« PreviousContinue »
Mr. Sheridan now entered into a discussion of the affidavits, by which the rebellion of the begums was endeavoured to be authenticated. In mentioning that of Mr. Middleton he exclaimed,—The God of Justice forbid, that any man in this house should make up his mind to accuse Mr. Hastings, upon the ground which Mr. Middleton took for condemning the begums; or that a verdict of guilty for the most trivial misdemeanours should be found against the poorest wretch that ever had existence, upon imputations so futile and absurd ! Major Williams, among the strange reports that filled these affidavits, stated that he heard, that fifty British troops, watching two hundred prisoners, had been surrounded by six thousand of the enemy, and relieved by the approach of nine men. But the attention of the house was still more strongly claimed by the affidavit of captain Gordon, who had displayed the gratefulness of his spirit and temper in the most extraordinary manner. Captain Gordon was just before, not merely released from danger, but preserved from imminent death, by the very person whose accuser he had thought fit to become. And yet, incredible as it might appear, at the expiration of two little days from his deliverance, he had deposed against the distressed and unfortunate woman, to whom he owed his existence; and upon hearsay evidence, accused her of crimes and rebellion. Mr. Sheridan desired here to pause for a moment, and particularly to address himself to one description of persons, those of the learned profession, within those walls. Of sir Lloyd Kenyon, the expected successor of lord Mansfield, the brighest luminary that ever dignified the profession, he would ask calmly to reflect on these extraordinary depositions, and solemnly to declare, whether the mass of affidavits taken at Lucknow would be admitted by him as evidence, to convict the lowest object in this coun. try. If he said it would, he declared to God he would sit down, and not add a syllable more to the too long trespass which he had made upon the patience of the house.
Mr. Sheridan alluded to Mr. Hastings's having once remarked, that a mind touched with superstition, might have contemplated the fate of the Rohillas with peculiar impressions. If the mind of Mr. Hastings were susceptible of the images of superstition, if his fancy could suffer any disturbance, he might indeed feel extraordinary emotions in contemplating the scenes Mr. Sheridan had been endeavouring to describe. He might image the proud spirit of Suja ul Dowla, looking down upon the ruin and devastation of his family ; beholding that palace, which Mr. Hastings had first wrested from his hand, and afterwards restored, plundered by the very army with which he had vanquished the Marhattas; that plunder, which he had ravished from the Rohillas, seiz. ed and confiscated by his perfidious ally ; that Middle. ton, who had been engaged in managing the previous violations, most busy to perpetrate the last; that Hast. ings, whom on his death bed he had left the guardian of his wife, his mother, and his family, turning those dear relations, the objects of his solemn trust, forth to the merciless seasons, and to a more merciless soldiery. A mind, touched with superstition, must indeed have cherished such a contemplation with peculiarimpressions. That Mr. Hastings was regularly acquainted with all the enormities, committed on the begums, was proved by the clearest evidence. It was true, that Mr. Middleton was rebuked for not being more exact; but the exactness required of him afforded no apology for Mr. Hastings's feelings. He did not give an account of the number of groans which were heaved, of the quantity of tears which were shed, of the weight of the fetters, or the depth of the dungeons. Mr. Sheridan 'observed, that the governor general had shrunk from the enquiry ordered by the court of directors, under a new and pompous doctrine, “That the majesty of justice was to be approached with supplication, and was not to degrade itself by hunting for crimes.” He had forgotten, it seemed, the infamous employment to which he had
appointed an English chief justice, to hunt for criminal charges against innocent, defenceless women. But Mr. Sheridan trusted, that the house would vindicate the insulted character of justice; that they would exhibit its true quality, essence, and purposes ; that they would demonstrate it to be, in the case of Mr. Hastings, active, in. quisitive, and avenging.
