« PreviousContinue »
grudgea any power necessary to put down an usurpation of the regular government of the country.
The Act passed : but the Association rendered it unnecessary to make use of the powers which it bestowed. Their parliamentary friends had pointed out to them, that, as matters stood, with the Government pledged to emancipation, their continuing together as a body, could only do mischief; and the Association, even before the Bill had completed its basty progress, declared itself dissolved. It was plain, however, even from the explanation given by ministers themselves, that the Association had been allowed, to bully the Government into submission, and that the present act for its suppression, was a mere legislative mockery—the ridiculous assumption of a threatening gesture to cover and conceal its impotence. The Association had demanded emancipation, unqualified emancipation, and nothing else. It had said to the Government, give us emancipation, and we exist no more; refuse us what we ask, and we defy power, either to restrain or to resist us. The question between it and the Government had never been, whether it would be quiet, if the Government gave all it demanded—but whether or no, the Government could compel it to be quiet, even though it should get nothing. In such circumstances, when one hand held a Bill for suppressing the Association, while the other contained a Bill, granting all that the Association demanded, to speak of having suppressed the Association, was an abuse of words. It was, as if a man should boast of his victory over a highwayman, to whom he exclaims, when the pistol is at his breast,“ down with your pistol, sir, for there are my purse and my watch.” The robber would have the best of it, and so hail the Association.
On the 5th of March, for which day a call of the House had been ordered, Mr. Peel moved, “ that the House resolve itself into a committee of the whole House, to consider of the laws imposing civil disabilities on his Majesty's Roman Ca tholic subjects."
The debate upon the motion for going into a committee, was continued by adjournment upon the 6th of March. The principal supporters of the proposal, were found among ministers and their converted adherents. The Whigs satisfied with approving and leading the Ministry, did not take any leading share in the discussion. Lord Milton, Sir J. Newport, Mr. Brougham, and Sir F. Burdett spoke, but left the task of justification to the introducers of the measure, to whom it was much more difficult than to those, who, by their present vote. were only repeating opinions which they had long entertained, and often expressed.
On a division, the motion was carried by a majority of 188 the votes being 348 for the motion, and !60 against it. This preponderance was manifestly decisive of the ultimate fate o: the question, at least in the House of Commons; and its extent betrayed an overwhelming weight of ministerial influence which could scarcely fail to be less successfully employed in the House of Peers.
The country did not desert itself. Though deprived of its accustomed leaders, at the very moment when their vigilance and energy were most required; the public voice announced itself in an expression of decided opposition; and if a judgement was to be formed from the number of petitions, which began, so soon as the intention of ministers was known, to crowd the tables of both Houses, the proposed measure was one to which the public mind of Britain was utterly averse. Ministers did not attempt to deny the fact, and hence their determination not to risk a new election. Hence too a determination, to treat the petitioners with as little respect as possible, to regard the petitions as impertinent and troublesome encroachments on the time of an assembly, whose resa lutions had been already taken. Before the first reading of the Bill, there had been presented 957 petitions in its favour. The petitions were uniformly spoken of with pity, as containing expressions of well-meaning, but ignorant prejudices, or met with indignation, as the result of persecuting iliiberality and knavislı contrivance. It is quite true, that such modes of expressing opinion, always admits the expression of a great difference of opinion, which may be entitled to little weight,
but then the very same facilities exist on both sides ; no induction is to be made from the one, which is not, on the same grounds, to be made from the other; and after all substractions, the fact remained. The measure, which was now to be forced upon the country, was odious to the great majority of its Protestant population. But in Parliament they were without leaders of weight and reputation; for all the talkers were on the other side; their orators and influential men had wheeled round at the word of their captain, and joined the ranks of the enemy. The changes which rushed upon the public eye were astounding. Those men, like Mr. Peel, were matter of melancholy seriousness, because destructive of all public confidence, and drawing with them a practical revolution in the system of government. The hurried wheelings of the subaltern performers, were the ordinary phenomena of official nature, and excited a smile at the awkwardness with which the evolution was sometimes performed.
