HC Deb 23 March 1827 vol 17 cc12-9

On the order of the day for the commitment of the Annual Indemnity bill,

Mr. W. Smith,

before the Speaker left the Chair, observed, that he should not oppose the bill, though he considered this annual measure as an instrument of great injustice to the Protestant Dissenters, of which body he was himself one. For that reason, he was unable to hold any office, however insignificant, under the Crown, or to sit as a magistrate in any corporation, without violating his conscience. This was an exclusion hard, unjust, and unnecessary; and when he complained of it, he was told that he found his relief from all his grievances in this bill of Indemnity. This bill was the stalking horse, by means of which the Test and Corporation acts had been continued in existence for a century. If this bill had not been passed yearly, both those oppressive acts must long ago have been repealed.

Mr. D. W. Harvey

said, he could not conceal his astonishment at the contrast which marked this bill, and the course pursued, as it regards the Catholic claims. For nearly forty years the Indemnity bill, which he characterized as a measure of the most barbarous legislation, had been allowed to steal silently through the House, without provoking a syllable in explanation of its objects, or in justification of the continuance of those penalties against which it professes to be a security. While the claims of the Catholics are urged, year after year, with the vehemence of party, enlisting in their support the mightiest powers of energy and eloquence; the real and substantial claims of the Protestant Dissenters, whose claims are founded in the immutable principles of the rights of conscience, and the inviolability of private judgment, are entirely disregarded. It was both false in fact, and injurious in its influence, to confound Catholic concessions with religious freedom; they had no connexion with that hallowed feeling. The claims of the Catholics rested altogether on the policy and expediency of them, and were remote from any sentiment connected with religious freedom. Nothing could be more opposed to correct sentiment than such an union; and it was from this fact that the Dissenters were chiefly led to view all concessions to Catholics with well-grounded apprehension. For it was a peculiar property of the papal faith, that its articles and canons were in all times and circumstances unchangeable; and though persecution might assume in different ages various shades, still exclusion of all ecclesiastical rivalry, and the suppression of sectarianism, formed the basis of that uncongenial faith. It ought to be borne in mind, that it was owing entirely to the heroic and manly sacrifices of our non-conforming forefathers, that we were indebted for the great blessings of the Protestant ascendancy. Had not the Dissenters consented to the thraldom imposed by the Test and Corporation acts, the Catholics in the reign of Charles must have been ascendant in the cabinet and the field; and it would be the greatest stigma on the Dissenters, and a reproach to the parliament, were the Catholic claims conceded before the Dissenters were emancipated; and, for one, he should never be inclined to countenance the one, until the other was secured. He was bound to look at the conduct of parties in that House with extreme jealousy; as nearly forty years had been allowed to pass away without an effort in favour of the Dissenters. Honourable members might urge the millions who profess the Catholic religion, and the Dissenters might also recur to their numerical strength, did not their pretensions stand on the higher and better grounds of moral excellence, pure devotion, and a steady attachment to the civil rights of the people. What could be more preposterous or unjust than that two millions of well-informed persons should be precluded by law from filling stations in the corporate towns where they had earned and generously expended their fortunes, and whose municipal functions they are so well able, from education and character, to uphold and adorn? He trusted, therefore, that some sincere and speedy effort would be made to rescue the Dissenters, and the country, from one common charge of inhumanity and injustice. When he contemplated the peaceful tenor of their conduct, the sobriety and virtue of their lives, their cheerful and generous support of every object of utility or benevolence, and contrasted them, the Protestant Dis- senters, with the turbulent and factious, and oftentimes seditious, harangues and movements of the Catholics of Ireland, who urged their members to terrify parliament into submission, on the pretence that giving seats in the senate to the famished crowds of that country, would relieve and remove all difficulties, he was at a loss to trace the wisdom of the statesman, or the calm reflection of philosophy. And the evil was the more palpable, because the Dissenters of Ireland were actually allowed to hold corporate offices, while they were guarded by penalties and proscription in this country. It had been said, that the Dissenters were generally unfavourable to the Catholic claims. He believed they were; and he had generally found that those amongst them who best understood the subject, and were the most deeply imbued with the spirit of religious liberty, and sensible of its blessings, were the most alive in their apprehensions on the subject. For they found it difficult to reconcile the security of spiritual freedom, with the bondage and superstition of Catholic dominion.

