Great Liberal Speeches: George Tierney on sacrificing the constitution on the altar of public security

A few years back, I was one of the contributors to Great Liberal Speeches. Here is my piece on a seminal speech in defence of civil liberties, made by George Tierney in 1819. The issues are still very pertinent today: defending civil liberties in the face of claims they are getting in the way of protecting our security.

George Tierney, who led the Whigs in the House of Commons between 1817 and 1821, was born in 1761 in Gibraltar to a wealthy merchant family. After growing up in Gibraltar and Paris, he went to Eton and Cambridge. He trained as a lawyer, but then went into politics rather than pursuing a legal career.

He rapidly became familiar with the corrupt and costly side of elections, first being (briefly) elected in Colchester. The election count ended in a tie but he was awarded the seat after an investigation into claims of corruption. He promptly lost it again in 1790. He went through several other seats during his career, including Southwark where he won, lost (to his niece’s husband), forced a re-run on grounds of corruption, lost again and was then awarded the seat – again on grounds of corruption.

Given this electoral background, and his time in Paris, it is not surprising that he both admired the first stages of the French Revolution and during his career regularly argued in favour of reform, particularly cleaning up the electoral system and giving more people the vote. From his early days in Parliament he clearly associated himself with the Whigs, especially the more radical ones, including the Association of the Friends of the People for which he was co-treasurer.

His enthusiasm for radical reform weakened in later years as he became disillusioned with the course of the French Revolution. It never though completely went away.

He made his mark as a Parliamentarian when he refused to back the more radical Fox during the boycott of Parliament carried out by him and his colleagues. Tierney continued attending and, with the more prominent and more skilled opposition debaters absent, had the perfect opportunity to establish himself.

His reputation was based on a firm grasp of facts, particularly detailed numbers. Although his speaking style did not compete with the heights reached by the highly talented contemporary triumvirate of Pitt, Burke and Fox, his expertise, clear expression and ability to wound with sneers and sarcasm made him an effective debater. His contemporary Charles Williams Wynn described him as, “A most efficient man of business and the best speaker of detail in the House.”

Naturally cautious, yet often bold in action, his slightly erratic pragmatism led his critics to accuse him of indecision. As leader in the Commons in 1817-21, he had a mixed record. He had to deal with a very fragmented group of supporters, many of whom looked down on his social origins, and arguably failed to fatally wound or seriously damage the Government when good opportunities presented themselves.

During the early nineteenth century the two-party electoral system was only weakly defined for much of the time, with factions grouped around particular individuals or families being the real building blocks of the system.

There were, though, two ideological divides which helped demark a liberal tradition that continued through to the formation of the modern Liberal party. One was religion – non-conformity versus the established Church. The other was civil liberties, and in particular their protection against encroachment from Governments fearing revolution and therefore introducing repressive measures. If one substitutes “fear of crime” for “fear of revolution” many of the principled arguments made then fit easily within modern liberal thought in the UK.

The background to his speech reproduced below was a period of increasing unrest and protest, resulting most famously at a public protest near Manchester in August 1819. It was held on St. Peter’s Fields and when the local magistrates ordered troops to intervene, causing the death of eleven, it was christened “Peterloo” in mock honour of the battle of Waterloo. The Government claimed such protests required a curtailment of civil liberties and other measures in order to ensure that revolution did not occur.

In the speech, Tierney highlighted the tension at the heart of the Government’s argument, a tension that was repeated on many other occasions in the early nineteenth century. On the one hand, the Government argued that the danger of unrest was sufficiently great to justify repressive measures and the curtailment of liberty. But, on the other hand, the Government argued that overall people were happy and that there was no need for any significant reform beyond the repressive measures they were proposing.

With only one exception – the right of people to have their own guns – the basic principles Tierney supported in this speech are ones that would also sit happily in the speeches of liberals in succeeding decades and centuries.

