Marriage Law Reform Association,
I have the honour to send you a Hansard Copy of the Debate in the Imperial Parliament on the Second Reading of the Colonial Marriages Bill.
It will be remembered that this Bill, then in the charge of Sir Thomas Chambers, was first introduced during the Session of 1876. and that an influential Deputation, constituted mainly of gentleman versed in Colonial affairs, waited upon Lord Carnarvon to enlist for it the sympathy and support of the Government.
Owing to the extreme pressure of business in the House of Commons, the friends of the measure failed, however, to secure a night for its discussion; but it has this year received such an emphatic approval from Parliament as leaves no doubt that it will presently become law.
Thus one of the greatest objections raised against legislation on this question in your colony is on the point of being removed; and the fact that since the subject was under discussion in the Legislature at Auckland the Colonies of Queensland and Western Australia have passed Bills legalizing these marriages, will also, it is hoped, weigh with those who have hitherto resisted the adoption of a similar measure in New Zealand.
Viewed in the light of familiar facts at home, the arguments of our opponents at the Antipodes appear to be deprived of almost all their force. Much stress, for example, is laid on the dicta of ex-Lord Chancellor Hatherley. But his Lordship, besides holding widely divergent opinions from those of nearly every one of his late Ministerial colleagues, has been so extravagant in his utterances on this subject as to virtually cast off all claim to be regarded as an authority. It is never forgotten here that his Lordship once said he would rather see 300,000 French soldiers land on English shores than allow the marriages in question to be legalised!page 2
A prominent speaker in the New Zealand Parliament has stated that the proposed reform is rejected by English Statesmen, and that no ecclesiastical authority of eminence can be quoted in its favour. Contrary to his judgment, however, it will be admitted that Cobden, Cornwall Lewis, Palmerston, Russell, Gladstone, John Bright, Beaconsfield, Derby, are names which are usually associated with British statesmanship, and that in their respective Churches the names of Whately, Musgrave, Tait; Wesley, Chalmers, McLeod; Wiseman, Cullen, and McHale (the most popular and influential Catholic in Ireland) are held in not less distinguished honour. Yet all these Statesmen and Divines have expressed opinions (the majority of them very emphatically) in favour of an alteration of the law.
Then it is said the advocates of change are rapidly losing support in the House of Commons. The reply is, that the majority in favour of their Bill has been relatively if not absolutely maintained; that they count 350 friends against 250 opponents in the most Conservative House of the present century; and that, against the partial opposition of the Government, they recently secured a majority of 51 on the Colonial Bill.
It is further alleged that these marriages are repugnant to the great mass of the people; that the poor do not care for their legalization; and that the demand conies only from a few rich people who have broken the law. If made in good faith, such statements indicate an entire ignorance of the facts. With all the parochial machinery of the country at their command the opponents of legalization have never succeeded in raising any popular demonstration against it, nor have they any petition to show from the People, nor, in recent years, from any body of lay representatives. On the other hand, this Society has presented nearly 1,000 petitions from municipal corporations, while the signatures to their general petitions are in the proportion of 10 to 1 of those attached to hostile memorials. Of between 5,000 and 6,000 such marriages registered at this office (not a tithe probably of those contracted), an infinitesimal percentage are marriages of persons who could be regarded as wealthy; the rest concern struggling professional men, small tradesmen, and the upper section of the class in receipt of wages.
As to the opposition of Presbyterians and Catholics, of which so much is said, and the remark of an hon. Member in the New Zealand Senate, that "if a Scotchman contracted such a marriage, he would be hooted and stoned," it is a sufficient answer to state the fact that, in our recent experience, proportionately more applications for information as to the best means of effecting these unions have come to us from Scotland than from England; that a very large majority of the Scotch Corporations have officially petitioned in support of the Marriages Bill, not one having for years past petitioned against it; and that nearly half the Irish Muncipal Boards have already this year similarly memorialised Parliament, while not a single petition, so far as can be remembered, has ever, during the whole history of this agitation, been sent from Ireland against the Bill.
With regard to the bold prophecy of another hon. Member of the Legislative Council, that in a new Parliament this Bill would have no supporters, it has to be said that there has since been a general election both in England and New Zealand, with results in each case strongly at page 3 variance with the hon. Member's prognostications. In the new Parliament at home there are still more members who have actually voted for the Bill than have opposed it, and in regard to New Zealand the accompanying Analysis shows that there is no retrogression or loss of support in the colony.
The opposition based on arguments derived from Scripture is now almost as dead on the Australian as on this side the globe; but social, it should rather be said sentimental, considerations appear to be advanced with the old pertinacity. The consequences which have followed a relaxation of the law in America and Germany are especially held out as a warning. Divorce, it is said, is particularly prevalent in both countries. In fact, however, the objectors greatly err in ascribing to the whole of the States social conditions which exist only, if they exist at all, among the unsettled and half-nomad population of the extreme West. They must, too, be in ignorance of the fact that in Germany the law specially discountenances divorce by prohibiting second marriages in such cases, and that an organised system of matrimonial reconciliation or Sühneversuche exists, the effect of which is to reduce, in Prussia Proper, the cases of actual separation to one-half the number of those threatened. It does not appear, therefore, that the marriage tie is held in Germany to be one whit less sacred than in England.
Lord Beaconsfield (then Mr. Disraeli) has more than once publicly said—and his Lordship is recognised as a great authority on social questions—that he could not see that the proposed change in the law would produce any difference in society. That opinion is sustained by what is known to take place now. These marriages occur quite as often, perhaps more often, under the existing law than they would if not prohibited. The law, as it stands, does inflict much hardship, but it is otherwise wholly inoperative. A special inquiry just made among our miners and iron-workers has elicited the fact, that among those classes the law is not generally known; that, if it were, it would be wholly disregarded; that the clergy who live among them are not inquisitive as to whether this particular degree of affinity is involved; and, that, when such a marriage is contracted, the neighbours universally regard it as respectable, and morally if not legally binding.
What, then, becomes of the moral degeneracy which it is said is so sure to follow a change in the law? The law does not prevent, it does not even restrain; it is powerless for good, and powerful only in the mischief it creates, and in the cruelty it inflicts on a large class of persons who, as the Royal Commission have shown, are not men of "ill-regulated and corrupt minds," but men possessing an equally "strong sense of religious and moral obligations" with that of those surrounding them.
It greatly vests with the New Zealand Parliament to determine whether this obnoxious law shall be repealed, and one more just concession be made to the great principle of Civil and Religious Liberty.
Your very faithful Servant,
T. Paynter Allen, Secretary.