§ Mr. Lennard
rose for the purpose of calling the attention of the House to the consideration of two acts of the last parliament—the one intituled, "An Act for more effectually preventing Seditious Meetings and Assemblies;" the other "An Act for the more effectual Prevention and Punishment of blasphemous and seditious Libels;"—two acts, perhaps, the most important in their consequences and the most fatal in their effects on the vital principles of the constitution, of any that had been passed since the just expulsion of the house of Stuart from the government of these realms;—acts, between which an odious rivalry in the power of mischief might be said to exist. In performing the task which he had allotted to himself, he trusted, when his inexperience in the House was considered, that he should meet with the indulgence which was so often shown to persons placed in similar situations. If he could show that the constitution had been infringed by these measures, that important rights of the people had been taken away, and that restraints as unjust as unnecessary had been imposed, his pur- 554 pose would be answered. In a review of the constitution, two of its most important features were—first, the right of the people to meet for the redress of grievances; the right to express, in the way of humble petition, their opinion either to the Throne or to either House of Parliament; Secondly, the liberty of the press, unfettered and unshackled by the dread of frightful and unconstitutional punishment. He did not say that these rights were gone; but it would be difficult for the most devoted admirer of the measures of the noble marquis and his colleagues to contend, that they had not been abridged and narrowed, in a way the most unconstitutional, the most destructive to the existence of civil liberty, and the most likely to produce that discontent which they were designed to smother. It would be his endeavour to show that the people of England had been convicted and sentence passed upon them on insufficient grounds; that it had been passed in times of alarm, when the minds of his majesty's ministers were under the influence of terror; when their fears magnified the danger—danger in fact, if it had in reality existed—produced by the dreadful expedient of a regularly organized system of espionage advocated and supported by ministers themselves. It had been well observed by Mr. Fox, on a similar occasion, that no passion was so calculated to harden the heart and make it sanguinary as excessive fear, and that the most inhuman tyranny had always had its foundation in the hearts of those whose actions condemned them to incessant terror. On consideration, it would be seen, that the oppressive measures under consideration had been supported in the country by two classes of persons—those who in their hearts were hostile to the people and who willingly and eagerly seized every opportunity to abridge their right; and, secondly, those who concurred in them under the influence of panic, and conceiving through the medium of their fears, that the civil constitution of society was about to be dissolved, were willing to sacrifice a part, in order to save the remainder. Those who, on a calm review, should repent the injury they had done to their country, in a fit of despondence or fear, had now an opportunity of restoring to the people those rights which they had helped so unjustly to vote away. He should indeed hope, that his majesty's ministers themselves, 555 after having enjoyed the full benefit of the panic produced, would not consider it necessary any longer to debar the people from the enjoyment of those civil eights which had contributed to make them the envy and the admiration of other nations. Before the passing of the acts in question, the right of petitioning existed in the freest and to the most unlimited extent. If the people were aggrieved—if the measures of ministers met with their disapprobation—they assembled, and their opinion was expressed; it reached the House through its constitutional channel and the throne—now dammed up, but not, he trusted, for ever. Would any one pretend to say, that the opinion of the people, their wishes, and their remonstrances, would, under the new system, ever reach the House as it did in the case of the income-tax? Let the House consider how, under the act in question, the right of petitioning might be exercised. By one act no county meeting could be held unless it was called by the lord lieutenant, the sheriff, or five magistrates; no town meeting, unless called by the mayor or head officer of the corporation: even a parish could not be called together without notices being given by seven householders of the parish, of their intention to meet, to some neighbouring magistrate, that he might attend with power to dissolve it if he thought fit. To all measures there were two classes of objections—those founded in principle, and those arising from the practical effect. In principle, a law which abridged a right which was considered as one of the most important possessed by the people, must be admitted to be a grievance; in practice, the law which imposed those restraints had been found to possess in its execution all those inconveniences which had been so prophetically anticipated. Had not the very line of conduct which has been pursued by the sheriffs been anticipated? Who could consider the conduct of many of the sheriffs without being convinced of the truth of what he asserted? The slightest consideration of the different refusals given by those sheriffs to the requisitions to call meetings for the consideration of the measures against the Queen would show that their conduct had been as arbitrary as the different reasons for their refusal had been absurd and futile. By the passing of these bills, the