke with great force upon every subject, had observed, that they ought not rashly to despise doctrines because they were absurd, or were entertained only by obscure persons: but it might also be added, that the more absurd an opinion was, the more easy it must be to explode it, and the shorter must be its probable duration. Many were the absurdities which by persecution were forced into reputation, and many the men established as martyrs who would otherwise have been the laughing-stocks of society. No doctrine that ever had been promulgated was more likely, from its monstrous extravagance, to die a natural death, than that of taking away men's property, and doling it out to parishes for the purpose of again equally dividing it among the community. But 626 even a doctrine as ridiculous as this might possibly be magnified into importance by persecuting the miserable enthusiasts who professed it. There was indeed another class of Spenceans, whose object was pillage of a less philosophical kind, who prowled about the highways, and sometimes frequented public places in the shape of pickpockets, and with regard to whom it would be quite sufficient to hand them over to his learned friend the attorney-general. Mr. Spence, the visionary author of the new system, lived 20 years ago, and published his opinions in the most miserable prose that ever issued from the press; but that they might not lose their effect, they had been dramatized, and turned into poetry, and the person who had so metamorphosed them, had had his labours rewarded by a pension! It was rather singular that the attorney-general should have slumbered over the works of the poetical gentleman (the present poet laureat), who, twenty years ago, preached up in verse the universal destruction of all property and laws, the church, the bishops, as useless lumber, &c. while the poor prose writers should be singled out for prosecution. His argument was, that if doctrines were dangerous, application should be made to the law for a remedy; for when had it ceased to be a crime to publish or to utter sedition? So long as the Spenceans dwelt on their reasoning, he would abstain from all interference with them, but the provisions of the 37th and 39th of the king furnished ample security against the danger of seeing their schemes put in execution. The noble lord had greatly mistaken the law as it stood, when he supposed that the last-mentioned statute had become inoperative. He admitted, that if the 36th could not apply to attempts against the person of the Regent, it would be right to adopt some measure for the purpose of extending it to that point. With regard to the difficulty of trying persons for treasons of this particular kind under the statutes of William and of Queen Anne, that difficulty was greatly removed by the 39th and 40th of the king. Having now adverted to the carelessness that appeared to him to preside over the report, he begged permission to refer to an insinuation thrown out by the noble lord, which was much worse than a direct charge, but by which, he conceived, he meant neither more nor less than that some members of that House, in the discharge of their public 627 duty, gave countenance and encouragement to the disaffection of the multitude out of doors. He believed that one half of this insinuation was a blunder; for after having admitted that they had done nothing which could cause them to be brought to the bar of their country, the noble lord added that such persons were responsible for their conduct in the eyes of God and man! Now the result of such an insinuation or charge was, that if he (Mr. B.) in the discharge of his duty, adopted a particular line of conduct, and if those persons (the reformers) out of doors, chose to look to him for protection and support, that he was responsible in the eyes of God and man, not for what really was his conduct, but for what they would wish it to be. He would tell the noble lord that they who discharged their duty were not responsible for the acts of other men. Such a hint would be received by them with perfect indifference, and would pass innocuous over their heads. When the power which the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act and the trial by jury would give to any ministers, was considered, it would become the House to pause well before they consented to arm such ministers as the present with powers that might be devoted to the worst of party purposes. It was impossible not to believe that this measure did not originate in party motives, and that its object, was to distract and divide the political opponents of the present administration. But he would tell the noble lord that the hope was vain, for the attention of the people was not to be diverted from those salutary and necessary objects, retrenchment and reduction, and finally a reform in the representation of the people. Whatever might be the fate of the bill, the noble lord would find that as soon as it was got rid of, the House would immediately take up the last motion, that on the lords of the admiralty, from which its attention had been diverted. Before he sat down, he could not help saying a word or two on the case of the unfortunate persons in the Tower. If this act were to pass, it would be impossible to say whether they would be tried or not; but if it did not pass, he trusted that every person, whether in that House or out of doors, whose duty might cause him to be connected with those trials, would allow no influence whatever to operate upon his mind, in consequence of what had occured, any more than if the names of 628 those unfortunate persons had never been mentioned. With respect to the bill, hoping that it would prove to be only intended to remedy some trifling defect in the existing law, he hoped the House would concur with the noble lord, and agree to its being brought in, that its nature might be fairly examined.
