HC Deb 20 May 1828 vol 19 cc846-55

On the order of the day for the second reading of this bill,

Sir R. Fergusson

said, he felt himself placed in a most difficult and disagreeable situation, by something that had occurred since the last time of his discharging his duty in the House. He referred to "an Account of certain Proceedings stated to have taken place on the bringing-up of the Report of the Committee on the Bill now under consideration." That account had taken a more authentic form than usual, and imputed to those who voted in the minority, on the grant to the family of the late Mr. Canning motives of a very improper nature. It was remarkable that the Report did not appear on the day after the proceedings, but on a subsequent one. In the account alluded to, the hon. member for Limerick was represented to have imputed to the opponents of the grants motives of a very singular nature, and to allege, that they must be influenced either by a foolish idea of saving money, or by the personal feelings of the worst kind towards the memory of Mr. Canning. He knew not to which of these two classes he might be thought to belong by the hon. member, but contented himself with saying, that as an humble individual he had given his vote on that occasion with a clear conscience, and from upright motives—motives which he considered as honourable and defensible, as any that had ever influenced a vote in that House. God forbid he should follow the example that had been set, or attribute improper motives to any man for the observations alluded to; but if he could stoop to retaliation, perhaps those motives might be questioned. He trusted he might say deliberately then, that in reference to the character of that great and distinguished man (Mr. Canning), he should be the last person who would speak with any slight or disrespect whatever. When an attack had been made, and imputations thrown out relative to the motives by which he had been influenced in giving the vote which he did upon the subject in question—when he, in common with others, was taunted for the course taken by them on that occasion—he was justified in repelling the accusation; but he did not see that he was now called on to say one word in explanation of his reasons for giving that vote. In vindication of his conduct, he should merely say, that he gave the vote conscientiously, honestly, and uprightly; and he could not but complain of a transaction which took place in the absence of, perhaps, every member of the minority whose conduct was questioned; at least when few or none of them were present. The proceedings took place on the Wednesday and were not made public till the following Friday. An attack appeared to have been made on an hon. member by his noble friend, who he was sure made it in an honest feeling; but he had no doubt that attack was the worst judged in the world, even with reference to the character of Mr. Canning himself. He was sorry that any thing had been said, calculated to bring in question for a moment the character of Mr. Canning, for whose talents he had the greatest respect; at the same time, he could conscientiously say he was influenced in his vote by the purest motives.

Mr. Spring Rice

said, he had hesitated offering himself to the House for a few moments, because he understood that there was another charge to be brought against him, which he should show arose from misapprehension, and which he regretted. He therefore wished to reserve himself until he had heard what that other charge was.