spirit, the fire, the freedom, the boldness, and energy of the British constitution, had been mainly 556 impaired. It was the energy, the boldness of a man's mind, which prompting him to speak, not in private, but in largo and popular assemblies, that constituted the principle of freedom. It was that principle which gave life to liberty; and without it the human character was a stranger to freedom. That liberty of speech had been a third time wrested from us; and he contended that if we continued long deprived of it, much of the freedom, the fire, and the boldness of the British character would be lost. It was not until the unhappy period of 1796, that any such attempt on the liberty of the subject had been made, and then the fetters were less severe, and the duration of their imposition shorter, than the present. These acts were passed only for three years; the one allowed seven householders to call a county meeting, while at present five magistrates were required to do so; the other limited the period of banishment, on a second conviction for having published a libel, to seven years, instead of leaving it, as was done under the present act, at the discretion of the judge to banish for life. But on the passing of those bills, one of their warmest, and certainly one of their most effective supporters, sir William Grant, admitted, that in a time of peace, if they had been brought forward, he should have had no hesitation in rejecting them; admitting at the same time the benefits which resulted to the people from their ancient privilege of assembling, deliberating, and expressing their sentiments on any public measure; and that the voice of the people acted as a salutary check and corrective, of which even legislators stood in need. Even supposing, for the sake of argument, the necessity of the bills in 1796, how different was the state of the country in 1819, when the acts under discussion were brought forward! The hon. member went on to contend—that the state of Europe, and of this country in particular, in 1796, could not be compared; and that there was much less necessity for such measures in 1819 and at present, than there had been at that period. The Solicitor-general had declared that he was tired of temporary expedients; and the noble marquis opposite, after much opposition, had consented to limit the duration of this bill to five years, in order that, at the end of that time, it might be renewed and rendered permanent, after having received such alterations as should be found necessary, 557 to render it completely effective. He had said that these bills were passed under the influence of terror, when the passions and the fear of his majesty's ministers led them to magnify the danger. Could any proof of what he asserted be wanting, when the evidence given on Mr. Hunt's trial was considered? The trial of Mr. Hunt bad contradicted all the positions laid down by the noble marquis and his colleagues. Where was there any evidence of the heaps of stones and brick-bats, said by the noble lord to have been accumulated in heaps in the place of meeting, and supposed by him to have been brought there in the pockets of the Radicals? Where was there any account, except in the noble marquis's speech, of the unfortunate! magistrate, said to be trodden to death? What traces were there of the bloody dagger which had created such panic in the House and through the country? The learned counsel for the prosecution against Mr. Hunt had admitted, that there was no trace of it to be found unless in the circumstance that the end of one of the flag staffs had been painted red. What was proved with respect to the constable, said by a noble lord in another place, to have been stoned to death? Why, that after having thus effectually played his part, he had been resuscitated, and was quietly living with his family without having ever received any injury. The subject of the melancholy catastrophe at Manchester would shortly be brought before the House by the honourable baronet, the member for Westminster, and the House might then from his eloquence and his talents, expect that every topic that could be urged on that disastrous subject would be urged. He had only noticed it, as having led to the adoption of the two bills, the repeal of which was his present object. If the conduct of the meeting at Manchester had been considered as affording grounds for passing these acts, and if it could be shown that such conduct had been misrepresented, that the fear and the misconduct of the magistrates had enabled ministers to make out a case which had induced the House to punish so severely an offence which, it could be proved, never had been committed, was it not an act of mere justice to reverse the attainder of the people's liberties—to remit the forfeiture on their innocence being proved?—With respect to the conduct of spies, to which he had alluded, it must be admitted, that no per- 558 sons had been more assiduous in their endeavours to undermine the loyalty of the people, by disseminating among them the most seditious and inflammatory publications, and by inciting them to acts of violence and treason, than these paid agents of the government. He did not say that there was no discontent—he did not say that the opinion of the people was not decidedly against the measures of his majesty's ministers—he did not say, that an opinion was not generally entertained of the expediency of a reform in that House; but he contended, that it was lawful to express these opinions, and that the wisdom of our constitution had well provided for the due restraint of any excess or ebullition in their expression; and he sincerely believed that, had soothing remedies been applied instead of punishment and coercion, much more real benefit would have resulted. But, would silence