HC Deb 16 April 1823 vol 8 cc1014-9
Mr. Hume

presented the following Petition:

"The Petition of the undersigned individuals, who were members of the Edinburgh Free Thinkers' Zetetic Society, humbly sheweth,

"That in the spring of 1820, your petitioners, with some others, began to meet every Sunday as a society, for the purpose of discussing literary, philosophical, and theological subjects, without intending to interfere in the smallest degree with the public, or wishing the public to inter-with them:

"That the principal object which your petitioners had in view by their meeting as a society was, by their unanimous and expressed opinion, to encourage virtue and suppress vice among their members, and to keep Free-thinkers who did not go to church, from spending Sundays in drinking and dissipation, to which, on that day, they might be seduced by idle company:

"That your petitioners are of opinion, that virtue cannot be properly encouraged nor vice suppressed, but by men joining in society, and expressing their united opinion as a body; and your petitioners considered they had some reason to meet for that purpose, as Free-thinkers have often been reproached for vice and immorality by those who have used every exertion to make them vicious and immoral, by exciting public prejudice against them, and, if possible, to make them outcasts from every society:

"That, at the Whitsunday term of 1820, your petitioners took a ball, in which they afterwards held their meetings, and began to collect a library for their common use and instruction; and such of their members as were qualified, successively composed, and read each Sunday, an essay or discourse upon some literary, philosophical, or theological subject, which was afterwards strictly criticised and debated upon by the members:

"That, the hall which your petitioners took for their accommodation having been formerly occupied as a place of worship, strangers occasionally called, but were generally informed that the meeting was held for discussion, and not for any kind of religious worship:

"That in many instances these strangers expressed a wish to remain, and as your petitioners deemed it illegal to force them away, they were allowed to sit and hear, but not join in the debates; at length some of them began to insinuate that your petitioners acted unfairly in preventing strangers from speaking, who perhaps might be able to give some information upon subjects which, they thought your petitioners did not seem to understand. It was then agreed upon, that strangers should be allowed to join in the debates as long as they kept their temper, and behaved with propriety:

"That the persons who generally attended the meeting were well informed men, supposed to be capable of judging of the truth and propriety of the subjects discussed. Boys and children were always excluded, except they were brought by some member or person of years who constantly attended:

"That your petitioners were forced by the subjects of some of the discourses which were read, and the warm arguments of some zealous Christians, to enter into a close examination of the fundamental principles and doctrines of Christianity; and because your petitioners were not convinced by the arguments of their opponents, but defended their own opinions with freedom and earnestness, their antagonists resorted to the mean expedient of misrepresenting to the civil authorities the object and arguments of your petitioners, and thus procured their dispersion by force:

"That on the 17th day of November last, while your petitioners were engaged, as usual, quietly debating, the sheriff of Edinburgh, with the superintendent of police, and a number of officers and police men, suddenly entered the hall. The sheriff declared that he was informed that there were illegal discussions carried on in the hall. The unexpected entrance of the civil authorities put a stop to any further proceeding in the debates; they then proceeded to take down the names of every person present, and to search them one by one, for books and papers; afterwards they were all dismissed, except the president of the day, and two other members, who were detained as prisoners:

"That after this violent dispersion of the meeting, the authorities proceeded to examine the library which your petitioners had collected, and they seized and took away a number of books, among which were the following:—Watson's Apologies for the Bible, Leslie's Short Method with Deists, Ogden's Deist Unmasked, St. Pierre's Studies of Nature, Mirabaud's System of Nature, the Works of Thomas Paine, Toulman's Eternity of the Universe, The Black Book, Carlile's Republican, Queen Mab, Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary, Hume's Essays, the Liberal, Odelebene's Campaign in Saxony, Owen's Essays on the Formation of Character, besides some small pamphlets, all of which are still retained, although most of them are to be found in every library, and are openly sold in every bookseller's shop:

"That the persons made prisoners were detained from Sunday afternoon till Wednesday night, about eight o'clock, when they were allowed to find bail, one in 60l. and the other two in 100l. each, for their appearance at any time when called upon within the space of six months:

"That the three individuals gave the bail required, and though men of irreproachable moral character, and unconscious of having committed any crime, except that of expressing their opinions freely in public concerning the doctrines of religion, they are still in a state of painful suspense, uncertain but they may be ruined by prosecution:

