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finition of what was to be accounted treason, was much clearer and precise than in the words of the present bill, which contained words and phrases, the meaning of which might be so construed as to create new crimes at the option of ministers. There were times, he said, when resistance on the part of the people was justifiable, and even considered as a duty, by great and well-known authorities. The heads of the law should not therefore be entrusted with a discretionary power of extending, or interpreting the laws, as thereby the freedom of individuals could never be secure; and as the sense of such a state of insecurity might justly rouse them to such exertions, for the recovery of their rights, as might throw the realm into the most fatal disorders.
The statute of Edward III. was represented by lord Mansfield, in reply, as too lax and imperfect; it was not explanatory in various cases similar to that which was now under consideration; it was not sufficient therefore to prevent or to punish adequately delinquences of this nature. The statute against treason in the reign of Elizabeth served as a precedent to that under queen Anne, and ought not to have been spoken of as unfit to be imitated. The laws enacted to the same purpose under Charles II. were pointed at the republican party at that day, which, like the same party at the present, consisted of sworn enemies to monarchy, and of consequence to the sovereign that wore the crown if it was deemed necessary then to protect him from their fury, it was no less indispensible now, that principles of the most rebellious nature were openly circulated in
defiance of all law and government. He justified the wording of the bill as sufficiently clear and intelligible, and was of opinion that seven years transportation was not too severe for the offence on which the bill inficted it.
The duke of Norfolk took this occasion to assert, that to the principle of resistance the family of Brunswick owed its exaltation to the British throne; this principle ought therefore never to be forgotten by the friends of liberty. Though they should be careful not to misapply it, yet occasions might arise, as they had formerly arisen, when the application of it would become as necessary as at the periods to which he alluded. From the evidence relating to the insult offered to the crown, he was persuaded that measures might easily be adopted to prevent such outrages in future; but he thought himself bound to reject the bill produced by ministers in its present. form, as invading the liberty of the subject in a variety of respects, and placing it too much at their disposal.
After other peers had delivered their opinions on the subject, the duke of Bedford concluded it, by saying, that the reasonings against the bill had met with no adequate answers; they stood upon constitutional ground, and though they might be out voted, they could not be refuted. The bill added nothing to the personal safety of the king, but increased the power of the crown in a most unconstitutional degree; he would therefore oppose it, as a direct attack on the liberty of Englishmen. Should it unhappily pass into a law, it would prove so fatal an infringement on the consti
tution, that the public would soon be sensible of the change effected in its condition, and lament, when too late, the spiritless acquiescence of those who, forgetting their own dignity and interest, as well as that of the nation, bad sacrificed it to unjustifiable motives, or personal views. On putting the question, it was carried in favour of ministry by seventy nine votes against eight.
these rights ought to be kept within their intended limits, and it was the duty of parliament to prevent their becoming instrumental in the subversion of the established government. The rights of the people doubtless ought to be respected, but it was equally indispensible to obviate their abuse. The question before the house was, to use Mr. Pitt's own words, "Whether the pressure of the moment did not require an instant remedy?" A precise and acknowledged power was wanting in the magistrate to disperse such meetings as threatened disorders. This power indeed ought not to extend to meetings held for lawful purposes, but only to authorise him to watch over the proceedings of any large assembly, whatever might be the object of those who assembled. To this intent, notice should be given to the magistrate previously to the intended meeting; he should be empowered to be present, and if it appeared of a seditious tendency, to seize the guilty on the spot; to obstruct him should be made felony; and if the meeting did not disperse at his command, the penalties provided in the riot-act should be inflicted on the refractory. There was, added Mr. Pitt, another species of meeting, consisting of persons who attended public lectures on political subjects; the lecturers were men notoriously disaffected to government, and the doctrines they delivered were calculated to instil the rankest principles of resistance and rebellion to the established powers. In order to obviate this effectually, the act against disorderly houses should be applied to meetings of this kind, whenever" they exceeded, by a number to be stated [C3]
On the same day, Mr. Pitt moved, in the house of commons, that the royal proclamations, in consequence of the late riot, should be taken into consideration. He grounded his motion on the necessity of preventing such insults being offered to the sovereign, as he had experienced on the opening of the session. He presumed every loyal subject would unite with him on this occasion, and that methods would be taken to obviate those causes from whence the outrages proceeded, which were the factious meetings of disaffected people, wherein seditious discourses were constantly held, and principles maintained utterly subversive of good order and obedience to government. The pretence of these meetings was to petition the legis lature for rights withheld from the people; but the real motive was, to promulgate opinions inimical to government, and calculated to bring it into contempt. If the executive power were not invested with sufficient authority to control these meetings, they would finally endanger the existence of the state. It he acknowledged, the indubitable right of the people to pass their judgment upon ministers and their measures, and freely to express their sentiments on all political subjects, as also to petition the different branches of the legislature; but
in the act, the real family of the house." So alarming a restriction occasioned an immediate cry of hear him, on the opposite side, but Mr. Pitt persisted in his determination, and moved for leave to introduce a bill for the prevention of. seditious meetings.
