April 29 1812: Committee on the Orders in Council

On April 29, 1812, the House of Commons sat as Committee to deal with the Petitions against the Orders in Council.  Whitbread stated that it was clear that the Chancellor of the Exchequer had only agreed to have the enquiry as to the Orders of Council "by the hints of his own friends, that they would not give him their support in refusing the enquiry". After some debate and examination of some witnesses, the Committee adjourned to the next day.

The Speaker wished to ascertain whether it was intended to adhere to the accustomed rule of not permitting witnesses to be in hearing during the examination of others. It was right that this point should be settled at their outset. Upon this a conversation of some length arose, in which Mr. Brougham, the Speaker, Mr. Tierney, Mr. Ryder, and other members participated, and it was at last understood, that witnesses in hearing during the examination of preceding witnesses, should be liable to be objected to on that account.
§ The order of the day for going into a committee was then read.

Sir T. Turton, not having been in the House last night, rose to ask a few questions. He wished to know if the right hon. gentleman opposite meant to go into a committee merely to ascertain the distresses of the country, and not to endeavour to discover a mode of relieving them? If so, it was to add insult and illusion to the misery of the petitioners. He asked if, consistent with the Declaration published within these few days by the government, it was possible for them to yield the relief of a repeal of the Orders in Council? They could not; and therefore he thought the Committee nugatory, and the hope of these unfortunate persons forlorn. He required explanation on several other points in the discussion of last night.

Mr. Rose said, that what he had stated last night was, that it did not follow that America would, of course, be satisfied with the repeal of the Orders in Council.

Mr. Stephen explained a misrepresentation of his speech last night. He did not say that it would be necessary to have Vattel, and Puffendorf, and Grotius on the table of the committee, but that if every matter connected with the enquiry was gone into, as held out by gentlemen on the other side, that might be the natural consequence. With regard to the Petitions against the Orders in Council, he had said, that if it had been thought ministers were inclined to alter their system of policy, there would have been a number of counter Petitions. He had also maintained the doctrine, that a country might cease a retaliating measure, if it found itself hurt by it.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, alluding to an expression of sir T. Turton, that the committee would be illusory and insulting, animadverted, in pointed terms, on the use of such language. If the course taken by government were called so, nothing could be more mistaken than the motives imputed to them; and what would, on the other hand have been said, had they refused to go into this committee?—that they had refused to hear the Petitions, and enquire into their distresses; and then, indeed, the charge of insulting would have been rung in their ears. He considered it to be due to the petitioners to ascertain the full extent of their grievances, while at the same time they might determine to persevere in that line of policy most beneficial to the general interests of the empire. With regard to the Declaration alluded to, it certainly contained the sentiments of the Prince Regent's government, called forth as they were by the statement of the French minister, declaring the Berlin and Milan Decrees to be fundamental laws of the French empire, and attaching no consequence to the repeal of the Orders in Council, unless accompanied by the abandonment of our maritime rights. After this he was convinced, if America acted with the impartiality she professed, when this document was produced, she could not, without making common cause with France, pretend to say, that the Berlin and Milan Decrees were repealed—and must be bound and obliged to put this country on an equal footing with France, nor grant her indulgences not granted to us. But at the same time ministers entertained these views, were they, as members of parliament, to refuse to enquire into the extent of the mischief done to our manufacturers, and ascertain how much might be attributable to the Orders in Council—how much, to other causes?

Mr. Whitbread said, that from the arguments of the right hon. gentleman, and from the Declaration of the government which had just been published, he was quite convinced that, till within a few hours of the time, that right hon. gentleman had been disposed to resist going into this committee; and, therefore, he was not now to ascribe his acquiescence to respect to the petitioners, but to his being compelled to the vote, by the hints of his own friends, that they would not give him their support in refusing the enquiry. He denied that the Declaration was well founded, and maintained that the policy of the right hon. gentleman, if persevered in, and not checked by the House, as his former determination had been, must inevitably lead to an American war.

