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The progress of the nation page 4


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A strange singularity of the Irish parliament was, that it might continue to sit through a whole reign, nothing but the demise of the crown dissolving it. It was in vain that the people prayed for the term of a parliament to be limited to the same number of years as in England. On the ascension of George III. to the throne, a more determined agitation took place for septennial parliaments. In 1761 the heads of a bill for this purpose were sent over to England, but without success. The same was done in 1766, and again met with a refusal. The electors of Dublin called on their representatives to refuse their assent to every money bill till this boon was granted. The Irish house of commons sent an address to his majesty, earnestly praying him to grant this favour to the people of Ireland, but George again turned a deaf ear to their entreaty; however, in 1768, a bill, limiting parliaments in Ireland to eight years, passed, and, as the parliament in Ireland only met every other winter, this reduced the term of parliament to four sessions.

The outbreak of the American war proved a great advantage to Ireland. It taught the British government that there was danger in refusing too long the prayers of a people. The immediate cause of agitation in Ireland was an embargo laid on the export of Irish provisions to the French West India islands, France having stepped in to assist our colonists in throwing off their allegiance. The Irish, feeling this embargo a severe blow to their trade, grew extremely indignant, and the fiery eloquence of Grattan, who declared that he would never rest satisfied till the meanest cottager of Ireland was freed from the last link of British thraldom, raised there a universal demand for arms, on the plea of defending the country from French invasion. Sixty thousand volunteers enrolled themselves, and the feeble ministry of that day, which neither knew how to govern Ireland nor the colonies, dared not to refuse them these arms. Once in arms, they felt their freedom secure. The Irish house of commons, in 1780, passed a resolution that " the king's most excellent majesty, and the lords and commons of Ireland, are the only powers competent to make laws to bind Ireland." Ireland was free. True, the cabinet of lord North did not establish this by enactment, but in April, 1782, lord North gave way to the marquis of Rockingham, and a bill was immediately passed to repeal the obnoxious act of 6 Geo. I., which had declared Ireland incapable of making laws for herself; and this was followed by another act, in the next session, declaring the independent action of the Irish, both in their own parliament and in their courts of law.

This freedom of action in the Irish parliament, however, only tended to the extinction of the parliament altogether. The conflicting elements of the two legislations of England and Ireland produced such continual inconveniences, that it soon became a serious object with the British government to accomplish the union of the two countries. In fact, long before this period, there had been a general suspicion in Ireland that such a measure was intended. In 1759 all Dublin was thrown into a ferment by a rumour of the kind. The mob broke into the house of lords, for they imagined the peers favourable to such a project. They insulted the lords, seized and burnt all their journals that they could find, and seated an old woman on the throne; they compelled all the members of both houses, whom they could meet with, to take an oath never to vote for a union, the advantages of such union having been elaborately set forth by Malachi Postlethwayle, in a work called " Britain's Commercial Interest Explained and Improved." Such gentlemen as were believed favourable to a union were assaulted; they had their carriages cut or smashed, and their horses killed, and the riot was not put down till the soldiery had been called out, and the streets cleared by them.

In 1780 an act passed the British parliament enabling catholics to purchase land, and take it by descent, which added much to the power of the Irish. In 1793 some further disabilities were removed, and also at subsequent periods; but Ireland was not destined to witness catholic emancipation during the reign of George III. On the other hand, the dreaded union came in less than twenty years. The proposal for the union of the two kingdoms was made in the Irish parliament January 22, 1799. The debate was violent, but the motion was only lost by, a minority of one. Lord Castlereagh, the secretary of state for Ireland, had been empowered to buy up the members of parliament by offers of titles, or direct sums of money, for their votes, and when, in February, 1800, he again submitted the motion, it was carried by a majority of forty- four votes. The act passed the British parliament on the 2nd of July, 1800, and came into full operation on the 1st of January, 1801.

We have, in its proper place, given the particulars of the means by which the union was carried, and the specific sums and titles received by the members of the Irish parliament for their votes on the occasion; we have now only to state the conditions of the union. The kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland were, from the 1st of January, 1801, to become and remain for ever one kingdom, under the name of the United Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland. There was to be only one parliament for the two countries. To this parliament the lords spiritual, and twenty-eight lords temporal, of Ireland, elected for life by the peers of Ireland, were to be sent, and a hundred commoners to the united house of commons. An act passed in the reign of William IV. added five more to this number of the representatives of the Irish commoners. A peer of Ireland, not being one of the twenty-eight elected to sit in the house of lords, may be elected to the house of commons; but whilst so sitting he cannot be entitled to the privilege of peerage, or be elected one of the twenty-eight to sit in the house of lords, nor can he vote at such election. All the rest of the peers of Ireland, temporal as well as spiritual, except those elected to sit in the house of commons, to enjoy all the privileges of peers except that of sitting in the house of peers.

The churches of the two kingdoms were declared to be one church, under the title of The United Church of England and Ireland; the doctrine, worship, and discipline, to be one and the same. All the courts of law in each kingdom were to remain the same as already established, but liable to such alterations as should appear necessary, from time to time, to the united parliament; and all appeals from these courts were to be to the house of lords of the united kingdom. The subjects of both countries were to enjoy the same rights and privileges as it regarded trade and navigation, but the right of religious freedom, and of freedom from political disqualification, was passed over in silence. Ireland was to be charged with such a proportion of the common taxation as the united parliament should determine. All acts of parliament were thereafter to apply to Ireland the same as to the rest of the united kingdom, without any express mention, except where otherwise distinctly stated.

