HC Deb 23 June 1823 vol 9 cc1127-39
Lord Nugent

, on rising to move the order of the day for the committing of this bill, said;—I trust the House will indulge me with leave to make a few observations. When I first offered to the House, the observations that occurred to me in its support, I stated, that I had carefully avoided all communication with those who were principally the objects of it. I stated then, as I feel still, that I should have very much regretted the seeing them petition for any act of imperfect toleration like this. I should have very much regretted the placing them within so painful an alternative as that of choosing between, on the one hand, a high spirited disclaimer of the whole of this measure, and, on the other, the approaching you to pray to be placed upon an equality in point of privilege with those whose conditions they still feel and I think most justly, feel, to be one of grievance and indignity. It was on this conduct of mine at that time for which, if it was erroneous in judgment, they were in no respect answerable, that an argument, of some singularity at least, was founded by my hon. friend, the member for the university of Cambridge. He seemed to feel that, even if this measure were founded in policy and in justice, still the case in support of it would be incomplete, until it had been urged upon your consideration by the parties themselves. Until they had told you that what was just in itself would also be beneficial to them. Sir, I would never have proposed to them such an alternative, nor could I at the time agree with my hon. friend, who, not very consistently as I think, while he was protesting against admitting the Roman Catholics to any share of what he would term political power, would at the same time make the impression of their opinions a sine qua non with the House upon the question of, whether or no we should pass a law. I am the less disposed now to repent the course I in that respect adopted, because I am rather disposed to suspect that, even if I had adopted the contrary course, I should scarcely have removed any part of the real difficulty my hon. friend must always feel in supporting any measure for the relief of the Roman Catholics. Having, however, done what, on that occasion I felt to be my duty, in laying their case and. the purport of my bill before you, it is some satisfaction to me to find that they do not disapprove of the conduct I have pursued. If they had I should certainly have very much regretted it. The more so because it would have subjected me to a repetition of my hon. friend's argument. But I should not on that account have altered my views nor swerved from my object. My object never was, to obtain favour from them. It was, as far as I might be enabled, to obtain justice for them. It was not to reconcile their opinions, it was to do them service; and through them allow me to say, to do service to the country, with the great body of the people of which it is my wish to reunite the Roman Catholics in privilege and in sentiment, undistinguishingly and inseparably. It is, however, satisfactory to me to find that I have not misconceived their wishes or opinions. At a meeting of the most considerable persons of their body, held since I first introduced this bill to your notice, it was resolved, that they approved of this bill, I quote their own words, as of one which, "brought under the consideration of parliament without any participation on their part, they are convinced would enable them, in the discharge of new duties, still farther to evince their zealous attachment to the institutions of their country." And now, Sir, the bill is in the hands of the House, and the House will this night determine whether it answers the objects, or whether in any respect it goes beyond the objects, to which the House the other night gave its pretty general sanction. The objects of the bill are two-fold. First, the elective franchise, and secondly, under the limitations of the act of 93 in Ireland, and under the conditions of the annual Indemnity bill, the magistracy and certain offices. The first of these provisions, the elective franchise, is by far the simpler—It resolves itself into a question of principle only. This object was met by the right hon. secretary for the home department with that candour and frankness which characterizes every part of his conduct in this House, and on which I am sure he would feel, that no compliment ought to be paid, or received. It would be impertinent, in the one sense of that phrase, to the question, and almost an impertinence, in the other sense of the phrase, to himself. He will, I trust, however, allow me to say, that these qualities in him, while they increase ten-fold the value of his support, render his opposition always much more formidable, because always much more consistent and much more respectable, when a sense of what he feels to be his public duty deprives a measure of his sanction. Even to the friends of Catholic Emancipation it is some consolation that, by him whose opposition is the most to be deplored, their wishes never fail to be encountered in a spirit of manliness, which would scorn to avail itself of any topics, or of any means which he would feel to be unworthy equally of the subject and of himself. On the subject of the offices, I wish to address myself principally to him, and to my hon. friend the member for the city of Oxford, in consequence of what fell from them on a preceding evening. They have more than once expressed themselves as attaching great value and importance to the provisions of the Test act; as considering them valuable and important securities to the Established Church. Now Sir, I do feel that any disguise on my part would be unpardonable. It would be an ill return to them for what I feel to be the spirit of candour and unreserve with which they have met me. It would be bad policy with regard to the bill itself, which, unless it can be fairly carried without any disguise of opinion or compromise of principle, I have no hesitation in saying ought never to pass. Sir, whenever the provisions of the Test act may come fairly under discussion, I should be prepared to say, that, so far from considering them to be any real security to the Established Church, I think its