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It is a fundamental maxim, that when any law is proposed, which indicates more good than evil to a State, such law ought to be received. The unconstitutional effects, the oppression, and inefficacy of the present mode of levying men for the navy by an impress, are but too sensibly felt by the whole, nation. A valuable sea officer (Governor Johnstone), who is a distinguished ornament to this Legislature, and whose private and public character do real honour to human nature, having formerly treated of the practice of impressing, says, "It disgraces Government, shocks the spirit of our Constitution, and violates the laws of humanity; therefore every plan to obviate the evil has a claim to a political hearing and candid discussion." That worthy member's remarks must, I am sure, strike every body, who duly considers them as just and forcible. Is it not an abominable fight, in a free country like ours, to have a nunv . ber of sailors, with fire arms and cutlaffes, frequently in the dead of night, sometimes intoxicated with liquor, making their way into the habitation of peaceable people, dragging a sober, unoffending subject from his home, and settled means of livelihood, to convey him om board an impress tender, from thence to a guard ship, imprisoned amidst the moral and physical contagion of a miscellaneous, kidnapped crew, to be driven across the seas, no mortal can tell him where, nor for how long a time; and what is still worse, seized by surprise, not suffered to bid a kind farewel to his wife and family, nor have thought of their suture subsistence, when deprived of his care; to adopt a new way of life, perhaps that to which his limbs and faculties are the worst calculated and fashioned by his Creator? And, Sir, is it not a serious matter of reproach to this wise, this liberal nation, never yet .to have provided a remedy for such dreadful and extensive sufferings? What tumults, fears, and confusion, arise in every city, town, and country, within ten or twelve miles of a press-gang? And what numberless inconveniencies to all conditions of persons throughout Great Britain! In 1770 the Lord Mayor of London represented
to the Board of Admiralty, that the city of London was so in* fested with press-gangs, that tradesmen and servants were prevented from following their lawful business. A gentleman in Yorkshire, of worth and veracity, (who was formerly a member of this House), sends me word, that such is at this time the general apprehension in that part of England from a pressgang at Tadcaster, that the labourers on his estate are dispersed abroad like a covey of partridges; neither could half of them be brought back to their work, till the steward had given them assurance of his roaster's protection; still it seems they arc afraid to return to their own homes at night, and therefore constantly b,eg leave to sleep upon straw in the stables and outhouses of the landlord. In the West of England the public are now ib prejudiced by press-gangs, that I have read a letter from Exeter, dated February 29, which observes, that there had been no fish in their town for upwards of a fortnight—a circumstance scarcely known within the memory of man; and another correspondent of mine paints the miseries of the neighbouring coasts in as stiong colours as if there were famine, pestilence, or some other awful and almost preternatural visitation of Providence: markets deserted, the price of the most urgent necessaries of life thereby greatly enhanced, and numbers of families among the inferior classes of mankind from the insecurity of the masters of those families, by whose toil and industry they had long been maintained in comfert, reduced at once to the verge of poverty and wretchedness! How shamefully has this unconstitutional license of the impress been abused in the town of Lancaster, where men, the most uhsit in every respect for the sea service, were kidnapped, collared with iron, and manacled with cords or fetters, sent up to London in the basket of a stage coach, as I understand, under command of a serjeant of militia, in violation of the most sacred laws of your Constitution; with an heavy locaitexpeiice, and to no better end than to have them at length put up at large, as totally incapable of the errand they set out upon! The animosities within this very metropolis of your empire, on the subject of impressing men for the navy, and the lawsuits depending thereon in the Courts of Westminster Hall, must occasion, as well to Government as to People in general, much embarrassment and apprehension. In. several of the ports along the North-east coast of England, you have actually subsisting a dangerous connection among large todies of sea-faring people, occasioned by many lawless proceedings of the press-gangs; and every day's post brings some new detail of innocent lives lost, or limbs broken in that quarter. Sir, there have been lately no less than one hundred and twenty men pressed, withr out distinction, in or about Bethnal Green and Spitalfields; of which between seventy and eighty, after suffering every hardship, and leaving their families distressed at home, obtained a discharge, as of xjo use to the service. Having already cursorily touched on some of the calamities and unconstitutional outrages affecting these manufacturers, mechanics, and husbandmen, who never exercised, nor had in contemplation, the trade of a seaman, I must take a short view of your cruelty towards mariners by profession. They are not only liable to the fame inhuman violence and surprise with landsmen, hut when seized on board trading veflels for the purpose of serving His Majesty, are often imposed upon by fraudulent bills, on account of wages due to them for past hire in the trader's employ. The lives of many braye officers and their followers have been sacrificed) or they have come off cruelly maimed by this invidious part of their duty. A multitude of seamen have been drowned by attempting to swim ashore from their mips, or have been shot by the centinels while they endeavoured to escape under cover-of midnight darkness; being driven to phrenzy and despair, for want even os a shadow of hope, that they might one day or other be entitled to a legal .discharge.
