§ Mr. Bradlaugh, returned as one of the Members for the Borough of Northampton, came to the Table to take and subscribe the Oath, and the Clerk was proceeding to administer the same to him, when—
§ SIR H. DRUMMOND WOLFF
I object, Sir, to the Oath being administered to the hon. Member for Northampton.
§ MR. SPEAKER
I wish to point out to the hon. Member for Portsmouth (Sir H. Drummond Wolff) that the House is now engaged in the administration of the Oath of Allegiance to Members of the House. It will be the duty of the Clerk to administer the Oath to hon. Members as they come up one by one; but if the hon. Member for Portsmouth has any objection to offer now will be the time.
§ SIR H. DRUMMOND WOLFF
I beg to oppose the administration of the Oath to the hon. Member for Northampton.
§ MR. SPEAKER
In that case it is my duty to call upon the hon. Member for Northampton for the present to withdraw.
§ Mr. Bradlaugh having accordingly withdrawn,
§ MR. DILLWYN
I rose to Order, and my object was to ask you, Sir, whe- 188 ther an hon. Member, having presented himself at the Table for the purpose of taking the Oath, it is competent for an hon. Member to interfere?
§ MR. SPEAKER
The House is now engaged in carrying out one of its primary duties in securing that every Member on taking his seat in this House is called upon to take the Oath of Allegiance. A Member of this House has presented himself at the Table to take the Oath in the usual form. I am bound to say that I know of no instance where, a Member having offered to take the Oath in the usual form, any interposition has been allowed by the House to his doing so. Yet, if the hon. Member for Portsmouth rises in his place and has any observations to offer upon the matter, I may not consider it my duty to interpose. At the same time, I am not prepared to say, without hearing the hon. Member, and what the terms of his Motion are, whether it is a Motion which ought properly to be put to this House.
§ SIR H. DRUMMOND WOLFF
I beg to assure the House—["Move, move!"] I shall conclude with a Motion. I beg to assure the House that I have no intention of raising this point as a Party question, nor am I at all an advocate for what may be called religious intolerance. But I think, Sir, there are certain circumstances which disqualify the hon. Member for Northampton from taking his seat in this House, and I will proceed as shortly as possible to lay my reasons before the House. I think there has been a certain amount of undue haste in the manner in which this matter has been brought forward. The hon. Member himself has not acted in a manner which is entirely conformable with the precedents of this House. In the first instance he asked to make an Affirmation, and a Committee was then appointed to inquire into his right to do so; and it is only after the Report of that Committee against his pretensions that the hon. Gentleman comes forward to take the Oath. I think it is rather fortunate for the hon. Member himself that the Committee so decided, because I do not think that a Resolution of the Committee or even of the House would relieve him from the legal penalties to which he would have been liable had he taken his seat with an Affirmation. Under the Act of 1866, any Member taking his seat in this House, and not 189 belonging to certain sects or denominations, is liable to penalties recoverable in the Court of Westminster, and his seat is to be declared vacant. That cannot be set aside by any Resolution of this House. The hon. Member is a professed Atheist—-and by the Common Law of England an Atheist is not entitled to take an oath. I do not believe the hon. Member himself denies that he is an Atheist; but I have procured certain works that are published by the Free Thought Publishing Company, and among them I find a pamphlet entitled, A Plea for Atheism, written by the hon. Gentleman, and advertised and sold under his name. At the beginning of the pamphlet are these words—"It is as a propagandist of Atheism that I pen this essay." Some years ago it was found necessary, not so much for conscience as for public convenience, that evidence in Courts of Justice should be received which would otherwise be set aside because the witness had declared himself an Atheist. The great work on the Law of Evidence I believe is that of Mr. Pitt Taylor. Mr. Pitt Taylor says—The wisdom of requiring witnesses to be sworn, excepting under very special circumstances, cannot well be disputed; for, although the ordinary definition of an oath—namely, 'a religious asseveration by which a person renounces the mercy and imprecates the vengeance of Heaven if he do not speak the truth— may be open to comment, since the design of the oath is not to call the attention of God to man, but the attention of man to God; not to call upon Him to punish the wrongdoer, but on the witness to remember that He will assuredly do so; still it must be admitted that by thus laying hold of the conscience of the witness the law best insures the utterance of truth. But as the administration of an oath supposes that the witness feels a moral and religious accountability to a Supreme Being, who will justly punish perjury and from whom no secrets are hid, persons insensible to the obligations of an oath ought not to be sworn, as in their case it is a meaningless formality.It is perfectly clear, from the letter written by the hon. Gentleman which appears in the newspapers to-day, that he regards the taking of the Oath as a proceeding of a meaningless character, and he says that it will be so much the worse for those who have forced him to repeat words which convey to his mind no clear and definite meaning. When a certain change was made in the law relating to the giving of evidence in Courts of Justice, there was a penalty inflicted on those who gave false evidence under 190 an affirmation, and that penalty was substituted to some extent for the want of conscience; but that is not the case in regard to an affirmation or an oath of obligation where no penalty is attached to the breach of it. When the hon. Member tells the House that he has been admitted to make an affirmation in Courts of Justice, he must know that such an affirmation could only be administered to a witness objecting to take an oath when the presiding Judge was satisfied that the oath would not be binding on the witness's conscience. The hon. Member has, indeed, declared that no oath would be binding on his conscience. Therefore, it may be fairly asked, is the House to allow that formality now to be gone through which the hon. Member himself avows will be a mere formality, and nothing more? It might be urged that there would be no practical danger from allowing the administration of the Oath to the hon. Gentleman. The form of the Oath is—I, A.B., do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Victoria, her heirs, and successors, according to law.The hon. Member has infringed the stipulations of that Oath even before he has taken it, because in a book published by the Company with which the hon. Gentleman was connected, and called The Impeachment of the House of Brunswick, which is certainly not couched in terms complimentary to the dynasty, I find it stated that certain acts can be performed in this country to the detriment of the Throne without the consent of the Crown. It says—The object of the present essay is to submit reasons for the repeal of the Acts of Settlement and Union, so far as the succession to the Throne is concerned, after the abdication or demise of the present Monarch.I will not trouble the House by quoting the entire paragraph; but it says—It is further submitted that Parliament has full and uncontrollable authority to make any enactment and to repeal any enactment heretofore made, even if such new statute or the repeal of any old statute should in truth change the constitution of the Empire or modify the character and powers of either Parliamentary Chamber.It goes on to add that Parliament "has the undoubted right to withhold the Crown from Albert Edward Prince of Wales." Now, I cannot see how a 191 Gentleman professing the views set forth in that work can take the Oath of Allegiance. He can only do it if he looked on the Oath as an empty form which did not bind his conscience. Parliament has very wisely made a relaxation of the rule in favour of the members of different creeds and sects; but all those sects have a common standard of morality, a conscience, and a general belief in some divinity or other. What we have now before us is the distinct negation of anything like perpetual morality, or conscience, or the existence of a God. And, as I believe that a person holding these views cannot be allowed to take the Oath in this House, I beg to move my Resolution.
