Chapter XV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7
The Opening of the Session of 1829 - Peel rejected by the Oxford University - Bill for the Suppression of the Catholic Association - The Emancipation Bill - Public Excitement - Debates in the Commons - The Bill passed by triumphant Majorities - Debates in the Lords - The Duke of Wellington's Speech - Opposition of the Bishops - The Bill carried by sweeping Majorities - Lord Eldon - The King's Distress- He wishes to withdraw his Assent - Endeavours to form another Administration, and failing, yields to the Duke's Demands - His bitter Complaints to Lord Eldon - Roman Catholic Statistics - Attacks on the Duke of Wellington - Duel with Lord Winchelsea - Abolition of the Irish Forty Shilling Freeholders - Testimonial 'to O'Connell - His Exclusion as MP. for Clare - Appears at the Bar of the House, and refuses to take the Protestant Oaths - He is heard at the Bar - His Claim rejected - The Second Clare Election - Mr. Smith O'Brien and Mr. Steele - O'Connell returned without Opposition - O'Connell and the Beresfords - Proposed Testimonial to the Duke of Wellington - O’Connell for Repeal - The Roman Catholic Prelates - Dr. Doyle - " J. K. L."Pages: <1> 2 3 4
Parliament was opened by commission on the 5th of February, 1829. The state of Ireland was the chief topic of the royal speech. The existence of the Catholic Association was referred to as inimical to the public peace; and its suppression was recommended, as a necessary preliminary to the consideration of the disabilities affecting the Roman catholics. This part of the speech excited much interest, as preluding the great contest of the session. On the 4th, Mr. Peel had written to the vice-chancellor of Oxford, resigning his seat for the university, which he had won from Canning on the strength of his anti-catholic principles. He need not have resigned, but he acted the more honourable part. Having offered himself for re-election, he was opposed by Sir Robert Inglis, who, after a contest which lasted three days, during which 1,364 votes were polled, was elected by a majority of 146. As one of the most numerous convocations ever held in Oxford had, in the previous year, by a majority of three to one, voted against concession to the Roman catholics, it was a matter of surprise that the home secretary was not defeated by a larger majority. On the 10th, Mr. Peel introduced the first of the three measures intended for the pacification of Ireland - a bill for the suppression of the Catholic Association. As it was known to be an essential condition of granting emancipation, there was little opposition to it either in parliament or in Ireland. By it the lord-lieutenant was empowered to disperse the meetings of any association he thought dangerous to the public peace. The bill quickly passed both houses, and in a few days received the royal assent. Anticipating the action of the executive, the association, on the 12th of February, dissolved itself, with the unanimous concurrence of the bishops, Mr. Sheil stating at the meeting that he was authorised to throw twenty-two mitres into the scale.
In the royal speech his majesty recommended that, when this special object was accomplished, parliament should take into their deliberate consideration the whole condition of Ireland, and that they should review the laws which imposed disabilities upon Roman catholics, to see whether their removal could be effected "consistently with the full and permanent security of our establishments in church and state, with the maintenance of the reformed religion established by law, and of the rights and privileges of the bishops and of the clergy of this realm, and of the churches committed to their charge."
Great was the excitement when, in pursuance of this recommendation, Mr. Peel introduced the Emancipation Bill on the 5th of March. Everywhere the protestant press teemed [and the protestant pulpit rang with denunciations of Wellington and Peel as arch-traitors. From the highest pinnacle of popularity, the duke fell to the lowest depth of infamy; the laurels won in so many glorious fields were withered by the furious breath of popular execration. Petitions were poured into the house of commons from all parts of the United Kingdom, and " the pressure from without " was brought to bear against the two ministers, who were considered the chief delinquents, with a force and vehemence that would have deterred a man of weaker nerves than the duke of Wellington; but he felt that he had a duty to discharge, and he did not shrink from the consequences. Nor did Mr. Peel. His speech, in introducing the measure, went over the ground he had often traversed in privately debating the question with his friends. Matters could not go on as they were. There must be a united cabinet to carry on the king's government effectually. It must be united either on the principle of catholic emancipation or catholic exclusion. It must either concede the catholic claims, or recall existing rights and privileges. This was impossible - no government could stand that attempted it; and if it were done, civil war would be inevitable. The house of commons, trembling in the nice balance of opinion, had at length inclined to concession. Ireland had been governed, since the union, almost invariably by coercive acts. There was always some political organisation- antagonistic to the British government. The Catholic Association had just been suppressed; but another would soon spring out of its ashes, if the catholic question were not settled. Mr. O'Connell had boasted that he could drive a coach-and-six through the former act for its suppression; and lord Eldon had engaged to drive "the meanest conveyance, even a donkey cart, through the act of 1829." The new member for Oxford (Sir Robert Inglis) also stated that twenty-three counties in Ireland