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The progress of the nation page 5


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Amongst the mitigations of the penal laws towards the end of this reign may be mentioned that regarding tne execution of persons for high treason, by which the disgusting practice of disembowelling such persons whilst still alive ceased; and the punishment was reduced to hanging, beheading, and quartering, with a power given to his majesty of further abating the punishment by remitting the hanging and the quartering. The number of cases for which a person should be set in the pillory was greatly reduced by an act of 1816. But the act which casts the greatest honour on this reign was that by which, in 1807, the slave trade was abolished. The efforts of Sir Samuel Romilly to reduce the extreme severity of the criminal laws constituted a new era in legislation. In 1808 Sir Samuel obtained an act by which stealing from the person was reduced from a capital offence to one incurring only imprisonment or transportation. In 1811 he procured a change of the law in regard to stealing from bleaching- grounds, which had previously been a capital offence; and, in 1812, the same as regarded soldiers or sailors wandering about the realm without a pass, which also till then had been a capital offence. But he failed in other humane attempts - amongst them, to repeal the laws which made stealing in a shop to the value of five shillings, and from a private dwelling-house, or from a vessel in a navigable river, to the amount of forty shillings, capital. Still, Sir Samuel introduced a new and more Christian principle into the spirit of penal laws, which has operated most extensively since his time. In fact, at present, our legislators have, in some respects, run into the opposite extreme of lenity, and let loose hardened convicts, by introducing amongst us the colonial system of tickets-of-leave, to the great encouragement of criminals, and injury to the public.

Amongst the most distinguished judges of this reign were lords Hardwicke, Camden, Mansfield, Eldon, Stowell, Ellenborough, and Sir William Grant. Most of these great lawyers, however, were of a most conservative character, and effectually resisted much reform in the political and (criminal laws of their time. Lord Camden was a noble exception. At the same period Jeremy Bentham was labouring to demonstrate the true principles of legislation, in works which have already effected great changes, and are destined to effect more. We do not further allude to the stringent political enactments towards the end of this reign, occasioned by the general distress after the French war, and the consequent riots and movements for reform, because they were merely temporary specifics. On the whole, the progress of both legal and constitutional reform during this reign was small; but the public mind had made a decided advance in knowledge, and was beginning to demand and to enforce great legal, political, and moral changes.

Still, vast reforms were demanded in every branch of our legal system. Since the end of this reign many and great changes have taken place; but we are yet far from the condition in which either our laws or our courts of law can afford substantial and impartial justice to the great body of the people. The court of chancery, in particular, still remains a fearful place of delay, expense, and therefore of injustice. But during this reign, and especially under lord Eldon, the number of cases which remained for long years undecided, and the ruin and misery into which thousands of families were thrown by it, present a state of things that it is difficult to conceive occurring in the most barbarous of countries, much less in one calling itself Christian. Lord Brougham has said, in his " Historical Sketches of Statesmen," that lord El don's fault was not slowness in coming to a conclusion on a subject, but in willingness to pronounce judgment upon it. On the contrary, Eldon himself tells us that he had been doubting on some subjects before him for twenty years. Wherever lies the truth, nothing is clearer than that lord Eldon had a mind perfectly callous to the sufferings of those whom his dilatory conduct doomed to constant suspense, anxiety, and poverty. His intellect was clear and keen, but his mind was narrow, despotic, and unfeeling. Perhaps no man, living in the ease and comfort which his post of lord chancellor gave him, inflicted such an amount of misery on his fellow-men with the same criminal apathy.

