How The British House of Commons Treated Charles Bradlaugh, M.P.
Freethought Publishing Company London 63, Fleet Street, E.C.1883 page break
Printer by Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh London 63, Fleet Street. E.C
How The British House of Commons Treated Charles Bradlaugh, M.P.
The House of Commons in the first instance refused to allow Mr. Bradlaugh what he, in common with others well qualified to form an opinion (I allude particularly to the Law Officers of the Crown), believed to be his simple right. But we will waive that point and simply state, that the House refused to allow him the privilege of affirming. It then refused him his undoubted legal right of taking the oath, and sent him to prison for refusing to forego such right. It then brought him back again and allowed him to do what it had previously said he should not do, namely, affirm. It then, through one of its honorable (?) members, in conjunction with a common informer, actually prosecuted him for such affirmation, or, in other words, it prosecuted him for not doing the very thing it would not allow him to do, that is, for not taking the oath before voting, which oath, as I have said, it would not allow him to take. The legal tribunal before which the case was taken by the common informer then imposed a heavy fine upon him; that is, imposed a fine upon him for doing the only thing the House of Commons would allow him to do. Oh, most intolerable and unlawful muddle! But the legal tribunal did more, it actually established the fact, or rather re-established the fact, that he had a full legal right to take the oath, which after being duly elected for the second time, he claimed to take. Once more page 4 the House refused, and stood between a constituency and its legal representative, between a citizen and his citizenship, no legal bar being even pretended to exist as against him. But it did not send him to prison this time, although he insisted most firmly upon fulfilling the trust and obligation the electors of Northampton had imposed upon him.
The House by this time had become dreadfully-muddled; it also had lost heart, and cried out hopelessly to Mr. Gladstone to do something. He did eventually come to the rescue, and announced the intention of the Government of bringing in a Bill which would enable Mr. Bradlaugh to take his seat in the House. He was careful to explain that the Bill would be more in the shape, or might be regarded more in the light of, a relief for the House than for the junior member for Northampton. This point was prominent in more than one of the speeches he made upon the subject, and I regard it as important, because it shows that he considered the House was in the dilemma and Mr. Bradlaugh was in the right. "The Lord moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform." And so does the House of Commons. However, upon this understanding and upon the promises given by the conscientious defenders of the "sanctity of the oath," that they would fairly consider any such Bill, Mr. Bradlaugh gave his word of honor that he would wait, which word he patiently and honorably kept. But how did the bigots keep their word? These pious Tories and sham Liberals, these political latter-day saints, who presumptuously pretend to monopolise all the Parliamentary "honor and conscience"—how did they keep their word? Why by a series of shuffles page 5 and moves which would be a disgrace to an ordinary debating society. By tactics deliberately adopted, and in violation of their pledged word, by which they prevented the Government from bringing in their promised measure; not only that, but they, in a like dishonorable manner, successfully blocked a Bill which the senior member for Northampton endeavored to introduce. It was not till Mr. Bradlaugh found his patient waiting to be worse than useless; that the promises given had all been broken; that Mr. Gladstone could not, or would not, bring in his promised measure; and that his friend's and colleague's Bill was finally blocked, that his patience gave way, and he resolved at all hazards to do his duty to his constituency. What happened at the portals of the House and in Palace Yard, when he again went to give effect to the legal trust imposed upon him by his constituents, will ever remain a disgrace to those whose bigotry and duplicity forced it on. It will be a black mark in the modern history of the English Parliament. I have no desire to enlarge upon that shameful scene, nor add one iota to its degrading detail; but I will ask my countrymen if they do not consider it a monstrous usurpation of their political rights that a man, one of their chosen representatives, properly and duly elected to serve them in Parliament, should be met at the threshold of that House and there seized upon by lackeys, porters, and minor officials, and ruthlessly assaulted and maltreated, so much so that both his arms were severely ruptured. At the beginning of the next Session he took the oath and his seat, in spite of the House, but in compliance with the law. For this awful piece of sacrilege he was page 6 expelled from the House, cast out like a second Lucifer, but with this essential difference, that while he was innocent of rebellion those who cast him out were guilty of it. But in casting him out of the House they cast him once more into the arms of his constituents, who again returned him as their representative at the head of the poll.
