« PreviousContinue »
Mr. W. SMITH could not see the pertinency of the Honourable Member's question. The petition was, however, signed, he could assure him, by persons whose religious opinions were as perfectly opposed to each other as possible.
The petition was ordered to be printed. Mr. HUME then rose for the purpose of making the motion of which he had given notice. His object was to obtain the admission of that principle which he had always thought to be part of the law of this country-namely, that every individual was entitled to freedom of discussion on all subjects, whether controversial or religious. At Edinburgh, where he was brought up, it was held that any man might entertain and express his opinions, unless they became a nuisance to society, when, perhaps, they might be brought under the operation of the common law. Since the year 1817 a disposition had been manifested to prosecute persons for the publication of old as well as new works, the object of which was to impugn the authenticity of the Christian faith. He was aware that since the period to which he had referred, the number of such publications had increased; but he thought, also, that the progress which had been made in knowledge, and the extent of education to all classes of persons, had brought with it a remedy for this evil. Looking at the advantages which resulted from the freedom of discussion, and the part which able men were always ready to take in behalf of true religion, he thought it would be doing equal injustice to that religion and to the community to adopt any other means of arriving at the truth than by fair discussion. He had always been led to believe that the greatest blessing which Englishmen enjoyed was the complete freedom with which they were permitted to express their religious opinions, and to follow whatever sect or persuasion their own opinions coincided with. Recollecting, too, that we enjoyed the blessiugs of a religion which had been established by means of discussion, and by differing from those which had preceded it, he thought the House would act unjustly, and with bad policy, if it should now turn round upon those who differed from us, as we differed from those who had preceded us, and exercise a rigour which in our own case we had been the first to deprecate. Such a course he was convinced was more likely to generate doubts and ignorance than to give any stability to the religion. It was quite evident that persons who wished to inves tigate religious subjects must meet with a great variety of opinions; some of these might confirm their belief, while others might give rise to doubts. Now, he
wished to ask, whether it was not pro-
pear sufficiently clear and satisfactory to
now be carried into effect, even if it were
one of his publications until he had presented his petition, and he had then pe rused a few numbers of the Republican, in order to judge. He there found some calm argumentative writing; and some articles so exceedingly offensive, that if Carlile had the smallest idea of the feelings of mankind, he would not have pub lished any thing so revolting. He had, however, been most severely dealt with, and the consequence was, that the stream of feeling had been changed; resentment had been kindled against the prosecutor, and compassion had been excited in favour of the prisoner; but for those prosecutions few people would have known the thousandth part of his writings. The Attorney and Solicitor General saw the thing in its proper colours. They had not proceeded against Carlile, because they felt that such a course would be to spread abroad the very poison which they wished to eradicate. But the Society for the suppression of Vice and the Bridge Street Association took the matter up, and became parties to the charge of disseminating those publications. They brought forward prosecution after prosecution, until the individuals who were the objects of punishment left the court of justice, after being sentenced to fine and imprisonment, with the characters of martyrs to the cause which they had espoused. So much was this the fact, that if fifty persons more were in dungeons on account of these opinions, twice that number would be ready to come forward for the same purpose. Carlile, with all his efforts, never could have sold Paine's works to the extent he had been enabled to do in consequence of these prosecutions. When Hone was prosecuted for his Parodies, 20,000 copies were sold, which never would have been the case if they had not been brought into notoriety by legal proceedings. In the same way the poem of "Wat Tyler," which was written by Mr. Southey, the Poet Laureat, in early life, and which he (Mr. Southey) wishing to suppress, had applied for an injunction to restrain its publication, became, in consequence of that step, most widely disseminated, no less than 30,000 copies of it having been sold immediately after the application. The Honourable Gentleman then pro ceeded to quote Bishop Watson, who held that the freedom of inquiry, which had subsisted in this country during the present century, had been of great benefit to the cause of Christianity; and he also referred to Dr. Campbell, who held"that that man could not be a friend to Christianity who would punish another for expressing his doubts. Every man who doubts should be invited to discussion, that the objections might be an
