§ Mr. Hume
said, he rose, pursuant to notice, to move for the repeal of one of those acts which were passed in the year 1819, commonly known by the title of the "Six Acts." It was his intention to have moved for the same thing during the last session; and, when he contemplated the changes which had taken place in the ministry, he could not help hoping that the delay would prove a fortunate one for the question which he now advocated. The House would doubtless recollect, that when these acts were passed, there reigned throughout the country great discontent, occasioned by distressing want which induced the people to assemble in large numbers; and they were, for this, accused of wishing to upset the government. The House then thought, that certain regulations were necessary to prevent the physical force of the country from destroying the established institutions, and to prevent anarchy and disorder resulting from such meetings. Of the acts then passed, that which was called the "Seditious Meetings' Prevention Act," expired in 1824, and the ministers of the Crown, by allowing it to expire, admitted that there was no further necessity for the continuance of it. But then the ministers and the Attorney-general, by whom these acts were introduced, contended, that they must be taken as a whole; and, if this were true, they ought all of them to have been repealed, or no one of them ought to have been allowed to expire; especially as they were admitted to be infringements upon the liberties of the subject, and justifiable only by the existing circumstances. Another of these acts, which allowed persons to search for arms, had also expired. Those of the six acts which still remained in force were,—first, "An Act to prevent the training of persons to the use of arms," and that he thought to be one of the most objectionable nature, in a free country, where every one ought to be intrusted with arms for the defence of his rights; but he did not mean to press the repeal of that act at present: secondly, "An Act to prevent delay in the administration of justice in cases of misdemeanor," which was not of a very important nature; thirdly, the eighth chapter, "An Act for the more effectual prevention and punishment of blasphemous and seditious libels," which contained one of the most obnoxious clauses in the whole of the acts—he meant that clause which made trans- 1064 portation the punishment for a second conviction in cases of libel; but chapter nine, "An Act to subject certain publications to the duties of stamps upon newspapers," &c., which affected the liberty of the press, was that to which he wished to call the particular attention of the House. It consisted of certain regulations, which required printers to give securities before they could erect a press, and subjected the publication of any pamphlet containing any thing of news of a less size than two sheets to be stamped as a newspaper. This second restriction was a direct violation of what the press ought to be; for it prevented any individual from publishing a pamphlet which contained any public news or occurrence, or any remarks on any public matter, without subjecting such pamphlet to the duties on newspapers. The Solicitor-general had said, that the only object of this bill was to put down two-penny tracts; and he (Mr. Hume) had then contended, that it was beneath the dignity of that House to legislate in any such way. The result of the bill had been, that, with the exception of school-books and tracts of piety, all useful pamphlets had been prohibited. He was quite sure that the House would not be blind to the exertions which, since this act had passed, had been made, by the most respectable persons in the country, for the purpose of enlightening the minds of the people; and he hoped that they would not lose so good an opportunity of facilitating the diffusion of useful knowledge, by cheapening the means. Another objectionable restriction which the act imposed, was that of demanding publishers and proprietors of periodical publications to enter into recognizances, without defining the offences for which their securities would be liable. The act imposed another restriction not less unnecessary than severe. By the 27th clause, it was enacted, "That no publication relating to church or state should be reprinted and republished, unless the said publication should have been printed and published two years at the least previous to such reprinting and republishing." Now, he was of opinion, that this clause imposed a very great hardship on printers and publishers, and the following clause was no less hard:—"That, upon every pamphlet or paper containing any public news, intelligence, or occurrence, or any remarks or observations thereon, or upon any matters in church or state, printed in 1065 any part of the united kingdom for sale, and published periodically, or in parts or numbers, at intervals not exceeding twenty-six days between the publication of any two such pamphlets or papers, all such pamphlets or papers shall be deemed and taken to be newspapers, and be subject to newspaper stamps." Now, he would ask, was not this clause framed for the purpose of checking the circulation of opinion, and putting an end to the freedom of remark? It was highly improper, at a period like the present, to endeavour to check the circulation of those cheap and meritorious works, that afforded so much information to the working classes. It was