HC Deb 10 March 1853 vol 124 cc1402-14

rose, pursuant to notice, to move for a Select Committee to inquire into the subject of oaths. He said he attached a paramount degree of importance to the Motion of which he had given notice. It was eminently a question of truthfulness, and concerned the stability of our political and social institutions. Now, he ventured to state, that the period of the greatest untruthfulness in our history was that when the greatest number of oaths were taken; for instance, in the reigns of Henry VIII., Mary, and Elizabeth, before the Reformation was completed, when the prelates especially distinguished themselves by taking and revoking antagonistic Oaths. His object was to obtain a Committee armed with ample means of inquiry and investigation on this subject, in order that they might be enabled to arrive at the ultimatum which many in that House desired, namely, that they should have one uniform declaration for persons of every religious persuasion. It was his desire, in connexion with this great subject, to furnish the Committee which he sought to obtain with ample means of inquiry, and with full instructions, in order that they might arrive at a proper conclusion upon the subject. The present condition of the law in reference to this question abounded with inequalities. The people called Quakers, Moravians, and Separatists, objected to oaths on principle, and they had been relieved; but there were numerous other classes of subjects to whom no relief had been granted. Lord Brougham, in a discussion on the oath administered to Jews, said that ''he wondered so much was said about oaths. He found in Scripture the direction, 'Swear not at all,' and he disapproved of oaths; but as he found them on the Statute-book, like a good citizen he conformed to them." The various Reports which had emanated from the House of Lords had thrown considerable light on the subject. In 1834 the Lords made a Report, in which they concurred in following out the principle which had been adopted with very considerable success in the Customs and Excise, namely, the substitution of affirmations for oaths in almost all cases, from which a large amount of commercial benefit had accrued. Our present form of oaths was strictly analogous to those historic curiosities, the Egyptian, Grecian, and Roman modes of asseveration; several of which the hon. Gentleman quoted from the elaborate work of the Rev. J. E. Tyler; as also the Parliamentary oath on the crosses of Canterbury and Shrewsbury (A. D. 1398), never to suffer the transactions of Parliament to be changed. The Romans used, on occasions of uncommon solemnity, to take a flint stone in their right hand, saying, Si sciens fallo, turn me Diespiter, salva urbe arceque, bonis ejiciat, ut ego hunc lapidem; hence Jovem lapidem jurare, for per' Jovem lapidem. Henry VIII. complained to his Parliament that he had only half the hearts of the prelates, who, when promoted to bishoprics and deaneries, divided, by their oaths, their allegance between the Pope and the King. He also alluded to the university oaths as stopping the progress of reform. Neither did Paley approve of oath-taking generally, but especially not of our particular form, which he considered more disrespectful than any known form—he greatly preferring affirmations. The House would have to go back to the reign of Queen Elizabeth to meet with the origin of its Members being obliged to take oaths; and from that period up to the reign of William III. there existed an ex-officio oath of a most cruel form; for the parties refusing to lake it, no matter what their objections, were liable to an indefinite period of imprisonment for so refusing. The constant practice of administering oaths in Courts of Justice, and especially in the various Police Courts, had the effect of bringing the ceremonial into contempt. In the year 1831 an Act was passed which opened a better prospect with regard to the abuse of oaths. He need not remind the House, that before this time oaths were taken by the bushel, as it were, and without discrimination, not only in public offices, hut in counting-houses and other private establishments. This Act of 1831 afforded relief in this particular to members of the Society of Friends, and other Separatists, by enabling them to affirm. In reference to this subject, he would take the liberty of asking the House upon what ground the Society of Friends were to enjoy a superior degree of freedom to himself and other Dissenters, who might wish to have the option of affirming? There was no justice in preserving such distinctions, especially as their continuance was a sore injury to tender consciences. There was a case which had occurred in our Courts of Law, no long time since, in which a Brahmin had an oath administered to him in the manner prescribed by his religion, thus establishing the principle of law, that the form of oath which a man was to take was that which was most binding on his conscience, and which principle had been carried out of late years in the City of London. He might here mention, as an illustration of the hardship of compelling a man to take an oath who had objections to it, in cases where an affirmation would equally well answer the purpose, that it was not at all improbable the House might that evening he called upon to send a victim to prison for refusing to swear in a Committee upstairs. The House of Lords Committee, in their report in the year 1834, alluded in striking terms to the impropriety of oaths on trifling subjects. They said, for instance, that they could not hesitate to lay down the position that recourse ought not to be had to the sanction of an oath where it could be safely dispensed with, where the objection was not of sufficient importance to warrant a direct and solemn appeal to the Deity, nor in any case where those objects could be equally well attained by other means. And then the Committee expressed their conviction that oaths which were not considered necessary in one branch of the public service, might be dispensed with in every other. In the evidence upon which this Report was founded, Mr. Stafford, who had been a magistrate at Bow Street, and Mr. Wedgewood, who had held a corresponding situation in the Southwark police court, described from theirown experience the serious evils resulting from the indiscriminate system of oath-taking in the police offices. Mr. Wedgwood, in his evidence, deplored the then existing state of the law by which oaths were taken, even in so small a matter as the loss of a pawnbroker's duplicate for goods of the value of a shilling or two, and considered