Fox on the French Revolution

Extract from Fox's amendments to the address on the King's speech at the opening of the session (1792).

Now this, Sir, is the crisis which I think so truly alarming. We are come to the moment when the question is whether we shall give to the king, that is, to the executive government, complete power over our thoughts: whether we are to resign the exercise of our natural faculties to the ministers for the time being, or whether we shall maintain that in England no man is criminal but by the commission of overt acts forbidden by the law. This I call more imminent and tremendous than any that the history of this country ever exhibited.

I will act against the cry of the moment, in the confidence that the good sense and reflection of the people will bear me out. I know well that there are societies who have published opinions, and circulated pamphlets, containing doctrines tending, if you please, to subvert our establishments. I say that they have done nothing unlawful in this; for these pamphlets have not been suppressed by law. Show me the law hat orders these books to be burnt, and I will acknowledge the illegality of their proceedings: but if there be no such law, you violate the law in acting without authority. You have taken upon you to do that for which you have no warrant; you have voted them to be guilty. What is the course prescribed by law? If any doctrines are published tending to subvert the constitution in church and state, you may take cognisance of the fact in a court of law. What have you done? Taken upon you by your own authority to suppress them to erect every man, not merely into an inquisitor, but into a judge, a spy, an informer to set father against father, brother against brother, and neighbour against neighbour, and in this way you expect to maintain the peace and tranquillity of the country! You have gone upon the principles of slavery in all your proceedings: you neglect in your conduct the foundation of all legitimate government, the rights of the people: and, setting up this bugbear, you spread a panic for the very purpose of sanctifying this infringement while, again, the very infringement engenders the evil which you dread!

These are the extremes into which these violent agitations hurry the people, to the gradual decrease of that middle order of men who shudder as much at republicanism on the one hand as they do at despotism on the other. That middle order of men who have hitherto preserved to this country all that is dear in life, I am sorry to say it, is daily lessening; but permit me to add that while my feeble voice continues it shall not be totally extinct; there shall at least be one man who will, in this ferment of extremes, preserve the centre point. I may be abused by one side, I may be libelled by the other; I may be branded at one and the same time with the terms of firebrand and lukewarm politician; but though I love popularity, and own that there is no external reward so dear to me as the good opinion and confidence of my fellow-citizens, yet no temptations whatever shall ever induce me to join any association that has for its object a change in the basis of our constitution, or an extension of that basis beyond the just proportion. I will stand in the gap, and oppose myself to all the wild projects of a newfangled theory, as much as against the monstrous iniquity of exploded doctrines. I conceive the latter to be more our present danger than the former. I see, not merely in the panic of the timorous, but in the acts of the designing, cause for alarm against the most abhorrent doctrines. The new associations have acted with little disguise. One of them, the association for preserving liberty and property against republicans and levellers, I must applaud for the sincerity of its practice. Mr Chairman Reeves says that they will not only prosecute, but they will convince men, and they recommend, among other publications, a hand-bill entitled One Pennyworth of Truth from Thomas Bull to his brother John, in which, among other odd things, it is said, Have you not read the Bible? Do you not know that it is there written that kings are the Lords anointed? But whoever heard of an anointed republic? Such is the manner in which these associations are to convince the minds of men! In the course of the present century, their recommendation would have been prosecuted as high treason. In the years 1715 and 1745, the person who dared to say that kings derived their power from divine right would have been prosecuted for treason; and I ask if, even now, this is the way to inculcate the principles of genuine loyalty? No, Sir, thank God, the people of this country have a better ground of loyalty to the house of Brunswick than that of divine right, namely, that they are the sovereigns of their own election; that their right is not derived from superstition, but from the choice of the people themselves; that it originated in the only genuine fountain of all royal power, the will of the many; and that it has been strengthened and confirmed by the experience of the blessings they have enjoyed, because the house of Brunswick has remembered the principles upon which they received the crown.

It may be asked, would I prosecute such papers? To this I answer very candidly, I would not. I never yet saw the seditious paper that I would have thought it necessary to prosecute: but this by no means implies that emergencies may not make it proper; but surely there is nothing so essential to the true check of sedition as impartiality in prosecution. If a government wishes to be respected, they must act with the strictest impartiality, and show that they are as determined to prevent the propagations of doctrines injurious to the rights of the people as of those which are hostile to the rights of the crown. If men are to be encouraged to rally around the one standard, you must not, you ought not to prevent volunteers from rallying round the other; unless you desire to stifle in the breasts of men the surest and most active principle of obedience, a belief in your impartiality.

But, it may be asked, what would I propose to do in times of agitation like the present? I will answer openly. If there is a tendency in the dissenters to discontent, because they conceive themselves to be unjustly suspected and cruelly calumniated, what would I do? I would instantly repeal the test and corporation acts, and take from them, by such a step, all cause of complaint. If there were any persons tinctured with a republican spirit, because they thought that the representative government was more perfect in a republic, I would endeavour to amend the representation of the Commons, and to show that the House of Commons, though not chosen by all, should have no other interest than to prove itself the representative of all. If there were men dissatisfied in Scotland or Ireland, or elsewhere, on account of disabilities or exemptions, of unjust prejudices, and of cruel restrictions, I would repeal the penal statutes, which are a disgrace to our law books. If there were other complaints of grievances, I would redress them where they were really proved; but above all I would constantly, cheerfully, patiently listen. I would make it known that if any man felt, or thought he felt, a grievance, he might come freely to the bar of this House and bring his proofs: and it should be manifest to all the world that where they did exist they would be redressed; where they did not, that it should be made evident. If I were to issue a proclamation, this should be my proclamation: If any man has a grievance, let him bring it to the bar of the Commons House of Parliament with the firm persuasion of having it honestly investigated. These are the subsidies that I would grant to government. What, instead of this, is done? Suppress the complaint check the circulation of knowledge command that no man shall read; or that as no man under 100 a year can kill a partridge, so no man under 20 or 30 a year shall dare to read or to think!

Sir, I love the constitution as it is established. It has grown up with me as a prejudice and a habit, as well as from conviction. I know that it is calculated for the happiness of man, and that its constituent branches of king, lords and commons could not be altered or impaired without entailing on this country the most dreadful miseries. It is the best adapted to England, because the people of England think it the best; and the safest course is to consult the judgement and gratify the predilections of a country. Heartily convinced, however, as I am, that to secure the peace, strength and happiness of the country we must maintain the constitution against all innovation, yet I do not think so superstitiously of any human institution as to imagine that it is incapable of being perverted: on the contrary, I believe that it requires an increasingly vigilance on the part of the people to prevent the decay and dilapidations to which every edifice is subject. I think, also, that we may be led asleep to our real danger by these perpetual alarms to loyalty, which, in my opinion, are daily sapping the constitution. Under the pretext of guarding it from the assaults of republicans and levellers, we run the hazard of leaving it open on the other and more feeble side. We are led insensibly to the opposite danger; that of increasing the power of the crown, and of degrading the influence of the Commons House of Parliament. It is such moments as the present that the most dangerous, because unsuspected, attacks may be made on our dearest rights; for let us only look back to the whole course of the present administration, and we shall see that, from their outset to the present day, it has been their invariable object to degrade the House of Commons in the eyes of the people, and to diminish its power and influence in every possible way.