§ The order of the day being read for the third reading of this Bill,
§ Lord Erskine
said, that his objections to the principle of the bill in almost all its parts, lay within a very narrow compass, and he desired to preface them by admitting the whole of what had been so ably and eloquently said the other night by his noble and learned friend upon the woolsack, except in its application to support the measure now under consideration. He agreed with him that there might be times and seasons in which it would not only be wise and expedient, but indispensably necessary to suspend the strongest provisions of the law for the protection of public liberty, and he would go farther and say, that the more excellent the constitution to be protected (and none could be more excellent than our own) the greater sacrifices ought to be made, and willingly submitted to by the people, to se-§1228 cure it from the danger of subversion. The first question, therefore, for decision was, what evidence the House had before it of impending dangers, to justify the passing an act of the description now before them, supposing its provisions to be well framed to avert them? and 2dly, whether, admitting all the facts collected by the report, though standing upon ex parte evidence, without any knowledge in the House at large of the sources from which they proceeded, the bill was either necessary or a proper remedy?
As to the first, he regretted that the real state of the country at large had not been examined by the whole House, instead of by so very select a committee. Equal secrecy might have been preserved, and there was not now the same objection to publicity as in the year 1795, when nevertheless the whole evidence was made public. At that time it was improper in the extreme, because several persons were then in custody for high treason, whose trials were immediately to be had upon the very charges authenticated by the report; whereas no individuals could at all have been implicated or affected at present, if the whole case had been openly and impartially sifted at the bar of the House, and even then it need not have been made public.—If that course had been pursued, he should have known precisely the grounds on which he was to act on a subject of such vital importance. He reposed the greatest trust in the honour of the committee, yet he could not be satisfied with ex parte evidence, without even knowing what it was, but only the general results. The committees of both Houses in 1795 were equally composed of men of honour and capacity, yet all their conclusions from the evidence before them, was falsified upon the trials which followed. The act, like the one now before them, gave them the power to arrest at their pleasure, and to postpone the trials till the period of full preparation; yet they could justify the arrest of but very few, and not one whom they arrested was convicted. Of all men living, therefore, he thought he had a right to pause from the experience of that period, so very different from the present, and so comparatively alarming.
In 1795 his majesty's message informed the House, that he had detected a formed and widely extended conspiracy to subvert the government by holding a convention to assume all the functions of parlia- 1229 ment,—that he had arrested the conspirators, and seized their papers, which would establish their treason. Upon the present occasion, would any man assert upon the face of the report, even if it could receive no answer, that such a case existed? Had any discovery been made like that of 1795? Or had any such communication in the king's message been made to the House? So far from it, that only a few days ago, not even a hint was given in the speech from the throne of any danger to the state; nor did any thing exist out of doors to justify even the suspicion of any disorders demanding the interference of parliament.
Nothing certainly could be more atrocious than the traitorous attack upon the person of the Prince Regent, but it was impossible even to imagine a case so little calling for the aid of any new law. The treason might have been the act of some lunatic or solitary miscreant, but which he admitted might have been suggested and concealed by the disorderly multitudes too long suffered to surround the first magistrate when exercising the highest functions of the government. He did not mean this as any censure of the noble secretary of state, who had prepared, he had heard, even 700 constables to be present, but to lament, as an abuse of very long standing, that persons who ought immediately to be secured and punished by the existing laws, had long been suffered with the most perfect impunity to revile the members of both Houses of Parliament, as ignorance or malice happened to dictate, and even the king himself when going down to assemble the states of the kingdom. This was a great evil in itself, and produced many others, being he was well convinced, connected at least in principle, with other riotous proceedings, which must have been made the foundations of the bill before them, though the laws were so notoriously competent to suppress them. The meeting at Spa-fields, whatever might have been the intentions of those who assembled it, became very soon of that description; and no body surely could be heard to say that it might not have been immediately dispersed by the magistrates, whose duty it was to be present. It was not at all necessary that there should be acts of violence to justify the putting the not act in force; it was enough if, in the judgment of the magistrate, it was dangerously tumultuous; or if it had even an obvious tendency to ordi- 1230 nary riot, which the law placed in his judgment also, he had powers already which the bill before them did not propose to add to, and which no possible law could strengthen. The not act seemed scarcely indeed to be consistent with a free constitution. It was passed in an unsettled state of the government, at least in well justified apprehension; but it had continued permanent in the best of times, because parliament and the courts of justice were always at hand to correct any abuses of it; and it was a great instrument of safety, not only in times of public danger, but to protect even the multitude themselves from the consequences of disorders into which they maybe innocently and inadvertently led, by designing and mischievous men. All such evils the existing laws were also sufficiently extensive to reach, and strong enough to punish. The existence, therefore, of the not act was in itself an unanswerable objection to the present bill; because it provided for the exercise of every power which ought to be left to the discretion of the magistrate; and to extend it farther appeared to him to be a violation of every principle of a free government.
Whether a riot or tumult existed were mere matters of fact which no magistrate could mistake, but the sentiments and opinions of persons peaceably assembled, and upon subjects which the fundamental laws of the realm entitled them to consider, were not matters upon which any man ought to be permitted to act on his own single judgment. Yet he would show the House, by referring distinctly to the provisions of the bill, that the right of petitioning the Crown or parliament, so solemnly enacted and secured by the bill of rights, could not be exercised if any one magistrate appointed by the Crown refused to give his consent. The framers of the bill seemed to have been so sensible of the indefeasible privilege of the people to communicate their feelings and sense of grievances to one another, that it prescribed the restrictions under which it was for a season to be exercised; enacting the previous notice of seven householders, as particulars directed in it.—When these forms were observed, there was then, even by the consent of parliament, a legal meeting to consider every subject of government, as much as if no other law since the bill of rights had ever been passed or thought of—yet, 1231 what followed? Their meeting, so legalized, could not continue a moment to consider of a petition for the reform of parliament, by the communication of opinions concerning ifs defects, if any one magistrate dissented from the expression of them. Lord Erskine here said, that he would not extend his objections farther than was absolutely necessary for the protection of public liberty, and the security of the people. A single justice might apprehend any person who uttered expressions bringing into contempt the person of the king. He should make no remark on that, because there was no dangerous latitude given by it, since to hold language disrespectful to the first magistrate of the state, could never be useful for the support of freedom, and because the real mind and feeling of the speaker could hardly be mistaken. In the same manner, there was a power of arrest given, if it should be propounded in any notice to hold a meeting, or at any meeting when assembled, that the laws might be altered without the consent of parliament; (no such thing by-the-by, ever having been propounded, nor ever would if the bill before them were thrust into the fire).—Yet he saw no objection in such a case to the judgment of the magistrate, as it involved no dangerous discretion, and as, in both these cases, he might be punished for a malicious abuse of his trust; but when the provisions of the bill extended to authorize even one magistrate to apprehend any person upon his own judgment and opinion of any matter uttered, which had even a tendency to bring into contempt the parliament, or any branch of the constitution, it was manifest that the reform of parliament could not be agitated in the most cautious and justifiable terms without the permission of a single justice of the peace.
Let me here, said lord Erskine, only put this case—suppose a person, at a meeting duly authorized to assemble by the very bill before you, if you pass it, should say honourably, and with the most public-spirited intention,—"My objection to the House of Commons is not at all to the persons who at present compose it, nor to any distrust I have in their disposition to serve the public; but to the formation of the House itself, which was intended to be a balance in the government against the powers given by the constitution to the King and the Lords; but how can that in common sense be considered to be a ba- 1232 lance against these two powers, if they themselves elect the majority of those who are to balance them? Is it possible, my friends, in common sense, to say that the principles of our government are preserved whilst such an abuse continues, or that any House of Commons so constituted, can fulfil the functions of representatives of the people." Now, my lords, is not such language legal? Will any man venture to deny it? Yet does it not bring into contempt within the principles of your law, the Commons House of Parliament? For what can be a higher contempt of private men or public magistrates than to say they are unfit for their functions? Let me suppose, then, that some justice, thinking it dangerous to reform parliament interrupted such a speaker, and arrested him, and that any one or any number of peaceable persons present should surround him and say, "Pray, sir, hear this gentleman out,—let him finish what he has to say,—do not be so hasty in arresting him," this conduct though, with the purest intention, would, under this law, be "letting and hindering" this single magistrate in the execution of his duty, and would be felony without benefit of clergy.
Lord Erskine said, that the case he had put not only might happen, but certainly must happen, if magistrates were to act up to the provisions of the bill; and what was behind was still more objectionable, inasmuch as such discourse of any one man, though justified and supported by no other person present, put it in the power of the magistrate to dissolve the whole meeting, though composed of thousands of the most peaceable subjects, the obnoxious, orator after all, having been hired on purpose to bring about their dispersion. Lord Erskine therefore said, he had no doubt that the real object of the whole bill was, to discourage and discountenance the reform of parliament, wherever, or however considered; as it was utterly impossible to discuss any imperfections in the representation of the House of Commons without offending against the law, if any one magistrate, however, mischievously or foolishly, was determined to put it in force.