On the state of the court of chancery, as it yet remains, the following remarks have been made: - "Is it not a strange hardship, in a country called free and civilised, that a man entitled to five hundred pounds a year cannot obtain the interference of the court of chancery, which is requisite to enable him to get possession of his property, without paying half of it to the said court and its ministers for the use of its machinery? And is it not a strange hardship that the executors or administrators of a person deceased cannot pay five hundred pounds, being the residue oi such person's estate, over to his representatives without first passing through the court of chancery, in which process half of it will stick by the way, unless they choose to run the risk of having to pay it twice over, in case it should afterwards turn out that the deceased had left unsatisfied debts to that amount? The whole magic of the process of the court of chancery results in the master inserting an advertisement in the Gazette in his name to the creditors, if any, to come with their claims within a specified time. Could not the creditors be conjured up by an advertisement from the executors and administrators, which would cost a few shillings, as well as by one from a master in chancery, which may cost a few hundred pounds? Or, if a master's interference be deemed, on the whole, eligible, might it not be had for a reasonable consideration? "

Further on we find: " Such - notwithstanding some recent attempts at reform, and notwithstanding the high character of the English equity judges - is the cumbrous and inefficient nature of that machinery, that the working of it is attended with a degree of expense that renders it totally unavailable, unless the amount of property in question is very considerable, and with a degree of delay that, whatever be the amount of property, is unavoidably productive of the greatest inconvenience, vexation, and anxiety to the parties interested."

religion and the church.

The great struggles going on through the reign of George III. were not so much for the advancement of religion, a.- to obtain releasd from the impositions and restrictions on both liberty of conscience, and political liberty, by the Church of England, and its ally, the state. With the exception of the reign of queen Anne, no reign since the revolution has taken so high a tone of toryism as that of George III. We have hid to detail the evidences of that fact; and it is equally true that, with toryism in the state, toryism - or what is called high churchism - prevailed coincidently in the Establishment. True, the indemnity acts, the suppression of the convocation, the spread of dissent, and especially of methodism, had in some degree clipped the talons 'if the hierarchy, but these very things made it more tenacious of its still existing powers. At the very opening of the reign, the church was alarmed by a proposal by one of its own members to abolish subscriptions to the Thirty- Nine Articles. This question had been a matter of controversy from the time of bishop Burnet's " Exposition " of these articles; but in 1766 a very able work appeared, entitled a The Confessional; or, a Full and Free Inquiry into the Right, Utility, Edification, and Success of Establishing Systematic Confessions of Faith and Doctrine in Protestant Churches." This was traced to the hand of archdeacon Blackburne, of Richmond, in Yorkshire. This produced much excitement and discussion amongst the clergy of the Establishment, as well as amongst dissenters, who were entirely shut out of one of the national universities by these subscriptions, and their education at the other hampered and impeded. An association was formed amongst the established clergy, favourable to Blackburne's views, and in 1771, at its request, he drew up "Proposals for Application to Parliament, for Relief in the Matter of Subscription." The association, from its place of meeting called the " Feathers Tavern Association," determined to address parliament on the subject, and drew up a petition, which was presented to the house of commons, in February, 1772, by Sir William Meredith. It was signed by two hundred clergymen, and fifty other individuals, chiefly lawyers and physicians. A keen debate ensued, but the motion for taking the subject into consideration was negatived by two hundred and seventeen against seventy-one. The arguments of those opposed to the motion were very much of the same kind as those used by Dr. Johnson upon it: that it was nonsense objecting to subscriptions, on the ground that students at the universities did not understand what they were subscribing; that if the students were asked in what the English church differed from the presbyterian, the catholic, Greek, or any other church, they would not understand it. This wretched sophistry of the bigoted old doctor might be a very good exemplification of the excessive ignorance in which youths were sent up from Harrow, Eton, or Westminster, to the universities, but it was no reason why people should be compelled to sign propositions which were repugnant to their conscience or their common sense, or be excluded from all chance of becoming useful members of the church. Put, with such subscription, a political church could not exist; and people must soon content themselves simply with being Christians, and at liberty to believe what the Bible, and not a certain institution, teaches. The act was, that the church knew too well that it would soon ease to be the state church if freedom of opinion was admitted into it, and therefore its advocates threw out the question. Sir William Meredith, notwithstanding, again introduced the subject in February of the following year, only to be defeated by a majority of one hundred and fifty-nine against sixty-seven; and a third attempt, the year after, was met by such an overwhelming number of ayes that he declined to divide the house. In all these debates, Burke, who now was grown excessively conservative, supported subscription with all his power.

