Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

wl, ant) was only subjected to .regulations for its more beneficial exercise, it was unreasonable to complain of its being extinguished. The solicitor, speaking os the purity and independence os the British parliament, took this occasion to condemn the system adopted by the French, os allowing salaries to the representatives of the nation. Hence, he asserted, arose the calamities of France. It was a practice which' had long been relinquished by this country, and which denoted the prudence of the people and government. He also advanced another maxim, which was, that revolutions were always the work of minorities: these usually consisted "s spirited and active individuals, who were not deterred by difficulties, and whose resolution and periieverance rendered them indefatigable, and enabled them finally lo overcome the majorities that opposed their designs. These majorities being composed of the peaceable and wcll-aflccted to government, though acting with loyaltv, did not exert themselves with a fervour equal to that of their antagonists, whose yjgour and animation in pursuing the objects for which they were contending, inspired them with exertions too violent to be resisted by men, who had only ordinary motives to influence them, while • the others were prompted by that multiplicity of passions which actuate men who are striving to exalt themselves above others, and to expel them from the feat of power, in order to occupy it themselves. From the various reasonings that had been. uied in support of the bill, he inserted," that as the laws in force did Mt sufficiently apply to the numerous meetings and associations,

.Is" "■

where the seditious principles complained of were encouraged, laws that might clearly be directed' against them, ought of course to be enacted.

In reply to the solicitor-general, Mr. Erskine positively denied the bill's consistency with the principle*' of the British constitution. Neither in the reign os Charles II. nor of William III. nor in those that followed, though two of them were marked by rebellions, had the ministry dared to attempt such an infringement on the liberty os the subject; and yet the first of these: reigns was immediately after thosecommotions that • had brought ai king to the scaffold: the second was. noted for the obstinacy with which the adherent's to a dethroned monarch exerted themselves in his cause, even to the attempting the very life of the prince upon the throne. In the height of the rebellion of 1745, no minister had ventured tosetter the nation in the manner proposed by the present bill. Even the very sramers of it, when they suspended the habeas-corpus-act, and were preparing their materials for the late trials, hadahstained from this glaring invasion of national freedom. No plots had since arisen, corroborated with any proofs, to arm ministers with a just pretence for so outrageous an attack on the constitution; the fundamentals of which were so materially affected by it; thai the right to petition, on which the security of the people against oppression essentially depended, would be utterly destroyed. The bill forbad all discussion that \vai not sanctioned by a magistrate. Diet. not such a clause empower migistrates appointed by, and removable at the will of the crown, to be judges of the nature of the petitions

[Da] tf

of the people? was it presumable that such persons would permit a petition, militating against any ministerial measure, to be brought forward in a popular meeting? but whatever the favourers of absolute powers might advance in support of such a bill, it took away at once the right inherent in the people to resist a tyrannical government. The public meetings had been charged with speaking bold language; but there were occasions that warranted the boldest language. The people, of England had inalienably the right to defend their liberties to the last extremity: Inch were the sentiments of the great lord Chatham, and such were his own. In no situation would he desert that cause, and was determined never to die a slave. It was, in the mean time, with the heaviest concern, that ha observed a circumstance pregnant with much calamity: this was the estrangement of the higher classes from the lower: this had been the ladiral cause of the evils that had befallen France. Previoutly to the • revolution there were but two orders of society in that country, a haughty and domineering nobility, and a wretched oppressed multitude. 'Hence arose the resentments of the lower classes, who beheld themselves t\ rannised ov<* by a profligate court and government, to which, for that reason, they did not conceive themselves bound to submit. Arguing from this weighty precedent, Mr. Erikine warned the pos

orlate. Compulsion, aid the dread of for e might induce them to submit awhile to their oppressors; but it would be a sullen submission, and though it might even last a few years, th<» remembrance of liberty would still survive, and prompt them in an evil hour for the destroyers of their freedom, to resume it on some auspicious opportunity, and to take the most signal vengeance upon its enemies. In corroboration of his sentiments, Mr. Erfkine referred to the speech of the chief justice, at the late trials for high treason at the Old Bailey. "Among the objects of the attention of freemen, said the chiesjustrec, the principles of government, the constitutions of particular governments, and, above all, the constitution o'f the government under which they live, will naturally engage their at-* tention, and provoke (peculation. The power of communication-os thoughts and opinions is the gift of God, and the freedom of it is -the source of all science, the. first-fruit, and the ultimate happiness of society; and therefore it seems to follow, that human laws ought not to interpose, nay, cannot interpose to prevent the communication of sentiments and opinions in voluntary assemblies of men." So dangerous! v was the bill framed, that it was in the power of any one individual present at a meeting to occasion its dissolution, by speaking a few seditious words, that would instantly authorise, the presiding magistrate to put an

feslors of power, and the owners of end to it on that pretence; but was g.eal property in this country, to be it not clear that for a paultry gratification, a hireling might be found to assord this pretence to a ministerial justice for executing the mandates of his employer? It was false, that no law existed.to prevent seditious proceedings: a magistrate

