Gambar halaman

spectfully. The crown, for instance, might be represented as the power paramount to lords and commons, and totally, by right, independent of their control; and the man that hadmade such an asseveration,might, instead of rebuke and punishment, meet with approbation and reward, while he, that dared to insinuate the contrary, would expose himself to the wrath of government. A time, indeed, might come, when the prin ciples that seated the house of Brunswick on the British throne, might be reprobated, and held forth as proofs of disloyalty in those who maintained them, while those who pleaded the cause of the prerogative, would be abetted by the whole authority and strength of govern


The duke of Bedford was par. ticularly severe on that clause of the bill, which condemned, to a transportation for seven years, any person convicted of having offended, a second time, against the purport of the bill. He thought the pe. nalty far exceeded the offence, and spoke, he said, as a man that felt himself liable to incur it. He took this occasion to condemn, in bitter terms, an expression that had fallen from bishop Horsley, in the warmth of his antipathy to writings published on parliamentary reform. The bishop's reply to the duke's animadversions was, that the bill referred only to those seditious meetings where the discussion of laws was attempted by persons incompetent to judge of their propriety; nor did he know, “what the mass of the people, in any country, had to do with the laws, but to obey them."

An observation of this nature, drew, from the duke of Bedford, and the earl of Lauderdale, the ut

most abhorrence that words could utter. The earl, in particular, affirmed, that had a Turkish mufti made such a declaration, in his presenee, he should have imputed it to his ignorance; but to hear it from the mouth of a British prelate, excited his surprise no less than his indignation.

It may not be out of place to remark, that these words of the bishop did him considerable disser. vice, not only with the public, but with the ministerial party, who were abundantly sensible how much their cause was injured by such immoderate zeal, whether sincere or af fected.

The bill, on the division, was carried by forty-five votes against three.

The third reading of the bill took place on the thirteenth of November, when the earl of Lauderdale proposed to extend the operation of it to Scotland, and to substitute it to the laws provided there against the like offences: observing, in support of his proposal, that more severity could not be requisite in Scotland, where the people were peaceably inclined, than in England, where a strong party was formed against the existing government. But his proposal was immediately negatived.

The bill was again opposed, with great vigour and animation, by the duke of Bedford. He felt, he said, a solicitude and anxiety on this subject, that compelled him to call forth every exertion, of which he was capable, to bear witness of his abhorrence of that bill, which he considered as a mortal stab to the English constitution, given, in despite of every remonstrance, by a ministry, determined to strike at

every thing that stood in the way of their proceedings, however the voice of the public might reprobate them, or experience prove them Contrary to the welfare of the nation. It was become usual, he said, to draw precedents from France, by the supporters of ministerial measures. He too could, with equal propriety, cite the example of that country in admonition to those who were become the rulers of this. What was it, he asked, that plunged France into those disorders and confusions that brought about the revolution? Surely not the field-meetings of the people, nor the discussions in private clubs, but the profligacy of a vicious court, and the licentious lives of the heads of the French nation, whose immoral characters lost them the esteem and respect of their country men; but the cause which principally accelerated that event the iniquitous conduct of their government, and the corrupt subserviency of successive ministries to the wicked ambition of those who, unhappily for that kingdom, possessed the confidence of weak sovereigns, and involved them in contests and wars that drained the resources of the nation, and reduced the people to misery. These, together with the intolerable oppressions exercised upon the commonalty, excited that resentment of their wrongs, and that resolution to oppose tyranny, which produced the revolution. True it was, that the personal character of the monarch, on the British throne, was highly respectable and exemplary; but the perverseness of his ministers, in forcing his people into a war, neither of their choice nor to their interest, in lavishing their money


for its prosecution against their repeated wishes for its termination, in creating places and emoluments for the abettors of this ruinous system, and in adopting the severest and most unconstitutional measures agaiust all who had the spirit to oppose them: these and otherinstances of obstinacy, arrogance, and contempt of the people's rights and interests, fully justified him in calling their conduct unconstitutional and corrupt.