He had a great respect for the magistracies of the country, which was under the highest obligation to the gentlemen who took upon them its painful and laborious duties; but it should be remembered, that the powers he had objected to, were not given to the highest of the judges, nor 1233 to all of them together. His noble and learned friend who presided with such truly great ability, and with so much usefulness in the highest court of law, could not take upon himself to decide what was, or what was not "a bringing into contempt the constitution of the kingdom." He could only deliver his opinion to the ordinary classes of our people, composing a jury of the country, although the matters to be judged of, were the deliberate acts of the mind in written and published compositions; how much the less fit, then, was it in a manner to repeal the libel act, and to stigmatize its principle by giving a power to the lowest magistrates, to judge of the quality of the most unpremeditated discourses? He could hardly, indeed, persuade himself that he was speaking to the same assembly which had sanctioned that wisest of our laws. Lord Erskine said, that though, what he had already stated seemed to admit of no aggravation, it ought not to be forgotten, that the further power given to one justice was of the most preposterous description. If his noble and learned friend at the head of the King's-bench (to continue the analogy) were to give the most enlightened opinion in the case of a libel, a contrary opinion in his brethren on the bench would annul it; but here any wrong headed justice the very reverse of the noble chief justice he had alluded to, might arrest the most innocent person for sedition, and dissolve the most peaceable assembly, though any number of magistrates present at the very same meeting, might be of opinion, and even express it, that there was no foundation for doing either.
The next matter to be considered was, whether the provisions of the bill, even if they could be reconciled with the principles of a free government, were any thing like a remedy for the evils pointed at in the report, supposing them all to I exist? For his own part, he was convinced that they would tend to increase them, because, when public meetings subjected men to the danger of interruption and punishment, it would drive them into secret conspiracies, where the law might not reach them, until neither law nor power could suppress them. To speak plainly, he considered that such a principle of restraint and terror, in the administration of any government, instead of a liberal trust in the affections of the people, from the benefits resulting from freedom, was sure to engender sedition, 1234 and had generally ended in revolution. He had always thought so—it had been the feeling that had governed all his conduct from his first coming into parliament, and must ever continue to direct it. If this bill passed, the people seemed to be hunted out of all their liberties. Out of doors the magistrate might disperse them—within doors a licence might be refused! He considered this to be a manifest system of terror, instead of a government of affection and freedom. Mr. Burke, in his letter to the sheriffs of Bristol on the affairs of America, placed this important subject in the strictest point of view. It had not passed through his mind for very many years, but it must ever continue there:—"Liberty is in danger of being made unpopular to Englishmen, Contending for an imaginary power, we begin to acquire the spirit of domination, and to lose the relish of honest equality. The principles of our forefathers become suspected to us, because we see them animating the opposition of our children. The faults which grow out of the luxuriance of freedom, appear more shocking to us, than the base vices which are generated from the rankness of servitude. We are taught to believe, that a desire of domineering over our countrymen, is the love of our country; and that the amiable conciliating virtue of lenity, moderation, and tenderness for the privileges of the people, is a kind of treason against the state."—But this genuine principle of British government was still more strikingly-illustrated in his speech for conciliation with America—an oration which would go down to the latest times, rivaling, if not eclipsing, the most celebrated in the ancient world. It seemed, indeed, as if the gift of tongues had been conferred upon him, when he was preaching doctrines which, next to those of religion, were essential to the happiness of mankind.—"As long" (said Mr. Burke) "as you have the wisdom to keep the sovereign authority of this country as the sanctuary of liberty, the sacred temple, consecrated to our common faith, wherever the chosen race and sons of England worship freedom, they will turn their faces towards you. The more they multiply, the more friends you will have; the more ardently they love liberty, the more perfect will be their obedience. Slavery they can have any where. It is a weed that grows in every soil. They may have it from Spain, they may have it from Prussia; but until you 1235 become lost to all feeling of your true interest and your natural dignity, freedom they can have from none but you. This is the commodity of price, of which you have the monopoly. This is the true act of navigation, which binds to you the commerce of the colonies, and through them secures to you the wealth of the world. Deny them this participation of freedom, and you break that sole bond, which originally made, and must still preserve, the unity of the empire. Do not entertain so weak an imagination, as that your registers and your bonds, your affidavits and your sufferances, your cockets and your clearances, are what form the great securities of your commerce. Do not dream that your letters of office, and your instructions, and your suspending clauses, are the things that hold together the great contexture of this mysterious whole. These things do not make your government. Dead instruments, passive tools as they are, it is the spirit of the English communion that gives all the life and efficacy to them. It is the spirit of the English constitution which, infused through the mighty mass, pervades, feeds, unites, invigorates, vivifies, every part of the empire, even down to the minutest member."*
Here, my lords (concluded lord Erskine), here you have the whole sum and substance of British liberty, which you are now about to violate. It is, indeed, my lords, the very nature of every thing that is free to be irregular, and to fall, now and then, into disorder and excess; and you must submit to the occasional abuses, or abandon the advantages which flow from the energies of freedom. God has so also framed the natural elements of the world; and whilst we owe our very existence to their vital influences, we are obliged to enjoy them with the alloys that the laws of nature have imposed. In the finest seasons, which are the sources of health and plenty, we suffer often from the storms and tempests which deform them; but if the authors of this bill had the government of them, they would no doubt set about a reformation upon their own system, and the elements of fire, water, and air, would no longer have their immemorial liberties, but would be put under such politic restraints, as we are now about to lay upon the civil world.— To Fire they would say—"You are an* Sec New Parl. History, Vol. 18, p. 534.1236 excellent servant, most beneficial when under due discipline and control, but most dangerous when left unrestrained. You may therefore continue to blaze in our kitchens and in our chambers, but you shall no longer descend from heaven with electric flashes; destroying our persons and property, and striking even the spires of our churches with sacrilegious violence, whilst we are worshipping God." —To Water they would say—"We are delighted with your smooth surface upon our calm transparent lakes, and with your ripplings in our summer streams, but you must no longer come down from the hills in winter torrents, sweeping away our flocks and their masters."—To Air they would say—"Be free as air; it is even a proverb, and we will support it; continue therefore to be free as air, at least in our improved sense of freedom. You may blow therefore in breezes from all points of the compass, but you must no more gather in masses; and for farther security against storms and tempests, not more than fifty clouds shall in future come together, without an order from seven farmers or graziers; and if you shall presume to blight our fruit-trees or destroy our harvests, you shall be driven back to your caverns by a single justice of the peace."
There can be no doubt, my lords (no doubt at all), that if his majesty's ministers possessed those powers, and were so to use them, the elements would become totally different. We should have no more ruinous conflagrations; no more floods and inundations; no more hurricanes or tornados, but we should soon see the melancholy contrast between divine wisdom and human weakness. The atmosphere unshaken by the lightning and the thunder, and untouched by the pervading spirit of electric heat, would become deleterious: your waters would be mantled over with a putrid vegetation, and with the air would stagnate into pestilence. Freedom therefore is the universal principle of natural and civil life.—Parliament had carried this principle even to excess, when the most palpable nuisances were sought to be abated by legal provisions. Parliament then supported his late respected friend, Mr. Windham, when he upheld the atrocious enormities of bull-baiting, and other cruel sports and practices, because they were connected with, and as he thought inseparable from, the free and manly character of our people. This ought à fortiori to be the rule now, when no- 1237 thing immoral was to be corrected, but excesses which the laws could already reach. It should surely be remembered how much we owe to the magnanimity and courage of the whole nation during so protracted a war; and still more if possible to their unexampled patience, under the privations which they endure.—All I have said, my lords, rests upon the general principle I have stated. I am decidedly adverse to those reforms which occasion so much alarm to government; so much so, that I should not be disposed at this moment to advance so far in any system of changes as that to which formerly set my hand. I feel exactly in that respect as I understand was expressed by a noble friend now absent, whose motion I seconded in the House of Commons; but the great question of reformation is left untouched. It is a most important consideration, and the right to consider it ought never to be abandoned. The bill, in my opinion, is aimed against it, and nothing can induce me to support it.
