HC Deb 30 April 1819 vol 39 cc1517-24

The Reader is requested to substitute the following Report of the Speech of Lord Nugent, on presenting the Petition of the Catholics of Great Britain, March 4th, in the room of the one which will be found at page 858.

Lord Nugent

said, that he rose, in discharge of an awful duty, to present the humble petition of a very considerable body of his majesty's subjects, Roman Catholics of great Britain, praying to be relieved from certain grievous civil disabilities under which they now labour. The petition was signed by upwards of 10,300 persons, among whom were many of the representatives of the most ancient and noblest families of the land, at the head of which distinguished list stood the name of his grace the duke of Norfolk, earl marshal of England, and, by birth, the first subject in the realm. And, said the noble lord, in contenting myself for the present with moving, that this petition be now laid upon your table, it is not my intention to detain you by inquiring what particular mode or measure of relief it may hereafter appear desirable or practicable for the House to adopt, still less shall I enter into a detail of the peculiar state of the Roman Catholics of this country, a topic, on which, from the many and full discussions it has received, not only in this House, but through every channel of public information out of doors, the minds of gentlemen may be expected to be already very adequately prepared. At the same time, the tone and temper of the petition itself forbids our considering it as in any way prescribing the means, or even the extent, of that relief to which I trust that this House will be of opinion that they have a just and a peculiar claim. The petition is expressed in nearly the same terms, and embraces precisely the same objects, as when, in those able hands to which, for years, it was entrusted, it obtained, even whilst it failed of success, general sympathy and applause from its unvaried good feeling, discretion, and modesty Hear, hear!]. But connected as it now is with the memory of those great and good men, who used to support its prayer with all that their eloquence and their authority, and their character, could give to its support, while I reflect, certainly with unaffected dismay, upon how in- competent are the hands into which so great a trust has now fallen, I cannot but feel at the same time that it derives from the memory of those it has lost a melancholy but irresistible interest in its behalf.—The petition which, for so many years, derived support from the eloquence, the authority, and the character of Mr. Windham, cannot be devoid of interest in this House [Hear, hear!]. The petition whose cause was so often, and so lately, pleaded in this House by a voice whose captivating tones are still fresh in the recollection of most of us, by a man whose loss is the subject of so recent, and, I am convinced, so general, sorrow, cannot be devoid of interest to us [Hear, hear!]. Well and long will this House remember the eloquence—the grace far beyond the reach of ordinary eloquence—the statesman-like discretion, but above all, the zealous sincerity, with which those great men pleaded for years, in behalf of these petitioners, the cause of general conciliation. Those tones are for ever lost to this House; that support is for ever lost to the cause.—The last of that distinguished class and connexion of men to which he belonged in this House is now gone. He has left behind him tile example, a rare one, of a statesman who, after a long political life, passed actively too, in difficult and contentious times, has died with the general and unqualified regret of all persons, of all parties and opinions among us. The cause of this large and suffering body of your countrymen, which Mr. Windham, in almost his last moments, bequeathed to his illustrious friend, whose recent loss we deplore, has now devolved upon this House, for protection, with one name more added to the venerable list of the patrons it has lost, a list already graced with the names of all the most considerable men of parliament, from Mr. Elliot up to Mr. Burke and sir George Saville, that is, from the repeal of the first of that cruel and unnatural code of what were called the penal laws, down to the present period.

