HC Deb 19 July 1831 vol 5 cc16-28
Mr. James E. Gordon

presented a Petition from twenty-eight Ministers, and 111 Elders of the Kirk of Scotland, resident in Glasgow, praying that no further Grant be made for the support of the Roman Catholic College at Maynooth.

Mr. O'Connell

.—Will the hon. Member be answerable for the respectful terms of this petition? I ask this question, because a noble Lord presented a similar petition, a few days ago, full of such gross indecency against the Catholic religion as cannot be tolerated. If the hon. Member will not be answerable for it, I must have it read at length by the Clerk.

Mr. James E. Gordon

.—I not only approve of the phraseology of this petition, but of every sentiment which it contains, and I shall be glad to have it read at length to the House.

Mr. O'Connell

.—I am quite sure, that the hon. Member will concur in every sentiment of the petition which derogates from the rites of the Catholic religion.

The Speaker

—"Order, order."

Mr. O'Connell

.—I am not aware that I am out of order; but if I am, I am so unintentionally.

[The petition was then read at length; it described the Roman Catholic religion as an idolatrous religion, highly objectionable on principle, and dangerous in result, which was marked out for destruction by God, along with the kingdoms which supported it. It was therefore argued, that any grant of public money to countenance and propagate its errors must be attended with the most prejudicial consequences to the safety, honour, and welfare, of the British empire.]

The Speaker

.—Mr. Gordon, what do you move?

Mr. James E. Gordon,

that it be laid on the Table.

Mr. Cutlar Ferguson

could not give words to the feelings of indignation which the inflammatory language of this petition had excited in his mind. He looked upon it as a direct insult to every Member of that Parliament which had granted to the Roman Catholics an equality of rights with their fellow-citizens. He particularly condemned the application of the word "idolatrous" to a religion which was followed by the inhabitants of more than half the States of Europe. The application of such a term to the Catholic religion, was equally at variance with the fact, and with every just and liberal sentiment. He had believed that there was no clergyman of the Church of Scotland who would have lost sight of Christian charity so far as to put his name to such a petition; and he was sure, that there were few Gentlemen in that House, besides the hon. Member himself, by whom its sentiments would be sanctioned. He thought, that the education of Catholics deserved protection from the Government, and hoped that it would meet with it. He was sorry, as a Scotchman, that such a petition had been presented from any set of men in Scotland; and he really believed, that the hon. member for Dundalk had been requested to present it, because the petitioners could not find one single Member connected with Scotland who would condescend to take charge of it, much less to accompany it with any opprobrious remarks on the Catholic religion.

Lord Milton

was not surprised at the very natural indignation with which the hon. and learned member for Kirkcudbright had expressed himself upon this occasion. He rose, however, as a peacemaker upon this question between the hon. and learned Member opposite, and the hon. member for Dundalk. He hoped that the hon. Member near him (Mr. Gordon) would give to this petition his mature and most Christian consideration. He hoped that the hon. Member would consider whether the expressions which it contained were not more consistent with sectarian zeal, than with Christian charity. The petition stated, that the Catholic religion was marked out for destruction by the Divine will, along with the kingdoms which supported it. How could such frail and ignorant beings—he would not say as the petitioners, but as men in general were—how could the hon. Member himself know anything of the future designs of infinite and omnipotent wisdom? Supposing, however, that this statement of the petition were true, what necessity was there for the House to interfere with the designs of Providence, as the petitioners requested? With regard to religion, he was himself, if he might be permitted to use such a phrase, an ultra-Protestant; but knowing the infirmity of human judgment, he bore with patience what he believed to be the erroneous but conscientious opinions of those who differed from him on points of faith and doctrine. He was sorry to say, that men had often enough of religious zeal to hate one another; he sincerely wished, that they had enough religious charity to teach them to love one another. He was sure, that it would not conduce to the peace of society to encourage in petitions the condemnation of religious opinions, to which, in all probability, those who condemned them had not given any consideration,

Mr. Dixon,

as the petition came from the city he had the honour to represent, could not do otherwise than state, that there were no men of higher and purer feelings than the members of the Church of Scotland. At the same time he participated so strongly in the feelings of the noble member for Northamptonshire, that he would take the sense of the House as to this very disrespectful and inflammatory petition being laid on the Table. He contended that no men of liberal feelings or Christian charity could give utterance to the doctrines contained in the petition.