ensure security? Did they suppose that they made men forget their grievances when they made them silent? No: if a man who feels himself aggrieved is prevented from declaring his sentiments in a constitutional way, he is forced to other expedients for redress. In proportion as opinions are open, they are innocent and harmless. They become dangerous to a state only when persecution makes it necessary for the people to communicate their ideas under the bond of secrecy. But it might be said, that one of the acts would expire in a short period, if the people should show themselves worthy of the boon, and if their conduct should tend to the supposition that they would never again transgress in the eyes of the noble marquis and his colleagues. The people were told, that when every thing went well, when they were happy and comfortable, they might meet freely to recognise their happiness and pass eulogiums on the government, or on the holy alliance; but that in times of calamity, when they considered themselves aggrieved, it was not permitted them to meet; because then, instead of eulogizing, they might think proper to condemn ministers. What a mockery to say that this was preserving to the people the right of petition! If it were contended that the mixed and balanced government of England was good only for holydays and sunshine, but that it was inapplicable to a day of distress and difficulty—if it was meant that freedom was not as conducive to order and strength as, it was to happi- 559 ness—let it be said so, and he would contend, that among all the other advantages arising from liberty, were the advantages of order and strength in a supereminent degree; and that too at the moment when they were most wanted. One of the most remarkable consequences of the two bills, and, in his mind, one that was most to be dreaded, was, the apathy they had produced among the people. He sincerely believed that, comparatively with former times, the mass of the people took very little interest in whatever was passing in that House: they considered it as sitting to devise new and severe laws for the abridgment of those rights and liberties which remained to them, and which had never been more dangerously attacked than by the passing of the two bills in question. He could not devise a mode of more effectually awakening the confidence and the gratitude of the people, and enabling them the more cheerfully to bear the privations which the fallen state of commerce had brought upon them, than by the repeal of those odious bills.—He should now proceed to make some observations on the second act under consideration—one, in his opinion, not less important, not less afflicting in its operation, than the first, and for the repeal of which he was equally anxious. It had introduced anew and dreadful punishment for an offence the most indefinite of any that was known to the laws of England;—an offence that no act of parliament, no judge, no lawyer, had ever yet precisely defined, and which it was declared in another place, when that act was under discussion, it was impossible to define. By that act judges were enabled on a second conviction to inflict the punishment of perpetual banishment. When he looked back at the cruel judgments which had passed in former periods of our history, and reflected on the prejudices and passions to which all men were subject, he confessed he saw nothing that led him to negative the possibility that judges might be as corrupt, as servile, and as cruel in times to come, as they had been in former times. They might form a just estimate of a law that enabled judges to inflict a punishment of so dreadful a nature as perpetual banishment, for a crime so indefinite and so doubtful as a political libel. He was one of those who thought that fine and imprisonment were punishments sufficient for the most extravagant opinion as to the form of government of a politi- 560 cal community. Might not, as Mr. Fox had observed, the writings of Locke have condemned their author, under a law like the present to banishment from his country? In arguing for the repeal of the bill in 1797, Mr. Fox put the case, that it had been in existence during the prosecutions against Mr. Wilkes; and had asked whether it could be doubted that that individual would have been punished to the full extent of the law. But without going back to a distant period, if the hon. member for Westminster, who had just expiated the offence of what had been deemed a political libel, were again, in the exercise of what he might consider his duty to his constituents, to express himself warmly on the conduct of ministers, and if by another legal finesse, he should be brought again before a Leicestershire jury, and another conviction be gained, he should tremble for the fate which would await the hon. baronet—and the more so, when he considered the spirit which seemed of late to have actuated some of the judges, in cases where political offenders were concerned. It had been said, that the execution of bad laws made bad judges; and he should not wonder if the very cruelty of the punishment inflicted by the Press bill should harden the hearts of those who had to dispense so severe a law. The House had already been approached with petitions complaining of the conduct of one of the judges, not in the administration of the law under discussion, but on the trial of a political offender. He trusted the day was far distant in which they should see the judges imbibing fury and vengeance from that severe enactment, and. adding to the cruelty of the law by the severity with which it was dispensed. No one could have witnessed with more pain than he had done the presentation of the petition against the conduct of the learned judge who had tried Mr. Davidson. No one could have more sincerely regretted