Sir, the general question, as it affects the Roman Catholics of your empire, and embracing a much wider scope of discussion than what necessarily belongs to this petition, will, I trust, ere long, be brought before you, introduced by the ablest hands, and recommended by the highest authority. I trust that the day is not far distant when we shall again hear in his place pleading in behalf, not only of his own countrymen, but of your whole empire—a man whose venerable name affords additional lustre to the best and noblest cause, a name which never can be separated from the glorious cause of universal toleration and freedom, in which his whole glorious life has been passed [Hear, hear!]. The presence of my right hon. friend (Mr. Grattan) forbids my farther indulging those feelings in which, on this occasion, I am sure the House sympathizes with me. But I ought now to state that, should his extensive and hopeful views of general benefit fail of their immediate effect this session, it will be my duty, however inadequately, to found a motion, of general influence still, on the particular prayer of this petition. In the mean time, it is not for me now, by immature discussion, or by anything like anticipation of questions which do not necessarily belong to this petition, however naturally they may arise out of it, to disturb that unanimity of sentiment which I trust will accompany to your table the prayer of this great and high-minded, though patient and long-suffering, portion of your countrymen. But this I trust I may, even thus early, express as my firm conviction—A conviction which I should venture humbly to urge upon the consideration of the petitioners themselves, were I not assured as I am, that they already feel it much more strongly than I can possibly express it. That, from their uniform and steady conduct, from the tone and temper of their applications, every reliance may be placed on the ultimate justice of this House. But that no good can possibly arise, and much mischief may be apprehended, from what I have long thought the fatal mistake of endeavouring on the part of the petitioners, to make terms with parliament on how far this or that security which we may think fit to adopt may or may not be consonant with their particular views or opinions as to the discipline of their own church. Let us, on the other hand, remember that, while it is our duty to legislate for all the subjects of this empire, it would be weakness, it would be worse, it would be want of candour, to negociate with a particular class of them [Hear, hear!]. By petitions conceived in a spirit like that which characterizes the petition now before you, and received by parliament in a corresponding spirit of conciliation, much, perhaps all, may be effected towards securing general satisfaction and permanent union. But from negotiation I have always felt that, however ardent may be on both sides the wish of mutual accommodation, from negotiation between two such bodies as parliament and the petitioners no good can possibly arise, none can be hoped for. It can only end, for the petitioners, in bickerings with parliament, and in dissensions among themselves; it can only end, for us, in lowering the value of the boon we may be disposed to extend, and in compromising ourselves by stipulations to preserve for our own establishments those terms which we already have within Our power—your petitioners have felt this. They have acted upon this conviction, and, in so doing, they have, in my judgment, acted wisely, dutifully, and well. For who, after all, can reasonably hope to succeed in treating on matters like church discipline with men who, on these very subjects, commence with differences from you which, like all other spiritual differences, probably nothing short of inspiration, nothing this side the grave, can finally or effectually adjust. Excepting indeed they be adjusted by community of education, community of pursuits, community of privileges, and that community of habits and of feeling which education pursuits and privilege in common are usually found to inspire. For our consideration, as it appears to me, this remains. Your petitioners complain that they suffer under two grievances—political disqualification, and religious obloquy. That the religious obloquy arises mainly out of the political disqualification, and that the political disqualification is inflicted on them, not on account of any political tenets now imputed to them, but on account of religious tenets only,—in other words, on account of certain scruples concerning which man is responsible to God only and his own conscience; but at the same time allow me to say, his unshaken fidelity to which gives the best earnest he can give to the state of his reverence for those moral and religious obligations which are the strength and cement of social government. The political disqualification affects your petitioners not only in all the worthiest objects of public ambition. Its effect is felt in every situation, in every relation of social life. It pursues them even into privacy and retirement; it marks them out as a sect, a cast, set aside from all communion with ourselves in all the higher rights of citizenship, on account of some dark undefined suspicions, suspicions intolerable, because they are dark and undefined, add it is thus that your laws, in as far as they can command public opinion, doom your petitioners to religious obloquy also. Englishmen, Sir, as they are, by birth, by education, in feeling, and in blood, but doomed, for conscience sake, to heavy and bitter incapacities, in return for those best and noblest of virtues, constancy to spiritual opinions, and jealousy of spiritual rights, they are reduced to the condition of Aliens in their native land in all respects but in the right of property. And see how this right operates. They may inherit property which they have received from their fathers, together with their faith, but which, in many instances is the memorial to them of years, of centuries, of unrewarded valour, loyalty, and merit. They may bequeath property, accompanied with all those feelings which they cannot fail to transmit along with it, feelings of burning anguish, feelings of melancholy reproach against that system which precludes property, rank, virtue, ability, and zeal, hereditarily from the public service—I say hereditarily; for who, after all, is there, what gentleman is there in an assembly of gentlemen who can fail to recognize the spirit which would animate him if he were the representative of an ancient and distinguished Roman Catholic family? I say, Sir, that such a person, even if he wavered in his attachment to the faith of his ancestors, might well be expected to be confirmed in it by your laws. He might well be expected to cling to it, were it only from honourable; shame, in the years of its depression. Even if in his heart he rejected its tenets, and subscribed to ours, even then he might well, from the purest feeling, conceal his change, until a more liberal policy should allow him avow it with his motives unimpeached, unsuspected, unquestioned. The best, the noblest, and the purest of their communion may thus be deterred by your laws, if by no stronger motive, from conformity, while proselytism to our faith is at least deprived of that pure unmixed credit which should strengthen and recommend the cause of our national Church. At all events this I may say without offence and without question. That the refusal of the Roman Catholics of your country to embrace your doctrines is made a test, and en honourable one, of proud disinterested integrity. Stripped of all power, of all influence in the state excepting that power and influence of which your laws cannot deprive him, the power and influence of character, it is difficult to conceive a noble or a more interesting spectacle than that of an English Roman Catholic gentleman, endowed with all the advantages which birth and education, and perhaps youth and talents, and a zealous ambition for the public service, could cast around him, dispensing within the narrow sphere to which you have confined his virtues, those blessings which Providence entrusts to the rich, the powerful, the wise, and the good, for the general benefit of their country and mankind.