best security would be found in their total repeal. Because I believe that no established church can long subsist securely, or even beneficially, in a state excepting as founded upon the affections of a great majority of the people, except also as founded in that perfect freedom and toleration with which any laws to incapacitate politically other sects are incompatible. In this feeling, and for the sake also of a body much more important in point of numbers and of political influence, in the state, than the Roman Catholics, I mean the Protestant Dissenters, I cannot, but look forward with eager hopes to the ultimate repeal of the Test act. I cannot consider it to be, as an honourable gentleman assumed it the other night to be, a fundamental law, because I find, from the history of the times in which it was passed, and from the contemporary authority of some who were, parties to it, that it was passed for temporary objects, and that it was passed in times of great heat and violence, and popular delusion. I cannot consider it as an operative act, because I find that practically, systematically, invariably, annually, for near a century, it has been voted by a succession of Indemnity bills, that it is not by the provisions of the Test act, but against the provisions of the Test act, that protection can alone be afforded. Still, Sir, desirable as I may think the repeal of this law to be, I must conform my wishes to what may appear to me a practical object, and I should think myself acting most unworthily, could I attempt covertly to cancel or contravene what I am not prepared directly to attack. The right hon. gentleman, therefore, and my hon. friend, the member for the city of Oxford, will perceive, that by my bill neither of the securities of the Test act is repealed. A certain number, it is true, and a very limited number, of offices, is practically withdrawn from under the operation of one of the provisions of the Test act, namely, the declaration against popery. The other provision, namely, the sacramental test, still remains operative over the whole range of offices. In this view, if I render myself intelligible to the House, I wish my bill to be considered. The effect of it will be, to render the British Catholics admissible to those offices which are already open to the Irish by the bill of 93. But, in this respect, to leave them still in a condition lower in point of privilege than the Irish, that they may only hold those specified offices under the same conditions as those under which all offices are open to the Protestant Dissenters. Sir, with every feeling I entertain on the subject of the Test act, with every feeling I entertain on the subject of universal and perfect religious toleration, and those feelings are confirmed by every year's reflection and experience, I do feel myself, in respect of this bill, bound to the House by a pledge which it would be, if possible, more dishonourable in me to attempt to evade than even directly to violate. It has been demanded of me, why I relieve the whole magistracy of the Country from the oath and declaration against popery. Sir, a considerable portion of the magistracy do not take them now. Remember they are, as well as the sacramental test, made conditions subsequent by the Test act. So that, in truth, it is now little more in practice than an exploit of purely gratuitous zeal, that makes a man, qualifying for the magistracy, volunteer to charge with idolatry four-fifths of the Christian world, and the whole Christian church for at least seven centuries before the Reformation. But, Sir, for another reason, and a pretty strong one in fey mind, I have adopted this course—that my avowed object being, in respect of these offices, to place the British Catholics on the same footing with the Irish Catholics and the British Protestant Dissenters, I should defeat that subject if I left the Catholic magistrate under the obligation of one oath, and all other magistrates under the obligation of another oath. For example: two gentlemen, a Protestant and a Catholic, qualify together for the magistracy; the one, we will suppose the Catholic, takes an oath, such as the wisdom of this House might provide for his case, but beginning I, B. A. am a Catholic; the other, being a Protestant, turns round upon his brother magistrate elect, and says, in the presence of God, and under the obligation of an oath, I declare that you are an idolator. Sir, would this be a becoming, or an useful scene to exhibit at the qualification of two persons to fill the same important office? What is the oath it is proposed to me to tender to the Catholic who qualifies? The oath called Dr. Duigenan's oath of 93? Sir, for two reasons, I never will propose such an oath. The oath begins by an absurdity in terms. It requires a man to swear that he considers himself bound by the objection of an oath. Did the mind of man ever conceive a greater practical absurdity? But it goes on to make the Catholic swear that he abhors fraud and murder. Sir, what right have we to pass upon them this cold-blooded insult? I know, the House knows, every man with whom one reasons on these matters, at least every man whom it is worth reasoning with on any matters at all, knows that the Roman Catholic abhors these doctrines with as deep an abhorrence as we do. I will not, then, enact such an oath; I will not insult the Deity by calling on his name to witness a rank and drivelling absurdity; I will not insult my fellow Christians, and fellow Englishmen, by calling on them to swear that they do not consider themselves absolved from every tie the most sacred to civilized man. If any other gentleman should attach any value to such an oath, and suggest the insertion of it, sooner than lose the whole benefit of the object I am contending for, I would, doubtless, with whatever reluctance, submit to its insertion. But it shall not be willingly on my part that such an oath shall ever find its way into a bill of mine. Sir, I was accused by an hon. member, the other night, with having changed my ground, and departed from the spirit in which I had opened my intentions on a former evening. "To the judgment of the House I appeal whether I have changed my ground or not. To the hon. member I content myself with denying the fact.