said, that this act would have the effect of affording relief to the regular newspapers; but experience proved, that the newspapers were not at all either relieved or protected by it. As to the question of revenue, it surely never could be contended, that the additional number of stamps consumed in consequence of the passing of the act was an object which the government might not think proper to forego. The fact was, that the revenue was not at all benefitted by the operation of the law. By the fourth clause it was enacted, that the publication of every such pamphlet or paper should take place on the first day of every month, or on the second or third day following. Such a restriction was absurd and unnecessary; and the sooner it was dispensed with the better. The House should bear in mind, that there was a considerable difference between the year 1817 and the present period. Distress and difficulty had then thrown the manufacturing classes into a state of alarm and disorder, and scenes of tumult and riot were frequently exhibited. When, however, the cause which had led to such excesses was abated, the manufacturing classes, by means of the circulation of cheap publications, the institution of circulating libraries and mechanics' institutions, turned their thoughts to subjects of a better nature, and they received with avidity such information as was circulated by the means to which he had alluded. Now, the cause having ceased, was it necessary to continue a law, the effects of which were so unjust and severe?—The hon. member then alluded to the present state of the law of libel, and proceeded to quote the opinion of sir James (then Mr.) Macdonald, when the Newspaper Stamp-duties Act was the subject of discussion in the 1066 House in the year 1819. That hon. member had said, that "the services rendered by the public press to the cause of the country throughout the late war were scarcely calculable, and yet, upon this press it was now proposed to impose a most galling chain." He found the following passage in the same speech:—"The House had heard, that a censorship was once in contemplation. How far the question had been entertained, and why that measure had been rejected, he could not say; but this he would say, that these bills comprehended little less than an absolute censorship,| and the worst and most contemptible of censorships—that of money—which did not measure a man's intellect or intentions, but his purse."—The hon. gentleman then referred to other speeches spoken on the same occasion, and proceeded to quote extracts from them. He felt convinced there were but few in that House who would differ as to the necessity of erasing from the Statute-book a law which was so unjust. Those acts had caused considerable irritation in the country. Not a day passed that some individual had not to complain of the shackles which they imposed. No time, therefore, ought to be lost in procuring their repeal; and there could not be a stronger argument in favour of such a measure, than the knowledge that the law had failed to benefit the revenue, and was a bar to the diffusion of that information which was so essential to the welfare of the industrious classes. He then moved, "That leave be given to bring in a bill to repeal the 60th Geo. 3, ch. 8., subjecting certain publications to the duties of stamps on newspapers, and to make other regulations for restraining the abuses arising from the publication of Blasphemous and Seditious Libels."
said, he supposed that the hon. gentleman's motion was brought forward in the hope of discovering, that, with the new government, a new system upon these subjects would be introduced. Now, if this was the feeling of the hon. gentleman, he had adopted that course of proceeding, which was, of all others, the least adapted to his purpose. The very circumstance of that government having been so recently formed, would have prevented any man of ordinary judgment from mooting such a question. His hon. friend, however—and he must suppose him sincere in the declarations— 1067 had said, that he was making this proposition in a perfectly friendly spirit to the government. He was bound to acknowledge, that, on the first night of his taking office, the hon. gentleman had been so courteous, as to intimate to him his intention of introducing this question, in the event of its not being introduced by the law officers of the Crown. His hon. friend's friendly intentions to the government, he did not dispute; but, assuredly, they ran before the views of that government. The hon. gentleman had favoured the House with various extracts to the speeches of 1819. The hon. gentleman had omitted, however, to state—what was very material—that those speeches applied to the bill in its first shape, and that, in its progress through parliament, perhaps in consequence of those very speeches, it received considerable alterations and improvements. The right hon. member for Knaresborough, who took the lead in the discussions, expressly stated his approbation of that part of the measure, which put certain periodical publications on a footing with newspapers. Besides, it was neither parliamentary logic, nor just reasoning, to say that, because a bill is hypothetically opposed, depending upon experiment, those who resisted it in the outset were bound to support its repeal, after the lapse of nine or ten years, during which it had shown itself a useful agent in the preservation of the