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had argued most elaborately on the situa- tional character had been elevated so tion of the country if the bill was not pas- high; all that was good and great had sed. If you are to permit the existence been effected by numerous meetings. Put of these societies, he exclaims, what are the existing laws in execution against to be the consequences ? He had then those who may not have changed their solved the question, by recurring in the sentiments, and reconciled themselves to usual high toned language, to the exam. the constitution ; let not, however, the ple of France. The learned gentleman had great principle on which the vigour of the said, he had remarked, on a former occa- whole system depends be destroyed. sion, the difference of character between The bill was said to be improved, but it the British and French nations. He must did not appear to him in that light, and he still maintain, Mr. Sheridan said, that hoped the learned gentleman would not scarce any argument could be formed upon be offended if he again pronounced those premises so dissimilar. The operation of obnoxious words “ prove it.” He said different governments roused and subli- that his side of the House had already mated the characters of a people, animat- assigned the reason why they did not ‘ated every energy of human nature, elevat- tend the committee on the bill. It was too ed and enobled the temper, or extinguish. incorrigible, too radically rotten, to be ed the great affections, and degraded and amended: its deformity was too hideous distorted the human heart and the human for the sight, its pollution too gross for the intellect. He would not then, ascribe touch.-As to the outrage against his mathe horrors which had attended certain jesty, and the hand-bill inculcating the parts of the French revolution 10 the in- doctrine of king-killing, the only conAuence of Jacobin clubs. He was above nexion which could be of any use to be the obloquy or misrepresentation which proved was, to fix it upon the Corresponde this opinion might produce. It was not ing Society. But no such connexion had the Jacobin clubs of Paris that had filled been attempted; and it was much more France with prisons, or deluged the coun- probable that it issued from one of the go. try with blood. It was the infamous club vernment spies, who on every occasion of Pilnitz, the associated society of des- displayed the utmost violence of sentiment pots, that, in the unprovoked attack on to delude the unwary, and to bring discredit the infant liberties of a people, had upon the pretensions of the whole body, awakened terror, distrust and cruelty. The present alarming measures he beThe French trembled for their freedom, and lieved were brought forward merely to they thought every moment that treachery screen ministers from the consequences of was about to rob them of it. Nothing was
misconduct, from the odium of a war, the so cowardly as fear and panic, nothing object of which was the subject of detesso humane as courage. When the French tation, and the conduct of contempt. This were under the influence of this terror, as was said at its commencement, was the cruelty and oppression rose. To what war of kings, and not for the interests of other cause than this could the change be their subjects. In former contests there attributed ? In the beginning of the revo- had generally been some view of national lution, a system, mild and lenient to a de- pride, or some acquisition of conquest, by gree, perhaps of extravagant refinement, which the people were reconciled to it. was embraced, but was quickly superseded The present had none of these objects to by the fears which external danger and sanction it, but stood exposed to the unmi. domestic distrust inspired. Terror was tigated detestation which the miseries it only to be allayed by spreading terror and had produced must excite. From this suspicion by suspicion. The example of circumstance ministers thought the out. France, therefore, was altogether inappli- rage offered to his majesty furnished a cable, eitherin the particular circumstances pretence for adding security to the person or general character of the people, to of the king, when they were fighting so the designs of any part of this country. strenuously the battles of royalty. They The leading cause of the superior virtue, wished to shelter themselves from the the superior glory, and superior happiness storm which was impending, and to erect of this kingdom, was not the particular the royal sceptre, as a conductor, to distribution of the parts of the constitution, catch the lightning of popular wrath, but the possession of a general free- which threatened to destroy them to draw dom of sentiment and of speech. It it away from themselves, and to protect was not by solitary efforts that the na- them from its dangers. One slight cir:
cumstance he would not have thought del Mr. Powys said, that the only question serving of notice, had it not been involv. to be considered was, whether the bill ed with so many observations personal to was adequate to the exigency of the occahimself. The learned gentleman had ask- sion? The House had already decided on ed, why he, who was so anxious to reform the principle of the bill. It was a distinabuses, did not think of procuring an al- guishing feature of the British constitution teration of the law which required theatres that it was capable of relaxation or conto be licensed, especially as he had a per. traction, as circumstances required. The sonal interest in the alteration ? With re- monster to be contended with was such gard to the learned gentleman's observa- as no age had produced, and for the destions upon that act of parliament, and the truction of which no precedent could diccelebrated speech of lord Chesterfield, he tate rules of conduct. It was a monster totally differed. He considered the speech which, if once allowed to taste the blood as one of the most brilliant compositions of the constitution, would devour its of that elegant nobleman. The act, how- vitals. Those political meetings so much ever, was intended more to repress moral alluded to, were not, he thought, of so licentiousness than to prevent political en- harmless a nature as had been represented. tertainments in the play.house, where If once the principles of these societies there was not much danger of men be- prevailed there was an end to all which coming popular. He mentioned the fol