they in England, because a few persons differed from the general feeling and opinion, withhold from those individuals the benefit of that principle which was so liberally adopted elsewhere? He thought that Christianity had stood too long and too scrupulous an inquiry to be shaken in the present day. When men of the very first abilities had attempted to impugn it and had failed, he entertained no apprehension of the attacks of men who possessed neither talent nor education. Christianity had marched on with rapid strides, notwithstanding the efforts of men of powerful minds. When this was so, why should they dread the assaults of a few ignorant persons, who, of late years, had excited public attention? It was impossible that they could state any arguments, or adduce any facts, which could endanger the tenets of the Christian religion, when assailants infinitely more powerful had formerly attempted the same thing without effect. The end of discussion was the attainment of truth; and he agreed with those who believed that the more the Christian religion was examined, the more firmly it would be fixed, and the more seriously it would be followed. Those who prosecuted persons for promulgating opinions hostile to that religion, did not check, but aggravated the evil. He would quote the opinions of some of the most learned and pious men that this country ever produced, in support of freedom of discussion. Tillotson, Taylor, Louth, Warburton, Lardner, Campbell, Chillingworth, and many others, had placed their opinions on record with respect to the propriety of allowing the freest investigation of the Christian religion. Tillotson said-" that the Christian religion did not decline trial or examination. If a church opposed itself to investigation, that circumstance would be no light ground of suspicion, since it would seem like a distrust of the truth." The Honourable Gentleman then went on to quote the opinions of the several divines whom he had mentioned in support of the principle, that the utmost latitude should be given to discussion. He alluded more particularly to the writings of Dr. Lardner, who, in speaking of the work of Mr. Woolston, said, that the proper punishment for a low, mean and scurrilous way of writing, was neglect, scorn and detestation. That learned divine added, that the stream of resentment would always turn against the prosecutor, where opinions were made the subject of complaint, especially if the punishment happened to be severe. In this way, continued Mr. Hume, the writings of Carlile ought to have been treated. He believed that they were scurrilous in a very high degree. He had never read
munity, and it is unjust and inexpedient to expose any person to legal penalties on account of the expression of opinions on matters of religion."
On the question being put,
swered: so far from objecting to discus-
Mr. WILBERFORCE addressed the House; but in so low a tone, that very little of what he said could be distinctly heard in the gallery. We understood the Honourable Member to observe, that it was the duty of individuals to prosecute publications of the nature of those alluded to, as they were evidently, contra The Honourable Mover bonos mores. had observed that he believed there was no such a thing as Atheism; but in one of those very publications there was a passage, in which it was stated that Atheism was the only ground on which a man could find a sound and secure footing. It was exceedingly unpleasant to quote from any of those works; but in another number it was declared that Christianity could be proved to demoustration to be a gross imposture, and as it was supported for the purpose of upholding a bad system of government, the author wondered why it had not long since been removed; and he went on to ask whether the inquiring mind of man could find any sound footing except in Atheism. (Hear.) The Honourable Member (Mr. Hume) had quoted from Bishop Warburton, the Bishop of London, and several other eminent divines, with whose sentiments he (Mr. Wilberforce) entirely concurred: for no man held more strongly the opinion that it was proper to investigate the established religion of the country fairly. But none of those pious and learned men had argued that gross and vulgar abuse of the religion of the state ought to be tolerated. (Hear.) Dr. Paley's opinion was clear and decisive on this point. He said "that persecution could produce no sincere conviction; and under the head of religious toleration, he included toleration of all serious argument, but he did not think it would be right to suffer ridicule, invective, and mockery to be resorted to with impunity. They applied solely to the passions, weakened the understanding, and misled the judgment. They did not assist the search for truth, and instead of supporting any particular religion, destroyed the induence of all." (Hear, hear.) With respect to Carlile, he had not been harshly treated. No prosecution was instituted against him until he had placed over his door "The Temple of Reason;" and the dissemination of irreligious works became too notorious to be overlooked. He thought the country owed very great thanks to private individuals (seconded by the state) who had endeavoured to 3 R
introduced the motion-namely, that no man had a right to dictate his own opinions upon abstract opinions to another, upon peril of punishment for a refusal to adopt them (hear, from Mr. Wilberforce); and his honourable friend had further admitted, that so long as the controversy upon such topics were conducted with decency, it ought not to be prevented by force of law. Now, he lamented that when his honourable friend had thought proper to quote the sentiments of Dr. Paley, he had not given them more at length, for he would, in the writings of that eminent individual, find a more large and liberal spirit of toleration, than he was disposed to admit practically in other parts of his speech.