well-being of the state. Looking at the merits of the 60th Geo. 3., ch. 9., he should say, that there were some parts of it so advantageous, that he would not consent to the repeal of them. Its object was, to place upon the same footing as newspapers, all small periodical publications published at a shorter interval than twenty-six days, and containing narratives of public events, or comments upon them. The reason was obvious; namely, that what were, in fact, newspapers, might not be published once, twice, or three times a week, or oftener, at the price of only twopence. In that form, a number of seditious and blasphemous productions, the existence of which was regretted on all sides, had been circulated. Various modes were suggested for putting an end to their distribution among the lower orders in particular. Some thought that prosecutions by the Attorney-general ought to be more frequent, and he had been among that number; others were of opinion that a measure was wanted that might lead to the 1068 detection of the authors of the poison so industriously disseminated; and no man doubted, that if such an object could be attained, it would be advantageous to the public interest. It was, in a great degree, accomplished by requiring the affidavit at the Stamp-office, for pamphlets of a certain size and price, in the same manner as the proprietors of newspapers were registered. No man doubted the policy of the law imposing the necessity that the names of some of the proprietors of every newspaper should be seen at the Stamp-office. It enabled parties libelled to trace the authors, and to obtain a remedy, while it had not at all prevented the press from attacking with severity either public or private men. He was a warm friend to the freedom of the press at all times, and in all places; and he would assert, that there never was a period when it possessed greater freedom than at the present moment. His hon. friend had said, that the revenue had derived no profit from the additional stamp-duty derived under this act from periodical publications: now, he was free to confess, that he was not informed upon that part of the subject; and perhaps it would be as well to wait until the Chancellor of the Exchequer had laid his financial statement before the House. It would then be seen how far the hypotheses of his hon. friend were founded on fact or otherwise. In 1819, opinions were much divided on the subject of the Six Acts. They all met with opposition, but certainly that which was the object of the present motion was looked at with much less antipathy than the rest. Neither did it follow that, because an act was resisted as a whole, there were not parts of it, which, taken by themselves, might not be approved. The hon. gentleman had contended that, because a temporary law had expired, a perpetual law ought to be abrogated; and, by a felicitous mode of reasoning peculiar to himself, had argued that temporary and permanent acts were to be viewed precisely in the same light. Such logic, perhaps, it became the hon. gentleman to use, but would not become the House to adopt. It did not satisfy his understanding, although it might be quite convincing to the mind of the hon. gentleman [a laugh]. There certainly were one or two clauses contained in the bill which he could have wished were altered; but he was not therefore of opinion that the act should be repealed altogether. He owned 1069 he had his doubts respecting the justice of the clause calling for a recognizance. The present, however, was not the most favourable time for doing it. His hon. friend had spoken a great deal about the diffusion Of knowledge and the advantage of disseminating cheap publications through the country; but, could his hon. friend complain with justice that there had been any check to the spread of knowledge through the country? Now, he would ask his hon. friend, on what principle of justice he could say that "The Times," or "Morning Chronicle," should be subject to a stamp-duty, while other publications, furnishing similar matter, should be free from any charge? As to the public press, they most likely had no feeling about the matter; but he thought, notwithstanding, that this law relating to periodical publications should stand, and that cheap works, got up without any risk and but little trouble, should not be suffered to usurp the place of the regular newspapers. If the hon. member had confined his objections to particular clauses of the act, he might have taken a different course. He begged, however, not to be considered as pledged on the subject. He had not the slightest intention to say any thing offensive to his hon. friend; but, with all his respect for his hon. friend, and feeling much obliged to him for the good he had done in certain respects, he was by no means prepared to take his hon. friend as an authority on subjects of general legislation. As his hon. friend had not stated any particular evil produced by the measure, he was not prepared to rely on his judgment, with reference to the question of its general character and tendency. His hon. friend had many claims on the gratitude of the public; but he had no claim to make him consider his hon. friend as a sound authority on all points of legislation. He was, therefore, under the necessity of telling his hon. friend, that, however kindly his motion might be meant to the new administration, he felt it his duty to meet it with a direct negative.
