« ZurückWeiter »
suspended, indictments for high treason were drawn up; new treasons were enacted, and the bill of rights was repealed. A more atrocious libel than any that had been published now appears from the pen of a ministerial hireling, against the House of Commons, and the motion which is made by the chancellor of the exchequer is -- that we should proceed to the other orders of the day! Mr. Fox, though in general he declared himself no friend to prosecution for opinions, called upon the House to come forward on the present occasion, in vindication of their privileges, their dignity, and their existence.
Mr. Windham said, that after hearing the passage read, he was not prepared to deliver his mind upon it; but it was not conformable to the interpretation given it by gentlemen. As far as he was then prepared to decide on it, it might be perfectly innocent. It was, he thought, merely the opinion or declaration of an antiquarian or historian, speaking his sentiments of the British constitution. It merely meant, that monarchy was antecedent to the other parts of the constitution; and might possibly survive or subsist without them. It was merely such an opinion as an historian might give of any form of polity. He was persuaded, that if it were tried before that tribunal which gentlemen sentenced it to, there was not sufficient to condemn it. With respect to the person who was said to be the author, very indecent language had been used; but the gentlemen who so traduced his character had good reason : he incurred their displeasure, in proportion as he gained the good will of the country.
Mr. Fox said, that he was always sorry when he felt himself obliged to arraign the general character of any man; but of Mr. Reeves he must say, that he never could mention him with respect, since he saw in the public prints a letter respecting him by Mr. Law. He asked, was this a solitary libel? He always doubted the wisdom of prosecuting for opinions; but when opinions were made the grounds for the alarming bills then pending, it was for the House to see, whether they ought not to hold this libel in equal abhorrence with that ever came before them. He said, he was not fond of prosecutions for opinion, and he proposed merely that the House should publicly declare the sentiments they entertained of this atrocious libel. Great God! said Mr. Fox, shall it go out into the world, that a gentleman of distinguished talents, and powerful influence in the cabinet, holds the doctrine which this passage inculcates! If he adheres to that opinion, it is a demonstration that the system of the cabinet is changed, that a settled plan of overthrowing the liberties of the people is entertained. He was glad that
those ministers who had been once his friends, were the persons who displayed some openness and candour, for from their declarations, the opinion of their colleagues was to be gathered. He wished to know, whether the secretary at war could possibly defend this libel as innocent; and therefore he hoped that gentlemen would discuss it. He hoped the House would come to no opinion on the passage, till they had heard the context. He hoped that the House would agree to the reading of the whole of the pamphlet, and that they would not proceed on detached scraps, as they did in bringing in the bills.
The question was put, that the said pamphlet be read, which was agreed to without a division. After it had been read by the clerk, Mr. Sheridan said, that it must now be admitted upon
full proof to be the falsest, foulest, dullest, and most malicious pamphlet that had ever issued from a prostituted press. Doubts had been stated, whether the author was of importance enough to attract and call for the weighty and immediate notice of that House : but they should consider, that this person was the main agent and abettor of all those associations which originated and circulated those alarms about French principles, that had contributed so much to the unhappy state in which the country stood at that moment. He considered him however as too despicable for that species of trial which Sacheverell, whose works contained no principles more detestable, had suffered. He would therefore move, “That the said pamphlet is a malicious, scandalous, and seditious libel, reflecting on the glorious Revolution ; containing matter tending to create jealousies and divisions among his majesty's loyal subjects, to alienate their affections from our present happy form of government, as established in king, lords, and commons, and to subvert the true principles of our free constitution ; and that the said pamphlet is a high breach of the privileges of this House." The master of the rolls finding it impossible, he said, to make up his mind to an instantaneous decision upon such a mass of matter, moved, “That the said pamphlet be taken into further consider, ation on Thursday.” In this he was supported by Mr. Pitt and Mr. Sergeant Adair ; and opposed by Mr. Erskine, who moved that the word “ to-morrow" be inserted instead of “ Thursday.”
Mr. Fox said, it had been asked, why he had not brought on the consideration of the pamphlet before? In answer to which, he begged leave to say, that he did not know whether he should have brought it on at all. He conceived that dangerous opinions might be stated in a publication, and that yet it might not be of consequence to proescute the author. But when such a publication as the present was brought forward in that House it was then incumbent on them to shew that they were not parties to libels upon the constitution, nor the patrons of those by whom such libele were circulated. The
existence of the treason and sedition bills formed another ground why this publication should not be passed by; for if it was found that arbitrary doctrines were recommended, and if arbitrary measures were in the course of being adopted by ministers, he then thought it of consequence that the House should not subscribe to the opinion of the right honourable the secretary of war, that the passage in that publication, which had been particularly referred to, appeared to be innocent. A learned gentleman (Mr. Adair) admitted it to be a libel on the constitution, and yet was an advocate for delay. Why did he not narrow his condemnation to the doctrines contained in that particular passage ? Notwithstanding all the partiality of ministers for arbitrary power, he did not conceive that many of their advocates would be found to come forward to support those doctrincs. A delay, then, was on their part desirable, in order that they might concert, in the intervai, whether any defence could be set up for this passage, in all probability the production of one of their own agents. But, he asked, was this exceptionable passage so long, was it so doubtful, that after having heard it once read, the House could have any hesitation with respect to its tendency? Did ministers wish for the delay of a few days, in order to give notice to the author of the libel, to get out of the way? Did they wish for time in their distressed situation, in order to palliate the atrocity of the libel by some straining and twisting of the other parts of the pamphlet, and justify the declaration set up by the right honourable the secretary at war, that it was perfectly innocent? It was, Mr. Fox declared, a libel of a more dangerous nature, and a worse tendency, than any that had been issued by the Constitutional and Corresponding Societies, It was not difficult, however, to perceive the tenderness of ministers for this libeller on the House of Commons, nor to penetrate into the motives of their conduct; and he thought it a bad omen for the country, that while such dispositions were manifested, it should be urged, that not a moment was to be lost in coming to a decision on bills, which, under the pretence of giving greater security to his majesty's person, were, in reality, calculated to strengthen the hands of government, and overturn the privileges of the constitution.
