HC Deb 30 March 1843 vol 68 cc206-15
Sir V. Blake

rose to move for leave to bring in a bill to repeal and abolish all the oaths now taken by Members of Parliament on taking their seats, except the oath of allegiance. It was his original intention to have included that oath also, but in consequence of a communication made to him by a distinguished Member of the late administration, a noble Lord, whose capacity and experience entitled him to the highest respect, he (Sir V. Blake) was induced to except the oath of allegiance, and to substitute it for the other oaths, which he proposed to abolish, and that it might be taken by all Members without religious distinction. He said, an hon. Member who had recently taken the oaths at the right hand side of the table, had told him that he did not in the least understand or recollect the nature or import of all that he had sworn. He (Sir V. Blake) was not in the least surprised at that acknowledgment, for he would undertake to show before he sat down, that even the right hon. and learned Baronet, the Member for Oxford, and he might add the Members of her Majesty's Government, and Members too, of the legal profession, were not aware of the existence of a statutable provision, which expressly enjoined that those oaths should be taken in a particular sense, which was at total variance with the truth, as he (Sir V. Blake) would explain. Believing that the objectionable contents of those oaths were very little known, and as they formed the basis of his motion, he would, with the permission of the House, move that they should be read by the clerk.

[The clerk then read the oaths of allegiance, supremacy, and abjuration, also the Roman Catholic Oath.]

