HC Deb 18 April 1825 vol 12 cc1363-72

Numerous petitions were presented both for and against the Roman Catholic Claims.

Colonel Archdall

presented a petition from the Protestants of the county of Fermanagh, against any further concessions to the Catholics. The gallant officer denied that the feeling of the Protestants of Ireland was changed on the question. They were now, as on all former occasions, adverse to the policy of what was called Catholic emancipation.

Mr. Denis Browne

said, he had the honour to reside in a very large county (Mayo), where a most respectable Protestant proprietary resided; and he could assure the House, that, at a recent public meeting which he attended, it was expressly decided, that there would not be either peace or prosperity, until Catholic emancipation was carried into effect by legislative enactment.

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, he held in his hand a number of similar petitions; some from the clergy, some from persons not connected with the clergy, and others from dissenting congregations, both here and in Scotland. Though called on to present these petitions, he had no knowledge of the parties. He had acted on the principle he before professed, of not attempting to influence, in any way, the sentiments of any class of petitioners on this subject. The petitions were entirely unsuggested by him, and were the voluntary expressions of the opinions of those who signed them. He, in no instance, had held any communication with the parties until the petitions had been agreed to. He received letters requesting that he would present them to the House; and his answer was, that if they were couched in respectful language he could have no objection to do so.

Sir T. Lethbridge

, in presenting several petitions of a similar nature, said he did not know the parties from whom they came. He had received letters requesting that he would offer them to the House, and he thought it his duty to do so. The reasons and arguments which they contained appeared to him unanswerable. He wished to take that opportunity of retracting the charge of apathy which he had brought against the country upon a former occasion. That sort of feeling had been now raised among the people against any further concession of the Catholics, which he trusted would excite a similar spirit in the House. It was his firm opinion, that it was the feeling of the great majority of the population of this country, that no further concessions should be made to the Catholics.

Lord Nugent

rose, to present three petitions in favour of the Catholic Claims. He had intended to present to the House that evening, the general petition of the Roman Catholics of England and Scotland, in favour of the bill for conceding to the Catholics those rights, which they so justly claimed; but he thought it would be more respectful to the petitioners and to the House, if he postponed the presentation of the petition until to-morrow, when the entire subject would be brought under their consideration.