Tierney and the opposition did not oppose all of the six bills introduced, but they were particularly fierce in their hostility to those that encroached most on traditional civil liberties, notably press freedom and the right to hold public meetings.

Although all the measures passed through Parliament, the defence of civil liberties espoused by Tierney ensured the maintenance of a tradition which became a major feature of the modern Liberal party when it was formed later in the century.

Unity on such issues was, though, a long way in the future. There were, as there had been for many years previously, persistent tensions within Tierney’s party over the degree to which civil liberties and political reform should be supported. As a result, he was unable to forge a united political force and his leadership ended in failure with his resignation in 1821. He died in 1830.

Further reading

Although his political career covered a period that has been thoroughly trawled by historians, Tierney has largely escaped the interests of biographers with the exception of KH Olphin’s George Tierney. Two of the standard histories covering his period are A Briggs, The age of improvement 1783-1867 and N Gash, Aristocracy and the People, 1815-1865. Much of the ideological climate was heavily influenced by the French Revolution, chronicled in F O’Gorman’s The Whig party and the French Revolution. A Mitchell’s The Whigs in opposition 1815-1830 covers the period of Tierney’s leadership.

Sacrificing The Constitution On The Altar Of Public Security – George Tierney On The Six Acts

House of Commons 29th November 1819

Mr. Tierney observed that the awful denunciation by the noble lord of many of the principles which he (Mr. Tierney) had been accustomed to hold most sacred must of course occasion him to rise under considerable embarrassment. But that embarrassment would be greater if he imagined that after the statement of the noble lord, the House would expect him on the sudden to be prepared to go into a general argument upon the question. Great variety of matter had been introduced the greater part of which, to him at least, was perfectly new. When he came down to the House he had not the most distant conception that the noble lord would advert to many of the points on which he had dwelt at large. He assured the House that he attended in his place – and he hoped the noble lord would believe him – with a very sincere inclination to listen calmly and dispassionately to all that was to be advanced. He felt not the slightest prejudice on any of the points (on some it was impossible that he should feel any, as he was totally ignorant of them); but after what he had heard, he was conscious that he should not discharge his duty, if he did not trouble the House with a few, and a very few, observations.

The noble lord had stated that members on the opposition side of the House, on the first day of the session, had in substance agreed with all parts of the address relating to the seditious spirit pervading the manufacturing districts. It was almost needless to remind the House that the noble lord had no authority for that statement; for his own part, he (Mr. Tierney) had expressly asserted his agreement with the allegations in the address, as far only as they should be established by evidence to be produced. It was really astonishing that the noble lord, who could be candid enough on the first day of the session, should now, for some purpose of his own, not only state that which went even beyond the address, but attempt to ratify that statement by a supposed confirmation derived from the other side of the House. He (Mr. Tierney) had said then, and he repeated it now, that the measures to be adopted must depend upon the necessity, and that necessity could only be ascertained by due inquiry. He did not say that a possible case might not arise where new laws might be required; that a House of Commons in the discharge of its duty might not entertain projects of this kind, but what he maintained was that they ought not to do so until the necessity had been clearly and unequivocally made out.

He denied that necessity at starting: no such case had been made out that justified such measures as had been proposed, even supposing, upon examination, it should turn out that the safety of the country required them. All the House had before it was the notoriety of certain proceedings; but the grounds of those proceedings, their motives, and extent, was only to be gathered from the papers communicated by the Prince Regent. Without meaning to anticipate the debate of tomorrow, to be introduced by his noble friend, he would say, that a more garbled, mutilated account was never presented to the House of Commons.

The noble lord had stated what undoubtedly was very consolatory, but for the comment with which it was, accompanied – that the main body of the nation was sound and loyal that in principle it was attached to the law and the constitution. Even in the disaffected districts, it had been admitted tonight, that the great mass of the population was untouched and untainted by disaffection, and that they were prepared to stand by the law and the constitution. Nay, the noble lord went, further; he had stated what would have astonished him, if any thing could astonish him from the present Ministry on the subject of finance – that the internal state of the country was perfectly prosperous; that in our foreign trade there was nothing to apprehend, but from the distress of America; that all our manufactures found their accustomed vent on the continent; and that it was the condition of America alone that restrained the commercial industry of the nation.