Mr. Cresset Pelham

said, the question was, whether they could receive this petition, which prayed for the withholding a grant from a certain establishment. As they had received other petitions with the same prayer, the consideration now was, whether the wording of the petition was proper or not. He thought the noble Lord had gone a little too far in describing it as an attack generally upon the Catholic religion, which the noble Lord himself, at the same time, called erroneous. He thought it would be better if subjects of this kind were left to the other House of Parliament, where individuals better acquainted with the Divine law than they could pretend to be, might discuss them. He, as well as the petitioners, dissented from the doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope, which, if not idolatrous, was, at least, a very mischievous doctrine.

Sir G. Clerk

regretted, as much as any Member of that House, that such intemperate expressions should be contained in the petition. Yet as this would be the first time in which the House had ever rejected a petition because the petitioners differed from it on speculative opinions—the greater proportion of the petitioners being the clergy of Glasgow, who entertained the objections they had stated, from a conviction of the truth of that religion of which they were the ministers—he hoped, that the hon. member for Glasgow would withdraw his proposition, rather than raise so awkward a question. The prayer of the petition was, to stop the grant to Maynooth College, and the great object of the petitioners was, to check the progress of religious errors; and the statements that certain doctrines were erroneous, and marked out by the Scriptures for vengeance, were not sufficient grounds for rejecting their petition.

Sir R. Inglis

observed, that the terms in this petition, against which such an outcry had been raised, were the terms of the oath which 658 Members of that House had sworn to, only two years ago. Even at present, the Sovereign, before he could take his seat on the Throne, was obliged to take an oath in terms much stronger than those used by the petitioners. Under such circumstances it would appear strange to reject the petition.

Mr. O'Connell

said, that the only question in this case was this—"is the petition respectfully worded to the House?" because there could be no doubt that the presentation of a petition against the grant to the College of Maynooth was regular enough. In reply to an hon. Gentleman, who had asserted, that Roman Catholics believed in the infallibility of the Pope, he would remark, that they had sworn, over and over again, they believed no such thing. The hon. Member, therefore, knew nothing of the religion he condemned. What he quarrelled with in the language of the petition was, the assertion that his religion was idolatrous. He was a Member of the House; the petition was, therefore, addressed to him along with other Members; and would the hon. member for Oxford tell him, if a man were to accost him in the street, and say to him, "Mr. O'Connell, your religion is idolatrous," that such conduct would be either civil or respectful? He would venture to tell the hon. member for Oxford, that his religion was as little idolatrous as that which was professed at the celebrated University, which the hon. Baronet so admirably represented. For his own part, he thought that that man's religion was little to be respected when it did not teach him to respect the religion of others. It was not by reproach that men were to be convinced of their errors; it was not by the use of violent and inflammatory language that they were to be induced even to reconsider their opinions. The religion which these petitioners had maligned, was the religion of one-third of the population of the British empire, and was he to be told, that those who informed that House that one-third of its constituents were idolaters, were not using disrespectful language towards it? Suppose a Roman Catholic should present a petition against a grant to the Protestant Universities, and should call the Protestants heretics therein, would not every man in the House rise up with indignation against such an expression? and would not every Roman Catholic Member present be eager to scout a petition which contained such disrespectful expressions? "Let us give up, then," said the hon. Member, "the use of such base expressions, which are unworthy the mild doctrines of our common faith, and let us insist, that the petitions presented to this House, be expressed with decency to the principles of every religious sect which may find a representative among us."

