HC Deb 21 April 1825 vol 13 cc64-71
Sir J. Mackintosh

said, he held in his hand a petition from the merchants and bankers of Glasgow, in favour of the Catholic Claims. He would not occupy a single minute of the time of the House at that moment, were it not that he considered the petition in question to be entitled to a more than ordinary share of consideration. The House could not form a juster notion of the real nature of the petition, than that which they might derive from a description of it in a letter which he had received from a gentleman, not long ago a member of that House—he meant Mr. Kirkman Finlay; a gentleman, whose character was too well known to require any testimony from him. In that letter, Mr. Finlay assured him, that no endeavours had been used to have the petition numerously signed; that the only wish entertained by the supporters of the petition was, to give an opportunity to gentlemen resident in Glasgow to state what had long been their deliberate opinion upon the great subject at issue; that the names affixed to the petition were those of persons of the highest respectability; many of them differing very widely on political questions. He had been informed, that the number of signatures might have been tenfold, had the slightest exertion been resorted to. As it was, the list comprehended most of the first merchants in Glasgow, many of them zealous political supporters of the present administration. The sentiments of the petitioners did them so much honour, that he would repeat them in their own words. [Here the hon. and learned gentleman read several extracts from the petition.] These petitioners formed a very fair representation of Glasgow as to intellect, property, and education; and in saying this, he was fully aware that he was speaking of the second city in point of magnitude in Great Britain. This petition was signed by a hundred merchants and bankers of Glasgow, who were at least as much entitled to respect as the company of butchers and corporation of hammermen, who had petitioned against the Catholics. The hostility against the Catholics in Scotland was nothing more than a vestige of the ancient puritanical spirit, which Was not yet annihilated in some parts of that country. That puritanical zeal was once necessary to civil and religious liberty, but he had to complain of the chronology of this zeal; it was now too late in its operation by 150 years. It formerly resisted religious tyranny: it was now employed almost as zealously against toleration. But, how were recent authorities balanced on this question? In favour of the Catholics, were Mr. Fox and Mr. Pitt; and against them, were the great names of sir Harcourt Lees and Archdeacon Dennis. With respect to the clergy of Scotland, not one-twentieth of that body were hostile to the Catholic claims; and, if the influence and the patronage, used to excite the hostility of the church of England against Catholic emancipation were fairly considered, he was convinced that not one-sixth of the established clergy were against the Catholic rights.

Mr. Hume

observed, that this petition, so respectably signed, would have the effect of removing the impressions which were created by the other petitions from Glasgow. The opinions of the well-informed classes of Glasgow were decidedly in favour of the Catholic claims.

Mr. Hutchinson

said, he had never heard a more important petition than that which had been introduced by the hon. and learned gentleman. He had, however, to complain of the very indecorous language which was stated to have been made use of in the synod of Glasgow, on a recent occasion, in respect to this question; for some parties in that synod had dared to denounce the peasantry of Ireland as the most turbulent and barbarous of all peasantries; and to depreciate the character of their clergy, who were, however, the most conscientiously assiduous in the discharge of all their clerical duties of any clergy in the empire.

Mr. Maxwell

bore a willing testimony to the great respectability of these petitioners. With regard to the complaint just made by the hon. member for Cork, he would fairly state, that he did regret some part of the language which he understood to have been held on the occasion in question; but, the hon. member was bound to make considerable allowance for the anti- catholic feeling which prevailed in Scotland, on account of the persecution which was attributed by the people generally to the Roman Catholic church in past ages. At the same time, he freely admitted, that much of that persecution was fairly attributable to the episcopal reformed church of those days.

Mr. J. P. Grant

contended, that the change of opinion for which the hon. and learned gentleman gave Scotland credit, in respect to religious toleration, was not a change of recent date; for, in 1813, a petition was presented to parliament from the general synod, calling upon the legislature to extend such relief to the Roman Catholics as might be compatible with the safety of the state.

Mr. Carus Wilson

vindicated the conduct of the clergy of the established church in regard to this great question. Their motives were surely entitled to as much respect as those of any other body of petitioners; even if it should appear, that they were opposed to the bill now pending.

