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discontent was the usual and, indeed, the natural consequence of ministerial misconduct; and he ventured to predict, that if the present system was obstinately pursued, still more alarming consequences would ensue. Such laws as the present bills would constitute against sedition, were to him objects of abhorrence, because they were novelties unknown to the English constitution. He was more and more convinced of the rectitude of his opinion, when he reflected on the detestable system of criminal law practised in Scotland; the iniquitous and cruel sentence of the court of justiciary in which part of the kingdom, his majesty's ministers had not only sanctioned but elaborately defended. The trial of Mr. Muir, and the other unfortunate gentlemen who suffered a similar fate, Mr. Fox said he could never think of without expressing his utmost abhorrence. The sentence was an eternal disgrace to the court; and the Scotch judge who had affirmed, that no punishment was too severe for the man who was guilty of sedition, that the wretch ought to be exposed to wild beaststhat judge, Mr. Fox said, merited the universal execration of mankind, and it would entail lasting disgrace on the present times, as nothing more harsh, brutal, and unfeeling was to be found in the arbitrary and oppressive reigns of Charles II. and Queen Mary. In the bill before the House, the abominably intolerant spirit of the Scotch court was attempted to be established. The proceedings were a national disgrace, and were not excelled in the barbarous code of the most barbarous ages.
Had Mr. Muir's case been submitted to an English jury, he would, undoubtedly, have been acquitted : but, whether totally acquitted or not, he was fully persuaded that he never would have been consigned to the sufferings which he had experienced. The noble and generous spirit of England would have revolted at such excessive and overstrained punishments. And it ought never to be forgotten, that, notwithstanding the grand jury found the bills against the persons tried at the Old Bailey, the petty jury acquitted them.
Mr. Fox condemned the unlimited power which the bill was about to repose in the executive government. By the infamy of spies and intrigues, both he and his countrymen were exposed to the indignation of the court party for the time being, He deprecated such an unconstitutional power, and bestowed unbounded praise on our ancestors for their wisdom in resisting any appearance of such abominable encroachments upon the liberties of the people. If the detestable spirit of the Scotch law respecting sedition were established in this country, then farewell to all liberty of speech ! farewell to the familiarities of conversation! The servant who stood behind
his chair, if wicked enough, might betray him; and, seduced by those in power, might give information which would endanger both his liberty and his life. The abandoned maidservant of Mr. Muir had acted in a similar manner : violating the confidence reposed in every servant by a master, she communicated to the friends of government the honest, undisguised expressions of Mr. Muir's mind. All that he had frequently expressed was, a wish for reform of the abuses which he daily saw; and no good man could lay his hand upon his heart, and deny the rectitude of his mind, when provoked by such a system as sullied the country which gave it birth.
Mr. Fox said, that even if Mr. Reeves should be found guilty of the libel on that House, which had lately engaged their notice: if he should be found to have recommended and circulated another infamous libel against the constitution, written by Arthur Young; and if he should also be found to have published at different times libels against the protestant dissenters, marking them out as a description of people who ought to be exterminated, he would even go upon his knees to beseech his majesty not to enforce against Mr. Reeves a sentence of transportation.
A good deal had been said respecting his majesty's refusing his assent to these bills. His own wish was for that
prerogative of the crown to remain dormant and quiescent. prerogative which, he believed, would only be a favourite, while it was not attempted to be exercised. He trusted, that if the bills should pass, they would meet with a speedy repeal. He rather trusted that the people would petition his majesty to dissolve parliament, which was their undoubted right, if ever parliament had acted in such a way as to require an interference of that kind. He rejoiced, that on the present occasion, the spirit of the people had shewn itself to be alive; and he trusted, that the display which had been made of the energy of the public mind, would be attended with the happiest effects. The bills formed a crisis in the history of the country; inasmuch as they were a departure from the whole system of the principles of the constitution. The present bill was modelled upon an act of Charles II. The people of England had, in his opinion, committed a worse offence, by the unconstitutional restoration of that monarch, than even by the death of Charles I. It was a measure which originated in a period when the parliament gave up to the king the disposal of the military force, and surrendered the liberties of the people at the foot of the throne. There was one clause in the act of Charles II., which shewed the spirit of those times. By this clause it was made penal to say the king was a papist. And why? Because such was
It was a
the precise fact. It was rather inauspicious in the present moment, that it should be thought necessary that a bill should be adopted to prevent people from telling the truth. No man would say that George III. was a papist. But what was the object of the present bill ? By this bill men were forbidden to speak of the defects of government, and of those abuses which were growing up from day to day, to destroy the spirit of the constitution. If ministers had not been conscious of the existence of those defects, they would not have forbidden men to discuss them. He had somewhere read, that after the defeat of Brutus and Cassius, a decree had been passed that Augustus, who was then raised to the highest dignities of the state, should not be called a boy,“puer, ne majestrati populi Romani detractaret.” Augustus passed no such decree at the latter end of his reign; nor did Tiberius, at any period, feel such a decree to be necessary. The present was a law against proclaiming the defects of the constitution, at a period when the government were every day bringing on fresh abuses. The bill was itself an intolerable grievance. This is the last opportunity, (said Mr. Fox,) that I may have to state my sentiments with respect to these bills. I feel it therefore incumbent upon me to declare, that my objections still remain unimpaired. The one is calculated to prevent the liberty of speech; the other the liberty of writing and publishing. If these bills be carried into effect, and if their influence extend to the national character, other nations will be cnabled to say, that England, which has conquered others, has at last made a shameful conquest of herself.