said, that no person who had listened to the speech of the Attorney-general could have any reason to complain of the course which he had pursued. It was infinitely more manly to take the straight-forward course which the learned gentleman had taken, than to follow the example of the other hon. gentlemen, who were now absent from their places, 1070 who had resisted, in 1819, the enactment of the bill, which the hon. member for Aberdeen sought to repeal. He honoured the Attorney-general, for the manliness with which he had declared, that he would not sanction the repeal of this bill without inquiry into its practical results, because he had originally resisted its enactment. If all the gentlemen who had recently joined his majesty's administration had pursued a similar line of conduct, and had stated their reasons for not adhering to the opinions which they had formerly expressed, they would have done themselves more honour than they now did by staying away from the debate, and withholding from the House the sentiments they entertained upon it. At the same time, he would not say that the grounds on which the Attorney-general had resisted the repeal of this act were altogether satisfactory. It was, however, highly satisfactory to those who in 1819 had supported this measure, and who, in common with those who had introduced it from a sense of duty, had been subjected to a load of obloquy—to hear the correctness of that policy now maintained by a learned gentleman, who had formerly arraigned it. It was highly satisfactory to see a tardy justice performed to the memory of a noble friend of his, who had been more foully calumniated than any individual with whom he had ever been acquainted. His noble friend, the late marquis of Londonderry, was the individual who had proposed this act to the House, in common with the five other acts which accompanied it; and for performing that painful act of duty in times of distress, and difficulty, and commotion, his memory had been loaded with every species of obloquy which ingenuity and malignity could invent. He begged leave to remind the House, that some of the measures which his noble friend had then proposed, were permanent, and others temporary. The present bill was one of those which were permanent, and not the least strenuously objected to. His majesty's Attorney-general was wrong, very wrong, in stating that this particular bill met with but slight opposition. Not one of the six acts was more pertinaciously resisted than this very act, against the repeal of which he expected that there would that night be an overwhelming majority. The amendments, to which the Attorney-general had referred, were not intended, by the movers of them, to reconcile the House to the mea- 1071 measure; for it was resisted again on its third reading; and in every shape in which the forms of the House would allow any opposition to be made to it. He repeated his admiration of the manly course which the Attorney-general had that night pursued, in recording his approbation in 1827 of the measure against which he had divided in 1819. He hoped the House would permit him in justice to the memory of his noble friend, the late marquis of Londonderry, to take advantage of the admission made that evening by his majesty's Attorney-general, and to show from it, that if the practical operation of this act had not been to impose fetters upon the press, and to curtail the general freedom of the subject, his noble friend's memory stood absolved from all the foul obloquy which had been so plentifully bestowed upon it. He was not quarrelling with the Attorney-general, for the sentiments which he had that night expressed; but he could not help calling the attention of the House, over and over again, to this peculiar circumstance—that, by the vindication which his majesty's Attorney-general had that night offered for his own conduct, was the vindication of his noble friend's political conduct in 1819, rendered complete. His noble friend had been told at the time, that the bill was calculated to repress the rising genius of another Burke, struggling with the difficulties of poverty, and endeavouring by his talents to carve out for himself an honourable name and condition in society. His noble friend had denied that this bill was calculated to produce any such effect. His noble friend was right in such denial; and he had now the satisfaction of hearing his majesty's Attorney-general admit that this bill did not lay any practical restraint on the freedom of the press. Those who proposed this bill had now their vindication, and a vindication which was the more honourable to them, as it came from the lips of their political opponents. If it were right now, in times of tranquillity, when there was little sedition and blasphemy abroad, and when those who attempted to corrupt the public mind by such publications were comparatively insignificant in number; if it were right now to resist the repeal of this act, was not his noble friend justified in 1819, when attempts were making in all quarters to poison the mind of the lower classes, in proposing a measure, of which the practical operation was admitted 1072 to be as beneficial as his noble friend had anticipated that it would be? He begged leave to remind the House of the situation in which the country was at the time when this act was proposed. In 1819, the grand jury of Chester felt it their duty, at the close of their labours to present an Address, either to his Majesty or to that House—he forgot exactly which—in which they attributed all the evils which were then desolating part of the country, to the efforts which were made to distribute blasphemous and seditious publications among the lower orders. As a proof of the extent to which those efforts were carried, they stated that attempts bad been made to corrupt the servants of their families, by the gratuitous introduction of two-penny pamphlets, abounding with sentiments hostile to the institutions of the country, and calculated to sap the principles of religion and morality. If gentlemen would turn over the letters which sir John Byng, who then commanded the military forces in the manufacturing districts, had addressed to the government, they would see that there had been six attempts made in one week to corrupt the soldiers under his command, by means of these cheap productions. He referred to these circumstances as so many proofs that his noble friend, the marquis of Londonderry was justified in imposing temporary restraints on the freedom of the subject, and permanent restraints on the licentiousness of the press. He had now had the satisfaction of hearing the permanent operation of those latter restraints defended by those who had originally opposed them; and, as his object was answered by calling the attention of the House to that fact, he should sit down, happy that an opportunity had been afforded him to do justice to the memory of his late noble colleague, and to rescue it from the dishonour with which the malice of his enemies had endeavoured, but in vain, to overwhelm it.
complained of the misrepresentation which the right hon. member had given of his speech. What he had stated was this: that all the clauses of this bill were not opposed by the party with whom he had the honour of acting; and he had referred to a speech made by his right hon. friend, the member for Knaresborough (Mr. Tierney) who was now absent from indisposition, to show that he had approved warmly of those 1073 parts of this bill which were now most loudly inveighed against by the hon. member for Aberdeen. He did not intend to vindicate himself from any charge of inconsistency, for he did not suppose that any such charge could be brought against him; neither did he intend, by any thing he had said that night, to retract any one principle on which he had bottomed his opposition to the mass of bills which were introduced by the noble marquis in 1819.