that affirmations might be substituted for oaths in courts of justice. Some days there were twenty, or even fifty, oaths administered in his court concerning pawnbrokers' duplicates. Many of these remarks were applicable to the present practice in those offices, though a great and beneficial change had taken place. The hon. Gentleman here ad- verted to the resignation by Mr. Wedgwood of his lucrative situation, owing to his objection to oaths. In 1837 another Committee sat, before which Mr. Peacock, one of the officers of the East India Company, was asked whether the accounts of that corporation, which used formerly to be verified upon oath, were equally satisfactory upon a simple declaration. His answer was, "I think so, certainly." The oath, then, was useless, and ought not to have been imposed. Connected with this branch of the subject, the report proceeded to say, that" many hundreds of thousands of declarations have been taken during the past year, where oaths were heretofore required, and no practical inconvenience has arisen from the change. "Indeed, the Committee added," we are strongly of opinion that it is expedient to carry into still further effect the recommendations of the Committee of 1834, and to abolish every unnecessary oath. "This opinion, which the Committee formed after hearing witnesses, was fully confirmed by the evidence. The Report of the Committee of 1842 was substantially to the same effect. So that, on the whole, the House might depend upon it that this was a rising question, and one which public opinion before long would compel them to take into serious consideration. The Report of the Select Committee of the House of Commons upon the oaths of Members, though made with special relation to the admission of Jews into Parliament, contained much information upon the subject. The following was a remarkable passage:— There is no trace in the journals of the House of any oath being required to be taken by Members of the House of Commons upon taking their seats in the House, previously to the Act of the 5th of Elizabeth, cap. I, which directs, by sec. 16, that Members shall take the oath of supremacy (as set forth in I Elizabeth, cap 1), and which oath is thereby directed to be taken corporally upon the Evangelists before the Lord Steward or his deputy, before entering the Parliament House. It thus appeared that until the time of Elizabeth no oath was required upon taking a seat in that House. It was found at a Subsequent period, that the taking of the oath did not in all cases secure veracity and in order to obtain it the holy sacrament was superadded, and thereby degraded. This state of things remained until the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, which the noble Lord (Lord John Russell) carried, and thereby showed his boldness and determination in favour of the great principle of civil and religious liberty. In those days there was a good deal of persecution on account of oaths. Roman Catholics were for a long time under persecution; so were dissenters and other recusants. At one period the Society of Friends had no resting place owing to the requirement of oaths; and nearly 500 of their members were on this account confined in prisons in various parts of the Kingdom, some of whom only obtained their release upon the accession of William and Mary. The present mode of administering the oath at the table of the House was most objectionable. Surely that portion of it might be dispensed with which was levelled exclusively against one class. Would it not be better to have an affirmation which could he taken by all—which all would consider binding—which would ensure unanimity—and which would, at least, go as far towards ensuring truth as the present oaths? Why should not all British subjects take the same affirmation, since all were equally loyal to the Crown, attached to our institutions, and willing to support the State in any capacity? He did not think their loyalty would be the less, or that they would be less anxious for the promotion of the interests and the happiness of their fellow-subjects. He was anxious, then, to extend the principle which had been recognised in 1849. The truth was that oaths were not wanted. They did not increase truthfulness. They were only demanded by Governments and Corporations for purposes of their own, and were totally unnecessary between man and man- -between merchant and merchant—between banker and hanker. At the same time he must admit that the Corporation of the City of London had in this respect set an example to the Commons House of Parliament, inasmuch as they had enabled any person to take up his freedom and settle in London upon taking an oath according to the form sanctioned by his own religion, and in the manner most binding upon his conscience. Previously to this, they would not allow a Jew to trade in the City, although he might he British born. In one case a Jew had been converted to Christianity; he had a son who was born in London and married a British woman, yet the son was refused the freedom of the City because his father had been a Jew. This man was put to an expense of 1,000l. before he could get he of City persecution, and he enabled quietly to occupy his shop in White-chapel. However, this was a question which was about to come directly before the House, and he did not wish, by any indirect means, to anticipate its full discussion. He enumerated various cases of persons who had endured imprisonment, and all its consequent losses and miseries, because they had a conscientious aversion to an oath. One case in particular was well worthy of notice—that of a respectable gentleman, who, because he could not reconcile himself to the taking of an oath in certain bankruptcy proceedings, endured incarceration for three years, and was eventually only liberated through the agency of a special Act of Parliament, passed purposely with a view to his relief. In former times there were no fewer than 100 oaths imposed in the City of London. The woodman had to swear he would not steal wood from the wharves; the waterman had to swear he would not transgress certain civic regulations; and, in fact, oaths were to be encountered at every turning. It was the frequency of oaths and the irreverence with which they were regarded that caused their violation. The system was a disgrace to a country so enlightened and so highly civilised as ours. It was time it should be put an end to, and for that purpose he invoked the assistance of the House. He appealed to public opinion as embodied in the Legislature to assist him in unrolling this dark mummery of bygone superstition.


