HC Deb 12 February 1858 vol 148 cc1269-75

I rise, Sir, to ask the noble Lord the First Lord of the Treasury the question of which I have given notice. The importance of the question will, I hope, justify me, who do not often intrude on the time of the House, in stating the reasons why I ask it, and the grounds upon which it is founded. In a despatch, dated 20th January, 1858, of the French Minister of Foreign Affairs (Count Walewski) to the French Ambassador, I find these words— But, Monsieur le Comte, how widely different is the attitude of the skilful demagogues established in England! It is no longer the hostility of erring parties manifesting itself by all the excesses of the press and every violence of language; it is no longer even the labour of the factious seeking to agitate opinion and to provoke disorder; it is assassination elevated to a doctrine, preached openly, practised in repeated attempts, the most recent of which has struck Europe with amazement. When I read these words I involuntarily turned to the back of the despatch to see whether a despatch containing those words had been laid by Her Majesty's Government on the table of this House without a single word of answer by the Minister, whose duty it was to reply to it. I read on, and I found that this charge—that" assassination was elevated to a doctrine, and openly preached" in England—formed part of the foundation for a demand that a change should be made in the existing law—a law to which it has never even been pretended that any appeal was ever made in vain, and to which we now know for certain, from a reply just made by the Home Secretary, that no appeal has ever been made in vain. Sir, I have lived a good many years in the world; I have lived much in London; I have mixed with persons of nearly all classes of society, men of various countries and all shades of political opinion; and I most solemnly assert that I have never seen or heard the crime of assassination mentioned in this country without those expressions of reprobation which a crime so abominable deserves. Now, Sir, when we know that there is in the history of the dynasty and family, upon whose behalf we are addressed in language such as I have quoted, a fact not generally discredited or even doubted, which preaches, in very unmistakeable language, not only the doctrine but the practice of assassination, I think that I am fully entitled, as a Member of this House, to ask whether that fact rests upon stronger or weaker evidence than the charge now brought by the minister of the French Emperor against the country, of whose honour and reputation it behoves us here assembled to be so watchful and so jealous?

I will now, Sir, bring before the House the historical facts connected with the circumstance to which I have alluded. [" Oh, oh!"] I am in the hands of the House, and I beg their indulgence. In the year 1819, the Duke of Wellington was in Paris, employed in the service of his country. About midnight, between the 10th and 11th of February, as his carriage was turning into the gateway of his hotel, he was fired at from the street. Two men, Cantillon and Marinet were shorly afterwards arrested, and subsequently brought to trial in May of the same year. It was proved at the trial—nay, it was admitted by the counsel for the defence, that there had been a plot to assassinate the Duke of Wellington. The counsel for the defence, however, made a strong appeal to the jury, that to find Frenchmen guilty of assassination would be to dishonour the French name, and the prisoners were almost immediately acquitted.

Sir, in that celebrated will executed by the first Napoleon at St. Helena in 1821 I find the following clause, the fifth clause of the fourth codicil:— Item 10,000f. to the sub-officer Cantillon, who has undergone a prosecution as accused of having assassinated Lord Wellington, of which he has been declared innocent. Cantillon had as much right to assassinate this oligarch as he had to send me to perish on the rock of St. Helena. Wellington, who proposed this outrage, sought to justify it by the interest of Great Britain. Cantillon, if he had actually assassinated this Lord, would have sheltered himself, and would have been justified by the same motives—the interest of France in ridding herself of a general who had, moreover, violated the capitulation of Paris, and thereby become responsible for the blood of the martyrs, Ney, Labédoyère, &c, and for the crime of having plundered the museums, contrary to the text of treaties. And further on I find, after the thirteenth clause:—

"This present codicil is entirely written with our own hand, signed and sealed with our arms.


