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be punished with transportation to Botany Bay! I have stated this case in the extreme, to shew the enormous disproportion which this bill creates in the punishment of offences. It was in the nature of the thing, he said, that misdemeanour should be punished by a discretionary sentence, and that it should stand distinct from felony; a thousand misdemeanours could not, by the spirit and genius of the law of England, amount to, or be punished as, a felony. That was to confound all the principles of our law. The sort of punishment which the bill enacted for misdemeanours was for the first time introduced into the country from the pretended law of Scotland; though such was the horror with which Englishmen regarded it, that when, some time since, it had been presented to their minds, it excited an universal sentiment of indignation. He called it “ pretended law;" for he would never so far degrade Scotland, as to suppose it could really be the law of that country. Had any want of effect, he asked, been experienced from punishments formerly inflicted, because they were not sufficiently severe ? He adverted to the case of Messrs. Muir and Palmer, men of enlightened minds, of respectable rank in 'society, of irreproachable morals, who, because they expressed themselves warmly with respect to what they considered to be grievances, were sent to Botany Bay, to associate, not merely with the lowest of men in point of rank, but with a description of persons so degraded and abandoned, that the necessity of associating with them under any circumstances, was a deep disgrace, and must itself constitute a considerable punishment. What effect did ministers pretend to say that had produced ? Had it produced a greater reverence for the laws, or occasioned a cessation of those libels which were the subject of complaint ? No; for they were told that libels had increased since that period a thousand fold. If, on the other hand, it had produced those effects, what necessity was there to resort to new measures? If it had failed, did not experience demonstrate the futility of again having recourse to a similar policy? But it was said, that in Scotland, where those measures had been adopted, no discontent existed. He believed the case was quite the reverse, and that the discontent really felt in that quarter was not the less because the expressions of it had been subdued by the terror of severe and unwarrantable punishments. If the state of Scotland was, as they pretended, they ought not at least to think of extending the penalties of the bill to that country. The best way to attach the people to the constitution, would be to preserve the mildness of its laws. Could the honourable and learned gentleman, or any of his friends, learned in the history of this Country, point out an instance of such a punishment as that
which was proposed by the bill? He warned them against the policy of multiplying new codes of penal laws, and of accumulating oppressive
restrictions beyond what the temper of the people could bear? But in answer to all this, they had been told, that the corresponding and other societies did such and such things; and he was applied to on a former night, by an honourable gentleman, who said, that he avoided stating his opinion upon those societies. He did not avoid stating his opinion. That honourable gentleman had asked him, what those societies meant ? To that question he had answered, that he could not decisively say, because he believed there were some in that society who meant one thing and some another. He had distinctly said, that there might be a few persons in those societies hostile to the constitution, but the greater number he believed to be sincere in the object which they professed — a parliamentary reform That there inight be others who had different views he did not deny; but he could not separate the whole from a part; and therefore in the mass he gave them, as he thought he ought, credit for the sincerity of their professions. Such he should always give to large bodies of people. There had been long established in this town a society against what were called republicans and levellers. What was his opinion of that society? The same as his opinion was of the corresponding society; that they were in a mass sincere in what they professed ; that they were in favour of the constitution. Did he believe that one of them wanted to overturn the monarchy of this country, and the other to make it absolute? No such thing; he gave them each credit for being sincere in preserving the constitution; the one dreading one event, the cther dreading the opposite event. He knew none of the leaders of the corresponding society; he however knew the leading member of the society against republicans and levellers; he knew Mr. Reeves. He knew he had published libels after libels, attacking the constitution ; that he had, year after year, circulated such publications; that he had circulated a pamphlet, a direct libel on that House, in which it was said that rotten boroughs, ex'travagant courts, selfish ministers, and corrupt majorities were essential to the well-being of the constitution of the country. The conclusion to be drawn from such abominable doctrine, he did not ascribe to every man in that society; the greater number he believed to have united, in order to guard the constitution against a danger, which they supposed to be pressing and imminent. The few who took advantage of their fears for the constitution, in order to forward their own designs for its destruction; of those he judged from their actions. He knew that, with respect to those societies, there were
violent opinions on both sides; but he saw Mr. Reeves's society with as much industry, and with more means, because with more money, circulating such doctrines as were contained in the sentence he had just quoted; he saw circulated by the same authority a book called “ John Bull to Thomas Bull," and he saw such doctrines accompanied with incendiary handbills against the protestant dissenters, and fraught with every species of gross and inflammatory misrepresentation. He saw, on the other hand, libels ascribed to the corresponding society, so monstrous, that he could only compare them with the others to which he had referred; with this difference, that when it was proposed to enquire into their authenticity, the proof was denied. He would say, therefore, that those who professed that they had no other aim but a reform of parliament were in earnest in the mass, as he said of the society against republicans and levellers, and he saw no ground for a parliamentary provision against the mass of either society, although individuals among the members of each of them might deserve censure,
His two principal objections to the bill, Mr. Fox repeated it, were, that it narrowed the power of the jury in cases of treason, and that it provided for misdemeanours a new punishment, which would apply with undistinguished severity to the greatest and least degrees of delinquency. The honourable and learned gentleman had stated the increased and increasing number of libels as a justification of the present bill ; some of these libels, he understood, had been punished pretty severely; and the publishers, who might have been in their beds at the time the books were sold, and who at any rate had only been in the exercise of their business, without being aware that they were committing a breach of the law, had been confined for two or three years.
