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either of civil or criminal law, so far as their acts would necessarily be recognized in the decisions of all the various courts of judicature in the kingdom. But though they might be competent in point of power, it would not be prudential or expedient in many cases to use that power. There were many laws of the constitution which never ought to be repealed, and many privileges of the people which never ought to be invaded. Parliament had been represented as the only source of redress, and infallible object of public confidence.
But who did not know, that if our ancestors had trusted every thing to parliament, their posterity would not have inherited that constitution which it has been their happiness to enjoy; and that the provision for petitioning the legislature would never have found admittance into the bill of rights. Even in the reign of King William, the Marquis of Hartington moved, in the House of Commons, for a power to be vested in the people of petitioning his majesty to hold or dissolve the parliament, and to remove the grievances to which it might be their fate to be subjected. Perhaps he might be laughed at for the superstitious veneration in which he held the names of some great and ancient families in the kingdom. There was no one for which he had a more profound respect than that of Cavendish; and sorry was he to see, that in a question of such great constitutional importance, not one of that illustrious family, who had so many seats in parliament, was to be found either in the minority or the adverse ranks.
Mr. Fox defended the sentiments of his honourable and learned friend, Mr. Erskine, which had been misunderstood or misrepresented by the right honourable secretary. His honourable and learned friend did not mean, and no man who pretended to the character of a statesman, he was convinced, would presume to say that property ought not to have great political weight. But even the right honourable gentleman himself would not contend, that property had an exclusive right of thinking and speaking upon subjects of constitutional importance. This would be to rob man of his natural and indefeasible rights, and to reduce society to its original elements. In another place, report declared that a person of high authority, considerable talents, and great learning (the Bishop of Rochester) had said, that the mass of the people had nothing to do with the laws, but to obey them. And this strange assertion had been made by a member of that order, · who beyond all others were taught in their religiom to recognize the natural equality of man. But he trusted that the people of England would not tamely surrender their indisputable and hereditary right, whatever inclination an arbitrary minister or a supercilious prelate might betray, to
wrest them out of their possession. How absurd was it that because a man had not the good fortune to have a freehold qualification of forty shillings valued rent, he must not be allowed to speak his sentiments on subjects which involve his dearest and most important concerns! At present he would not enter into the arguments for and against parliamentary reform. The sum of the argument on the one side was, that the people of the country were not equally represented; and the only answer bearing the smallest semblance of speciousness, which had been made, was, that though the people were not equally and individnally represented, the aggregate body was to all intents and purposes, virtually represented; and that, for instance, the member for Westminster was equally zealous in promoting the general interest of the country, as he was in consulting the more immediate interests of his constituents. From this reasoning, the inference which naturally occurred was this, that they who had not an equal influence in chusing representatives in parliament, and who, in fact, had none, should by the exercise of petition have an opportunity of making their grievances known to those who were the virtual representatives of the nation. Whereas, in the present bill the privileges of petition, as well as the powers of election, were confined to borouglis and corporations who actually had representatives whom they had it in their power to entrust with the exercise of their functions. Would it not, said Mr. Fox, be much more suitable and becoming to extend this privilege to the poor householders, and the millions of unrepresented people in the country who have no other medium through which to make known their grievances, and to pour in their complaints? Deprive them of this right of petitioning, and you take from them all that is valuable in their political existence. In this view, then, the bill went to institute a fatal distinction between the constituents and nonconstituents in the kingdom; a distinction which was sufficient to destroy the harmony and peace of the country; to confute the only argument which could be adduced in opposition to parliamentary reform, and to convert the government of the country into an aristocracy, or an oligarchy.
Mr. Fox proceeded to inquire how far the bill actually went in its provisions, to limit the right of petitioning. The sheriff must call the meeting. But what was to be done, if he refuse to call a mecting upon a subject of pressing importance? Can a meeting be held without his permission or not? But was not the sheriff an officer nominated by the crown; and what a mockery was it, to solicit permission from the crown, to meet in order to petition the crown? Suppose, for instance, that the object of the petition were to
be a dissolution of parliament, would the crown countenance a petition for any such purpose, as long as the king found it for his interest to retain the parliament then in being ? On the supposition that redress of public grievances was the object, how could the people expect the countenance of those men to such an object, from whom all their grievances proceeded, and who afforded the real cause of complaint? The first clause, however, was not the least exceptionable; after the meeting had been convened, a justice of peace might, under various pretences, dissolve it; so that its proceedings were to be entirely subject to his caprice. Suppose, for example, that a petition for a reform in parliament was to be the subject which occupied the attention of the meeting; the magistrate might take it into his head, that the very idea conveyed an implied contempt of the present organization of the House of Commons, and under this impression might order it immediately to disperse under pain of military execution, before any of the purposes of the meeting were answered. All is referred to a discretionary power, which can be amenable to no earthly tribunal, as no man is accountable for the errors of his understanding.