The motion being read, Mr. Fox began a long and animated speech, by declaring his abhorrence of the treatment offered to the king, but professed himself no less offended at the discourse he bad just heard. An attempt had been made to found the necessity of framing the bill proposed on the proceedings of the assemblies so highly reprobated by ministers, who contended that they struck at the existence of parliament itself; but if such were the real case, were not those who broached these rebellious tenets amenable to the law, and liable, on conviction, to condign punishment? There was no evidence that the late outrages, though justly complained of, originated in the meetings alluded to. Proclamations were no evidence; they were the fabrication of ministers, frequently to serve the worst purposes. Public discussions, on national subjects, were not only legal, but the very life of the English constitution; without these no liberty could subsist. The bill, it was said, would not prevent, but only regulate them. But attend, said Mr. Fox, to the regulation; 1 thought, he continued, that I knew the rights of men, and the rights of Englishmen." A great cry arising of hear him : What, said he, do you suppose it a slip, and that the rights of man is a sentence without a meaning? have men no naturai rights? if so, Englishmen's rights
can have no existence. The rights of man, I say, are clear: man has natural rights, and he who denies it is ignorant of the basis of a free government: he is ignorant of the first principles of ours, for these rights are connected with the best parts of the history of our country." The people, Mr. Fox continued, had an inalienable right to deliberate on their grievances, and to demand redress from the Tegislature, but were forbidden by this bill to exercise these rights without the attendance of a magistrate, and previous notice to him of their inten
Conduct yourselves at once as the senators of Denmark did: lay down your freedom, and acknow ledge and accept of despotism, but do not mock the understandings and the feelings of mankind, by telling the world that you are free. Can a meeting, under such restrictions as the bill requires, be called a meeting of free people? is it possible to make the people of this country believe that the plan is any thing but a total annihilation of their liberty?" After some strictures on the number of persons to whom the bill limited henceforth all meetings; "behold, pursued Mr. Fox, the state of a free Englishman; before he can discuss any topic which involves his liberty, or his rights, he is to send to a magistrate, who is to attend the discussion; that magistrate cannot prevent the meeting, but he can prevent their speaking, because he can allege that what is said has a ten
dency to disturb the peace of the kingdom." Mr. Fox hoped that the people would perceive the dan. ger that threatened their freedom, and meet together, while it still remained lawful, to consult in what manner to preserve it from the infringement designed in the bill proposed, and to express their detestation of it. He had seen and heard of revolutions, but experience had shewn they were not owing to the freedom of popular meetings, but to the tyranny exerted to enslave men. The French revolution arose from ministerial oppressions, and the arbitrary proceedings of a despotic government that held the people in continual dread, and silenced their very fears by the terror of those punishments suspended over those who dared to utter their sentiments. If the peo ple's complaints were groundless, the less they were noticed, the sooner they would cease, as false surmises would very soon be discovered and lose their effect; but, if well-founded, the efforts made to repress them must terminate, either in a base-minded submission of the people, or in a resistance fatal to their rulers as well as to themselves. Were the introduction of such a bill insisted on, he thought himself bound, previously to any farther discussion, to move for a call of the house.