The duke was answered by lord Grenville, who went over the same grounds of arguments already urged in support of the bill. He did not deny the duke's assertions respecting the corruption of the French court and government previous to the revolution, the commencement of which had excited the expectation of the people of this country, that the French would henceforth enjoy the happiness of a constitution similar to their own. But the horrible events that ensued owed their causes to the lawless principles maintained in the clubs and disorderly associations that took place in that unhappy country, and filled it with murder and desolation. Clubs, it was well known, had been instituted in England, in imitation and upon the same plan as those in France. Like them, they taught principles utterly subversive of ancient laws and constitutions, and inimical to the moral and religious order of things established for centuries. These were certainly most dangerous innovations, and tended evidently to throw this, and any country, into the most fatal disor ders. They ought, therefore, to be resisted, and it would argue fear or imbicility not to oppose them in the firmest and most effectual man


ner, by holding out the severest chastisements to those who endeavoured to disseminate principles of so pernicious and destructive a tendency.

It was with much animal vehemence insisted on by the earl of Lauderdale, that the safety of ministers was much more consulted by this bill than that of the king. They were conscious, that if the people were suffered to meet toge ther, their reiterated remonstrances could not fail, at last, to make some impression to their prejudice. The privilege of discussing parliamentary transactions had never yet been called in question or thought dangerous. The more important the question brought before the legislature, the greater was the propensity as well as the interest of the public to examine and scrutinize it. If this privilege was allowed in matters of little importance, it ought, indubitably, to bold good in affairs of great and weighty concern to the nation. Ministers had tried how far the law would bear them out in their endeavours to establish the doctrine of constructive treason; but the attempt was so odious, that it failed; the present, however, was an attempt far more invidicus, and he doubted not, that if the people of England viewed it in that light, they would exert themselves so powerfully as to frustrate it, notwithstanding all ministerial arts and efforts in its favour. The debate finally concluded by sixty-six votes for the passing of the bill and seven against it. The duke of Bedford and the earls of Derby and Lauderdale entered a very solemn and spirited protest in opposition to


In the house of commons, the same influence prevailed as in the house of lords. A message from these was brought to the commons, on the 16th of November, informing them, that they had passed the bill for the king's better safety, and requesting their concurrence. Mr. Pitt, in consequence, moved its first reading, which was carried by one hundred and seventy votes against twenty-six; the second reading was voted by one hundred and fifty-one against twenty-five.

It being observed by lord Eardley, that a public meeting had been held on Sunday by persons who opposed the bill, a transaction which he looked upon as too much in the style of French principles, Mr. Sheridan observed, that the meeting was justified by its object, which was to prepare a hand-bill to dissuade the people from tumult and riot.

In conjunction with Mr. Fox, Mr. Grey, and Mr. Lambton, Mr. Sheridan proposed, that, previously to the discussion of the bill, a committee should be appointed to inquire into the particulars of the insult offered to the king. This was opposed by ministry as disrespectful in the first stage of a bill, framed for the security of the sovereign, and laid before them by the house of lords; but Mr. Sheridan insisted, that no proofs had been adduced to authorize so harsh a measure, and that ministers had no right to bring forward such a bill without the clearest proofs of its necessity. Ministers were bound, in their own justification, to make it appear to the public that they acted ingenuously and upon fair grounds, the case being of such importance and magnitude, that no suspicions


suspicions ought to be against miwisters for undue compliances, of which, if guilty, they should not be suffered to escape the punishment annexed to their responsibility. It was equally absurd and unconstitutional to build any argument on the proclamations which were well known to be fabricated by ministers, and to deserve no more credit than the informers, reporters, and spies, employed by them in the prosecution of those whom they were compelled to release for want of better evidence. The doctrine of king-killing had been imputed to the meeting at Copenhagen house; but, had such an imputation been founded, "prosecutions" said Mr. Sheridan, "must have taken place against the guilty, or else there must have been great neglect in the magistrates and the execu tive government;" but this being highly improbable, neither was the charge itself to be credited. On these premises he moved, "that a Committee should be appointed to inquire into the existence and extent of the danger of seditious meetings, as referred to in the king's proclamation."

