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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 39

Appendix No. 3

Appendix No. 3.

When elected as one of the Burgesses to represent Northampton in the House of Commons, I believed that I had the legal right to make affirmation of allegiance in lieu of taking the oath, as provided by section 4 of the Parliamentary Oaths Act, 1866. While I considered that I had this legal right, it was then clearly my moral duty to make the affirmation. The oath, although to me including words of idle and meaningless character, was, and is, regarded by a large number of my fellow countrymen as an appeal to Deity to take cognizance of their swearing. It would have been an act of hypocrisy to voluntarily take this form if any other had been open to me, or to take it without protest, as though it meant in my mouth any such appeal. I, therefore, quietly and privately notified the Clerk of the House of my desire to affirm. His view of the law and practice differing from my own, and no similar case having theretofore arisen, it became necessary that I should tender myself to affirm in a more formal manner, and this I did at a season deemed convenient by those in charge of the business of the page 76 House. In tendering my affirmation, I was careful when called on by the Speaker to state my objection, to do nothing more than put in the fewest possible words my contention that the Parliamentary Oaths Act, 1866, gave the right to affirm in Parliament to every person for the time being by law permitted to make an affirmation in lieu of taking an oath, and that I was such a person, and therefore claimed to affirm. The Speaker neither refusing, nor accepting my affirmation, referred the matter to the House, which appointed a Select Committee to report whether persons entitled to affirm under the Evidence Amendment Acts, 1869 and 1870, were, under Section 4 of the Parliamentary Oaths Act, 1866, also entitled to affirm as Members of Parliament. This Committee, by the casting-vote of its Chairman, has decided that I am not entitled to affirm. Two courses are open to me, one of appeal to the House against the decision of the Committee; the other, of present compliance with the ceremony, while doing my best to prevent the further maintenance of a form which many other Members of the House think as objectionable as I do, but which habit, and the fear of exciting prejudice, has induced them to submit to. To appeal to the House against the decision of the Committee would be ungracious, and would certainly involve great delay of public business. I was present at the deliberations of the Committee, and while naturally I cannot be expected to bow submissively to the statements and arguments of my opponents, I am bound to say that they were calmly and fairly urged. I think them unreasonable; but the fact that they included a legal argument from an earnest Liberal deprives them even of a purely party character. If I appealed to the House against the Committee, I, of course, might rely on the fact that the Attorney General, the Solicitor General, Sir Henry Jackson, Q.C., Watkin Williams, Q.C., and Mr. Serjeant Simon are reported in the Times to have interpreted the law as I do; and I might add that the Right Honorable John Bright and Mr. Whitbread are in the same journal arrayed in favor of allowing me to affirm. But even then the decision of the House may endorse that of the Committee, and should it be in my favor it could only, judging from what has already taken place, be after a bitter party debate, in which the Government specially and the Liberals generally would be sought to be page 77 burdened with my anti-theological views, and with promoting my return to Parliament. As a matter of fact, the Liberals of England have never in any way promoted my return to Parliament. The much-attacked action of Mr. Adam had relation only to the second seat, and in no way related to the one for which I was fighting. In 1868, the only action of Mr. Gladstone and of Mr. Bright was to write letters in favor of my competitors; and since 1868 I do not believe that either of these gentlemen has directly or indirectly interfered in any way in connection with my Parliamentary candidature. The majority of the electors of Northampton had determined to return me before the recent union in that borough, and while pleased to aid their fellow Liberals in winning the two seats, my constituents would have at any rate returned me had no union taken place. My duty to my constituents is to fulfil the mandate they have given me, and if to do this I have to submit to a form less solemn to me than the affirmation I would have reverently made, so much the worse for those who force me to repeat words which I have scores of times declared are to me sounds conveying no clear and definite meaning. I am sorry for the earnest believers who see words sacred to them used as a meaningless addendum to a promise, but I cannot permit their less sincere co-religionists to use an idle form in order to prevent me from doing my duty to those who have chosen me to speak for them in Parliament. I shall, taking the oath, regard myself as bound, not by the letter of its words, but by the spirit which the affirmation would have conveyed had I been permitted to use it. So soon as I am able, I shall take such steps as may be consistent with Parliamentary business to put an end to the present doubtful and unfortunate state of the law and practice on oaths and affirmations. Only four cases have arisen of refusal to take the oath except, of course, those cases purely political in their character; two of those cases are those of the Quakers John Archdale and Joseph Pease. The religion of these men forbade them to swear at all, and they nobly refused. The sect to which they belonged was outlawed, insulted and imprisoned; they were firm, and one of that sect sat on the very committee, a member of her Majesty's Privy Council, and a member of the actual Cabinet. I thank him gratefully that, valuing page 78 right so highly, he cast his vote so nobly for one for whom I am afraid he has but scant sympathy. No such religious scruple prevents me from taking the oath as prevented John Archdale and Joseph Pease. In the case of Baron Rothschild and Alderman Salomons the words "upon the true faith of a Christian" were the obstacle. To-day the oath contains no such words. The Committee report that I may not affirm, and protesting against a decision which seems to me alike against the letter of the law and the spirit of modern legislation, I comply with the forms of the House.

Charles Bradlaugh.