were prepared to follow the example of Clare. " What will you do," asked Mr. Peel, "with that power, that tremendous power, which the elective franchise, exercised under the control of religion, at this moment confers upon the Roman catholics? What will you do with the thirty or forty seats that will be claimed in Ireland by the persevering efforts of the agitators, directed by the Catholic Association, and carried out by the agency of every priest and bishop in Ireland? " Parliament began to recede; there could be no limit to the retrogression. Such a course would produce a reaction, violent in proportion to the hopes that had been excited. Fresh rigours would become necessary; the re-enactment of the penal code would not be sufficient. They must abolish trial by jury, or, at least, incapacitate catholics from sitting on juries. Two millions of protestants must have a complete monopoly of power and privilege in a country which contained five millions of catholics, who were in most of the country four to one - in some districts twenty to one - of the protestants. True, there were difficulties in the way of a settlement. "But," asked Mr. Peel, " what great measure which has stamped its name upon the era of its adoption has ever been carried through without objections insuperable, if they had been abstractedly considered? Our difficulties may be great, but they are as nothing compared with those which obstructed the great measure which united in one whole the two separate and hostile kingdoms into which this island was divided. We must contemplate the measure now proposed in the same spirit in which our ancestors acted under similar circumstances; we must look to the end to be achieved, and the danger to be avoided. We must be content to make mutual sacrifices, if they are essential to the attainment of a paramount object, and withdraw objections to separate parts of a comprehensive scheme, if, by insisting on these objections, we shall endanger its final accomplishment."
The chief speakers on the other side were Sir Robert Inglis, Mr. Bankes, and Mr. Sadler. They contended that the evils on which the home secretary had dwelt - the disturbed state of Ireland, the difficulty of governing the empire with a divided cabinet, the impossibility of getting on with a house of commons which left the administration in a minority - would not be removed or prevented by emancipation. Ever since the first relaxation of the penal code, concession but added fuel to the fire of agitation. What, then, was to be expected from throwing open the portals of the legislature to the catholic body? What but this - that the advanced work thus gained, would become the salient angle from which the fire would be directed on the body of the fortress; and the work of agitation, having its leaders in both houses of parliament, would be carried on with increased vigour, for the purpose of overthrowing the protestant establishment, for the severance of the union, and the dismemberment of the empire? The manner of the concession would encourage the policy of aggression. It was not, they asserted, produced by the gradual and quiet growth of public opinion. "It was the victory of force, driving former enemies into desertion by intimidation. It openly told the catholic agitators that they were too strong for the government of Great Britain; that whatever they asked would be conceded, even to the giving up of the constitution, provided only it was asked with sufficient clamour and violence. The solid ground of right had been abandoned for the selfish and tortuous path of expediency - expediency, the pretext for so many crimes. In France expediency destroyed the church - expediency murdered the king."
Leave was given to bring in the bill by a majority of 188; the numbers being 348 for the motion, and 160 against it. This astounding result was the signal for pouring into the house a flood of protestant petitions, which, in the interval between the first and second reading, amounted to nearly 1,000; but an organisation like the Brunswick Clubs could easily get up any number of petitions. Considering the number of parishes in England, it is surprising, not that the number was so great, but that it was not greater. On the 18th, the second reading was carried by a majority of 353 to 180; and on the 30th, the third reading by a majority of 320 to 142, giving a majority of 178.
The same day it was carried by the home secretary to the house of lords, accompanied by an unusual number of members. In introducing the measure in the upper house, the duke of Wellington spoke with great force, and with all the directness and simplicity for which he was remarkable. One memorable passage deserves to be recorded in this history: - "It has been my fortune," said the duke, " to have seen much of war - more than most men. I have been constantly engaged in the active duties of the military profession from boyhood until I have grown grey. My life has been passed in familiarity with scenes of death and human suffering. Circumstances have placed me in countries where the war was internal - between, opposite parties in the same nation; and rather than a country I loved should be visited with the calamities which I have seen - with the unutterable horrors of civil war - I would run any risk, I would make any sacrifice, I would freely lay down my life. There is nothing which destroys property and prosperity as civil war does. By it the hand of man is raised against his neighbour, against his brother, and against his father! The servant betrays his master; and the master ruins his servant. Yet this is the resource to which we must have looked - these are the means which we must have applied - in order to have put an end to this state of things, if we had not embraced the option of bringing forward the measure, for which I hold myself responsible."