Mr. Brougham

said, he held in his hand a petition from certain inhabitants of great and little Bolton, in the county of Lancaster, in favour of the bill now before the House, for relieving the Roman Catholics from the disqualifications under which they at present laboured. The petitioners were of opinion, and in that opinion he entirely coincided, that it was equally impolitic and unjust to inflict civil disabilities on any body of men, because they adhered to a particular mode of religious belief. In presenting this petition to the House, he would take the liberty of stating the opinion which he had before expressed in that place, an opinion which he had always held, and always would hold; namely, that all tests, and all' civil qualifications, respecting disabilities to hold particular situations on account of religious belief, ought to be removed. He spoke not of the Roman Catholics merely. He was of opinion, that the pure doctrine of religious toleration ought to be extended to all sects, as well as to Roman Catholics. Why did he wish this? Because he felt that a man was no more answerable for the tenets which he espoused in religion, than he was for any peculiarity in his physical or mental constitution, over which he had no control. To adopt a different maxim—to inflict punishment on men because they adhered to certain religious opinions, was in fact, to make them hypocrites; for, however interest might induce them to submit to tests and forms, those religious opinions which were long rivetted in their minds they would still retain. This was human nature; and it was vain in such a case to impose tests, which never could interfere with deeply-rooted opinions, however the latter might, for the moment, appear to give way before the feelings of self-interest. Cherishing these sentiments, it was with feelings of pain, sorrow, and, he would say, of bitter disappointment, that he had listened to the opinions which had been advanced, by a few persons certainly, on this subject. He knew that the right hon. gentleman opposite (Mr. Peel) had merited the confidence which those individuals reposed in him by the sincerity of his opposition to the Catholic claims. He also knew that the hon. member for Somersetshire (sir T. Lethbridge) likewise deserved the confidence of all who resisted further concessions to the Catholics, because he had, with perfect consistency, opposed their claims upon every occasion. By pursuing this course, they unquestionably were entitled to the confidence of those bodies whose petitions they had presented. But, he did feel very great sorrow, and, he would add, some degree of shame, when he looked to the quarter whence some of those petitions emanated. That the petitions brought forward by the hon. member for Kent should darken their doors, and load their table, was not at all surprising. Those petitions were signed by the archdeacons and the deacons of Canterbury; by the clergy of the established church; and by some few of the laity. This was quite regular; there was nothing extraordinary in it. But, there was a class of persons whose signatures he was ashamed to see affixed to petitions of a similar tendency. He alluded to that most respected class of men, the dissenters of this kingdom. If there were one class of men more than another bound to petition in favour of the Roman Catholics, that class was the dissenters. Those honourable persons— for so he would denominate them—were, he supposed, sensible that they themselves laboured under disabilities; and he hoped, as discussion was what they wished —as discussion on the subject of religious disabilities was always on their lips—as they called on that House to extend a little tolerance and liberality towards them in matters of conscience—he trusted, he said, that a little more of that discussion, which they so much admired, would have the effect of altering their opinions, ere long, with respect to the question of Catholic emancipation. He hoped that discussion would ultimately remind them how grievously inconsistent was the conduct pursued by them. Did they forget that they held offices, and all the offices which they were capable of holding under government, by connivance? Why were they thus situated? Because the religion which they professed was not the religion of the state. Therefore it was, that an annual indemnity bill was passed, in the absence of which all of them who held office were liable to penalties by law. Why, then, should they, who themselves laboured under disabilities, raise their voices against those who were placed in a similar situation? Why should they not wish the same kind of liberal tolerance to be extended towards others, which they demanded for themselves? The doors of office in the state, great and small, were shut against the dissenters, but, they got over this difficulty by the annual indemnity bill. And yet, labouring under those disabilities, they called on the legislature to continue the disabilities of the Roman Catholics. He recollected that James 2nd (a name which no doubt would be associated with this question) was addressed by the Quakers, on the occasion of his accession to the throne, in these terms:—"We hear that thou no more agreest with the established church of this land than we do ourselves; for the which reason, we expect that thou wilt extend that toleration to us, which thou thyself standest in need of." Now, he would apply to the dissenters (for whom he had a greater reverence and respect than for any sovereign) the words of the Quakers. He would say to those dissenters who had placed their petition in the hands of the right hon. Secretary of State for the Home Department, and of the hon. baronet, that they ought to admit the Roman Catholics to a participation in those rights which they were themselves struggling for. The dissenters differed upon almost every point, upon almost every subject, from those to whom they had intrusted their petitions; but, pro hac vice, they came forward to oppose the Roman Catholics. Weil might the Roman Catholics say, "We, like your-selves, are oppressed by disabilities: and we hope that you will bear with us, as the state bears with you—that you will allow us a little of that toleration, so great an abundance of which you enjoy, but none of which is extended to us." Some of the petitions to which he had referred, came from Scotland, upon which he would say a word presently. Presbyterianism was the chief religion of Scotland, and several Presbyterians were members of that House. Now, he asked, how would his Scotch friends of that religious persuasion feel if the doors of all offices, great and small, were shut in their faces? They had, however, enjoyed the most considerable offices in the country, which was contrary to law; but that objection was met by the indemnity act. There had been two lord chancellors, there had been chief justices of the court of King's-bench, and the court of Common Pleas, who were known to profess this religious belief; but, if the same measure had been dealt out to them which was dealt out to the Roman Catholics, they never could have arrived at those honours. The law, which he must call a most savage one, provided, that all those who accepted of situations of this nature, should receive the sacrament of the church of England; those dissenters who abhorred that form, were required to have the sacrament administered to them; but, by the indemnity act they got over that difficulty, and were enabled to hold office, without violating their feelings. This was an act which enabled the government to procure the assistance of very able men. It was, no doubt, useful to the country, and was not, he hoped, at all disagreeable to those who took advantage of its provisions. A little more discussion would, he conceived, place this matter in so clear a light, that they would have no more anti-Catholic petitions from the dissenters. There were some millions of dissenters in this country: but a few of them had signed petitions of this nature; few, however, as they were, they were all too many, considering the glaring inconsistency of conduct which such a proceeding manifested. No man living had a greater respect for the dissenters than he had. He knew them to be friends to civil liberty; he knew them to be friends to the dissemination of knowledge, and the diffusion of education; and he hoped to find them all, henceforth, the sincere friends to the most extended religious liberty. If it were not for the respect he bore them, he would not have trespassed so much upon the time of the House; but, what he had thrown out was intended as a friendly, and he trusted it would be received as a kindly admonition, by those to whom it was addressed.

