HC Deb 13 July 1820 vol 2 cc423-5
Mr. W. Smith

said, he had to present a petition from a respect- able body of men, of whom he should not fail to speak in terms of eulogy if he did not himself form one of their number; he meant the Protestant Dissenters, praying that the House would take into consideration the situation in which they were placed, and praying the House to repeal the Corporation and Test acts. The petition was signed by 100 persons, and as almost every one of those persons was a member of a separate congregation, and might be said to speak the sense of every member of each congregation, he could fairly say, that though the House could not receive it as such, it was the petition of a great number of congregations. Indeed, if the petitioners had been willing to trust to the appearance of their number, more than to the strength and justice of their case, he could as easily have procured 100,000, and many more, as those 100 signatures which were now affixed to the petition. The case of the petitioners on which they relied was this: — many years ago, when there were grave apprehensions of a popish successor, and fears for the Protestant establishment, the predecessors of the petitioners assented to the propriety of certain tests, to keep out the influence of popery; and they also (under what he considered an erroneous view of the subject) lent themselves willingly to the enactment of tests which applied to themselves, and from which they might fairly have demanded an exemption. If he had wished to enter into an eulogium of the petitioners, he could not have done so in more eloquent terms than those which had been applied to them by his hon. and learned friend, who had brought in the Education bill, when he had occasion to speak respecting them. The petition was so worded, that while it claimed what the petitioners considered to be their rights, it spoke of the House and of the constitution in general, in terms as respectful as possibly could be. It would probably be his lot hereafter to found some motion on this petition: the petitioners courted an inquiry into their conduct, convinced that no class of men would be found more loyal or more warmly attached to constitutional liberty. They conceived they had been harshly treated in being excluded from the rights common to other classes of subjects, he meant eligibility to participate in civil offices, not actual participation, for admission to office must rest with those who administered the government. Ineligibility was inflicted as a punishment on persons guilty of violating the provisions of the law, and generally in some very disgraceful and scandalous manner. In looking into the statutes for another purpose, that morning, he observed that revenue officers in Ireland who took bribes to neglect their duty, were rendered incapable of serving his majesty, a punishment that was inflicted without trial on the whole body of Dissenters. He moved that the petition be brought up.

Lord Nugent,

in seconding the motion, observed, that the principle of exclusion from office, on account of a difference in religious opinion, had always appeared to him an anomaly in a free constitution and an enlightened age. He himself had a petition from that respectable body the Roman Catholics of England; and in declining to present it this session, he was influenced only by a consideration of the awful and immediate importance of that question which now engaged the public mind. He must, however, be permitted to say of it, that it contained a most satisfactory answer to the often-renewed charge of a divided allegiance.

Ordered to lie on the table.