the conduct of the judge on that occasion, punishing the unfortunate culprit at a time when his mind was intent on his defence, with a severity which those who coincided in opinion with that learned judge could not find a precedent for in the worst times of the most servile or the most virulent judges. It might be urged, that there had been no appearance of restriction in the liberty of the press since the passing of the new act; and that that had been shown by the severe com- 561 ments on the conduct of ministers which had appeared during the proceedings: against the Queen. But what did that show? That as yet the people were not fit for the execution of the law prepared for them—that as yet the intervention of a jury was too intent a safeguard to be removed by the attorney-general; but let a case arise in which there was a chance of such a general feeling not existing, as in the case of the Queen, and it would then be seen what would be the forbearance of his majesty's law officers in the execution of this law. It had been suggested, that some who were hostile to the passing of these bills had, since their existence, been less so. If there were such, it was one of the very evils of those laws. Deprive the people of their liberty and their rights, and they soon become unfit for the enjoyment of them, and incapable of appreciating them. It was possible that some with whom he was in the habit of acting, might differ from him as to the time and the manner in which the measures had been brought forward; others, who might have been as hostile as himself to the measure relating to the seditious meetings in its origin, might suppose that the people would be best served by letting the question rest, and waiting calmly until the allotted time for the existence of the law should expire. Those who thought so, would perhaps be able to produce some reasons which he had not anticipated. In his opinion, the sooner such an inroad in the constitution as was made by these two bills was abated, the better; and so important did lie consider the present motion, that if he should now succeed in obtaining leave to bring in the bill, he pledged himself on every convenient opportunity to bring the subject under the consideration of the House. He had attempted to show, that the state of the country did not require the bills—that the constitution was greatly impaired by them—that they were passed on insufficient evidence, or admitting that they were not, that the existing cause was removed, and that, that being removed, the necessity for their continuance no longer existed. He thought no time was so fit for their repeal as the present, when every just concession ought to be made to a suffering and ah unoffending people. If there were those who thought that the liberties of the people were too luxuriant—and that by pruning them they would thrive better hereafter; that the affairs of the nation were best managed when the 562 distresses of the people were concealed by silencing the voice of complaint; that the character of the British public would be improved by the abolition of the express ion of public sentiment on national concerns, thank God, he was not one, of them! He might be wrong, but by bringing forward this motion, the country would be enabled to fix their own judgment upon it. Happen what might, he should be happy that he could say, both to his constituents and to the people at large, that as far as he was concerned, they might meet unrestrained. The hon. member then moved, "That leave be given to bring in a bill for the repeal of the statute, 60 Geo. 3, c. 6, intituled, 'An Act for more effectually preventing Seditious Meetings and Assemblies.'"
§ Mr. Serjeant Onslow
said, it did not appear to him that any grounds had been stated in support of the motion sufficient to induce the House to agree to it. It was said, that the bills proposed to be repealed, had been carried through by two classes in that House; that one had been influenced by hostility to the people, and the other by panic. He did not know in which class the hon. gentleman placed him, but he would leave it to those who knew him best, to judge, whether, upon any occasion, he had manifested hostility to the liberties of the people. If fear had any influence on his decision when those bills were before the House, he had not yet sufficiently recovered from it to vote for their repeal. Certain he was, that the state of the country called for them when they were passed. The hon. gentleman said, that they who opposed his motion were bound to shew that no inconvenience arose from these laws. Now, this principle he could not admit. Inconvenience was no ground for legislation. To establish sufficient cause for a repeal, it should have been proved that the evil produced was greater than the good. He could not allow what the hon. gentleman had said, in reference to the conduct of one of the judges of the King's-bench, to pass without notice. It appeared to him a most improper way of bringing such a subject before the House. If there was good ground for a charge, why not proceed against the learned judge in a constitutional mode? He would willingly submit his conduct to the most jealous investigation. He had known the hon. judge alluded to from early life, and he never knew a man of more tender and 563 delicate mind, more averse to harsh measures, or less disposed to stretch the law beyond its just and necessary limits. He must deprecate any bye attacks of this kind. If there was any thing censurable in the conduct of the learned judge, a constitutional mode of inquiry might be resorted to. He was surprised to hear the lion, gentleman tell them gravely, that the people were deprived of the means of making themselves heard in that House by petition: seeing that there was no topic of