With regard to the magistracy, it is perhaps known to the House that there are a few instances of Roman Catholics now acting in the commission. I know of two most respectable instances. One in Yorkshire, and one in Cumberland. In the latter county a gentleman, of one of the first families in England, who acts under the special recommendation, a recommendation highly honourable to both parties, of a noble person not generally supposed to be very favourable to what is called Catholic Emancipation, I mean the lord-lieutenant of that county, my lord Lonsdale [a laugh]. But in these instances these gentlemen act in the commission declining to take the oath and declaration, and sheltering themselves under the provisions of the annual Indemnity act. But, Sir, is the House on the whole, of opinion that the office of a magistrate is one which ought to be held under circumstances, if not of doubt, at least of mere sufferance and compromise? Remember that the office of a magistrate gives power in many cases over the property and liberty of our fellow subjects. I think the House will be of opinion that this office, so giving power over property and liberty, is one that ought not to be held under any circumstances of doubt or compromise. With regard to the act of queen Anne in Scotland, I think I need not consume the time of the House on that point. This is a bill which only relieves the Roman Catholics from certain tests, and oaths, and cannot therefore affect an act which disfranchises them by name.

In some of the very lowest offices to which men are eligible, the discrepancy between the laws affecting the British Catholics and those of Ireland is felt by the former most severely. Is the House aware that not even the lowest, office in the Excise can, in Great Britain, be held without qualifying by abjuring popery? The effect of this now, is most absurd and anomalous. Since the consolidation of the revenue of the two countries, Irish revenue officers may be stationed in Great Britain. What is the effect? Why, that here, in Great Britain, the Romam Catholic who received his first appointment in Ireland may act as an officer, in the Excise or Customs. The British Roman Catholic attempting to qualify, at the same port, perhaps, or station, is met by a declaration disqualifying him as an idolator. Sir, there is no impression I should more deeply deplore than that admissibility to even these lowest offices is matter of small importance to the parties excluded There cannot be a greater fal- lacy than the attempting to measure the grievance of disqualification by the value which we may be disposed to attach to the offices from which they are excluded. I put it to every one who hears me. To any one who is disposed to doubt that the exclusion from these smaller offices operates as a punishment, and a very severe one, I would cite a memorable and authoritative opinion given in the famous conference of the two Houses on the Occasional Conformity bill. The managers for the lords, among whom was the great lord Somers, declare, that "an honest man cannot be reduced to a more unhappy condition than to be put by law under any incapacity of serving his prince and his country. And that therefore nothing but a crime of the most detestable nature ought to put him under such a disability." "Disqualification from office," say they, "is declared by law to be the brand of gross and infamous crimes." By statute 3rd Hen. 4, it is attached exclusively to "Extortion in public offices, bribery and corruption in the purchase and sale of offices and seats in parliament, and other majora crimina." And such a man is thus, in the words still of the statute, "placed in a condition as if he were dead." Sir, under such an undeserved sentence of obloquy, under the penalty of wanton capricious exclusion from all that a free state can give to make a man proud of himself and proud of the station he holds in his country, if the spirit faints and the heart sickens, if the Roman Catholic, in the obscurity to which you doom him, feels it difficult to suppress his complaints and to suppress his aspirations after what he so justly terms emancipation, it is on account of those very feelings, those natural and laudable, and truly English feelings which should entitle him to our sympathy and confidence. Even while we are endeavouring to tame and