Certainly, if the representations of the noble lord were to be believed in opposition to the evidence of our own senses, the country ought to be in a very happy condition. But how was it then that, as if the nature of the people had changed, as if they had become blind, obstinate, and perverse, it turned out that the nation was to be called upon to sacrifice its constitution on the altar of public security? The subjects of the realm were now told, that the old laws of England were not sufficient to guarantee protection to property; that what they had been accustomed to venerate as their safeguard, were inadequate; that not only 10,000 additional soldiers were to be placed over them, but that those soldiers were to be backed by corps of yeomanry, and by statutes hitherto unknown; and after all this, they were to be assured that their condition was fortunate, and their finances flourishing!

… [Tierney criticises supporters of radical reform] …

A right honourable gentleman had said on a former night, that the Whigs had been for 50 years excluded from power. It was true, and here was the fruit of that exclusion. After the lapse of 50 years of rule, what had the opponents of the Whigs done for the nation? They had brought it to such a condition of discontent and disaffection, that in a period of profound peace, the tranquillity of the country could not be maintained without new laws, not consistent with the spirit of the constitution.

The noble lord had opened five bills to the House. The first was against Seditious and Tumultuous Assemblies – the second against Drilling – the third against the Possession of Arms – the fourth was against Traversing – the fifth branched out into two or three heads; and was aimed at the liberty of the press.

With respect to the right of traverse, he freely confessed that his mind was open to information. He did not profess to be acquainted with all the grounds on which that right had originally been conceded to the subject; inconveniences might have arisen from it, and the remedies of the noble lord might be applied without danger. Yet with fear and trembling he should undertake to change an established principle of the common law, founded upon almost immemorial usage; and though he did not undertake to pronounce peremptorily against it, he approached it with a degree of awe, and would not change it until the necessity should be sufficiently established.

A right to have arms for his own defence

If by the power of searching for arms the noble lord meant to go the length of saying that an Englishman was not to be allowed to have weapons for self-defence in his possession, a most grave case indeed must be made out before he could consent to the proposition. Going about in armed bodies from place to place was already illegal but between that and the established constitutional principle that a man had a right to have arms for his own defence he took a wide and material distinction.

He begged of the House to pause before it sanctioned a measure which directly violated that privilege, in which twenty years ago men would have shuddered had it been even hinted that an alteration was intended. As a temporary measure it might under some circumstances be necessary; such as that large bodies of men were arming themselves in a way dangerous to the community. What was the fact? The papers upon the table merely proved, that certain persons had been making a limited number of pikes, that certain other persons had obtained some pistols and that a few more were in search of other firearms, if they could obtain them at a cheap rate. It was only pretended that Lancashire, Cheshire, a small part of Scotland, though thickly populated, and some districts of Yorkshire, were in a disturbed state. Yet upon no better testimony than this the whole people of England were to be deprived of arms.

Lord Castlereagh said, across the table, that the Arms bill was only to be local.

What then were the districts to which the law was to apply?

Lord Castlereagh replied: those included in the Watch and Ward act.

As he (Mr. Tierney) had not that measure precisely in his memory, he would not waste time by observations upon it. As to the law against drilling, he had heard with great astonishment, that such practices were not already against law; that no punishment could now be inflicted upon men who drilled and trained at night, and formed themselves into military array. If this were not so, he was, ready to submit to a new law on this subject. If it could be worded so as to meet the exigencies of the case, he honestly admitted that he had no objection to it; guarding himself with this observation, that it must be drawn so as not to go a single step beyond the necessity of the case, and that it was established that the men were drilling themselves evidently for the purpose of military operations.