"That your petitioners humbly represent, that, if the magistrates are authorized by law to seize all such books as have been taken from your petitioners, no library, either public or private can be considered safe:

"That your petitioners also represent, that if magistrates are authorised by law to disperse all meetings held for free discussion, men have no way of detecting error, and arriving at the truth of any subject; and the boasted freedom we are said to enjoy is only an empty name:

"That your petitioners are convinced there is no necessity for one party attempting to crush or overthrow another, that by equal toleration they might all exist together more peaceably than the Christians, Hindoos, and Mahometans live together in India, or Protestants and Catholics in Europe:

"That your petitioners have little wish to make converts to their opinions, and no wish whatever to attack people of a different way of thinking; their only desire is, to obtain the liberty of free discussion on all subjects:

"May it therefore please your honourable House to take your petitioners' case into your most serious consideration, and to make a law allowing free discussion on all subjects, that men may be convinced by reasoning, and not be forced by law, as at present, to be hypocrites; and your petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray."

Mr. Hume

proceeded to say, that when he received the petition, he wrote to the individual who sent it to him, stating it as his opinion, that the petitioners, if they felt injured, would have done better to apply to a court of law for redress. The answer he received was, that the petitioners did not complain of the conduct of the sheriff, nor of those who acted under his control, because the law of Scotland authorised the proceeding. He (Mr. H.) then referred to the English statutes.—The only act he found was the 49th of the late king, which authorised magistrates to interfere with respect to societies where money was received at the door as the price of admission. He was convinced that no police magistrate or other person in authority in England would act towards any such society as the sheriff at Edinburgh acted towards the society of Freethinkers. But by the law of Scotland he found, not only that such society might be dispersed—but that the persons forming it might be imprisoned, and actually hanged. An act of Charles 2nd, stated, that whereas there was no law against blasphemy in Scotland, if any person or persons who were not distracted in their wits, should rail at or curse God, they should suffer the punishment of death. He should add, that the individual who sent the petition to him, informed him that societies had been held in Scotland since the days of Mr. Hume; that never having intruded on public attention, they were never attacked by the public magistrate; that they had no other object but open and fair discussion, as being best calculated to promote knowledge, good morals, and virtue.

The Lord Advocate

said, that if the hon. member should propose an alteration of the law, he would be able to meet him on that ground. There was another statute besides that to which the hon. member alluded. An act of William and Mary made the person guilty of blasphemous expressions, the denial of the divinity of Christ, &c. for the first offence subject to imprisonment, for the second, subject to fine and imprisonment, and for the third, subject to suffer capital punishment. The sheriff had acted by his advice. He had received information, that meetings of persons were held every Sunday in Edinburgh, at which meetings not only the Christian, but every religion was turned into ridicule, and the existence of God himself denied and laughed at. It was a fact, that to this blasphemous school children were brought by the members. When he first heard of the society he could not bring himself to believe, that in Edinburgh men could be found so full of wickedness and folly; but, on the sheriff making further inquiries, facts came out far exceeding what was first reported to him. The society had existed since 1820. There was one curious rule enforced: an essay on the favourite topic was submitted to consideration, but no person was allowed to speak against it for more than ten minutes. The society was attended by the lowest description of persons. None were taken into custody on the occasion alluded to, but the writer of the essay and two other individuals. These persons afterwards appeared sensible of their errors, and presented a petition, regretting the course they had followed. In consequence of the interference of the sheriff, the society did not meet again; and a similar society in Glasgow declined to meet also. He did not, therefore, feel any disposition to proceed further; nor did he now wish to do so, unless the individuals themselves should seek for a trial. In that case, he should be prepared to bring forward satisfactory evidence of their guilt.

Mr. Monck

said, he wished to know whether there were Jews in Edinburgh? Now, Jews were decidedly more hostile to Christianity than those philosophers who had fallen under the displeasure of the learned lord. The philosophers, it seemed, fairly discussed important questions. They did not form a party; for no two of them agreed in opinion; whereas, the Jews to a man ridiculed the Christian religion. The law of Scotland appeared, in this respect, more severe than the Inquisition.

Mr. Hume

considered the law a most horrid one. He was convinced that the Christian religion could only stand upon the ground of discussion and free inquiry. The proceeding altogether was one which was not to be defended.

Ordered to lie on the table.