said, that if the people of England were to be denied a trial by their peers, if they were to be deprived of their just rights under the constitution, on no better grounds than those laid down in the report of the committee, he considered the course adopted to be illegal and unfair. It was said that advantage had been taken of the existing distress, in order to bring forward plans for the subversion of the constitution. He knew of no plan but that of the Spenceans which had been particularly brought forward, and pressed on public attention, at this period. The projects of those persons who wished for a reform in parliament, had been persevered in for a very long period, and those who supported them could not, in fairness, be accused of acting a part hostile to the constitution of their country. If the bills now about to be brought in should be passed into laws, the people, deprived of the means of meeting peaceably, as they had been accustomed to do, to petition for relief from their grievances, would have no-resource but an appeal to physical force—which God forbid should ever be attempted in this country; or that tacit resistance which they might have it in their power to offer, by withholding those taxes which it might be attempted to draw from their pockets;—[Cries of "Order"].
§ The Speaker
said, the noble lord was decidedly out of order. It could never be endured in that House that any member should hold language which went directly to encourage the people to disobey the law.
declared, that nothing was farther from his intention than to advise the people to offer any active resistance to the laws. He only wished them to adopt the passive conduct of the quietest people in the world—the Quakers. All he desired was, that those supplies should be kept from getting to the throne, which enabled the throne to subvert the liberties of the people. The Spencean plans he described to be the most absurd and the most wicked that could be imagined, as they went not to divide, but to confiscate property. He, however, considered the 629 government to have acted on the Spencean principles in their administration, and to have deprived the people of their property almost as effectually as the Spenceans could do. It would better become ministers to endeavour to relieve the sufferers, than to subject them to new pains and penalties, by bringing in these bills. When the distress was so great, that it was impossible for the attorney-general to proceed against all those who expressed their discontent, it might be very convenient for ministers to have the power of holding in prison all who became obnoxious to them; but if this power were given to them, the country would be reduced to a state of degradation, known hitherto but in foreign lands. He could see no reason for the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act. If this measure were resorted to, the situation of this country would be worsethan that of Spain and Portugal, of which, at different times, so much had been said, as instead of one despot, the people of England would lie at the mercy of fifty, or five hundred, or a thousand. They would be in the hands of the police, and the character of the police of this country was now pretty well known. He hoped the House would pause before they gave ministers the powers they demanded, as he denied that any serious disaffection had been manifested. What had as yet transpired, he was of opinion, appeared to be no more than the result of momentary irritation, Instead of bringing in these bills, he thought the best way of quieting the people would be to abolish all sinecure places, to reduce the military establish-meats, and to give them a fair representation in parliament.
rose and said:—
It has often been remarked, Sir, that no creed is so extravagant as the creed of unbelief;—that those who are the most incredulous themselves are apt to draw most largely on the credulity of others: but never in my life have I seen this so strongly exemplified as in the present debate by the argument of some of the hon. gentlemen opposite. They utterly disbelieve all that has been reported to the House by the Secret Committee,—a Committee comprehending friends of their own who were unanimous in giving their sanction to that Report: and they call upon the House, instead of placing credit in the report so framed and so sanctioned, to adopt the extravagant fiction—that all the 630 matter of the report was a plot invented by Ministers.
The object of this ingenious and diabolical invention, it seems, was to defeat the efforts of the mighty phalanx which is combined to investigate our conduct, and drive us from our seats. And for this purpose we have, it is supposed, gone through the following elaborate but compendious system of operations. We have first devised or resuscitated a set of extravagant and pernicious principles, hostile alike to the peace of nations and to the welfare of mankind, which we have caused to be circulated throughout the country, and particularly throughout the distressed and suffering parts of it. We have next selected a certain number of desperate but trustworthy incendiaries to act upon these principles, to the full extent of direct physical resistance and rebellion—risking their own lives, but keeping our counsel all the time. Next, so secure have we felt in the framing and jointing of our conspiracy against ourselves,—so confident that nothing would appear that should betray the secret of its fabrication,—that we have ventured to submit it to the inspection of a Secret Committee, composed, as I have stated, and as we all know that Committee to have been; and so entirely has the event justified our confidence, that we have been enabled to procure a Report—an unanimous Report—from that Committee, affirming the existence of the plot, but without a hint at the suspiciousness of its origin. Why, Sir, all this sounds very foolish: and it is so. But it is the creed, real or pretended, of those who say that the plot is the plot of Ministers: and it is, as I have said, the ordinary course of those who hardily deny what, according to all fair rules of evidence, they cannot avoid believing, to take refuge in some extravagant hypothesis, by which, the most implicit credulity would be staggered.