Mr. Hume

said, that were he a Roman Catholic, he should not feel any indignation at the expressions contained in this petition; he should only feel pity and regret, that in so well educated a country as Scotland, so many pious and conscientious men were found ignorant and prejudiced enough to make use of them. For his own part, he was sorry to see so true a lover of liberty as his hon. and learned friend below him, so anxious to criticise the language of a petition. "It does not affect me," said Mr. Hume, "when men call me Atheist, Idolater, or any such unmeaning names: so long as they keep their hands off me, I have no objection to their indulging in their abuse; for I well know that honest deeds will long outlive dishonest words." He considered the language of the petition, though intemperate to the Catholics, was still respectful to the House. He believed the opinions of the petitioners, though erroneous, to be sincere; and he never would reject the opinions of such men, when they were expressed according to the rules of the House. He therefore entreated the hon. member for Glasgow not to persist in his proposition to reject the petition, otherwise it would seem as if they were anxious to restrain the expression of opinions in the petitions of the people.

Lord Althorp

said, he was not in the House when this petition was read, but had since examined its contents. No one, he assured the House, could disapprove more strongly than he did of the language of this petition, but the rule which he had always laid down about petitions was this,—if they are respectfully worded to the House, the House, beyond all question, ought to receive, them; but when they contained expressions which reflected either upon individuals who were Members of the House, or upon religious sects, as this petition did most unjustifiably, then, though he would allow them to lie upon the Table, he would object to their being printed. He would, therefore, allow this petition to lie on the Table, but would object to its being printed.

Mr. Wyse

was of one opinion with the noble. Lord and the hon. member for Middlesex, and for this reason, that he would not wish the House to be fettered by precedent from in future entertaining petitions quite as strong as the present in their expressions. With regard to any imputations upon Roman Catholics, he treated any such insinuations with the most perfect indifference. This was not a day to regard them; we were living in a free country, and Members of an independent Legislature, and could not be affected by such ridiculous observations. It was clear that any man in the country had a right to have and to express his opinion, and so far would he go, both as a Member of Parliament and a Roman Catholic, that he would vote not only for the reception, but for the printing of this petition, if a motion for that purpose were made, which he knew would only have the effect of amusing, and not annoying his Catholic countrymen.

Mr. Maurice O'Connell

contended that the petition ought to be rejected, on account of its disrespectful language. A petition presented by the hon. member for Preston was rejected the other night on account of its language, which was not so disrespectful as the language of this petition.

Lord Mandeville

could not conscientiously submit to a grant for disseminating principles which he held to be opposed to Christianity. Indeed, he doubted the propriety of making any grants for the promotion of religious education, constituted as society was at present.

Mr. Ruthven

urged, that it was highly inconvenient to have the House thus converted into an arena for polemical discussion. The terms employed in the petition towards those who professed the Roman Catholic religion, were such as he was sure the House would not sanction, and he should certainly, if the House divided, vote against the petition being received.

Mr. Kennedy

recommended the hon. member for Glasgow to withdraw his Amendment, and at the same time expressed his regret, that persons, from whom better things might have been expected, should hurry on the ignorant and unthinking into courses so much calculated to excite animosity, where it would be at once more charitable and more politic to promote and encourage mutual conciliation. He made these observations, because he had been absent yesterday when a discussion had taken place in some degree connected with this subject. The Irish Protestant inhabitants of Scotland had recently behaved with great impropriety and violence, by persevering in disobedience to the local authorities. They had persisted in having party processions which produced the worst consequences, and on the occasion referred to last night, their proceedings had been of the most wanton and unprovoked description. He would, at some future period, call the attention of the House particularly to the subject, which he thought deserved attention.

Mr. Lefroy

observed, that although Roman Catholics had been allowed to participate in political privileges, their religion had never been recognized or adopted by the State. He therefore suggested, that as the petitioners were not supposed to know, that such persons were then present in that House, it was evident they could not have intended to insult them. He should oppose the Motion for rejecting the petition. If the House had ever been open to receive such petitions, it was open still, and he never would consent to narrow the door through which petioners entered that House.