The Lord Chancellor
expressed his satisfaction to hear from his noble friend, that he did not now entertain opinions on certain points in which they differed, to the same extent in which he formerly held them. He (the lord chancellor) had throughout his political life held opinions directly opposed to that reform, and in so doing, had by some been considered to be in error. He felt much satisfaction, therefore, at finding that his noble and learned friend, for whose talents and abilities he had the highest respect, was approximating to him. He was satisfied of this, that if his noble and learned friend did not approximate to him, that he (the lord chancellor) should not be induced to give up those opinions against parliamentary reform which he firmly and conscientiously believed to be right. He should be happy if he and his noble friend could approximate a little more; but with respect to this bill, unless his noble friend approximated to him, it was not likely that he should approximate to his noble and learned friend. On the preceding night, in the committee on this bill, a noble lord had moved an amendment with respect to lectures on the physical sciences. He supposed it was to this they were indebted for the learned dissertation they had heard upon fire, water, and air. His noble and learned friend had made some alarming observations on the effects of those elements, and spoke of controlling them as if 1238 they had been living within the jurisdiction of this country as British subjects, and liable to be regulated by acts of parliament. As a member of their lordships' House, he wished they were subject to their jurisdiction; for there was a fire in the House, which, whether it operated on the constitution of the country or not, certainly often operated on his constitution, and that of others, in no very favourable way; and if they could restrain the mischievous effects of that fire by any clause in an act of parliament, their lordships would do a great deal of good to themselves. So with respect to air, it was a great misfortune that it was not a British subject within their lordships' jurisdiction; for then out of regard to a most respectable friend of his now present, the clerk at the table, who found himself so ill at ease when the windows were open, he was sure their lordships would be very glad to put air under some regulation, and to leave no parliamentary means untried of shutting out the intruder. As to water, he believed neither their lordships in general, nor his noble and learned friend in particular, had much to do with it. But he really could not believe that his noble and learned friend was very serious in his opposition to the bill, when he considered that so great a portion of his speech was made up of long quotations from the philosophical theories of Mr. Burke, and these observations about fire, air, and water. If in the measures now adopting, and in the vote which he certainly intended to give in favour of the third reading of this bill, he thought that he was forgetting the principle, that the liberty of the subject ought, in its utmost constitutional extent, to be secured; if he were convinced that he was acting so as to endanger those laws which, from long practical experience, he knew to be much more beneficial to the subjects of this country than the laws of any other state were to its subjects, then he should never, after the vote of this night, enjoy a moment's comfort while he lived; for he admitted, in its fullest extent, the truth of the proposition, that it was their lordships most sacred duty never to suspend those laws which were enacted to secure the subject's liberty, except in cases of urgent necessity. But why should they quarrel, because their views were different as to the means by which the same object was to be effected? His noble and learned friend acted for the 1239 benefit of those well-disposed subjects of the British empire who really wished to enjoy that liberty which the laws and constitution of their country secured to them. That was his (the lord chancellor's) object too; and for that purpose he now interfered, to check the machinations of those individuals, whose design was not to enjoy, but to subvert, the laws, the constitution, and the liberties, of their country. The question, therefore, was a question rather of fact than of principle. He thought this bill and the measures which had been passed, essential to the preservation of the constitution, not because he merely wished to preserve the constitution for a week or a month, or a year, but because he was desirous of maintaining the constitution such as it had been transmitted to us by our ancestors, and handing it down unimpaired to our posterity. This was the great principle, as he understood the subject, upon which their ancestors had acted for their benefit; and this was the principle upon which they ought now to act for the benefit of their posterity. The great principle of the English constitution, if he understood the constitution at all, was, that it preserved to every one the enjoyment of as much practical liberty as could be possessed. But he would go farther, and say, when dangers arose which threatened its safety, that unless it were endued with the power of looking those dangers steadily in the face, and grappling with them, it was formed in a manner that must ultimately tend to its own destruction. It must have the fortitude to suspend liberty for a time, that liberty might be enjoyed for ever. That was the principle upon which the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act had always proceeded, and that was the principle upon which the present temporary measures proceeded. The whole question their lordships had to consider resolved into the state of the times. What noble lords had to ask themselves was, whether, looking at the circumstances of the country, there was not ground of necessity for the measures which had been submitted to parliament in order to preserve the liberties of the people? He believed there was; others might entertain a contrary opinion; and God forbid that he should quurrel with them for so doing. It had been asserted, that the laws of the country, as they at present stood, were sufficient, if duly executed, for preserving public order and tranquillity. Whether 1240 the laws had been sufficiently executed, or not, he should not say; he had not had the opportunity of determining that question in every respect; but he had only to cast his eyes abroad, and see mischiefs threatening, evil designs at work, and disaffection active, sufficient to call for additional means of protection. With regard to that department of the laws with which he was best acquainted, he felt himself in a situation to question the sufficiency of the law. He had, on a former occasion, expressed an opinion to their lordships, that since the passing of the libel act, prosecutions were not likely to be more effectual than they had been before that period; and it was of importance to recollect how much that consideration influenced a question like the present. But he felt, perhaps, a little prejudice upon the subject of libels, from a cause which he would state to their lordships. When he became attorney-general in 1794, his predecessor handed over to him many prosecutions that had been begun, and which he was left to carry on. He did so; and he not only proceeded in those that were commenced, but instituted many fresh ones. No one, he believed, had ever instituted so many prosecutions for libels. He was speaking of the years 1794 and 1795. But when he saw that attempts were made to destroy all the constituted authorities of the land, to bring into contempt and disgrace every thing connected with our most sacred rights and liberties, to overturn, in fact, the whole fabric of the constitution, he felt that the danger was utterly beyond the reach of such proceedings. Yet no one, he apprehended, would say, that he was sparing of the exercise of the power he then possessed; he should be glad to hear some kind-hearted individual maintain that proposition, for never, he believed, was any one more abused than himself, at that period, for the prosecutions which he instituted. Personal abuse, however, he never heeded, when levelled against him for the discharge of what he considered to be his duty. He had never, in the course of his life, sought either to promote or repress the circulation of any publication concerning himself; he cared not two-pence for one of them; but libels that affected the constitution and the government, were of a different description, and he should be glad to be shown, how, at a time like the present, the most active prosecution of them could counteract the evils that menaced 1241 the state. In 1794, as at the present moment, it was found that the existing law had become quite inefficient, and the legislature was obliged to interfere. What was then to be done, but to resort to new enactments; for the existing law was no more capable of restraining the spirit of libel, than of controlling the fire, air, and water of which the noble lord had spoken. But it was said the people ought to be conciliated. Generally speaking that doctrine was good; but how were they to conciliate those who asked for nothing less than the destruction of the constitution? How were persons to be conciliated who declared they would not be satisfied unless they obtained what it was the duty of parliament not to give. With regard to some observations which had been made on the provisions of the bill, his noble and learned friend was wrong in supposing that a meeting became legal in consequence of a notice having been given: for though the bill declared that a meeting should not be legal without notice, it did not follow that it should be legal with it. His noble and learned friend also thought it extremely improbable, that any thing, as by law established, should be proposed to be altered at a public meeting, otherwise than by the authority of King, Lords, and Commons. He should wish to ask his noble and learned friend, whether he recollected to have heard of a proposition made at a public meeting to resort to physical force, and whether that was not appealing to other authority than that of King, Lords, and Commons? If he did admit that there had been meetings at which propositions having that tendency had been made, he could not consider provisions guarding against such proceedings as un-necessary. There was surely nothing improper in enacting, that a magistrate might interfere on such sentiments being publicly avowed. It would be the duty of any magistrate at a meeting, to say to the individual who uttered words of such a tendency, that he was holding language he was not entitled to hold. A common constable might do this as the law now stood. He knew that it had been observed, that, as the same authority existed now, there was no occasion for this enactment, but the difference was, that the bill supposed a magistrate present at every meeting legally called, which was not the case under the existing law. If the meeting should resist the magistrate in executing the law according to his sense of duty, 1242 then, indeed, the consequences would follow which his noble friend had described; but these consequences were not the fault of the magistrate, but of the meeting which so resisted. Besides, the magistrate acted upon his responsibility, and was liable to an action at law, if he unjustly exercised his authority. Their lordships must, therefore, in considering every point, always come back to this question—whether the state of the times were such as to require the measures recommended for adoption by his majesty's government? In deciding this question, they must have regard to other circumstances than the order and decorum, which might he attributed to certain meetings. He was old enough to recollect the dreadful riots of 1780; and if he were asked, what was the most orderly public meeting he ever saw in his life, he should answer, that which assembled to meet lord George Gordon. Nothing could have been more regular and orderly than that meeting was in the morning; and yet its consequences were in the evening, to set London in flames. If their lordships thought it better to punish than to prevent mischief, their opposition to this bill would be founded on a rational principle. For his part, he thought it wiser to look to prevention, rather than to punishment, as a remedy for the evil of which the country had to complain; and on that ground, and on the necessity of the case, arising from what he conceived to be the state of the times, he gave his support to the bill.