Lord John Russell rose

to defend himself and the great portion of his friends from the imputation made upon them by the hon. gentleman who had just resumed his seat—namely, that, for the purposes of party, they brought forward the question of Catholic emancipation, while they did not equally insist on the restoration of freedom to the Protestant Dissenters. He was ready to declare, for himself, and on behalf of the great body of his friends, that, on the principle of general religious liberty, without any compromise or exception in favour of any one sect, he would give his support to any question that might come before the House. He would further state, that, on the subject of the Test and Corporation acts, some very respectable persons, Protestant Dissenters, had applied to him—an humble individual, undoubtedly, in that House—to bring it forward. He was asked, whether he was ready to move the repeal of those acts? He answered, that undoubtedly he would; but he added, that it was a question for them to consider what was the proper time for that purpose, and in whose hands they would place it. A noble friend of his, in the other House, had, in like manner, always stated his readiness to bring forward the question, when the aggrieved body deemed it expedient and politic to have it discussed. His hon. friend, the member for Norwich, could testify to that fact. Having given those assurances, why were they to be taunted with party designs, and factious views, in bringing forward the claims of the Catholics? What interest had they but in the general prosperity of the empire? Yet it was urged as a charge against them, that they brought forward the question, which, having the name Popery attached to it, was exposed to prejudice; while, it was said, they neglected the cause of the Protestant Dissenters, against which the same prejudice did not exist. What reason could they have for following the course imputed to them? They could bring forward the claims of the Dissenters at any time, without exciting any angry feeling, or reviving any ancient prejudices; but there were not the same urgent reasons as in the case of the Catholics. The tests exacted by law from the Dissenters against the national religion, he was free to admit, were the most absurd, the most odious, and the most disgusting, that were exacted by any legislature. One instance he would cite—that of requiring them to take the sacrament against every feeling of their conscience, which, he would not hesitate to declare at once an act of mistaken policy, and a profanation of religion itself. Yet, he would say, that the grievances of the Protestant Dissenters were not practically so great as those of the Catholics. The proof of this fact was before him. All the Catholics in the kingdom were excluded from parliament; while his hon. friend, the member for Norwich, was able, though a Dissenter, to take his seat. The law, indeed, was founded on principles of persecution, but the annual bill of Indemnity, in fact, gave that relief to the Protestant Dissenters which was denied to the Catholics.

Sir Robert Wilson

said, that the hon. member for Colchester, had put the saddle on the wrong horse. The reason why the claims of the Dissenters had not been discussed was, that they had not asked for relief. If they had been practically excluded from the pale of the constitution, there would have been as many petitions from them as from the Catholics. He confessed, however, that he thought it ungenerous in the Dissenters to withdraw their auxiliary support from the Catholics. The main body of the Dissenters were certainly more opposed to the Catholic claims than even the members of the established Church. The exceptions, he knew, were many and honourable; but he believed he had spoken correctly of the great body. On the other hand, that what he called the government opposition to the Catholic claims rested not so much on the fear of the admission of Catholics to that House, as on the fear that the concession to the Dissenters of all their rights and privileges would be a necessary consequence of the emancipation to the Catholics.

Mr. Van Homrigh

addressed the Speaker, but the impatience of the House rendered him inaudible. He complained of this inattention. He remarked, that he might have made a few observations to the House before, but this was the first time he had formally addressed them. He was sure, more loyal subjects than the Catholics of Ireland could not be found, and they had been so from the earliest days of antiquity. At the time of the Revolution they had sworn allegiance to a king to whom they faithfully adhered. It had been his fortune to see the descendants of those men who fought at the memorable battle of the Boyne, collected together on the same spot, to offer the demonstrations of loyal attachment to their present king; and he was sure that his majesty would, if he were asked the question, be ready to declare that a more loyal body of men than his Irish Catholic subjects did not exist. It was quite ridiculous to say that the Catholics were not worse off than the Protestant Dissenters. Let them be placed on the same footing—let them have an annual Indemnity bill likewise, and they would ask no more. The true way to judge of the Catholic, at least the way he judged of them, was by his own feelings. "If I were a Catholic," concluded the hon. gentleman, "I declare I would never be satisfied until I had completely succeeded in vindicating my claim to equal rights with the rest of my fellow-subjects."

Mr. Warburton

reminded the hon. member for Colchester, that the removal of disabilities from one class of subjects, did not necessarily imply the propriety of removing similar disqualifications from another class.

Mr. W. Smith

trusted that the hon. member for Colchester's representation of the Dissenters would not be taken as a just or fair view of them. He was willing to believe the statement of the gallant member for Southwark, as far as it was the result of his own observation; but he must deny such to be a fair representation of the feelings of the Dissenters. He thought they felt too much for the cause of civil and religious liberty, not to wish that the cause of Catholic emancipation should succeed.