Mr. Fox applied this reasoning to the meeting at Copenhagen House, the object of which he contended to be strictly legal, whatever were the forms of the petitions which were then drawn up, but an object which would have been resisted à principio, had the bill now pending been previously in force. There was another clause which was almost too ridiculous to mention, namely, that which prohibited all public lectures delivered for money. What would become of the professors of the different sciences in the universities? Would they not be clearly involved in the operation of this clause? But even in its most qualified construction, he could not conceive by what principle of policy a man was to be
prohibited from acquiring his subsistence by instructing the people in the principles of the constitution. Of Mr. Thelwall and his lectures, he was entirely ignorant. If, however, they were innocent, why should he be disturbed? If they were seditious and treasonable, why was he not prosecuted under the existing statutes ? The same observations applied to the papers which had been read by the noble lord (Mornington): if they were treasonable, the authors of them were amenable to the treason laws. He would not be understood as delivering an opinion whether they were or not, nor even whether every seditious paper which was circulated ought to be submitted to the course of law. He rather thought that a judicious selection of the most glaring and dangerous ought to be made by the attorney-general.
Mr. Fox then adverted to the general principle of the bill in the most animated and pointed terms. It was not, he said, a blow at the outworks of the constitution - it was a daring attempt to subvert its very foundation. Upon the liberty of the press and freedom of discussion, the basis of the constitution was known to rest. Take away these, and the whole fabric must fall. No man would deny that there were many abuses and defects in the practice of the constitution. Its chief value consisted in the excellence of the foundation; and when that was destroyed, the rest would not be worth preserving. For almost any other shock which it could have received, a remedy might have been found. Had parliament thought proper to alter the succession to the crown from the present family on the throne, dreadful convulsions would no doubt have ensued, but the investiture of a new prince with the sovereign power might have quicted the commotion. Had parliament made a bold and open attack upon the trial by jury, a speedy remedy would have been found in the deluge of argument and declamation which would immediately have issued from the press. Petitions would have been poured in, remonstrating against the assault on public liberty; and the voice of the people raised with unanimity and firmness, would have awed the proudest minister into submission. But when the power of speaking was taken away, what was there left but the patience of implicit submission? What hopes could be entertained that grievances would be removed when those who felt them dared not complain? In such a case, it would give him but little anxiety that a spirit of resistance was found impossible to be suppressed. At present he believed a spirit of discontent to be pretty general in the country, and he had no hesitation in saying, that it originated in a bad government, in wicked and ruinous measures, and in the blind and unmeaning confidence which the people had reposed in an unfortunate and desperate administration. The discontent might, perhaps, exist in some degree previous to the war, but he affirmed that it had spread since to a much more alarming extent. If the discontent originated in French principles, it was indebted for its currency to the measures of British ministers. He wished to bring them to issue upon this point. They said the people of England were loyal; so said he. They asserted that there were malcontents in the country; in this also he agreed. But he would ask, whether the danger to be apprehended from French principles, was greater now or two years ago ? Let them say either the one or the other; but he intreated them, for God's sake, not to say both. For his own part, he thought it was greater. If it was, he de
manded, if the increase of danger was not owing to the calamitous war, which was unjustly commenced, and had been unfortunately prosecuted ? If the danger was diminished, why would they apply a more hazardous remedy, than when the disease was described as raging with its utmost fury? Whatever was the degree of danger in which the country now stood, he was firmly of opinion, that it would be increased rather than lessened by the remedy proposed. The danger had principally arisen from a system of terror, which ministers had adopted; and the most effectual mode of protracting the danger was by continuing this system, of which the present bill seemed to form a most prominent part.
Mr. Fox next adverted to what had been said of the danger of universal suffrage and annual parliaments. They had been represented as the cause of the subversion of the old French government, and they were described as the instrument employed by the Corresponding Society, to demolish the British constitution. He professed himself no friend to either; but he quoted the high authority of the Duke of Richmond, by whom they had been supported, and drew this inference, that the opinions of those in the higher and lower stations of society were treated in a very different stile of respect. When the members of corresponding societies think now, as the Duke of Richmond thought some years ago, there is a general outcry, Will you presume to touch the sacred ark of the constitution with unhallowed hands? But nothing was said when a daring minister comes forward, -not, indeed, with unhallowed hands, for a minister's hands are like those of the high priest of old, which it would be sacrilege even to look at, — not to touch it only, but to tear it in pieces.
The sole reason assigned for this outrage against the constitution, was, that when new occasions happen, new changes must take place. Mr. Fox here exposed the fallacy of the assertion, that universal suffrage was the cause of the downfall of the ancient despotism of France, and of the overthrow of the first constitution. He urged upon the serious consideration of ministers the situation into which they had reduced the country, and implored them to give up a system which was pregnant with ruin, and to employ every lenient and conciliatory means for gaining the affection of the people, and attaching them to the constitution. He said, he knew there was a spirit in the country to ward off the ravages of anarchy; he hoped, also, there was a spirit to resist the strides of oppression. Before he sat down, he would say a few words with respect to the general scarcity of provisions that prevailed, though not connected with the subject before the House. If the war was not the principal cause of the scar