Lord St. John
readily admitted that the learned lord had placed the inducement for passing this bill upon the only true ground—the necessity of the measure; and the only question was, whether or not that necessity was made out? Undoubtedly, to preserve the constitution was the first duty of parliament; to see that the laws were duly executed, the second. If any measure like this bill was necessary, it must be adopted, with however much regret they might acknowledge it to be called for; but what necessity enjoined, necessity also limitted; and if necessity were admitted, it was still to be asked, whether this was the measure required. The reports on their lordships' table stated, that some law was necessary; but taking that for granted, it by no means followed, that any law which might be proposed by his majesty's ministers must of course be necessary. Unfortunate as the present situation of the country might be, it was not 1243 more so than on former occasions, when measures of this kind had been resorted to; and yet it was impossible to find any precedent which warranted the proceedings now adopted. In 1722, the Habeas Corpus act had been suspended, but not upon the report of a secret committee. There was, on that occasion, no green bag sealed up. The papers were laid on the table in an open box, to which every member had access. The papers were referred to a committee, of which Mr. Pulteney was chairman, and every kind of evidence was admitted before that committee, as was evident from the report, which might be found upon the journals of their lordships House.* In that report the most minute particulars were detailed. The measures of sir R. Walpole, also, the minister, were very different from what had been pursued by the present ministers. Sir Robert Walpole, when he recommended the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act to parliament, did not confine himself to that measure alone. He did not fold his arms in calm and social indifference, and allow the evil to grow and proceed unchecked, to an alarming magnitude, before he called for the interference of parliament. It was known that it was on the distress of the country, occasioned by the failure of the South-sea scheme, that the Pretender built his hopes. It was the discontent excited throughout the nation by the total failure of that bubble, which emboldened him to meditate this enterprise. He conceived it would be a fit opportunity, when the people were inflamed with losses and disappointments, to attempt the organization of a plot, which might enable him to resume the crown of his ancestors. Sir Robert Walpole, however, was attentive to all those circumstances, and endeavoured to mitigate the distresses, as well as to allay the discontents, which existed. Before he proposed to suspend the constitution, he exerted every effort to remove the distress of the country. What, therefore, appeared to him particularly blameable in the conduct of his majesty's ministers was, their not following the example of that great statesman. They had not called parliament together in due time for considering the situation of the country; and the reason they gave for this neglect was most insufficient. They had stated that they thought the presence of members of either House would be more useful in their respective* See New Parl. History v. 8 p. 95.1244 neighbourhoods in the country. He certainly did not mean to deny the great utility of the residence of members of parliament in the country, at a period when they had so many opportunities of administering relief to those who stood in need of it around them; and, by the influence of their presence, their hospitality, and their exertions, preventing the diffusion of discontent. But whatever benefit could be obtained in that way, was not to be compared to the advantage which was to be expected from legislative measures, and to which their attention ought without delay to have been directed. Ministers were not ignorant of the causes of the present distress, while they admitted that distress to have greatly promoted those evils which the bill then before them was intended to remedy. They knew that the agricultural, the commercial, and the manufacturing interests were greatly depressed; they knew that there were serious defalcations in the revenue. It had, as he understood, been said in another place, by a person who, from his situation, might be considered as having the best means of knowing the situation of the trade of the country, that the whole of our commercial system was founded on erroneous principles; but while he admitted this, he also stated, that ministers did not find themselves strong enough to attempt to alter the existing system, much as they were convinced it was wrong. Now, as the argument was, that disaffected persons availed themselves of the public distress to promote their mischievous designs, why had no legislative measures been proposed for the relief of that distress? It would have been a better course had ministers proposed to remove the cause of commercial suffering by the repeal of that system of restriction in which it originated. If all the measures that parliament could devise for this object should prove incompetent, then indeed it would have been time to resort to the suspension of the constitution, and to severe laws like that under consideration: but that of which he particularly complained was, that such measures should have been adopted before any attempt was made to remove the evil which this course of severity was meant to correct. With regard to the provisions of the bill, he must assert, that they went far beyond the necessity which had been pleaded for them. Such was their severity, that he was persuaded many magistrates would hesitate to put into execution 1245 a law attended with such penal consequences. Nothing could be more revolting than to see such extraordinary powers vested in the hands of one magistrate under this bill, when the authority of two was requisite to pass a pauper from one parish to another, and even then there was an appeal to the quarter sessions, and from thence to the court of King's-bench; but here a single magistrate was invested with an authority which might eventually involve the life of its object. In the same manner the exempting power was vested in two magistrates, but in order to inflict the punishment of death one was thought sufficient. Indeed, the whole of the provisions, as far as he could understand, were contrary to the spirit of our ancient laws. It would have been acting with more humanity if ministers had at once proposed to make the offences punishable by this bill treason; for then the parties would have the legal benefits which the law in the case of treason allowed for the defence. If, in plain and unequivocal language, it had been declared, that to say any thing at a public meeting tending to bring into contempt the constitution and government as by law established, should be regarded as high treason, great mercy would have been shown to those persons whose language might, as unfortunately as perhaps undesignedly on their part, be considered liable to that construction. For these reasons, he felt it to be his duty to express his decided disapprobation, not only of the present measure (for it was impossible to consider it singly), but of all those of which it formed a part.
The Earl of Westmoreland
could not, after what had fallen from the noble and learned lord who commenced the debate, and the noble lord who spoke last, give a silent vote on this question. To express the ground on which he should vote for the third reading of the bill, he had to declare, that he gave his consent to the measure, not for the purpose of punishing those who had been guilty, but with the view of protecting the lives and property of his Majesty's subjects, and for the preservation of those liberties, which would be best secured by the denial, for a time, of their enjoyment. The noble lords had assumed, that there was not sufficient danger to call for precautions; but that was a question which parliament, he conceived, had already decided in the affirmative, and was not now to be argued. The practice of former periods of our history, 1246 showed that parliament had always been willing to grant such powers, when great dangers existed, and as a proof that they were seldom abused or overstrained, they had seldom been followed by a bill of indemnity. When, however, such a bill of indemnity had been deemed necessary, parliament as willingly granted that as they had granted the power whose exercise such a bill was intended to protect. With respect to precedents, he thought they were entirely out of the question; they had only to consider whether a sufficient danger now existed, and that he apprehended would not be denied. Since this country had obtained the full confirmation of its liberties, similar measures had been adopted about twenty or thirty times; and, on every occasion, the constitution, instead of being injured, came out from the trial unimpaired. Whether the suspension of the Habeas Corpus was necessary in peace, depended on the state of the country. In fact, there might be more danger in a time of peace, than in a time of war; for in the latter, the Crown had a large army which it could always employ against the disturbers of public tranquillity; but in the former, a constitutional jealousy as well as a due regard to the finances of the country, prevented the Crown from possessing such a force, and therefore it was the more necessary to arm it with additional powers of a different description. The exigency of the present moment was most fully established, and he hardly envied the placid minds of the noble lords opposite, who saw nothing to fear, though surrounded with treasons, murders, conflagrations, and rebellion. What crime did there seem wanting in the catalogue of the enormities which had been committed? But they all, according to the noble lord opposite, originated in distress. It was not for him at that moment to discuss the real causes of the public distress; but no matter whence it originated, it was certain that the extent of the distress was but an additional reason for reposing an increased power in the hands of government to secure the general tranquillity. But what proportion did this distress bear to what would befal the country if those wretched conspirators succeeded in their plans? It was frightful to contemplate the dreadful results of such an event; and it was merely in the legislature to prevent, by law, the consequences of such crimes and follies. The reports of the commit- 1247 tees of both Houses proved, that most dangerous plots and conspiracies existed, and he had no hesitation in saying, that the danger now was as great as in the years 1796 and 1797. If therefore, it was thought necessary, to adopt measures similar to the present at that period, it was equally necessary in his opinion, to adopt them now. Nor could he agree with those who considered the proposed measure, as impeding the exercise of any just right which belonged to the people. He would go a little into the details of the bill, to see whether it was so formidable to the liberties of the subject as it had been represented to be. The first thing in this terrible bill which was to stop the mouths of the people of England, and to prevent them from communicating with their representatives, was, to except altogether, all meetings called in a legal manner—as by the sheriffs, mayor, aldermen, and others. So that the whole people of England might, notwithstanding this bill, meet to petition parliament. The next provision was, to permit meetings called by seven householders. He would put it to the sense of the House, whether it were beneficial to the constitution, that meetings should be held, of which the magistrates had no notice,—meetings composed entirely of the mob, the only result of which could be, to oblige the government to call out the military for the preservation of the public peace. It was next enacted that it was illegal to assert at the meetings, that laws could be altered or enacted except with the consent of King, Lords, and Commons. Was this to prevent the people from communicating with their representatives? The rest of the bill provided against secret clubs holding treasonable correspondence one with another. Had they not felt the consequences of such associations and the dire necessity of some measures to suppress them? Then as to the powers entrusted by the bill to justices of peace: this had been said to have been without precedent. If our history were looked into more carefully the assertion would be found to be not correct. Laws for the prevention of seditious meetings had passed in the reigns of Henry 4th, Henry, 5th, Henry 7th, Edward 4th, Edward 6th, Mary and Charles 2d, and in almost every case were the powers entrusted to one justice. The present bill was, indeed, almost a copy of those old laws. There were hardly any reigns but those of James 1st and Charles 1248 1st, in which some such measure had not passed, and the misfortunes of the latter reign were, perhaps, to be attributed to the absence of some such measure. He considered the bill a measure of the greatest leniency and benefit to the subject. On what was the attachment to the constitution felt by the people of the realm founded, but on the security of their persons and property, which unless this bill passed, would continue exposed to daily insult and outrage. He was as much disposed to humanity, as the noble lords who had opposed the bill, but the current of his feelings was in a different direction, for however sorry he was for those who had fallen under the penalty of the law, he was more sorry for those who had been the victims, whose persons had been assailed, and whose property had been plundered—he felt more for Mr. Piatt, who was now suffering from his wound, than for incendiaries and traitors, however their crimes were palliated. He should therefore, as the same measures now proposed were found effectual in putting an end to outrage in 1796, vote for the bill as a bill for the protection of the king's loyal subjects.