Here, Sir, is the doctrine of assassination preached by a man whose memory is still revered in France, and preached in strong and emphatic words—words which no French or Italian exile can fail, when it may suit his purpose, to apply to his own particular case. It has been said, I know, that Napoleon, when he made that unfortunate bequest, was afflicted with a nervous irritability, which almost amounted to insanity; in fact, I have heard it said, upon good authority, that for some months before his death he suffered under the delusion that he was in danger of assassination by some private agent of the Duke of Wellington; and I can conceive it possible that, in the ruin of that master mind, there might linger somewhat of the old Vendetta spirit of his native isle. I will no longer disturb his ashes. What I want to know is, whether this mischievous doctrine has been endorsed by the successor to his fortunes? I will state as succinctly as I can all the circumstances with which I am acquainted which bear upon that point. After the event known in this country generally by the name of the coup-d'état, the Emperor naturally desired to fulfil some of the provisions of the will of his uncle. He did not, however, fulfil all of them, for I believe that the total sum of the bequests left amounted to upwards of 200,000,000 francs, while the sum devoted to payment amounted to but 8,000,000 francs. Now, all the documents referring to the whole affair appeared in the Moniteur between the 14th of August, 1853, and the 6th of May, 1855, and they consist of reports of commissions, reports of Ministers, and of imperial decrees; in fact, of documents which denote a carefully revised course of action. Sir, I have studied those documents with great care, to see if I could arrive at any decided opinion on the subject, but I have been unable to do so. Had it been otherwise—had I arrived at any decided conclusion—I should have felt it my duty to take some opportunity—and I foresee many opportunities—of stating my conviction to the House one way or another. One fact, and one fact only, however, is certain, and that is—that to Cantillon the wages of assassination were paid in full. I find in the Moniteur of August the 14th, 1853, that it is stated that none of the legatees, except some servants, of whom Cantillon was certainly not one, had been paid in full. But in the report of the 6th of May, 1855, the name of Cantillon appears as the 32nd in the list of legatees, and at that time he is stated to have been the only person paid in full, and to have received the sum of 354 francs as interest. I, Sir, am quite unable to reconcile those two statements, and must leave them to be reconciled by those who possess fuller information than the Moniteur affords. The question which now remains to be asked is, under what particular circumstances did it happen that that reward was paid to Cantillon—a reward for attempting to destroy by assassination the most eminent English life of the nineteenth century? When was that legacy paid? Was it paid long ago, near the time when Napoleon was buried at St. Helena, or was it paid at a later date, near the time when we laid our own great chief in St. Paul's? Above all things, by whom was it paid? God forbid that I should assert that the Emperor of the French, whom his admirers love to call the saviour of order and society, has done this thing, has so far dishonoured France, and outraged our com- mon humanity. But, unfortunately, the ugly fact, that such an outrage was, by some person and at some time committed, remains; and the evidence of the fact remains in the Moniteur. Now, Sir, when the Emperor of the French, through his Minister, and through the noble Lord, speaks to the House of Commons, and tells us that "in England assassination is elevated to a doctrine and openly preached," I think that I have a right, as a representative of a British constituency, to ask who it was who preached that remarkable sermon in favour of the doctrine and practice of assassination in the official columns of the authorized organ of his own absolute Government? If he be clear of offence, let us, from some channel or other, have a full and final contradiction to the charge. I now respectfully appeal to the noble Lord at the head of Her Majesty's Government, and ask him if it be true, or if he will obtain authentic information as to the fact, that the legacy to Cantillon has recently been paid by the Emperor of the French?