The archbishop of Canterbury moved the rejection of the bill; and was supported by the archbishops of York and Armagh, the bishops of London, Durham, and Salisbury fiords Winchelsea, Berkley, Tenterden, and Eldon. The chief defenders of the measure were lords Grey, Lansdowne, Plunkett, Goderich, and Lyndhurst. On a division, the second reading was carried by 217 against 212. On the 10th of April, the bill was read a third time, by a majority of 104; the numbers being 213 for it, and 109 against it. The sweeping majorities in the lords were still more astounding than those in the commons; and they spread the utmost consternation through the ranks of the conservatives, who felt as if the very foundations of society were giving way, and the pillars of the constitution were falling. The lords had hitherto thrown out the Emancipation Bills as fast as they came to them, by majorities varying from forty to fifty. Lord Eldon was their prophet, and the old conservative peers had followed his guidance implicitly for a quarter of a century; but during that time a generation of hereditary legislators had grown up, who had as thorough a contempt for the ex-chancellor's antiquated prejudices as he had for their youth and inexperience. Lord Eldon had, however, some compensation for being thus deserted in the house of peers by many of his followers, and having his authority as a statesman disregarded, as well as for the marked neglect of him by the ministry, in the sympathy and confidence of the distressed king, who was shocked beyond measure at the conduct of the house of lords. When a reluctant consent was wrung from his majesty to have the measure brought forward by the cabinet, he felt, after all, that he was doing nothing very rash; he had the strongest assurance that the bill would never pass the lords. He told lord Eldon that, after the ministers had fatigued him by many hours' conversation on the painful subject, he simply said, " Go on." But he also produced copies of letters which he had written, in which he assented to their proceeding with the bill, adding, certainly, very strong expressions of the pain and misery the consent cost him. In his perplexity, he evidently wished to avail himself of Eldon's casuistry to get out of the difficulty by retracting; but the latter was constrained to tell him "it was impossible to maintain that his assent had not been expressed, or to cure the evils which were consequential."
The large majorities in the house of lords were to be ascribed chiefly to the unparalleled influence of the duke of Wellington. But the public at the time were little aware of the difficulties that great man had to deal with in overcoming the opposition of the king. When the storm of conservative violence reached its height, after the rejection of Peel in Oxford, and his return, not without a struggle, for Westbury; and when, on the 3rd of March, he gave notice that he would draw the attention of the house to the clause of the royal speech referring to Ireland, the king, greatly excited and alarmed, sent the same evening to desire that the prime minister, the home secretary, and the chancellor should wait upon him next day. The king received his three ministers, when they presented themselves at the palace, kindly but gravely; he looked anxious and embarrassed while he requested them to make him acquainted with the details of their bill. It was explained to him that it would relieve Roman catholics from the necessity of making a declaration against the doctrine of transubstantiation; whilst it so far modified in their case the oath of supremacy, as to omit all notice of the king's authority in things spiritual. "What!" he exclaimed, "do you mean to alter the ancient law of supremacy?" It was to no purpose he was shown that the alteration applied only to Roman catholics, who would be dispensed from swearing what they could not believe; but he appealed to his own coronation oath, in reference to which he could not recognise the dispensing power of his ministers. "The king was condescending in the extreme. He seemed deeply grieved at the dilemma to which they had been brought. He acknowledged that possibly he had gone too far on former occasions, though he had acted entirely through misapprehension. But now he trusted that they would see, with him, that it had become a point of conscience, and that there was no alternative left him except to withdraw his assent. In the most respectful manner they acquiesced in his majesty's determination, allowing, without a murmur, that he had a perfect right to act as he proposed. But when he went on further to ask what they intended to do, the duke's answer was explicit: they must retire from his majesty's service, and explain to parliament that unexpected obstacles had arisen to the accomplishment of the policy which they were engaged to pursue. To this Mr. Peel added, that as the bill for the suppression of the Catholic Association had been carried on the understanding that other and more comprehensive measures would follow, it would be necessary to make parliament generally aware of the causes which operated to prevent the bringing forward of those measures. The king heard all this to an end, without attempting to interrupt or argue with his ministers. He admitted, on the contrary, that it was impossible for them to take any other course, and then bade them farewell, kissing each of them on both cheeks. They set off from Windsor immediately, and arrived at lord Bathurst's, where their colleagues were waiting dinner for them. They made a full report of all that had occurred, and announced that the government was at au end. The party broke up, believing themselves to be out of office; but early next morning, before any decisive steps had been taken, a special messenger arrived at Apsley House with a letter from the king. It was guardedly expressed, for it went no further than to state that his majesty had found greater difficulties than he expected in forming a new cabinet, and was therefore desirous that the present ministry should go on. The moment was critical, and the position of the government delicate, and, in some sense, insecure. No doubt, his majesty's letter might be read as implying an abandonment of the objections which he had taken to the policy of his ministers over-night, but it was certainly capable of a different interpretation. It appeared, therefore, to the duke, that before proceeding further, it would be necessary to come to a clear understanding with the king as to his majesty's real intentions, and Mr. Peel concurring in this opinion, the duke was requested to write to the king on the subject. He did so, with all the candour and loyalty which were natural to him; and the result was an unequivocal declaration from the sovereign that he would accept the measures of his ministers as his own."
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