our ancestors had held sacred. What inlowing instance in which he himself was fatuation, then, had gone forth! that, concerned, to show that the power which with the principles of these societies bethe lord chamberlain possessed, might, fore their eyes, people should be so notwithstanding what the learned gentle blinded as not to discern their interest in man had said, be still abused. He once guarding against their machinations. produced a piece called “ the School for Men of desperate fortunes and turbulent Scandal,” in which he introduced the cha- spirits might think it “ Better to reign in racter of a jew who lived by supplying ex. hell, than serve in heaven." There might travagant young men with money at exor- be those who wished to make a shipwreck bitant interest, and thereby bringing them for the sake of plunder. What, however, to ruin. The night before the piece was most surprised him was, that there should to be performed, he was much surprised be others found, of a different descripto hear from the prompter that a licence tion, who could lend their assistance in was refused. It happened that at that time aid of such proceedings. If, amongst the there was a contest in the city between apologists of such meetings, there should two gentlemen, Mr. Wilkes and Mr. Hop- be men of extensive talents, of amiable kins. In the warmth of a contested elec- manners in private life, of an ingenious tion a story went about that the charac- mind, and commanding public esteem, ter of the jew was meant for Mr. Hopkins the danger would be infinitely increased. and the piece was represented as a factious He was afraid that the converse of that and seditious opposition to a court-candi- sentiment," that the people had nothing date. He, however, went to lord Hert, to do with the laws, but to obey them, ford, and explained the circumstance of would be adopted, and that the people the scene to be a matter of general satire, would be led to think that they had
every and not of personal obloquy or ridicule; thing to ảo with the laws but to obey lord Hertford laughed at the affair and them. He lamented that the industry of gave the licence. The regulation, how the working classes among the people had ever, was merely confined to the theatres been checked through the progress of of Covent garden and Drury-lane; be- these societies, and arrested by an atten. cause, by an easy fiction, the performers tion to matters of wild speculation. A were considered as his majesty's servants, “ passive resistance" to the law was now and to act only such pieces as should be recommended. For his own part, he agreeable to him. The act extended to no could see no practical hardship imposed other theatres in the kingdom. He con- on the people by the measure. He thought cluded with solemnly declaring that if this the bill likely to be attended with much bill passed into a law, the doom of British more benefit to the people than injury, liberty was pronounced, and that in all though he owned that it was an infringeprobability it would lead to such scenes ment of a great and valuable privilege, of misery and horror, as no friend to the which should not be attempted except in happiness of his country could contem- urgent cases, such as the present. Some plate or outlive.
said, where will you stop? To which he | ought always to break off from our work; would answer, where the evil stops. the purpose of all legislation being, that They were told, “ If an eye offend thee, of producing, not merely the best possible, pluck it out.” He perceived a cancerous but the best practicable laws for the pubtumour in the body politic spreading cor- lic good. If, therefore, the theoretical ruption through the whole mass, if it was advantage of any projected law is outnot cut off, it would grow. They should weighed by the practical mischief of its take care that no vital part should be af- application, such a law ought most unfected; the wound would then heal, and doubtedly to be laid aside : but if the law the constitution recover its pristine health. be in itself wise and salutary, and we see It was surely wiser to submit to a gentle upon full contemplation of the dangers operation than hazard a mortification. opposed to its execution, that they are The question was, whether the constitu- unreal and unsubstantial; it then becomes tion would be better secured by the tem- our sacred and indispensable duty to perporary restraints of this law, than it would sist in achieving the purpose which is bebe under the uncontrolled operations of neficial, and to disregard all imaginary those who would overturn all law and go- fears, whatever forms they may assume ; vernment established in the land.
anxious only the more, at such a time, to Mr. 11. Smith said, he felt an appre- have our measures and our motives the hension that, unless the effect of one more fully understood by the country, to clause could be done away, a very im- be what they truly are; and convinced, portant branch of liberal education would that when they shall be suffered to be so be cut off in every seminary, except our understood, no circumstances of alarm or two universities. If they referred to page aversion will any longer exist, to check 8 of the bill, they would see that every or counterbalance the beneficial effects of house in which lectures were given upon such measures in their operation. the laws, the constitution, or the policy As to the law at present in debate, of the government, upon the payment of looking at that alone in the first place, money, was liable to the operation of this fairly and dispassionately; the principle clause. [He was told, that on the report of it is incontrovertibly good; the necesfrom the committee, this was done away.] sity of it is confessed ; and the provisions, The provision as it stood made no other by which it is proposed to be enforced, change than this; it left it in the breast as now amended, are substantially proper of certain magistrates to determine upon and unobjectionable. The principle is the fitness of such studies. This appeared expressed in the very front and title of to him to be a point which required ex- the bill; it is to prevent all such meetings planation.