The early part of this reign received a most important advantage in the department of law, by the publication of " Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England," the first volume of which appeared in 1765. No work has ever given so clear an analysis of the general system of our constitution and laws. It is an admirable first-book for the legal student, and one which gives a general reader a lucid conception of those laws of which every Englishman should know something. The legal profession has endeavoured to represent the " Commentaries" as giving a superficial knowledge of the laws, but this all professions do with regard to works which popularise their department of life. Blackstone presents a strong and tangible anatomy of the body of English law, its bones, its muscles, and main arteries - a most advantageous platform for those who wish to fill up all with veins and flesh, and a great leading clue to the principles of jurisprudence to those who desire only to possess that. His faults are a too decided leaning to prerogative, and to the maintenance of things as they are. This was the spirit of the time in which he wrote; but numerous commentators have pointed out these and his other faults and deficiencies.

Various useful enactments were made in the early part of the reign affecting property, both personal and real. A Mr. Thelluson made a will, leaving a landed property to accumulate during three generations, for that time excluding his children and grand-children from all benefit in it. The income was about four thousand pounds per annum, and he calculated that by the term he had fixed the property would amount to nineteen million pounds. As might be supposed, this will led to immediate and incessant litigation by the excluded heirs, proved a mine of wealth only to the lawyers, and in our time has resulted in an utter delusion as to its results. But the direct consequence was to induce government to pass a bill, 39 and 40 Geo. III., rendering invalid all wills which provide wholly or partially for accumulations beyond the life of any such grantor, or beyond twenty-one years from the death of any such grantor, or during certain specified minorities of immediate claimants. This act affected trusts for such accumulations. Various acts were passed about this period of the reign for settling questions of money left for the purchase of estates to be entailed, of policies of insurance, of stamp duties, transference of bank stock, &c.

There were some mitigatory enactments on criminal law. The statute of 36 Geo. III. c. 48 commuted the burning of women for high or petit treason into simple hanging; others rendered the old laws more stringent. A new riot act was passed in 1796, explaining and enlarging the powers of the previous act. In 1817 an act was passed against oaths binding persons to conceal some unlawful conspiracy. There were numerous rigorous enactments against forgery. But the most important act of this period was one for establishing penitentiaries for convicts. Mr. Jeremy Bentham had proposed this plan to Pitt in 1792 - namely, that a piece of land should be purchased on Battersea-rise, in a fine, healthy situation, which, budding and altogether, would cost about twenty thousand pounds. The design was seized on by Pitt, and spoiled, as is too commonly the case by governments. Jobbers and interested persons, who are always hanging plentifully about them, induced the ministers, instead of Battersea-rise, to select a piece of land in a low, unhealthy situation at Milbank, and there build a penitentiary, not to accommodate one thousand prisoners, as Bentham's plan proposed, but only six hundred, at a really increased cost of site and maintenance.

Several constitutional enactments marked the early part of this reign. By a statute of Henry V. c. 1 it was made binding that all representatives in the commons house of parliament should be one of the body represented; that is, that he should be a constant resident in the place, and amongst the people represented. This law had long fallen into desuetude, and an act of parliament was passed in 1774 to render residence unnecessary. The case of Horne Tooke, in 1801, caused an act to be passed rendering men in what are called holy orders ineligible to sit in parliament. It had been long considered a settled question that clergymen could not sit in the commons, though they could sit in the lords under the name of spiritual peers. This anomaly, no doubt, arose from the feeling that a clergyman should devote himself solely to the spiritual care of his parish, though it might seem to ordinary minds that it was equally clear that bishops should confine themselves as exclusively to the spiritual concern of their dioceses. Yet a Mr. Rushworth, a clergyman, had, in 1784, been returned for Newport in the Isle of Wight, and had been allowed to retain his seat. This seemed to render the present observance of old enactments on the subject uncertain, and John Horne Tooke, the celebrated author of the " Diversions of Purley," and one of the most successful antagonists of Junius, was returned for the rotten borough of Old Sarum; in fact, he was a government nominee. Horne Tooke was undoubtedly in Orders. He had been ordained priest in 1760, and had officiated as such at New Brentford for thirteen years. He had, how- ever, resigned his living, and devoted himself to politics, and might probably have sate safely enough had he not offended Earl Temple by supporting a motion for military force in Ireland. Lord Temple, on the 10th of March, moved for calling witnesses to the bar of the house to prove the ordination of Tooke. There was a long debate, but Addington, the minister, moved the previous question, which was carried, and then Tooke was allowed to retain his seat. But two days afterwards Addington brought in a bill to prevent such accidents in future, and his bill, after much discussion, passed, not only excluding clergymen of the church of England, but those of the church of Scotland, and such continues to be the law on this subject. In 1809 an act was passed against bribery in elections for parliament, inflicting a penalty of five hundred pounds on any one giving or even promising a bribe, and on the person receiving it. A penalty of one thousand pounds was also attached to the person so offending if he held office under government. It is needless to say that neither these nor the many succeeding enactments on this subject have been yet able to crush the evil of bribery. Perhaps the reason is that parliament has not been efficiently honest in its endeavours, and disqualified every person giving or receiving a bribe in a parliamentary election from holding any office of any kind under government, or any corporation, or for being elected to parliament again for ever.

The chief enactments during the latter part of this reign, regarding property, were inclosure acts. The growth of population, and still more, the greatly increased value of agricultural produce, owing to the war, and afterwards to the corn-laws, rendered the landlords very eager for the inclosure of waste lands. A General Inclosure Act was therefore passed in 1801, which has formed the groundwork of numerous particular acts which have since been introduced, and under the operation of which an enormous extent of inclosure has taken place. In 1794 the amount of waste lands in England was calculated at fourteen million of acres. Of these, two million eight hundred and thirty- seven thousand four hundred and seventy-six acres had been inclosed before the passing of the General Inclosure Act in 1801, and there are probably not now three million of acres left uninclosed.

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