Mr. Fox was supported by Mr. Stanley, who explicitly affirmed, that if the bill should pass, he should consider this country as on the eve of a revolution. He re minded ministers of the well-known assertion of Montesquieu, that a numerous increase of penal laws as a sure prognostication of a state's verging to its decline. This alone
appeared to him a sufficient motive for opposing so oppressive a bill. There existed laws adequate to the suppression of unlawful meetings; but the bill was, in fact, the sever est libel on the good sense and attachment of Englishmen to their constitution; it represented them as insensible of its worth, incapable of enjoying liberty, and deserve ing, for that reason, to be deprived of it.
In answer to these arguments, sir William Pulteney admonished the opposers of the bill to consider it impartially, before they described it in such odious colours. It by no means prevented free discussion, that of the press particularly, which he viewed as fully adequate to the support of that public spirit, and those popular maxims on which the constitution rested. The press was the strongest pillar of hberty, by the latitude with which every political subject was allowed to be treated: while this remained untouched, the public was in no dan ger of ever seeing the constitution subverted, and it was a privilege which he would never consent to part with; but it could not exist in a democracy any more than under an arbitrary government, nor, in truth, any government but a limited monarchy like our own. The great danger of popular meetings was, that they heard only one side of the question. Uninformed mul titudes were easily deluded by the specious and inflammatory speeches of designing persons, who well knew, that in such meetings they would have little, or rather no con tradiction, to encounter, and find their audience ready prepared to acquiesce in whatever they might think proper to deliver. Times [C 4]
and circumstances called for regulations apposite to the dispositions of men at different periods. The present temper of men was marked by precipitation and temerity, and ought to be repressed accordingly. Proceedings that bordered on sedition ought certainly to be opposed with firmness and diligence. Were magistrates, in such cases, to exceed their powers, they would certainly be called to a severe account, in a country where juries had shewn themselves so tenacious of the liberties of their fellow-subjects, and where the spirit of liberty animated, so manifestly, the lsgislature itself, as to induce it to declare those very juries competent judges whether a publication should be deemed a libel.
Mr. Halhed acknowledged the propriety of the first proclamation, offering an ample reward for the discovery of those who had insulted the king, but totally disapproved of that proclamation, in coincidence with which the bill had been brought into the house. The misbehaviour of the populace, he affirmed, proceeded from the sense of their feelings, and ought not, in equity, to be attributed to that meeting of the people, three days before, which had not exhibited the least sign of a riotous disposition, and had parted as peaceably as it had met. The miserable situation of the rioters, though not a justification, ought to weigh with those who reflected to what irregularities men might be driven, when they wanted bread. But the inveteracy of ministers to men who had opposed their measures, with such constancy and determination, was the real motive that prompted them in the formation of this bill. They pro
The bill was opposed by Mr. Maurice Robinson, as separating the interests of the king from those of the people, and setting them, as it were, in opposition to each other. The king, as father of his people, was in justice bound to treat them with paternal care, and not to permit ministers, on the pretext of consulting his personal dignity, to render their condition worse than ever it had been, by punishing the many for the offences of a few, hurried into the commission of their delinquencies by the pressures of hunger and want. No evidence had been produced to countenance the ministerial assertion, that the riots were caused by the popular assemblies, held in the vicinity of the metropolis. The clear and well-known purpose of these meetings was to petition for peace and reform, the endeavours to obtain which could not, by any legal construction, be deemed acts of sedition.
The bill was supported by Mr. alderman Lushington, as a measure without which the person of the sovereign would be continually exposed to the insults of the vilest po pulace, who would become the more daring and outrageous when they saw that parliament passed by unnoticed the criminal insolence of which they had been guilty. Were