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On the second reading of a bill for the relief of Protestant Dissenters.f (1773.)
I Assure you, sir, that the honourable gentleman, who spoke last but one, need not be in the least fear that I should make a war of particles upon his opinion, whether the church of England should, mould, or ought to be alarmed. I am very clear that this house has no one reason in the world to think she is alarmed by the bill brought before you. It is something extraordinary that the only symptom of alarm in the church of England should appear in the petition of some dissenters; with whom, I believe, very few in this house are yet acquainted; and of whom you know no more than that you are assured by the honourable gentleman, that they are not Mahometans. Of the church we know they are not, by the name that they assume. They are then dissenters. The first symptom of an alarm comes from some dissenters assembled round the lines of Chatham: these lines become the security of the church of England! The honourable gentleman, in speaking of the lines of Chatham, tells us, that they serve not only for the security of the wooden walls of England, but for the defence of the church of England. I suspect, the wooden walls of England secure the lines of Chatham, rather than the lines of Chatham secure the wooden walls of England.
Sir, the church of England, if only defended by this misetable petition upon your table, must, I am afraid, upon the principles of true fortifications, be soon destroyed. But fortunately her walls, bulwarks and bastions, are constructed of other materials than of stubble and straw; are built up with the strong and stable matter of the gospel of liberty, and founded on a true, constitutional, legal establishment. But, sir, she has other securities; she has the security of her own doctrines; she has the security of the piety, the sanctity of her own professors; their learning is a bulwark to defend her; she has the security of the two universities, not shook in any single battlement, in any single pinnacle. But the honourable gentleman has mentioned indeed principles which astonish me rather more than ever. The honourable gentleman thinks that the dissenters enjoy a large share of liberty under a connivance; and he thinks that the establishing toleration by law is an attack upon christianity. The first of these is a contradiction in terms. Liberty under a connivance! Connivance is a relaxation from slavery, not a definition of liberty. What is connivance, but a state under which all slaves live? If I was to describe slavery, Ł would say with those who hate it, it is living under will, not under law: if, as it is stated by its advocates, I would say, that, like earthquakes, like thunder, or other wars the elements make upon mankind, it happens rarely, it occasionally comes now and then upon the people, who upon ordinary occasions enjoy the same legal government of liberty. Take it under the description of those who would soften those features, the state of slavery and connivance is the same thing. If the liberty enjoyed be a liberty not of toleration, but of connivance, the only question is, whether establishing such by law is an attack upon christianity. Toleration an attack upon christianity | What then, are we come to this pass, to suppose that nothing can support christianity, but the o of persecution? Is that then the idea of establishment: Is it then the idea of christianity itself, that it ought to have establishments, that it ought to have laws against dissenters, but the breach of which laws is to be connived at? What a picture of toleration; what a picture of laws, of establishments; what a picture of religious and civil liberty! I am rsuaded the honourable gentleman does not see it in this light. But these very terms become the strongest reasons for my support of the bill; for Ham persuaded that toleration, so far from being an attack upon christianity, becomes the best and surest support that possibly can be given to it. The christian religion itself arose without establishment, it arose even without toleration; and whilst its own principles were not tolerated, it conquered all the powers of darkness, it conquered all the powers of the world. The moment it began to depart from these principles, it converted the establishment into tyranny; it subverted its foundations from that very hour. Zealous as I am for the principle of an establishment, so just an abhorrence do I conceive against whatever may shake it. H know nothing but the supposed necessity of persecution that can make an establishment disgusting. I would have toleration apart of establishment, as a principle favourable to christianity, and as a part of christianity. All seem agreed that the law, as it stands, inflicting penalties on all religious teachers and on schoolmasters, who do not sign the thirty-nine articles of religion, ought not to be executed. We are all agreed that the lan' is not good; for that, I presume, is undoubtedly the idea of a law that ought not to be executed. The question therefore is, whether in a well constituted commonwealth, which we desire ours to be thought, and I trust, intend that it should be, whether in such a commonwealth it is wise to retain those laws which it is not proper to execute. A penal law, not ordinarily put in execution, seems to me to be a very absurd and a very dangerous thing. For if its principle be right, if the object of its prohibitions and penalties be a real evil, then you do in effect permit that very evil which not only the reason of the thing, but your very law, declares ought not to be permitted; and thus it reflects exceedingly on the wisdom, and consequently derogates not a little from the authority of a legislature; who can at once forbid and suffer, and in the same breath promulgate penalty and indemnity to the same persons, and for the very same actions. But if the object of the law be no moral or political evil, then you ought not to hold even a terror to those, whom you ought certainly not to punish—for if it is not right to hurt, it is nei- . ther right nor wise to menace. Such laws, therefore, as they must be defective either in justice or wisdom, or both; so they cannot exist without a considerable degree of danger. Take them which way you will, they are prest with ugly alternatives. 1st. All penal laws are either upon popular prosecution, or on the part of the crown. Now, if they may be roused from their sleep, whenever a minister thinks Pop. as instruments of oppression, then they put vast bodies of men into a state of slavery and court dependence; since their liberty of conscience and their power of executing their functions depend entirely on his will. I would have no man derive his means of continuing any function, or his being restrained from it, but from the laws only; they should be his only superior and sovereign lords. 2d. They put statesmen and magistrates into an habit of playing fast and loose with the laws, straining or relaxing them as may best suit their political purposes; and, in that light, tend to corrupt the executive power through all its offices. 3d. If they are taken up on popular actions, their operation in that light also is exceedingly evil. They become the instru
* This speech is given partly from the manuscript papers of Mr. Burke, and partly from a very imperfect short-hand note taken at the time by a member of the house of continons.