said, he had intended to enter at some length into the measure before their lordships, but he should abstain now from doing so, as well because he felt himself at present unequal to the task, as because he feared that, before the conclusion of the session, he should have other opportunities of discussing the present bill, or the system of measures with which it was connected. It had been truly said, that the bills which had been brought before parliament of late should not be viewed singly; they were indeed but too closely connected. He feared, therefore, that their attention would again be called to this system of measures before the end of the session, by a proposal to extend the period of the suspension of the Habeas Corpus. Such was the rumour, and it proceeded from a person holding a high situation in his majesty's councils. If such a proposal were made, which he should much lament, at whatever distance he might be from the capital, he should feel it his duty to attend in his place to oppose the progress of the measure, unless a very great alteration took place on those points which had been considered a sufficient reason for the present suspension. There were, he remarked, some differences of opinion among the supporters of the 1249 bill. The noble and learned lord on the woolsack had allowed that it was a measure justified solely by its necessity. The noble earl who spoke last, after contending that precedents were to be found for it in a suite of arbitrary reigns, and ascribing the events in that of Charles the first to his not pursuing a similar line of policy, had placed the defence of it on the principle of convenience. The noble lord had also said that he considered the bill as a measure of leniency—the noble and learned lord on the woolsack considered it a measure of severity. He must object to the allegation in the preamble; no such words were introduced into that of 1796, which declared, that "acts of tumult, riot, and disorder," had been produced at meetings assembled under the pretext of petitioning for a redress of grievances. The noble earl had said there was no difference between the danger at present and that which existed in 1796. If his lordship saw no such difference, it was matter of great astonishment to him. He had acquiesced in the measures for strengthening the hands of government at that time; but how different was our situation from what it now was. We were then engaged in a war almost ad inter necionem with the French republic,—whether justly commenced or not, it was now matter for history to determine. It was then proved to their lordships that a connexion existed between some persons in this country and the enemy, and that the object of the combination was that a French army should be landed, at on its landing should be joined by different parties which were to proceed together to overthrow the constitution. An army was actually landed on the coast of Wales. How different now was our political situation! We were now in a state of profound peace. But they were told of the disaffection which prevailed. If it could be shown that a majority, or comparatively, a very large portion of the population was disaffected, he should be prepared to withdraw his opposition. But he must contend, that every day's experience furnished new proof, that if there was disaffection in the country, it was partial, and of very limited extent. He saw, therefore, no grounds for assenting to laws encroaching on the liberties of the subject. Not only were we at peace, but there was not a prospect that the peace would be disturbed. Was it likely to be disturbed by Napoleon Buonaparté, in whose person we had realized the fables 1250 of the Pagan Mythology, whom, like Prometheus we had chained to the rock, while the vulture Care prayed upon his vitals? It was not likely surely to be disturbed by the king of Spain, who was fully occupied with his own subjects; nor by the French government which we had restored; nor by Germany; nor by Russia. Against these various powers of Europe we had this security, that their finances were in a state even worse than our own. The noble earl who had spoken last, professed to have seen nothing but tumult and disorder in the various meetings for economical and parliamentary reform. Did he found this observation on the meetings in, Kent or in Cornwall, or in Durham, or in the various numerous meetings in the city of London and in Southwark? In none of these meetings had there been the least appearance of riot. But it was said, that after the passing of the bill, the people might meet in the manner appointed by law, and under the various magistrates. But could these meetings be held—had not the sheriffs and mayors often refused to comply with the wishes of the people, to call meetings for the purpose of petitioning? As to the manner in which the law would be interpreted by the justices of peace by whom the power was to be exercised, they had a pretty good illustration in the conduct of a respectable magistrate, a relative of the noble viscount, who introduced the bill. When a bill similar to the present had passed in 1796, a meeting was held at Copenhagen House, and sir W. Addington, then at the head of the police, was appointed to attend the meeting. As this magistrate approached the platform, the first words he heard from a person, who was then addressing the meeting, were— "We shall now hear the exposition of the law from a Bow-street magistrate;" on which sir William called out "pull down that fellow." The speaker was pulled down, and the meeting was dissolved. This certainly was a curious exposition of the law—to construe the words thus uttered to be words tending to bring the government or constitution into contempt, though he believed the magistrate, who was a well-meaning, though hasty man, acted according to the best of his discretion. But this showed how likely a discretionary power of this kind was to be abused even by a well meaning magistrate. He was disposed to believe indeed from the provisions of the bill that the ratio justifica and the ratio suasoria 1251 were very different. The ground on which the proposers of the measure justified it, was the necessity of suppressing seditious meetings—the ground on which they themselves seemed to have been persuaded to propose it was, the number of meetings for the redress of grievances, and for economical and parliamentary reform. It had been observed, that when the measures similar to those now proposed, had been adopted in 1796, no executions had taken place. This was true —no one had been executed but a spy of the government, who had attempted to lead others into acts of treason—"lex non justior ulla; quam necis artificem arte perire suâ". This was a proof of the wretched condition of any government which was under the necessity of employing spies to support itself. It was now the universal impression on the public mind that some reform in the state was necessary—an impression not founded on ignorance and prejudice, for the people were generally more enlightened than they had been at any former period. It was an impression which had been created by the diffusion of knowledge, and by the principles of the Christian religion, which were as favourable to well regulated freedom, as they were hostile to a violent and improper use of it—principles which directed us to "use our liberty not as a cloak for malice, but as servants of God." It was not in England alone, but throughout Europe, that this light was extending itself, notwithstanding the endeavours of the pope to check it. The spirit of freedom had increased, was increasing, and who would say that it ought to be diminished? Even now the fabric of despotism was shaken to its base, and it would, he trusted, speedily fall to the ground, to be broken to pieces, and to be trodden under foot by an enlightened and indignant world. As to the disturbances at Manchester, whatever they were, they could not be alleged in support of the bill, as they had been put an end to without the help of the present measure; but they were worth attention, as they showed how much the accounts of tumults had been exaggerated. A statement had been promulgated that numbers of pike heads and sticks, with something like daggers at the end of them were found. By letters which he had received from Chester he understood that this tale was utterly unfounded. As no necessity had been shown, he should vote against the bill.
The Duke of Athol
wished to state in a few words the reasons which induced him to give his strenuous support to the present measure. He denied the correctness of the assertion of a noble viscount who had attributed the distresses of the country to the conduct of the administration. He contended that those calamities were owing to the transition from war to peace —to the speculations which had been carried on in a manner so opposite to the old English principles of trade, and which had involved those engaged in them in bankruptcy—to the exportation of sums of money which had been necessarily sent abroad to pay our troops—and, above all, to the dispensation of Providence, which had destroyed the fruits of the earth. If parliament had been called together at an earlier period, the country would have been deprived of the local assistance which the higher ranks had so actively afforded. When parliament had assembled not a moment was lost in laying before it grounds for the present measures. The example of sir Robert Walpole in 1722 had been referred to, and the ministers had been called on to imitate his example in restoring public credit. But how did he effect that object, except by measures such as were now proposed? He was convinced that the rise of the stocks at the present moment was also to be attributed to the display of well-timed energy on the part of the government which had given confidence to all good men. A respectable merchant, who had not always supported the administration, having been asked how he liked the suspension of the Habeas Corpus said, "I had rather be under the power of his majesty's government for three months than that my warehouses should be three hours in the power of a mob." He was persuaded the measures which had been passed, would be felt as benefits by all honest subjects, and that the threats of the factious and the malignant would be now disregarded, when it was seen there was a government to protect the loyal from outrage and insult. He abstained from addressing the House on most occasions, because his own opinions were more ably expressed and supported by others; but he could not sit silently and hear the distemper of the public mind attributed to a wrong cause. He expected much from the gradual demand for manufactures and the increasing prosperity of agriculture; and he hoped there would be no necessity for the renewal of the suspension of the Ha- 1253 beas Corpus, when the present act expired. It was however impossible for any noble lord to say, at this moment, whether such a necessity would exist. If that necessity did recur, the ministers would not only be blameable, but would deserve impeachment if they did not apply for a prolongation of the term of suspension.—Parliament had granted them powers, which it was their duty to use with energy; but if they should be found ineffectual, it would be their duty again to apply to parliament for their extension.