The question for adjourning the further consideration of the pamphlet till Thursday was carried without a division.
November 26. The debate on Mr. Sheridan's motion being resumed, it was strongly opposed by Mr. Windham, who defended the pamphlet in a speech of considerable length.
Mr. Fox asked, whether the right honourable secretary at war would have taken the same pains to find out a different meaning had any other pamphlet been the subject of discussion ?, Supposing it had been from Mr. Paine's? If so, he would then, indeed, pronounce him impartial. Or, if he, (Mr. Fox,) had endeavoured to explain any pamphlet coming from a member of the Corresponding Society, whether that right honourable gentleman would have exculpated him from the charge of partiality towards that body; then, indeed, he would give him credit for impartiality on the present occasion : but when he saw him employing his ingenuity in order to give a sense to the pamphlet different from what it would obviously bear, he could not help thinking that the right honourable gentleman entertained some lurking partiality towards the principles asserted in that pamphlet. Would any gentleman venture to declare, that there did not appear as settled a design in Reeves's association to attack the constitution, as in any of the corresponding societies? To the pamphlet of Mr. Arthur Young, an express vote of thanks, signed by Mr. Reeves, as chairman of the association, and an approbation of the doctrines contained in Mr. Young's pamphlet were subjoined. The principles which Mr. Reeves's association wished to adopt were, that rotten boroughs, extravagant courts, selfish ministers, and corrupt magistrates, formed the security for the constitution of England. What could such doctrines proceed from but a settled design in that society to destroy the constitution of this country? If they analized the pamphlet minutely, they would find the doctrine contrary not only to fact, but to the language of the statute-book, which declared, that the government of this country was not simply a monarchy, but a government in king, lords, and commons. My own difficulty (said Mr. Fox) is what the conduct of the House should be on this occasion. I profess myself an enemy to prosecutions for libellous attacks; and yet, at such a time as this, when Mr. Reeves's association are spreading their pernicious doctrines abroad, I am anxious that the House of Commons should express their disapprobation of principles recommended by that association. I wish to get at the author of this pamphlet; and this is so material an object, that I think the better way would be, for the House to keep this business in its own hands.
The motion was carried, and a committee was afterwards appointed to enquire who was the author of the said libel.
The reports of the committee appointed to enquire who was the author of the pamphlet, entitled “Thoughts on the English Government,” being this day taken into consideration, Mr. Sheridan moved, “ That one of the said printed books be burnt by the hands of the common hangman in the New Palace-yard, Westminster, on Monday, the 21st day of this instant December, at one of the clock in the afternoon; and that another of the said printed books be burnt by the hands of the common hangman before the Royal Exchange in London, on Tuesday the 22d day of this instant December, at the same hour; and that the sheriffs of London and Middlesex do attend at the said time and places respectively, and cause the same to be burnt there accordingly.” As an amendment to this motion, Mr. Secretary Dundas moved, “ That an humble address be presented to his majesty, humbly to desire his majesty that he will be graciously pleased to give directions to his attorney-general to prosecute John Reeves, esquire, as the author or publisher of a printed pamphlet, entitled " Thoughts on the English Government, &c." After the amendment had been supported by Lord Sheffield and Mr. Sylvester Douglas,
Mr. Fox said, that with respect to the danger to be apprehended from the pamphlet, he could not allow that the danger of an arbitrary government being established was wholly chimerical, though he was ready to admit that the recent feeling which had been excited by the two bills had, in a considerable degree, diminished his apprehension of such an event. In a mixed government like this, however, all publications were dangerous which tended to give to one of the parts of that government too great an ascendancy over the rest. It might be asked, why, if no prosecution were wished, all the facts had been stated ? For this plain reason, to convince the House of the impropriety of the pamphlet. What was it that he desired? It was this, that as a pamphlet such as this had been brought before the House, the House should not content themselves with a mere vote of censure, but should make the pamphlet undergo, as it were, the ignominious punishment of burning With regard to precedents, he contended that, with a very few exceptions, they ran in favour of the original motion. Early in the present reign, a pamphlet, called “ Droit le Roi,” had been complained of, censured, and burnt. At the commencement of the American war, another pamphlet, called “ The Crisis,” had also been complained of and burnt. Why, then, should it be for the honour of the House at present to shew such tenderness for the doctrine contained