Sir V. Blake

resumed. Although he was urged on to advocate a principle, which in his humble judgment was calculated more than any other, to uphold and maintain the character, dignity, and influence of Parliament, he was not in the least unconscious of the great disadvantage under which the subject would be brought forward, in consequence of his want of ability, and incapacity to do it anything like justice. He was, however, encouraged to proceed, because he did not deal in metaphor, but in facts, which would be seen to be at once startling and incontrovertible, and if he could only succeed in communicating his own impressions intelligibly, he trusted the House would accede to his request to be permitted to introduce the bill which he held in his hand without the aid of Parliamentary eloquence or declamation. It was not his intention at that late hour to enter into the history of the origin of oaths, further than to remind the House that they were of Pagan parentage, but even the Pagan practice was less objectionable than the Christian practice, because no oaths were taken during the Pagan era, that were not taken with the view to the administration of public justice in the courts of law. Judicial oaths were a relict of the uncivilized times of the ploughshare and wager of battle ordeals, and it was against these oaths that the mandate in the sacred volume would seem to be specially directed, where it is said, "Swear not at all"—and again, "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that take the his name in vain." It was necessary for him also to remind the House that the oath of supremacy was but a portion of the first Act of Parliament, which was entitled an act to prevent Papists from sitting and voting in Parliament—at the time of passing this act, there was a legal extinguishment of the Roman Catholic religion in England, and those who professed that religion were obliged to do so by stealth. It might therefore be not untrue then to State, that no foreign prelate had any power spiritual or ecclesiastical within these realms, but now that Roman Catholics were admissible to Parliament, that the religion itself was tolerated, and its Ministers in the celebration of Divine worship were protected by law, was it not monstrous to continue the oath under the present circumstances, and the more especially when it is considered that under, and by virtue of the Roman Catholic Relief Bill, section 9, a concurrent power is given to the head of the Roman Catholic Church, with the power of the Crown, to create vacancies in the representation of the people in that House, for if the Crown could create such vacancies by an appointment to office, so could the Holy Father by the exercise of his right of ordination of any hon. Member create a like vacancy—nay, more he would show, that his holiness possessed a power even in the Protestant Church, which power was greater than that possessed by the head of the Protestant Church itself, as it was competent to any Roman Catholic clergyman, by conforming to the Protestant Church, to hold the same rank in which he obtained his ordination without any ordination in the Protestant establishment. Now the words "ought to have" in the oath of supremacy were unobjectionable with Protestants, because the phrase implied merely a matter of opinion. But the words "hath not any power ecclesiastical or spiritual," amounted to an allegation of an express fact which no man after due deliberation could make upon oath. And he knew it was the want of this deliberation that prolonged the existence of the oath, verifying the observation of Mr. Lock, where he observes, that there are a multitude of upright, pious, honourable, and even intelligent men, who continue to do things that are very wrong, because they have been done by others, and thus consider themselves absolved from the necessity and trouble of enquiry. Men who had hitherto taken this oath under these circumstances could not be said to be so culpable, as if they had full notice of the enormity they were about to commit, but they could no longer plead ignorance on this point, they could no longer claim immunity from punishment or expect that the Son of God would say, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do." Then again, as to the oath of Abjuration, ought they not to be laughed at by all civilised nations for continuing the absurd, and ridiculous form of avowing that they had no disposition to displace the beloved Queen, that reigned in the hearts of her devoted subjects, for the purpose of substituting the unearthly prospects of James 2nd, for on earth there did not exist any of that class, and as to the Roman Catholic oath, surely at the present advanced period of civilization, it was uncharitable and unbenevolent, and therefore unchristian like, to continue the absurd imputation which is conveyed by requiring Roman Catholics as a qualification to sit in that House, to disavow that they believed it would be meritorious and proper for them to imbrue their hands in the blood of their beloved Sovereign, if so ordered by the Pope, while at the same time it was a terror arising from the notorious existence of a spiritual power in his holiness, that dictated, the objectionable paragraph of the Roman Catholic oath, to which he alluded; this in itself was sufficient to demonstrate that it was not true to allege on oath, that no spiritual or ecclesiastical power was exercised by any foreign prelate within these realms. It was curious also that the Roman Catholic oath should be so framed as not to be objectionable to Protestants, many of whom he believed committed the pious fraud of professing that they were Roman Catholics for the special occasion, rather than commit wilful and corrupt perjury, by taking the oath of supremacy, with a full knowledge of its import, so we have now the extraordinary discouragement to Protestantism, arising from the construction of the oaths, by which it may be so said, that the Roman Catholic Relief Bill is a bill to promote the growth of Popery, as it afforded the opportunity to avoid the taking of the oath of supremacy. He was now done with the religious portion of the argument, and would beg next to call their attention to the provisions of the act of the 5th of Anne, being the act of Union with Scotland, by which it is enacted that the Members of Parliament for Great Britain should take the oath to which he had alluded, upon the penalties and disabilities thereby enacted, and then this act proceeds in the following words:— And it is declared that these words, this realm, the Crown of this realm, and the Queen of this realm, mentioned in the oath and declaration aforesaid, shall be understood of the Crown and realm of Great Britain, and in that sense here, said oath and declaration shall be taken and subscribed. Then followed the act of Union with Ireland, which statute merely declared that the Members of the Lords and Commons of the United Kingdom should take the oath, and make and subscribe the declaration now by law required to be taken by the Parliament of Great Britain. There was no extension to Ireland of penalties imposed at the time of the Union with Scotland, for omitting to take oaths; neither was there any extension of the sense in which the oaths were to be taken, so as to make them referable to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland; therefore, the same oaths to which a particular sense was given by Act of Parliament, making the oath applicable to Great Britain only, could not be taken in the same sense which would extend them to Great Britain and Ireland; so that in point of fact, every Member now taking these oaths, was made to swear that there was no Union with Ireland—and that the Kingdom of Great Britain was still in existence. He apologised for having detained the House so long, but he was approaching to a conclusion. He would say, that the agency of steam added to our previous resources—our progress in national acquisitions and influence was so rapid and extended, that England exhibited an accumulation of power that left at an immeasurable distance the widest empire of ancient and modern times—that in proportion to our growth in this way, the business of Parliament was overwhelmingly increased and onerous; so that even the acquisition of the three or four days spent at every new Parliament in taking oaths, would be a vast advantage to the public. Then again, it was notorious, that at the close of each successive Session, the men of business of the House, who were constant in their attendance, were obviously exhausted and debilitated, and were scarcely sufficiently renovated in the country to resume their labours at the opening. Many eminent men have lost their lives by their assiduity, and there could be no doubt but that the effect upon all would be to shorten the duration of human life, it was therefore the interest of all to adopt some new system of transacting the business of Parliament, that thereby the duties of the chair might continue to be performed by its present occupant with an ability, courtesy, diligence and knowledge of the law, and usage of Parliament which was never surpassed, and which might probably be never again united in the person of any one individual, without shortening the duration of a life, which is so highly valued by all who enjoy the superior advantage of being permitted to approach him, either officially or otherwise. With these observations, thanking the House for their kind indulgence, he would beg leave to move for leave to bring in the bill of which he had given notice.