But there were examples of change among men who ought to have stood aloof from the threats, as from the seductions of power. Sir Thomas Lethbridge, one of the members for Somersetshire, had attended a meeting of the county of Devon, held in the middle of January, to petition against farther concession to the Catholics. He had there been the organ of a most obstinate and enthusiastic resistance to their demands. On the 6th of February, after the royal speech, he had announced that his opinions were unchanged. In the beginning of March, he then read his recantation, and announced all at once, that the plan of Ministers was wise, patriotic, and excellent in all its parts. Announcements like these, were received with shouts of laughter by the House, and with utter loathing by the country.
The House having gone into a Committee, and agreed to certain resolutions, a Bill in conformity was directed to be prepared. It was brought in by Mr. Peel on the 10th of March, when it was read a first time. The opponents of the measure allowed the first reading to take place without oppo29.
sition, it being arranged that the debate on the principle of the Bill should take place on the second reading. That reading was fixed for the 17th, notwithstanding the opposition of the Anti-Catholic members, who insisted that a week was too short a period to allow the country to form an opinion on the Bill after it should have been printed, and its details known. It was answered, that as the general principle of the Bill was to be then decided, the details would be discussed in Committee; that delay was sought only to rouse the prejudices, and inflame the passions of the people, and that considering the state of excitation in which the public mind already was, it would be desirable to allay the agitation, by settling it with all possible speed. Sir Francis Burdett, in fact, had already said in the debate on the motion for a Committee, that “ It was better to get on with the measure than to argue about it; that action, not talking was to be looked to.” In truth, the inefficiency of the Anti-Catholic population of Britain consisted in their very quietude. If instead of confining their expression of opinion to petitions, they had followed the example of the Catholics of Ireland, and addressed to Ministers the same argument of “ Agitation," which had been so effective in the hands of the Association, their opinions would have come in that form, which when adopted on the other side, Ministers allowed to be legitimate and irresistible.
On the 17th of March, Mr. Peel moved that the Bill for the relief of the Roman Catholics should be read a second time. The motion led to a debate which was continued, by adjournment on the 18th. In so far as the speakers reiterated the grounds on which the pecessity of emancipation had been maintained, so long it would be wearisome to repeat what has been so often recorded.
The motion for engrossing the Bill with its amendments was carried by a majority of 233 to 106, and on Monday the 30th of March the third reading was moved by Mr. Peel. The Marquis of Chandos on the other hand mored that the Bill should be read a third time that day six months. A
debate ensued, in the course of which all that had been already said, more than once on both sides were said over again. The third reading was carried by a majority of 178, there being 320 in favour of it, and 142 against it. Thus, in only three weeks from the time at which it had been introduced, was passed a Bill which its own supporters acknowledged to be an infringement of the constitution, and which whether for evil or for good, introduced into the frame and spirit of that constitution, an infinitely more important change than Britain had witnessed since the Revolution.
Hitherto the most steady and uniform resistance to the demands of the Catholics, had been found in the House of Lords. Whenever the Commons passed a Bill, or adopted a resolution, favourable to their views, a large majority of the Peers had always refused to concur in any thing which went to alter the Protestant characteristics of the constitution. Even 1818 when the lower House had passed resolutions intended to be the foundation of a Relief Bill, they had been rejected by the Peers by a majority of 45. Not twelve months had elapsed; and the Protestants find themselves deserted, and betrayed among their own representatives, placed their last hope in the steadiness which had so often distinguished the House of Lords. It was not to be expected, however, that the dictatorial powers of the Ministry, which had been strong enough to make the lower House disregard the public opinion of which it ought to be the organ, would lose their efficacy when applied to a body, less dependant on popular sentiment. The Aristocracy obeyed the word of command, as the Commons had done; the same means which had secured a triumph in the one House, prepared the way for it in the other.
On the 31st of March, the day following that on which the Bill had passed the House of Commons, it was brought up to the Lords by Mr. Peel, and was immediately read a first time. The Duke of Wellington then moved that the second reading should take place two days thereafter, on the 2nd of April. Lord Bexley and the Earl of Malmesbury opposed the motion, on the ground that such precipitate haste was unbecoming :