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Mr. Erskine having this day presented a petition from the merchants, bankers, and other inhabitants of London against the treason and sedition bills, its reception was opposed by Mr. Serjeant Adair, Alderman Newnham, and others.
Mr. Fox said, that several things had been observed and stated in the course of the debate, which ought not to go unnoticed. Insinuations against the conduct of noble dukes appearing at public meetings, and the novelty of such behaviour had been thrown out. The Middlesex meeting was not, he observed, the first instance in which peers and members of parliament had taken a share in county meetings. In the year 1780, meetings of that sort had been frequent, and had proved highly useful. He was convinced by the influence and spirit they had excited, that they had tended to abridge, by at least one or two years, the duration of a cruel and inpolitic war. Similar meetings had on various occasions been held, and he would defy any man to deny the advantages that had resulted from them to the country.
Alarms, it was asserted, had been spread concerning the tendency of the bills now pending in parliament, and that these meetings were calculated to inflame and irritate the minds of the people against measures of no serious consequence to their liberties and the constitution. Was it possible that he should forget the zeal and activity which had been exerted to spread alarm without doors concerning the tendency of his India bill? One right honourable gentleman, the present chancellor of the exchequer, in arguing against that measure, had boldly avowed, that he would employ every means in his power to spread alarm among the people; and while he recollected the circumstance, it was with the utmost satisfaction he recollected the answer he then returned, that it was the duty of every member to explain to his constituents the nature of those measures by which they were to be affected. In no situation in which he had been placed, had he forgotten or ceased to respect the right of the subject to investigate public affairs, nor did he attempt to check that discussion, when it threatened to be unfavourable to the measures which he proposed, and which he was convinced were advantageous to the country. He declared, he considered it as a symptom of the decay of the principles of the constitution, when, since the year 1780, such a revolution had taken place in the sentiments, and such an alteration in the language of gentlemen upon that important point.
With equal astonishment had he heard the attempts which had been made to detract from the weight of that almost universal public disapprobation by which the bills had been condemned. It was roundly asserted, that other petitions would come forward to counteract the influence of those already presented. Of that the House knew nothing; it was an absurd and ridiculous preference of speculation to facts, which it was presumptuous to indulge. A worthy alderman (Mr. Lushington) had not only, undertaken to answer for the merchants and bankers of London, and for his constituents, in contradiction to the positive vote of the Common Hall, but for thrce-fourths of the householders of the kingdom. Where were the facts upon which this assertion rested? Were threefourths of the householders of Westminster for the bills? Would the worthy alderman tell him that the supporters of the bills had appealed to the parochial meetings with more success than they had appealed to general meetings? It was almost incredible, he said, that gentlemen should blind, not merely their understandings against the reception of truth, but even against the testimony and demonstration of their
It indicated a perverseness of mind, which would hear and see and judge of nothing that was unwelconie, and which, in spite of the clearest evidence, doubted of every fact that was disagrecable. Will they tell me, said Mr. Fox, that three-fourths of the inhabitants of Westminster are not against these bills, without contradicting my very senses?
But it was said, that the opposers of the bills had been guilty of misrepresentation. Be it so, for the sake of argument, said Mr. Fox. They tell us, that other petitions will appear, and testify a different sense in the people. This, at least, was a powerful reason for delaying the progress of the bills till these actually were brought forward. It had been said by a learned friend of his, (Mr. Serjeant Adair,) that these very petitions did not speak the sense of those who signed them. This was, at once and without proof, to take up a particular case, instead of the general presumption. The learned serjeant had accused his learned friend near him of misrepresenting the scope of the bills, when he said that such a meeting as that from which the petition was presented could not take place were the bill passed into a law. With the explanation he had repeatedly given, he would plead guilty to this accusation. He had stated, he said, that in such a meeting, no matter could be discussed freely, or to any effect. They might meet, no doubt, but for how long a time? No longer than till the magistrate thought, or chose to appear to think, that something improper had been done, on which he might disperse them, and prevent their coming to any reso
lution. It must be admitted, therefore, that no misinterpretation had taken place; but that it was indubitably true that a meeting in such a situation was merely a nominal privilege, and that the efficient importance or utility of it was entirely done away. With regard to the responsibility of the magistrate, a difference of opinion certainly was entertained, but none as to his right of interference. Why, then, flatter or delude men with the idea that they have the right to meet and deliberate, when its exercise depends on so precarious a circumstance as the virtue or the caprice of the superintending magistrates? Was it ever contradicted that this was the case? Whatever might be the degree of responsibility, it was undoubted that the meeting might be dissolved. — Mr. Fox was proceeding, when he was called to order; and it was stated that the argument into which he had gone was irregular. Mr. Fox niade an observation or two upon the call to order, and then said, that he should not trouble the House farther than to declare that if it had been supposed to have been literally stated by his honourable and learned friend, that no meeting could be held in future, that supposition was certainly unfounded; but if it had been supposed to have been stated that no free meetings could be held in future, to that statement he pleaded guilty. The distinction was so frivolous, as to be wholly unworthy of any man of sense and understanding
The petition was ordered to lie on the table.