, had

ware of trn; fUtal examples before them, and not to ahet a law by which the people's liberties must necessarily be abrogated, and a spirit of revenge excited in them which would inevitably break forth soon

had it always in his option to dissolve a disorderly assembly, when it was evidently accompanied by a breach of the peace; and by the riot-act he was explicitly empowered to disperse meetings held on unlawful purposes. Mr. Erfkine next proceeded to expose the change of sentiments in the Englifli on matters of government. Mr. Burke had/he said, already taken notice os this alteration Ib long ago as the American war. » We begin, his words were, (o acquire the spirit of domination, and to lose the relish of tonest equality: the principles of" our forefathers become suspected to us because we see them animating . the present opposition os their American descendants. The faults which grow out of the luxuriance pf freedom, appear much more mocking to vs than those vices which are generated from the ranknefs of servitude." Thus, said Mr. Erfkine, neither the idea, nor the terra of equality, were strangers to our-language till lately, a? some June servers would insinuate. It were wiser in the higher ranks to cherish, this idea, than to effect a secession from the commonalty, and to hold it beneatlr their dignity td «ake one common^ cause" wish them. The great ought1 seriously ro weigh the consequences that'must certainly ensue from a contest between them and- tho Nurse;<■ It would indicate a spirifrof disunion Id this country, 'Of which the French would hot fail to avail themselves; far worse would :be 'the rendition, W_a treaty ,witrfe therm in such a one, thævis ther soasdi us 'united in disposition and"interests: Mr1. Krikine, reverting to the rhbt'rves aNted in-support of the" bill, said, because, ■ while«tjielsovereign Wrs going to parliament, at a time wien

a complication of calamities had rendered the poor desperate, a sew wretches were guilty of outrages to him, for which they might have been punished by statutes )on^ existing, the whole nation is at once to lose the privilege on which it justly sets the highest value. The stntute enacted in the thirteenth of Charles'II was, he observed, the acknowledged precedent of the present bill: by the tenour of that statute one hundred thousand individuals might assemble in order to concert together a pettion: the only prohibitions contained in that act, were] to hawke the petition about for those to sign, who might not know of the grievances complained of, and th:ft more than ten persons Ihould present /he petition to the king. It also empowered magistrates to interpose their authority when overt acts of tumult took place, and to require security against any breach of the peace; but no 'meeting nor communication of thoughts were forbidden: tumul. tuoufly petitioning was the only thing forbidden. How different, exclaimed Mr. Erfkine, was this act from the bill now depending, which even prevented men from petitioning. He concluded by animadverting on the language once used by Mr. Pitt himself, on the subject of parliamentary reform, ''■We had lost America, were the. minister's words, through the corruption of an uniformed parliament, and we should nc\c-r have a Wise arid honourable administration' nor be. freed from the evils of unnecessary war, nor the fatal effects oflhe funding system, ,j|| a radical reform was obtained." But the man who had spoken these true and memorable words w.is the fame who now charged with sedition all [ D 3 J those

those who thought.and spoke as he had done, aud-who reprobated the measures, which, after he ,had so bitterly complained of them in that speech, he hud now thought proper toadopt. >;... ..,

A reply was made to Mr. Erikine by Mr. Anstrulher and lord Mornington. The first repeated the various arguments adduced in favour of the bill, and the second produced a variety of paslages out qf several publications, in order to prove its propriety. The latter was violently arraigned on this account by Mr. Sheridan.

The bill was defended by Mr. pundas, who took occasion to observe, that no member of that house had so frequently distinguished himself by appeals to the people as Mr. Fox, combating ministers in popular meetings one half of the cay, and attacking them wilh equal fervour in parliament during the remainder. He had acted the fame •part during the American war to as little purpose, however, as. it would appear he had done at present. Mr. Dundas inveighed, with great aspertv, against some particulars in his political conduct and connections, which he exerted himself to describe in the most disadvantageous colours.