Mr. Hume,

seeing the right hon. Secretary for the Home Department, very attentive to the debate, wished to put a question to that right hon. gentleman, for whose sincerity he had the highest respect. In the course of the late discussion upon the Roman Catholic claims, the right hon. gentleman had stated, that he was a sincere friend of toleration and of civil and religious liberty, and that he was willing to concede every thing, save and except political power. Now, the right hon. gentleman was aware that the Test and Corporation acts were repealed Ireland, and that Protestant Dissenters were permitted to sit in that House. He wished to ask the right hon. gentleman whether he would give his support to a bill for annulling. those tests altogether?

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, he thought it rather hard that he should be punished with a question, because he happened to be paying attention to the debate. In the first place, he would say, in answer to the question put by the hon. member, that during the debate upon the Catholic claims, he had not said one word on the subject of the Protestant Dissenters. What he had said upon that occasion applied to Roman Catholics, and was to this effect, that he would resist any measure for giving them political power, but that he was willing to admit persons of that belief to the enjoyment of all the privileges to which the law entitled them; and that in such cases he would make no distinction between them and Protestants, each having equal qualifications as to moral character, and professional skill. He did not think it necessary at present to say a word respecting his opinion of the tests, as they affected Protestant Dissenters—sufficient, for the day was the vote thereof; and that evening he intended to vote for the bill, which he looked upon as a measure of relief. He could not agree in what had fallen from the hon. member for Southwark, that a measure of relief ought not to be granted to the Dissenters, because they had not presented petitions in favour of the Roman Catholics. Such a ground for refusing to afford the Dissenters relief, appeared to him to be the most extraordinary that could be assumed. His reason for not entering into the general question, whether or not the Test and Corporation acts ought to be repealed, was two-fold: first, because no notice had been given of the intention of any hon. member to discuss that question in any stage of this bill; and secondly, because it appeared to be the disposition of the House to concur in this measure without discussion; the more particularly, as it was understood that it was the intention of the noble lord opposite, to bring the general measure under the notice of the House, in a distinct and separate shape. When that should be the case, he would be ready to state his opinions upon that question, but until then he should decline giving any answer to the question put by the hon. member.

Mr. D. W. Harvey

said, that as the hon. member for Bridport had made some allusions to his constituents, he must beg leave to offer a few observations. The greater part of his constituents were Protestant Dissenters; and he was of opinion that not only they, but the great body of Protestant Dissenters in England were opposed to the Roman Catholic claims, from a firm conviction that the conceding of those claims, would be injurious to civil and religious liberty. Whoever cast his mind back to what took place when those acts were passed, would find that the Protestant Dissenters of that day, had placed themselves under the thraldom of those acts, for the purpose of saving to the country the benefits of Protestant principles and Protestant liberality; and, at that period, it was understood, that the Dissenters were to be relieved, as speedily as possible, from the operation of those acts. Among those of the Protestant Dissenters, who opposed the Catholic claims upon the ground already stated, were to be found men whose general information was such as entitled their opinions upon such subjects, to considerable respect.

Sir R. Wilson,

in explanation, observed, that what he had said had been misunderstood by the right hon. Secretary. What he had said, and what he now repeated, was, that the Protestant Dissenters were satisfied to remain in an inferior situation, provided, by doing so, they could prevent their Roman Catholic fellow-subjects from enjoying the privileges of the constitution. Of the minority of two hundred and seventy-two, upon the late discussion of the Catholic claims, he could not help saying, that the members who composed it had given the most disinterested votes that had ever been given in that, or any other parliament; because, by voting in support of the late measure, they had excluded themselves from all the advantages which, in all probability, would result from voting the other way.

Lord Rancliffe,

in answer to what had fallen from the hon. member for Colchester, must say, that among his constituents, whom he had now represented in three parliaments, there were many Protestant Dissenters who had given him their votes upon the ground, that he was the friend of religious liberty to the fullest extent. No question had ever been put to him by any of his constituents, as to the vote which he intended to give upon the Catholic question; and, he would say, that he had, by his vote in support of the motion of the hon. baronet, the member for Westminster, supported the cause of civil and religious liberty.

Lord J. Russell

said, he had a decided opinion upon the Test and Corporation acts, and should bring forward a motion upon those acts, if the Protestant Dissenters should think it to their interest that he should do so; but, otherwise, he did not intend to make any motion upon the subject.

The bill then went through the Committee.