public interest on which since the passing of these laws, numerous petitions had not been presented from all parts of the country. It was said, that the people were prevented from meeting in a constitutional manner to express their opinions. Now, before the time of the grand rebellion, there was no instance of any meetings having been held in the manner prohibited by the acts of 1819. How, then, could it be said, that they invaded the constitutional mode of holding public meetings? Magistrates, it was true, were appointed by the Crown; but could they be called the creatures of the Crown? When was it seen that a magistrate had been dismissed for his political conduct? The relation in which lords lieutenant of counties stood was quite different. If Mr. Fox, in 1797, was not able to convince the House of Commons that they ought to repeal the acts of 1796, it was not very likely that the hon. gentleman could now persuade them to agree to his motion. He had no hesitation in saying that, were he in the House in 1796, he would have voted for the bills then proposed. He could not be persuaded that sir W. Grant had upon that occasion professed that he would not assent to them in time of peace. Had he been reported to have said, "in time of tranquillity" he could understand it, but surely a person who viewed every subject with so much good sense and acuteness as sir W. Grant, could not, under the circumstances of the period, have refused his assent, whether in peace or war, to measures so necessary. With respect to Mr. Hunt, he was convicted by a jury of the county of York. He had afterwards applied to the court of King's-bench for a new trial, and the application bad been unanimously rejected. He deemed that the punishment of banishment from the realm was new to the constitution. Abjuration of the realm was still a part of the law of the land. The definition of a libel was said to be such as 564 no judge could understand. It appeared, however, to hurry to be-pointed out in these acts with sufficient clearness. The offence was described to be the composing or publishing a seditious or blasphemous libel, tending to bring the government into contempt. Under these circumstances, he felt himself bound not to retract his original vote. He should not move the previous question, but should let the House go to a division upon a motion which he thought ought not to have been made.
§ Mr. Denman
said, that having through the whole progress of these bills done all in his power to oppose them, though without effect, he felt obliged to his hon. friend for bringing forward this motion, as it gave him an opportunity of stating that his opinions upon the subject remained unchanged. He maintained that these bills were an innovation on the constitution, and it was for those members who wished them to be continued, to point out the necessity for their further existence. He denied that there had ever existed any necessity for the enactment of such measures. Whatever might have been the excesses committed, the ancient law of the land was sufficient to repress or punish them. If this was not the case, then our ancestors had gone on in the dark, and their errors had only been discovered by the new lights thrown upon the country by the bills of 1819. Where was it found that the ancient law was insufficient to preserve public tranquillity? Was it to be argued, that the proceedings which took place at the memorable Manchester meeting required the enactment of a new law? What greater power could any magistrate require, than that exercised by the Manchester magistrates on that occasion? The House had there the example of a peaceable meeting, assembled for a constitutional purpose, dispersed and routed by a military force—and that, too, without any warning or notice, and while they were receiving from their leader the strictest injunctions to demean themselves quietly. Was that act of the Manchester magistrates legal, or was it not? IP it was not legal, then both the House and the country had been grossly deceived; but if it was legal, where, he would ask, was the necessity of enacting any new law to preserve the country from the dangers arising from public meetings? Not only had that meeting been dispersed, but the persons who called it had been 565 punished by law—not by any of those new laws, but by the ancient law of the country. There had been a similar meeting held at Birmingham, and though that meeting had not been dispersed by violence, nor had any sacrifice of human life resulted from it, yet it being held illegal, the parties concerned in convening it were punished by the ancient law of the country.—With respect to the now law against political libels, he maintained that there had been no prosecutions for that offence but under the ancient law of the country. There was not a single instance within his recollection of any prosecution under the new act; though it was avowedly brought in for the purpose of preventing or punishing such an offence. If, then, the ancient law of the land was sufficient, where, he would ask, was the necessity of continuing this new-fangled measure. The right of petitioning still existed, but with a greatly diminished effect; for those opposed to the government had, in many cases, been driven to holes and corners by the conduct of the magistracy. A system of departmental divisions, of which so much had been heard in another case, was here adopted. The legislature were setting their wits against those who were supposed to create mischief among the people. A parish was to be divided, if it contained more than' 10,000 persons. Had a single instance occurred of enforcing that provision? Such a provision afforded great opportunities for mischievous persons to call together great numbers, and to inflame their dissatisfaction, by referring to the very restraints imposed on them. Every symptom of what had been complained of had ceased, but not from the effect of the acts. Were the supposed mischief-makers in earnest or not? If they were in earnest, the acts were not sufficient to restrain them; if they were not, the acts were not necessary. The act against popular meetings had established a fatal precedent: it had severed the people from the throne: it had destroyed those feelings and associations which ought to be most sedulously cherished.