« AnteriorContinuar »
Bills, when sparks were struck out, in the collision of the two principles, which the combustible state of public feeling at the moment rendered net a little perilous. On the motion that the House should resolve itself into a Committee upon the Treason Bill, Mr. Fox said, that “if Mi. nisters were determined, by means of the corrupt influence they already possessed in the two Houses of Parliament, to pass these Bills, in violent opposition to the declared sense of the great majority of the nation, and they should be put in force with all their rigorous provisions,-if his opinion were asked by the people as to their obedience, he should tell them, that it was no longer a question of moral obligation and duty, but of prudence.” Mr. Sheridan followed in the bold footsteps of his friend, and said, that “if a degraded and oppressed majority of the people applied to him, he would advise them to acquiesce in those bills only as long as resistance was imprudent.” This language was, of course, visited with the heavy reprobation of the Ministry ;-but their own partisans had already gone as great lengths on the side of absolute power, and it is the nature of such extremes to generate each other. Bishop Horsley had preached the doctrine of passive obedience in the House of Lords, asserting that “man's abuse of his delegated authority is to be borne with resignation, like any other of God's judgments; and that the opposition of the individual to the sovereign power is an opposition to God's providential arrangements." The promotion of the Right Reverend Prelate that followed, was not likely to abate his zeal in the cause of power; and, accordingly, we find him in the present session declaring, in his place in the House of Lords, that “ the people have nothing to do with the laws but to obey them.”
The government, too, had lately given countenance to writers, the absurd slavishness of whose doctrines would have sunk below contempt, but for such patronage. Among the ablest of them was Arthur Young,-one of those renegades from the cause of freedom, who, like the incendiary that set fire to the Temple with the flame he had stolen from its altar, turn the fame and the energies which they have acquired in defence of liberty against her. This gentleman, to whom his situation as Secretary to the Board of Agriculture afforded facilities for the circulation of his political heresies, did not scruple, in one of his pamphlets, roundly to assert, that unequal representation, rotten boroughs, long parliaments, extravagant courts, selfish Ministers, and corrupt majorities, are not only intimately interwoven with the practical freedom of England, but, in a great degree, the causes of it.
But the most active and notorious of these patronised advocates of the Court was Mr. John Reeves,-a person who, in his capacity of President of the Association against Republicans and Levellers, had acted as a sort of Sub-minister of Alarm to Mr. Burke. In a pamphlet, entitled “ Thoughts on the English Government,” which Mr. Sheridan brought under the notice of the House, as a libel on the Constitution, this pupil of the school of Filmer advanced the startling doctrine that the Lords and Commons of England derive their existence and authority from the King, and that the Kingly government could go on, in all its functions, without them. This pitiful paradox found an apologist in Mr. Windham, whose chivalry in the new cause he had espoused left Mr. Pitt himself at a wondering distance behind. His speeches in defence of Reeves, (which are among the proofs that remain of that want of equipoise observable in his fine, rather than solid, understanding,) have been with a judicious charity towards his memory, omitted in the authentic collection by Mr. Amyot.
When such libels against the Constitution were not only promulgated, but acted upon, on one side, it was to be expected, and, hardly, perhaps, to be regretted, that the repercussion should be heard loudly and warningly from the other. Mr. Fox, by a subsequent explanation, softened down all that was most menacing in his language ; and, though the word “Resistance,” at full length, should, like the hand-writing on the wall, be reserved for the last intoxi
cation of the Belshazzars of this world, a letter or two of it may, now and then, glare out upon their eyes, without producing any thing worse than a salutary alarm amid their revels. At all events, the high and constitutional grounds on which Mr. Fox defended the expressions he had hazarded, may well reconcile us to any risk incurred by their
The tribute to the house of Russell, in the grand and simple passage beginning, “Dear to this country are the descendants of the illustrious Russell,” is as applicable to that Noble family now as it was then ; and will continue to be so, I trust, as long as a single vestige of a race, so pledged to the cause of liberty, remains.