§ MR. R. N. FOWLER
I rise, Sir, to second the Motion, and I do so in order that I may inform the House that I hold in my hand a Petition most influentially signed by merchants and bankers, and others in the City of London, praying that no step be taken to allow any alteration of the law and custom of this Realm for the purpose of enabling one who denies the existence of a God to sit in Parliament. That is the feeling of my constituents, and I cordially concur with them in entreating this House not to admit an Atheist within its walls.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, in the opinion of this House, Mr. Bradlaugh, Member for Northampton, ought not to be allowed to take the Oath which he now requires to be administered to him, in eon. sequence of his having previously claimed, at the Table of the House, to make an Affirmation or Declaration instead of the Oath prescribed by Law, founding his claim upon the terms of the Act 29 and 30 Vic. c. 19, and the Evidence Amendment Acts of 1869 and 1870, and on the ground that under the provisions of those Acts the presiding Judge, at a trial, has been satisfied that the taking of an Oath, would have no binding effect on his conscience."—(Sir Henry Drummond Wolff.)
You, Sir, have put from the Chair the Motion which has been made and seconded; and you having thereby expressed your judgment that it is a Motion that can be entertained, we have to consider in what manner it is best to deal with it. Now, Sir, the first consideration which occurs to my mind, and one which is of the greatest weight, is this—that the matter on which we have been invited to proceed is one, in the strictest sense, of a judicial character. I wish the House to 192 bear in mind what these words import, and whether, if I am accurate in that statement, I am not warranted in proceeding to the next proposition which I would respectfully submit, and it is to the fact that there is considerable danger, when we view the nature of the topics which may be imported into this discussion, that if we proceed with the debate in this House it will be found very difficult to handle it in a manner strictly and properly judicial. I take, Sir, the few words which fell from the Seconder of the Motion. Will the hon. Gentleman forgive me for saying that it appeared to me that he had not considered with sufficiently rigorous care the nature of the Motion which he was seconding, because he thought fit to make the staple of his speech the presentation of a Petition which advances the proposition—in which it may probably be that many will concur—that it is not desirable that persons passing as Atheists should be Members of this House? But, Sir, that question is not a judicial question—it is a political and a Constitutional question of the greatest delicacy and importance. The hon. Gentleman introduces, I think erroneously and mistakenly, that political and Constitutional question into a discussion which, if I am right, is in the strictest sense of a judicial character. I might, perhaps, also draw another illustration from the speech of the Mover. The Mover, I think, was perfectly warranted by the terms of his Motion in referring to evidence which he thought necessary and sufficient to show that the description he gave of Mr. Bradlaugh's religious opinions—those opinions forming the ground of his objection—was a true description. But I must own that if this be a judicial handling of a judicial matter, I do not see what relevancy there was to the subject-matter in hand in that portion of his speech which referred to the political opinions of Mr. Bradlaugh. If I understood him rightly he wishes the House to understand that Mr. Bradlaugh was not in a condition to fulfil loyally the obligations of a subject. ["Hear, hear!"] Fresh evidence, I am bound to say, I find in support of the proposition that I have laid down and the proposition that I intend to make in the cheers which hail and accept the announcement that the hon. Member for Portsmouth has argued that Mr. 193 Bradlangh was politically not in a condition to fulfil his duty. That subject-matter, however important in itself, however delicate, however invidious when raised with respect to a particular Member of the House, does not enter into the Motion of the hon. Member for Portsmouth, and forms no part whatever of the evidence by which we ought to be guided in passing our judgment on that Motion. Why have I said that this question is one which is strictly judicial? There are many questions debated in this House with respect to which the epithet "judicial" is used, not without force, but, at the same time, with more or less of laxity. But, in this instance, if I am right, that epithet is applicable to the subject-matter of this discussion in the very strictest sense of which it is susceptible, for that in which we are engaged is the consideration of the fulfilment of statutory duty. It is not in consequence of any regulation enforced by the authority of this House— of a single branch of the Legislature, however complete that authority may be over the Members of this House, that the hon. Member for Northampton presents himself to take an Oath at the Table. He presents himself in pursuance of a statutory obligation to take the Oath in order that he may fulfil the duty with which, as we are given to understand in a regular and formal manner, his constituents have intrusted him. That statutory obligation imposed upon the hon. Gentleman primâ facie imports a statutory right on the part of the hon. Gentleman. I am not now arguing against the Motion of the hon. Member for Portsmouth. I am only pointing out the extreme delicacy of the ground on which the House stands, because it is dealing with statutory subject-matter, and its Resolutions are liable to be called in question and handled by Courts of Justice quite irrespective of what this House may think. Sir, the hon. Member himself has justly reminded us with reference to another part of the subject that it was fortunate for the hon. Member for Northampton that he had not succeeded in obtaining the administration of an Affirmation at the Table, for if he had succeeded in obtaining it he would have been liable to be prosecuted in a Court of Justice for sitting and voting in this House without having fulfilled the obligations imposed 194 upon him by law. I apprehend that is a perfectly true and warrantable observation; and it is just as true, on the other hand, which the hon. Member does not seem to have perceived, that if the hon. Member who just now came to the Table for the purpose of taking the Oath did not fulfil the duty imposed upon him by statute, but did take the Oath, as the hon. Member for Portsmouth seems to think, in a manner not acquitting him of that duty, he would still be open to these very prosecutions in a Court of Justice, and the law would have provided a remedy against the evil which the hon. Member seeks to secure by Resolution of this House. Now, Sir, as I understand the principal contention of the hon. Gentleman, it would come to this—that, inasmuch as there is a practice in the Courts of Justice by which, in any given circumstances, a Judge makes inquiry regarding the competency of a witness to deliver his testimony under the sanction of an oath, or in such other form as the law may permit or prescribe, so he appears to think that when a Member of Parliament presents himself at the Table of the House with the intention of fulfilling that statutory duty, it is within the power of the House to intercept that hon. Member.
§ SIR H. DRUMMOND WOLFF
No, Sir, I did not say that. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman does not wish to misrepresent me. I did not imply it. This is a very special case. The hon. Member for Northampton raised the question himself by asking to be allowed to make an Affirmation.