I am really astonished that the learned gentleman (Mr. Wedderburne) is not ashamed to avow the reason he has assigned, for the concealment he has used, and reducing the House to act as so many midnight conspirators, who, under the colour of devising measures for public preservation and national safety, has every appearance of plotting, in the dark at midnight, its destruction, coming like so many hired ruffians, with weapons concealed under their cloaks, to bury their poniards in its very bowels.
Such an act as that for impressing men into His Majesty's service might be very necessary, but I have many reasons to believe not to the extent moved for; but why bring it forward at this 4<*'k an(l silent hour? When the clock has struck twelve, and most of the members retired home to their beds? Why, in God's name, not propose it early in the day, in a full House?
The reason assigned for this assassinate mode of conducting public business is, to the last degree, unfounded and dissatisfactory, "lest the public should be apprized of it." Has not the learned gentleman already told us, that the bill is to act retrospectively? That it is to commence on that melancholy, I fear, fatal day, on which the Spanish Minister delivered the Manifesto now on your table? Has he not farther informed us, that the Ministry have not been unmindful of their duty, for that they have exceeded all their former attacks on the constitution of their country? They have trampled on the laws, and have found an advocate to defend their conduct, in the person of the learned gentleman who has moved this extraordinary bill, in this very extraordinary manner. Is then the learned gentleman's love of his country not satisfied with the injuries inflicted on the most deserving part of the community, by robbing them of that protection which the laws have given to them, and by breaking the national faith, which is the great pledge and security to every Englishman for their dus yerformance? Would the learned gentleman not let one fa
• ther. ther, one husband, one brother, or one child escape, in this general scene of oppression and injustice! Methinks I hear the heart-felt shrieks of the miserable wife this instant piercing my ears, and entreating, in accents of rage and despair, the midnight ruffian not to drag from her side her tender and affectionate husband, the father of her children, and her only support! I think I hear the aged and helpless parent in accents of sinking woe, misery, and distress, bewailing the loss of his dutiful and beloved son I I confess I am filled with horror at the various ills and miseries this instant inflicting in every part of these kingdoms, contrary to every principle of law, justice, and humanity: but the learned gentleman has a stomach for aJl this, and much more; for he fays, he has stood up at this midnight hour to propose a law, which, if proposed in open day., in 3 full house,, might, perhaps, have this one consequence, that of procuring, for the persons to be affected by it, that personal security, by flight and concealment, which the laws of their country ^ and the assurance of public faith always supposed to accompany them, have been inadequate to.
Sir George Seville, June 23, 1779.
Great abilities and greater industry have been exerted in the vain endeavour of maintaining, that associations, committees of correspondence, delegations, and petitions to this House signed with more than twenty names, are contrary to law and the constitution. I am sorry to see talents and industry employed so idly; but, indeed, it requires both to give any thing like a colour to such a doctrine. After what has been so ably advanced by gentlemen on the fame side of the House with myself, it will not be necessary to enter into a tedious repetition of the question of law. It is a clear fundamental point in the constitution of this country, that the People have a right to petition their representatives in Parliament, and it is by no means true, that the number of names signed to any such p«« tition is limrted. The act which palled inthe reign of Charles 3 • th<j