The discussion of the question, though it was so summarily dismissed as it regarded the church, did not prevent a certain number of the dissenters from coming forward to endeavour to relieve themselves of the yoke of these articles. In the Toleration Act, passed after the revolution, it had been stated that this toleration was conceded to those only who were willing to subscribe these articles, with the exception of the first clause of the 20th, which asserts that the church has power to decree rites and ceremonies, and to settle controversies of faith; the 34th, which relates to the traditions of the church; the 35th, relating to the homilies; and the 36th, relating to the consecration of bishops and ministers. With these exceptions, the articles had been little objected to by the dissenters till the presbyterians of England had, for the most part, embraced unitarianism. It was chiefly from this class that the movement against these articles now took its rise; but not altogether, for the subscription to the articles included in the Toleration Act, having for some time been little insisted on, some dissenters, who had not subscribed them, were menaced with trouble on that account by officious clergymen. Amongst these Dr. Doddridge was mentioned as one who had been so disturbed. It was now thought fit to press the question on parliament, and in April, 1772, Sir Henry Hoghton moved for leave to bring in a bill for that object, under the title of A Bill for the further Relief of Dissenters. Sir Roger Newdigate, destined for so many years to be the champion of church toryism, led the way in opposition, as one of the members of the University of Oxford; and he was supported by two or three men of the same stamp. In this case, however, Burke voted for the bill as only reasonable, and it passed by a majority of seventy against nine. But in the lords the bishops came forward in full strength against it, and Barrington, bishop of Llandaff, pointed it out as a Socinian movement, and quoted, with telling effect, some of the most objectionable passages from the writings of Dr. Priestley. There were cries of "Monstrous' horrible! shocking" and, amongst the utterers of these, the loudest was lord Chatham. The bishop of London said that, so far from the dissenters generally advocating this measure, he had been waited on by some of their ministers to inform him that they regarded it, not as a measure to relieve dissenters from the articles of the church, but certain persons from the obligations of Christianity. It was thrown out by a hundred and two against twenty-nine.

In the following session Sir Henry Hoghton brought it forward again, on the 17th of February. On this occasion a great many Methodist congregations petitioned against the bill; for the Methodists, though separating themselves from the church, yet have always insisted that they belong to it, and hold all its tenets, at least of that section of it which is Arminian. It again passed the commons, but was rejected by the lords. Finding the lords so determined against the measure, it was allowed to rest for six years, when circumstances appeared more favourable, and it was again brought forward, in 1779, by Sir Henry Hoghton, and carried through both houses, with the introduction of a clause to this effect, that all who desired to be relieved by the act should take the affirmation - " I, A. B., do solemnly declare that I am a Christian and a protestant dissenter, and that I take the Old and New Testament, as they are generally received in protestant countries, for the rule of my faith and practice."

In this same year, 1779, the protestant dissenters of Ireland were relieved by their parliament from the operation of the Test and Corporation Acts, and it was not, therefore, very likely that the dissenters of England would rest quietly under them much longer. These acts were passed in the 13th of Charles II., and the 25th of the same monarch, and required that no person should be elected to any civil or military office under the crown, including seats in parliament or corporation, unless they had taken the sacrament according to the rites of the church of England. On the 28th of March, 1787, Mr. Beaufoy, member for Yarmouth, moved that the house of commons should resolve itself into a committee to consider the Test and Corporation Acts. Mr. Beaufoy represented that these acts were a heavy grievance, not only to the dissenters and to the members of the established church of Scotland, but to many members of the English church itself, who regarded the prostitution of the most solemn ordinance of their faith to a civil test as little less than sacrilegious. In reply, it was contended that the Indemnity Acts had been passed to protect such as had omitted to take the sacrament within the time specified; but Mr. Beaufoy and his seconder, Sir Henry Hoghton, who had carried the bill relieving dissenters from subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles, showed that these acts were not always sufficient, and were but a clumsy substitution for the abolition of these obnoxious acts.

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