I beg the hon. Member's pardon. Everything that he says is entirely consistent with what has fallen from me. I represented him with the utmost accuracy. I did not intend to charge upon the hon. Member—or rather to assert, for there is no question of charging—that he has affirmed indiscriminately, and on all occasions, that the House is in a condition so to interfere and so to interpose and prevent the observance of the Oath by any Member; but the hon. Member conceives that, under certain circumstances, it is open to the House to make an inquiry, and for that purpose to intercept a Member when he presents himself to discharge what he conceives to be a statutory duty. That is, I think, a true representation 195 of what the hon. Gentleman said. If that be so, what I have to observe is that it appears to me clear what course the House ought to pursue As the Motion has been made we must take some course with regard to it. The case raised is one of the utmost novelty and nicety. I believe it is a case absolutely new. There have been cases when Members of this House have themselves raised the difficulty. Members of this House belonging to the Society of Friends have in other days declined to take the Oath prescribed by law, and demanded the substitution of an Affirmation; but there is no parallel between their predicament and that of the hon. Member for Northampton. In the same way, other Gentlemen professing the Jewish faith — Baron Rothschild and Alderman Salomons—have come to the Table here and declared their incompetency to take the Oath as it was tendered to them. In one of these instances the House, I think, appointed a Committee to consider what course should be taken, and whether it would not be possible to separate a portion of that Oath from the rest, so as not to affect what formed part of the body of the Oath. I think I am strictly accurate in saying that, so far as we know, the hon. Member for Northampton has presented himself at the Table with the intention of doing at the Table neither more nor less than exactly that which the statute prescribes. Then, the question that presents itself is new, and I think I may also say it is a very delicate one. Oaths in the Courts of Justice are not precisely on a parallel with the Oath taken in this House. I cannot assume it as self-evident that the power possessed by Judges belongs to Members of this House; and the intervention of the House in every instance has arisen solely and simply out of the fact that the Member presenting himself was not ready to do that which the Member for Northampton is ready to do to-day—namely, to comply exactly with the forms and proceedings prescribed. Well, then, in these circumstances, I am happy to think that we appear to have a mode of proceeding open to us which is safer and surer than the prosecution of an inquiry of this kind depending entirely upon the law of the land, and where the House moves at every step in danger of having its proceedings questioned. Considering 196 especially the extreme gravity, and delicacy, and importance of the matter at issue, and that there is such great danger of our deviating from the path of merely judicial investigation in order to express, it may be, wise or unwise opinions, but which seem scarcely to have a place in what ought to be a dry, dispassionate, and perfectly impartial inquiry, I have merely endeavoured to point out the difficulties which lie in our way, and I have not in the slightest degree expressed an opinion bearing upon the merits of the case; but I fall back upon precedent, and I find that in all cases it has been the wise practice of the House to refer the consideration of the matter to a Select Committee. That was the course taken a few days ago when the hon. Gentleman presented himself and claimed to affirm—most justly taken, and in strict conformity with precedent — because then there was a precedent strictly applicable to the case. Now, there is no precedent for proceeding in the case of a Member willing to fulfil the statutory duty as it is understood and administered by the officers of this House; but as the hon. Gentleman has raised the question, and as the House entertains it, it becomes a question fit for our consideration, and, under these circumstances, I cannot doubt that by far the wisest course will be again to refer to a Select Committee the question which has now arisen—one perfectly now and perfectly distinct from the question which was raised a very short time ago. I will read to the House the terms of the Motion I propose to make, and which I think will meet with very wide and general approval—That it be referred to a Select Committee to consider and report their opinion to the House whether the House has any right, founded on precedent or otherwise, by Resolution to pre-vent a duly elected Member, who is willing to take the Oath prescribed by the Acts 29 and 30 Vic. c. 19, and 31 and 32 Vic. c. 72, from doing so; and, if they are of opinion that the House has such right, further to report on what grounds it is competent to the House to prevent such Member from taking the Oath.That, I believe, will open the whole field of inquiry; and I beg, therefore, to move it as an Amendment.
To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "it be referred to a Select Committee, to con-
sider and report their opinion to the House whether the House has any right, founded on precedent or otherwise, by Resolution to prevent a duly elected Member, who is willing to take the Oath prescribed by the Acts 29 and 30 Vic. c. 19, and 31 and 32 Vic. c. 72, from so doing; and, if they are of opinion that the House has such right, further to report on what grounds it is competent to the House to prevent such Member from taking the Oath,"—(Mr. Gladstone,)
§ Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."
§ MR. GIBSON
said, that this was an extremely painful question, and he did not think there was any hon. Member on either side of the House who would not be glad to be relieved of the necessity of considering it at all. He admitted with the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister that the question was a difficult and delicate one. But if his hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth (Sir H. Drummond Wolff) required any justification for the course which ho had taken, it would be found in the proposal which had been made by the Prime Minister. The right hon. Gentleman had carefully abstained from expressing an opinion on one side or the other, but proposed to refer the question to a Select Committee; but he had done so in a manner which would leave very little discretion to that Committee in dealing with it. The right hon. Gentleman's words had ignored altogether the substance of the case they were now considering, and presented it as an abstract question, with every condition stated that would insure a particular finding; it ignored every special fact which had occurred before their eyes, and the facts which every one of them knew surrounded the case of the hon. Member for Northampton. It was not his hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth who had voluntarily obtruded on the attention of the House this painful and delicate question. On the hon. Member for Northampton must rest the responsibility of bringing this painful and disagreeable topic before the House. It might well have happened that, had the hon. Member presented himself in the crowd of Members who took the Oath a short time ago, he might have taken the Oath without any observation; but he deliberately elected to obtrude 198 himself on the House and the country. The hon. Gentleman had a right to his own private opinions, but must accept the grave responsibility of them; he had, however, shifted upon the House a large part of the responsibility for those opinions by taking them into his confidence by the action he had adopted. When ho had come to the Table, and had had placed before him the very simple, clear, and unambiguous obligation containing the Oath, when he had been tendered a Book which they all revered, ho had refused to accept the obligation or to take the Oath, and had then, in cautious and guarded language, claimed the right to make an Affirmation. By that claim he must stand or fall in the House of Commons. That claim was referred to a Committee, which decided against it; and, in his opinion, speaking with all deference to those Members of the Committee who differed from the majority—and no one could have a higher respect for the Law Officers of the Crown who were in the minority than ho had—very justly so decided. He thought that decision was entirely right. The Government had acquiesced in the decision of that Committee and did not seek to question it, and it must now be taken to form part of the admitted law of that House. Could they now ignore the fact that the hon. Member for Northampton had so recently declined to take the Oath and appealed to another sanction? Could they allow him to ignore all that and to come up as if nothing had happened? He desired to state the question as far as possible in a manner free from personal or disagreeable topics, in the spirit which had been so well described by the Leader of that House, in a judicial spirit. But he wished to direct the attention of the House to what had occurred; and after what had occurred he did not think that the course which had been adopted by his hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth was an unreasonable one. He admitted that the hon. Member for Northampton was, primâ facie entitled to come to the House and ask to discharge the mandate which had been intrusted to him by his constituents, and that no unreasonable delay should be placed in his way. His constituents had elected him as their Member, and ho was entitled to have the question speedily settled; but, at the same time, they must see that the 199 hon. Member was not allowed to do violence by his attitude to the conscience of the House of Commons, nor should they permit any violence to their usages, or wrenching of their Rules and practice, to suit the delicate workings of the hon. Member's conscience. On the 3rd of May the hon. Member did not take the Oath. He did not make that solemn appeal which was usually made by Members; but he did refer to something, and he rested his case on the Act of 1869. That Act contained words which had become familiar to Members of the House during the course of that debate. It set forth that—If any person called to give evidence should object to take an oath, such person shall, if the presiding Judge is satisfied that the taking of an oath would have no binding effect on his conscience, make the following promise.The hon. Member had claimed the benefit of that Act in the presence and hearing of the House, and had thus announced that an oath would have no binding effect on his conscience. Could they now, with full knowledge of all these circumstances, allow the hon. Member to take that Oath which he had declared to have no binding effect upon his conscience? They had all the materials before them for an almost immediate decision. Let them suppose that the hon. Member, when presented with the Book, had said—"I regard this Book as one which contains no sanction binding on