But there is another sense in which the Government are held responsible for the plot, and another charge which we are required to answer. It is said to be very extraordinary that, as appears from the Report of the Committee, Government had information of some of the proceedings which are the subject of it, in the month of November;—and that yet, not with standing this information, they advised the Prince Regent to prorogue the Parliament till January. What is there extraordinary in this? Though certain circumstances connected with the subject of the Report, had come to the knowledge of 631 Ministers in the month of November; yet does it appear that at that period the designs of the conspirators wore that alarming aspect which they assumed in subsequent stages? Does it appear on the face of the Report, that up to the first, or even the second Meeting at Spa-fields, Ministers had reason to believe that those who took the most prominent part at those Meetings, were engaged in a plan for the subversion of the state? For aught that was then brought to the knowledge of Government, the real plotters and leaders of the conspiracy might then have been as little prepared to attempt an insurrection, as that unhappy man whose petition has this day been laid on the table;* and who, it should seem, mounted the temporary rostrum prepared for him, in the innocence and vanity of his heart; and only intending to make a splash, unconsciously forwarded the views of rebellion.
The members of the Government, like every other individual in the nation, could not but know that a very strong and alarming inquietude and agitation had been excited in the metropolis and throughout the country. They knew that in a time of public distress certain classes of the people were liable to be operated upon by designing men in a way likely to lead to much practical mischief, and to the misery and ruin of those who were led astray. They knew these things; but with such knowledge, would it have been wise to call the Members of this and the other House of Parliament (composing so considerable a part of the resident gentry of the country), from their homes, where it might reasonably be hoped that their presence would tend most effectually to check the practices of the disaffected, and to watch over and alleviate the distresses of the suffering and honest classes of the community?
Undoubtedly, even after affairs began to assume a more serious aspect,—after information had been received by the Government, which cast back upon the meetings in Spa-fields a deeper shade of criminality than had been originally supposed to belong to them,—there was a great reluctance on the part of Ministers to bring the matter under the cognizance of Parliament;—at least until it had been ascertained whether the existing laws were strong enough to meet the mischief. I am indeed surprised* Mr. Hunt.632 that there should be a disposition to attribute to us as a crime this reluctance to come to Parliament for extraordinary powers. When it was seen that bad men were labouring to graft sedition on distress, to stimulate want to rebellion, and to make public calamity subservient to proceedings dangerous to the State—to come to Parliament for extraordinary powers was our duty—a painful duty though an indispensable one; but we take no blame to ourselves for having waited, in the first instance, a reasonable time, till other means for averting the evil had been tried and found insufficient.
The honourable gentlemen indeed, object even now to our taking into consideration the propositions which are brought before us, till it shall have been first solemnly decided by the House that the laws already in force are not equal to the circumstances of the times. Surely, Sir, this would be to interpose unnecessary delay in our proceedings. The House will practically decide on that Question this night in deciding on my noble friend's * Motion. If the House are of opinion that the present laws are sufficient, of course they will reject the Motion, and thus declare new ones to be unnecessary. I see no advantage in submitting to the House an abstract Resolution that the laws now in force are inadequate to the suppression of the present mischief. The proposal of new laws shows this to be the opinion of the Government,—the Report upon your table pronounces it as the opinion of your Committee. Those who hold the opposite opinion, will of course mark their dissent from the Committee, and their distrust of the Government, by voting against the present Motion.
