The Worlds Famous Orations. Great Britain: III. (18651906). 1906.
His Plea at the Bar of the House
Charles Bradlaugh (183391)
Born in 1833, died in 1891; served in the army, 185053; elected to Parliament in 1880, but not allowed to take his seat because he refused to take the Parliamentary oath; several times reelected, but not allowed to sit until 1886; two years later moved and carried a bill permitting members to sit if they chose by affirming instead of taking the oath.
I HAVE1 again to ask the indulgence of the House while I submit to it a few words in favor of my claim to do that which the law requires me to do. I now say I would not go through any formmuch as I value the right to sit in this House, much as I desire and believe that this House will accord me that rightthat I did not mean to be binding upon me without mental reservation, without equivocation. I would go through no form unless it were fully and completely and thoroughly binding upon me as to what it expressed or promised.
Mine has been no easy position for the last twelve months. I have been elected by the free votes of a free constituency. My return is untainted. There is no charge of bribery, no charge of corruption, nor of inducing men to come drunken to the polling-booth. I come here with a pure, untainted returnnot won by accident. For thirteen long years have I fought for this rightthrough five contested elections, including this.2 It is now proposed to prevent me from fulfilling the duty my constituents have forced upon me. You have force: on my side is the law.
The honorable and learned member for Plymouth [Mr., and afterward Sir, Edward Clarke] spoke the truth when he said he did not ask the House to treat the matter as a question of law; but the constituencies ask me to treat it as a question of law. I, for them, ask you to treat it as a question of law. I could understand the feeling that seems to have been manifested were I some great and powerful personage. I could understand it had I a large influence behind me. I am only one of the people, and you propose to teach them that, on a mere technical question, you will put a barrier in the way of my doing my duty which you have never put in the way of anybody else.
The question is, Has my return on the ninth day of April, 1881, anything whatever to impeach it? There is no legal disqualification involved. If there were, it could be raised by petition. The honorable member for Plymouth says the dignity of this House is in question. Do you mean that I can injure the dignity of this House?this House which has stood unrivaled for centuries?this House, supreme among the assemblies of the world?this House, which represents the traditions of liberty? I should not have libeled you.
How is the dignity of this House to be hurt? If what happened before the ninth day of April is less than a legal disqualification, it is a matter for the judgment of the constituency and not for you. The constituency has judged me; it has elected me; I stand here with no legal disqualification upon me. The right of the constituency to return me is an unimpeachable right.
I know some gentlemen make light of constituencies; yet without the constituencies you are nothing. It is from them you derive your whole and sole authority. The honorable and learned member for Plymouth treats lightly the legal question. It is dangerous to make light of the lawdangerous, because if you are only going to rely on your strength of force to override the law, you give a bad lesson to men whose morality you impeach as to what should be their duty if emergency ever came. Always outside the House I have advocated strenuous obedience to the law, and it is under that law that I claim my right.
I claim to do that which the law says I must. Frankly, I would rather have affirmed. When I came to the table of the House I deemed I had a legal right to do it. The courts have decided against me, and I am bound to their decision.
But the force that you invoke against the law to-day may to-morrow be used against you, and the use will be justified by your example. It is a fact that I have no remedy if you rely on your force. I can only be driven into a contest, wearying even to a strong man well supported, ruinous and killing to one man standing by himselfa contest in which, if I succeed, it will be injurious to you as well as to me. Injurious to me, because I can only win by lessening your repute, which I desire to maintain. The only court I have the power of appealing to is the court of public opinion, which I have no doubt in the end will do me justice.
The honorable member for Plymouth said I had the manliness on a former occasion to make an avowal of opinions to this House. I did nothing of the kind. I have never, directly or indirectly, said one word about my opinions, and this House has no right to inquire what opinions I may hold outside its walls. The only right is that which the statute gives you; my opinions there is no right to inquire into. I shelter myself under the laws of my country. This is a political assembly, met to decide on the policy of the nation and not on the religious opinions of the citizens. While I had the honor of occupying a seat in the House, when questions were raised which touched upon religious matters I abstained from uttering one word. I did not desire to say one word which might hurt the feelings of even the most tender.
But it is said, Why not have taken the oath quietly? I did not take it then, because I thought I had the right to do something else, and I have paid the penalty. I have been plunged in litigation fostered by men who had not the courage to put themselves forward. I, a penniless man, should have been ruined if it had not been that the men in workshop, pit, and factory had enabled me to fight this battle. [An interruption.]
I am sorry that honorable members can not have patience with one pleading as I plead here. It is no light task, even if you put it on the lowest personal grounds, to risk the ambition of a life on such an issue. It is a right ambition to desire to take part in the councils of the nation if you bring no store of wisdom with you and can only learn from the great intellects that we have. What will you inquire into? The right honorable baronet would inquire into my opinions. Will you inquire into my conduct, or is it only my opinions you will try here?
The honorable member for Plymouth frankly puts it, opinions. If opinions, why not conduct? Why not examine into members conduct when they come to the table, and see if there be no members in whose way you can put a barrier?
Are members whose conduct may be obnoxious to vote my exclusion because to them my opinions are obnoxious? As to any obnoxious views supposed to be held by me, there is no duty imposed upon me to say a word. The right honorable baronet has said there has been no word of recantation.
You have no right to ask me for any recantation. Since the ninth of April you have no right to ask me for anything. If you have a legal disqualification, petition, lay it before the judges. When you ask me to make a statement you are guilty of impertinence to me, of treason to the traditions of this House, and of impeachment of the liberties of the people. My difficulty is that those who have made the most bitter attacks upon me only made them when I was not here to deal with them.
I have fought by myself. I have fought by my own hand. I have been hindered in every way that it was possible to hinder me; and it is only by the help of the people, by the pence of toilers in mine and factory, that I am here to-day after these five struggles right through thirteen years. I have won my way with them, for I have won their hearts, and now I come to you. Will you send me back from here?
Then how? You have the right, but it is the right of force and not of law. When I am once seated on these benches, then I am under your jurisdiction. At present I am under the protection of the writ from those who sent me here. I do not want to quote what has happened before; but if there be one lesson which the House has recorded more solemnly than another, it is that there should be no interference with the judgment of a constituency in sending a man to this House against whom there is no statutory disqualification. Let me appeal to the generosity of the House as well as to its strength. It has traditions of liberty on both sides. I do not complain that members on that [the Conservative] try to keep me out. They act according to their lights, and think my poor services may be injurious to them. [Cries of No!] Then why not let me in? It must be either a political or a religious question.
I must apologize to the House for trespassing upon its patience. I apologize because I know how generous in its listening it has been from the time of my first speech in it till now. But I ask you now, do not plunge with me into a struggle I would shun. The law gives me no remedy if the House decides against me. Do not mock at the constituencies. If you place yourselves above the law, you leave me no course save lawless agitation instead of reasonable pleading. It is easy to begin such a strife, but none knows how it would end. I have no court, no tribunal to appeal to: you have the strength of your votes at the moment. You think I am an obnoxious man, and that I have no one on my side. If that be so, then the more reason that this House, grand in the strength of its centuries of liberty, should have now that generosity in dealing with one who to-morrow may be forced into a struggle for public opinion against it.
Note 1. After he had made this speech, Bradlaugh was ordered to leave the House, and on refusing to do so, was placed in custody. He was reelected in the same year (1881), and formally ejected after entering and then refusing to leave the House. Similar scenes occurred in 1882 and 1883. From Bradlaughs The True Story of My Parliamentary Struggle, by kind permission. [back]
Note 2. His first attempt to enter Parliament was made in 1868. [back]