In one of Mr. Sheridan's speeches on the subject of Reeves's libel, there are some remarks on the character of the people of England, not only candid and just, but, as applied to them at that trying crisis, interesting:
“Never was there,” he said, “any country in which there was so much absence of public principle, and at the same time so many instances of private worth. 'Never was there so much charity and humanity towards the poor and the distressed; any act of cruelty or oppression never failed to excite a sentiment of general indignation against its authors. It was a circumstance peculiarly strange, that though luxury had arrived to such a pitch, it had so little effect in depraving the hearts and destroying the morals of people in private life; and almost every day produced some fresh ex. ample of generous feelings and noble exertions of benevolence. Yet amidst these phenomena of private virtue, it was to be remarked, that there was an almost total want of public spirit, and a most deplorable contempt of public principle. When Great Britain fell, the case would not be with her as with Rome in former times. When Rome fell, she fell by the weight of her own vices. The inhabitants were so corrupted and degraded, as to be unworthy of a continuance of prosperity, and incapable to enjoy the blessings of liberty; their minds were bent to the state in which a reverse of fortune placed them. But when Great Britain falls, she will fall with a people full of private worth and virtue; she will be ruined by the profligacy of the governors, and the security of her inhabitants,—the consequence of those pernicious doctrines which have taught her to place a false confidence in her strength and freedom, and not to look with distrust and apprehension to the misconduct and corruption of those to whoin she has trusted the management of her resources.”
To this might have been added, that when Great Britain falls, it will not be from either ignorance of her rights, or insensibility to their value, but from that want of energy to assert them which a high state of civilisation produces. The love of ease that luxury brings along with it, -the selfish and compromising spirit, in which the members of a polished society countenance each other, and which reverses the principle of patriotism, by sacrificing public interests to private ones,-the substitution of intellectual for moral excitement, and the repression of enthusiasm by fastidiousness and ridicule,-these are among the causes that undermine a people,—that corrupt in the very act of enlightening them ; till they become, what a French writer calls “ esprits exigeans et caractères complaisans,” and the period in which their rights are best understood may be that in which they most easily surrender them. It is, indeed, with the advanced age of free States, as with that of individuals,-they improve in the theory of their existence as they grow unfit for the practice of it; till, at last, deceiving themselves with the semblance of rights gone by, and refining upon the forms of their institutions after they have lost the substance, they smoothly sink into slavery, with the lessons of liberty on their lips.
Besides the Treason and Sedition Bills, the Suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act was another of the momentous questions which, in this as well as the preceding Session, were chosen as points of assault by Mr. Sheridan, and contested with a vigour and reiteration of attack, which, though unavailing against the massy majorities of the Minister, yet told upon public opinion so as to turn even defeats to account.
The marriage of the Prince of Wales to the Princess Caroline of Brunswick having taken place in the spring of this year, it was proposed by His Majesty to Parliament, not only to provide an establishment for their Royal Highnesses, but to decide on the best manner of liquidating the debts of the Prince, which were calculated at 630,000). On the secession of the leading Whigs, in 1792, His Royal
Highness had also separated himself from Mr. Fox, and held no further intercourse either with him or any of his party, -except, occasionally, Mr. Sheridan,—till so late, I believe, as the year 1798. The effects of this estrangement are sufficiently observable in the tone of the Opposition throughout the debates on the Message of the King. Mr. Grey said, that he would not oppose the granting of an establishment to the Prince equal to that of his ancestors ; but neither would he consent to the payment of his debts. by Parliament. A refusal, he added, to liberate His Royal Highness from his embarrassments would certainly prove a mortification ; but it would, at the same time, awaken a
ust sense of his imprudence. Mr. Fox asked, “ Was the Prince well advised in applying to that House on the subject of his debts, after the promise made in 1787 ?"-and Mr. Sheridan, while he agreed with his friends that the application should not have been made to Parliament, still gave it as his “ positive opinion that the debts ought to be paid immediately, for the dignity of the country and the situation of the Prince, who ought not to be seen rolling about the streets, in his state-coach, as an insolvent prodigal.” With respect to the promise given in 1787, and now violated, that the Prince would not again apply to Parliament for the payment of his debts, Mr. Sheridan, with a communicativeness that seemed hardly prudent, put the House in possession of some details of the transaction, which, as giving an insight into Royal character, are worthy of being extracted.
“In 1787, a pledge was given to the House that no more debts should be contracted. By that pledge the Prince was bound as much as if he had given it knowingly and voluntarily. To attempt any explanation of it now would be unworthy of his honour, -as if he had suffered it to be wrung from him, with a view of afterwards pleading that it was against his better judgment, in order to get rid of it. He then advised the Prince not to make any such promise, because it was not to be expected that he could himself enforce the details of a system of economy; and, although he had men of honour and abilities about him, he was totally unprovided with men of business, adequate to such a task. The Prince said he could not give such a pledge, and agree at the same time to take back his establishment. He, (Mr.