One honourable gentleman, while he objects to the measures proposed for meeting the danger, does not go so far as some others have done,—to deny the existence of the danger itself; but he is very angry with the Report for not defining the extent of it. But the hon. gentleman has fallen into a similar error: for, admitting, as he does, the danger to be great, I watched in vain through the whole course of his speech, to hear him set limits to its magnitude, and define that line of demarcation which separates his own opinions from those of his friends in the Committee.—What is the nature of this danger?—Why,* Lord Castlereagh.633 Sir, the danger to be apprehended is not to be defined in one word. It is rebellion; but not rebellion only; it is treason; but not treason merely; it is confiscation; but not confiscation within such bounds as have been usually applied to it in the changes of Dynasties, or the Revolutions of States;—it is an aggregate of all these evils; it is all that dreadful variety of sorrow and of suffering which must follow the extinction of loyalty, morality, and religion; which must follow upon the accomplishment of designs tending not only to subvert the Constitution of England, but to overthrow the whole frame of society. Such is the nature and extent of the danger which would attend the success of the projects developed in the Report of the Committee.
But these projects are said to be visionary; they would never have been of importance, it is affirmed, had they not been brought into notice by persecution. Persecution!—Does this character belong to the proceedings instituted against those who had set out on their career in opposition to all law; and who, in their secret cabals, and midnight counsels, and mid-day harangues, have been noting for destruction every individual, and every class of individuals, which may stand in their way? But the schemes of these persons are visionary.—I admit it.—They have lain by these twenty years without being found to produce mischief.—Be it so.—The doctrines when dormant may be harmless enough; and their intrinsic absurdity may make it appear incredible that they should ever be called up into action. But when this incredible resurrection actually takes place; when the votaries of these doctrines actually go forth armed, to exert physical strength in furtherance of them; then it is that I think it time to be on my guard, not against the accomplishment of their plans (that is, I am willing to believe, impracticable), but against the mischiefs which must attend the attempt to accomplish them by force.
I do not impute to the Spenceans that they really wish to partition the whole property of the kingdom;—that they would carry into effect their scheme for an agrarian division of land—No; but I sincerely believe (and all history teaches that the opinion is not unfounded), that they would labour hard to accomplish the spoliation of its present possessors.—In Rome schemes of agrarian division were often brought forward, and 634 always found partisans. No man ever apprehended from them an actual division of all landed estates; but every man knew and saw that they furnished matter for seditions which shook the security of the state and the liberties of the people to their foundation.
As to the wild theories of Parliamentary Reform, propagated with so much industry throughout the Country, I am relieved from the necessity of any laborious argument, by the unexpected and almost unqualified concurrence of some of those who are opposed to me in this debate. They have declared their opinion, that if those plans were carried into effect, they must lead to confusion and ruin. I need only ask, therefore,—is there nothing alarming in plans which gentlemen, who make it their boast to be so exclusively friendly to the liberties of the people, think likely to be as ruinous if they are reduced to practice, as they are absurd in theory? Does such a danger require no vigilance,—justify no apprehension,—call for no exertion on the part of the legislative authorities of the state—to meet and put down, not the opinions themselves (an old and idle fallacy) but the practical assertion of those opinions?—It is to check evils so alarming: it is in mercy to those who are engaged in such designs, that the measures now called for are required;—in the hope that they may cut short the mischief in its career, recall the wavering, restrain the half-resolved, and avert, even in the case of the guilty deluders themselves, the necessity of having recourse to the last extremity of punishment.
It is not desired of the House that it should enable Ministers to wield at their pleasure an unconstitutional authority; an authority with which, any man who could wish wantonly to possess it, must be utterly unworthy to be entrusted. The Executive Government do not ask for these additional powers as a boon (God knows they are no object of desire); but for the due discharge of an embarrassing and distressing duty, we feel bound to receive them as a trust—to support them as a burthen, which we shall most unwillingly carry, and shall most gladly lay down. We ask them—we will accept them—only for the conservation of the public safety. At our own suggestion the duration of the most onerous and delicate part of this trust, is to be limited to a period during which it will be exercised under the immediate 635 observation of Parliament. Does this look as if our application had in view any object which we fear to describe?