Some had been convicted on the oaths of witnesses notoriously perjured. One man had been convicted and punished at Manchester, on the oath of a person named Dunn, who was afterwards proved to be guilty of perjury, and another upon the same evidence at Lancaster.
It had been said by the honourable and learned gentleman that libels were so numerous that they could no longer be prosecuted. Was he satisfied that the severity of the bill would infallibly diminish their numbers, or that he should be able more safely to apply the new law than the old ? If there was a spirit of discontent so widely diffused in the country, and still likely to increase, arising, as he verily believed, from the bad administration of public affairs; and as the honourable and learned gentleman thought from the obstinacy and perverseness of the people; it would be proper, in order to stop
the progress of the evil, to send whole fleets of libellers to Botany Bay. The honourable and learned gentleman had spoken of libels against the king and other persons. His opinion was, that libelling the king and individuals had not been sufficiently punished. He would prosecute with the utmost severity, all libels on the characters of persons, with whatever party they were connected. The most exemplary rigour of that sort he would connect with equal temperance in respect to libels of another description. He would punish whatever reflected on the dignity of the chief magistrate, or the fair fame of individuals; but all political libels he would leave to themselves; discussions on government, so far as they did not interfere with private character, he would permit to pass entirely unrestrained; that was the way to make the press respected and useful; and he was convinced, that if this policy had been adopted sooner, things would not have been in the situation in which they were at present; but such was not the object of the bill; the chief point which its promoter had in view was to terrify the people from making free with him under the name of government. Mr. Fox concluded with declaring himself against the principle of the present bill. He should therefore vote against the Speaker leaving the chair. If another bill should be brought in less exceptionable in its clauses, and better calculated to answer the purpose in view, he should have no objection to give it his support.
The House divided on the question, That the Speaker do leave
Tellers. YEAS Mr.John Smyth?
SMr. Whitbread | Mr. Anstruther
A debate took place on the third reading of the seditious meetings bill. The bill was supported by Mr. Hardinge, Mr. M. Montagu, Mr. Powys, Mr. Abbot, and Mr. Dundas ; and opposed by Mr. Sheridan, Mr. William Smith, and Mr. Grey. Mr. Abbot concluded his speech with these words : “ It must ever live in our memory, for the words sunk deep into our minds, that the right honourable gentleman, whose words are still unexplained, (Mr. Fox,) did openly declare, that if these laws should be ratified by the royal sceptre, and the people of England should afterwards ask of him, what they ought to do? He would tell them : " It is no longer a question of duty, it is no longer a question of moral obligation; it is a question of mere prudence alone, whether you should obey or resist.' I endure the painful task of repeating these words, only to ground a representation to that right ho
nourable gentleman who so spoke; and I conjure him to speak out again, in terms not ambiguous, nor oracular, but plainly and distinctly; ' Whether now, if these laws, amended as they are, shall be passed, he will again repeat his signal to the inquiring people of England, and bid them unfurl the standard of rebellion?
Mr. Fox immediately rose. He said he was called upon in a very polite and civil
, but at the same time in a very unparliamentary manner in that House to account for his conduct.
The honourable gentleman might have taken notice of the whole that he had said on a former night. He would then have afforded him an opportunity of restating his words if they had been misconceived ; upon all this he had no particular complaint to make; he should only say, that the practice of attacking a member of parliament for what he said on former occasons, in that general manner, was wholly new in the course of parliamentary debates. That any indivi member, for he made a difference between such a character and a member of his majesty's council, should be thus called to account, was very extraordinary, and what the honourable gentleman, when he had taken more pains to become acquainted with the usages of the House, whatever abilities he might display in his speech, and however politely he might conduct himself, would not he was persuaded frequently practise. Indeed, there was hardly any part of the speech of that honourable gentleman which, in former times, would have been suffered to be delivered in that House. He wished to know whether it would be of advantage to the proceedings of that House, that the sentiments of every individual, and every part of his parliamentary conduct should be the subject of particular debates, unless part of that conduct was such as called for the particular cognizance of the House ? He knew there was a species of artifice, of which he did not accuse the honourable gentleman, to call on individuals in advanced stages of debates upon a bill, to explain what they had formerly said, and this was done with a view of making it impossible to have a fair debate. This he had experienced more than once; he hoped however he possessed a temper that was not to be discomposed by such an artifice, and at the same time not to be damped by any species of catechism.
The honourable gentleman had asked him questions, with regard not only to expressions which he had used on a former debate, but also with regard to his former conduct; and he seemed to think he had a right to know why he did not attend the committee on the present bill. He thought he had told that Lonourable gentleman and the House already his: reason for his non-attendance. He would repeat it.