Mr. Hume

presented a petition from Mr. John Lawless, objecting to the pending bill for the relief of the Roman Catholics, on the principle that, in its present form, it was incumbered with a variety of conditions derogatory to the character and claims of those to whom it applied; and particularly with the provisions for abolishing the franchise of the forty-shilling freeholders, and for paying the Roman Catholic clergy. The hon. gentleman begged to observe, that, in his view of the bill, it was not incumbered with either of the provisions alluded to by the petitioner: but, whenever they came before the House, that they should receive from him the fullest consideration. At the same time he thought it would be most injurious to the great cause of Catholic emancipation, if the present discussions were at all interrupted by the consideration of those provisions.

Mr. Alderman Thompson

rose to present a petition from the inhabitants of London and Westminster, and the borough of Southwark, which was numerously and respectably subscribed by about 3,000 persons, praying that no further concessions may be granted to the Roman Catholics. As some erroneous impression seemed to have got abroad in respect to this petition, he would state the manner in which it had been got up. It did not proceed from any public meeting but a number of highly respectable persons having agreed to meet together, in order to petition parliament against further concessions to the Catholics, a petition was agreed upon; and then left at the bar of the City of London Tavern for signatures. A copy of it was left at a house in the Strand, and another copy at a house in Southwark: and this being done, the petition was signed, in the course of a very few days, by about 3,000 persons.

Mr. J. Martin

said, he wished to put the House in possession of a few facts, relative to the real history of this petition. On Saturday last, a friend of his had called upon him, and stated, that the day after this petition was agreed to, he was passing the City of London Tavern, at the door of which there stood a boy, dressed in the ordinary dress of a charity-school-boy, who begged him to walk in and sign the petition. "What petition?" asked his friend, "Oh, Sir," said the boy, "a petition against the Roman Catholics." Here upon his friend was induced to go in to see it. On a table in the room into which he was shown, there were four sheets of parchment, pen and ink, and the names of one or two persons written on the parchment. His friend observed, that these sheets were without any prayer attached to them; and asked, if he could see the petition? "Dear me, no—Sir" was the reply; "the petition is not here." The gentleman asked, if they could chew him any copy of the petition; but he was answered in the negative. He then asked whether the original petition had been agreed to, at any public meeting? Still the answer was "No;" but a waiter informed him that some gentlemen had met together, and agreed to it; and that if his friend was so inclined, he was at liberty to pay 5s. towards defraying the expenses incurred on that occasion. Having received this information, he and his hon. friend, the member for Midhurst, repaired to the City of London Tavern; and at the door they were accosted by the same charity-boy, who requested them to walk in and sign the petition. They demanded a sight of it: no such thing was there. Having stated these facts, he left it to the House to determine how far the petition was entitled to be considered the petition of the inhabitants of London and Westminster, and Southwark to boot? No person asked him at the tavern, whence they came, or who they were; so that it was impossible for the parties who conducted the business to know who or what the persons might be who subscribed their names. He had no doubt that a great many petitions against, the bill had been got up in the same way; and he was induced to think so, not only from information that had been communicated to him, but from the fact, that very few or no public meetings [hear] had been called foe the purpose of agreeing to such petitions. That used formerly to be the mode of originating them, but it was not had recourse to now; from which circumstance he argued that the public feeling that once prevailed against concessions to the Roman Catholics was now greatly and generally on the decline [hear].

Mr. John Smith

confirmed the statement of his hon. friend, and reprobated the means that were resorted to for signatures of such petitions. Some persons, acting under the delusions, or some worse motive, chose to revive the fears and prejudices of the people, by talking of the fires of Smithfield being about to be rekindled, and by always dealing with this simply as a question of religious principles, keeping out of view altogether its immense importance as a political question. Such disingenuous artifices he could not too strongly deprecate.

Mr. Alderman Wood

was satisfied, that. the great majority of the citizens of London were favourable to the pending bill—an assertion which he felt called upon conscientiously to make, and which he might be supposed to make the more advisedly, because in a few months, probably, he might have again to meet his constituents as a candidate once more for their favour. So strong, however, was his conviction of the immense importance of the measure of relief now contemplated, that he should continue to give it his support, even if such a course should involve the forfeiture of the seat which he had the honour to fill in that house [cheers].