It has been asserted, however, that Ministers call for these powers the better to enable them to make war against the people. We repel the accusation with disdain. We ask them for the people—for the protection of that sound and sober majority of the nation—for that bulk and body of the community which are truly and legitimately the people. How few! how very few, among the millions that make up that aggregate, will ever be subject to the operation of these laws? But these laws are nevertheless necessary (in our consciences we believe them to be so) to protect the many against the few, who fail not to make up in violence what they want in numbers.
Forlet us not be imposed upon, Sir, by the trite and futile argument that our would-be: reformers and revolutionists are but few in number. This may be, and it will be, a consolation when the attempt shall have been suppressed; but it is no security against its success, if we omit to take vigorous measures for its suppression. Experience is all the other way. When was a Revolution effected in any State but by an active and enterprising minority? If ancient times were barren of examples, has not the history of the last five and twenty years sufficiently proved that the disaffected are not to be despised because their number is not preponderating? Can it be forgotten how frequently in the course of the French Revolution the world has seen sanguinary minorities riding in blood over the necks of their prostrate countrymen?
As little should we lay to our souls the flattering hope that the bare absurdity,—the monstrousness of any doctrine is a sufficient security against the attempt to reduce it into practice. The same French Revolution in which the blood-stained few were seen triumphant over the subdued and trembling many, exhibits abundant instances of absurd and incredible theories, reduced into tremendous practice. When atheism was professed in France as a faith,—when it was declared by the National Assembly that "death was an eternal sleep,"—who believed that such impious absurdity could flourish?—Who would not have held up his hands in astonishment, at the folly which feared that the professors of such opinions could make proselytes?— 636 But what followed? Proselytes were made; and a great nation robbed of its religion and its morality, was thus stripped of the armour and of the shield which might have protected her from anarchy and desolation. The "sovereignty of the people" was preached up not as a doctrine of abstract theory only, but as a principle and ground of practical political experiment. Wise and experienced men smiled at the gross delusion. They apprehended little from the attempt to act upon it. But again what followed?—On behalf of the "sovereign people," and in their name, France saw the whole of the upper orders of society swept from the face of the earth;—that earth deluged with the best blood of the nation; and crimes followed by crimes, in a long train of horrors, which ended at last in an overwhelming but comparatively salutary despotism.
But still it seems there is no great danger in our case; for our philosophers want influence, and our desperate revolutionists want leaders: nothing has yet appeared among them but what is insignificant and obscure. Let us not rely too confidently on this ground of security. First of all, names will be used,—names are used,—without the consent of their owners, to give to the mass of the disaffected the confidence which arises from believing themselves to be highly countenanced, and ably led. Next, although we do not know that any man now exists who has deliberately taken the resolution to come forward and place himself at the head of the conspirators; we must remember that circumstances make men. Is it to be believed that Robespierre had from infancy contemplated the bad eminence to which he attained?—Assuredly, no—A disposition so fiend-like never came from the hands of nature; or if the principle of it were implanted in the heart, the circumstances of the time alone could have fostered and stimulated it into action. Robespiere grew from crime to crime, and became gradually familiarized with blood. He learned lessons of atrocity from companions over whom his superior energy enabled him to gain ascendancy and controul. And thus it always is that bad men reciprocally corrupt each other, till the aggregate of wickedness to which their minds are finally made up, is such as would, at the first moment of their outset, have startled the fiercest spirit and the hardiest imagination among them.
637 I do not say, therefore, that any man now exists, formed, and trained, and disciplined, to take the lead in the mischievous and malignant plans which are in agitation; but I do say that the training by which such men are to be formed, is in progress, and is well adapted to its end. The first object is to eradicate all sense of religion. Respect for religion once eradicated,—the name of God once erased from the human heart,—it is easy to pour into a heart so void, a spirit of hatred towards its fellow creatures. That this operation is diligently carrying on, will not be doubted by any man who has read but a tenth part of the publications circulated in all parts of the country with a devilish zeal, for the destruction of that religious belief which is the best guard of all human virtue, the best consolation of all human misery. These publications meet the eye in all quarters, wherever there is distress to be aggravated, or discontent to be inflamed. In the nightly councils of the disaffected the discussions upon political subjects are interspersed with digressions into impiety; the overthrow of the State being settled, that of the religious Establishments of the Country is next taken into consideration; and the sportive relaxation of rebellion is in blasphemy.