This day a motion was made by Mr. Curwen to postpone for one week the discussion of the two bills. It was supported by Mr. Harrison, Mr. Whitbread, Mr. Lambton, and Mr. Fox. Mr. Whitbread animadverted with uncommon warmth upon the bills. Ministers, he said, pretended that the bills were to secure the liberties and constitution of the country. He was not surprised at such pretences, for he knew that it had been the practice of weak politicians and of furious bigots, in all ages, to pretend, while they secretly undermined any institution, that they were putting that institution on a firmer basis. Had not the axe, the wheel, and the stake, been used to enforce that mild religion we professed ? Now, he would unequivocally affirm, that these bills were exactly of a similar nature, and equally detestable with the most despotic meaa sures of the most accursed tyrant upon earth. Instead of behold. ing the people prosper under a government of freedom, justice, and mercy, we should soon see them sink under a government of tyranny, of persecution, and of blood -- aye of blood! Was there no blood in this bill? What did it tend to but the shedding the blood of his majesty's subjects, when it so slightly enforced military execution? The bill was a severe and rigorous act; and if it
was possible to heighten the rigour of it, it was now to be passed into a law without the smallest shadow of necessity. The notion was opposed by Mr. Wallace, Mr. Hiley Addington, and Mr. William Grant, afterwards master of the rolls.
Mr. Fox said, he had listened with sincere pleasure, in common with every man in the House, to the able and eloquent speech delivered by the learned gentleman who had just sat down. He respected the talents of that learned gentleman, and admired his ingenuity. Nor did he mean any thing in the least disrespectful to the masterly display of both, which he had made on the present occasion, when he said, that though his speech was full of argument, and replete with eloquence, a man might safely subscribe to every statement he had brought forward, and every conclusion he had drawn, and yet vote against the present bill
. The ingenuity of the honourable and learned gentleman had, indeed, made no inconsiderable impression upon the House; though his arguments seemed not so much to bear on the principle of the bill under immediate discussion, as on the general policy of legislation. He felt the difficulty, therefore, in replying to a speech of that nature. Able and extensive as it had been, he was not in the least disposed, nor did he believe any sober politician would be inclined to controvert the principles laid down by the honourable and learned
gentleman in the beginning of his speech. His position was, that, at a time of considerable danger, it was proper to give up part of the constitution, in order to secure the remainder. That maxim abstractedly considered, was incontrovertible; before it could have any weight, however, when applied in a practical view, it was necessary to prove the existence of the danger, its extent and magnitude; it would also be necessary to shew, that the remedy called for was exactly a surrender of that portion of the constitution which it might be proper to sacrifice, and not more than the value of the object to be secured. The degree of constraint which government was to impose, could be the only ground of doubt and difference of opinion. That government was in its application a system of restraint upon human action, was clear and undeniable. It was important, however, to consider well the quantity and the quality of the restraint which circumstances might require.
The honourable and learned gentleman had complained, that it was the temper of the times to take every general principle as meant to apply universally, and to fasten upon the person who employed it all the absurd consequences which might arise from such an application. He admitted the truth of the observation, and was convinced that no man had better
reason to complain than himself. The honourable and learned gentleman had accused gentlemen on that side of the House of wishing to produce this dilemma, either that the people were animated by an universal spirit of loyalty, or that they were inflamed with a spirit of disaffection. He had never said that the people were completely harmonious in their political sentiments or opinions, or that no discontent prevailed. It had, however, been often stated on his side of the House, and he would call upon the honourable and learned gentleman to say, whether he believed the spirit of dissatisfaction was greater or less at present than it had been previous to the war. He had never stated, because he had never believed, that the state of public affairs was wholly without danger. If it was allowed to be greater, to what cause was the increase to be attributed ? He was surely entitled to presume that it was occasioned by the discontents excited by an impolitic and unjust war; by the measures of a corrupt, incapable administration; and that it was ascribable to the complicated miseries arising from the decay of commerce, and the pressure of famine, into which the country had been plunged. The war, then, had produced an effect directly the reverse of that stated by, ministers themselves as the chief reason for triumphing in its success. If, on the other hand, the ground of apprehension was less, why were the sacrifices required for public security to be increased ? He asked pardon of the House for the repetition in which he indulged; but when the same arguments came from the opposite bench, and the same objections were offered to gentlemen on his side of the House, he could not forbear repeating that material question.
With regard to the point of danger, of which the honourable and learned gentleman was so anxious to have a specific declaration of his sentiments, he had always stated, that some discontent existed, which might not be unworthy of attention, but which would never justify the legislative remedies proposed. The honourable and learned gentleman had affected to treat as a paradox the observation of his honourable friend, (Mr. Lambton,) that the danger of an attack was often created by the injudicious mode of defence. If it was a paradox, however, it was one of those which frequent experience proved to be true. Who could deny that many political evils were rendered desperate by the absurd methods pursued to remedy or to remove them? Was the honourable and learned gentleman so much more of a whig than himself, as to impute the whole evils of the civil wars, and the resistance to Charles I. to which the nation owed its liberties, to the conduct of that ill-fated monarch? Did the honourable and learned gentleman believe all these calamities were to be ascribed to the