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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 48


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Mr. Cockburn said, the line of argument taken on the present occasion by hon. Gentlemen who opposed this Bill differed so much from that adopted by them on former ones, that he trusted that the House would excuse him in making a few observations in answer to the arguments he alluded to. He was happy that the matter had been discussed without reference to the divine law. That line of opposition appeared to be abandoned. [Mr. Roundell Palmer: No, no!] At least virtually abandoned, unless, indeed, by his hon, and learned Friend the Member for Plymouth, who seemed still to be disposed to adhere to it. His hon, and learned Friend the Member for Abingdon had in the outset of his argument admitted that the religious part of the question was involved in so much doubt and difficulty, that he was led to wish it might be settled by the authority of the Church itself. This, however, was impossible, as he (Mr. Cockburn) thought, seeing that the members of the Church differed amongst themselves on this subject. It was well known that the bishops themselves were not unanimous on the point, and the body of the clergy differed to a very considerable extent; besides, as had been well observed by his hon. and learned Friend the Member for the city of Oxford, how could the clergy settle this, matter, even supposing the Church to be unanimous, while the Dissenters were also unanimous on the opposite side of the question? What right also had the Church to interfere in this matter, which was purely, as far as the religious part of the question was concerned, one for page 4 men to settle with their own consciences. His hon, and learned Friend the Member for the city of Oxford had gone even farther than his hon, and learned Friend the Member for Abingdon. He had admitted that the text upon which the opponents of the Bill had so much relied was against them. Nor could there be a doubt that such was the fact; for the text only prohibited a man's marrying his wife's sister during the lifetime of the former; how could this be made to apply to a marriage after her death? It was a sound and established canon of construction that that which was not prohibited by the express terms of a prohibitory law was tacitly admitted; therefore the text was in favour of the case. Moreover, his hon, and learned Friend the Member for Oxford had admitted that, instead of being against, the Hebrew Church had at all times been in favour of such marriages. His hon, and learned Friend had indeed discovered that there had existed an obscure section of the Hebrew Church, which differed from the established church of the Jews on this point. Of this sect, however, he would undertake to say not twelve men in that House had ever heard; was their dissent to weigh against the opinion of the Jewish Church in all ages? It was impossible, therefore, for the opponents of the Bill to take their stand on the divine law, as it was termed. His hon. and learned Friend the Member for the city of Oxford, however, while conceding that the text of the Hebrew law was against him, had argued that the authority of the Jewish religion was not binding on them, because they were Christians. And his hon. and learned Friend had referred to the Sermon on the Mount as showing how great a modification of the old law had been effected by the Christian dispensation. He (Mr. Cockburn) fully admitted it; but he defied his learned Friend to show, from one end of the New Testament to the other, a single word prohibiting these marriages. And this was the more striking, because the subject of marriages immediately analogous to page 5 these had been brought under the attention of the Divine Author of Christianity, and not one word of prohibition had been uttered by him against them. Considering the religious objection as disposed of, he would now come to the social and moral grounds that had been brought forward against the measure. It had been alleged that the legalising such marriages would disturb the sanctity of domestic life. It had been said that a wife's sister might become an inmate in the family, and in consequence of the familiarity with which she was treated, might be exposed to the danger of seduction by the husband, and that from an apprehension of such a connection the wife might be vexed with jealous feelings, and the peace of the domestic hearth thus be fatally disturbed. His hon, and learned Friend had spoken in terms of glowing eulogy of the morality of this country, and had asserted that England in that respect stood higher than other countries; and yet at the same time they were told that there was such an utter absence of all principle on the part of husbands—that they were so lost to every principle of morality, to every feeling of honour—that they would seek to seduce their own wives' sisters; and that the young unmarried women were so destitute of all sense of shame, so innately corrupt and profligate, that they would betray their own sisters and sacrifice their own honour by an adulterous intercourse with their sisters' husbands. Then, as regarded the wife's apprehensions: if the wife felt any pang of jealousy, they might depend upon it she would soon get rid of her sister. But the unerring proof that such consequences would not result from such marriages, was to be found in the fact that they were sanctioned throughout nearly every civilised country in the world. They were permitted in nearly every State of the continent of Europe and in America, yet complaints of this kind had never been heard of in any one of them. The hon. and learned Members for Plymouth and Oxford said that