seconded the Motion. He said, he entirely concurred with his hon. Friend (Mr. Pellatt) in the opinion that the time had arrived when it was incumbent on the Legislature to take some effective measures to prevent the desecration of oaths by their irreverent and too frequent administration. Our laws were intended for the good of the community, but they too often operated to their disadvantage. A bad man would take an oath; while a good and conscientious man would refuse it, and yet the law as at present administered favoured the bad man, and tended to the persecution of the good. Unnecessary oaths were a great evil, and the effects of them were to diminish a regard for truth. He considered the present system was extremely injurious, and he therefore hoped that, whatever opinions hon. Members might entertain, they would not object to the inquiry proposed by his hon Friend.

Motion made, and Question proposed— That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the subject of Oaths, and the operation of the Act 1 & 2 Will 4 c. 4, and the Act 5 & 6 Will, 4, s. 62, for the substitution of Declarations in lieu of Oaths in the Customs, Excise, Public Offices, and Corporations named in the said Acts, and the advantage of extending the principle of those Acts to the Courts of Law, and further to inquire into the Oaths now taken by Members of Parliament at the Table of the House, with the view of substituting one uniform Declaration for members of all religious persuasions, and to report thereon from time to time.


said, that the attention of the House had been directed for a long series of years to the subject of unnecessary oaths, and great advantage had attended the operation of the measures that had been passed in reference to them. He perfectly agreed with both the hon. Members who had spoken, and he believed he had the concurrence of the House in the opinion, that unnecessary oaths were great evils; that they, first, positively offered temptations to bad men, and even to others who were not quite bad men; and, secondly, that they had a most important effect in diminishing the reverence for the sacred name of the Deity. He was sure that as far as regarded that proposition, and the proposition of the hon. Member (Mr. Pellett) that for the promotion of truth he might count upon the universal sympathy of the House. He would venture, however, to express a hope that the hon. Member would rest satisfied with the opportunity afforded him of enforcing his views, and that he would not at present call upon the House to assent to his Motion. In the Motion the Hon. Gentleman pointed at three objects which he had in view. First, an inquiry "into the subject of oaths, and the operation of the Act 1 & 2 Will. IV.; c, 4; and the Act 5 & 6 Will. IV., c. 62, for the substitution of declarations in lieu of oaths in the Customs, Excise, Public Offices, and Corporations named in the said Acts." In the second place, he proposed to inquire into "the advantage of extending the principle of those Acts to the Courts of Law;" and in the third place, "to inquire into the oaths now taken by Members of Parliament at the table of the House, with the view of substituting one uniform declaration for Members of all religious persuasions." With regard to inquiry as to the substitution of declarations in lieu of oaths in the Customs, Excise, and other public departments, that, he (Mr. Gladstone) thought, would be almost a labour of supererogation. That substitution had, he believed, given universal satisfaction; and as it could hardly be made matter of argument, it was not necessary that it should be made matter for inquiry. Then, as to the second branch of the Motion, the hon. Gentleman proposed to examine into the advantage of applying the same principle to the Courts of Law. Now, he thought he could submit to the judgment, of the hon. Member in a few words a conclusive reason for not referring that subject to a Select Committee. The hon. Member was no doubt, aware that some time ago a Commission was appointed by the Government of which his noble Friend (Lord John Russell) was the head, to inquire into the procedure of the Courts of Common Law. That Commission had already presented its first Report, and he (Mr. Gladstone) was in a condition to state upon the authority of his hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General, that he was about to present the second Report, in which the very question the hon. Member proposed to inquire into was fully considered. When that report should be laid upon the table, the hon. Member would find that the subject he had been referring to, and which was confessedly surrounded by difficulties, had been dealt with by the Commission in the most comprehensive and effectual manner. With regard to the third portion of the Motion of the hon. Gentleman—namely, an inquiry concerning the oaths now taken by Members of Parliament at the table of the House, that, he submitted to the hon. Member, was not a fitting subject for