me. You call it the New Testament of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ; I do not regard him as my Lord and Saviour. The first words of the Book are, 'The generation of Jesus Christ;' I do not believe in Jesus Christ. The last words in the Book are, 'The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.' I do not believe in that grace; I do not believe in that Jesus Christ." Supposing the hon. Member had said this, speaking with all respect, and merely expressing his own belief, and had said that he regarded the Oath as an empty unmeaning form, but that, as he was not allowed to affirm, he was willing to take it, in order to take his seat, what would then have been the feeling and action of the House? But was not that the very substance of what had occurred?" Would there not have been a thrill of horror and indignation through the House, and would not the unanimous conscience of the House have 200 declined to allow itself to be so openly outraged? The hon. Member had published a manifesto in that morning's paper which he assumed was intended to contain a moderate statement of the argument by which the hon. Member sought admission to the House. He did not desire to say anything offensive to the hon. Member; but what were the words with which he described the Oath which ho refused to take the other day? The hon. Member said—"It includes words of an idle and meaningless character, "referring, presumably, to the closing words;" it would be an act of hypocrisy voluntarily to take this form;" "the words of the Oath I have scores of times declared are to me sounds conveying no clear and definite meaning," and the hon. Member alluded to the final sanction as "a meaningless addendum to a promise." With these facts before them, could any hon. Member think that this was a case in which, without grave consideration and immense caution, an oath should be allowed to be taken in the way the hon. Member sought to take it? Immense caution was required before allowing an oath to be lightly taken; and yet no objection on this occasion had come from the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House. Some thought that identical conditions should exist for the taking of oaths in Courts of Justices and in the Houses of Parliament. But he would point out that the cases were different in their nature, because a person who, either by promise, or affirmation, or oath, took upon himself to speak the truth in a Court of Justice was liable, in case of a violation of his word, to certain penalties which would not be applied in Parliamentary life. Some persons thought that no oath whatever should be necessary before a man commenced his Parliamentary career. He was not surprised that the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister dissented from this proposition, and denied that he would ever be a party to the proposal that the necessity for Oaths should be removed, for in 1854 the right hon. Gentleman, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, said—I know there are some Gentlemen here who think we should come to the discharge of our duties without any oath. I do not happen to be one of that opinion. I revere the principle of the oath. I think it tends to maintain that 201 serious, reverential temper with which men ought to address themselves to solemn duties; but I say this, if you want to gain the real and substantial objects of the oath, you ought to frame it in a manner that should adapt it to those objects. Our oaths ought to be brief, ought to be simple. They ought to be the same for all—they ought to go directly to the point; they ought to be divested of all needless and useless words in order that the words we use by solemn sanction in the presence of God may be used with a sense of the presence of God, and in a temper which befits men doing a solemn act."[3 Hansard, cxxxiii. 900.]Those were eloquent and impressive words, and yet they were asked now to allow a man to take an Oath "in the presence of God," but "without a sense of the presence of God." Was not that a very grave and momentous issue? The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House, though he did not commit himself to any final opinion, appeared to suggest that where a statutable duty was imposed a correlative right was conferred. That was true, no doubt, in a general sense; but he would remind the right hon. Gentleman that all Courts of Justice had an inherent control and jurisdiction over their own proceedings and forms; and he held that when one of the most solemn Forms of the House was about to be outraged and treated in a way which a great many Members would regard as a kind of blasphemy, it could not be suggested that there was not an inherent power in that great Assembly to interfere and prevent such an occurrence taking place. How did they commence their proceedings? By prayers, which were heard every day with respect and reverence. What were the closing words of the gracious Speech from the Throne delivered to them on the previous day? They were words which asked for the blessing of God upon their labours. Again, the closing words of the Address to Her Majesty proclaimed their trust that the blessing of God might attend their labours. The subject before the House was a very difficult and painful one; and though he had listened with extreme attention and respect to the statement of the right hon. Gentleman, his difficulties were not removed by anything which the right hon. Gentleman had said. It was obvious that the case was beset with many difficulties; but plainly, and after deliberation, he could say that the hon. Member for Portsmouth was quite justified in his action, and that it would be 202 abhorrent to the consciences and feelings of a vast majority on both sides of the House if they were to find that an hon. Member added to their ranks had taken an Oath which bound their consciences by the solemnity and reverence of its sanction, but which was to him only an idle and unmeaning form.
§ THE ATTORNEY GENERAL (Sir HENRY JAMES)
said, there were some few words wanting from the speech of his right hon. and learned Friend—namely, the words which would have informed the House what course in the right hon. and learned Gentleman's opinion ought to be taken on that occasion. He looked upon the able and eloquent speech of his right hon and learned Friend as a speech in support of the Amendment of the Prime Minister. His right hon. and learned Friend agreed with the Prime Minister that the subject was one requiring the greatest caution and gravest consideration, and yet suggested that the judicial functions of the House should be exercised by the House constituted as it then was. This being the suggestion of his right hon. and learned Friend, how discordant to his ears must have been the cheers which greeted his speech, for they were hardly sounds which should issue from a body exorcising judicial functions. He was relieved in great measure from performing the duty of discussing the question before the House in relation to the legal rights of the hon. Member for Northampton because ho supported the Amendment of the Prime Minister, which suggested that the discussion of those rights should not be entered into in detail in the House, and which asked for full consideration of the rights in question under circumstances in which a speaker would not be cheered when explaining in eloquent language his general views. Unless they were seeking to deprive the hon. Member for Northampton of the rights to which he was entitled, why should they refuse that kind of inquiry which, in the House of Commons, most nearly approached judicial form? His right hon. and learned Friend opposite said that the right of the hon. Member for Northampton to a seat in the House depended upon whether he could secure his seat without violating the conscience of the House. Well, the right of the hon. Member to sit did not depend upon, any such consideration.
§ THE ATTORNEY GENERAL (Sir HENRY JAMES)
said, he would not discuss words with the right hon. and learned Gentleman; but he thought the words "violence to the conscience of the House" caught his ears. But the House must recollect that these forms were not the Forms of the House, but of the Legislature, and sanctioned by Parliament, and it was not for them to consider that shifting quantity, the conscience of the House, dependent upon whether the majority was sitting on one side of the House or the other. The question was whether, in refusing admission to the hon. Member for Northampton, they were not depriving him of his right, or that of the constituency which sent him to represent them. "What were the grounds, he would ask, on which it was alleged that the hon. Member was not entitled to take his seat? His right hon. and learned Friend admitted that if he complied with the Forms of the House he was entitled to take his seat. How did the hon. Member for Portsmouth seek to deprive him of that right? By going beyond what had occurred in the House and adducing hearsay evidence culled from books of the authenticity of which there was no proof. ["Oh, oh!"] It was clear, from that expression of dissent, that hon. Gentlemen opposite were now seeking to exercise judicial functions. They wished, upon common notoriety, to try the hon. Member at the Table of the House, and to sentence him to virtual expulsion for being an Atheist, a sentence which could not be revoked except by a vote of the House. And where, he would ask, was the authority for saying that an Atheist could not sit in that House? It might be right or wrong that he should not be permitted to do so; but he would not enter into that question, because it was not within the terms of the Motion, and yet the arguments adduced by the hon. Member for Portsmouth proceeded upon that proposition, and so also had one half of the arguments of the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for the University of Dublin. If it was right that they should be excluded, then let a Motion be brought forward to that effect; but let not the Oath, which was never intended as a religious test, but was imposed for a different object, be 204 taken advantage of for doing improperly what might be properly done if the question was raised with a sense of the responsibility attaching to it. Ho felt that he ought not to continue the legal argument at that moment; and it was somewhat strange, he thought, to have such an argument addressed by his right hon. and learned Friend to such an Assembly. He was not, at the same time, going to dispute that it was well that the question should be discussed; and what was asked for was that it should be considered in the most general terms, which would include the particular circumstances of the case before the House, by a Committee properly constituted. ["No, no!"] If the terms of reference were not deemed to be general enough, any suggestion on that point would be listened to and fully considered by those who ought to guide the House. If that were done, could anybody, he would ask, fairly contend that the right course to adopt was not to appoint a Committee to inquire into the subject, which his right hon. Friend beside him suggested every one must regard as being worthy of the gravest consideration?