This action of the House is not only a shameful usurpation, but it strikes at the very fundamental principle of the Constitution, which principle says that we govern ourselves through those whom we freely and duly elect to represent us in the Parliament House; and I ask you to always remember that no one, not even Mr. Newdegate himself, has ventured to assert that there is any legal disqualification against Charles Bradlaugh. I will not ask you to remember, although I cannot forbear speaking of it, that some of the hon. members actually had the indecency to gloat over the above scene, and to jibe and jeer as he sat in an exhausted state from the treatment he had received at the hands of the House of Commons' lackeys, who had been put in motion by those who pretend they reverence the oath, and who worship in that faith which tells them: "If a man strikes thee on one cheek, turn to him the other." There is just one bright spot, so far as the House itself is concerned, that stands out clearly in that black day's business. It is the rebuke administered to the House by John Bright, in which he solemnly protested against the shameful proceedings which had just taken place. Mr. Bradlaugh has since endeavored to his utmost to obtain a legal decision upon the action of the House, but with no success.
There appears now to exist no legal tribunal which page 7 dares to measure its authority against the House of Commons. The decision recently given by Mr. Justice Field simply amounts to this : that the House of Commons is the sole arbiter of its own actions; it may do absolutely as it pleases. This, I think, is new to most of us. I think the majority of us have been in the habit of regarding the Commons as one only of the three estates of the realm, viz., the Queen, Lords, and Commons, and that it might not of its own will, or by the caprice of a majority, ignore the written law of the land. And I believe such to be the case, the decision of Mr. Justice Field notwithstanding. But if he be right, if the will of a chance majority of the House is above and superior to all law, why then it may reject or receive whomsoever it pleases, and the principle of Parliamentary representation becomes a farce. A dangerous doctrine, this. The hodge-podge and curious combination which forms a majority upon this particular occasion may not always exist. It is just within the range of possibility that the Radicals may one day have a majority in the House. What if they should then hold fast to the doctrine that they "could do no wrong"? But, apart from that, what a mockery and a delusion the whole system of electing those we believe best able to serve us becomes, if a chance majority may meet the person so elected at the bar of the House and say : We will not have you; we admit you are duly and lawfully elected; you are also qualified to serve; but we do not like your principles! How shall the House of Commons represent the wishes and feelings of the country, if a properly-elected member may be met at the door and pushed out, because he is disliked or feared by some—a majority, if you like—of page 8 those within? But Mr. Justice Field says such is the law. Such should not be the law; and, if it be, the sooner it is altered the better.
The House of Commons can do no wrong? It is the sole judge of its own acts, and when we speak of the House it is important to bear in mind, that we speak virtually of the majority of that House upon any given question. Why, then, let the Liberals, when in a majority, forcibly eject the Tories, and vice versa; and do not complain. If the Radicals should one day obtain a majority and eject both, the House of Commons can do no wrong. Why, then, let us poor electors humbly bow our heads, and receive its decrees without question. It may do the most wicked, the most unjust, and the most arbitrary act which it is possible for a self-seeking majority to do, and who shall gainsay it? Is this really the law? If so, what may it not do? Where will you draw the line? It would be a sorry thing, indeed, if the Constitution was built upon such a foundation. Both the Lords and the Commons are, doubtless, competent to make rules and regulations for the management of their respective Houses; but it is only common sense to suppose such rules and regulations must not violate the rights of constituencies, and the established laws of the land. If it were otherwise, what is to prevent them from committing any outrage they may please under the sanction of a rule or order?
The Commons and the Lords may in conjunction with each other by due and proper process, amend, alter, and abolish laws. They may also in like manner make new ones; but neither the one nor the other is competent to ignore and render nugatory the esta- page 9 blished and existing law of the realm. This law says that Charles Bradlaugh is entitled to take his seat as member for Northampton. But the House—not the wisdom, learning, dignity, and the statesmanship of the House—but the bigotry, the intolerance, and the ignorance of the House, which unfortunately form the majority on this question, say he shall not take his seat, and Mr. Justice Field says, Amen! But what will the people say? Will they submit to this wrong tamely? Well, if they do, they will deserve all that may follow. Are they prepared to go backwards, crablike, to the days of the odious religious tests? Is the House of Commons to be a representative assembly, or a species of modern Inquisition? I warn Sir Stafford Northcote that he is stirring up dangerous elements, which it would be better for him and his class to let slumber. How dare he meet the properly-chosen representative of a large constituency at the bar of the House, and say, You shall not enter? He is solicitous for the sanctity of the oath, forsooth. Hypocrisy, pretence. He is solicitous for the safety of the perpetual pensions, and other interests which he fears Mr. Bradlaugh will attack, and attack them he assuredly will, either in the House or out of it. I think this covering over of the real motives which actuate this "pious majority," with what I shall call the "sanctity of the oath" cloak, is one of the worst features of the case. I do not wish to say one word here in disparagement of religion. I know there are a vast number of estimable persons who profess it in