He next came to what in his mind was the great question of all – the new regulations against seditious and tumultuous meetings. Upon this subject the noble lord had asserted, that all the learned gentlemen on the other side of the House had very carefully abstained from giving any opinion whether assemblies of a particular description were or were not illegal. If he had understood his learned friends, their difficulty was this – that the question must depend upon particular circumstances; and until the facts of a case were laid before them, it was impossible to give an opinion upon it. No doubt a case might be shown in which it would be highly improper for the magistracy not to exert themselves by preventing a projected meeting, to preserve the public peace, a breach of which might threaten the safety of the country.

Here the only question was, whether the particular circumstances under which the Manchester meeting was held were of such a description as that nothing but a military force could have put an end to its proceedings? To this he answered, that a meeting as large, or nearly as large, had taken place in Yorkshire; bodies of men had marched to Hunsletmoor of the same description as those that had attended at Manchester, with flags flying, and what had been termed an appearance of military array. What had become of it? The mayor of Leeds had felt no disposition to interfere; he had taken the proper precautions for the security of the peace, in the event of danger, though he did not think it right to make an ostentatious display of those precautions until a justifiable cause (which he did not apprehend) should be afforded for resorting to them. Such a cause did not occur.

The persons assembled dispersed quietly; and from first to last, in Yorkshire, there had been no symptom of confusion. In Scotland, also, the magistrates had exercised a sound discretion; they had let the feeling of animosity waste itself; it did waste itself; and no such proceedings as those of Manchester had occurred there. And now the noble lord came forward, and assumed it as indisputable, that meetings must be confined within some other limitations, than those which at present existed, either numerical or local!

The noble lord’s plan appeared to be this – that no meeting should be allowed in any county, unless convened by the sheriff, the lord lieutenant, or by five magistrates: in certain towns, it must be called by the mayor; or if called by individuals, that no man could discuss and deliberate upon any public question out of his own parish.

The safety valve of the constitution

If such were the plan, there was at once an end of all the old wholesome spirit of the law upon this important subject. It would really seem from the cheers, as the noble lord was restoring that old wholesome spirit, and that he (Mr. Tierney) was resisting it. Yet under that old wholesome spirit this country had flourished more than it would under the sage administration of the noble lord if he were to live for a century. Whether in former times any meetings as numerically great as those of which the noble lord complained had been held, he did not know but every page and every corner of every page of our history showed that assemblies had been convened, where men were allowed to harangue in any times of alarm.

Mr. Burke had well called them the safety valve of the constitution, by which all the foul air was permitted to escape. This safety valve with all his fears, the noble lord would destroy, and while he exclaimed that his only purpose was to preserve the constitution, no man could fail to see that he was preventing the exercise of an accustomed constitutional right. This attempt was to be viewed with the utmost jealousy; it was to introduce an entirely new system, and that not merely temporarily, but permanently.

When the bills came before the House, many opportunities would be afforded for objections in detail, and he was much mistaken if they would not be found in every corner of every measure. He was now objecting only to the principle, and it ought not to he forgotten, that these acts were not to be local; they were to extend to England, Scotland, and Ireland. When the noble lord mentioned that he should open a whole system, he had flattered himself that a part of that system would be conciliation. It was now seen, however, that nothing but rigour and coercion were to be resorted to; a blow was struck at the very vitals of fair and free discussion, and did the House really believe that in following the steps of the noble lord it would not be treading upon very dangerous ground? Did it believe that the danger arising from the state of the country was as great as it was represented, or that the refusal of what the noble lord demanded, and a reliance upon the venerable laws of the kingdom, would not be the least hazardous experiment? Would not the new bills rather exasperate than repress? If there were these large bodies of men in a state of dangerous effervescence, which he much doubted, would not the peril be doubled, when they were told that they must expect nothing but coercion – that new laws should be invented to put them down, and that none of their grievances, whether real or imaginary, should receive a moment’s attention?