Mr. Legh Keck

said, he was, he believed, the member to whom the hon. gentleman alluded. In the few observations he should make to the House, it was unnecessary for him to state that he discharged every personal feeling, and meant no disrespect to the hon. member for Limerick. His complaint was, that in the character of a member of parliament lie had been subjected to imputations which he denied. In the independent discharge of his duty in that House, he had never assigned, undue motives to others, nor acted from improper motives himself. If there was any imputed impropriety in his vote of Wednesday, he was ready to vindicate it; but he preferred that it should pass in silence. He had never given a vote which he was afraid to vindicate; and if necessary, no motives of delicacy towards any man should prevent him from speaking. He should preface what he had to say by declaring unequivocally an admiration of the talents of Mr. Canning, and a decided acknowledgment of his amiable qualities. A long acquaintance with Mr. Canning had satisfied him, that he possessed very amiable qualities. But if it was allowed to public men to criticise the measures of public men, highly as he esteemed the merits of Mr. Canning, he must avow, that during the latter period of his life, he had not been able to bestow upon him the same degree of admiration as he formerly entertained. But in avowing this, he must express his astonishment that any member should assign to others motives which, if proved, would not only show that they had forgotten their duty in that House, but that they deserved to be excluded the society of gentlemen. He did not know whether he could show the exact nature of his complaint, unless he read the terms in which the subject of his complaint had been stated. The gallant member opposite had referred to the circumstances under which this debate had come before the public. It did not appear on Thursday, but on Friday; and he never saw the ground of his complaint until Saturday. The only part of the report of that debate which seemed to refer to him, was the following:—The hon. member opposite (Mr. S. Rice), after observing that an opportunity would not return again, went on to say, that "the opposition to this bill would have astonished him any where; but in the House of Commons, the theatre of Mr. Canning's exertions, the field in which his genius displayed itself, and where, during the present session, men of all parties here felt the miserable blank made by his loss—that in this House an objection should have been made to a grant like this, was to him a matter of astonishment, to use no stronger word. But he wished to distinguish the two classes of whom the opponents of this measure consisted. The economists of money might perhaps think themselves warranted in refusing any grant, however deserved, if they considered that the finances of the country would not afford such expenditure. In this he could not concur; for he could not admit that England was in a position in which the reward of eminent services must be refused. Let it not be said that military glory, and death in action, were the only events that, could call forth and justify national gratitude. Civil worth, if eminent, belonged to as high a class of exertions; and men might die, as Mr. Canning did, for their country, without falling by the sword. But there were economists of another school, who objected to this vote—economists of good feeling—persons who wished to apply retrenchment to sympathy and gratitude, and who were desirous of reducing all generous and honourable impulse; with them he would hold no connexion, and by them was the minority chiefly composed [hear, hear]; discontented agriculturists, who revenged themselves for the Corn-bill by their vote [hear], and who marked their disapproval of Mr. Canning's liberal policy, by denying this pittance to his children." Now, he quite agreed, that even in the present state of our finances, we were in a condition to reward the services of any man who should fall in the service of the country, and he was quite sure that the country would require it to be done; if the hon. member knew any individual who would object, from the motive? assigned, let him point him out. He was not that individual, nor did he know who was. The only satisfaction he had, arose from a communication on this subject which he had had with a person who had communicated with the hon. member for Limerick; and he had received an assurance, as he felt himself aggrieved, that there was nothing intended to be generally offensive. The terms were general; but it was gratifying to him to find, that no individual, or number of individuals, were intended to be included in that sweeping remark. He would leave it to the hon. member for Limerick to explain. During the many years he had sat in that House, he had shewn a reluctance to address it. A painful sense of duty obliged him to say, that not unfrequently there had been a tone of intimidation employed towards members, and which was but too prevalent in the report which he had read, which would tend to prevent members delivering their sentiments. This was a subject which required consideration on the part of the House. He would now say a few words on the reasons of Iris vote on that occasion. He gave his vote because he did not conceive that, on the part of Mr. Canning, there was a full and complete claim to the grant; and he regretted it. It was not on the ground of pitiful economy, nor from the base motive which had been imputed, that he so voted; but on the ground of the state of the country, in reference to the merits of the individual. He never wished to conceal the grounds of his vote; and however painful it might be to declare them, he could not remain under the imputation of acting from unworthy motives.