Mr. WILBERFORCE.-" Dr. Paley distinctly excepts to the treatment of such subjects with levity and ribaldry."
disseminate such works and to support such a moral education as would enable the people to combat those principles. He entirely denied the truth of the argument which the Honourable Member had drawn from the employment of missionaries abroad. Those individuals never proceeded to insult the prejudices of the natives of other countries by any gross and indecent reflections. They adduced nothing but fair and sober argument to effect their purpose. The Honourable Member said that there was no drawing precise line in arguments on this subject. His answer was, that it was not intended to draw a precise line. Let truth go to its fullest and fairest extent, but let ribaldry and indecency be avoided. Did Christianity ever insult the country where it was attempted to be planted? No it was distinguished by decorum, respect, and obedience to the powers that be. Even the government of the Emperor Nero, one of the most cruel tyrants that ever lived, was not abused by the Christians. With respect to those who had voluntarily taken upon them to prosecute publications of this nature, he must observe that there were many wrongs by which society in general suffered, but which were likewise so offensive to individuals, that they hesitated not to visit them with the penalties of the law. There were also, it should be observed, certain other crimes, more injurious to society than even robbery or murder, but which, as they did not affect the particular interests of private individuals, they did not stand forward to punish. Therefore the formation of societies for the purpose of visiting such crimes with severity, was a praiseworthy act. It had been stated over and over again by the judges, that persons who associated together to carry the law into execution, where offences of this kind, which were mischievous to society, were perpetrated, were acting in a perfectly legal manner. The introduction of obscene pictures and improper books into schools had been effectually checked by that means. When individuals combined together for this purpose, and were only actuated by public principles, and where the over-zealous disposition of some was tempered by the moderation and pru dence of others, it could not be doubted that great good was likely to be the result.
Mr. RICARDO resumed-that, certainly, was Dr. Paley's only exception; and he, as well as the other chief ornaments of the church, for instance, Dr. Tillotson and Dr. Porteus, had asserted in the largest sense, the right of unfettered opinion. If the validity of such opinions were admitted, who could advocate the operation of the law of this country in such matters? Who could sustain those impolitic and unjust prosecutions? What was the prosecution of Carlile for republishing the Age of Reason? That was not a work written in a style of levity and ribaldry, but a serious argument upon the truths of the Christian religion. Look again at the impending prosecution for eighteen weeks of the same man for Mr. Hone's Parodies, which was not abandoned until Hone had himself secured an acquittal on the charge. But, said his honourable friend (Mr. Wilberforce), in justification of these public prosecutions, there were some offences which did not directly affect private interest although they injured the community, and which might go unpunished, were it not for general associations which took cognizance of such matters; and he talked of obscene writings in illustration of his opinion. Was there really any comparison between such writings and those upon speculative points of religion, which were the only topics to which this motion applied? (Hear, hear.) They were all agreed that obscene writings ought to be punished; and why?-because they were obviously pernicious to the moral interests of society, and constituted a general and disgusting species of offence. (Hear, hear.) But not so abstract religious subjects, upon which it was quite impossible to obtain universal assent. No man had a right to say to another, "My
Mr. RICARDO said that he had heard with pleasure a great part of the speech of his honourable friend who had just sat down, and the remainder certainly with some concern. The greater part of that specch was in support of the opinion which he (Mr. Ricardo) held in common with his honourable friend who had