some shape or form. But when you have a number of educated men prosecuting purely selfish aims and interests, likewise seeking to rob their fellow-man of his social page 10 and political existence, outraging law and decency under the guise and in the name of religion, the thing becomes despicable. Another bad feature of the business is the indecent anxiety shown by members of the various sects who have seats in the House, to vie with each other in the virulence of their attacks upon a man who simply claims for himself the same right, of judgment upon religious matters as they themselves claim; from the Catholic and Jew down to those who could not well define their faith at all, the cry was the same, forgetting as they did that it was by the efforts of such men as he that it was made possible for many of them to sit in that House, which they now degrade by their action. I think the Jew and the Catholic in particular, if they could not have found it compatible with their conscience to raise their voices in favor of that liberty they themselves enjoy, might at least have had the decency to remain silent. I also think the action adopted by what is called the "Irish National Party" deserves especial reprobation. Mr. Bradlaugh, whilst he sat in the House, regularly upon almost all Irish occasions, spoke and voted with them, and on behalf of Ireland, conspicuously against coercion—upon one occasion, at least, when Mr. Parnell was not at his post, but was possibly in Paris having an eye to his friend Egan, and the enormous sums of money with which he was entrusted, and which would have been a boon to the luckless peasants and farmers who were evicted through taking his advice, but who got so little of it. Of course, I do not know that Mr. Parnell was doing this, his whereabouts at that time was something of a mystery; but I do know he was absent from the House at a very critical time, and that Mr. Bradlaugh led what was page 11 really a "forlorn hope," thereby risking the good-will of those with whom it might have been politic on his part to stand well. In return for this, and the steady and constant support given, not because it was the Irish party, but because he believed they were on this in the right—in return for this they, Judas-like, turn and vote against him to a man. It is worthy of note that during the period Mr. Bradlaugh sat in Parliament by the generous (?) forbearance of the House, but at his own risk, and with an enormous penalty hanging over his head for every vote he gave, he bore himself with singular moderation and ability, so much so as to elicit statements to that effect from those high in authority; his enemies not venturing to gainsay the fact. Indeed they were particularly dumb whilst he sat facing them, with the right of reply. Parliament is to meet in a very short time; in the meanwhile there is being arranged, and there will assemble, such a throng of people as could not be got together at the present moment by another man in the kingdom, save Mr. Gladstone himself. And mark, this vast number of people who will assemble, unless forcibly prevented, will not be composed of the ordinary roughs who are often got together by various means for political purposes, but will be composed chiefly of representative men—delegates and others—who will have travelled from all parts of the kingdom at much loss and sacrifice to give their support to a man who represents a principle which is dear to all of us; I mean the principle that we govern ourselves through those whom we legally and lawfully choose to represent us in Parliament. The country will wait with some anxiety to see what action the Government page 12 will take; let us hope it will be a firm one. It is a lamentable spectacle to see a Government stand helplessly by whilst the law and constitution is being outraged; and it is even worse when that Government is a Liberal one, and actually admits the wrong which is being done. This dreary and uncharitable business has just a small silver lining, it can hardly be called a bright side; but still it is cheering to know that such men as Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Bright, men whose intellect and sense of justice, of right and wrong, are inferior to none, and who are as jealous of the honor of the House as any men within its walls, and whose Christianity is of a higher type than that which finds a resting place in the minds of most of the hon. members—indeed, it would be an insult to those gentlemen to compare their Christianity for one moment with the kind of stuff which finds a mouthpiece in that famous statesman, Sir Henry Tyler, or that other Christian champion, my Lord Randolph Churchill, not to mention the Cardinal's "henchman," Philip Callan, or that other would-be leader of Christian thought, Frank Hugh O'Donnell—it is, I say, cheering to know that such men as Gladstone and Bright raised their voices for the man against whom nearly all men's hands were turned, the man whom bigotry and fanaticism were endeavoring to strike down. In doing so they honored themselves and helped to redeem the character of the House, because they gave their great influence to the man in whose person the sacred principle of liberty of conscience was assailed. There is just one other consideration, or rather question, connected with this matter; it is not of such a cheering character as the last, but nevertheless it is worth some little considera- page 13 tion. The question I allude to is—will the honorable member, Mr. Newdegate, and the common informer, who are prosecuting Mr. Bradlaugh, be mean enough (supposing they have the opportunity) to put into their own pockets the money which they hope to extract from Mr. Bradlaugh's? I ask, will they be mean enough to keep what might be called the "bloodmoney," but what I will call the price for endeavoring to hunt down and ruin a brave and honorable man; or will they give it to the missionaries to help them to teach the poor "heathen" something of that "charity to all men" with which they are themselves so overburdened? Whatever they may or may not do with the money they hope to obtain, one thing is certain : the United Kingdom will have to thank Charles Bradlaugh for breaking down, once and for all, the last of the abominable religious tests in the British House of Commons.
