HC Deb 09 February 1819 vol 39 cc396-400
Mr. Wilberforce

said, that he had been intrusted with a Petition which he considered it an honour to hold; and which, but for indisposition, he should have laid before the House on an earlier day. It came from a most respectable body, the Society of Friends, commonly called Quakers, and it called upon the House to take into its serious consideration the many laws under which the punishment of death was inflicted. The same body, acting with that sobriety, temper, and moderation, by which they were distinguished, had been on more occasions than one, the first to point out and to reprobate the existence of evils of the highest magnitude. He could not forget—for to forget it would be the height of ingratitude—that the Quakers were among the earliest of those who had claimed that the slave trade should be abolished, and had never been backward in promoting any cause favourable to the interests of humanity [Hear, hear!]. The petition, however, deserved the most serious attention, not merely on account of the individuals by whom it was signed, but on account of the importance of the question to which it related. To that question it was impossible to advert, without expressing, though faintly, his deep regret, in common with the whole House and country, that it was now left for him to raise his feeble voice in that cause which had been so often and so ably advocated by one whose name would be recorded among the benefactors of mankind, and whose memory would be fondly cherished by all who reverenced either public or private virtue—[Cheers from all sides]—a man whose general knowledge was only equalled by his professional attainments, and who brought to the subject all the lights of the understanding, and all the advantages of experience. The obligations of the country to the unwearied labours of that most distinguished and lamented individual were acknowledged by friends and enemies—if, indeed, the term friends could be applied to those who loved him with devoted enthusiasm, or enemies to those who, while they resisted his propositions, had admitted the benevolence of their object, and the admirable intentions of him who introduced them. He was a man in whom public and private excellence were so united, and so equally balanced, that it was difficult to say which had the predominance; those who knew him only as a member of parliament would probably hold that his public principles had the predominance, while those who had enjoyed his friendship would feel satisfied that the general benevolence of his views and projects was exceeded by the endearing qualities of his domestic life. The country had been deprived of his assistance when most it was needed, and when he had proceeded but a few steps towards the completion of his object; those steps had been with caution, though without hesitation; and if his progress at first was resisted, opposition in the end was disarmed by the persuasion of his eloquence, and conviction compelled by the force of his talents. Although deprived of its chief advocate, it was still to be hoped that many supporters of the cause remained, who, at least, in earnestness and zeal, were not behind the distinguished individual of whom he had spoken: it was, however, most sincerely to be lamented, that after all that had been said and written upon the subject of crimes and punishments since the days of Howard, so little had yet been done to remedy the increasing evil against which the petition was directed. It had not been sufficiently considered that the moral improvement of offenders ought to be the first great object, and that capital punishments would be rendered less frequent most effectually, by diminishing the disposition and the motives to crime. It was allowed that the uncertainty of the infliction—the chance which every offender had at present of escaping—the sort of gambling with life which was kept up, had a great tendency to augment crime; and the late Judge Duller, in a conversation which he well recollected, had truly said, that criminals actually calculated the odds of escaping, or of being detected and punished. It had been said by the highest authority, that men in all situations were disposed to calculate the chances in their own favour; but this was peculiarly the case with those who committed offences, and who were least of all open to reflection, because, in fact, to reflect would be to repent and to mend. He trusted that some individual of competent knowledge, industry, and ability, would yet be found to undertake the reform of the criminal code, and by recommending the alteration of many of our most penal statutes, render capital convictions and executions less frequent. The House and the country had had some experience of the difference between the two systems: by the one, offenders were turned into the paths of crime, and by the other were diverted from it. Proof had been lately afforded of the mode in which females, the most abandoned to vice, had been reclaimed by the almost unaided efforts of one benevolent woman, whose name was too well-known to need repetition [Hear, hear!]. It had been said, that the most excellent things were subject to the greatest corruptions, and it was thought that women were sometimes beyond reformation; but it appeared that the efforts of considerate kindness and attention had been often most effectual where despair had been most indulged. In his earliest acquaintance with Mr. Pitt, that great statesman had admitted the necessity of diminishing the number of capital punishments; and if it were then required, how much more vehemently was it called for at the present moment? He took no small share of shame to himself, that he had so long neglected a subject of such importance; and he hoped yet to be able to make some amends for it. The system of transportation was perhaps the worst of the whole; for those who were comparatively innocent, were despatched to a country where they could only mix with those whose crimes had perhaps reached the most gigantic dimensions. The legislature had been criminal itself on this point; it had abandoned its duty; it had allowed guilt to grow to its full dimensions, instead of checking it in its infancy; and the only atonement which it could make to the country was by seriously applying itself to the subject, and endeavouring to diminish the evils which had grown up under the present melancholy system.

The Petition was then brought up and read. It was as follows:— To the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, in Parliament assembled. The respectful Petition of the undersigned, representing the Society of Friends commonly called Quakers, in the United Kingdom, showeth. That at the last annual assembly of the said society, the awful subject of the punishment of death, as now prevailing in this empire, arrested the attention of the meeting, inducing serious reflection, with feelings of deep commiseration and regret. Acting agreeably to the instructions of the said meeting, your petitioners desire to represent their firm conviction, that the frequency of this punishment, extended, as it is to crimes of very different degress of guilt, is repugnant to the mild and benevolent principles of the Christian religion; and they would further express their belief, that were these principles received and acted upon to their full extent, were the genuine spirit and precepts of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ implicitly obeyed, way would ultimately be made for the abolition of this practice in all cases. To the laws, therefore, as they at present stand with regard to this subject, your petitioners earnestly and respectfully entreat that your deliberations may be speedily directed, in order that, in the wisdom of the legislature, such a change may be effected in our penal code, as may whilst it shall secure the ends of justice, imprint on it the characters of Christian mercy, righteousness, and love, the firmest bulwarks of society and government. Then we reverently trust will the result of your exertions be viewed with acceptance by the Most High, who rules in the kingdoms of the earth, and be a means of obtaining for our beloved country his continued blessing and protection.

Ordered to lie on the table, and to be printed.

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