+ This bill was opposed by petitions from several congregations, calling themselves “protestant dissenters :” who appear to have been principally composed of the people who are generally known under the deuomination of “ Methodists;” and paro by a petition from a congregation, of that description, residing in the town. of Chatham.
ments of private malice, private avarice, and not of public regulation; they nourish the worst of men to the prejudice of the best, punishing tender consciences, and rewarding informers. Shall we, as the honourable gentleman tells us we may with . perfect security, trust to the manners of the age 2 I am well pleased with the general manners of the times; but the desultory execution of penal laws, the thing I condemn, does not dend on the manners of the times. I would however have the aws tuned in unison with the manners—very dissonant are a gentle country and cruel laws; very dissonant that your reason is furious, but your passions moderate, and that you are always equitable except in your courts of justice. I will beg leave to state to the house one argument, which has been much relied upon—that the dissenters are not unanimous upon this business; that many persons are alarmed; that it will create a disunion among the dissenters. When any dissenters, or any body of people, come here with a petition, it is not the number of people, but the reasonablemess of the request, that should weigh with the house. A body of dissenters come to this house, and say, Tolerate us—we desire neither the parochial advantage of tythes, nor dignities, nor the stalls of your cathedrals; No! let the venerable orders of the hierarchy exist with all their advantages. And shall I tell them, I reject your just and reasonable petition, not because it shakes the church, but because there are others, while you lie grovelling upon the earth, that will kick and bite you? Judge which of these descriptions of men comes with a fair request— that which says, Sir, I desire liberty for my own, because I trespass on no man's conscience;—or the other, which says, I desire that these men should not be suffered to act according to their consciences, though I am tolerated to act according to mine. But I sign a body of articles, which is my title to toleration; I sign no more, because more are against my conscience. But I desire that you will not tolerate these men, because they will not go so far as I, though I desire to be tolerated, who will not go as far as you. No, imprison them, if they come within five miles of a corporate town, because they do not believe what I do in point of doctrines. Shall I not say to these men, arrangez vous canaille. You, who are not the predominant power, will not give to others the relaxation under which you are yourself suffered to live. I have as high an opinion of the doctrines of the church as you. I receive them implicitly, or I put my own explanation on them, or take that which seems to me to come best recommended by
authority. There are those of the dissenters who think more rigidly of the doctrine of the articles relative to predestination, than others do. They sign the article relative to it et animo and literally. Others allow a latitude of construction. These two parties are in the church, as well as among the dissenters; yet, in the church, we live quietly under the same roof. I do not see why, as long as providence gives us no further light into this great mystery, we should not leave things as the divine wisdom has left them. But suppose all these things to me to be clear (which providence however seems to have left obscure) yet whilst dissenters claim a toleration in things, which seeming clear to me, are obscure to them, without entering into the merit of the articles, with what face can these men say, Tolerate us, but do not tolerate them 2 Toleration is good for all, or it is good for none. The discussion this day is not between establishment on one hand, and toleration on the other; but between those who, being tolerated themselves, refuse toleration to others. That power should be puffed up with pride, that authority should degenerate into rigor, if not laudable, is but too natural. But this proceeding of theirs is much beyond the usual allowance to human weakness; it not only is shocking to our reason, but it provokes our indignation. Quid domini facient, audent cum talia fures? It is not the proud prelate thundering in his commission court, but a pack of manumitted slavés, with the lash of the beadle flagrant on their backs, and their legs still galled with their fetters, that would drive their brethren into that prison-house from whence they have just been permitted to escape. If, instead of puzzling themselves in the depths of the divine counsels, they would turn to the mild morality of the gospel, they would read their own condemnation—0, thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt because thou desiredst me : shouldest not thou also have compassion on thy fellow-servant, even as I had pity on thee. In my opinion, sir, a magistrate, whenever he goes to put any restraint upon religious freedom, can only do it upon this ground, that the person dissenting does not dissent from the scruples of ill-informed conscience, but from a party ground of dissention, in order to raise a faction in the state. We give with regard to rites and ceremonies an indulgence to tender consciences. But if dissent is at all punished in any country, if at all it can be punished upon any pretence, it is upon a presumption, not that a man is supposed to differ conscientiously from the establishment, but that he resists truth for the sake of faction; that he abets diversity of opinions in religion to