§ SIR STAFFORD NORTHCOTE
Sir, the hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General, in commenting on the powerful and, as I think, very convincing speech of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for the University of Dublin (Mr. Gibson), observed that there was one thing wanting in it, and that was that he had said nothing to indicate the course which he would advise the House to adopt. I must say that, having listened to that speech, it did not seem to me that there was very much difficulty in understanding what that course was. I understood that speech to be in favour of the Motion which has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth (Sir H. Drummond Wolff), and the course which will be taken by my right hon. and learned Friend and by others will be to vote against the Amendment, and in favour of the original Resolution. The observations of the hon. and learned Attorney General appear to me to place the matter in this light. The question before us is, Shall we decide upon the Motion of my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth now, or shall we refer the matter to a Committee, and allow that Committee to report before we come 205 to any decision? I do not understand that the ultimate decision can rest with any Committee that may be appointed. I understand that in a matter of this kind the House will not part with its authority, in coming to a decision, to any Committee, however able and important that Committee may be. Ultimately, we must be the body ourselves to decide upon this question. It seems to mo that really we are in. a position to come to a resolution upon the facts before us, and I fail to see in what way the deliberations of a Committee are to assist us in dealing with it. The proposal that a question of this importance should be referred to a Committee, coming from the Government and made by the Leader of the House himself, of course, naturally commands attention and respect; but I must be allowed to say that the circumstances under which that proposal has been made, and the manner in which it has been made, considerably diminish the respect which ought to be given to such a proposal. If the right hon. Gentleman had, upon the receipt of the Report of the Committee, or at any subsequent time, given Notice that, having considered this question on behalf of the House which ho loads, he had come to the conclusion that it was necessary that inquiry should be made, and had he recommended the House, in the first instance, to take this stop of the appointing such a Commit-tee, we should naturally have listened with respect to the proposal, and given such attention as we could to the arguments in favour of it. But it must be within the observation of everybody that the Government took no action whatever in this matter; and that, although they have now proposed the appointment of a Committee, they have made that proposal as an Amendment to the Motion of my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, and that rather, as it were, in the nature of a plea in bar of that proceeding. And not only is that the case, but when exception is taken to the manner and form of this proposal for a Committee, we are told by the hon. and learned Attorney General they are quite prepared to re-consider the form of the Committee which they proposed to appoint; to reconsider the instructions and directions to be given to that Committee. And I say, if that in so, this is not a proposal 206 which comes to us with the weight which would have attached to it if it had been an original proposal.
§ THE ATTORNEY GENERAL (Sir HENRY JAMES)
Sir, what I said was that any suggestion that came from the front Bench opposite to make the Reference wider would be duly considered.
§ SIR STAFFORD NORTHCOTE
I do not wish to misrepresent the hon. and learned Gentleman. I understood that, and I thought that was the substance of what I was suggesting. But I say you must consider this as being a matter which the House must ultimately determine, and upon which, it seems to mo, the argument of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for the University of Dublin (Mr. Gibson) shows we have absolutely sufficient power to come to a decision now. What is the case? What is the very element of it? An hon. Gentleman has come forward under circumstances which we need not now repeat, and has given the House very clearly to understand that if he takes a solemn Oath at the Table of this House he does so declaring that it is a meaningless and idle form; and we are asked whether we, who recognize an Oath as a solemn and religious act, are prepared to admit that such an action should take place with our consent and approbation. We do not raise any question whether there is anything irrelevant in the course which the hon. Member proposes to take from his point of view; but I do think, looking at it from our point of view, that making ourselves parties, as we shall do if we permit him to take the Oath, to that proceeding, we incur a great responsibility, and one which I think this House should be slow to accept in the eyes of the country. It seems to me that the course which the House ought to take, and certainly the course which I myself and others will take, will be to support the Motion of the hon. Member for Portsmouth; but whether any further steps should be taken in consequence of that is a matter upon which I will not now enter. But with regard to the issue now raised by my hon. Friend, it seems to me that, taking the view we do of the sacredness of the Oath, we cannot make ourselves parties to its being taken in a manner and under circumstances which render it a really ridiculous and unworthy proceeding.
§ MR. LABOUCHERE
said, that as the Colleague of the hon. Member (Mr. Bradlaugh) in the representation of Northampton, he thought it right to state that his hon. Friend was selected by the majority of the constituency solely on account of his political views. They did not occupy themselves with his religious convictions, because they were under the impression that they were giving him political rather than theological functions to fulfil in that House. A proposal had been made by the Prime Minister that this matter should be referred to a Committee. It certainly did appear to him (Mr. Labouchere) somewhat strange that a Member who had been duly elected to that House should be told that ho could not take his seat because he was forbidden to make an Affirmation on account of his not being a Quaker or a Moravian, and because he was forbidden from taking the Oath on account of certain speculative religious opinions which he had professed. [An hon. MEMBER: Irreligious.] But that appeared to be the view of many Gentlemen on the other side of the House, and he should be perfectly ready to discuss that view; but as the Prime Minister had very rightly said, the matter was a judicial one, and it would be far better, in his humble opinion, that it should be referred to a Committee of the House to look at it in its judicial aspect rather than that there should be an acrimonious theological discussion in that House. When, however, it was referred to a Committee, he thought he had got a right to ask in the name of his constituents that that Committee should decide it as speedily as possible. Should the Committee decide that the hon. Gentleman was not to be allowed to take the Oath, it would then become, if not his duty, the duty of some other hon. Gentleman, to bring in a Bill to enable his Colleague to make an Affirmation, in order that his constituents might enjoy the right which the Constitution gave them of being represented by two Members in that House.