§ Lord Milton
said, it was difficult to ascertain, from the speech of the right bon, member for Oxford, whether his object was, to exculpate the conduct of his late colleague, the marquis of Londonderry, or, under pretence of exculpating his conduct, to inculpate the conduct of other individuals. It was of little consequence which of these two objects he had in view; for in both of them he had signally and lamentably failed. What, in point of fact, had been the defence which the right hon. gentleman had made for his late colleague, the marquis of Londonderry? Neither more nor less than this—that because, in the year 1827, his Majesty's Attorney-general thought proper to resist a motion for the repeal of one act out of six, to the passing of which he had been hostile in 1819—an act too, be it remembered, which was confessedly that to which the slightest opposition was made—he was therefore to be considered as approving of the whole mass of the measures which had been opposed, not only by himself, but by most of his hon. friends who were now present, as also by those who were absent, and on whose absence the right hon. gentleman, for some purpose which he did not understand, had commented with great severity. For himself, he hoped, that those of the six acts which were unrepealed would not long remain so; and, in making that remark, he particularly referred to the bill which rendered an individual twice convicted of libel, subject to transportation. He confessed that a great deal of his confidence in his majesty's government would depend on the manner in which they dealt with that act—an act which he should ever deem fatal to the liberty of the subject and the freedom of the press. With regard to the repeal of this particular bill, after his learned friend's declaration, that he wanted time for inquiry into the practical results of it, he must say that it was matter of little moment whether it were 1074 either repealed or discussed, during the present session; and, therefore, he thought that those gentlemen, whose absence the right hon. gentleman had so severely arraigned, might be excused for their non-attendance, seeing that the time of discussing this motion was of such very little importance. With regard to the general mass of measures brought forward by the government in 1819, he could not help asking the right hon. gentleman how it happened that, when upon a former night he was making an exposition to the House of the motives which had induced him to resign his office as Home Secretary, and giving an account of what he had done whilst in that office, he had not taken credit to himself, for not renewing some of them which had expired?
§ Lord Milton .
—That gives me the very point which I wish to make out against the right hon. gentleman. If the right hon. gentleman takes credit to himself for not renewing certain acts, it could not have been very creditable to him to have originated those acts.
§ Lord Milton .
—If the right hon. gentleman did not think it expedient to renew them, it is quite evident that the measures, though temporary in their enactment, were not such has he could have had either pleasure or credit in enacting. The measures, for which the right hon, gentleman seemed to think that he bad that night made a most triumphant defence, were infringements on the liberty of the subject, and inconsistent with the spirit of the constitution. The bill which the hon. member now sought to repeal was so perfectly unimportant, that he did not know whether he should give himself the trouble of waiting in the House to see the determination to which it might come.
thought it was a little unfair, on the part of the right hon. gentleman, to attribute to the Attorney-general approbation of the whole six acts, because he had not expressed unequivocal disapprobation of one of them. He begged to recall to the House, that he had himself moved for the repeal of two of those acts. He had not included the act under consideration in his motion, because he did not at that time, nor did he at present, think that its total repeal was necessary. 1075 But, although he was not disposed to support the total repeal of this bill, there were clauses in it which he thought might be advantageously got rid of. The bill was divided into two parts. The first related to the revenue, and put small periodical pamphlets on the same footing as newspapers. As far as the act sought to attain that end, it was unobjectionable. The hon. member for Aberdeen had not made out any case in favour of those pamphlets which he had so warmly recommended. He knew of no merit they possessed, sufficient to withdraw them from the operation of this act; on the contrary, when he reflected on the manner in which they had abused the real freedom of the press, he thought it was well applied to them. The second part of the act he considered to be objectionable. He particularly referred to two clauses; of which one called upon the printers or publishers of pamphlets to enter into recognizances before they commenced either printing or publishing; and the other gave to any justice of the peace power to call upon any person charged before him, with the printing or publishing of a seditious or blasphemous libel, to enter into recognizances for his good behaviour, until the time of trial of the alleged libel. He had stated his opinions so frequently on the subject of the freedom of the press, that he deemed it unnecessary to repeat them. He would take advantage of the present opportunity to state, that he deemed it his duty, as a friend to liberal principles, to give his support to the present administration.
