« PreviousContinue »
Behold, said he, the state of a free Englishman ! Before he can discuss any topic which involves his liberty or his rights, he is to send to a magistrate who is to attend the discussion that magistrate cannot prevent the meeting; but he can prevent the speaking because he can alledge that what is said has a tendency to disturb the peace and tranquillity of this realm. He hoped the people would be alarmed at the danger their liberties were then in, and assemble, while they might, to discuss the best means of preserving them from the encroachments of the proposed bill, and state their abhor. rence of the principle of this proceeding. Those who did not take this step, he should pronounce traitors to their country. Suppose, for a moment, that the only object which the authors of this measure have in view be to prevent a revolution in this country: if this were their real motive, how could they think to avoid such an evil by proceeding upon a plan which has no respect for the liberties of the people, no esteem for the experience to be derived from a perusal of our history? Good God, Sir! exclaimed Mr. Fox, I have seen and have heard of revolutions in different states : but they were not owing to the freedom of popular opinions, nor to the facility of popular meetings; they were owing to the very reverse of these; therefore we ought to put ourselves in a state as different from them as possible. But, unfortunately, the present ministers are leading us into a situation as nearly similar as they can to those in which these revolutions happened ; particularly to that which at this hour is most interesting to us—the reign of Charles the First.
Mr. Fox next adverted to the French revolution, and desired Englishmen to observe what brought about the revolution there; and they would find that it was not to be attributed to the facility of public meetings, but on the contrary, to their lettres de cachet, and other means which were employed to prevent the public from manifesting their opinions on the affairs of government. We
should therefore to avoid distress similar to theirs, avoid the cause that occasioned it. If the complaints of the people be unfounded, there can be nothing to fear ; for the more vehemently and loudly they express them, if they be groundless, the less effect will they ultimately produce; but if a stop be put to this vent for the ill-humour of the body politic, there can be no alternative between abject submission and violent resist· ance. He concluded by observing, that, if this bill was brought in, he should think it his duty to move for a call of the house.
On the same Subject.
In the beginning of his speech, he referred particularly to what had just been advanced by the solicitor general, who had asserted, that the present bill was strictly consonant to the principles of the constitution. An act of this description, said Mr. Erskine, was never thought of in the reign of Charles the second, after the horrors and confusion of the former reign ; such an act was never at tempted in the reign of king William, when the government was newly established, during a disputed succession, or in the two rebellions that raged in the subsequent reigns; it was an act which even the present ministry never thought of passing, when they suspended that grand palladium of English liberty, the Habeas Corpus Act ; nor when they had the reports of committees; stat. ing the existence of treasonable plots, upon their table. The learned solicitor, he said, defended the necessity of passing the present bill, without any fresh reasons or new
plots, instead of adducing new evidence, he had trods den again the dull track that he had trodden so frequently before, and had travelled back again to the meeting that had been held near Sheffield, in which Mr. Yorke, it had been asserted, made a speech highly seditious. In contradiction to the assertion of the solicitor general, that the right of the subject to petition the king was not taken away by the proposed bill, Mr. Erskine said, he would maintain positively and distinctly, that the bill, if it could be reduced to practice, would absolutely destroy the right of the subject to petition. It was a maxim in law, when any thing was prohibited by law, the means by which such thing might be done were also prohibited. According to the enactments of the bill, no subject was to be discussed which the magistrates did not approve of ; thus those magistrates “ who were appointed by, and removable at the will of the crown, (such as sheriffs, &c.) were to be judges of the nature of the petitions of the people.” The magistrates, who represented his majesty, he contended, would therefore never permit the people to meet for the purpose of petitioning against a measure of high prerogative, or in any case where the king might be supposed not to consult the happiness of the people. He would say again and again, that “ it was the right of the people to resist that government which exercised tyranny.” It had been said that bold language had been held at public meetings; it was certainly bold to say that the people had a right to resist, and that they ought to rise ; but there were some occasions which rendered the boldest language warrantable.
With the sanction of the sentiments of the venerable earl of Chatham, he would maintain that the people of England should defend their rights, if necessary, by the last extremity to which free men could resort. For my own part, said Mr. Erskine, I shall never cease to struggle in support of liberty. In to situation will I desert the cause. I was born a free man, continued he, and I will never die a slave !
In the whole of the late proceedings and events, he observed, one of the most fatal circumstances had been, that the higher orders of the people separated themselves too much from the lower orders. This had been one of the causes of the revolution in France. Under their arbitrary monarchs, there were literally but two classes of the people ; a pampered, profligate, proud nobility, and a low, miserable, and abject rabble ; no intermediate class, no knowledge, no virtue.
France had an unreformed church, an unreformed state, a profligate despotism, and the most profound superstition. He argued the necessity of preserving the British constitution pure, in order to prevent a revolution. He defied the whole profession of the law to prove that the bill then before the house was consonant to the principles of the constitution. The constitution was abrogat. ed and annulled by it. Our ancestors were content to wait till some overt act appeared, which was the subject of punishment. But, under this bill, the determination of a magistrate was to interfere between the people and the assertion of their rights, and the complaint of their grievances. Depend upon it, said Mr. Erskine, the peo. ple of England will not and ought not to submit.
Mr. Erskine then read a paragraph from an address to the jury at the Old Baily, upon the late trials for high treason, which shewed that no conspiracy had existed, and that the opinion of the judge had not been as represented. The chief justice says
“ All men may, nay, all men must, if they possess the faculty of thinking, reason upon every thing which sufficiently interests them to become objects of attention; and among the objects of the attention of free men, the principles of government, the constitution of particular governments, and above all, the constitution of the government under which they live, will naturally engage their attention and provoke speculation. The power of communication of thoughts and opinions is the gift of God; and the freedom of it is the source of all science,
the first fruits, and the ultimate happiness of society; and therefore it seems to follow, that human laws ought not to interpose, nay, cannot interpose, to prevent the communication of sentiments and opinions in voluntary assemblies of men."
Mr. Erskine next commented upon the preamble and several clauses of the bill, and contended, that it was in the power
any one man, by going to a meeting and speaking a few seditious words, whether apposite to the subject or not, to afford a warrantable reason for a justice to dissolve the meeting, any spy (and magistrates had their spies) with half a crown in his pocket, might go, and, by uttering seditious expressions, afford his paymaster the power of putting an end to all discussion, and to the meeting. He said the law of the land was fully adequate to all the purposes of good government, without the introduction of the present measure.
In any public meeting, when a breach of the peace was committed, a magistrate, by the existing law, was entitled to interfere ; and, in his support, was authorised to raise the posse comitatus, if necessary ; and also, by the Riot Act, he had the power of dispersing tumultuous assemblies.
He then alluded to some sentiments which were for. merly uttered by Mr. Burke when speaking of the Ame. rican war, which he thought peculiarly applicable to the present time. That great man represented English. men as contending for an imaginary power; "We be. gin,” said he, “ to acquire the spirit of domination, and to lose the relish of honest equality. The principles of our forefathers become suspected to us, because we see them animating the present opposition of our children, The faults which grow out of the luxuriance of freedom, appear much more shocking to us than those vices which are generated from the rankness of servitude.”
It appears from hence, said Mr. Erskine, that the word equality is not a word of new coinage, and introduced into the dictionary only three years ago; but a