§ EARL PERCY
said, a great effort had been made to narrow the issue before them to a simple judicial one; but he ventured to think, with all submission to the legal authorities, that there was another aspect to this question. The House had always reserved to itself 208 the right to decide whether the conduct of a particular Member was such as to make him a fit person to exercise legislative functions; and it had even gone so far as to suspend or expel certain Members. Now, the question before them on the present occasion was whether the hon. Member for Northampton was a fit and proper person to sit in that House. They had heard a great deal about the rights of constituencies, and he should be sorry to infringe upon them in the slightest degree. The question had been put on its present footing entirely by the action of the hon. Member himself. In the letter which the hon. Member had sent to the papers, and which he, no doubt, published as a manifesto of his views for the information of hon. Members in that House—for there was not the slightest pretence that the document was a forgery—he declared that a man who voluntarily took an oath which was not binding upon his conscience committed an act of hypocrisy. The hon. Member, to do him justice, had sought to avoid taking an Oath to which he attached no sacred character; but, believing it to be forced upon him, he had at length expressed his willingness to take it. Well, if the House allowed him, under those circumstances, to take the Oath, it would itself, in his (Earl Percy's) opinion, incur the guilt of an act of hypocrisy. He was not now discussing the question whether Atheists ought or ought not to be admitted to that House as a matter of principle, though the present difficulty was, perhaps, only a necessary consequence of the past action of the House in so modifying the conditions of admission as to receive professors of every form of religious belief. He should be sorry, indeed, to see that House erected into a tribunal of conscience. But ho held that they could not, with a proper sense of self-respect, allow an hon. Member to take an Oath which, by his own declaration, would have no binding effect upon his conscience. He did not think that under the circumstances the House would be usurping a function which it ought not to discharge if it were to decide that it could not admit the hon. Member. The real truth of the matter was that the hon. Gentleman came to the House and declared that he intended to take God's name in vain. That was a course which the conscience 209 of the House could not allow. He certainly could not do so; and he would, therefore, vote for the Motion. He was sorry for the electors of Northampton if they were deprived of the services of one of their Representatives, because the hon. Gentleman was recommended to them by his hon. Colleague, whose religious opinions were well known; and he was further recommended by another hon. Gentleman, whose Christian principles were at least as well known, and who came from a distant part of the country to show his zeal—
§ MR. H. SAMUELSON
rose to Order. He wanted to know whether the noble Lord was in Order in referring to the conduct of hon. Gentlemen who had recommended the hon. Member for Northampton, when the question under discussion was as to the fitness of the hon. Member to take the Oath?
§ MR. SPEAKER
The remarks of the noble Lord, so far as they reached me, appeared to be quite relevant.
§ EARL PERCY
said, they were informed that day that the hon. Member for Northampton was elected on political and not on religious grounds. If that was the case it was an additional reason why they should be very guarded how they received the hon. Member on the footing on which he sought to be admitted, because his present position was wholly unforeseen by his constituents, who would now, he trusted, repudiate him. Ho thought the issue before the House was a very great one. He must protest against any idea that this was a Party movement. If they were, as a House of Commons, to have any religious faith and a conscience, without which he did not think they were fit to legislate for a great Christian country, they were bound to protest against the admission of the hon. Member on the ground that he had put forward, and also to protest against slipping out of the question by the course recommended to the House.
§ MR. JOHN BRIGHT
Sir, there seems to me to be one thing we are all unanimous about, and that is that the question before the House is one of some difficulty and of supreme delicacy. I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for the University of Dublin (Mr. Gibson) agrees entirely in that with my right hon. Friend at the head of the Government. I think 210 all persons who have any authority in this House now, or in times past have had, recommended Parliament to discuss questions of this kind, so difficult and delicate, with as little temper as possible, and with regard not to their own particular feeling or to particular points in connection with it, but with regard to what is absolutely just and according to law. Now, with us on this side, so far, the question has been treated purely as one of a judicial character. Those who have heard the speech of the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for the University of Dublin, however favourable a view they take of it, must, I think, admit that there were introduced' into that speech things which had nothing whatever to do with the law, and did not at all treat this question as one of a judicial character. Probably we are all, or nearly all, agreed in deploring the views with regard to the Christian faith and with regard to the character or the existence of the Supreme Being, which are understood to be held by the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Bradlaugh). Now, if there is one thing more than another that we are required to do by the Christian faith, by its precepts, by our regard to the character of the Supreme Being, it is that we should do as far as we know that which is perfectly just with regard to one of our fellow-Members of this House. We—I speak for my right hon. Friend who moved the Amendment, the hon. and learned Attorney General, and myself—we discuss this question simply as a question of right and a question of law, and not with reference to our religious views. We know that many hon. Members on the other side of the House probably would, and those who represented that Party in past times would, have excluded all the Catholic Members of the House on grounds which to them appeared very strong, and we know also that they would have excluded all the Members of the small Society with which I am connected. When Mr. Pease came to the Table of this House, after the passing of the Reform Bill of 1832, what did the House do? He said, "I cannot take the Oath," and further than that, "I cannot take the Affirmation in the words of the Oath." Well, the matter was referred to a Committee, and the Committee recommended to the House not only that 211 in his case the Oath should be dispensed with, but that he should be allowed to make an Affirmation, and that an essential portion of the Oath should be left out of the Affirmation. The House by its vote admitted him to sit among its Members; and some time afterwards, I do not recollect how long, the law was altered so as to admit those of his sect, and of two or three other sects, whose names are familiar to us all. The House there proceeded in a manner which should recommend itself to all persons in the country and to all persons in the House whose minds are not distorted by what I may call strong religious feeling and fanaticism, or what amounts to what I may call religious passion. I know that when a thing is passed some 30 or 40 years ago we can look back upon it with cooler minds than when the facts are transpiring before us. The noble Lord who has spoken said he should be sorry to see anything in the shape of an Inquisition established by Parliament; but unless you take care what you are doing in this case you will endeavour, by a vote of this House, to establish an Inquisition. And if you are entitled to obstruct what I call the right of a Member of the House to take his seat on account of his religious belief, because it happens to be the belief or no belief ho has openly professed, what reason is there that any Member of the House—I will not mention the name, but a very distinguished name will occur to the mind of many Members—what objection would there be, if that Gentleman was now in the House, that he should be asked the question which the hon. Member for Portsmouth would put, and that if he did not answer the question in the way the hon. Member thinks he should answer it, you should then be at liberty to object to his taking his seat amongst us. The late Chancellor of the Exchequer has spoken. I want to call attention to the position in which he stands in this matter. The other night he agreed to the appointment of a Committee. So I understand from what appeared in the Papers. The question was this—whether an hon. Gentleman coming to this Table should be compelled to take the Oath, or whether he should be permitted to make an Affirmation. Some people think Affirmations are no good, and that Oaths are a great good. I do not think there is much good in either of them. 212 But there is one thing I believe most profoundly, that there is nothing among mankind that has more tended to destroy truthfulness than the forcing of men to take an oath. Well, but the right hon. Gentleman the late Chancellor of the Exchequer judged, to my mind, very wisely. He said, This is a question of law, and the House is not competent to decide upon a question of law of this kind. It is not a question of voting; it is a question of statute law; and, therefore, he agreed to a Motion from this side of the House that it would be desirable that the House should divest itself of this matter, and not try to assume a judicial function, but should refer the matter to a Committee, which should carefully inquire into it. I was on that Committee. I was one of the minority. There were four eminent lawyers on