§ Lord Auckland
said, that he had felt some anxiety not to lose this opportunity of proclaiming his opposition to the bill under consideration. He agreed with the noble and learned lord on the woolsack, that the question to be discussed was, whether the necessity of the times justified the laws which had been proposed? and his objections to it were founded in a sincere belief that the necessity of the case did hot warrant so violent a proceeding. He entertained the utmost respect and esteem for several members of the select committee; but he considered their report as an exaggerated representation of the actual danger, and of the prevailing disaffection. He knew of no one overt act, except the riots on the 2d of December, in the metropolis; and what were the circumstances attending them? A few mischievous deluded men appeared ready to execute crimes, and to commit murder and conflagration, hoping to find the majority of the population in a similar disposition; and in this attempt they had been disappointed. Equally futile had the attack on his Royal Highness been, though at the same time, no man could deny the heinous and aggravated nature of such an assault. But why, he would ask, were the people of England to be calumniated in consequence of the political or mischievous frenzes of a few? The attack on the Prince Regent, however, was not adduced as any ground for the present measure. For the correction of the offence of libel, the laws were admitted to be sufficient. It was a well-known fact, that the absurdity of those who harangued at public meetings, had sunk the speakers into their justly deserved obscurity; and it was equally well known that the people of England, as a people, were not involved in their seditious proceedings. The Union Clubs, with their branches and affiliations, sounded at first very mysteriously, but seemed to him to be of little more import- 1254 ance, as an object of alarm, than the stories commonly used for the purpose of terrifying children. Even the testimony of ministers themselves was given in favour of the people, and their lordships were told that at no crisis had Englishmen shown themselves more patient than at present. If such was the case the people were miserably rewarded for it, as they were deprived of their liberties and best rights, and now given up to the power of an arbitrary administration. For his part, he saw nothing more remarkable in the times than the patience which had been manifested under such severe and universal distress. Where irritation had appeared, its consequences were prevented by the active and vigilant execution of the laws. In these circumstances he could not consent that the great barrier between the power of the Crown and the liberty of the people should be removed; or that the birthright of the subject should be left to the discretion of ministers liable to be influenced by the malice or surmises of individuals. He had heard with astonishment a noble earl, who was a great admirer of precedents, speak of a bill of indemnity being rarely asked for by ministers, because they seldom, if ever, had abused their powers, and that when such a bill was asked for, parliament were always disposed to grant it. He did not admire the precedent, and he thought the circumstance that rendered the suspension less hateful than it would otherwise be, was, the right of action reserved to those who might be deprived of their personal liberty by its means. As a noble earl had pledged himself to oppose the continuance of the suspension, he too would pledge himself to oppose, in every stage, a bill of indemnity if it should be proposed in favour of what might be done under the powers intrusted to ministers by that act. The same objections which he had stated to the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act, applied generally to the provisions on this bill. The punishment decreed by the bill was quite disproportionate to the crime. In the country, where the people conceived they had a right to meet and discuss the measures of their government, and where, before the enactment of the present bills, they might do so without restraint, there might be people who would object to the power of a single magistrate to disperse them, especially if that magistrate, as might be the case, was actuated by insolence, prejudice, or petulance, to curb popular 1255 privileges; and for this disobedience, which in their minds never amounted to rebellion, but was merely the offspring of ignorance or obstinacy, they were to be punished with death, and pay for their tardy dispersion the price of their blood. With this impression of unwarrantable and unnecessary severity—because he always loved and respected what was free—because he was proud that other nations in attempting to throw off their slavery, quoted us as examples, and emulated our freedom—because he conceived, that the lowest were entitled to express their opinions of the conduct of their government as well as the most affluent or powerful, and because he did not wish to see this noble privilege invaded or abridged, he would oppose the present bill. The constitution; he was convinced, would be impaired by it, instead of being protected. When he heard of danger to the constitution, he always had in his apprehension two classes of persons with whom that danger might originate: The first party was composed of those whose object it was to pull down all the privileged orders, to destroy every thing that savoured of the prerogative or legitimate authority of the Crown. The second, and not the least dangerous consisted of those who were for narrowing our liberties, and who grudged the people the exercise of their undoubted rights. Between these contending parties he wished to hold the balance even, yielding neither to the designs of the one, nor to the wishes of the other. He did not mean to enter into an examination of all the reasonings that had been employed in support of the bill, but he could not help alluding to an argument advanced on a former occasion, and repeated again by a noble duke to night, that the system of measures introduced by ministers had improved our commercial condition, and, particularly, that the adoption of them had raised the public funds. The funds had certainly risen about the time the constitution was suspended; but the connexion between those two events, as traced by the noble lords, appeared to him as fanciful and extraordinary as any thing he had ever heard. It put him in mind of a story of a traveller who stopped for a night at Stoney-Stratford, and who, having in the morning asked the name of the place, said, "I am not surprised that it is called Stoney, for I never was so bit before with fleas in all my life." The relation between the measures of government and the rise of stocks appeared to 1256 him to be of the same fanciful description, and proved by the same profound and recondite mode of argument. Viewing the bill, as he did, to be totally uncalled for by any present circumstances, it should certainly meet his decided opposition.
The Marquis of Buckingham
considered the question now before their lordships to be one perhaps of the most important nature that could possibly engage their attention. He was prepared to contend against his noble friends who had spoken before him in this debate, in hostility to the bill, that this measure was necessary in the present circumstances of the country; and that its necessity pleaded its justification. His noble friends had first denied the danger, and then they argued that even upon the admission of the danger, the remedy was not appropriate. He differed with them in both their positions. He was convinced of the danger, and he believed the remedy was calculated to meet the emergency. He did not doubt the existence of the danger from the beginning; but even had he undervalued its evidence at the commencement of the session, sufficient proofs of it had since come to light. His alarm was not reduced by seeing those who usually advocated popular opinions blind to its extent, or even ready to deny its existence. The disavowal of danger was made by some, because they were anxious to under-rate what could not fairly be acknowledged without furnishing grounds for those measures to which they objected. He had heard, that there was no danger to the constitution from the designs of those whose operations this bill was intended to restrain; and that, because they were not headed by powerful individuals, therefore, their machinations were harmless. This argument had no influence on his mind, because we could find parallels in history of revolutions affected by instruments at first as insignificant and contemptible in appearance as the persons alluded to. The French revolution was no distant event of this kind. It had passed in our own time—it had occurred at our own door—it did not now agitate the world, but its memory was still fresh. The edifice was reduced to ruin, but the vestiges that remained showed its original extent. We remembered its fall, and we should never forget the crimes and the atrocities on which it was built, or the blood with which it was cemented. On its broken and disjointed fragments we might read an awful lesson of prudence 1257 and caution. The flame of revolution had ceased to blaze the portentous image of its gigantic strength was happily consumed; but from its embers was kindled a light which at least helped the world to view even in its ruins the pile from which it was exhaled, and exhibited, as a warning to mankind, the staff of that flag which, when once unfurled at its summit, was the signal of devastation, bloodshed, and murder. He trusted the unparalleled results of that revolution would ever be a land-mark to the legislators of this country; and he firmly hoped that the melancholy experience of that ill-fated country, would show the people of this country how highly they ought to value the privileges of their glorious constitution. Never, he hoped in God, would such a dreadful and appalling scene be again seen in Europe, but it was worth while to inquire how that dreadful revolution had commenced. Was it begun by mighty armies? Was the first step taken by great generals? Were powerful nobles at the head of the first insurrectionary movements? No; it was brought about by the lowest of the people, by the efforts of the vile and the worthless from the most degraded ranks of society. Distress was the pretence, the motive, and the instrument. It was brought about by general suffering. It was brought about under colour of necessary change, and salutary reform. The moment the principle of reform was established, the moment that government was vilified, the moment the laws lost their authority, the danger began. It was well known to every man conversant with the history of that period (he might rather say most of their lordships recollected it), that advantage was taken of the existing financial embarrassments, and other distresses of France, to inflame the minds of the illiterate and ignorant class, and thus to prepare them, under a pretext of claiming their rights, for bloodshed and rapine. Abuses were alleged to exist in that ill-fated country, and the lower classes were taught to harangue and clamour about the impropriety of such abuses, and to petition for a reform. Leaders were found to head the disaffected, and the most powerful joined the most contemptible in overturning those institutions which, by the command of so much physical force, they saw themselves able to do. Those rights which had become Sacred and invaluable were destroyed; instead of a reform, France was visited with a revolution. When considering such 1258 events, one naturally, at such a crisis as the present, turned to Britain, and it was impossible not to witness the same attempts making here to inflame the public mind. He did not compare the free government of this country with the arbitrary government of France before the revolution (thank God we possessed a constitution infinitely superior!), but he was prepared to contend, that the means employed against the latter were similar to those that had proved successful against the former; and that the difference of their nature would not make a corresponding difference in favour of their permanency, without salutary precaution on our part. Notwithstanding our happy constitution there were still evil-minded persons who wished to draw the loyal from their duty, and who acted on the very principle of the French revolutionists. It bad been said, and said with truth, that the space was short between the dethronement and the death of a monarch. With a little modification, the maxim might be applied to a government or a constitution. Allow it to be stript of all respect in the eyes of the people—allow it to be vilified and degraded at public meetings, and it would soon lose its energy, and with its energy the power of prolonging its own duration or securing public liberty. The efforts of the insignificant prepared the way for the attacks of the powerful, as the pioneers of an army undermined a fortress before the soldiers advanced to the assault. Every man who had observed the state of the country for the last four or five months, could not fail to be astonished at the attempts made to kindle popular fury by an exaggerated picture of public distress. That such distresses did exist no man could deny, and unfortunately, they had been taken advantage of by public demagogues. The poor, labouring as they unhappily did under many privations, and he must say, to the regret of every benevolent mind, were taught falsely how to remedy these distresses, and were equally misinformed respecting the causes of them. When he saw small purposes attempted to be brought about by great means, his suspicion was excited—when he saw now the same combinations as in 1794—when he saw the same means wielded by the same hands, when he saw the same instruments at work—when he saw the same principles promulgated the same doctrines advocated with undiminished energy—when he saw the same system of conduct begun, the 1259 same rallying signs used, the same banners of rebellion displayed as on that occasion —when he saw religion as openly scoffed at as in 1794—when he saw all these symptoms, he could not disguise from himself that the evil was the same now as then; and that a similar remedy ought to be applied. It could not help being remarked what injury the cause of religion had sustained under this cry for reform, and how much her most sacred rites had been profaned, and thereby rendered ridiculous. Could their lordships, he would ask, seriously believe that those who thus encouraged such attacks on religion, who in their harangues held up the landholder and fund holder to be the greatest pests of society, were really friends to their country, or sincerely attached to the cause of reform? And he would further beg their lordships to consider the manner in which these friends of their country thus really injured it. It was by the abuse of one of the best privileges of British subjects. The pretence of the meetings which this bill affected was to petition Parliament or to address the Crown. The ostensible purpose was laudable. But meetings of a most seditious nature were held under a pretext of petitioning, and it was well known that in these meetings parliament was grossly insulted. Parliament should take care that assemblies of people collected for these ends should limit their powers to the accomplishment of them, and not convert their meetings into the means of outrage. The constitution gave the privilege of petitioning the legislature or addressing the Crown; but where did it say, that under colour of exercising this privilege the people might meet to create confusion, to alarm the well disposed, and to plunder the defenceless? Were they to break the laws of the land under the pretence of exercising a constitutional right, and then to plead this right as a cover for the breach? The legal exercise of the right should continue and be protected; but would any one say that it ought to be protected as lately exercised? Would any one say that the meeting at Spa-fields, that the meeting at Manchester, that the meeting at Portsdown-hill, took place in the due exercise of the right of petitioning, and that similar meetings ought still to be allowed. No man, surely, could assert that the harangues delivered at any of these meetings, or the addresses afterwards voted, contained the opinions of the people of England. 