HC Deb 04 March 1819 vol 39 cc858-65
Lord Nugent

rose to present a petition from the English Catholics, praying for relief from certain grievous civil disabilities to which they were well known to be subject. The petition was signed by upwards of 10,300 persons, many of whom represented families, of the highest rank and antiquity in the kingdom. At the head of this list, which contained eleven peers and thirteen baronets—was his grace the duke of Norfolk, hereditary earl marshal of the kingdom. The statements in the petition had undergone such ample and frequent discussion, that the minds of members must be sufficiently informed as to them. The prayer was for the relief to which that House might think the petitioners highly and peculiarly entitled. He felt happy to be assured, that the general feeling on this question was fair, good, and candid. When he contemplated the memory of the great and good men in whose hands such a petition had been formerly placed, he acknowledged, with unaffected dismay, that he felt himself unfit for the task. It was natural also that he should feel diffident in coming forward as the advocate of a question, which for so long a time had had the support of that excellent man whose loss the House had so recently to deplore (the late Mr. Elliot)—a man whose whole life had been spent in the strict and able discharge of those high duties which his situation as a statesman and a senator had required, and who died, leaving the bright example of so many public and private virtues, among which his zeal and perseverance in behalf of his long-suffering fellow-countrymen stood eminently conspicuous. When this question had engaged the attention and employed the talents of such a man as Windham, and of so many other distinguished senators, from Elliot up to Burke and Savile, it was natural that he should be dismayed, at the consciousness of his inability to follow in their path, and to take upon himself the advocacy of a cause in which they had acquired such deserved celebrity. It was, however, a relief to him, that this subject would, he presumed, be brought forward, at an early period, by a right hon. mem- ber who had ever stood foremost in advocating the rights of his Roman Catholic countrymen—a man, whose presence alone forbad him from saying what he felt with respect to his powerful talents and incessant exertions, as the first and the last, in the great and glorious cause of religious liberty. The question, as he had observed, would be brought forward by that right hon. member. He would not anticipate the arguments which might be more properly reserved for that occasion, but he could not refrain from offering a few words as to the character of the petitioners and the object of their present application to parliament.