Mr. Brougham,

as a sincere friend to religious toleration, begged to return his thanks to the worthy alderman, who had just now distinguished himself, by an honest, manly, and conscientious avowal of his opinions on this great question, If every hon. gentleman who had been threatened with the loss of his seat as the consequence of a similar line of conduct, would act tile same open and manly part, he would soon discover that he would run no danger whatever by adopting such a course. The danger, in fact, existed only in the mouths of those who uttered the threat; and the constituents themselves would thank their representative for so ingenuous and upright an avowal of his sentiments.

Mr. Alderman Thompson

stated, that he had just discovered, that upon the occasions to which the members for Midhurst and Tewkesbury had alluded, the individual, in whose custody the petition was lodged, had been most unavoidably out of the way. He could not at all agree with the worthy alderman opposite that the majority of the citizens of London were in favour of further concessions to the Roman Catholics. He believed directly the reverse.

Mr. Carus Wilson

thought, that the opinions of these petitioners were dealt with, by some gentlemen who were advocates for toleration, most intolerantly.

Mr. Calcraft

considered it perfectly ridiculous to affect to consider a petition signed by no more than 3,000 persons as the petition of the inhabitants of London and Westminster, and the borough of Southwark besides. He was quite satisfied, that the parties who met to agree to a petition would have called a public meeting for that purpose, if they could have been sure, as formerly, of a majority in their favour. He recollected attending a public meeting himself, in 1813, when the public feeling was strong against the Catholic claims. No meetings of the kind being now called, he naturally inferred, that the public feeling had greatly altered on this subject.

Sir E. Knatchbull

defended the meetings of individuals at which petitions like that now before the House had been agreed to. What were they who were adverse to the Catholic claims to do? If they met in this private way in districts adjoining their residences, they were charged with unfairly getting up petitions: if they called public meetings, they were taxed with raising the cry of "No Popery." Some hon. gentlemen really dealt most unfairly with them.

Mr. Baring

wished the House to consider how far this petition could be received, as representing the opinion of the great mass of the inhabitants of London, Westminster, and Southwark. Let gentlemen look to the manner in which it was got up, and then consider what weight was to be attached to it. No doubt it contained the representations of many persons who entertained very honest and conscientious feelings on this subject; and, so far, be had no objection to it. But, it was not the petition of that immense body whose sentiments it affected to state. It was the petition of individuals, and was got up in the most secure, most secret, and, he would say, least creditable manner that could be imagined. There was, he observed, pretty considerable petitioning on the part of the clergy; nothing, however, approaching to a call from the majority of that body: and with respect to the petitions against the Catholic Claims, he might fairly state, that not one of the counties of England, that no one considerable town in the country, had been fairly convened to speak their sentiments on this important question.

Mr. R. Martin

differed entirely from the hon. baronet, the member for Kent, as to the necessity of having petitions agreed to at private meetings. On the contrary, he would suggest, that every means should be used to excite public discussion and investigation, by which course truth was sure to be elicited, and the real feelings of the people were certain of being made known. If those meetings were held openly, there were numbers of gentlemen from Ireland, who were perfectly well able to tell their own story on this question, and who would not fail to attend them.

Mr. Abercromby

denied that any gentleman on his side of the House had ever complained of the conduct of individuals who had endeavoured fairly to collect the sense and feelings of the people on any particular question. What he and others complained of was, that appeals should be made to the prejudices and to the worst passions of the people. In the present instance, this system had been resorted to. An attempt had been made to raise a "No popery" cry, on allegations that were unfounded. It was but the other day that he had read an account of a meeting, at which a rev. gentleman was described as having asked, "Are you prepared to see Protestants burned by the Catholics, as was the practice formerly?" It was this sort of unfair conduct to which he objected. He did not complain of any honest appeal to the judgement of the people; because, on their judgement, when they were suffered to exercise it without influence or bias, he most confidently relied. But when appeals were made to the passions of the people—when every thing was done to awaken their worst feelings, and to put their reason asleep—he must condemn such a proceeding, because it was manifestly unjust and ungenerous.

Ordered to lie on the table.