1260 "But" said his noble friends, "why make anew law when the old laws are sufficient to put down the evil." He had not admitted that the existing laws were sufficient, nor was he prepared to do so. All the house knew the means that were employed to evade the law; the whole country knew that meetings might take place under the ruling demagogue of the day, in which the people might be told that parliament were careless of their prayers, and were determined to refuse redress; that the executive had determined on their ruin; and, in short, in which their passions might be excited, so as to carry them beyond their own control, into acts of tumult and riot. When they had been hurried by seditious and inflammatory harangues to breaches of the peace, the not act might then be read and the multitude dispersed; or if they refused to disperse, they might be punished. This was the law as it at present stood. Was this law sufficient to meet the exigency of the times? Was it better to punish after a breach of the peace had happened, than to prevent the peace from being broken? Was it better to allow outrages to be committed, that they might be punished, than to guard against their commission, and save the vengeance of the law? But then, said his noble friends, one of them in particular, "why allow such power to one magistrate as this bill invests him with? When they made this objection, they forgot the powers of the law as it at present stood. Could not one magistrate read the not act? Could not one magistrate commit on his own responsibility? How foolish, therefore, was it to permit one magistrate to order the military to fire upon the multitude who refused to disperse, and to deny his competence to order a simple dispersion. How inconsistent was it to declare the sufficiency of one for an act of punishment and to demand the concurrence of two in an act of prevention or precaution. The real enemies of the people were those who, out of tenderness for their wishes or opinions, would allow them to proceed to abuse their privileges, and to degrade into instruments of faction or sedition their most sacred rights, that of petitioning the legislature or addressing the Crown. Considering the men who employed the privilege of petitioning for their own destruction as its real enemies; conceiving likewise, that they were the worst enemies of the people he would support the present bill. Good effects had already resulted from the mea- 1261 sures passed, or in progress. He was fully convinced that much benefit had already been derived from the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act, and from the other measures now in progress through parliament, and he had seen this in the public newspapers within these three days. The meeting at Spa-fields had been advertised for yesterday (the 24th of March), but it was happily postponed. The political demagogues who had presided at similar meetings saw the danger of meeting there, and avoided it. And why, he would ask, had they done so? Would any man believe that had they purposed to meet solely for reform they would have postponed their meeting? Surely not. The fact was, as the report of the secret committee had shown, that that meeting was held for obviously a different purpose; and that under a pretence of petitioning parliament or the Crown for redress of grievances, nothing but anarchy and revolution was desired. For let it be remembered what the baneful consequences of that meeting on the 2d of December had been, consequences which it was morally impossible could have followed, had the object been solely for reform. The greatest enemies of the public peace were certainly those who, under a pretence of claiming rights, inflamed the public mind, and thus prepared the way for the demolition of the venerable fabrics of civil and religious society. Glad he was that the delusion seemed to cease, yet he felt himself bound to give the bill now before their lordships his decided support. It was necessary to provide against what might happen, and certainly such a measure as the present was indispensable. Believing, was he did, that in the real constitution was comprehended obedience to the laws; believing that the real rights of the people could best be preserved by guarding them from abuse; and being of opinion that the present measure was calculated to accomplish the object, he would vote for the third reading of the bill.
The Earl of Darnley
was not aware of any comparison which could be made between France and this country, especially when it was considered that France was under a despotic government. The noble marquess, who had just sat down, had said, that the means employed to bring about the French revolution, and those now employed by the discontented in this country, were of the same kind. He could not assent to the proposition. The revolutionary party in France was assisted by 1262 the arbitrary nature of the government; by an extensive and prodigal court. Circumstances did not exist to the same extent in this country. In the secret committee there might have been evidence given of a conspiracy to overturn the state, but surely none had been shown to the House. He believed in the danger of no conspiracy, far less of the insignificant and contemptible party which was said to have conspired. The general anxiety was directed to parliamentary reform, and the general agitation rose from distress. How did the matter stand? We had enjoyed peace now for some time, but we were still suffering under the pressure of severe distress. The manufacturing, the commercial, and the agricultural classes were all suffering. In consequence of this, it was natural to expect, that a few ill-designing persons should wish to take advantage of the irritation of the public mind. But how had they shown their temper? Where was there any dangerous meeting but at Spa-fields? It was now nearly four months since that meeting. At the first meeting there was some rioting; and government, if they had been anxious to prevent a second, should have called parliament together earlier, so as to obtain its assistance, if they really thought the present measures necessary. On the 2d of December there had been some outrage, but few joined the mob, its progress being arrested by the indefatigable exertions of that active magistrate, the lord mayor, to whose exertions he mainly attributed, in this season of difficulty, the preservation of the peace of the metropolis. Why had ministers, who must have known what was occurring in the country, not called the legislative body sooner together? Ministers knew the events of the 15th of November at Spa-fields, and they allowed that meeting to adjourn to the 2d of December. It was impossible that they could be ignorant of what was passing at that meeting, and of the object for which it was convened. All this was, however, permitted, in order that ministers might obtain their own ends; that they might have a pretence for their arbitrary measures; and might be enabled to confound those who opposed the abuses of administration, with those who endeavoured to effect a revolution. While ministers admitted, that the great mass of society were untainted with sedition, he begged to ask, where was the necessity for this measure? for he was fully convinced, that 1263 the laws in existence were sufficiently competent for restraining all outrages. Though the laws, as they stood, were, in his view, competent to the preservation of the public peace, he would not have objected to such clauses in the bill as those by which such meetings as that of Spa-fields might be prevented; but when he was asked to give such powers to a single magistrate, as those with which the present bill would invest him, he could not consent to the demand. His noble friend had made a mistake in comparing the powers of the magistrate under the not act, and under this bill. In the not act his duty was clear, because the nature of the assemblage could not be doubted; but under the present bill, there was no overt act required. The meeting was legally assembled, and was to be dispersed upon his discretionary view of the doctrines promulgated, or his opinion that they tended to bring into hatred and contempt the government. He could not, therefore, give his consent to the bill. He could not concur in an observation that had fallen from the noble earl opposite, that because we had reduced the army, and were at peace, there was greater danger than in war; and that, consequently, this measure was necessary to come in aid of a military force. If this argument was useful for any thing, it tended to show, that in reducing the army, we had violated the constitution, and that a standing force was the only safeguard of our freedom.
§ The Earl of Aberdeen
observed, that necessity alone could justify the bill before the House, and that necessity being proved, its policy was sufficiently established, and he felt himself called upon to give it his support. As to the opinion of the country, with respect to the expediency of this and the other measures which had recently been adopted, their lordships had received various and contradictory statements; but from the result of his inquiry, he was led to conclude, that the judgment of the more intelligent and considerate part of the people, was decidedly in favour of the policy which dictated those measures. The noble lords on the opposite side of the House, were however of opinion, that the necessity alleged and known to exist, was not sufficient to warrant a bill of this nature. According to the judgment of some, the course of proceeding proposed by his majesty's ministers, would not be warrantable, unless 1264 the majority of the people were disaffected, or, according to others, when we were on the eve of a revolution; but he submitted to those noble lords, whether it would not be better to adopt such a course with a view to prevention. Such prevention was the object of this bill, and therefore he most cordially approved of it. Those noble lords might however boast, that this bill, and the measures which it was meant to accompany, were unnecessary, if no actual danger should occur, which he trusted would be the case; but he would leave their lordships to enjoy the boast, and exult in the cry of victory, while he would applaud the wise providence of the measures which he hoped would furnish them with the occasion. With respect again to the amount of the danger, which some of these noble lords required to justify the adoption of the measures alluded to, namely, that they should not be enacted merely because a minority of the people only were disaffected, he begged those noble lords and the House to consider, that, as it was indisputably true, that the greatest evils in all revolutions proceeded from the minority, so, in point of energy and consequent power, a minority might become the real effective majority of the country. That great energy appeared to belong to some of those, by whom recent tumultuous scenes had been excited, could not at all be doubted. But it was said, that those scenes were not the result of any contrivance or artificial excitement, but produced solely by the extent of the public distress. That distress he was ready to admit, and he deplored its pressure as much as any man. Those, however, who promoted some late public meetings, had, he was persuaded, other objects in view than its relief or mitigation, and these objects were the same as characterized the same class of agitators on a former occasion. On that occasion, a noble earl opposite thought it his duty to support the Suspension of the Habeas Corpus act, and on an occasion similar to the present. But yet that noble earl, in this instance, opposed a similar policy, accounting for his change of opinion upon this ground, truly, that the country was, on that occasion, involved in war, while at present it was in a state of peace. The question, however, was, not whether the country was in peace or war, but whether it was not as desirable in the one case, as well as in the other, to deprecate and provide against such evils as anarchy, civil blood- 1265 shed, and confusion? and whether those evils were not as much to be apprehended now, as in the year 1794? The noble earl had dwelt much upon the grievances to which the country was subjected, and upon the distresses which the people suffered, but he begged the noble earl to consider, whether these grievances were likely to be reduced, or these distresses alleviated, by involving the country in confusion? or whether such confusion was not rather likely to aggravate such evils? With regard to the observation, that ministers should have had parliament convened at an earlier period, in order to consider the distress of the country, he thought that observation had been already sufficiently answered. But as to the distress itself, he had himself resorted to every source of information within his reach, in order to ascertain the cause of its pressure. He had also, with the same view, listened attentively to every noble lord who had spoken upon the subject, especially from the other side of the House. When, however, he heard a noble marquess state, on a former evening, that the distress of this country was owing to the annexation of Genoa to Sardinia, and that of Lombardy to Austria, he confessed, that he gave up all idea of accurate information from that quarter. According to his judgment, one great cause of the distress, especially among manufacturers and tradesmen, proceeded from the immense reduction of public expense consequent upon the peace, and the economical retrenchments of the administration. But still, he trusted, that ministers would persevere in their system of retrenchment and economy, and they could not fail thus to ensure the approbation and gratitude of every reflecting man in the country. The bill under consideration was calculated to guard against great and impending evils, while it in no degree tended to interfere with the subject's just right of petition, and it should therefore receive his cordial support.