If Parliamentary reform were mentioned in any shape, the immediate answer was – “Now you are going to innovate.” Yet Ministers were to make what innovations they pleased; they were to invade the most dear and settled rights of the people; to infringe upon privileges that the practice of many centuries had confirmed; and if a charge of innovation were made against them, they met it with a look of astonishment and a cheer of surprise. What must be the event? Would not those who were now agitated be worked to a state of madness or desperation, instead of being quelled and subdued?

A dead silence in the country

He warned the House how it consented to steps that might be attended with the most baleful consequence, and neglected the voice of the people; not merely of those who were enthusiastic on parliamentary reform, but of sober thinking men, whose experience gave them this unanswerable demonstration – that something was wrong here, and that something must be altered. Ministers might fancy that they could control the distressed by overawing them with 10,000 men; but they would find it impossible. A dead silence in the country might for a season be produced by soldiers and penal laws, but nothing could reconcile the people to the loss of their rights, or compel them to submit quietly to that grievous deprivation. The number of armed men might, in time, be rendered greater than the unarmed, and then, instead of venting their feelings by becoming spouters at public meetings, the discontented would be converted from empty boasters in public places, into real conspirators in dark corners.

These matters well merited the attention of the House, and especially of that portion of it who thought of nothing (and he did not blame them for it) but of the preservation of property. Property never could be exposed to greater danger ultimately than for a popular representation, as this House called itself, to pass nothing but acts of rigour, and omit all attempts at kindness and conciliation.

Encroaching on the liberty of all

The right of meeting was not only to be taken away, but what the noble lord had called the broad liberty of the press was to be invaded. As to the cheap publications as they were called, no one viewed with greater disgust than he did their effusions, as well on the subject of religion as in vilification of the best characters in the country; and his chief astonishment had arisen from observing, that for three or four years together no attempt has been made to put a stop to them. The noble lord had observed that complaints had been made against the number of ex-officio informations, and it was true: they had been objected to as arbitrary and needless; but could any man read but the tenth part of the cheap publications, and not be persuaded that grand juries would have found true bills, and petty juries verdicts of guilty against their authors? Did Ministers by this abstemiousness of prosecution mean to bring the matter to a crisis like the present? Did they contemplate a time when the vast accumulation of the evil would warrant them in this new infringement? If the libels had been brought before juries, Ministers seemed to apprehend that the existing law would have been found sufficient, and they would thus have been deprived of one main ground on which their measure rested.

As to the question of the liberty of the press, if he were to enter into it, a wide field indeed would be opened to him; but though he might lament the excess to which that liberty had in some instances been carried, he was persuaded that the old and recognized laws were adequate to restrain it. Upon this point the case was as defective as upon others; and as nothing was more valuable than the preservation of the liberty hitherto enjoyed, he hoped the nation would feel it, and that before the noble lord’s bill passed into a law, depriving the people of their ancient privileges, they would assemble without fear, and pour in upon the House, a tide of remonstrances which even the noble lord would not be able to resist.

It was unnecessary for him on the present occasion to say more. The liberty of the press was as yet in safe hands – in the hands of the press itself: which would no doubt speedily throw light enough on the subject to show what the real causes were of the licentiousness of the few, that was to be made the ground for encroaching on the liberty of all.

Were we to live in new times?

He had come down to the House with a sincere inclination to listen impartially to what the noble lord might suggest, and disposed to concur in the measures proposed, rather to oppose them; but he had then no notion of the extent to which the demand would be made. He might have been willing to concede something if a necessity had been shown, but nothing would satisfy the noble lord but an attack upon the very vital principles of the British constitution. Were we to live in entirely new times? Were we now to hold up to the world, that the constitution which we had hitherto venerated for its antiquity, and loved for the blessings it has conferred, was of no value? Formerly, when foreigners asked in what way we became possessed of such and such institutions that attracted their admiration, we could reply, that we were indebted for them to the right which the people of England enjoyed of thinking and speaking freely. But now another lesson was taught by the noble lord, who would convince us, that what had been the salvation of our liberties was the destruction of our happiness – that what we and our forefathers had believed, was false and foolish; and that to preserve freedom and property, the constitution must undergo a change which, in his conscience he (Mr. Tierney) believed it could not survive.

