Saturday, 5 May 2012

5th May 1812: Government announces Special Commissions and new Bill against illegal oaths

On Tuesday 5th May 1812, the Government announced that it was bringing in new legislation to make the swearing of an illegal oath a capital offence and also a series of special trials ('Special Commissions') to try those arrested during the last few weeks. The Times of 6th May covered the debate in Parliament.


Mr. RYDER moved to leave to bring in a Bill to prevent the administering or taking illegal oaths. He observed, that the Bill already existing on this subject had not been sufficient to restraint the evil. As a proof of his assertion, he would adduce the oath which had been taken by the banditti who destroyed the manufactory of Mr. Burton, and had been found on the person of one of them. It purported, the person taking it “would never betray, or furnish the slightest means of betraying, a brother under the penalty of being blotted out of existence; and that he would punish any traitor with death, and rather than fail in his object, pursue him to the verge of nature.” It was remarkable, and to be lamented, that since the administering of these oaths, murders had been perpetrated in the northern district to an extent never known before. This object then was, that if any person administered an oath, in order to the commission of a felony, the administering and the taking of such an oath which should be felony without benefit of clergy— with this proviso— that if any persons before being charged should make confession of such conduct, they should be exempt from the penalties of the Act.

On the question being put,

Mr. WYNNE said, that the proposed bill would introduce a new principle of legislation. It had always been an established principle of law to distinguish the mere intention of crime from the actual commission, but this Bill at once went to destroy this salutary maxim. He was himself inclined to think that transportation was a sufficient punishment for this offence; and that the proposed penalty of death would tend to this dangerous inference, that since assassins [on] the completion of the object of the oath, would be visited by no severer punishment than the taking of the oath, it would be as well in all instances to go to the extent of murder. He objected also to the pardon granted to those who made confession.

Mr. HORNER objected to the proposed measure, as another instance of the Government legislating with sanguinary severity for particular emergencies. The extreme distresses of the country were the cause of the disgraceful disturbances which had happened. Many of these distresses, he firmly believed, arose from causes which no policy could prevent; but many also, he had no doubt, were referable to the bad policy of Ministers, in their commercial and domestic system. The cure for these miseries lay in Parliament: it was for Parliament to investigate the cause of the mischief, and, if possible, apply the proper remedy; but if the evil was without cure, yet the experience of past time had clearly proved that it was not by the enactment of new criminal laws,—not by the introduction of new capital felonies, that calumnies like the present could be removed. But the great objection to the Bill was, that which had been stated by his Hon. Friend,—it made no distinction between degrees of offence. The Government see an evil prevailing, and then it occurs to them as the most obvious and easy method of putting it down, to put at once the whole force of the Executive Government in array against it. Why did they not rather try the application of the last Act, the Act of 1797,—why did they not send down a Special Commission, which, from the promptitude and solemnity of its proceeding would be much more likely to produce a salutary effect than the addition of a new sanguinary law to our criminal code? (Hear, hear.)

Mr. PERCEVAL was happy to inform the Learned and Hon. Gentleman who had just sat down, that a Special Commission was, as soon as possible, to be sent to investigate the late atrocities: but he would ask, whether, in consideration of the delay which must necessarily take place, it was not the bounden duty of Government, to whom every post brought information of fresh enormities, to provide some other measures for the salvation of the lives and property of loyal subjects (hear, hear.); and whether Government would be justified in waiting to try the experiment how many more persons would be assassinated? (Loud cheering from the Ministerial Benches.) It had been objected that the present was only a conspiracy with the intention to take away life; but it was a conspiracy so formed as to resemble the most horrible crimes. The most dreadful menaces, the most brutal violence, had been used to force poor individuals to take these oaths of confederacy. An Hon. and Learned Gentleman had called the present measure an instance of the Government wishing to screen themselves, and elude difficulties, by proposing temporary plans. He would ask, was not the present opposition an instance of the determination of the other side of the House to oppose any scheme, however wise or salutary, if it happened to be proposed by Ministers? The Honourable and Learned Gentleman had stated and no doubt with a conscientious belief, that the distresses of the country were owing to Government. This he (Mr. P.) denied; and he must observe, that the ringleaders of the riotous mobs were not persons in any distress from want of work or occupation, but they were persons who had taken advantage of the distresses of poor deluded individuals, to induce them to deeds of atrocity. It had also been made a ground of objection, that the utmost penalty (death) is incurred in the first instance as much as if the crime was committed. But it should be recollected, that the enactment was not retrospective, and his Right Hon. Friend intended to propose a clause of indemnity for the past; thus giving an opportunity of retreat to those who have been compelled into these associations, or misled at the moment by their own criminal passions. To shew that severe measures of a temporary nature were efficacious, the Right Hon. Gentleman then alluded to the act concerning the seduction of soldiers, and said, that in consequence of the capital conviction of a soldier two days after the passing of the Act, though execution had not taken place, in consequence of the recency of the Statute, yet so good an effect had been produced, that instances of seduction had been very rare since that period.