the examples of other countries were not binding on us; but page 6 these examples had not been adduced by way of authority, but for the purpose of showing that such marriages had existed for a long period in many moral and civilised nations, and that none of the evils had arisen which it had been predicted would arise if this Bill was passed. It might be very well for us to arrogate to ourselves a higher degree of morality for this over other countries; and he admitted there were some countries in Europe where the same feeling as to chastity after marriage did not exist as in this nation; but there were other countries where these marriages were allowed, such as the north of Germany, Holland, and Switzerland, where the standard of morality was as high as it was in this country. Would any one get up in that House and say that the standard of morality and chastity was not as high among the Anglo-Saxon race in the United States of America as in England? If the consequences and effects of these marriages were destructive of domestic peace, would any civilised nation have endured their continuance for any length of time? He thought, therefore, that these grounds of opposition might be put aside as purely imaginary. Having disposed of these objections, he contended that such marriages should be allowed, on account of the real good that would result from them. There could be no doubt that the greatest advantage and benefit would accrue to the children from such a marriage where the mother died early in life. Every one admitted that the fittest person to supply the place of a deceased mother towards her children was her sister. Put the case of a mother about to die—whom would she select, on her death-bed, as a second mother for her young children? There could be no doubt that it would be her sister. They had been told, however, that if this Bill became law, they would prevent the possibility of the aunt taking the place of guardian of the children, where no marriage took place between her and the father, whereby the children would lose the benefit of her protection. His answer was that she page 7 could not do it now, if the parties were of an age when mutual passion might be likely to spring up. He did not believe that a young unmarried woman could live in a house with a young widower where there were no ties of blood to revolt against any feeling of attachment, without being open to a certain amount of observation. Would any hon. Member, as a father or a brother, wish his daughter or sister to live with her widowed brother-in-law in such a state of domestic intimacy, or expect that it would pass without notice from persons who might be disposed to make censorious or malicious observations? His hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sheffield said that nothing could be more delightful than the relation of brother and sister; but they could not, when this tie did not exist, create it by artificial means or by legal enactment, nor prevent by such means mutual feelings of attachment from springing up between man and woman. The practical result of all experience on this subject showed that when feelings of this kind grew up between a man and his wife's sister, you could not by prohibitory laws prevent their marrying. Mankind were so accustomed to look upon marriage as a matter of religious sanction, that when they were satisfied that the divine law did not prevent a particular marriage, they would seek to evade the law which prohibited it: their consciences would be satisfied, nor would their friends and relations blame them, or look upon them as dishonoured. From the time of passing this law, in 1835, he found that in a very limited district 1,500 marriages of this kind had taken place. It was notorious that a vast number of persons wishing to marry under these circumstances went abroad for that purpose. The children of those married in this country, unless the marriages should be legalised, would be bastardised. If such marriages took place abroad, their legality would probably hereafter be disputed. This would give rise to endless litigation, and to the distress of those innocent parties who having be page 8 lieved that their parents were legally married, might one day find that they were illegitimate. If the evils which might thus arise respected those only who contracted such marriages in spite of the law, little sympathy might be felt for them; but in these cases the interests of the innocent were involved. It appeared to him that they had no right to place a check on acts which involved human happiness, unless it could be shown that it was necessary to do so to prevent a greater amount of evil. The hon. and learned Member for the city of Oxford argued that it was not necessary the divine law should forbid such marriages, if there were reasons of public polity which rendered them improper. To show this, he stated that some of the nations of antiquity prohibited marriages within certain degress of affinity. No one disputed this, for it was for the common interests of mankind that marriages of persons closely allied in blood should not be allowed. If such unions were allowed, not only would mankind become demoralised, but also the human race itself would be deteriorated. Of course under such circumstances the common experience of mankind demanded restrictions, but there was nothing of this kind involved in the sanctioning such marriages as were referred to in the Bill before the House. It appeared to him, then, that there was no ground, religious, moral, or social, for opposing this measure; while there were the strongest reasons of justice and policy for passing it: he should, therefore, give it his cordial support.

London: Cornelius Buck, 22, Paternoster Row. E.C.