inquiry by a Committee of this House. The question, whether the oaths now taken by Members at the table should continue in their present shape, or whether they should be altered or altogether abolished, and a uniform declaration for members of all religious persuasions substituted, was no doubt a question of the very deepest, importance; but then it was a question rather of public policy, which it was competent for the House itself to entertain from time to time. And they had actually before them in regard to that what was, in a practical view, a most important application of the principle, in the form of a Bill which stood for second reading tomorrow. It was a question of importance—immense importance; but it was one of those matters which it was not the practice of the House to entrust to Select Committees. Indeed, it would be a sort of abnegation of the functions of the House—it would be placing the functions of the House in abeyance, if a question of that kind were banded over to a Select Committee. It would, however, be an entirely different matter if it depended upon a mi- nute examination of facts; but here they wanted no examination of facts. The arguments were open to he discussed by all persons of intelligence, and the House of Commons was perfectly competent to deal with them in debate, without requiring the assistance of a Select Committee. He believed the appointment of a Committee would rather tend to perplex than enlighten the House; in fact, he very much doubted whether a Select Committee could be appointed representing every part of the House, and justly and impartially composed, that would ever agree to a Report in favour of any certain plan. For these reasons he ventured to hope—without raising the slightest objection to the principle of instituting an inquiry relative to the possibility of further restricting the application of oaths, with a view to their being taken with greater reverence, and to avoid the monstrous evil of perjury—that he had stated sufficient grounds for not acceding to the Motion in its present form; and, inasmuch as a division on the subject would lead to the supposition that a difference of opinion existed where there was none, he trusted, therefore, that the hon. Member would not press the Motion to a division.


begged to express his con currence in the opinion of the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer that a division on this Motion at that time would only weaken the cause the hon Gentleman had in view; hut being one or those who felt very strongly as to the position in which Roman Catholic Members of the House stood from the present state of the law on this subject, he felt it his duty to say that at the earliest opportunity, which he believed would be upon going into Committee upon the noble Lord's Bill, be should bring before the House the question of oaths taken by Roman Catholic Members, with a view to carry out the object of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Southwark (Mr. Pellatt)—namely, to assimilate the oaths taken by all Members of that House.


said, that the oaths required to be taken by Roman Catholic Members of Corporations in Ireland were felt to be a great grievance. In a corporation with which he was himself officially connected, that of the city of Cork, a Roman Catholic Member bad refused, some time ago, to take those oaths; and considerable discussion had arisen on the point whether he could fulfil his duties until be had done so. Upon that occasion it was the unanimous opinion of the Corporation that the oath ought to be abolished. That oath was the most odious in its terms that could be devised; and if unnecessary oaths were an evil, insulting oaths were a manifest injustice.


said, he thought there was one great objection to the appointment of a Committee, namely, that so many Committees were already sitting that it would be almost impossible to find a sufficient number of proper Members to compose it; so that the effect of such a step would rather injure than assist the cause of which the hon. Mover of the question was the advocate. He doubted whether the hon. Member for Carlow (Mr. J. Ball) could move such a Motion as that of which he had given notice in Committee on the Bill. In 1849 he (Mr. V. Smith) had proposed to make but one simple oath for all Members of the House; and though he had found himself in a small minority, he yet thought that that would be the proper course to take. So far from the taking of the present oaths being a religious or a solemn rite, he looked upon it as one of the most revolting and disgusting ceremonies that could take place. When hon. Members came to the table and gabbled over oaths which every one took in a different sense from his neighbour, it was impossible to look upon the scene with anything like awe or respect. The question was not one involving any necessity for inquiry, but it was one upon which every Member was as capable of giving an opinion in full House as in a Committee upstairs.