one side, and three or four on the other. The question was very delicate, as the House well saw, and perhaps difficult to determine; but the question being referred to the Committee, the Committee decided, and by a majority of one vote, which was furnished from this side of the House, that the hon. Member for Northampton could not, according to law, make an Affirmation. Are you now to turn your backs upon that argument of the right hon. Gentleman with respect to questions of law? Are you to say that it was necessary for a Committee to determine what was the law in that case, but that tonight, when it is a question whether a Member duly elected can take his seat unless he agrees with all the things you have put into the Oath which you require him to take; that you will decide by a multitudinous vote of the House that you will have no legal opinion, no reference to a Committee of judicious and eminent Members, selected from both sides, but will dare to come to a decision, though it may be absolutely contrary to the statute law which you yourselves have been parties heretofore in making? It appears to me the right hon. Gentleman the late Chancellor of the Exchequer is inconsistent to an amazing degree, because, if it was right the other night to agree to a Committee to determine whether a Member could take an Affirmation instead of an Oath, surely it is fair to ask that the House should agree to a Committee with the view of ascertaining whether, according to law 213 —and that is the question—the hon. Member for Northampton may be allowed to take an Oath at this Table. Now, I have no right to speak of the hon. Member for Northampton. I think it never happened to mo more than once to address to him a single sentence, or to hoar any expression from him. I never saw him, to my knowledge, but once before he appeared in this House; but ho is returned hero by a largo constituency, and by a large majority, to whom his religious opinions were as well known as they are now to us. All the means that men could take—that the hon. Member for Portsmouth would have taken—to explain, and, if possible, to exaggerate what we call the sorrowful parts of Mr. Brad-laugh's views, were taken to make the whole of the electors of Northampton fully cognisant of his views. And yet ho was elected, and he comes to this House; and without a Committee, without any legal inquiry, without any calm consideration and examination, you are asked to shut him out from this House because the Oath which you ask him to take is not, in a certain portion of it, binding on his conscience. Now, I have no doubt whatever, though I have no authority to say so, that the Oath as it stands is binding on the conscience of the hon. Member for Northampton in the sense that an Affirmation would be binding on his conscience, that the words of the Oath, so far as they are a promise, are words which would be binding upon him, but that their binding character is not increased by the reference to the Supreme Being, of whose existence, unhappily, as we all think—such is the constitution of his mind, and such has been the constitution of many eminent minds of whom we all have heard—he is not able to form that distinct opinion and belief which we, who I think are more happy, have been able to do. Therefore, if he were to come to the Table and take the Oath as it is, and as he proposes to take it, I have no doubt that it would be binding on his conscience as my simple Affirmation is binding on mine; because in my Affirmation there is no reference to the Deity. I make a promise. My word is as good, and taken to be as good, as your Oath. And that is declared by an irrevocable Act of Parliament. And if Mr. Brad-laugh take this Oath, as ho proposed to 214 take it, I have no doubt that, though the last words of the Oath have no binding effect upon him, yet his sense of honour and his conscience would make that declaration as binding on him as my Affirmation is on me and as your Oath is on you. The question is—What should the House do? I think it would have been much better if we had not opened the inquisition of which the hon. Member opposite spoke; but having opened it, clearly, if we can put ourselves forward six or 12 months, we should be able to discover that we should be very much wiser to take some mode of deliberate or careful examination be-fore the House shall come to any definite conclusion upon a question which, on that Bench and on this, is declared to be one of the most delicate, and, perhaps, one of the most difficult, that has ever been submitted to Parliament with regard to the rights of any of its Members. If you take the course which the right hon. Gentleman the late Chancellor of the Exchequer and the right hon. and learned Member for the University of Dublin seem to recommend, you will launch yourselves immediately into a sea of troubles. You recollect the case of Wilkes. You know to what degree of humiliation the Crown and Parliament were brought by the conduct of Parliament in that case; and now, if you take the advice of the hon. Member for Portsmouth, supported by the converted opinion of the right hon. Gentleman the late Chancellor of the Exchequer, as I said before, you launch yourselves on a sea of trouble. You come into conflict with a great constituency. I know not whether you will declare the seat vacant; but if you do, I need not tell you that it would soon be filled again, and that the contest and the difficulty would again be presented to you. Would it not be better now that you should take the advice of the First Minister of the Crown, whose experience has extended over so many years, whose devotion to the Christian faith is at least not less than that of any Gentleman opposite, and whose anxiety to support the dignity of the Crown and the honour and the influence and the dignity of Parliament cannot be called in question by anyone in this House or in this country. Would it not be better to take the advice which ho has tendered to the House, which will allow you a fair op- 215 portunity for calm consideration and for a wise and a righteous judgment? I think the House of Commons will stand badly with the whole nation and with history if it should determine, on the case before us, to shut the door irrevocably against the hon. Member for Northampton, to adopt the proposition of the hon. Member for Portsmouth, and to reject what I think is the statesmanlike and judicious course which has been suggested to us by the First Minister of the Crown.
§ MR. GRANTHAM
thought the subject which had been brought forward was one of the most important that had been mentioned in Parliament for many years, and one which the House ought to determine for itself, instead of relegating it to any Committee which might be appointed. The charge of inconsistency brought against his right hon. Friend (Sir Stafford Northcote) was unfounded. The point the other night was one of law, which very properly was referred to a Committee; but the present question was altogether different. It had nothing to do with judicial or legal rights at all; but it was whether a Member should be allowed to take an Oath which he himself had openly declared would have no binding effect on his conscience. They had it on record that the hon. Member for Northampton declared in a Court of Law that he did not believe in the Deity or in a future state of rewards and punishments; and that being so, the House was in a position at once to come to the conclusion that he ought not to be permitted to take the Oath. Her Majesty's Government ought, however, to have taken that responsibility upon themselves, and not to have thrown it upon the shoulders of their opponents.
§ MR. WALTER
rose to throw out a suggestion towards the solution of the difficult and delicate subject, as it had been properly described, under consideration—the only solution, in his opinion, which he believed to be practicable, and towards which he was quite sure the discussion tended. If the vote which he was about to give turned upon the question whether or not the hon. Member for Northampton should be permitted to go to the Table and take the Oath, to which ho had openly declared he attached no value, he, for one, should decline to sanction his doing so. But 216 that was not the question, and he said so because he thought that so long as the House required its Members to declare their allegiance to the Crown under the sanction of an Oath, it ipso facto constituted itself the guardian of that outward decency and respect, at all events, with which such a solemn ceremony should be regarded. But his opinion was, and had long been, tending in the direction indicated in the speech of his right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham (Mr. John Bright), that the time had come when they ought to consider, as he was sure they would yet consider, whether their allegiance to the Crown was at all strengthened by that form, whether a simple Affirmation, which every Member should take, would not be equally satisfactory. There was all the difference in the world between taking an oath to keep a certain promise and taking an oath in a Court of Justice with regard to a matter of fact, of which the person who took the oath was possibly the only witness. Substantially, they had no oath in the most solemn transaction which any one of them could perform — namely, the making of what was called the marriage vow. The obligation of that vow was not contracted under any form of oath; and he was of opinion that if a Member of that House was guilty of breaking the Oath of Allegiance to the Crown, ho would be liable to be prosecuted in a Court of Justice, not for perjury, but for treason, or sedition, or some offence of that kind. He thought, therefore, it would be apparent to everyone that the analogy of an oath in a Court of Justice did not hold with regard to a promise of the character they made in that House; and he would vote for the appointment of the Committee simply and solely in the hope that its deliberations would tend to that conclusion, by which alone he believed the question could be settled in a manner at once honourable and satisfactory to them all.