Mr. Spring Rice

thanked the hon. member for the manner in which he had made his statement, and should, he hoped, satisfactorily reply to his observations. And first, he must express his regret, that any thing he might have said should have been mixed up with a question of this delicacy and personal interest. He wished that any hon. gentleman, having any objection to make to him, had made it to himself alone, without mixing it up with the discussion of such a question as this. If there had been any blame in the affair, it should rest exclusively and entirely on him, and not attach to the question before the House. There might be some irregularity in the proceedings which had taken place on this subject; but he rejoiced, that the hon. gentleman had read the passage of which he complained, because he therein knew the full amount of the charge against him. He thought he should be borne out by the testimony of members on both sides of the House, when he said, that he had endeavoured, upon all occasions, even though engaged in questions which called forth asperity, to avoid any step which could hurt any individual, much more any class of individuals in that House. The House would allow him to recall to it the circumstances of this case. It so happened, that on that night a noble lord had stated, that his objection to the vote did not arise in any degree from economical principles, but specifically from his dislike to the principles of Mr. Canning. He (Mr. S. Rice) then separated the opposition into two classes, and stated, that an objection might be made to the vote on the ground of economy; or it might be objected to upon constitutional grounds. Many might object to the precedent, without objecting to the end of the grant or to the policy of Mr. Canning. These reasons he considered to form a specific ground of objection, distinct from others. This was not imputing motives, but distinguishing the classes of opposition; that of the noble lord being connected with the personal character of Mr. Canning. There had not been a single word read by the hon. member, with reference to the deep disappointment he had felt at what had occurred on that occasion, which he was not ready to re-state in as strong a manner. With respect to the second class, could the hon. member think that he threw out, or intended to throw out, a reflection upon the agricultural interest? That was what he understood was implied. Why, it was the very class to which he belonged, which he respected, and could have no possible motive whatever to disparage; and if he had, there never was a time in which that class more nobly conducted themselves than on that occasion. He appealed to the example of the hon. member for Somerset (sir T. Lethbridge) who said, that although he objected to Mr. Canning's policy, he felt it due to his genius and his talents to give his entire concurrence in the vote, which was an act of gratitude for the brilliant services of that great man. Was it to be believed, that he in the face of that declaration, should select that moment to cause irritation by an attack on the agricultural body? He never made any such attack, and he was truly sorry that such a misapprehension should have arisen. But it might be said, "If you did not mean that, what did you mean?" The hon. member had referred to past debates, and if he did so too, the fault was not his; he was thrown upon his defence, and must avail himself of every legitimate means of resistance. He had not heard the speech to which he now alluded when it took place, which enabled him to discuss it with more composure. He had not the honour of being a friend or connexion of Mr. Canning; he had never had any intercourse with him, except at social meetings; but even in his slight intercourse he had witnessed the benevolent feelings which he manifested towards all those who were near him. He could not but feel a grateful recollection of him: and when he found, that, in the face of England and of that House, that great man was so treated—when he found that an opportunity was taken to go over his whole life, not with the minute skill of an anatomist and dissector of a dead subject, but of a living subject, for his family was living, —and the fame and character of Mr. Canning made less in the public view,—when what he had done, and what he had not done, was made the subject of a charge against him, he owned his blood had boiled, although he was no friend or con- nexion of Mr. Canning. He acted under the influence of such feelings, and perhaps —[Here the hon. member passed rapidly to another subject.] But all the censure which had been passed upon his memory was not for acts which Mr. Canning had done, but which the House had sanctioned. Yet obloquy was heaped upon him. He therefore felt, as a man and as a member of parliament, indignant that such a course of proceeding should be pursued, not against the living but the dead, and which, if the individual had been living, the House would have heard little of. If Mr. Canning was the individual who had produced all that lavish expenditure which had embarrassed the country, why were the persons who made the charge backward in bringing it forward? If it was true now, it ought to have been urged when he was alive. If Mr. Canning sent an army into Portugal, he was not alone to blame. It was not sufficient to charge Mr. Canning as principal; the House were his accessories, and the nation his supporters. It was under the influence of that speech, that he (Mr. Spring Rice) had made the observations which fell from him. He had no intention to impute to any class of men improper motives. It might be, that some gentlemen voted against the grant, on the ground that Mr. Canning had not extended sufficient protection to the agricultural interest; but that was no reason why they should quarrel with him (Mr. Rice). If he had, on a former night, stated his sentiments stronger than circumstances bore him out in doing, he could only say that he spoke under the influence of excited feelings, the same feelings which at present moved him. Those feelings he would never retract. He might here observe, that other matters which had occurred in that House with closed doors, after the gallery was cleared for a division, had found their way before the public. The speeches of the hon. member for Essex, and of the gallant commander-in-chief for Ireland, after the gallery was cleared, were laid before the public. His gallant friend was in error if he supposed that he was concerned in the publication of the proceedings alluded to, to the extent to which his observations would apply. On all occasions he had looked to the influence of Mr. Canning in the state, to his commanding powers and extraordinary abilities, as the glory of England; and he would not shrink from de- claring his opinion on that point, under any possible circumstances. He had no opportunity of stating these sentiments while Mr. Canning was living and invested with power. He had never declared them, directly or indirectly, for the purpose of acquiring power himself. What he had said was intended as a tribute to the memory of Mr. Canning, and to discharge the feelings of his heart. His gallant friend had made use of a word which he wished had been spared, or if not, that it had been employed in a more explicit manner. He had said, that when he (Mr. Rice) spoke of personal motives, something might be done in the way of retaliation. He desired that the House should be set right upon this point. It could not be from motives of personal interest that he had defended the memory of the deceased statesman. What interest could he conciliate by doing so? He had acted only under the impulse of feelings. If those feelings were right, he cared not for the manner in which they had been expressed: at the same time, if he had said any thing which offended the feelings of any one he was sorry for it; but he would go no further than that.