subdue this spirit, we are feeling its protection. We are feeling its protection in the mild influence of property well administered. We are feeling its protection in the influence of character and conduct and example. We are feeling its protection, as far as out laws do not smother and keep them down, in acts of public virtue and usefulness. We derive protection and safety from a spirit such as that which breathes through every line of a resolution passed last year by the British Roman Catholics, and now again revived at a public meeting of that body. I beg the attention of the House to it as a resolution worthy a great body of English citizens assembled under the presidency of a name the most illustrious in the annals of the ancient greatness and glory of our country. I urge it upon you with the greater confidence because it prays for right and justice, not upon exclusively Roman Catholic grounds, but on the broad inclusive powerful ground of universal religious emancipation, of public liberty, and universal toleration. "Resolution passed at a general meeting of British Catholics. The duke of Norfolk, earl marshal of England, in the chair. Resolved. That firmly attached as we are to the great principles of religious freedom, without which all civil liberty is imperfect, and maintaining as we do that liberty of conscience is the inalienable right of all men, and detesting every principle or law which persecutes or deprives, on account of his religion, any person whomsoever of any right or franchise, whether enacted by Protestant or Catholic; we declare, publicly before the world, that we will continue to use every legal exertion in our power to obtain a repeal of those laws by which, for conscience sake, we are hourly degraded in society and deprived of the political privileges of the constitution." Sir I will not weaken by any words of mine the effect of such a declaration.

Sir, one of the merits of the question now before you, if I at all understand my own bill, is, that it in no respect compromises any opinion for or against the Catholic claims. I have never made it in any respect dependent upon them. At the very outset I began by separating them. To the friends, indeed, of the greater measure, to those who profess to favour the principle of complete equality of privilege among all, of whatever religious tenets, need I say any thing in support of this bill? As a question of policy, as one highly beneficial to the objects of the great measure, I have never disguised from the House that I view it. I have not disguised from the House that I brought it forward in this spirit and no other. I think it is a bill to facilitate and advance universal religious emancipation, because it is a bill to soften prejudices and to reconcile differences, by uniting men in the common service of their country. Because it is a bill to show that in England, as in every other country in the civilized world, men may worship God apart and yet serve their country together. Because, in short, it is a bill founded in policy, liberality, and justice; and because from my soul I believe that the great cause of universal religious emancipation must and will advance with the advance of the principles of policy, liberality, and justice. I say, then, reverse this legislative taint, and you advance these principles. And if you look forward to the day, which I trust and believe is not now very far distant, when every subject of these realms will stand a free man, unshackled by restrictions on account of faith, and uninsulted by religious tests, when we may all stand together in the enjoyment, as we do now in the inheritance, of these rights, then pay them now a small dividend at least of the great debt you owe them of toleration and freedom. To those who are adverse to the Catholic claims I should say, if you are resolved to pass sentence of perpetual exclusion against your Catholic fellow subjects, at least equalize their condition with each other, and be just to all, up to what are your notions of justice. Sanction, at least, your own opinion of what the law should be, by making it an impartial and an universal law. I say again, I trust this is not the spirit in which the majority in this House will vote upon this bill. I only say it is the spirit in which those adverse to the Catholic claims cannot refuse to vote for it.