I think, Sir, that the hon. Gentleman would have shown more good taste, and I think he would have displayed more a spirit of candour and justice, if, instead of appearing, in the statement which he has made, to assume what was the answer to the question which he was about to ask, he had contented himself with simply asking how the fact of the matter really stood. The hon. Gentleman implied, during the whole course of his observations—[Mr. STIRLING: I implied nothing.] I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon; the only inference to he drawn from what fell from him was that we were to assume, until the contrary was stated, that the legacy left to Cantillon by the will of Napoleon I. had been paid under the sanction and by the authority of the present Emperor of the French. Now, Sir, that assumption is absolutely false. There is not the slightest foundation for it. And I think it was the duty of the hon. Member opposite, or of any other hon. Gentleman who entertained a doubt upon a matter, the bearing of which was of so peculiar and delicate a nature in regard to international relations, to have taken the trouble—which he might have done privately—to ascertain how the facts stood before he brought it in so offensive a manner before the House. I will tell the hon. Member and the House what are the facts of the case. It is true, as has been stated, that there was a legacy left by the will of Napoleon I. to this man, upon the grounds mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. The executors of that will were General Bertrand and General Montholon. Between the years 1823 and 1826 those executors deemed it to be their duty, upon application made by Cantillon, to issue to him certain sums on account of that legacy. But the Government of the day had no participation whatever in that issue. It is quite unnecessary for me to remind the House that the Sovereign then upon the Throne, a member of the elder branch of the Bourbons, who owed the Throne, on which he sat, to the victories gained by the Duke of Wellington, could not for a moment have been cognizant and approving of such a legacy, or of the motive under which it was bequeathed. Nevertheless, the executors deemed themselves bound, as a matter of duty, between the years 1823 and 1826 to make the issues on account. When the present Emperor came to the Throne there were portions of the will still unexecuted, and he appointed a commission to carry out its conditions entirely. That, I think, was in 1854. To those Commissioners the widow of Cantillon applied for the balance which she contended was due to her, amounting to about 1,200 f. What did the Commissioners do? They refused to make the issue, alleging that in their opinion the testator must have been, labouring under mental aberration when he made such a bequest, and that they did not think it any part of their duty to give effect to it. This act on the part of the Commissioners was a spontaneous one, done on their own responsibility, just as the act of the executors had been; and neither in the one case nor in the other had the Executive Government anything whatever to do with the matter. In point of fact, then, the advance was made between the years 1823 and 1826, during the reign of the elder branch of the Bourbons; while the refusal to issue the remainder has taken place since the accession of the present Sovereign.


I rise, Sir, to explain. [Cries of "Order!"] I am in the hands of the House. The noble Lord has made an accusation against me in performing a public duty, which I endeavoured to do as temperately as possible. I understood the noble Lord to state that certain advances were made.


The hon. Gentleman is not entitled to address the House a second time.


Then, Sir, all I have to say is, that the noble Lord has thought fit to cast—


If the hon. Member has been misunderstood, or has any explanation to make as regards what he stated, no doubt the House will grant him its attention.


Sir, the explanation I have to give is this:—If I caught the noble Lord's meaning aright, he seems to have understood me to imply that the Emperor Louis Napoleon was guilty of paying this sum to this would-be assassin. I beg to state that I distinctly said, early in my speech, that I was quite unable to form any conclusion at all on that subject. I appeal to the House whether I did not say so; and it was certainly in consequence of the doubt I felt on the point that I wished to put my question. No one could be more gratified than I am at the noble Lord's statement.


I wish to ask my noble Friend at the head of the Government, whether any reply has yet been made to the despatch of Count Walewski, and if so, whether Her Hajesty's Government will be prepared to lay it on the table?


It will be in the recollection of the House that the hon. and learned Member for Sheffield (Mr. Roebuck) the other evening asserted positively that the legacy to Cantillon had been paid by the present Emperor of the French. On my doubting the accuracy of that statement, the hon. and learned Gentleman turned round upon me in a very sharp manner.


It is not competent for the hon. Member to refer to matters which passed in a former debate.


I simply beg to ask the hon. and learned Member for Sheffield what is his authority for making the statement to which I have alluded? I am sure the House must have heard with great satisfaction the facts stated by the noble Lord at the head of the Government in answer to a question of a most injudicious nature.


was understood to say, that as the hon. and learned Gentleman was out of order in putting his question, of course he could not expect any answer to it.