Sir J. Graham

hoped the hon. Baronet would not think him wanting in courtesy if he felt it his duty to oppose the motion for leave to bring in this bill. He could not for a moment believe that any person, while taking the oath of supremacy, really felt that he was committing any violation to his conscience. He was aware, certainly, that a strange construction might be put upon the oath, but that construction was not strictly consonant with fact. When the oath was framed, that no foreign prince, potentate, or prelate exercised any power or jurisdiction in this realm, reference was made to a state of things that had formerly existed, but which had ceased to exist. The sense, he thought, in which the oath was taken was this—that matters, not formerly under royal control had, and ought to be placed under the control of the Crown. The hon. Baronet was also anxious to repeal the oath at present taken by the Roman Catholic Members of that House. That oath had been prescribed by the act of Catholic emancipation, and he (Sir J. Graham) must repeat that the attainment of that great settlement had been attended by great difficulties. The oath was framed by some of the greatest and ablest men then in Parliament, and he thought it would be very inexpedient now to do anything calculated to disturb that settlement. He thought it would, therefore, be impolitic and inexpedient to allow this bill to be brought in, and, therefore, without intending the slightest discourtesy to the hon. Gentleman, he felt it his duty to withhold his consent from the motion.

Mr. Ross

, looked upon every oath as a solemn imprecation, and it was a serious thing for a man to take any oath when the injunction was borne in mind by which it had been commanded to them, "Swear not at all." He thought that injunction alone ought to be received as a reason why they should endeavour on every occasion to get rid of every oath which it was possible to dispense with. He was aware that the expression, "So help me God" had been explained to mean a prayer that God might help the individual who took an oath to keep it; but that was not the sense in which the words were usually understood, and the words which Shakspeare put into the mouth of Hamlet— This do ye swear,— So grace and mercy at your most need help you"— showed that Shakspeare used the words in the usual sense. He (Mr. Ross) should feel no hesitation in giving his support to the motion before the House.