You have restored the rights of property as well to the British as to the Irish Roman Catholics. Give, then, representation to property. You have redeemed them from active persecution. Give them the protection of the elective franchise. Do not continue to join in a plunder of rights which does not increase your store of franchise, but deprives, unjustly, unconstitutionally, cruelly, and capriciously, deprives, a very deserving portion of your people of their share in the general stock of representation. The idea of freedom is closely interwoven with that of privilege. If you redeem from bondage, give privilege. And, above all, do not think that in legislating for the happiness and for the affection of people born and educated in a free land the middle course of legislation is always therefore the safe one. "Quod si media via consilii cape-retur, id quidem, mea sententia, ea est quæ neque amicos parat neque inimicos tollit." This country will be truly secure, it will be truly a free and an united, and therefore a happy, country, we shall justify the boast, we are so fond of making, of the universality throughout Great Britain of what we call the English spirit and character, just in proportion as we encourage and indulge those feelings which make men thirst after a participation in these common-law rights.

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, that being friendly to the general principle of the bill, he conceived this to be the proper stage at which to offer his objections to the course taken by the noble lord. The objects of the bill were three-fold; first, the elective franchise; secondly, the qualification for certain offices; and thirdly, the qualification for a place in a corporation. With respect to the first, he had no objection whatever that the Roman Catholics of this country should be placed upon a footing with their Irish brethren in that respect: but it should be observed, that they now enjoyed the elective franchise, unless indeed one of the candidates should propose to the sheriff to put the oaths of supremacy and allegiance to the voters. For himself, he had no possible objection to the repeal of the 7th and 8th of William, by which the Catholics of England were affected. But the motion of the noble lord went to repeal the oath of supremacy in England, leaving only the sacramental tests in force; now, this was not placing the Irish and English Catholics upon the same footing inasmuch as all persons in Ireland who filled the higher offices were obliged to take both. With respect to the oath of abjurati also, there could be no objection; as it only called upon the parties to declare that no foreign potentate or power held, or ought to hold, spiritual or temporal authority in these realms, contrary to the laws and constitution of the country. With respect to the other tests, why, he would ask, should a magistrate refuse to take the same oaths which were imposed upon the lord chancellor and the other officers of the first distinction in this country? If he might presume to advise the noble lord, he would recommend him to divide his bill into two parts, separating the clause which went to give the elective franchise from the other parts of the measure. He hoped, indeed, that the noble lord would confine himself to the principles upon which he grounded the introduction of the bill. The noble lord had been totally silent with respect to the Catholics of Scotland.

Lord Nugent

said, it was his intention to introduce a specific clause with respect to Scotland.

Mr. W. Bankes

opposed the bill, because he considered it as the first step to ulterior and dangerous concessions.

Mr. Brougham

thought the hon. member for Cambridge had better reserve his objections until the bill went into a committee. He agreed with the right hon. secretary, that the bill ought to be divided into two parts, which might be effected by moving in the ordinary way an instruction to the committee for that purpose. There could be little doubt that the first part of the bill, relative to the elective franchise, would pass if it formed a separate measure. If the other part of the bill should not pass, the Catholics would have lost nothing; they would be in precisely the same state as before.

Mr. H. Bankes

opposed the motion. The principle of extending the elective franchise formed his strong objection to the measure.

Mr. Canning

recommended the noble lord to divide his bill into two parts. The question respecting the elective franchise would then be discussed on its own merits. He would also recommend the noble lord to confine his bill to the precise principle stated in his notice; namely, to place the English Catholics on the same footing with the Irish Roman Catholics.

Mr. Wetherell

opposed the motion.

Lord Nugent

rose, merely to say, that in consequence of the suggestions of the right hon. secretary of state for the home department, and feeling the value of his support, he certainly, should shape his proposition in the manner that would ensure it his entire support. He (lord N.) cared but little as to the machinery by which these measures of obvious justice were to be gained, in the principle of which the right hon. gentleman had expressed his concurrence with him. Looking only to the substantial benefit to be gained by the measure, he should certainly conform himself strictly to the suggestion the right hon. gentleman had thrown out. He disliked as much as ever, the imposing any particular form of oath upon the Roman Catholics exclusively. But he did not see any great objection, if the right hon. gentleman wished it, to the making the Roman Catholics repeat, for the privilege of enjoying office, the oath which they now took, or were supposed to take, for the privilege of ex- emption from the penal laws. He should therefore move, "That it be an instruction to the committee to divide the bill into two bills."

The motion was agreed to, and the House resolved itself into the committee.

Forward to