§ Sir R. Wilson
said, that, whilst he admired the motives which had induced the right hon. member for Oxford to pass his laboured eulogium on the memory of his colleague, the late marquis of Londonderry, he could not think that the passing of such an eulogium was in the best taste; seeing that it must almost inevitably provoke a discussion, which, for various reasons, it was advisable to avoid. This was the first time, since the event of lord Londonderry's death, that he had ever heard any discussion raised in parliament on the merits of his political character. There had been a delicacy observed on the subject, arising out of feelings to which he would not further allude. The noble lord who had spoken from the other side of the House, had said, and with truth, that the right hon. member for Oxford, in his exposition of his conduct on a former night, 1076 had adverted, with a just and laudable pride, to the manner in which he had preserved the peace of the country, under circumstances of great difficulty, danger, and distress. The reason why the right hon. gentleman had so adverted to his conduct, was evident to the slightest observer: he felt the contrast, and he knew that the country would also feel the contrast, between the measures adopted by himself and those adopted by his predecessor. He had never fled in time of danger to those suspensions of the Habeas Corpus act, and those other measures of violence, which the late marquis of Londonderry seemed to consider the conservative principles of the British constitution. He was entitled to full credit for the policy which he had pursued; and he knew that that credit would be given to him by all his countrymen, who reflected on the difference between his measures and those of his noble predecessor. With regard to the present motion, he considered it to be one which deserved the serious deliberation of the Attorney-general during the recess. The repeal of it would, in his opinion, give additional popularity to the administration, and would be useful in that respect, not only to the administration, but also to the public, whose welfare he conceived to be intimately connected with its success. For that reason he should oppose the present motion. He regretted that that hon. member should have pursued the course which he had pursued that night, after he had pledged himself to him (sir R. Wilson) in private, that he would suspend his motion for the present session, if asked to do so by the Attorney-general. He left the House to judge what that hon. member's feelings must be. For himself, he would not pursue that subject further, lest he should express himself towards the hon. member with too strong feelings of reprobation. He (sir R. Wilson) had come to the ministerial side of the House, not by that circuitous path which gentlemen generally followed in moving from one side to the other, but boldly and unblushingly, at once [hear, and a laugh], because he had come with the colours of liberal principles flying, to support a ministry, formed for the purpose of uniting the prerogative of the king with the liberty of the people, and which was pledged to pursue a course of policy, alike calculated to ensure the prosperity of the country, and to maintain those principles 1077 unimpaired on which its honour and glory could alone safely repose. It was the consciousness that such a ministry was now in existence, that had led the Catholics of Ireland to suspend their claims for the present, and to trust for redress to the justice and wisdom of those in power. It was the consciousness that their clearest interests were no longer in jeopardy, that had led the reformers of Great Britain to suspend their efforts, and to satisfy themselves with the good which would inevitably flow from the general measures of government. It was the consciousness of the liberal tendency of the measures of administration, that had lately determined the Dissenters to suspend their prayers and applications for a redress of grievances; and it was that same consciousness which led him to oppose all motions calculated to embarrass the government, no matter whether they came from an open foe, or, from what was more detestable, an insidious friend. He came to the House prepared to defend the government, either from open assault, or invidious attacks, which were calculated to prejudice its character, and to produce a schism among its supporters, which could not fail to be injurious to the best interests of the country. For these reasons, he should also give a direct negative to the motion.