—He should now proceed to say a few words with regard to the blasphemous and seditious libel law. He was aware that that act was not directly under the consideration of the House; but it was so intimately connected with the present subject, that it could not easily be separated from it in discussion. He had not expected to hear any individual assert, 566 that a blasphemous and seditious libel could be exactly defined; and therefore it was with considerable surprise that he had found his learned friend maintaining that it had been so defined in the act in question. His learned friend had taken up the Statute-book and read the words of that act, until he came to the words blasphemous libel. Then he stopped short of a sudden, just as if he had proved, the point which he had originally asserted. Now, he thought that there was nothing definite in the words "blasphemous libel." As to what was or was not blasphemy, scarcely any two men could agree: different individuals formed different opinions on the subject; and no human mind had yet attempted to define it precisely. Indeed, Mr. Hone had been acquitted in London by three successive juries, on the same grounds that other individuals had been convicted of blasphemy by other juries in the country. That was a decisive proof that blasphemous libel was an offence of a very indefinite nature. But seditious libel was, he supposed, an offence of which the law gave a somewhat clearer definition. Seditious libel, his learned friend had said, was any thing which tended to bring the government into contempt. Now, the commission of such an offence might, under certain circumstances, instead of being a crime, be the duty of every man who loved his country. Wherever grievances existed, it was natural to wish for their removal; and, in the endeavour to do so, it might be necessary to point out such defects in the government as must naturally tend to bring it into contempt. According to the existing law, if any speech were made at a public meeting which had a tendency to produce that effect, or which appeared to the presiding magistrate to have such tendency, it was in his power to dissolve such meeting immediately. If any individual refused to disperse after such dissolution had been proclaimed by the magistrate, he was liable to be treated as a felon, and to be transported for seven years. Now, he would ask, whether that was not a grievance, and a grievance of considerable magnitude? If a meeting were called for the redress of grievances, bow could the purpose of it be effected without entering into a repetition of the grievances themselves, and an examination of their causes and consequences? And yet, if any person entered into such a discussion, he was liable to all the pains and penalties which he had 567 described, and might even be cut down by military force, according to the recent laws which had received so strong an eulogium from his learned friend, the sworn friend and defender of the liberty of the subject. Of those laws he entertained a very different opinion from his learned friend. Though nothing but necessity could justify them, they had been passed without any necessity being proved for their enactment: they had been passed upon ex-parte statements, upon fraudulent assertions, upon anonymous and inconsistent affidavits. Connected with these laws was another law passed at the same time, equally restrictive of the liberties of the people, and equally uncalled for by any defect in the existing laws. Military training was an offence even under the old laws; and he believed that every person who had been convicted of it had been convicted upon the old law, and before the passing of the new one. After making some further objections to these laws, the learned member proceeded to observe, that they savoured strongly of that rigid and unrelenting spirit, which had inserted more penalties in the statutes passed in the reign of the late king than were to be found in all the statutes which had been passed in the reigns of all his predecessors, from the time of Magna Charta downwards, and which in fifty years had loaded our shelves with more volumes of law-books than had been written in the three hundred years preceding them. That spirit was of the most mischievous nature; but none of the effects it had produced was so dangerous as that which had provided a remedy for evils which did not exist, or which, if they did exist, was more calculated to increase than remove them. He had not any intention, when he entered the House, of troubling it at the length which he had done; but the arguments of his learned friend had compelled him to break silence, and to offer the observations which he had made in defence of his own consistency. He had formerly maintained, that the acts of 1819, had been justified by no necessity; he now maintained that that necessity, if it had ever existed, was completely removed; and he trusted that there was yet too much spirit in the House to permit any encroachment on the liberty of the people to endure any longer than the necessity for its continuance could be made apparent. He had no doubt that there were still left in the House many 568 gentlemen who would be happy to place their opinions on record in favour of the rights and liberties of their countrymen.
