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AGAINST SEARCH WARRANTS FOR SEAMEN
DELIVERED IN THE HOUSE OF COMMONS
MARCH 6, 1741.
War was declared against Spain in October, 1739, and it soon became extremely difficult to man the British fleets. Hence a bill was brought forward by Sir Charles Wager, in January, 1741 conferring authority on Justices of the Peace to issue search-warrants, under which constables might enter private dwellings either by day or by night--and, if need be, might force the doors--for the purpose of discovering seamen, and impressing them into the public service. So gross an act of injustice awakened the indignation of Mr. Pitt, who poured out the following invective against the measure, and those who were endeavoring to force it on the House.
SIR,--The two honorable and learned gentlemen1 who spoke in favor of this clause, were pleased to show that our seamen are half slaves already, and now they modestly desire you should make them wholly so. Will this increase your number of seamen? or will it make those you have more willing to serve you? Can you expect that any man will make himself a slave if he can avoid it? Can you expect that any man will breed his child up to be a slave? Can you expect that seamen will venture their lives or their limbs for a country that has made them slaves? or can you expect that any seaman will stay in the country, if he can by any means make his escape? Sir, if you pass this law, you must, in my opinion, do with your seamen as they do with their galley-slaves in France--you must chain them to their ships, or chain them in couples when they are ashore. But suppose this should both increase the number of your seamen, and render them more willing to serve you, it will render them incapable. It is a common observation, that when a man becomes a slave, he loses half his virtue. What will it signify to have your ships all manned to their full complement? Your men will have neither the courage nor the temptation to fight; they will strike to the first enemy that attacks them, because their condition can not be made worse by a surrender. Our seamen have always been famous for a matchless alacrity and intrepidity in time of danger; this has saved many a British ship, when other seamen would have run below deck, and left the ship to the mercy of the waves, or, perhaps, of a more cruel enemy, a pirate. For God's sake, sir, let us not, by our new projects, put our seamen into such a condition as must soon make them worse than the cowardly slaves of France or Spain.
The learned gentlemen were next pleased to show us that the government were already possessed of such a power as is now desired. And how did they show it? Why, sir, by showing that this was the practice in the case of felony, and in the case of those who are as bad as felons, I mean those who rob the public, or dissipate the public money. Shall we, sir, put our brave sailors upon the same footing with felons and public robbers? Shall a brave, honest sailor be treated as a felon, for no other reason but because, after a long voyage, he has a mind to solace himself among his friends in the country, and for that purpose absconds for a few weeks, in order to prevent his being pressed upon a Spithead, or some such pacific expedition? For I dare answer for it, there is not a sailor in Britain but would immediately offer his services, if he thought his country in any real danger, or expected to be sent upon an expedition where he might have a chance of gaining riches to himself and glory to his country. I am really ashamed, sir, to hear such arguments made use of in any case where our seamen are concerned. Can we expect that brave men will not resent such treatment? Could we expect they would stay with us, if we should make a law for treating them in such a contemptible manner?
But suppose, sir, we had no regard for our seamen. I hope we shall have some regard for the rest of the people, and for ourselves in particular; for I think I do not in the least exaggerate when I say, we are laying a trap for the lives of all the men of spirit in the nation. Whether the law, when made, is to be carried into execution, I do not know; but if it is, we are laying a snare for our own lives. Every gentleman of this House must be supposed, I hope justly, to be a man of spirit. Would any of you, gentlemen, allow this law to be executed in its full extent? If, at midnight, a petty constable, with a press-gang, should come thundering at the gates of your house in the country, and should tell you he had a search-warrant, and must search your house for seamen, would you at that time of night allow your gates to be opened? I protest I would not. What, then, would be the consequence? He has by this law a power to break them open. Would any of you patiently submit to such an indignity? Would not you fire upon him, if he attempted to break open your gates? I declare I would, let the consequence be never so fatal; and if you happened to be in the bad graces of a minister, the consequence would be your being either killed in the fray, or hanged for killing the constable or some of his gang. This, sir, may be the case of even some of us here; and, upon my honor, I do not think it an exaggeration to suppose it may.
The honorable gentlemen say no other remedy has been proposed. Sir, there have been several other remedies proposed. Let us go into a committee to consider of what has been, or may be proposed. Suppose no other remedy should be offered: to tell us we must take this, because no other remedy can be thought of, is the same with a physician's telling his patient, "Sir, there is no known remedy for your distemper, therefore you shall take poison--I'll cram it down your throat." I do not know how the nation may treat its physicians; but, I am sure, if my physician told me so, l should order my servants to turn him out of doors.
Such desperate remedies, sir, are never to be applied but in cases of the utmost extremity, and how we come at present to be in such extremity I can not comprehend. In the time of Queen Elizabeth we were not thought to be in any such extremity, though we were then threatened with the most formidable invasion that was ever prepared against this nation. In our wars with the Dutch, a more formidable maritime power than France and Spain now would be, if they were united against us, we were not supposed to be in any such extremity, either in the time of the Commonwealth or of King Charles the Second. In King William's war against France, when her naval power was vastly superior to what it is at present, and when we had more reason to be afraid of an invasion than we can have at present, we were thought to be in no such extremity. In Queen Anne's time, when we were engaged in a war both against France and Spain, and were obliged to make great levies yearly for the land service, no such remedy was ever thought of, except for one year only, and then it was found to be far from being effectual.
This, sir, I am convinced, would be the case now, as well as it was then. It was at that time computed that, by means of such a law as this, there were not above fourteen hundred seamen brought into the service of the government; and, considering the methods that have been already taken, and the reward proposed by this bill to be offered to volunteers, I am convinced that the most strict and general search would not bring in half the number. Shall we, then, for the sake of adding six or seven hundred, or even fourteen hundred seamen to his Majesty's navy, expose our Constitution to so much danger, and every housekeeper in the kingdom to the danger of being disturbed at all hours in the night?
But suppose this law were to have a great effect, it can be called nothing but a temporary expedient, because it can in no way contribute toward increasing the number of our seamen, or toward rendering them more willing to enter into his Majesty's service. It is an observation made by Bacon upon the laws passed in Henry the Seventh's reign, that all of them were calculated for futurity as well as the present time.2 This showed the wisdom of his councils; I wish I could say so of our present. We have for some years thought of nothing but expedients for getting rid of some present inconvenience by running ourselves into a greater. The ease or convenience of posterity was never less thought of, I believe, than it has been of late years. I wish I could see an end of these temporary expedients; for we have been pursuing them so long, that we have almost undone our country and overturned our Constitution. Therefore, sir, I shall be for leaving this clause out of the bill, and every other clause relating to it. The bill will be of some service without them; and when we have passed it, we may then go into a committee to consider of some lasting methods for increasing our stock of seamen, and for encouraging them upon all occasions to enter into his Majesty's service.
In consequence of these remarks, all the clauses relating to search-warrants were ultimately struck out of the bill.
1. The Attorney and Solicitor General, Sir Dudley Ryder and Sir John Strange. The former was subsequently Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench, and the latter Master of the Rolls.
2. "Certainly his (Henry the Seventh's) times for good commonwealth's laws did excel, so as he may justly be celebrated for the best lawgiver to this nation after King Edward the First; for his laws, whoso marks them well, are deep, and not vulgar; not made upon the spur of a particular occasion for the present, but out of providence for the future, to make the estate of his people still more and more happy after the manner of the legislators in ancient and heroical times."--Bacon's Works, vol. iii., p. 233, edition 1834.
*Scanned for Classicpersuasion.org from the first edition of Select British Eloquence, edited with notes by Chauncey A. Goodrich (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1852)
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