§ Mr. Canning
said, that although his hon. and learned friend, the Attorney-general, had already disposed of the question before the House, he was anxious to explain the reasons why he resisted the present motion. If it were contended, that every gentleman in that House was bound, by any vote he might chance to give in the progress of a measure, to continue to oppose or to uphold that measure, as the case might be, for all time to come, when it was passed into a law, the inevitable consequence would be, as in the present instance, to debar individuals from the free exercise of their judgment. The hon. member who brought forward this motion had observed, that a partial change of ministers ought to produce a partial change of measures. But if this principle were pursued to its utmost extent—if it were true, that every man, because he had supported or opposed a measure in its progress, was bound to continue to support or oppose it after it had passed into a law, the consequence would be, as the hon. member contended in the present instance, that a partial change of govern- 1078 ment ought to be accompanied by a partial change of measures, and that a total change of ministers should be followed by an entire sweeping away of all the former acts of government. Now, it appeared to him, that to expect that gentlemen were constantly to adhere, under all circumstances and times, to an opinion once expressed, was about as reasonable as it would be to address his learned friend, the Attorney-general, who, in his capacity of advocate, excelled all other men, and to demand of him, although a judge and jury had decided against his opinion, because he had, in his opening speech, expressed that opinion, still to adhere to and defend it. Would it be just to say to him, "Though the judge has charged against you—though the jury have decided against you—though the public hold that decision to be correct—notwithstanding all these things, I shall keep you to the expressions you made use of in your opening speed: you shall not change your first opinion; and I hold you at my call to come forward to support your former arguments, however fallacious you may conceive them to have been, and to deny the justice of the decision itself." If experience were to go for nothing—if the fixing of the law on the Statute-book were to go for nothing—if the sense of the country were to go for nothing—if the oblivion of the country as to the circumstances under which these laws were passed (an oblivion which the hon. gentleman had disturbed, by calling back the memory to times of danger) were to go for nothing—then there might be some show of reason in blaming those persons who had objected to the enactment of the bill, for not supporting the present motion. But it was, in his opinion, utterly preposterous to recur to the origin of this law—to go to the Statute-book, and then to call for its repeal, merely on the ground that it had been strongly opposed at the period of its enactment. Did he then mean to say, that if this statute had disappointed the public—if it had been injurious to society—if, in its operation, it had created greater evils than it was meant to remedy—did he mean to say, if such were the case, that because the bill had passed into a law it was therefore to stand? He asserted no such thing. What he said was, that this question of repeal must stand on its own grounds with respect to this motion; and must not be considered with reference to the opposition which the 1079 bill had encountered in its progress, or to the success of that opposition. The question, therefore, was, not how this law originated, but whether, in the law itself, there was any thing so absurd, so mischievous, or so inconvenient, that parliament was called on, at that precise moment, to interfere, for the purpose of repealing it. The argument of the hon. member for Aberdeen was, that this statute ought to be repealed, because it was part and parcel of the system of laws which had been passed at the same time; one portion of which was perishable, whilst another portion was intended to remain and continue in force: and he contended, that the mortality of the perishable part ought to extend to that part which the legislature wished to survive. This was an argument so inaccessible to his mind and judgment, that he knew not how to deal with it. The contrary of this proposition was, he thought, the true one. If all the laws, thus passed together, were necessarily connected, and one of them failed, or proved injurious, then he could understand why any hon. member might demand the repeal of them all; because it might be inferred, either that the principle of the original enactment was wrong, or that it was useless or mischievous in its operation. But how stood the case here? Some of those laws were thought fit to exist as part of the legislation of the country, whilst others were suffered to die, because they grew out of peculiar circumstances. Parliament clearly saw the situation of the country; and therefore provided, that the operation of a part of those laws should cease at a particular moment. The legislature anticipated the difficulties that might arise, at the time those laws were discussed; and therefore, they had sanctioned some of them as temporary measures, while others were deemed fit to remain permanently on the Statute-book. Now he would ask, whether there was in this law any thing so practically objectionable as to call on parliament to repeal it; and at a moment, too, when the voice of the country was never more silent with respect to its existence? He really believed that it Would be necessary to go from one end of the country to the other, and to tell the people that this law existed, before they could get them to express any opinion about it; and he further believed, that more wanton incitement to a knowledge 1080 of, and a dissatisfaction with, the law, could not be found in parliamentary precedent, than was furnished by the motion of the hon. member. The hon. member had argued, that this law infringed upon the liberty of the press, and shackled the exertions of public writers. One would suppose, from the statement of the hon. member that, if a man had been absent from this country for ten years, and were to revisit it at this time, he would exclaim—"The people are suffering under the most dreadful grievance: the liberty of the press is destroyed: no public man is now talked of: there is no private scandal published: I wander about this town and hear nothing of any body! The press is absolutely broken up: no type, no paper is left." Such was the grievance which, according to the statement of the hon. member, the people of this country laboured under, and, in common with himself, felt most deeply; and he called on parliament to remove the grievance by repealing this bill. But, how would the success of his motion assist the rational liberty of the press? To solve that question, they must look to the provisions of the act which were directed against blasphemous publications. To come within its enactments, some party must call out "Let us have some blasphemous publications," then those publications must be less than two sheets; and lastly, the author himself must value the product of his brain under sixpence. These were the three points contained in the bill which the hon. member wished to repeal. It referred to blasphemous, two-sheeted, and under-sixpenny publications. In order to remedy this, which the hon. member considered as a mighty evil, he called on parliament to undo its own solemn and well-considered act. Yes; he called on the members of that House to put their hands to the hallowed work by which blasphemous, low-priced, and small-sized publications were to be disseminated through the country. But, could not the provisions of this bill be evaded? Could not the adventurous publisher come out on the twenty-eighth instead of the twenty-sixth day? Could he not "screw his courage to the sticking-place." charge sixpence-halfpenny, and thus escape the enactment of the law? He again begged the House to bear in mind, that the law only affected those who dealt in blasphemous publications. He thought that, at the present day, the people of England 1081 could not complain that any great degree of restraint was placed on the press. There was not that sort of deficiency of abuse and vituperation thrown out by the press, as to render it necessary that this new sluice of annoyance should be opened. He believed that at no former time was there such a body of useful and valuable information disseminated amongst the people, at so cheap a rate, or received by them with so much avidity. It was certainly the fact, that the present times differed materially from those in which the law impugned by the hon. member was framed; and perhaps the change might be attributed, in a great degree, to the operation of that law. They had now all the advantages of a free press, purged from some of that mischief which the law now under discussion was specially provided to meet; and he, valuing a free press as highly as any man, would not consent to poison a wholesome stream, by the admission of a foul current, which had happily been dammed up.