Sir R. Fergusson

said, he merely stated, as a general proposition, that when personal motives were attributed to an opponent, it would provoke retaliation.

Mr. G. Bankes

said, that the observations of the hon. member for Limerick might excuse, if they did not call for, a few observations from him. He had given one vote on the question of the proposed grant. That vote was one of the most painful he had ever given in that House. For his part, he not only fully recognized the proposition that the dead ought to be treated with respect and reverence, but he would extend it even to the absent. He must, however, say, that the hon. member for Limerick had lost sight of that generous principle when he indulged in remarks on two absent members, which could not fail to be most painful to them if reported to their ears. With respect to the noble marquis (Chandos) who had been alluded to, he could state, that he was engaged on public business in the county to which he belonged. Had that circumstance been known to the hon. member for Limerick, he probably would have postponed some of the observations he had made. After all the explanations which the hon. member had offered, he could not think that he was justified in using the language complained of. When the hon. member talked of the member for Dorsetshire, dragging forward the conduct of Mr. Canning, did he think that he put the case in a fair point of view? Was the member for Dorsetshire, or was any other member, who, in the discharge of his duty opposed the grant, to be considered as having dragged forward the conduct of Mr. Canning? The proposition called for a review of the public character of the individual to whom it referred. The public conduct of Mr. Canning was the very groundwork of the proposition. [An expression of dissent]. He was aware that the friends of the deceased minister asked for the vote, not as a charitable grant, but as an act of justice; but he could not help deprecating the assertion, that hon. members had dragged Mr. Canning's conduct forward with a view of exposing it to public odium. With respect to the hon. member's explanation, he had better not have alluded to the charges brought against him at all, or have made his defence more complete than he had done. The hon. member had not answered the question of the gallant general; namely, whether he was not directly cognizant of the mode in which particular circumstances which had taken place within the walls of that House, had been transmitted to publication. He thought it was greatly to be lamented that the statement of what had occurred in that House should have been made public, not only on account of the sentiments which it attributed to the hon. member, but of those attributed to a noble lord (Palmerston), which were calculated to wound the feelings of those who had taken part in the former discussion on the vote.

Mr. Secretary Peel

expressed a hope that as the party interested in the discussion on a former evening had now been heard, the irregular conversation would be permitted to drop. Further discussion would only engender feelings ill suited to the consideration of a question of that nature. For his own part, he would repeat, that he cordially concurred in the vote.

Lord Nugent

lamented, that any personal feelings should be mingled with this question. It had been his fate to have opposed Mr. Canning on a variety of questions, and particularly on that of parliamentary reform, but nevertheless he thought this small tribute was due to the memory of that lamented statesman; nor did he think that this vote would operate as a precedent; for though he had ever been an advocate for economy, he considered that the making a provision for the family of a deceased public servant, operated as a stimulus to public men to use their best endeavours in the service of their country.

Lord Ashley

thought that this vote did not pledge the House to approve of any part of Mr. Canning's political life. It was merely intended as a remuneration to his family for the injury done to his and to their private fortune during a long course of public service. He had opposed Mr. Canning during the last years of his life, and he should probably be in opposition to him were he now alive; but he had never allowed private feelings to enter into his opposition [hear, hear]. He opposed Mr. Canning as a politician, and not as a father or a husband, and he would as soon refuse to give him credit for his private virtues, as he would oppose this vote on account of any errors committed by him in his political life.

Mr. W. Smith

said, he had been opposed to Mr. Canning on many occasions, but he considered that his public conduct during the two last years of his life was a legitimate ground for supporting the vote, even on the part of those who had previously opposed his measures. It was degrading to the character of the House to suffer personal feelings to interfere with an act of public justice. He agreed with his noble friend that it would tend greatly to raise the character of public men, and induce them to apply their energies to the service of their country, if they knew that their families would be provided for by the public generosity.

Mr. Lennard

expressed his cordial assent to the measure.

Mr. Hume

rose amidst cries of "Oh !" and declared that he would take the sense of the House on the next stage of the bill.

The bill was read a second time.