Mr. BROUGHAM observed, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer had thought proper to introduce two topics not very relevant to the matter in debate. The one was an attempt to mix up the Opposition with the instigators of the riots; the other was, to make it believed, that the Opposition resisted every measure, however convinced of its excellence, and its necessity, not from any reasonable motive, but simply because it was proposed by Ministers. This last assertion had found a congenial echo in the bosoms of a Noble Lord, and an Honourable Gentleman who was placed by his side, and their loud cheering (he believed this was the strongest parliamentary word he could use) showed how perfectly they were convinced of its truth; for instance, they sincerely believed that any salutary measure, such as one to check assassination, would be opposed merely because it originated on the Ministerial side of the House. (Hear, hear, hear, from Mr. Stephen.) He observed the cheering of the Hon. and Learned Gentleman, and supposed that it arose from a jealousy at not being included in the number whom he had just described. Really it was too much that his Hon. Friend should not only be subject to the hearing of such loud shouts (no slight penalty by the way), but should be deemed incapable of a reasonable motive, because the unfortunate Gentleman happened to sit on the benches of Opposition. It is said that there is no time to lose—that offences have been already committed. Well, then, has the existing law been executed? Is there any thing so different in the present circumstances from those which occasioned the former law, as to call for a new enactment? That law, at the time, had been thought rather severe: it was passed at the time of mutinies and commotions as violent as those at present, and even Mr. Pitt had thought it sufficiently rigourous. As to the seduction of soldiers it was a different thing, it was an offence of the highest nature, and little short of high treason. He also insisted, that they had not sufficient grounds to proceed upon. The nature of the oath mentioned was unintelligible; all that was known was, that it was a frantic oath, found in somebody's pocket.

Mr. STEPHEN said, he could not help expressing his astonishment that such a Bill as this should, in this stage of it, meet with opposition. He thought that in so doing the House had not shewn its usual courtesy, as it was quite unprecedented to make this preliminary opposition to measure unless there were something highly injurious or absurd in its principle. With all his experience in Parliament, and all his knowledge of the spirit of party, he was much surprise that this conduct.

Mr. HORNER here asked the Speaker, if an accusation of the spirit of party was not out of order?

Mr. STEPHEN denied that he had any intention of imputing it to that Gentleman in particular. Mr. S. then observed, that he had more than once borne testimony to the high merit of Sir S. Romilly in his reform of the criminal code; but he thought that Sir S. Romilly would have no objection to the present measure. It had been asserted by will learned Jurists that there was a danger of passing obnoxious laws without discussion; there was no fear now of such danger, since that which he must again call party spirit would effectually prevent it. He concluded by observing, that if Ministers had omitted to take this measure, they would have deserved the indignation and destestation of their country.

Mr. WHITBREAD said, he thought the Hon. And Learned Gentleman (Mr. Stephen) had been improperly called to order for his allusion to party-spirit. It was the old trite allusion, ever ready to be suggested in lieu of better argument, and ever most in the mouths of those who were themselves the most active and zealous partizans (hear, hear). That Learned Gentleman had entered the House, pledged to a certain set of measures.

Mr. STEPHEN called to order.

The SPEAKER said, that the language was certainly not in order.

Mr. WHITBREAD was sorry to have offended the Hon. Gentleman, but he should not himself have given the first offence. He had recommended moderation and temper, but had not exemplified it in himself. It was, besides, unfair to accuse his Hon. and Learned Friend of exciting sympathy for the rioters, because he had simply said, that the measures of Government had accumulated the distresses of the country, and furnished an opportunity for sedition. As to what was said of inflammatory topics introduced to discussion, what did it mean? It went too far,—it went at once to the extinction of all discussion. As well might the doors of the House be shut, and not a word be suffered to escape to the public. He sincerely believed that on this as well as on another occasion the warmth and goodness of Mr. Stephen’s feelings misled him. Mr. W. then alluded to Mr. Stephen’s assertion in the case of Captain Lake, that he would have convicted him of murder, though it since appeared that the man supposed to be murdered were still alive. He then insisted that the same credit should be given to the motives of the Opposition which he was ready to give to the Ministers. They, no doubt, conscientiously believed that a new penalty of death on the Statute-book would remedy the evil: let it then be believed, that the Opposition conscientiously disagree with this principle. Mr. Whitbread concluded by alluding to the Act of 1796, when atrocities existed as great as any now practised; and observed, that Ministers in their zeal for punishment might be driven to the boiling measures of Henry VIII or the torture system practised and defended not long since in Ireland. He fully agreed with his Hon. Friend on the great point of objection, that no distinction was made between the administration of an oath, and the assassination of a man.

Mr. LOCKHART defended the measure.

Mr. ABERCROMBIE said, that the Secretary should be precise in his statements, that no false alarm might be created, and Parliament be induced act under a delusion.

Mr. BATHURST animadverted on what, he said, had fallen from Mr. Abercrombie, but no insurrection arose without a just and sufficient cause. He insisted that the outrage ought to be first put down, and then enquiry made into the cause of it, and observed, that is the oath found had only protected that basic of trespassers among whom it was discovered, it was a sufficient cause for the present measure.

Mr. ABERCROMBIE explained.—What he said was, that he believed there never was a general insurrection of any people without a just cause.

Mr. MARRYAT was decidedly in favour of the Bill.

Mr. HIBBERT wished that an experiment should be made of the efficacy of the laws already in existence, before any more hard ones should be adopted.

Mr. DAVIES GIDDY was convinced, that it must be emissaries from the enemy, or at least most evil disposed persons, who were at the bottom of the atrocities and murders which now disgraced the country. It would, in his opinion, be nothing less than madness, not have recourse to the most prompt measures for the putting down of these outrages; and the only thing indeed which he regretted, was the strong measures had not been tried sooner. He knew not what possible violence could be meditated more against social order and the peace of the empire, than the present atrocities, with the exception, perhaps, of burning the crops.

The question was then put, and leave was given to bring in the Bill.

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