§ Lord Howick
expressed himself surprised at the remarkable discrepancy between the sentiments uttered by many gentlemen on this occasion, and those which they had been in the habit of expressing so strenuously before they had quitted the Opposition side of the House. He thought it essential that the House should assent to the motion. He could not agree, that this was a measure of little importance. The act was productive of great mischief. The clause which enacted banishment was disgraceful to the character of the country; and it pressed equally upon proper and improper works; for no man could guide himself clearly by the law of libel as it then stood.
§ Sir J. Newport
said, that the restraints with respect to small publications, which it was the object of the hon. member to remove, applied equally to newspapers; and if he did not maintain, that the restraints with respect to newspapers should also be removed, he had no ground to stand upon.
observed, that at an early period of the session, the learned member for Winchelsea expressed a hope that this measure would be repealed. He was sorry that, instead of a bill for the repeal of this act, the motion had not been for a bill to amend it. He, however, should support the motion, because it was not sufficient to state, that no practical inconvenience 1082 had been felt from the bill: it was enough to know, that the principles on which it was founded were decidedly bad.
§ Mr. Hume,
in reply, observed, that his gallant friend had said, that he was ready either to oppose an open enemy, or an insidious friend. He hoped the gallant officer would always do so; but he could assure him, that neither of the terms applied to him. In bringing forward the motion he had not broken any pledge. He was ready to have abandoned the motion, if the Attorney-general had promised that he would introduce it next session. He had committed no breach of faith; for he had fairly stated that he should be compelled to submit his motion to the House, unless the Attorney-general promised to take the subject up. He would read to the House his letter to the Attorney-general, and then they could judge whether he had acted fairly. The hon. member then read the letter, in which he stated, that "he must bring the motion forward, unless the Attorney-general consented to take it out of his hands, by moving for the repeal himself, and thereby securing to the new administration that popularity which such a measure would produce." Was there any thing unfair in this? His conduct in that House, or any where else, should always be such as would bear investigation. He argued the question on general principles; and, if general principles were not to be considered in discussing a measure of this kind, it was impossible that acts of parliament could ever be debated. He saw no part of this bill which the Attorney-general could fairly maintain, if he held those principles which he entertained when he sat on the Opposition side of the House; for all its enactments trenched on the liberty of the subject, and restricted the freedom of the press. The bill went, in fact, to maintain a strict censorship. It was ridiculous to say, that few persons, except himself, were cognizant of the existence of this measure; but, if it were true that the people and parliament of England had forgotten it, still he should pride himself, as the only man in the country, who had adhered to his opinion, and kept the subject in view. He believed, however, that the right hon. gentleman moved in a circle where public opinion was not known, and which was frequented by those who rather wished to pamper his vanity than to give him useful information. He should take the sense of the House 1083 upon his motion. If the present ministers wished to preserve the good opinion of the country, they could take no course more certain, than by removing every shackle from the liberty of the press.
§ Lord W. Russell
said, he must oppose the motion, although with regret, as it gave a seeming contradiction to that which had been the tenor of his whole life—the support of public liberty in its most extended sense. He was not in that House when the six acts were passed; but he was opposed to them; with the exception of the one under discussion; and that he was friendly to, because he felt that blasphemous publications ought not to be circulated.
The House divided: Ayes 10; Noes 120.
|Dawson, A.||Pelham, C.|
|Ferguson, sir R.||Warburton, H.|
|Hobhouse, J. C.||Wood, John|
|Maitland, capt.||Hume, J.|
|Monck, J. B.||Wood, alderman|