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, he wished to offer a remark or two in defence of the conduct of those whose petitions he had presented. One of those petitions—that from Bolton—was signed by nearly 10,000 persons, comprising almost the whole of the dissenters of that neighbourhood. Now, for his own part, he saw no inconsistency in the conduct of Protestant dissenters when they approached that House, and petitioned against granting any further concessions to the Roman Catholics, because those dissenters were protected by the annual indemnity act. That circumstance did not alter the state of the question. They had a right to petition against the concession of privileges to those whose religious doctrines they disliked, because they conceived them dangerous. The; petitions of the dissenters were couched in the most respectful terms. The petitioners declared, that they felt no hostility against the Roman Catholics, but that they were actuated solely by religious scruples. They felt that the doctrines maintained by the Catholic church were further removed from their own, than the doctrines maintained by the church of England; and surely they had a right to approach that House with petitions against granting additional privileges to a body? of whose intolerance all past history, most amply informed them. If the bill now before the House were passed, it would not alter the law relative to taking the sacramental test; but as might be inferred from what the learned gentleman had said, if it were intended to make that bill the first step towards repealing all laws which respected the necessity of taking particular tests, on account of religious opinions, he believed he might reckon on the opposition to the bill, of many persons who had intended to sup-port it.

Mr. Brougham

wished to say a word in explanation. He hoped he should be un- derstood as not referring, in the observations he had made, to the bill now before the House. He spoke merely his own opinion. He was hostile to all tests; and his declaration on that subject was nothing more than his own individual sentiment. What the right hon. gentleman had just said, bore out the statement which he (Mr. B.) had made. This bill would leave the sacramental test untouched; and the result was, that the Roman Catholic and the dissenter would be placed on the same footing. Why, then, should the dissenter petition the legislature not to place the Catholic in as good a situation as that which he himself occupied?

Mr. W. Smith

expressed his belief, that the great body of dissenters were, as he was, favourable to the claims of the Catholics. He was glad that this conversation had taken place; because it would tend to do away a very mistaken opinion, which prevailed in that House, and through-out the country at large; namely, that because an indemnity bill was annually passed, the dissenters laboured under no disability, disqualification, or reproach. He felt that they laboured under all these; and, when the proper occasion arrived, he would show it. A Roman Catholic in approaching that House, or in holding office, would not have to encounter greater difficulties than were opposed to the dissenter.

Mr. Abercromby

said, that the conduct of the dissenters in petitioning against the Catholic claims, was totally irreconcilable with any notion which he could form of consistency. He had, indisputably, a great respect for the dissenters. They were a very enlightened class of men. He could not, however, bring himself to view their proceedings with approbation and respect; on the contrary, he looked at them with every possible feeling of suspicion, when he found them opposing the claims of the Roman Catholics. Why should they, of all other persons, evince hostility to the rights of the Catholics? Why should they come forward for relief in their own case? Why should they come before the House and demand a full participation in all civil rights, when they said—"We will not grant relief to others?" How could he reconcile himself to the belief that the principles avowed by the dissenters—the principles of religious liberty—.were to be supported by their strengthening the arguments by which, to-morrow, the right hon. Secretary for the Home Department would oppose the Catholic claims—those claims turning altogether on freedom of opinion in religious matters? If gentlemen looked at the public press, they would find many of those papers which were most favourable to the dissenters, saying, "the measures now before the House are all wrong." And why wrong? Because "they are exclusive; because they do not include the dissenters." If they were intended for the Catholics and the dissenters at the same moment, then he supposed all would be well. But, as this was not the case, a jealousy was excited against the Roman Catholics, and these petitions were the fruit of it. This was a course of conduct incompatible with any idea which he had of common sense. He could not understand how the dissenters could come forward and pray for the continuance towards the Roman Catholics, of a system which they wished to have abrogated with respect to themselves. If he were to be guided by his feelings, and not by his reason, he should, when the dissenters called for a repeal of the Test act (such was the impression their conduct in opposing the Roman Catholics had made on his mind), oppose the motion. Whenever such a motion was made, he would undoubtedly vote for it from principle. Whatever was the conduct of those who took part against the Catholics, the great body of dissenters should not suffer for that conduct; inconsistent as it was with their general professions. They should have his vote, as if not one of their body had ever pursued such a line of conduct. On principle, he would vote in favour of the repeal of the test act: but, as he before said, were he to follow the dictates of feeling, and not of reason, he would vote against it.