The petition speaks the language of a body of men long known to you by such qualities only as entitle them to our most tender and grateful consideration. The Roman Catholics of England have been for centuries treated as persons ill affected to the civil establishment of your empire. And, let me ask, is there the libeller who would now so describe them? And if there be, I ask without fear to what periods of our history he would refer to support such a description. I think it so happens that the very periods to which he would naturally point for instances of their disaffection may be quoted as containing the strongest illustration in support of their present prayer. I mean this: and I speak it from authority. That in no instance were the Roman Catholics of England ever found wanting as the supporters of your empire's glory, and of the integrity of her constitution, but when they were writhing under the scourge of those penal laws which deprived them of all share in the one, and, almost, of all protection from the other. Of their gallant zeal and chivalrous loyalty under a Protestant government, and that government none of the mildest, but before the enactment of penal laws against the Catholic laity, let the story of the Armada bear witness, when every Catholic arm in England was raised to protect their queen, their emphatically Protestant queen, to protect, at the expense of much wealth, and at the hazard of excommunication and death, this Protestant land,—against what too?—Against no less than the consecrated banner of the pope himself [Hear, hear!]. Let the wiser policy of even those violent times testify that even then a very important branch of the legislature, and the highest posts of honour and responsibility, both in army and in state, might be safely laid open to them. The earl of Effingham, who commanded queen Elizabeth's fleet against the popish armada, was himself a Roman Catholic. The lord Howard, another Catholic peer, was, at the same time, lord warden of the Marches, to hold the frontier of Protestant England against Scotland; part Presbyterian, part Catholic. The lord Pembroke, another Catholic peer, at the same time was governor of Dover Castle, held the advanced work of Protestant England against the Catholic continent. And the same lord Pembroke had held the great seal of England. When enfranfranchised, and before penal laws had divided our country into political sects, were the Roman Catholics enemies to the constitutional safeguards of your country's liberties? Magna Charta they gave you! The integrity of your laws they vindicated by their ever-memorable protest against popish innovation, and the Bill of Rights itself is but an instrument declaratory of those rights and privileges which you derived from your Catholic ancestors [Hear, hear!]. As the best pledge of their attachment now they point to history, they point to conduct, they throw in, as proof and earnest, that scrupulous faith, that nice unblemished honour, which, by the oaths which you prescribe, are most unfortunately and most unjustly made the very means and instrument of their disfranchisement. Were it not for that faith and honour, where are your securities? With that faith and honour as your securities, against what is it that you seek to protect yourselves by acts of exclusion? Sir, I present this petition on behalf of the English Roman Catholics only; and that for many reasons. But principally because the condition of these petitioners, as is well known, is, in many particulars, much worse than even that of their brethren of the same faith in Ireland. But let me not be misunderstood. Let the petitioners not be misunderstood. The measure of justice which I think we are bound to extend to them cannot be confined to one class or description of your Roman Catholic subjects. Whatever really useful measures of relief are in the wisdom and humanity of parliament to be founded on this petition must be for the relieving and conciliating all within your dominions of the Roman Catholic persuasion who now disdain to barter religious scruples for political power. If your petitioners, pleading in their own behalf, inviduously separated their interests from those of their suffering brethren in Ireland, I can only say that deeply as I feel the strength of their cause, highly as I admire their uniform conduct I should feel myself to be a still more ineffective advocate in their cause, than even now, nor, with the opinions and feelings I entertain, could I make myself the humble instrument of laying their petition now before you. But on the other hand, if, from the pernicious advice of some, or from the irregular zeal of others, partial instances may be adduced to throw discredit on certain persons interested in the general result of a Roman Catholic petition, let us for God's sake remember the many years of severe mortification and undeserved restraint and insult they have endured, let us remember that they have feelings and passions like our own, and let us pardon something to that genuine English free spirit which is restless under restraint and proudly jealous of suspicion. Let us, above all, remember that our object and our duty is, by certain indulgent allowances for suffering impatience, to conciliate and unite, not to accuse and alienate. Every law which excludes any portion of your subjects from the public service is, pro tanto, a positive evil to the state, and can be justified only by showing, clearly showing, some greater and equally immediate evil against which by such law of exclusion you protect yourselves. In this spirit, Sir, I hope that this petition may be received. To the humanity, to the wisdom, to the justice, of this House I commit it, humbly moving that it be now laid upon your table [Hear, hear!].