Sir R. Peel

said, it was impossible he could give his concurrence to the proposition of the hon. Gentleman. In 1829 he had concluded, in concert with the Government of that day, the arduous task—a task rendered still more arduous by the position in which he then stood—of bringing to a satisfactory settlement the long agitated question of the removal of the civil disabilities of the Roman Catholics. It was well known that the greatest objections to that measure were entertained by a large body of the Protestants of the empire. The Roman Catholics professed a readiness to give every security which the Protestants could require; they disclaimed every intention to subvert the existing settlement of property and establishments in Church and State. They declared that they never would exercise any privilege to which they might become entitled to disturb or weaken the Protestant Government and religion. These declarations, spontaneously offered on their part, were embodied in an oath which they were required to take. The oaths of allegiance, supremacy, and abjuration were appointed to be taken by all Protestants, or declarations to the same effect by those who objected to oaths. The Relief Bill required a particular oath to be taken by Roman Catholics, which was so framed as to contain nothing offensive to their feelings. If this were the age of common sense, and if that was to prevail, he hoped the House would not wish to break in on the principles of the settlement made in 1829, on the faith of the adherence to which many persons, opposed to the Roman Catholic claims, consented to give up their opposition. Balancing, on the one hand, the advantages promised from the removal of the oaths, with the risk, on the other hand, of inflaming religious discord if it were found that the principles of the settlement of 1829 were to be laid aside, he thought that there was ample reason to induce the House to decline the concession they were now asked to make. The hon. Gentleman said there was a religious objection to oaths, and appealed to the scriptural doctrine, swear not at all; and yet the hon. Gentleman himself proposed to retain the oath of allegiance, though it was contrary to his principles to take any oath whatever. The hon. Gentleman said, those who took the oath of supremacy were perjured. That very oath had been the subject of consideration for 150 years, and the most eminent men of the Protestant Church had felt that they could, with perfect safety to their consciences, take that oath, and deny that there was any ecclesiastical or spiritual jurisdiction to which her Majesty's subjects were bound to conform, possessing any co-active or obligatory force. In 1829, this subject was discussed in the presence of men of the greatest wisdom, acuteness, and information; it had been previously discussed in 1813, when Mr. Grattan brought forward his bill to repeal the oath of supremacy, and in 1825, Mr. Canning never proposed to relinquish the ancient oath of supremacy. Questions were then urged in the same spirit of refined acuteness as the hon. Gentleman had displayed on the present occasion. Attempts were made to show that you could not take the oath of supremacy, or refuse to admit all spiritual jurisdiction on the part of the Pope, so long as a Roman Catholic bishop remained within this realm; but he (Sir R. Peel) had then maintained, and it was impossible to contest the truth of the statement, that there was no coactive jurisdiction—although, at this moment, if a Roman Catholic bishop were to conform to the Protestant Church, he would hold the rank of bishop. That had been so for a century past. It was rather too much that the hon. Gentleman should come from the recesses of Galway, and pronounce all who had taken the oath denying the spiritual jurisdiction of the Pope, during 150 years past, to be perjured. The oath of abjuration was declared by the hon. Gentleman to be absurd. By that oath the Queen was acknowledged to be lawful Sovereign of this realm, and the person taking it promised faithful and true allegiance, and bound himself to make known all plots and conspiracies against the Crown which might come to his knowledge. There was also a clause by which the person engaged to maintain, support, and defend the succession to the Crown as settled at the Revolution. The hon. Gentleman was relieved from any conscientious scruple he might have as to oaths—he Was a Separatist, and was allowed to make a declaration. He hoped the House would not lightly depart from the principles so long established on this subject. If they receeded from the arrangement made in 1829, he did not think they would increase the feeling of security as to the permanence of that settlement entertained by the community.

Sir T. Wilde

thought the motion was founded on a misapprehension of the oaths. It did not appear to him that either of the oaths to which the motion referred could possibly be dispensed with; but, in saying so, he would not enter on the general question as to the expediency of oaths. Assuming that, for the purpose of securing the safety of a state, oaths might be imposed, he thought the present oaths did not bear the construction which the hon. Gentle man had put on them. It was thought necessary to bind the consciences of persons, for that purpose their religious persuasion must be ascertained; there was one oath for Protestants, and another for Roman Catholics. The oath of supremacy was the oath by which Protestants were distinguished from Roman Catholics; the oath of abjuration recognised the independent authority of the present Royal Family, as established by law, and bound the subject not only not to be a party to any conspiracy against the Crown, but faithfully to reveal any that came to his knowledge. That oath, therefore, was directed to an object of great national importance.

