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felony; and if the meeting did not disperse at his command, the penalties provided in the riot-act should be inflicted on the refractory. There was, Mr. Pitt added, another species of meeting, consisting of persons who attended public lectures on political subjects; the lecturers were men notoriously disaffected to government, and the doctrines they delivered were calculated to instil the rankest principles of resistance and rebellion 10 the established powers. In order to obviate this effectually, the act against disorderly houses should be applied to meetings of this kind, whenever they exceeded, by a number to be stated in the act, the real family of the House. Mr. Pitt concluded with moving, “ That leave be given to bring in a bill for the more effectually preventing seditious meetings and assemblies.” As soon as the Speaker had read the motion,
Mr. Fox said, he trusted it was unnecessary for him to preface what he had to say, by a declaration which he hoped, for every member of that House, was equally unnecessary; that he felt as much horror at the attempt which was made against his majesty as any man in the kingdom ; quite as much as any man who might move, who might second, or who might support the bill, which it seemed was to be offered to the House. Having agreed so far with the minister that night, there he must take his leave of him. He did not think he should well express his feelings, if he declared that his indignation at what had happened even on that day, was more than equal to what he felt from what he had heard this night. The right honourable gentleman had adverted to a bill, at that time in the other House, which was stated to have for its object the better security of his majesty's person, and on which, it was probable the House would have some communication with their lordships. He believed it would be difficult for the right honourable gentleman to shew the necessity for that bill, if he meant to ground that necessity upon the assumption that what happened on the first day of the session was in consequence of what passed at meetings to which he had alluded. He disapproved highly of all these experiments, which were professed to be intended as securities for the enjoyment of all the blessings of our constitution. He knew the constitution had existed for ages sufficiently guarded by the law as it now stood, and therefore, if the right honourable gentleman had not opened his plan, which, he declared, struck him with horror; if he had not said a single word upon that detestable plan, he should have given his negative to the proposition in question; because the proposition itself laid it down as an assumed fact, that the law at present is insufficient to prevent breaches of the public peace. It was said, that a seditious meeting had been held somewhere in the neighbourhood of
the metropolis a few days previous to the meeting of parliament; that at such meeting very alarming proceedings had taken place, striking at the very existence of parliament itself. That such proceedings took place he did not know; but, this he knew, if speeches were made that had such a tendency, the speakers were amenable to the law. If hand-bills were distributed that had such a tendency, the distributors were amenable to the law. If any person had so conducted himself as to be the means of causing the people so assembled to form a resolution, having such a tendency, he was amenable to the law, and, when proved guilty, was liable to adequate punishment. But this bill was to proceed upon the flimsy pretext, that all the violence and outrage that had been offered to his majesty was the result of this meeting, of which there was not the colour of proof. He knew, indeed, that the right honourable gentleman had attempted to connect them; he knew, too, there had been, and would be endeavours to confound the two things.
It was, Mr. Fox said, ridiculous to talk of these things being perfectly notorious ; that these proceedings were clearly seditious; they were points upon which that House could not regularly proceed, for they were points on which there was no proof. Nothing was more clear than that the House of Commons ought never to proceed upon any measure that might trespass upon the rights of the public, without evidence that was decisive, even in cases of extreme necessity; but there was no evidence whatever to connect any of the proceedings of these meetings with the daring insult offered to his majesty. The right honourable gentleman had said, Should not the House endeavour to prevent the repetition of such an insult? Undoubtedly it should. But then it should be upon evidence; and here the right of persons to meet any where to consult on public measures, was to be affected in consequence of what happened to his majesty on the first day of the session, although there was no evidence to prove that the outrage arose from any proceedings that were had at any public meeting previous to that day. Some persons, perhaps, might consider the proclamation itself as evidence. He could agree to no such rule: he well knew there were those who doubted the truth of the proclamations: who believed many of them to be the acts of ministers for certain purposes of their own; and he was sure it was not regular in that House to take things for granted, merely because they appeared in a proclamation.
These were strong objections to proceeding upon this subject without better evidence. All this, however, was trifling, in comparison with what the right honourable gentleman had
said upon the subject. He had said, that there might be a difficulty to preserve the right of petitioning, and to prevent abuses of that right. Difficulty and delicacy he confessed there were: but that did not embarrass him; for, he said they might be settled in the detail. Thus the right honourable gentleman talked with ease on the rights of the subject, as if he expected to bring the public to submit to the most rigid despotism. In that detail, Mr. Fox said, he would never take a share, for he would never attend the detail of a measure which in its essence was so detestable. The right honourable gentleman had hinted at two points. With regard to the first, that of public meetings for the discussion of public subjects, he must not only confess them to be lawful, but must allow them also to be agreeable to the very essence of the British constitution, and to which, under that constitution, most of the liberties we enjoyed were particularly owing: The right honourable gentleman had said, that these meetings were not to be prevented, they were only to be regulated. “ Attend,” said Mr. Fox, “to the regulation. I thought I knew the rights of man --- aye, and the rights of Englishmen. [Here was a prodigious cry of Hear! hear !) What, said he, that is a slip you suppose. The rights of man is a sentence without a meaning. Do you say that men have no natural rights ? If so, Engliskmen's rights can have no existence; this House would have no existence. The rights of man, I say, are clear; man has natural rights; and he who denies it is ignorant of the basis of a free government; is ignorant of the best principle of our constitution.”