and assemblies as are seditious: this no Mr. Abbot* said, that as the House man will condemn. Then, as to the newas called upon this night to express its cessity of the times, and whether such a final agreement or disagreement to the principle ought now to be carried into bill he should beg leave to state, in a execution by a new law, let us look at very short compass, his reasons for the the facts before us, and the necessity vote which he was about to give. In de. arising out of those facts, and meet that liberating upon this and every other im- necessity by treading the parliamentary portant measure of legislation-and all course of our ancestors. The facts ex. men will allow the importance of the pre- pressed in the preamble of this bill, have sent measure there are two distinct been already assumed, in the judgment grounds of consideration. The first, as of a large majority of this House, to be to the law itself, with regard to its prin- notoriously true: and what is more, their ciple and form ; the second, as to the cir- existence seens also to be confessed even cumstances attendant upon the projected by the very gentlemen who affect to deny law, as well with regard to the aspect of it'; for in all those arguments, by which the times, as to the temper of the people they daily labour to depreciate the danfor whose benefit the law is brouglit for- gers of the country, it cannot be supposed ward : and unless both these considera- that they are labouring to calculate the tions lead us to the same conclusion, we value and amount of a non-entity: but
more than this, in the present stage of * In February 1802, Mr. Abbot was chosen Speaker of the House of Commons, and in
our proceedings, the same facts are tesJune 1817 he was called up to the House of tified to us by tlie whole country at large; Peers by the title of Baron Colchester.
for all the various and numerous petitions from all parts admit the facts, although subjects injured ? Is it an injury to any they draw from them very opposite con- man to require that he shall speak out his clusions. Let us, therefore, who draw political opinions in the face of day? Is it from these materials one and the same an injury to any man to require that the conclusion, and who agree in the appear- legality of his actions shall be judged of ance of that necessity, proceed to combat by the magistrate? And if this discreit accordingly. Our ancestors enacted tionary power is complained of, I would laws against the dangers of popular assem- only ask, whether the laws of all counblies in their days, according to the guise tries, as well as our own, do not invest and shape which those dangers then wore. the magistrates with discretionary powers? The parliaments of Richard 2nd and of Does not every justice of peace in this Henry 4th made vigorous laws to repress country receive, at the same time with the violent meetings which in their age his coinmission, numberless volumes of threatened to disturb the public peace. discretionary powers, all of which he is The parliament of Charles 2nd passed a bound to execute? But it is the characstatute against the like dangers, which teristic blessing of our constitution, that then put on the form of tumultuous our safety, even under this discretionary petitioning. The first parliament which power, is at the sanie time most entirely received George 1st upon his throne, pro- complete, by the constitutional redress mulgated a law of stronger penalties than placed in the hands of each subject; who any of the preceding, in proportion as may, as we have in our own times seen it inthe general danger of popular assemblies stanced, render every order of magisgrew more prevalent. "Let us, therefore, tracy, from the secretary of state to the after their examples, encounter the spe- constable, criminally responsible in his cial dangers of our own times, which is person, for the wilful abuse of power; nothing less than an adverse and hostile and civily responsible in damages, for an claim by such assemblies to subvert the excess of his authority, even if that exwhole constitution of these realms from its cess be merely erroneous. This is not a pinnacle to its foundations.