thanked the hon. mover for bringing forward this question, and giving him an opportunity Of saying a few words respecting the operation of these laws in that county of which he was a representative. He did not know what the learned gentleman meant, when he stated that a necessity existed for the continuance of these laws. He could not see that necessity; and he was therefore at a loss to see upon what ground the learned gentleman could vote for bills, which were disgraceful and insulting to the majority of the nation. He would not say that he would not, upon a case of extraordinary necessity being made out, vote for such bills; but he never did think that such a case had been made out by ministers. Would the learned gentleman say, that Scotland was in the year 1819 and in the year 1821, in the same state of tranquillity? The learned gentleman could not forget that the noble marquis and his supporters, in bringing forward these laws, had stated that there were regularly organised bodies opposed to the government; that they were trained to arms—that they marched with flags and banners—and that there were several thousands, both in England and Scotland, so openly opposed to the government, that it was necessary to have an additional number of troops—and that numbers of families in the country had been obliged to leave their homes, and seek protection in large towns. When the noble marquis had made these statements, in which he was confirmed by many hon. members, it was not wonderful that many gentlemen should think that a strong case had been made out, and that the measures had been called for; but the learned member could not have contended, that the same danger existed at the present moment, if he had not spoken under panic, and argued from generals to particulars. He could not conceive any two things more dissimilar than the state of the country in 1819 and in 1821; and when he could not be led to believe that a necessity which justified such an infraction of the rights and liberties of the subject existed in 1819, he could not be expected to alter that opinion in 1821, when the noble marquis who had then stated the necessity of these measures did not pretend to say, that it now existed. He re- 569 collected that the noble marquis, after having stated the disturbed state of England and of Scotland, as the ground of his introducing these measures, concluded by contrasting the state of these countries with that of Ireland; and that the noble marquis, after expressing his satisfaction at the tranquillity of that country had never stated, that it was his intention to extend the operation of those bills to Ireland. The noble marquis had afterwards, to satisfy hon. members who thought it unjust that parts of England which were in as perfect a state of tranquillity as Ireland, should be subjected to the operation of these laws, and that Ireland should be exempted, extended them to Ireland—a measure which he, though without success, had felt it his duty to oppose. With regard to the Seditious Libel bill, he would say that it was completely uncalled for in Ireland, because there had not been one conviction in Ireland for seditious libel. Such an outrage and insult upon the Irish nation could only be equalled by the continuance of these bills, which were altogether unnecessary.
§ Mr. Serjeant Onslow
said, he believed the disposition to excite the people to tumultuous meetings still existed in full force, and that nothing but the laws in question kept them down.
said, he support 1819, because several meetings had occurred in that part of Scotland in which he resided, little calculated to promote the right of petition. He had also done so, because he knew that nine-tenths of his constituents approved of the measure, and because he wished to guard the people from such mischances as had occurred at Manchester. He certainly could not have given his consent to the measure, had the noble marquis persisted in proposing it as a permanent measure; but the noble marquis, on going to the vote, had met the wishes of himself and others, by making it only temporary. After such a compromise had taken place between them, he should consider himself guilty of a breach of faith to the noble marquis if he voted for the repeal of the Seditious Meeting bill, even though convinced that there was no longer any necessity for its existence. With regard to the Seditious and Blasphemous Libel law, he laboured under no such difficulty, and should vote for its repeal.
§ Mr. Abercromby
said, he was one of the few on his side of the House who voted that the bill should pass into a law. The reasons on which he had done so were perfectly satisfactory to his own mind; and their correctness had been proved by every thing that had since occurred. He had thought the conduct of the people at the time more injurious to the right of petitioning than any thing that had ever been known before, and therefore he had voted for the bill. He, for one, had never doubted that the Manchester meeting was illegal; but many respectable gentlemen had been of a contrary opinion. The question had, however, been set at rest at York; and he apprehended it could no longer be doubted that such meetings were illegal. But when he voted for the passing of that bill, thinking it necessary at the time, he did not bind himself to vote that it should continue in. force when its operation was no longer necessary. Circumstances that had occurred since it passed, had led him to the conclusion that it ought to be repealed. The conduct of the sheriffs under this law, though in some instances very creditable, had in others not been what it ought to have been; and meetings like that which had formerly taken place at Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield, and other places, having been declared illegal by the decisions of courts of justice, he thought, in the present tranquil state of the country, there was no pretence for keeping this law in force. He should therefore give his vote in favour of the motion; but, at the same time, he regretted that it had been brought forward; for in the same way in which the people had endangered the right of petitioning by the mode in which they had formerly assembled to petition, he was of opinion that his hon. friend had injured the cause, of which he was the able advocate, by bringing forward the motion at the present moment. He wished him to consider in what situation, if the motion were not carried, they must stand, when this bill should expire. Could his hon. friend persuade himself that its failure would not furnish ministers with arguments in favour renewal? "Look," they would say, "at the proceedings of 1821. Where were the meetings—where were the disturbances to be complained of then? Yet the House, though the subject was brought before them, refused to repeal this law in that year, and thus it 571 may be naturally inferred that they considered in fit to become apart of the constitution of the, country."