If then, the Government demands extraordinary powers, I ask, on the other hand, are these or are they not, extraordinary times? Have we—has England—ever seen the like before?—We have had our share in this Country of every species of political dissension;—disputed titles to the crown;—disputed rights in the people;—invasions;—rebellions;—the struggles of rival dynasties;—and civil wars both of politics and of religion. But in all our varieties of agitation and convulsion, were we ever exposed to such pests as these of the present day? In our civil wars, there was enough of violence and of blood. But principle was opposed to principle, and honest and upright men might be found on either side. Republicanism was opposed to monarchy, and Monarchy was overthrown. But the overthrow of Monarchy was not effected for the sake of throwing all Government into confusion: they destroyed not in those days for the sake of destruction alone. In religion, Independency was opposed to Episcopacy, and Independency triumphed. But it was still for some form of religion that the contest was carried on: it was not for the destruction of all religious principle; it was not the opposition 638 of mere negation, to God. It was left for the reformers of modern times to endeavour to strip the mind of all reverence for the Deity, in order to prepare the man to become a mere instrument of ruin,—a remorseless agent of evil.
The discipline I have said, is well suited to its purposes; it is our business to take care that the purposes themselves shall not be fulfilled.
Sir, the same sense of duty which has now caused ministers to apply for these Bills, would cause them to apply to Parliament for still greater powers, if they should become necessary; but those which we have asked, we are satisfied will prove sufficient, because we are satisfied that it is only necessary to check the progress of the disaffected for a season, in order that the sound part of the nation may have opportunity to recover and to array themselves,—that the first passive impressions of alarm may be converted into determined confidence, and zealous action. The nation is sound at heart: and when once apprized of the nature of the danger, and secure in the vigilance of the government; we can have no doubt but they will co-operate with the government, and that such co-operation will be effectual for the safety of the state, and for the preservation of all that they hold dear.
Two of the four proposed laws are almost generally approved. The third is not wholly objected to, though gentlemen reserve to themselves the right of criticising it in its passage through the House. It is only the fourth—the suspension of the Habeas Corpus—that incurs the unqualified disapprobation of some of the hon. gentlemen on the other side of the House.
The Committee has declared, that the ordinary powers given to the Executive Government by the Constitution, are not sufficient for the crisis. If new powers are denied to them, Ministers will be left to combat with comparatively less effect, the growing boldness of sedition, encouraged and inflamed by the rejection of these propositions. It is the joint obligation of Ministers and of Parliament to preserve the Constitution. Ministers have done all that it was for them to do: what remains is in the hands of this House; and it is for the House to say, whether or not the Constitution shall be guarded by those new outworks which the perils of the times have rendered necessary, against the assaults of furious and desperate men; 639 —whether that system of law and liberty, under which England has so long flourished in happiness and glory,—in internal tranquillity, and external grandeur,—shall be sacrificed or saved.
The question being then put, that leave be given to bring in a bill for the more effectually preventing seditious meetings and assemblies, the House divided: Yeas, 190; Noes, 14;.
|List of the Minority.|
|Aubrey, sir John||Russell, lord W.|
|Brand, T.||Smith, Wm.|
|Fitzgerald, rt. hon. T.||Tavistock, lord|
|Fergusson, sir R.||Waldegrave, hon. W.|
|Folkestone, lord||Webb, Ed.|
|Hughes, colonel||Bennet, hon. H.|
|Ossulston, lord||Burdett, sir Francis.|
then obtained leave to bring in a bill "to revive and make perpetual an act of the 37th year of his present majesty, for the better prevention and punishment of attempts to seduce persons serving in his majesty's forces by sea or land from their duty and allegiance to his majesty, or to incite them to mutiny or disobedience;" and also a bill "to make perpetual certain parts of an act of the 36th year of his present majesty, for the safety and preservation of his majesty's person and government against treasonable and seditious practices and attempts, and for the safety and preservation of the person of his royal highness the Prince Regent against treasonable practices and attempts." The three bills were then brought in and read a first time.