Mr. Sheridan remarked, that he had heard of factions and parties in that house, and knew that they existed. There was scarcely a subject, upon which they were not broken and divided into sects. The prerogatives of the crown found their advocates among the representatives of the people. The privileges of the people found opponents in the house of commons itself. Habits, connections, parties, ail led to a diversity of opinion. But, when inhumanity presented itself to their observation, it found no division among them. They attacked it as their common enemy, and conceiving that the character of the country was involved in their zeal for its ruin, they quitted not their undertaking, till it was completely overthrown. It was not given to that house, to behold the objects of their compassion and benevolence in the present extensive enquiry, as it was to the officers who relieved them, and who so feelingly described the extatic emotions of gratitude in the instant of deliverance. They could not behold the workings of their hearts, the quivering lips, the trickling tears, the loud, yet tremu lous joys of the millions, whom their vote of that night would for ever save from the cruelty of corrupted power. But, though they could not directly see the effect, was not the true enjoyment of their benevolence increased, by its being conferred unseen? Would not the omnipotence of Britain be demonstrated, to the wonder of nations, by stretching its mighty arm across the deep, and saving by its fiat distant millions from destruction ? And would the blessings of the people thus saved dissipate in empty air ? No. If he might dare to use the figure, they
would constitute heaven itself their proxy, to receive for them the blessings of their pious thanksgiving, and the prayers their gratitude would dictate.
On the Regency. He acknowledged, that in his conception any abstract or theoretical question would be wholly unnecessary, and the discussion of it altogether unproductive of utility and advantage. But he denied that the question of right which he now offered to the house of commons was of that nature. It was, on the contrary, an enquiry that stood in the way of all their subsequent proceedings. They were free neither to deliberate nor to decide, while the doubt of an existing right hung over their heads ; they could not speak intelligibly, or to any purpose, till they knew their proper character, and whether they were exercising their own privileges for the safety of the crown and the welfare of the people, or were usurping that which had never belonged to them. Mr. Pitt asserted the utility of the report of the committee, and entered into an investigation of the precedents that had been adduced. They fell under the heads of infancy, absence, and indisposition. In the minorities of king Edward the Third and king Richard the Second, Parliament, whether wisely or weakly was not now the ques. tion, had appointed councils of regency to exercise the royal authority. The third instance occurred in the infancy of king Henry the Sixth. The duke of Gloucester, the king's uncle, had at that time called together the parliament, one of the first of whose measures was to ratify: the manner in which they had been convoked, not considering the sanction of the duke as a sufficient autho. Vol. II.
Fity. The same nobleman had gone farther ; he had claimed the regency, and applied to parliament to recog. nize his right. What was the answer? They asserted, that neither his birth nor the will of the late monarch gave him any power to exercise the royal authority. Having thus established their own privileges, they then declared the duke of Gloucester himself protector, and confided to him the person of their infant sovereign, Here then was an instance in which the claim of right had been directly advanced, and explicitly decided on by the authority of parliament. The next sort of precedents were those that were founded in the king's absence in foreign realms. These cases his adversáries had asserted to be clearly in their favour, and they appealed in a triumphant tone to the regencies of Lionel duke of Clarence, and of Edward the Black Prince, when a minor, Granting these cases to be as decisive as the advocates of the present novel doctrine could reasonably expect, what did they decide ? Clearly the truth and certainty of the present resolutions. If a right to represent the king existed in the heir apparent, it must be a perfect, an entire right, a right that admitted of neither mode nor limitation. If any thing short of the whole power were given, it would manifestly fall short of the extent of the claim, and consequently be an acknowledgment that no such claim existed. Mr. Pitt ventured to assert, that the powers vested in the custos regni had always been less than those of the king. He called upon his hearers to advert to the ancient records, and concluded, that, because the power of bestowing benefices for instance had occasionally been given, their prerogatives had always been subject to some limitation. In modern times the appointment of lords justices had been the usual resource, and that frequently when a prince of full age was resident in England. There was one other precedent that remained, where the exercise of royalty had been interrupted by indisposition ; and this appeared to him to be more a case in point than any of