Mr. Brougham

repeated, that he meant to say nothing disrespectful of the dissenters. There were, he believed, six millions of them; and if some of them differed from the great body, and differed from their own avowed principles, it was a matter which he could not but lament. He was sorry, when those individuals found the church at a pinch for a cry of "No Popery!" that they were induced, he feared under a delusion, to step forward at that critical juncture for the purpose of raising it. He would state to the dissenters now present, if any such there were, that they most egregiously deceived themselves, if they thought the church of England would, in return, do any thing for them. He thought he knew the church—he spoke of the high church: he did not mean to class all its members together; and he was sure the dissenters who came forward with these petitions knew little of that establishment if they thought that, in the hour of need, their conduct on this occasion would stand in their stead. The church would not repay their services in the way they imagined. If he knew any thing of that body, they would accept the assistance of the dissenters, but they would give them no advantage in return. The dissenters might come to them and say, "Don't you remember on the 19th of April, 1825, when you were in the greatest distress for a 'No Popery' cry—when the Solicitor-general was in despair—when every body, even the hon. member for Somersetshire, complained of the apathy of the people—that we came forward, and gave you a few drops of alarm, a few crumbs of comfort, in the shape of ominous forebodings; and will you not now assist us in getting rid of our disabilities?" How would this appeal be received? The question would be—"What did you come forward for? Did you not come forward according to your conscientious belief that danger was to be apprehended? Were you not really alarmed? Certainly you were; and you came forward not to assist us, but to help yourselves. You have a monopoly of toleration. You have got into a snug birth yourselves, and all you wished for was to retain it. We have become enlightened on this subject ourselves; and we think it very inconsistent for you, the dissenters, to have acted as you did. For us it was the best thing that ever was done. You performed the work, and we despise you heartily for it; but, as to our assisting you, we are astonished how such an idea could ever have entered your minds." [hear, hear]. He might be allowed here to observe, and it was an axiom as true as any that was to be found in the "Principia," that the odium theologicum operated in an inverse ratio to the approximation of opinion amongst different Christian sects—a principle which undoubtedly applied to the established church. The nearer those sects approached, the more they hated each other—and, when the shade of difference was very indistinct indeed, as between a Dissenter and a Protestant, the parties hated one another to a degree of pure bitterness. If the dissenters hoped to receive any benefit by showing how near they were to the church, they deceived themselves. The nearer they proved themselves to be, the more would they be hated. He hoped the hon. member for Norwich would state to the dissenters, that such was the doctrine of the church. They would find that, if they hoped to accelerate the repeal of the Test act by these petitions, they had taken a most unwise and a most unprofitable course. He would vote for the repeal of that act a hundred times over in justice to the claims of the dissenters; but he must condemn the conduct of those amongst them, who attempted to interfere with the rights of the Roman Catholics.

The Solicitor General

begged leave to say, that the first thing he had done when he offered himself for Oxford, was to declare that, on every occasion, he would follow his own unbiassed opinion. He would not vote in any particular manner, because he was member for that place; but he would act according to the dictates.of his own mind.

Ordered to lie on the table.