From the uniformly steady, loyal, and patriotic conduct of the Roman Catholics, while deprived of many of the blessings of the constitution which they were called upon to support, might be fairly drawn the conclusion, that the enjoyment of those blessings would not tend to make them less attached to their country and its government. The argument lay the other way; and from their past conduct the House had the strongest guarantee for the future. He would not enter into the question, how far the House ought to make the grant which the Catholics sought for the subject of negotiation; but his own opinion was, that it would tend to create differences and divisions amongst the Catholics themselves, and would certainly lessen the value of the gift which the legislature might be disposed to bestow. The petitioners complained, and with justice complained, that they were subjected to two grievances—the one, political disqualification, the other religious obloquy; the latter arising out of the former. They complained that these were not the consequence of any political tenets hostile to the government of the country, but were inflicted for religious opinions, for which he conceived they ought to be responsible to God alone. And here he could not avoid saying, that the strict and steady adherence to their religious opinions by the Roman Catholics, under so many privations, and where a deviation from some of them opened the way to those honours and enjoyments which they were so anxious to obtain, was a proof of the strict integrity of their principles; for if those principles were loose, if they sat but a slight value upon their religion, they might, by a deviation from some of its tenets, enjoy the benefits of the constitution equally with their fel- low-men. Their political disqualifications had, as it were, cast them from political society. They were deprived of the power of that interference in political affairs which the lowest of their Protestant fellow-subjects enjoyed, and this on account of some dark and undefined suspicion, the effect of old prejudice or sectarian hatred. Was it consistent with the mild and tolerant nature of the British constitution, that so large a portion of our countrymen should be thus held in continued obloquy, because they differed from a great body of their fellow-subjects in some religious points? They were Englishmen by birth, by education, and by feeling; and yet, because they professed an attachment to certain religious principles, which to them appeared to be right, they were insulted, debased, and rendered aliens in their native land [Hear, hear!]. They had, it was true, the right of inheriting and bequeathing property—that property which was either the testimonial of the bravery and patriotism of their ancestors, or the reward of their own industry. But did not that very circumstance tend rather to show to them, in a clearer point of view, their own political degradation, when they possessed the property, and were deprived of all that political rank which it ought to bestow? Would any gentleman in a company of gentlemen, think another less worthy of the ordinary marks of respect paid in civilised society, because he adhered with steady attachment to certain religious rules; or would he attempt to impugn the motives for such belief? Undoubtedly not; and yet, for nothing more than that attachment were the Roman Catholics of this country deprived of their rights as British subjects. Their refusal to conform to the principles and practice of the established church was, he conceived, rather an argument in their favour; because it showed their attachment to opinions which they believed to be correct; for how otherwise could their refusal of the rank and privileges which they might enjoy by a compliance be accounted for? He could not conceive a more interesting spectacle than that of a Roman Catholic of high birth and large fortune, whose talents and virtues were confined in their operation, by the penal code, adhering conscientiously to those principles which he knew were the cause of his political disqualification, and dispensing to those around him all the good which his means enabled him to bestow. Yet, such was a frequent sight in the country at present. Such was the situation of a great many of the individuals whose names were signed to the petition before him. It had been said that the Catholics were disaffected; but when were they so? If ever any symptoms of disaffection had existed among them, it was when they were writhing under the pressure of those severe, and he might add, sanguinary laws, which had been enacted against them. But let the House recollect how the Roman Catholics had acted, at times when the country had most need of their assistance. Was there, in the reign of queen Elizabeth, when England was threatened with invasion by a Catholic prince—was there at that period, a Roman Catholic of birth, rank, or fortune, whose arm was not uplifted against the approach to their shores of that banner which had been consecrated by the hand of the pope? The noble lord then enumerated many of the Roman Catholic noblemen who at that and a subsequent period, held posts of high and important trust, which they had discharged with bravery and fidelity, in defence of Protestant England. He next adverted to the signing of Magna Charta, which had been extorted by that love of liberty and attachment to their country which distinguished the Roman Catholics of those days—love and attachment which, he would assert without fear of contradiction, had not less characterised their Roman Catholic descendants down to the present period. He had said, that the attachment of the Roman Catholics to their religion during a long period of persecution and suffering, was a proof of their honour and good faith. In those, he maintained, would the Protestants find their best security. Without them, there could be nothing to depend upon—with them, they had every guarantee which it was possible to expect. With these impressions strong upon his mind, he begged to present to the House the petition of the Roman Catholics of England. Their situation, he begged to remark, was worse than the Roman Catholics of Ireland; they were debarred of many privileges which the Irish Catholics enjoyed. At the same time, he begged to be understood as not wishing to separate their interests. He conceived the benefit of emancipation equally due to all; and however highly he valued each as a body; he would not advocate the right of either to the exclusion of the other. His object was, that conciliatory measures should be adopted towards them all, as he was sure that would be a step tending to consolidate the strength of the empire. The petitioners did not enumerate their grievances; they complained, generally, of their exclusion from political rights, and they relied for their restoration upon the justice, wisdom, and liberality of parliament [Hear, hear!]. The noble lord concluded by moving that the petition be read.

Lord Morpeth

said, that after the able and eloquent speech of his noble friend, after the powerful statement he had made of the grievances of the petitioners, and with the recollection which the House must have of the appeals which had been already made to its wisdom and justice on this subject, he felt it unnecessary to take up their time with any observations in favour of the prayer of the petitioners. He was sure, that whatever opinion might prevail respecting the original policy of our penal laws, there could be now but one opinion, that they were no longer necessary. He only wished to take that early opportunity of offering his humble testimony to the loyalty and forbearance which bad been uniformly displayed by the Catholics of England—by that class who were debarred, by the bad policy of our laws, from exerting their talents in those ranks and stations in society, which were the honourable reward of legitimate ambition to other classes of his majesty's subjects. Those opportunities of fair reward and honourable distinction which were open to the great mass of the people of this country, were shut to the Catholics alone. He should only add one word as to the manner and language of the petitioners. It appeared to him, that the petition was drawn up just as it ought to be, in a simple and plain, but yet in a manly and perspicuous manner; it did not enter into the detail of the specific grievances of the petitioners, because they presumed those grievances to be too universally known; it made no mention of the loyalty and stedfast attachment of the English Catholics to the constitution, because of that the House was sufficiently informed, by the unerring test of long gild ample experience. He would not anticipate the debate on this important question, but should conclude by expressing his fullest confidence, that the House would no longer suffer the grievances of which the petitioners complained to remain unredressed.