Sir F. Burdett

said, that the statements advanced by these petitioners, did, in effect cast calumnious imputations on a large body of their fellow-subjects out of doors, whom it was certainly the duty of that House to protect from insult, whether premeditated or otherwise. The grant was not for the purpose of disseminating what the petitioners were pleased to call un-Christian principles, but was voted on the principle that it was politic and wise to afford Catholics an opportunity of being educated at home, instead of compelling them to seek instruction in foreign countries. The question, however, then was, not whether the grant should be acceded to, but whether a petition, couched in such improper and unbecoming language, should be received. He himself had, for several days, been seeking an opportunity to present a petition from Mr. Taylor, who was at present suffering punishment for having spoken offensively of that religion which that House, generally, professed. If the statements of the petitioners were tolerated, his punishment was in the highest degree unjust; but he merely referred to his case on the present occasion, for the purpose of observing, that if they were so resentful on the subject of an insult offered to the Protestant religion, they should be no less jealous where the consciences of their fellow-subjects the Catholics had been outraged. While he condemned the language of the petition, he hoped that the hon. Member who wished to have it rejected, observing the general feeling of the House on the subject, would prevent the necessity of dividing upon such a subject by withdrawing that Motion. He should hesitate about printing the petition, but he hoped it would be received.

Mr. Dixon

was unwilling to oppose the general feeling of the House, and therefore begged leave to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. James E. Gordon rose to move, that the petition be printed, and in so doing, assured the House, that he had submitted it to their consideration, in the conviction that he was thereby fulfilling a sacred duty, from which he could not swerve without doing violence to his conscience, as the representative of those from whom this petition had emanated. The petition was signed by eleven Ministers, 108 Elders, and many other persons of respectability at Glasgow, and was worded in language respectful to the House. It expressed the sentiments of a large body of Ministers of the Gospel, on a subject on which they could not remain silent, consistent with the principles of their faith, for they considered the Roman Catholic was a religion of error, and upon Scriptural grounds they believed that heavy penal consequences attached to a grant of public money for its advantages, and therefore they prayed it might not be continued. They had heard many objections raised to the word "idolatrous," but it was not long since, that every hon. Gentleman who entered that House was obliged to swear, that he looked upon the Roman Catholic religion as impious and idolatrous. He would take that opportunity of declaring to those Members who professed that persuasion, that anything which fell from him, in reference to the conventional opinions of particular classes, must not be considered as expressive of hostility to them or their principles, but only as signifying his intention to perform his public duty, to the best of his ability and according to his conscience. He begged leave to move the petition be printed.

Mr. John Wood

said, it was only a few nights ago that the hon. Member had spoken against the Reform Bill, because it extended the elective franchise to Presbyterians and other Dissenters. Now, however, he came forward and presented a petition from a body of Presbyterians, inveighing against the Roman Catholics. In Cromwell's time, the ancestors of these petitioners spoke of the Episcopalians as persons who wore the rags of the Scarlet Whore of Babylon. And he would ask the hon. member for Dundalk, whether he would have presented this petition, if the petitioners, instead of spending their poor, pitiful, miserable spite on the Roman Catholics, had, after the manner of their ancestors, vented it on those who wore the rags of the Scarlet Whore of Babylon. Assuredly he would not. This petition, however, was at best equally offensive to the members of the Church of Rome, and on that account he should oppose its being printed.

Sir J. Bourke

read that portion of the petition which denounced the Church of Rome as devoted by God to destruction, together with every nation that had embraced it. He would put it to the House, whether this passage was not an insult, not only to him as an individual Catholic, but also to every Catholic kingdom in amity with Great Britain.

Mr. V. Fitzgerald

thought, that hon. Members generally must be sensible of the extreme inconvenience of making that House a scene of such discussions. He should vote against the printing of this petition, because the language in which it was couched could not but be highly offensive to a large portion of his fellow-countrymen, on whom he would not impose an expense for the purpose of circulating that which they must consider an insult to themselves. The hon. Member should have previously made himself acquainted with the usages of the House, with respect to the reception of petitions, as, by presenting what was offensive and irregular, he incurred a portion of the responsibility which it involved.

Sir G. Warrender,

as a Scotch Member, felt deep regret that such a petition should have been presented from so liberal a body as the Presbyterian Clergy; but he was quite certain, nevertheless, that the sentiments which it expressed were not those of the Church of Scotland in general. It was to be hoped, however, that that Church would justify his good opinion, by an indignant disavowal of such illiberality and intolerance. For his own part, he should feel it his duty to vote against their promulgation.

