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t. ourt TO ra^l TW J:xnv ?%ti*
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Political disturbances: preventive measures introduced into Parliament: debate on
Seditious Meetings' Bill. Letters from prince regent to LordEldon, and from Lord
Eldon to Sir W. Knighton. Representation of the University of Oxford. Debates
on Lord Sidmouth's circular respecting arrest for libel. Visitation of state-pri-
soners. Suspension of Habeas Corpus. Tenure of two offices together. Mar-
riage of Lord Eldon's eldest daughter. Confinement and death of Princess Char-
lotte. Retirement of Sir W. Grant: Sir Thomas Plumer appointed to be master of
the rolls : and Mr. Leach to be vice-chancellor.
THE transition from a long and active war to profound peace had
produced a disquieting change in society. The latter part of the year
1816 had been marked by some alarming symptoms, and particularly
by seditious combinations and tumultuous meetings in the neighbour-
hood of the metropolis and in the northern counties. Parliament
was called together on the 28th of January, 1817, and on the 3d of
February, the prince regent called the attention of both Houses, by a
message, to the dangerous state of the country. Bills were passed*
for suspending the Habeas Corpus, for obviating attempts to seduce
the forces, for preventing seditious meetings, and for making perpe-
tual certain parts of the statute 36 Geo. 3. c. 7, respecting treason-
able attempts, which was originally prepared by Lord Eldon when
attorney-general, in 1796. Of these measures, the bill against sedi-
tious meetings was the most keenly contested. The lord chancellor
defended its details in the committee on the 21st and 24th of March,
and vindicated its principle against the opposition made to it in its
last stage on the 25th. The attack had been led by Lord Erskine,
who, in illustration of the proposition that it is the nature of every
thing which is free to be occasionally irregular, had somewhat fanci-
If the authors of this bill had the government of the seasons, they would no doubt
set about a reformation upon their own system, and the elements of fire, water and
air, would no longer have their immemorial liberties, but would be put under such
* 57 Geo. 3. ch. 3 and 55, 7, 19, and 6.
VOL. II. 2
18 LIFE OF LORD
politic restraints as we are now about to lay upon the civil world. To Fire they would
say, "You are an excellent servant, most beneficial when under due discipline and
control, but most dangerous when left unrestrained. You may, therefore, continue
to blaze in our kitchen and in our chambers, but you shall no longer descend from
heaven with electric flashes, destroying our persons and property, and striking even,
the spires of our churches with sacrilegious violence." To Water they would say,
" We are delighted with your smooth surface upon our calm transparent lakes, and
with your ripplings in our summer streams, but you must no longer come down from
the hills in winter torrents, sweeping away our flocks and their masters." To Air
they would say, "Be free as air; it is even a proverb, and we will support it; con-
tinue, therefore, to be free as air, at least in our improved sense of freedom. But not
more than fifty clouds shall in future come together, without an order from seven
farmers or graziers ; and if you shall presume to blight our fruit trees or destroy
our harvests, you shall be driven back to your caverns by a single justice of the
The lord chancellor answered this part of Lord Erskine's speech in
his own peculiar vein of pleasantry.
For his own part, as a member of that assembly, he wished the elements were
subject to the sort of jurisdiction suggested by his noble and learned friend. For
instance, a fire was kept in that house, which, whether or not it operated on the con-
stitution of the country, certainly often operated on his constitution and that of others,
in no very favourable way; and if they could restrain the mischievous effects of that
fire by a clause in an act of Parliament, their lordships would do a great deal of
good to themselves. So with respect to air: it was a great misfortune that it was not
a British subject within their lordships' jurisdiction ; for then, out of regard to a most
respectable friend of his now present, the clerk at the table, who found himself so ill
at ease when the windows were open, he was sure their lordships would be very glad
to put air under some regulation, and to leave no parliamentary means untried of
shutting out the intruder. As to water, he believed neither their lordships in general,
nor his noble and learned friend in particular, had much to do with it. But he really
could not believe that his noble and learned friend was very serious in his opposition
to the bill, when he considered that so great a portion of his speech was made up of
long quotations from the philosophical theories of Mr. Burke, and these observations
about fire, air and water. If this bill were, in his own judgment, likely to prejudice
the principles of the subjects' liberty, if he thought that in his vote of that night he
was endangering those laws which long experience had taught him were more bene-
ficial to the subjects of this country than the laws of any other state were to its sub-
jects, he should never enjoy another moment's ease of mind; for he admitted to its
fullest extent the proposition, that it was their lordships' most sacred duty never to
suspend the securities of the subject's liberty, except under a necessity the most
urgent. It was because he wished not merely to preserve the constitution for a sea-
son, but to hand it down to posterity as it had been transmitted from preceding times,
that he now supported these measures. Parliament must have the fortitude to sus-
pend liberty for a time, that liberty might be enjoyed for ever. It had been asserted
that the already existing laws, if duly executed, were sufficient for the preservation of
tranquillity. Whether they had been duly executed or not he would not now inquire;
but when he cast his eyes abroad, he certainly saw mischiefs quite sufficient to make
additional protection necessary. He had himself, when attorney-general, proceeded
extensively under the existing law, against the libels which then inundated the coun-
try. No law officer, he believed, had ever instituted so many prosecutions for libel;
yet this exercise of the epsting law had not sufficed to put down the mischief, much
as he had been personally abused for the extent to which he had carried that enforce-
ment. Personal abuse, however, he did not heed, when levelled against him for the
discharge of what he considered to be his duty. He had never, in the course of his
life, sought either to promote or repress the circulation of any publication concerning
himself; he cared not twopence for one of them ; but libels that affected the consti-
tution and the government were of a different description, and he should be glad to
be shown how, at a time like the present, the most active prosecution of them
could counteract the evils that menaced the state. The existing law was no more
capable of restraining the spirit of libel, than of controlling the fire, air and water
of which the noble lord had spoken. But it was said the people ought to be con-
* See sect. 5 of 57 Geo. 3. c. 19.
CHANCELLOR ELDON. 19
ciliated. Generally speaking that doctrine was good; hut how were they to conciliate
those who asked for nothing less than the destruction of the constitution ? How
were persons to be conciliated who declared they would not be satisfied unless they
obtained what it was the duty of Parliament not to give? Their lordships must,
therefore, in considering every point, always come back to this question, whether the
state of the times was such as to require the measures recommended for adoption
by his majesty's government? In deciding this question they must have regard to
other circumstances than the order and decorum which might be attributed to certain
meetings. He was old enough to recollect the dreadful riots of 1780; and if he were
asked what was the most orderly public meeting he ever saw in his life, he should
answer, that which assembled to meet Lord George Gordon. Nothing could have
been more regular and orderly than that meeting was in the morning; and yet its
consequences were, in the evening, to set London in flames. If their lordships thought
it better U punish than to prevent mischief, their opposition to this bill would be
founded on a rational principle. For his part he thought it wiser to look to preven-
tion rather than to punishment as a remedy for the evil of which the country had to
complain ; and on that ground, and on the necessity of the case, arising from what
he conceived to be the state of the times, he gave his support to the bill.
That the favour of the prince regent was at that time unabated, the
three following letters abundantly prove :