Dr. Phillimore

said:—The petition presented by my noble friend is so important in all its bearings, and so peculiarly merits the deliberate consideration of parliament, that perhaps I may be excused if I venture to offer a few observations supplemental to those which have already been so eloquently pressed upon our attention. My noble friend has explicitly stated to the House the substance of the petition, and the tone and temper in which it is couched. The House will hear the petition read, and the signatures affixed to it;—in those signatures it will recognise names illustrious in the annals in our country—names so intimately blended, so closely mixed up as it were and identified, with the most brilliant periods of our history as instantly to recall to our recollection those who, by their counsels in peace and their achievements in war, have materially contributed to the renown and prosperity of Great Britain. In the individuals who now bear these names the House will as immediately recognize peaceful subjects of the state—debarred indeed from emulating the example, precluded from following the public career, of their fore-fathers; but nevertheless eminently characterised by their private virtues—individuals too, who, in spite of the severe privations and galling disabilities to which they are subjected, have, in times of turbulence and danger, maintained a steady and undeviating course, uniformly approving themselves faithful subjects to their sovereign, and zealously attached to the constitution of the state.—Well, therefore, may it be said, that the petitioners are entitled to the deliberate consideration of parliament; and I trust I shall not be thought presumptuous if, before I sit down, I earnestly and anxiously entreat hon. members, before they make up their minds as to the important question which this petition involves, diligently to re-examine, carefully to reconsider the history of those times which gave birth to the restrictions under which our Roman Catholic fellow subjects now labour—to weigh well the peculiar circumstances Under which they originated—the peculiar necessity under Which they were sanctioned, enacted, and subsequently perpetuated: if it shall appear that the necessity out of which they grew has altogether ceased, if it shall be established that the causes which impelled our an- cestors to enact provisions so repugnant to the genius, and so hostile to the spirit of the British constitution, have no longer either effect or operation; if these premises shall be made out—the conclusion must inevitably follow, that the restrictions and disabilities against the Roman Catholics ought to follow the fate of that necessity from which they sprung, that the cause having ceased, the effects should cease also. Surely, if this be so, the pre-sent moment is singularly auspicious for the consideration and revision of this great question. Surely, Sir, it would well become a new parliament, assembled in the midst of profound peace, to replace within the pale of the constitution that portion of our fellow subjects who, by their faithful loyalty and tried affection, have showed themselves worthy of participating in the birthright of British subjects;—that birthright from which they only, of all dissenters from the established church, at present stand proscribed and excluded.

The Petition was then read, setting: forth,

"That the petitioners humbly beg leave to represent to the House, that, at the time of his majesty's accession to the throne, the British Roman Catholics were subject to many penal and sanguinary laws; that, by the acts of the 18th and 31st years of his present majesty's reign, many of these laws have been repealed, but that many are still in force, and have the most distressing operation on the petitioners; that the petitioners remain subject to them merely on account of their refusal of certain religious tests, oath, and declarations; that their refusal of these is solely owing to their conscientious adherence to principles merely of a religious nature, and not conflicting, in the slightest degree, with any moral, civil, or political duty; that the petitioners have, at different times, presented petitions to the House for relief from the laws remaining in force against them; and they now again approach the House, with the most perfect reliance on its wisdom and humanity; most humbly praying, that the House will take their case into consideration, and grant them such relief as they shall deem proper, for extending to them the enjoyment, in common with their fellow subjects, of the blessings of the constitution."

On the motion, that the petition do lie on the table,

Mr. W. Smith

rose, he said, not to oppose the motion; on the contrary, he anxiously wished the complete success of the petitioners. But there was a mistake committed by the hon. and learned gentleman which he thought it proper to correct. That hon. and learned gentleman had observed, that it was but fair to grant the catholics the same civil privileges as were enjoyed by other dissenters in this country. But the fact was, that other dissenters did not enjoy the civil privileges which the hon. and learned gentleman seemed to have in his contemplation; for, from these privileges such dissenters were excluded by the Test and Corporation acts. He himself, for instance, as well as any other dissenter, was not allowed, according to those acts, to hold any civil or military employment, although permitted to sit in that House. He was not, indeed, qualified for the smallest office, either civil or military; and therefore the catholics would not gain much if they were only placed on a footing with himself and other dissenters. The indemnity acts which were annually passed did not affect the case with respect to what were called Protestant Dissenters, because the disqualification by the Test end Corporation acts still remained, although the Indemnity acts released some persons from the penalties denounced by those acts. The petition before the House was founded upon reason, justice, and liberality, and he most cordially wished it success; but he hoped that any civil privileges which parliament might think proper to grant or restore to the catholics, would not be withheld from the other dissenters to whom he had alluded.

Ordered to lie on the table.