HC Deb 05 October 1831 vol 8 cc4-8
Mr. Hunt

presented a Petition, numerously signed by respectable persons, Inhabitants of the Metropolis, setting forth their disapprobation of Prosecutions on Account of uttering Religious Opinions, and praying that Mr. Taylor might be relieved from the very severe punishment he was suffering, which was contrary to justice and exceeded the sentence passed upon him.

Mr. Hume

would seize every opportunity to declare his detestation of the laws under which this man suffered. The House deserved some censure for permitting such laws to be enforced. He did not mean by these remarks to express any particular anxiety relating to the individual who was the subject of the petition; but he would maintain, that every man had a right, which ought to be in violable, to express his opinions upon religious questions, arid, indeed, upon all other matters which were not at war with the principles of public morals. The country could not be said to be in possession of much liberty, when a man was liable to be punished, not for acts, but for opinions.

Lord Althorp

thought, that the publication of all religious sentiments ought to be unrestrained and free, provided they did not militate against the peace and decency of society, or contradict the first principles of religion. As to remarks on the characters of public men, he desired there should be no restraint whatever on the publication of opinion; but this case was somewhat different. It operated against the principle on which the foundation of public morals was laid. On the best consideration of Mr. Taylor's offence, he did not think it required the interference of Government.

Mr. O'Connell

fully concurred with those who thought that plain and direct attacks upon the Christian religion ought to be prevented as much as possible, but the question was, whether they could be best prevented by contemptuous neglect or prosecution. He feared the latter could never put down opinion. In the case of Carlile, for instance, many persons began to look upon him as a martyr; and had not this man, Taylor, created a sort of party round himself to support and uphold him in his ribaldry? He lived on prosecution, which was a bounty on his trade, and the more he was prosecuted, the more he was encouraged. Feelings of sympathy, indulged towards a man supposed to be oppressed, operated upon people to such a degree that they became partial to his opinions, and thought them right, because they were convinced his oppressors were wrong. Nothing short, of extirpation could put opinion down. He hoped to see the time when every Christian would feel himself so strongly armed in his own convictions, as not to require prosecution to support them.

Sir Robert Peel

said, the unaffected detestation expressed by the hon. and learned Gentleman of the doctrines and conduct of Taylor, he was sure met with the full concurrence of the House. He had heard the hon. and learned Member's remarks with great satisfaction. He also agreed with him in thinking, that very great discretion ought to be exercised in instituting such prosecutions as that under which the person in question was suffering. He had successfully tried the experiment of non-prosecution, but it was extremely difficult to withstand the representations of good and religious men. As to the question which had been propounded by the hon. member for Middlesex, he believed few would agree with him that there should be unqualified impunity, or that all laws which bore upon the questions of religion and morals should be repealed. Why, what would be the result of such a state of things, but that people whose feelings were outraged, would resort to personal violence? He acknowledged it was difficult to lay down any precise rule, but he could never admit that every person might attack the first truths of Christianity at their own discretion. Protection was principally required by the young and thoughtless; not that it could be harmed by the statement of facts, by calm reasoning, or by philosophical discussion, but by insult, burlesque, ridicule, and passionate appeals, such as this man Taylor was in the habit of using. He appeared in the costume of a clergyman, and did all he could to insult the feelings and principles of every man attached to the Christian religion.

Mr. Lamb

observed, that the prosecution against Taylor had not been instituted by Government. Taylor was a person who had made the most horrid and disgusting attacks upon everything the people had been taught to venerate; for this he was prosecuted, and found guilty by a Jury—and this petition called upon the Government, to interpose the prerogative of the Crown to defeat the verdict of a Jury, without any evidence to show that the verdict was contrary to law or fact. No man could suppose for an instant that Taylor was punished on account of free discussion. Nobody reprobated prosecutions more than he did for mere opinion, but was it not notorious that this man at his trial exhibited himself in the garb of a Christian minister, and outraged all decency by his conduct. Such a disgusting farce deserved punishment, for it never could be allowed to go forth to the public that the most atrocious blasphemy should enjoy impunity. Nothing certainly but strong cases could justify prosecution; but he believed this was a case of that kind, and that Mr. Taylor fully deserved the visitation he had met with.

Mr. Ruthven

said, he fully agreed in the necessity of keeping discussion within the bounds of reason and decency, so as to afford equal protection to all persons With regard to the particular case now before them, he believed it had excited a general horror throughout the country, and the only excuse that could be made for Mr. Taylor was insanity. He ought not to be allowed to go at large; neither ought he to be treated with undue severity, or confined to a particular prison, whose regulations bore very grievously upon him.

Mr. John Campbell

said, it was utterly impossible that any Government could tolerate such a scandalous outrage as the conduct of this unhappy man presented. He had collected a multitude of people, and in a public theatre burlesqued the most solemn rites of our religion, and had insulted all the feelings which the community most reverenced. It was absurd to suppose such a man excited sympathy.

Petition to lie on the Table.

Mr. Hunt

, in moving that it should be printed, said, he did not mean to say anything in favour of Taylor, or attempt to justify his conduct. He had never read his writings, or heard him speak; but the complaint of the petitioners was, that the punishment exceeded the offence. He concurred with other hon. Members in thinking that they had better have their present laws, with all their faults, than to be exposed to the attacks of an infuriated rabble.

Mr. Hume

wished to know what the noble Lord (Lord Althorp) meant by first principles of religion. He would find that the State in different parts of the empire tolerated Jews, Hindoos, Mahometans, and other sects, all of whom were as much opposed to the first principles of Christianity, as the person whose conduct was now before the House. Every person ought to be tolerated, whatever opinions he might entertain, provided he did not disturb the peace of society. It was allowed by the right hon. Baronet who had recently presided over the Home Department, that the laws on this subject ought to be enforced with great discretion, but unfortunately that was of no avail, for any individual, or self-constituted Society, might prosecute. One of two things, therefore, ought to take place; either the laws should be repealed, or some regulation should be made as to prosecuting for such offences. He never could tolerate a man being punished for publishing an honest opinion. He claimed to have that privilege himself, and he was willing to allow it to others.

Mr. Trevor

begged very seriously to ask the hon. member for Middlesex, if he believed such doctrines as Mr. Taylor was convicted of preaching, had not a tendency to interrupt the peace of society? He differed from the hon. Member, and applauded the Society which had prosecuted this man, and were ready to undertake a duty which the Government declined. From the statement which the hon. Member had made, it might be presumed this person had been prosecuted for certain doctrinal points only, instead of public blasphemy against the Holy Scriptures. He regretted that the hon. Member had put forth the opinions he had with the weight of his authority, and to correct them as far as he could was the motive why he had addressed the House.

Petition to be printed.