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In the course of the debate that arose on the order of the day being read, for the second reading of this bill, Mr. Plunkett, in a speech of transcendent ability, supported the bill. It was also supported by Mr. Wilberforce and Sir James Mackintosh, and opposed by Mr. Peel, Sir W. Scott, and Mr. Bathurst, who moved, as an Amendment, “ That the bill be read a second time this day six months.”
MR. CANNING* said, that often as it had fallen to him during the time that he had been a member of that House, to take part in the discussion of that most important matter which was this night the subject of their deliberation, he had never risen to discharge his duty under greater anxiety than he felt on the present occasion. That anxiety arose, in part, from the intense conviction which he felt of the great and growing expediency of the measure then proposed to the House. It arose in part also from the peculiar circumstances under which the determination of the House was then to be taken. Those circumstances did not consist in an augmentation of the difficulties by which the question had been surrounded for difficulties had been, in some degree, removed ; nor did they arise from an exaggeration of the objections which were opposed to the measure—for objections heretofore insisted upon, appeared to have been in some measure abated; neither did they consist in any
irritation of the public mind—for never, on any former occasion, had the public mind been in such a state—he would not say, with his right honourable friend (Mr. Peel-of apathy, but of complete resignation to the wisdom of Parliament. They did not consist in any acerbity of temper with which the discussion had been carried on within the walls of that House; for eminently on that night, and also, as he had been informed, in the former stage of this discussion, had it been carried on with a candour, a temper, and a propriety, that did high honour to the right honourable and learned gentleman who had brought in the present measure, and to his right honourable friend, the member for Oxford, who had opposed it.
Having as warm a feeling of esteem for his right honourable friend as it was possible for one man to entertain for another--concurring with him upon most subjects of public policy as much as it was possible for one public man to concur with another-yet, differing with him as he did conscientiously upon the present question, of his right honourable friend he must say, that he had discharged a painful duty upon the present occasion, in a manner which reflected the highest credit on his public character and conduct, and which must afford him satisfaction in the retrospect, to the latest hour of his life.
In return, he (Mr. C.) hoped he might be allowed in the outset, to assure his right honourable friend and the House, that he came to this debate in the same temper of mind as his right honourable friend; and to say, that if, in the warmth of argument, he should fall into any expression which might be supposed to convey disrespect to those from whose opinions he differed, he trusted he should be acquitted of any intention to give pain, and that for any such accidental intemperance, the interesting nature of the cause would plead his apology. It was from the very improvements in the position of the great question about to be decided; it was from the diminution of the difficulties with which it had been hitherto surrounded; from the abated tone of the objections with which it had been heretofore assailed; from the acquiescence without doors, and the calmness within ; that, deriving unusual hope, he also derived a more than common share of anxiety. In proportion as those external causes which, on former occasions, had contributed to the ill reception and defeat of this question, were removed ; in proportion as it was left more freely to the operation of its own intrinsic merits, the responsibility for a favourable result appeared to weigh more heavily upon its advocates. And when, in addition to the facilities which he had already enumerated, he considered the advantage of an unpledged Parliament, and the auspiciousness of a new reign, he could not help avowing, that if in a state of things so highly encouraging, the issue of this night's discussion should prove-as he trusted it would not prove-unfavourable, he should almost be led to despair of final success.
Under these circumstances, it was rather the magnitude of the issue than the difficulty of the argument which filled him with apprehension, and occasioned him to approach the question that night with a trepidation such as he had never before experienced.
What, then, was the question which they were called upon to decide? It was whether they should allow the
laws that affected the Roman Catholics to remain in their present state ; or should reform them by further mitigations; or should restore them to that standard from which, during the whole of the late reign, Parliament had been employed in gradually bringing them down ? It was idle to say that this division of the subject was invidious. It was impossible to look to the laws as they at present stood, without adverting to the origin of those laws, and to the state in which they had stood when in their mature and undiminished vigour, in order to obtain a complete view of their moral operation and effect. It was most true, as had been stated by his honourable friend the men,ber for Bramber (Mr. Wilberforce), in his delightful speech a few hours ago, that it was not merely the existing state of those laws, nor the temper in which they were now administered, that was to be considered, when you were about to determine upon their continuance or repeal—the ''temper in which they were originally enacted--the accusations of which they were' now the memorial--the imputations which, if true, warranted, more than any other, the efficacy with which they were formerly administered-must all form part of the consideration.
These laws, be it remembered, had never been stationary; for two centuries had they been growing; for half a century had they been in their decline. At the summit of the hill there was a plain of only twenty years ; on one side was an ascent of two hundred years, and, on the other, a descent of about sixty. Was it possible to contemplate singly the point to which sixty years of gradual declension had brought them, without taking into view the point of cruel perfection from which they began to decline, and the degrees by which they had previously been raised to it?
Was it possible to consider the propriety and policy of what remains of the code, without reference to the cause in
which it had originated ;—to the reasons or the pretexts by which it had been justified ;-to the effect, good or evil, to which it had operated while in force ;—to the recollections with which it was associated ;-to the severities which it had inflicted ;-to the resentments which it had engendered ;to the character of the times in which it had grown and flourished ;-and to that of those in which it was now proposed to abrogate it altogether?
And, first, as to its origin and causes :-At what period in the history of this empire were the laws against the Roman Catholics justified, otherwise than by the supposed political as well as spiritual connection of the Roman Catholic with a foreign power ?
The argument was now taken as if that connection had been nothing else but spiritual ; but that was not so-it had always been made ground of charge against the Roman Catholic, that he had also entertained a political predilection, or acknowledged the obligation of political obedience towards a foreign power. That foreign power, in the earliest times of the reformation, was the Pope, then formidable in temporal as well as in spiritual preponderance; and arrogating a supremacy over the temporal concerns of princes, which those who admitted, could be but imperfect in their allegiance to their lawful sovereigns. In later times, an exiled family–exiled on account of political as well as religious bigotry—became the rival of the reigning dynasty of England, and divided, or assumed to divide with it, the allegiance of British subjects. Concurring in the religion of the exiled family, the Roman Catholic subjects of the British Crown were held also to be devoted to their political claims. The Roman Catholic was presumed to be essentially a traitor ; but as treason was naturally concealed as much as possible, while religion was more readily avowed or ascertained, the test of the sus