The United Kingdom will have to thank Charles Bradlaugh for breaking down, once and for all, the last of the abominable religious tests in the British House of Commons. Such was the closing part of my last sentence pending the opening of Parliament, and I begin again with the same sentence now that Parliament is open; for, lo-and-behold, the Government has announced its intention of again bringing in an Affirmation Bill. Well, this looks like winning for Mr. Bradlaugh, but we must not be too sanguine; we may be sure that the measure will meet with a most determined opposition from the Tories, the saints, and the sham Liberals; indeed, one of the most rabid (Sir R. Cross) has already given notice that he will oppose it page 14 "tooth and nail." Unhappy gentleman, no doubt he is very "Cross" with the Government for attempting to do right in this matter; of course he will oppose it to his uttermost, and so he would any good and useful measure, providing he and his class were not going to be directly benefited thereby. No doubt he is a very good man, so is Baron de Worms, the German Jew, who sits and makes laws for the Christians whose God he believes to have been an impostor. I dare say these two honorable gentlemen are so pure that if they were buried and dug up again, after a given time, lilies would be found to have sprouted from their persons. However that may be, it is quite possible that they and their wretched army, from Sir Stafford Northcote and my Lord Randolph Churchill, down to Philip Callan and Frank Hugh O'Donnell, may succeed again in frustrating the intentions of the Government, and should the Bill get through the Commons, what fate may await it in the Lords? It appears that it is only intended to apply to the Commons; the Lords must say amen to it, a very bitter pill for most of them to swallow; but swallow it they must, sooner or later. In the meantime, let the country support the Government in its new determination to shield the principles of liberty of conscience and freedom of election. Let the people in all parts, and by every possible means, give them their cordial, their loyal, and lawful support; let them show the Government that they understand the great difficulties it has to encounter in a case like this, and that they appreciate the efforts it is about to make, and that they are determined to sustain it in a peaceable law-abiding constitutional manner; by holding meetings and sending petitions and resolutions page 15 of confidence. If the Government be thus supported their hands will be strengthened, and they will be better able to disregard all such vile attacks as that contained in the Post of Feb. 16th, in which it lies in the following fashion :—"To the eternal disgrace of the executive of a civilised country the advisers of the Crown have yielded to brutal and vulgar menace." It is, indeed, very difficult to please these newspapers of the thoroughgoing Tory type. If Mr. Bradlaugh remains comparatively quiet, does not call together large numbers of his countrymen, they twit him with a want of earnestness, say the country is not with him, point to the absence of enthusiasm, imposing demonstrations, etc. But if he address his fellow countrymen, if he asks them to come together and say what are their sentiments upon this matter—in short, if he does the things they weakly boast he cannot do, he is still wrong; he at once becomes the leader of a "mob of roughs," and the embodiment of "vulgar menace," and many other choice terms culled from the vocabulary of the worshippers at the shrine of the "sanctity of the oath." Now, I put this question to the Post (indeed it is very like talking to a post), and to all the pretenders and hybrids of every description, who croak in the tune, or I should say in discord with it. If a vast number of sober, sincere, earnest representative men, from all parts of the country, assembled to sustain, not only a duly-elected member of the House of Commons, but the very executive itself, in their endeavors to have the law respected and fulfilled, I ask if this, in the language of the Post, constitutes a "brutal menace"? What do ignoring the rights of a constituency, maltreating and page 16 insulting, in the precincts of the House itself, a fellow-member, and ignoring the law of the land in the name of religion constitute? Answer, Morning Post, is this not a vulgar menace? Answer, ye curious brood of contradictory and godless oath-takers, do you not think it is more vulgar for a number of law-makers to gather on the steps of the House to break the laws, than for a throng, if you like, of electors to meet and petition that the law may be obeyed? Whatever you may think, one thing seems quite certain, and that is that your ordinary English elector is the most docile, good-tempered, burden-bearing creature it is possible to conceive. If it were otherwise such things could not be done, but it will not be possible to do them for ever. The people are gaining in power slowly but surely. Let us hope, when they possess what they are patiently toiling for, that they will not abuse it, like those who have had it thrust upon them. I believe they will not; I believe—nay, I am sure—that if the much-dreaded and most-abused Charles Bradlaugh himself had a large majority and followers in the House, he would be more generous, more liberal, tolerant, and just than the motley crew of bigots who are now vainly endeavoring to hunt him down and ruin him by pains and penalties.