Sir V. Blake

in reply, said he did not impute the least degree of discourtesy to the right hon. Baronet, the Secretary of Slate for the Home Department, for opposing his motion; but he thought the reason given for doing so was very insufficient—namely, that he had already consented to the bringing in of another bill by another hon. Member. He had no arguments, properly speaking, to reply to, for none were used in opposition to his motion. He was proud to say, that his objection to the oath of supremacy was the result of an hereditary feeling; his ancestor and namesake was the first man who was expelled from the House of Commons, for having refused to take that oath; and it was a singular coincidence that after the lapse of two centuries, Providence should have so ordained it as to enable the descendant of that man to be instrumental in the abolition of this oath. The right hon. Baronet at the head of her Majesty's Government, objected that because the oath of supremacy was taken for 150 years, it was not now objectionable—but when it was enacted, and down to 1829, the law repudiated and disavowed the existence of the Roman Catholic religion in England; but now it was avowed openly and tolerated, and protected by law—the allegations of the oath were true till the Emancipation Act—the Act of 29 was improperly described as a bill for the relief of her Majesty's Roman Catholic subjects; it ought to be described as also for the relief of her Protestant subjects—for the principle I contend for is to be found in that bill, where it abolishes the infamous declaration of 30, Chas. 2nd. He thanked the right hon. Baronet for assisting to illustrate the position that the Pope could ordain a Protestant bishop. What more convincing evidence of the fact that he has spiritual and ecclesiastical power in this kingdom? The force of numbers, and not of argument, would overwhelm him but it was a good cause, and he would never abandon it.

The House divided, when there appeared—Ayes 17; Noes 104:—Majority 87.

List of the AYES.
Bernal, Capt. Pechell, Capt.
Currie, R. Ross, D. R.
Duncombe, T. Russell, Lord E.
Elphinstone, H. Scholefield, J.
Fleetwood, Sir P. H. Stock, Mr. Serj.
Gore, hon. R. Trelawny, J. S.
Hindley, C. Yorke, H. R.
Hutt, W. Blake, Sir V.
Paget, Lord A. Crawford, S.
List of the NOES.
Ackers, J. Grimston, Visct.
Acland, T. D. Hamilton, W. J.
Acton, Col. Harcourt, G. G.
Aldam, W. Hardinge, rt. hn. Sir H.
Allix, J. P. Henley, J. W.
Barnard, E. G. Herbert, hon. S.
Boldero, H. G. Hervey, Lord A.
Borthwick, P. Hodgson, R.
Brockleburst, J. Hornby, J.
Brotherton, J. Hughes, W. B.
Bruce, Lord E. Ingestre, Visct.
Buckley E. Inglis, Sir R. H.
Buller, Sir J. Y. Jermyn, Earl
Charteris, hon. F. Johnstone, H.
Christopher, R. A. Langston, J. H.
Clayton, R. R. Legh, G. C.
Clive, Visct. Lincoln, Earl of
Clive, hn. R. H. Lockhart, W.
Colvile, C. R. Mackenzie, W. F.
Copeland, Ald. Mc Geachy, F. A.
Corry, rt. hn. H. Mainwaring, T.
Cripps, W. Manners, Lord J.
Darby, G. Marsham, Visct.
Denison, E. B. Martin, C. W.
Douglas Sir C. E. Masterman, J.
Dugdale, W. S. Maxwell, hon. J. P.
Duncan, G. Morris, D.
Eliot, Lord Muntz, G. F.
Emlyn, Visct. Neeld, J.
Escott, B. Newdigate, C. N.
Estcourt, T. G. B. Nicholl, rt. hon. J.
Farnham, E. B. Packe, C. W.
Feilden, W. Patten, J. W.
Ferguson, Col. Peel, rt. hn. Sir R.
Filmer, Sir E. Peel, J.
Flower, Sir J. Plumtre, J. P.
Forster, M. Plumridge, Capt.
Fuller, A. E. Praed, W. T.
Gaskell, J. Milnes Pusey, P.
Gill, T. Rice, E. R.
Gladstone, rt. hn. W. E. Rose, rt. hn. Sir G.
Gladstone, Capt. Round, J.
Glynne, Sir S. R. Sandon, Visct.
Gordon, hn. Capt. Shaw, rt. hon. F.
Goulbourn, rt. hn. H. Smith, rt. hn. T. B. C.
Graham, rt. hn. Sir J. Somerset, Lord G.
Greenall, P. Stanley, Lord
Greene, T. Stuart, H.
Grimsditch, T. Sutton, hon. H. M.
Tennent, J. E. Young, J.
Trench, Sir F. W.
Trotter, J. TELLERS.
Wawn, J. T. Freemantle, Sir T.
Wilde, Sir T. Pringle, A.