said, he rose to express his concurrence in the recommendation of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that it would be the better course not to press this Motion at present, lest a division upon it should indicate to the public a difference of opinion, which really did not exist in the House. The right hon. Gentleman had stated that unnecessary oaths were a great evil, which should form the subject of some remedial legislation, but did not require to be investigated by a Select Committee, because the facts were already well known to Members of the House. He wished, however, to direct the special attention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to some few facts, in order to illustrate the mode in which unnecessary oaths were administered at contested elections in Ireland under the existing laws. During the last election for the county of Tipperary, he had remained in the town of Cashel, where about 900 voters were polled, to each of whom three distinct oaths were administered for the mere purpose of delaying the poll, by which contrivance many electors were prevented from voting within the limited period of two days. In that single county of Tipperary near 15,000 oaths were administered to about 5,000 voters within the two days; and in the whole of Ireland, during the same time, upwards of 200,000 oaths must have have been taken, every one of which was unnecessary. Those oaths were all of them practical blasphemies, and flagrant infractions of the divine law—"Thou shalt not take the name of God in vain." He trusted that whenever the Government should come to legislate on the subject of unnecessary oaths, they would not forget the abuses he had just pointed out, in reference to the recent elections of Ireland—abuses which might, at any contested election, be also introduced into England, under the English election statutes. With regard to the oaths taken by the different Members of that House, they presented at least equal difficulties to the consciences of Protestants as to those of Roman Catholics. Under the Catholic oath, members of that religion were insultingly required to denounce their detestable opinions, which they never entertained, and were subjected to infamous imputations and insinuations in reference to the construction of the disavowal of "any intention to subvert the present Church Establishment as settled by law." Those imputations were familiarly made out of doors, and were sometimes even insinuated in this House by Gentlemen who either did not understand what was due to their fellow Members, or were hurried on, in the heat and acrimony of debate, to use offensive expressions, which any person of right feeling must afterwards deeply repent of. For his own part, he was resolved that no amount of provocation should ever induce him so far to forget his own position or the feelings of Protestant Members of that House, as to retort offensively upon them the words of their own oath; but he might be permitted to observe that some conscientious Protestants had felt very great difficulty in taking the oath of supremacy, which required them to affirm that "no foreign prince, person, prelate, State, or potentate, hath, or ought to have, any jurisdiction, power, superiority, pre-eminence, or authority, ec- clesiaatical or spiritual, within this realm." He believed that those words had, for a long period, prevented a distinguished Conservative Member of the other House (Lord Clancarty) from taking his seat there. He had, some years since, read a pamphlet from the pen of that noble Lord explaining his grounds for conscientiously objecting to take that Protestant oath. The scruples which he then entertained were, no doubt, now removed, for he was at present a sitting Member of the Upper House; but there were other Protestants who still felt great difficulties about the words of that oath. He trusted that such legislation might soon be introduced as would entirely remove all difficulties and ambiguities from both the Protestant and the Catholic oaths, and prevent any indecent insinuations against Members of this House, either outside or within its walls. In conclusion he might observe it was a curious circumstance that whilst no Jew could swear to the Protestant form of oath, "upon the true faith of a Christian," every word of the Roman Catholic oath might be conscientiously taken by a Jew—but they were, nevertheless, excluded from Parliament by the Protestant oath.


said, he wished to take that opportunity of saying one word with respect to the oaths taken at the table of the House, which he had always thought very objectionable, and, indeed, absurd. He had a strong feeling against both the oaths, as they now stood—that taken by Protestants, and that taken by Roman Catholic Members of the House. As to the oath of supremacy, it was a relic of a state of things which had ceased to exist, and was either a truism or unmeaning; and an unmeaning oath was an irreverent oath. Then as to the Roman Catholic oath, he was persuaded that they had no right to impose such an oath on the consciences of any particular class of the Members of that House. He had a strong feeling that they had no right to protect any particular institution of the country, however sacred its objects, by such means. No such limitation of their constitutional right was imposed upon other Dissenters from the Church of England. The members of the Anti-State Church Association were not fettered in their crusade against the State Church by any such obligation. The Established Church of Scotland was not defended by any such contrivance. He hoped to see the time when one simple oath, promising allegiance to the Sovereign and the faithful performance of their duties in that House, would take the place of the present objectionable forms.


said, that after the very handsome manner in which the question had been treated by the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of Exchequer, and seeing that they all concurred in the same opinion, he should he very sorry to divide the House.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.