He said fairly and openly that suspecting as he did the administration from which these measures emanated, he considered them as only the advanced guard of the array of bills which they were to direct against the constitution. He saw on the part of the government an evident determination to resort to nothing but force; they thought of nothing else; they dreamt of nothing else; they would try no means of conciliation, they would make no attempt to pacify and reconcile; force – force – force, and nothing but force! That was their cry, and it had been the same for years: one measure of coercion had been, and would be, followed up by another, and the result would justify what he asserted, that 10,000 men would not answer their purpose; one measure of violence must succeed another, and what they gained by force they must retain by the same detestable means.

The people would never rest until they were allowed to live under laws equally administered; until their honest industry could procure them the means of maintaining their families, and until they should again enjoy the blessings of that constitution which their ancestors intended they should partake. If not, discontent would increase to disaffection, and distress would produce discontent, notwithstanding the bold assertions of the noble lord, that the nation was prosperous, and had no wants but those which arose out of the present condition of America.

If the noble lord had confined himself to the grant of 10,000 men, he should have deemed it a strong measure in a time of profound peace. Was any evidence offered that a body of military had been overpowered, or even that it had not always been sufficient to the dispersion of any meeting? But if the country gave him more troops to put down new meetings, surely it was somewhat hard that he should also ask it for new laws, that were to prevent the possibility of new meetings. If the noble lord thought that the new laws would be effectual, where was the occasion for the 10,000 men? It was clear that the noble lord felt that his new laws were more likely to exasperate than to conciliate, and the best comment upon all the noble lord had advanced in favour of his new projects, was his declaration, “I want 10,000 men into the bargain.” His sincere belief was, that the noble lord would want many more than 10,000 men, and what a melancholy prospect did that hold out to the country!

It might be said that he used violent language. He admitted it; and all he could say in answer was, that he did not utter a single syllable that he did not on his honour, believe. He was an alarmist, he felt alarm, because he was compelled to trust to men who would rely on nothing against the people but brute force. He was alarmed because an attempt was to be made, under false pretences, to destroy all that was valuable in the constitution, unless it were defended by the free spirit of a yet free nation. Therefore it was, that he indulged a hope, that while the right of meeting remained, the people would meet and express their opinions with such effect that the threats and measures of coercion might be abandoned.

He had hoped that a more moderate course would have been pursued, because, with the exception of the disturbed districts, as they were called, there was no part of Great Britain where assemblies might not be held, even by the admission of ministers, without the slightest danger to the public peace.

He trusted that the country would thoroughly understand the nature of these novel laws, that the real objects of government would be evident, and that those objects by the public voice would be forever defeated. If the country abstained from that course, and if the House, without any evidence to warrant those innovations, should consent to follow the noble lord in his desperate and adventurous course, all he could say was that he should witness it with the deepest and most sincere regret. He should then have lived long enough, and could no longer be of use to his country in that House.

He hoped that all members would give the subject their most deliberate attention. The new laws were not such as the public exigency required; the extent, or even the existence of disaffection was not proved; and until it should be so, it was the duty of every honest man to pause. At least, attention ought to be paid to this point – whether some course of conciliation might not be adopted; whether steps ought not to be taken to satisfy the people, and to prove that, while the House was willing to repress sedition, it had a fixed determination to listen to their grievances, and, as far as possible, to apply a remedy.


There are no comments

Share your views

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All comments and data you submit with them will be handled in line with the privacy and moderation policies.