.These reproaches drew a severe answer from Mr. Fox, who pointedly reminded him os the maxim held /brtrsby his coadjutor Mr. Pitt, that popular harangues were " the best and most useful duty, which representatives in parliament could discharge, to their constituents." In appealing to the public he had done no more than his duty, which enjoined him, whenever the conduct of ministers appeared in a questionable light to inform the people of his sentiments .relating (o

tr.ejr. designs.. The bill he explicitly deiined, a daring attempt to Overthrow the fundamental principle on which the constitution stood,; the universal freedom os discussion. With regard to the inefficacy os his remonstrances against the American war, he readily admitted that he had uniformly, and on all occasions, condemned that war from first to last, and that all his remonstrances against it, as the honourable gentlemen had justly observed, had been to no purpose. But whether this ought to be made matter oslhame or reproach to himself, or of triumph to the honourably gentleman, he left tile house, the world,and even the honourable gentleman, to judge.—A deep silence at these words took place for a sew moments on both sides of the house, and every eye was turned on Mr, Dundas, who, contrarily to his usual manner, discovered, or at least was thought to discover, symptoms ofdiscomposure. The debate closed with two hundred and thirteen votes for the second reading of the bill, and forty-three against it.

The second reading of the bill, for the better security ot the king's person, was moved in the house of commons on the nineteenth of November; when the question being put, Mr. Fox opposed it on account of the absence os many members; but the motion passed by sixty-four against twenty-two.

In the mean time, the public was no less occupied than parliament itself, in the discussion of the two bilk pending in both houses. The novelty of the measures proposed, their inimical tendency to the long established usages of the nation, their direct aim at its liberty, and the daringnefs of ministers in bringing forward so undeniable an infringement sringement os rights, that had been respected by all preceding administrations: these combined motives excited an alarm, which was felt in every part of (he nation. All people, without exception, cordially avowed their loyalty to the sovereign, but as vehemently protested against the pasting of the two bills, as unconstitutional, and clearly subversive os the main foundation of English liberty, the right of the people to assemble and to communicate their sentiments reciprocally upon those subjects, which they thought necessary to bring into discussion, aid to frame petitions upon them lo the king and the legislature. The determinate steadiness and perseverance of the public on this critical occasion was the more remarkable, that every essort was used by the ministerial party to prevent those popular exertions against the designs in agitation; but these were viewed with so suspicious an eye, that every argument in their justification vanistied besere the discontent they seemed to have universally excited. Numbers even of those who did not disapprove the conduct os ministers in other respects, could r.ot bring themselves to approve the two bills in contemplation, Those even who supported them, as requisite during the fermentation at present pervading all classes, frankly acknowledged them to be contrary to the principles of the English constitution, the freedom ot which, However, unless restrained by Ionic temporary regulations, threatened to become licentiousness, and to precipitate the public into all thole miseries that had been so woefully experienced by their unhappy iitighbours, the French. But thole who thus maintained the necessity ci these bills, pleaded only for a

limited duration of them. As they were indubitably an abridgement of national liberty, they ought, it vyas strongly asserted, lo last no ionger than the occasion that gave rise to them. When the disputes of the day, and the feuds they produced were at an end, they ought instantly to be repealed, and the full exercise of the ancient liberties of the nation, to be restored without the least diminution upon any pretence. Thus argued the majority of those who favoured the bilk. But a far superior majority would admit of them on no'pretence whatever. They were, it was indignantly affirmed, the component parts of a system that began to unfold itself in too visible a manlier not lo be perceived, an I too alarming a one not to be relisted by every real friend to the liberty os his coun'ry. This resistance was indeed proposed by seme to be carried to the most resolute extremity; and had not the immense power of govenment been prudently Weighed, the proposal would, in the opinion of numbers, have been carried into execution: but though a retistarce of so dangerous a nalurc gave way to the cool reflections of the biller advised, every other species of opposition took place against the two bills in question. Meetings and consultations, both private and public, were held every where. Clubs and associations were formed lor the purpose os opposing them by every method not liable lo the cognizance of ihe law. Never had there appeared, in the memory of the oldest man, lo firm and decided aplurali y os adversaries to the ministerial measures as on this occasion: the interest of the public seemed so deeply at stake, that individuals, not only of the decent, but of trie [04] mutt

« ZurückWeiter »