The notoriety of the inflammatory and seditious language, spoken at the popular meetings, was such, answered Mr. Powis, that no other evidence could be needed to justify the strong measures in contemplation, which were evidently necessary to check the turbulent disposition that bad gone forth. It did not amount to absolute treason, but it approached so nearly to it as to call not only for immediate restriction but for adequate punishment; none being provided by any law in force, an act ought to be passed, both to restrain and punish the of fenders in future. The proceedings of VOL. XXXVIII.

the various assemblies of the people, both in England and Scotland, were invariably conformable to those of the clubs in France, and breathed a decided enmity to the constitution of this country.

Mr. Fox, Mr. Sheridan, Mr. Curwen, and Mr. Jekyl, vigourously supported the motion for an inquiry, and asserted the sufficiency of the existing laws for the suppression of conspiracies against the state, and that if they were not enforced the ministers themselves were to blame. Their representations of the state of things merited no attention; they were framed to deceive the public, and had neither truth nor even plausibility; they contradicted each other in the most perceptible manner, and could not therefore be relied on; the loyalty of the people and their attachment to government were one day insisted upon, and the next they were charged with factiousness and democratic principles. Was this a style of speaking becoming men at the head of the nation, and who were bound, by the exaltedness of their situation and the means of information it afforded, to be well acquainted with the temper of the nation, and ought therefore to be above the meanness of misrepresenting it to the sovereign, or of endeavouring to conceal it from the legislature? Mr. Fox, on this occasion, expressed particular indignation at the behaviour of some individuals employed by administration in the capacity of spies. In order to discover the designs of those they were commissioned to watch over, they affected to enter into their sentiments, and excited them to use words and to adopt proposals, far more reprehensible than they first intended. What [D]


name could be affixed sufficiently at the late trials: he insisted on

descriptive of so vile a character?
He cited the case of those informers
at the Old Bailey, who fall under
this description, and he reminded
the house of the cruel treatment of
Mr. Walker, of Manchester, who,
though liberated on the proof of
perjury in his accuser, received
however no compensation for his
sufferings. The depravity of mi-
nisterial agents required indubitably
to be checked, no less than the mis-
demeanours of those whose conduct
they were employed to inspect.
With sorrow, said Mr. Fox, he
found himself compelled to bear
witness to a melancholy truth,
which was, that the freedom of
the subject had been considerably
abridged since the commencement
of the present reign. It was vain
to deny the discontent of the people
at the conduct of ministers: where-
ever popular meetings were held,
this conduct was warmly and una-
nimously reprobated, as the cause
of public calamities. He had, Mr.
Fox said, been strongly impressed
with the reality of this persuasion
throughout the generality, by the
unanimous marks of approbation he
had met with that very morning
from an assembly in Westminister,
consisting of thirty thousand indivi-
duals at least, whom he had addres-
sed to the same intent for which he
was now speaking to the house, and
who were apparently, almost to a
man, convinced that he spoke the
sense of the nation at large.

The motion for an inquiry was opposed by Mr. Pitt and the attorney-general, as creating a delay that might be productive of much danger. The tranquillity of the public required the promptest measures. The latter expressed great solicitude in vindicating his conduct


the propriety of the bill in question, which, he said, would, at the worst, prove the adoption of a lesser evil, to prevent a greater. The present laws of the land were, in his opinion, inadequate to prevent the appearance of such publications as he had read, and of such meetings as had been held; new laws were of consequence necessary. The debate closed by twenty-two votes for Mr. Sheridan's motion, and one hundred and sixty-seven against it.

The second reading of the bill took place on the seventeenth of November. The liberty of speech was acknowledged by the solicitors general to be a peculiar blessing of the English constitution, but it had lately been perverted by ill-designing men, in so glaring a manner, that the safety of the state required it should be so regulated, as to pre vent the mischiefs wherein they were aiming to render it instrumental. So far, in his judgment, were the provisions of the bill sufficiently restrictive, for the purpose of curbing the licentiousness of the people, that they demanded additional restraints on the intemperance of speech, daily increasing among the commonalty. The provisions enacted by the bill would, he asserted, confine the people within the salutary limits of lawful discussions, and effectually obviate those riotous proceedings, that were the inevitable result of assemblies held by the vulgar classes, without some restraint to keep them in order. The presence of a magistrate would completely effect this, with out entrenching on their privilege to meet for the purpose of laying their grievances before the legis lature, and petitioning for redress While this right remained untouch


« SebelumnyaLanjutkan »