Sir G. Clerk

supported the printing of the petition, and referred to one of a similar nature from Aberdeen, presented on the 23rd of June, which he considered a sufficient precedent to authorize printing the petition then before them. It ought to be observed, that the petitioners did not seek to deprive the Roman Catholics of any of their liberties, but merely to prevent the extension of the dangerous tenets of that religion, believing, as they did, that it was marked out for Divine vengeance. Great latitude, in his opinion, ought to be allowed to petitioners in making their sentiments known to the Legislature, and stronger language than that contained in the present petition had certainly been already printed by order of the House. He had the good fortune to know many of the petitioners, who were distinguished for learning and piety, and would never consent that any slur should be cast on them by their petition not being printed.

Sir R. Peel

said, he should have had no hesitation in voting for the reception of this petition, as he did not think that it contained any thing personally offensive to individuals, especially as the precedent of a refusal might hereafter prove inconvenient to the House; but the printing of the petition was entirely a different question, and he should be opposed to that, if for no other reason, merely as a matter of policy. He could not imagine a more useless waste of money, than that occasioned by the printing of so many petitions, without producing any advantage proportionate to the expense. In the case before them, weighing the advantages and disadvantages, which the course urged by the honourable Member seemed to involve, he should say, that the evil greatly preponderated. The House should remember, that six or seven millions of their fellow-subjects embraced the creed which this petition characterised in such offensive language, and were they to print it, he did not see how they could well refuse to print counter-petitions on the same subjects, of which great numbers could, doubtless, easily be obtained. On these considerations, he should certainly negative the motion of the hon. Member.

Mr. Stanley

said, he was glad that he had given precedence to the right hon. Baronet, in whose view of the case he fully concurred, particularly as to the distinction between laying the petition on the Table, and printing it. But he did not concur in what had fallen from the right hon. member for Ennis (Mr. V. Fitzgerald), that a Member was responsible for the matter of any petition presented by him. The understanding of the House was, that a Member was no further responsible for a petition intrusted to him, than to see that it was couched in respectful language. He fully concurred, that, in good taste, as well as good feeling, they should reject the motion for printing the petition; and they would act as unjustly in ordering it to be printed, as they would have, in the first instance, had they refused to receive it.

Mr. O'Connell

said, that if any irritation was excited in the minds of any hon. Members by the matter of the petition, it must be abundantly allayed by the manner in which it was received by the House. The reason why no notice had been taken of the petition from Aberdeen, presented on the 23rd of June, was, that the noble Lord who presented it (Lord Mandeville), made no mention of it beyond its general import, and he (Mr. O'Connell) knew nothing of it, until he saw it printed in the Appendix to the Votes. It was seeing that petition which had led him to call on the hon. member for Dundalk to state, whether the present petition contained any of those gross and indecent reflections on the Catholic religion which had characterised the former petition, when the hon. Member declared, that he not only had read, but also approved of every sentiment it contained. The ground on which the hon. Member had defended the petition was the same as that adopted by the Inquisition of Spain. He (Mr. O'Connell) would tell hon. Members, that he detested and abjured an Inquisition, whether in Spain or in England. The noble Lord (Lord Mandeville), seemed to think, that he (Mr. O'Connell) must, from his religion, consider him a heretic. It was far from him to judge of any man, in a case which was between him and his God, and he would not pass such a judgment on any man; but even if he had an opinion of that kind, he hoped he had Christian charity enough not to apply the term to any fellow-Christian.

Lord Mandeville

said, he had not put the case in the way in which the hon. Member understood it. He had declared, that he could not conscientiously support a grant to promulgate principles which he considered were opposed to Christianity, and he would not offer any opinion which he was not prepared to defend.

Mr. Hunt

objected to the doctrine, that a man was responsible for the matter of any petition which he presented. Many hon. Members were in the constant habit of presenting petitions, the sentiments of which they disavowed.

Mr. V. Fitzgerald

said, he was not correctly understood. What he meant to convey was, that every Member was supposed to entertain the sentiments of any petition which he presented, unless he disavowed them.

Mr. James E. Gordon

disclaimed any hostility to those individuals to whose religious opinions the petition referred. He felt himself placed in a difficult position by the course the discussion had taken; but he was at the post of duty, and would not flinch from it.

The motion for printing the petition negatived without a division.

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