The people, he had always thought, had a right to discuss the topics from which their grievances arose. In all instances, they had a right to complain by petition, and to remonstrate to either House of Parliament, or, if they pleased, to the king exclusively ; but now, it seems, they are not to do so, unless notice be given to a magistrate, that he may become a witness of their proceedings. There were to be witnesses of every word that every man spoke. This magistrate, this jealous witness, was to form his opinion on the propriety of the proceedings; and if he should think that any thing that was said had a tendency to sedition, he had power to arrest the man who uttered it. Not only so, he was to have the power of dissolving the meeting at his own will. “Say at once,” said Mr. Fox, “ that a free constitution is no longer suitable to us; say at once, in a manly manner, that ample review of the state of the world at this moment, a free constitution is not fit for you; conduct yourselves at once as the senators of Denmark did; lay down your freedom, and acknowledge and accept of despotism. But do not mock the
understandings and the feelings of mankind, by telling the world that you are free — by telling me that, if out of the house, for the purpose of expressing my sense of the public administration of this country, of the calamities which this war has occasioned, I state a grievance by petition, or make any declaration of my sentiments, which I always had a right to do; but which if I now do, in a manner that may appear to a magistrate to be seditious, I am to be subjected to penalties which hitherto were unknown to the laws of England. If in stating any of these things out of the House, a magistrate should be of opinion that I am irregular, he is to have the power to stop me: he may say - - The cause which you allege for your grievance is unfounded; you excite, by what you say, jealousies and discontents that are unfounded;' and if I say what in his judgment or his wishes ought to be concealed, he is to have a power to stop me, and to treat me as a rioter, if I do not obey him. I ask again, if this can be called a meeting of free people? Did ever a free people meet so? Did ever a free state cxist so? Did any man ever hypothetically state the possibility of the existence of freedom under such restrictions? Goor God Almighty, Sir! is it possible that the feelings of the people of this country should be thus insulted ? Is it possible to make the people of this country believe that this plan is any thing but a total annihilation of their liberty ?"
The right honourable gentleman had next adverted to a bill which had been passed to prevent the assembling of per, sons for the discussion of questions on the Lord's day, from which he was to bring in a bill to prevent the discussion of questions on any day; and this, he said, was to be applicable to all cases where money was to be taken. Why all questions were to be prohibited where money was to be taken, merely on an allegation that such questions might produce mischief, was, he confessed, beyond his skill to understand. But this was not all: it was to be applicable, it seemed, to places, where no money was to be taken, because, in truth, persons might be adınitted by means of tickets; and they must not ainount to a number beyond a certain one which ihe minister should be pleased to insert in his bill, unless duly licensed by a magistrate. He would again ask — Was this, or was it not, to prevent all political discussion whaterer? Let them shew him when this had obtained since the Revolution, or at any time when this country could be called free. The people are to be prevented from discussing public topics publicly: they are to be prevented from discussing them privately. If then, without this private intercourse or public debate, the grievances of this country are to be felt,
and are such as to call forth a general desire that they should be redressed, what are the public to do? They must send, it seems, to a magistrate, and under his good leave they are to be permitted to proceed. [Here there was a cry from the treasury bench of No! no !] “ I do not mean," said Mr. Fox, “ to overstate this power, God knows there is no occasion for that, for there seems to be sufficient care taken of magisterial authority in every step of this proceeding. Behold, then, the state of a free born Englishman ! Before he can discuss any topic which involves his liberty, he must send to a magistrate who is to attend the discussion. That magistrate cannot prevent such meeting: but he can prevent the speaking, because he can allege, that what is said tends to disturb the peace and tranquillity of this realm.
Sir, I hope this bill will never come into this House. I am not friendly to any thing that will produce violence. Those who know me will not impute to me any such desire; but I do hope, that this bill will produce an alarm; that while we have the power of assembling, the people will assemble; that while they have the power, they will not surrender it, but come forward and state their abhorrence of the principle of this proceeding; and those who do not, I pronounce to be traitors to their country. Good God, Sir, what madness, what frenzy has overtaken the authors of this measure! I will suppose for a moment that the only object which they have in view is the preventing a revolution in this country. But that they should have proceeded upon a plan which has no regard for the liberty of the people, no regard for the glorious efforts of our ancestors, no regard for their maxims, no esteem for the principles and the conduct which have made us what we are, or rather, if this bill be countenanced, what we were, is to me astonishing! For to proceed thus, in order to suppress or prevent popular tumults, appears to me to be the most desperate infatuation. Good God, Sir! We have seen and have heard of revolutions in different states. Were they owing to the freedom of popular opinions? Were they owing to the facility of popular meetings? No, Sir, they were owing to the reverse of these; and therefore I
we wish to avoid the danger of such revolutions, we should put ourselves in a state as different from them as possible. What are we now doing? Putting ourselves in a condition nearly resembling the periods when these revolutions happened. In the reign of Charles I., the most interesting period to which we can look in the history of this country, was freedom of speech indulged to any latitude; or were libels suffered to pass without notice? On the contrary, were not both, at that time, punished with an extraordinary degree of ri