§ MR. O'DONNELL
said, he was afraid he could not admit that the suggestion of the hon. Member for Berkshire (Mr. Walter) to substitute a promise for an oath would entirely meet the delicacy of such a situation as the present. As an Irish Catholic, he always listened with pleasure to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Birmingham (Mr. John 217 Bright), and ho had not listened with any displeasure to his reminder that it was the Liberal Party which had emancipated the consciences of Catholics; hut ho certainly thought there was something more than poetic justice in the Act, for if ho read history aright the penal laws were the work of Whig Parliaments. The right hon. Gentleman deprecated the introduction of heated terms into the discussion; hut as ho had heard the right hon. Gentleman use words such as fanaticism and the like, he gladly concluded that the vigour of youth still burnt under the snows of his venerated and honoured age. In venturing to interpose in the former discussion, he thought ho was entitled to protest against the seemingly evasive manner in which the question was attempted to be met. It was, indeed, a difficult and delicate question, not only for the hon. Member for Northampton and the interesting electors of Northampton, but for the party which would evidently desire to get out of the difficulty by a side door. He entertained a sincere admiration for the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government; but he confessed that at times he felt that the resources of the right hon. Gentleman's mind enabled him to draw distinctions sometimes too fine for ordinary individuals, and on other occasions to ignore broad facts which struck the sense of almost all the rest of the world. In looking to the terms of the proposed Committee suggested to the House by the right hon. Gentleman, he could not but think that they distinctly ignored some broad facts which were patent to most of them. The question before the House was not as to the case of a man, sceptic, or Atheist, who came up and took the regulation Oath, considering it a merely idle and meaningless formality, but who did not obtrude his infidelity upon the House; it was that of a man who did so, and by doing so imposed upon the Legislature a corresponding duty. When the elected of Northampton claimed to make an Affirmation he gave the House references, and they were entitled to follow those references. The hon. Member referred the House to the Law Courts, before which on several questions, more or less savoury, he was required to appear. They were, then, entitled to go to the Law Courts, and 218 to learn the ground on which he claimed the right to make an affirmation; and the 'ground was that an oath was not binding on his conscience, as he did not believe in God or in the sanctions of morality, and that, at any rate, his word would be quite equal to his oath under any circumstances. The House had resorted to the records of the Law Courts on other occasions. He had referred before now to the case of the county of Tipperary and its election of the eminent Nationalist, John Mitchel, by an overwhelming majority. The House, nevertheless, went to the records of the Law Courts, according to which he had been convicted of felony, and very little regard was shown for the position in which the electors of Tipperary were placed. In this case, the House had similar rights and equal duties. He would not venture to prejudge the ultimate decision of Parliament when this question was brought fairly before it; but he protested against any attempt to keep the real question from coming before the House. He had great respect for a special Committee; ho had listened with the greatest interest to the Attorney General's description of the peculiar sanctity attaching to a special Committee, on which the legal element would be largely represented. Even with regard to the proceedings of the late Committee on another branch of the subject, it was a matter of public remark that those intensely legal consciences seemed to be largely following in the groove of well-known political convictions. With his opinions, he would have much more confidence in the result of a special Committee on this subject proposed by the present Government with the apprehensions which actuated them if, with a good majority on the Committee, the return of Mr. Bradlaugh had been previously secured. This was a most grave and difficult question; it was one of serious responsibility, which concerned the House on all sides. It was easy to say that a Gentleman had been returned by a constituency; but still the Government had said nothing to justify the belief that a wish expressed by an overwhelming majority of the Irish constituencies would be received forthwith as having the force of law by the united Liberal Party. Were they to suppose that any person pursuing any occupation, possessing any 219 kind of reputation, getting in for a constituency, under any auspices, was forthwith entitled in all cases to come into that House, even when he declared that the Forms of the House were an idle and meaningless mockery? Suppose that a man of unevitable notoriety, who went round the country preaching the most subversive and the most disgusting doctrines, dubious as his trade and calling were, felt it necessary, as more honest traffickers did, to obtain a larger advertisement; and suppose it occurred to that man, while still maintaining his pretences and audacity before his customers, that it would be a useful advertisement for that sort of business to be able to affix to his name the honourable designation of a Member of this Imperial Parliament upon the title-page of some vile and abominable pamphlet that was sold in the bye-ways and lanes of our great cities, that was addressed not only to the mature judgment of men and women, but was thrust by nameless agents into the hands of youths and maidens of tender years, that inculcated practices of the foulest debauchery upon the youngest and most susceptible minds, that, appealing to the community at largo, would reduce Christian, Jewish, and human wedlock and human love to something lower than the union of beast and beast; and suppose it occurred to this man that ho would be able to obtain that advertisement by writing in some paper of large circulation that he would only consider the Forms of the House as a meaningless mockery. This was what was involved in the casuistry of the responsible Government of a Christian people that such an open announcement of a most immoral course was to pass muster in that House with the oaths and solemn affirmations of honourable men. The subject was one which demanded at least the most mature and deliberate consideration. The Amendment submitted bore all the traces of a keen forensic mind engaged in turning corners; and in so grave a matter it ought to have been printed and placed in their hands, so that they might have had full time to consider it and propose Amendments. He felt strongly on the point; he felt sure his interference would not be resented by any Member; and for the reasons he had given he concluded by moving the adjournment of the debate.
§ LORD RANDOLPH CHURCHILL
seconded the Motion, remarking that the hon. Member who had moved it had had a good deal of experience in moving adjournments; but he thought on the present occasion his experience and his judgment had guided him rightly. If the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government had been able beforehand to place this Resolution on the Order Books of the House it would have been far more convenient, for there could be no doubt that when the Resolution and Amendment were in print various Amendments would suggest themselves to hon. Members on both sides of the House, which would lead to an important debate. He thought that, under these circumstances, the best course to pursue would be to adjourn this debate, in order that the subject might be fully considered.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Debate be now adjourned."—(Mr. O'Donnell.)
I do not believe it would have been competent for the hon. Member for Portsmouth to have communicated his intentions to the House, and naturally it would have been still less competent for me to have given Notice of mine. Her Majesty's Government had no intention of interfering with the regular and usual course of proceeding; but the subject raised by the hon. Gentleman, a subject of the utmost gravity, has undoubtedly come before us for consideration. I regret there should be any indisposition to take the first step of dealing with the Motion of the hon. Member for Portsmouth; yet I cannot deny the force of the arguments of hon. Members who desire further to consider the precise bearing of the subject, and, although it is an inconvenience, I will not take upon myself the responsibility of resisting the proposed adjournment. My desire is to obtain a careful consideration of all the steps we take, for the House may be in considerable danger if it takes a false stop; and, therefore, I shall not oppose the Motion for adjournment.
§ SIR H. DRUMMOND WOLFF
agreed that an adjournment was desirable; but he hoped the debate might be resumed at the earliest opportunity.
§ Motion agreed to.
§ Debate adjourned till Monday next.221
§ SIR STAFFORD NORTHCOTE
desired to ask a question, not that he had any doubt on the subject, but in order to satisfy the minds of others; and it was whether, in the present position of the question, the hon. Member for Northampton would be admissible to take the Oath until the debate was concluded?
§ MR. SPEAKER
I certainly should think it my duty to object to the hon. Member for Northampton taking the Oath until the debate is concluded.
§ Several other Members took and subscribed the Oath.