§ Mr. Lennard
rose to reply. He said he did not entertain any sanguine hopes of the success of his motion, for he had seen nothing in the conduct of ministers which could lead him to expect that they would display the slightest leniency to the people. He had, however, made it in order to show the inhabitants of England that there were still some men in the House who regarded their interests, and who wished to restore them to such portions of their birthrights as they had been unjustly deprived of. He had expected to hear something new from the defenders of these bills; but in this he had been disappointed. Not a single hint had been made as to the existence of any secret conspiracy, nor had any letter been read from any of the anonymous correspondents of the secretary of state, who, on a former occasion, had spread terror and dismay throughout the whole of his department. He thought that the very omission gave him an additional reason for asserting that the bill ought to be repealed.
§ Sir J. Newport
said, that as no case had been made out by ministers in favour of the laws sought to be repealed, he should feel it his duty to vote for the motion.
§ The House divided: Ayes, 58. Noes, 89. Majority against the motion 31. Mr. Lennard then moved, "That leave be given to bring in a Bill for the repeal of the statute 60 Geo. 3, c. 8, intituled 'An 'Act for the more effectual prevention and punishment of Blasphemous and Seditious libels.'"
§ Mr. Denman
said, he could not agree to allow a law to remain in force, by which an individual might be exiled for that which a jury, under particular circumstances, might regard as a libel tending to overthrow the government of the country. He had heard that bill introduced with horror, but the circumstances under which it was proposed were no longer in existence. The blasphemous and seditious press, as it had been called, had been completely put down, not under these bills, but under the old law, as it ought to have been in the first instance. The worst of those libels which had been suffered to inundate the country for so long a period, had been proved to have been sent forth by spies and agents, as it should 572 seem for the purpose of deluding the people into acts of outrage and violence, in order to find a pretext for abridging their liberties. They were now called upon to get fid of a measure which he regarded as an evil of the most alarming magnitude—of a law which in his judgment could not remain in force if the liberty of the press was to continue.
§ The House divided: Ayes, 66. Noes, 88. Majority against the motion 22.
|List of the Minority.|
|Abercromby, hon. J.||Moore, A.|
|Barham, J.||Monck, J. B.|
|Baring, H.||Macdonald, J.|
|Bernal, R.||Maberly, J.|
|Benyon, B.||Milton, visc.|
|Birch, J.||Newport, sir J.|
|Bright, H.||Newman, R. W.|
|Boughey, sir J.||Nugent, lord|
|Byng, G.||O'Grady, S.|
|Burden, sir F.||Palmer, C. F.|
|Bury, lord||Philips, J.|
|Buxton, F.||Phillips, G. R.|
|Concannon, L.||Rickford, W.|
|Crompton, S.||Russell, Greenhill|
|Chaloner, R.||Rice, Spring|
|Calvert, C.||Robarts, A. W.|
|Coke, T, W.||Robarts, col.|
|Calcraft, J.||Ramsden, J.|
|Denison, W. J.||Ricardo, D.|
|Davies, col.||Smyth, J. H.|
|Dundas, T.||Scarlett, Jas.|
|Ebrington, lord||Tierney, rt. hon. G.|
|Folkestone, visc.||Tavistock, lord.|
|Fitzroy, lord C.||Whitbread, S. C.|
|Fergusson, sir R.||Western, C. C.|
|Gordon, R.||Webb, E.|
|Griffiths, J. W.||Wyvill, M.|
|Guise, sir W.||Warre, J. W.|
|Graham, S.||Williams, W.|
|Harbord, hon. E.||Wilson, Sir R.|
|Hobhouse, J. C.||Lennard, B. T.|
|Hutchinson, hon. C.||Denman, T.|
|Haldimand, W.||PAIRED OFF.|
|James, W.||Mackintosh, sir J.|
|Lushington, Dr.||Townshend, lord C.|
|Langston, J. H.||Wharton, J.|