, in explanation, observed, that his change of opinion with regard to the necessity of the measures adopted at a former period, and those at present proposed, did not rest solely upon the circumstance of this country having been then at war, but upon this ground also, that there were at that period persons in this country actually plotting with the government of France, for the subversion of the constitution, while the country 1266 was at present free from either of those evils.
§ The Duke of Sussex
felt it impossible to give a silent vote upon this important question. He was aware, that from the opinion which any noble lord pronounced on this occasion, he would be conceived to stand pledged for his constitutional, doctrines; and although he differed totally from those noble lords who occupied the ministerial benches, he felt conscious that he was as strongly attached to the true principles of that constitution as any individual among them. Upon the allusion which had been made to so many topics, which were, in his judgment, quite foreign to the question before the House, he did not propose to dwell; but he could not forbear from observing, that it was an egregious error to maintain, that no persons of consequence or consideration were concerned in originating or promoting the French Revolution. For it was notorious that although few men of rank were at first engaged in it, yet many men of talents, and vast numbers of literary characters, were active promoters of it. It was supported likewise by one of the royal family. When that person of great rank joined it, both he and many of his partisans were unaware of the extent to which it would be carried, or of the dangers which it threatened. Therefore, on that point, he must consider this individual, although he had no acquaintance whatever with him, as perfectly innocent. But there were many circumstances peculiar to France at the time (among which was the bankrupt condition of her finances), none of which were, in any degree, applicable to this country; for how could any parallel be drawn between the circumstances of an arbitrary and a free government? How could it, besides, be contended, that the counter revolution which so fortunately put an end to the great evil to which he had alluded, was attributable to the mere force of arms? No, the counter revolution was the result of the spirit of the people, which the oppressive operation of that revolution had universally roused, and which enabled sovereigns to effect its overthrow. That baneful revolution, then, being now no more, there was no farther danger to be apprehended from such a precedent, and therefore there was the less necessity for any measure of this nature. The example of that revolution warranted quite a different conclusion from that upon which 1267 some noble lords appeared so eager to insist. He entertained the most complete conviction that a measure of the description before the House, involving as it did a serious infringement upon the rights and liberties of the people, would rather tend to aggravate than to allay or remove the discontent against which it was proposed to provide.
§ Viscount Sidmouth
, adverting, to the clause introduced yesterday for the prevention of meetings within a mile of the door of Westminster-hall, stated, that the restriction was not intended to create a difficulty to the inhabitants of Westminster. It had been considered since yesterday, that Covent-garden, the usual place for holding elections for Westminster, was within the precincts of that city, and that the borough of Southwark did not form any of the usual avenues to parliament. He therefore proposed to withdraw the clause, that no persons, above the number of fifty, should meet within a mile of the door of Westminster-hall, and to substitute, as an amendment, the words, "saving and excepting in St. Paul's, Covent-garden, and the borough of Southwark." The clause, so amended, could not produce any inconvenience to the inhabitants of Westminster or the borough; and as it would at all times secure a free passage to the House, he should propose that it might be permanent. This amendment, he hoped, would obviate any objection on the part of the electors of Westminster, as Covent-garden was the place of election, and convenient for their assembling for the purpose of considering of any petition, while parliament would be protected from inconvenience.
objected to the substance, form, and time, of the clause. When these measures of coercion had been first adopted, he had himself been willing to consider what step might not be permanently disadvantageous to the people, and yet might meet the wishes even of those who thought all public meetings dangerous. He then thought that meetings near the House of Parliament might with propriety be prevented; not because they were dangerous, but because they sometimes presented an obstruction to the performance of parliamentary duties; and, therefore, while parliament was sitting, he thought there was no great objection to such a clause. But the present clause particularly marked out the inhabitants of Westminster, though there was 1268 no reason why they should be so distinguished. When a mob of the most wanton and dangerous character had beset their doors in the year 1780, no such provision was thought of; and what had the electors of Westminster done to be singled out in this manner and debarred from their usual place of meeting? Neither was there any reason why the mile should be computed from the door of Westminster-hall, for parliament might not always be stationary, and it was better that the boundary should be drawn from the place in which parliament might be sitting. It might meet elsewhere—at Oxford, for instance, as it had formerly done. The provision, also, went beyond the reason of the thing; for the object ostensibly in view was, to clear the avenues of parliament. Why, then, should the prohibition extend a mile? Why was it extended even to Charing-cross? A tumult there could not greatly inconvenience members of parliament. The end would be answered by providing that no popular meeting should take place, within half a mile of the Parliament House, or after a certain hour. Thus the legal meetings of the Westminster electors might take place as usual at Palace-yard, but these meetings might take place at any hour in Charing-cross; without, in his opinion, offering any impediment to the members of parliament, for there were other avenues to Westminster-hall, and Surrey should be altogether excluded; for that certainly was not an avenue to parliament. Till now he had not been aware, that since the time of lord George Gordon any act had passed to prevent the overawing of parliament; but if that were the case, there could be no necessity for the present measure. A noble friend of his had been reproached with change of opinion. There was nothing disgraceful in changing an opinion on mature grounds; and never was any thing more unmerited than the present reproach, for the circumstances under which his noble friend had justified such a measure were totally different from those which were alleged in its support at present; and ministers admitted that nothing but the most pressing necessity could be a sufficient ground for its adoption. The proposition was brought forward too late, and, like two-thirds of the bill, was pressed without affording any time for its adequate discussion, or for the interposition or remonstrance of those whose rights it would im- 1269 mediately affect. It was this night intended to make that permanent which only last night was proposed to make temporary. On these grounds he recommended that the clause should be altogether withdrawn, and made the subject of a separate bill which would afford time for its due consideration.
The Lord Chancellor
observed, that the question before their lordships now was, simply, whether the clause, which seemed so objectionable to some noble lords, should stand part of the bill! Both sides of the House appeared to him agreed, although perhaps on different grounds, that it should not. He then put the question, when it appeared the non-contents had it, and the clause was expunged. The clause of the noble viscount, amending the former, and excluding from the prohibition the before-mentioned parts of Covent-garden and the borough of South-wark, was then put.
The Earl of Rosslyn
considered this clause an excessively severe and unexpected attack upon the privileges of the citizens of Westminster, whose interests were the more entitled to the consideration and protection of the House, inasmuch as they were not themselves present by petition or counsel, to defend this sudden invasion of their rights. He complained that the House had been taken by surprise. Last night they had been told that this was only a temporary measure; and now, without any notice, at the last stage of the bill, it was proposed to render it permanent. This he thought was dealing hardly by the people of Westminster.
The Earl of Liverpool
was surprised that so much had been said in objection to the proposed clause, as it could not fairly be said to create any inconvenience, much Jess disability, to the citizens of Westminster, but had been introduced solely with a view to ensure that respect and facility of approach to the Houses, which on some late occasions it had been their misfortune to experience, had been violated and interrupted. The noble lord had complained of surprise; but the real question was, whether there was any objection to the measure: he could see none. The inhabitants of Westminster were not precluded from holding their legal meetings, and Covent-garden had always been the legal recognised place for those meetings. Some limit must be fixed on, and be knew none less objectionable than that which had been proposed.
The Earl of Lauderdale
thought if the provision was intended to be permanent, they ought to proceed more cautiously. He was afraid, too, that if they adopted this clause, they might in reality prevent the people of Westminster from holding any meeting whatever. He understood that the area of Covent-garden was private property. The proprietor of the ground might, therefore, prevent any meeting from being held there for public purposes; or, at all events, obstruct the avenues.
The Lord Chancellor
stated, that the right of holding a market in Covent-garden was private, but that the streets could not be closed to the public.
The clause was adopted without a division. The earl of Liverpool then moved that the bill do pass, on which
§ their lordships divided:—Contents, 111; Non-Contents, 23: Majority, 88.