The House divided on the motion, That the bill be read a third time: Tellers.
S Mr. Jekyll
Mr. Whitbread | 45. The bill was then read a third time and passed.
Mr. John Smyth } 226.
MR. Reeves's LibeL ON THE BRITISH CONSTITUTION.
of the London Corresponding Society against the Treason and Sedition bills, justified that body from the aspersions thrown
out against them and their writings; and to prove that things at least as exceptionable had appeared from the partizans of the ministry, he read to the House several passages from a pamphlet, entitled, “ Thoughts on the English Government,” written by Mr, Reeves, the framer and president of the association against republicans and levellers, and among others the following: “ With the exception of the advice and consent of the two Houses of Parliament, and the interposition of juries, the government, and the administration of it in all its parts, may be said to rest wholly and solely on the king, and those appointed by him. Those two adjuncts of parliament and juries are subsidiary and occasional; but the king's power is a substantive one, always visible and active. By his officers, and in his name, every thing is transacted that relates to the peace of the realm and the protection of the subject. The subject feels this, and acknowledges with thankfulness a superintending sovereignty, which alone is congenial to the sentiments and temper of Englishmen. In fine, the government of England is a monarchy; the monarch is the ancient stock from which have sprung those goodly branches of the legislature, the Lords and Commons, that at the same time give ornament to the tree, and afford shelter to those who seek protection under it. But these are still only branches, and derive their origin and their nutriment from their common parent; they may be lopped off, and the tree is a tree still; shorn, indeed, of its honours, but not like them, cast into the fire. The kingly government may go on in all its functions, without Lords or Commons, it has 'heretofore done so for years together, and in our times it does so during every recess of parliament; but without the king, his parliament is no more. The king, therefore, alone it is who necessarily subsists without change or diminution; and from him alone we unceasingly derive the protection of law and government.” Mr. Sturt then moved, that the House do order the attorney-general to prosecute the author of the said pamphlet. The Speaker said that the motion could not be made in that form. The honourable member must first make his complaint, and then move that the passage complained of be read by the clerk. Mr. Pitt said, he would not say a word upon the merits or demerits of the pamphlet, but he called upon the House to decide whether they ought to sacrifice the important subject of discussion, which was expected to occupy the attention of the House a great part of the evening, to a subject of inferior moment, which had accidentally occurred. He therefore moved the order of the day. – Mr. Jekyll hoped there was still enough of honour and indepen. dence in a British jury, and virtue sufficient in English judges, to bring the author to condign punishment. The question was not, whether the House of Commons ought to be calumniated, but whether it ought to be lopped off as an excrescence. He spoke on the ground of privilege, and therefore the question which he spoke to was entitled to the priority of every other discussion, He appealed to the highest authority of the House if he was not perfectly in order. The Speaker said, that questions of privilege certainly claimed a precedence in discussion ; and all that was
necessary to be done at present, was for the House to consider whether it was a question of privilege. Mr. Erskine, taking for granted that the passage quoted from Mr. Reeves's pamphlet was a libel, argued either that it was a question of privilege, or that it was not. If it was not, he contended that it was prejudging the case to direct the king's attorney-general to file any information he had received against the libeller. But if it was a libel, (and if it was not, he knew not what was, for not only the constitution, but the very existence of the House of Commons was represented as a matter of little or no concern,) the only point to be settled was, whether a libel upon the House of Commons was or was not a question of privilege. Here Mr. Erskine referred to the instance of the king versus Stockdale, in which the attorneygeneral was directed to prosecute Stockdale for a breach of privilege of the House, not very dissimilar from the present. The Speaker had given a decided opinion on the point, that a question of privilege claimed a priority of discussion. The chancellor of the exchequer, on the other hand, had pressed the importance of the bill, as if the people of England were more anxious to have their liberties taken away than to preserve the very existence of the right of representation ; a position which that right honourable gentleman might endeavour to palm upon the House, but which would require much more ingenuity of argument than he could command to render it palatable. – Mr. Pitt said, he did not mean to argue upon any of the sentiments contained in the pamphlet; the leading consideration was, whether it was a breach of privilege or not? And, if it was, he thought, instead of recommending the attorney-general to prosecute, the House should vindicate its privileges by acts of its own. How. ever, he was at present for passing to the order of the day.
Mr. Fox considered the objection which had been started by the chancellor of the exchequer as the strangest he had ever heard. A member of parliament had complained of a breach of privilege; and, because an informal remedy had been proposed by a single individual, was this to alter the fact in limine ? But the great object was to get forward to the order of the day. Oh, how differently (exclaimed Mr. Fox) do you feel on the code of liberty, and on the code of despotism! France emerged from a state of slavery, and shook off the chains of her tyrants -- a general alarm was the consequence an armament was ordered
war was declared -- millions of treasure have been expended, and thousands of lives have been sacrificed. Poland was robbed of her liberties by the lawless grasp of overgrown ambition. In one speech of the minister, a lamentation was made over the scene of oppression, and shortly after a treaty was signed to guarantee the robbery! The Corresponding Societies came forward with spirit in the cause of parliamentary reform, and a few paltry libels were published; the habeas corpus act was