Mr. Wilberforce earnestly recommended to the House to enter into this examination with a proper and serious feeling for the distresses of the country, and with their minds purged of all party views. They ought to set themselves fairly to ascertain the extent and amount of the evil, and to what causes it was to be ascribed, with a desire to remove them if possible. This being their duty, he could not help condemning the line of argument adopted by the hon. gentleman who spoke last. It was wrong to impute bad motives for an act which he himself considered to be a good one; instead of the most obvious and natural motive, a feeling for the distresses 1123 of the people, and a wish to relieve them. The House would do their duty, and prove themselves the friends of the people by entering into this enquiry, and the more so if they beforehand purged their minds of all those acrimonious opinions, and only endeavoured to contribute the greatest sum to universal happiness.

Mr. Brougham coincided entirely in the wise and candid sentiments expressed by the hon. gentleman who had just sat down. It was impossible that the House could go into the intended committee with better impressions. This was no common investigation, for the nation was, he would not say, in a state of universal distress, but certainly in a state of universal com plaint, as was proved by the numerous Petitions. He hoped that every member would go into the committee without any bias and for his own part he most solemnly declared that his mind was divested from all former opinions, and ready to admit any evidence as if he was in a Jury box.

The House then went into a committee, Mr. Babington in the chair.

Mr. Brougham stated, that some of the witnesses not being in town, would cause the course of examination to be more desultory than intended; and after a few words from the Chancellor of the Exchequer and lord Stanley,

Mr. Thomas Attwood, high bailiff of Birmingham, was called in, and examined by Mr. Brougham. This witness was principally cross-examined by Mr. Stephen; but some questions were also put to him by Mr. Whitbread, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Baring, Mr. Wilberforce, Mr. Lyttelton, and Mr. Brougham; after which he was ordered to withdraw.

The second person called to give evidence was Mr. William Whitehead, a master manufacturer in the town of Birmingham. The examination of this witness having been concluded, the House resumed, and the further proceedings of the committee were adjourned till tomorrow.

Mr. Brougham expressed a wish that a document, for which he had called previous to the first debate on the Orders in Council, but which had been refused, might now be laid before the House. It was particularly necessary, as the inquiry had been begun, that this paper should be produced. It was an account of the Exports of Great Britain to all parts of the world, for a certain period, distinguishing the Exports to each country. This was 1124 exactly the same document, which, until within the two last years, had been annually laid on the table. If the right hon. gentleman opposite conceived that danger would arise from so detailed an account, he might omit those items which he considered objectionable; but, to refuse a document in toto, which was so necessary to direct many questions which must be put to witnesses as to their trade with different places, would seem to indicate an opposition to the object of the committee.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer did not think the production of a part of the account would answer the object of the hon. gentleman; and he could very easily form in his own mind the danger to be apprehended from laying the whole account on the table. By it those parts of Europe and of the world would be pointed out to the enemy, with which we carried on the greatest trade, and much mischief might arise from such a disclosure, when it was recollected how anxious the enemy was to occupy with his troops those ports where British manufactures were permitted to be landed.

Lord Milton conceived the account might be drawn up in the way mentioned by his learned friend, from which no danger was likely to arise.

Mr. Baring agreed, that a full disclosure would be likely to occasion ill consequences; but the account, he thought, could be so generalized as to give every information, without producing any harm whatever. The trade to the Straits, the Brazils, Portugal, Spain, and the Spanish colonies, could be stated without any fear of the discovery causing a diminution.

Mr. Brougham said, he only wanted an account of the description mentioned by his hon. friend. To the places enumerated by him he could wish to have added, Sicily, Malta, and Heligoland.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer expressed himself willing to give every information consistent with prudence. If no danger attended the production of the document, he and his friends would be extremely happy to grant it. By fully shewing the system on which trade was at present conducted, it would operate decisively in defence of the measures pursued.

Mr. H. Thornton was anxious that the account of our Exports to Spain and Portugal should be laid before the House. Some time ago, those Exports were stated to amount to 18,000,000l. per annum. He should be glad to know how much the 1125 Exports to our army contributed to that sum?

Mr. Stephen observed, that the increase was in a great measure owing to our supplying those articles which were formerly furnished by Holland, but which trade our Orders in Council had prevented.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer said, he did not believe a single item of the Exports to the army was contained in the list of Exports

After a few words from Mr. Brougham, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Mr. Barham, the conversation ended. The Minutes of Evidence were then brought up, and ordered to be printed.

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