chimerical, but a practical safeguard; and Such being the principle which we by which any individual amongst us may adopt, and such the necessity which we have the judgment of his impannelled obey, let us next look to the provisions countrymen, to-day or to-morrow, against contained in the law before us. And al- | any other individual, whatever be his rank though numerous in their detail, yet they or power, by whose ignorance or caprice are substantially contained in two plain any one of us may imagine himself to be and reasonable measures. As to all as aggrieved. semblies above fifty persons, for petition- The duration of this law is the only ing or debating on grievances or matters other provision of it which remains for in church or state ; if no lord lieutenant, our attention. And were this a declaratory no custos rotulorum, no sheriff, no grand law, or enacted against any permanent jury, no head officer of the city, borough, evil, as that in the bill sent to us from the or town to which they belong, will autho- Lords, I quite agree with a right hon. genrize their meeting; if they cannot prevail tleman in his comment upon that bill, on any of these known constitutional ma- which he opposed so earnestly, that such gistrates of the country to convene them; laws should be perpetual ; because they then all that we require is, that they are expedient and true for ever, or not at should notity themselves by advertise. all: but this being professed as a remedy ment: and in like manner we require that for a mischief which is novel in its species, lectures delivered, or debates held, for and temporary, as we hope, in its contimoney, as a political trade, should also nuance, the duration which we are to give become notified, by means of a licence: it should be such as may be at least comthis notification to the magistracy, is the mensurate with the existence of its object, first measure : and the other measure is, and no longer : and such is the very limi. that with regard to all such meetings sotation here adopted. notified, the magistrate shall be enabled This closes our consideration upon the to prevent their becoming dangerous to law itself. But there remains the other the state, by interposing his authority. half of our work, which I stated at the These are the fundamental
outset; namely, the consideration of all which pervade the whole. And in such those accompanying circumstances, which measures, how are the liberties of British loudly demand our attention, and which insist upon a right to suspend, and even are already adequate to the evil. In other to supersede, whatever might be our pri- acts, it has been long received as a clear mary determination. Of these circum. and wise maxim, that the division of stances the foremost is, the multitude of labour is the road to perfection : but petitions, which, flowing in from all political science and legal jurisprudence, quarters of the kingdom, have daily filled the most complex of all knowledge, and the House during our deliberations upon the most arduous of all acquirements, this business. Ought we to have ad- seem to be now considered by all classes vanced forward, in defiance and disregard of men as requiring no distinct or approof such earnest remonstrances ? Most priate labour, and as being rather the assuredly not. We ought to do, what I unsown produce, and the natural and trust we have done, weigh the merits of spontaneous growth of uncultivated inall these petitions against the bill, and tellect, or as descending equally upon all also of those in favour of it; and to those men by inspiration ; and many, who progentlemen who have so done, the result bably never saw our voluminous Statute will appear to be nearly this:
book, boldly pronounce their judgment As to number ; that now, after three in this instance upon its various contents weeks have elapsed since the printing of and their efficacy. the bill, out of the 82 counties in Great What impressions, then, are we to Britain, eight only have petitioned at all; receive from these petitions; and what four of them, namely, Buckinghamshire, conduct are we to hold? We are to Suffolk, Rutlandshire, and Huntingdon receive and hear them all, collectively shire, have petitioned for the bill ; two and individually, with the sincerest respect only, Middlesex and Northumberland, and deference: and although we should against it; the other two, Surrey and not find in them any objections, sufficiently Hampshire, have sent us petitions and forcible to impede our progress; yet we counter-petitions. Almost all the great are called upon to admire the spirit and cities and towns which have spoke out, jealousy which our countrymen have so are divided in opinion ; such are London, laudably and honourably displayed, when Westminster, Southwark, Edinburgh, they saw us, even for the preservation and Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, and protection of their liberties, lay our hands both the Newcastles; the remainder of upon the ark in which those liberties are the contending lists, is swelled with names enshrined : and we were also called upon of places, however respectable, yet of by those petitions, to enter with redoubled inferior note ; and such as whichever way vigilance upon the labours of that comtheir number preponderates, cannot be mittee, in which by course of parliament, conceived to express the universal, or these measures were to be still more fully even the general, sense of the nation. discussed, amended, and effectuated. At
These, with a very few petitions from length the committee did enter upon its particular trades, compose the whole cata- labours. Out of the transactions of that logue.
committee, have any new circumstances Their quality, however, is more impor-arisen which should lessen our original tant than their number; and upon this disposition in favour of this bill? Some inquiry, the misrepresentation from which very new circumstances did indeed appear many have sprung, and the misconception there. The first of which, were, the many which produced others, are apparent from important amendments introduced into their very contents. Peace is the prayer the bill at that period. Passages were also of others; which, however desirable then struck out of it, which had they rean object in itself, certainly stands in no mained, I, for one, should have voted way connected with this discussion : but against the bill most decidedly in every subthe very mention of it inserted here mani. sequent stage of it. Other passages were festly shows, that provided signatures also inserted, which rendered the beneenow could be had, the particular object ficial clauses more operative. And if all of the petitions was not thought to be so was not done that might have been done, very material. There is one assertion how- let those answer for it who deserted that ever worth remarking, as it runs almost committee. universally through all of them; and an But one circumstance above all others assertion, which, of all others, is the least struck us all in that committee; and the likely to be the result of a competent more so, as it was expressly concerled judgment; namely, that the present laws for the purpose of shaking our resolutions.