“For I must do it justice; it was a complete system, full of coherence and consistency, well digested and well composed in all its parts. It was a machine of wise and deliberate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.”
So wrote Edmund Burke, brilliant writer and member of Parliament, of the Catholic penal laws in the Eighteenth Century. Son of a Protestant father and a Catholic mother, suspected in his lifetime, probably incorrectly, of being a secret Catholic, Burke was a man who fought during his life for many causes: reform in Parliament, support for Americans in their fight against oppression by the English government, prosecution of Warren Hastings for his misrule in India, his crusade against the French Revolution, all these and more engaged his formidable intellect and his luminous pen. However, one cause he championed from the beginning of his career to the end of it: relief for Catholics in Ireland and England from the Penal Laws.
What were the Penal Laws? A series of statutes dating from the time of Queen Elizabeth I, and codified and harshened after the so-called Glorious Revolution in England in 1688, to transform Irish Catholics into helots in their own land and to keep English Catholics a despised and helpless minority. Burke summarized the penal laws nicely in a speech to his Bristol constituents on September 6, 1780:
“A statute was fabricated in the year 1699, by which the saying mass (a church service in the Latin tongue, not exactly the same as our liturgy, but very near it, and containing no offence whatsoever against the laws, or against good morals) was forged into a crime, punishable with perpetual imprisonment. The teaching school, an useful and virtuous occupation, even the teaching in a private family, was in every Catholic subjected to the same unproportioned punishment. Your industry, and the bread of your children, was taxed for a pecuniary reward to stimulate avarice to do what Nature refused, to inform and prosecute on this law. Every Roman Catholic was, under the same act, to forfeit his estate to his nearest Protestant relation, until, through a profession of what he did not believe, he redeemed by his hypocrisy what the law had transferred to the kinsman as the recompense of his profligacy. When thus turned out of doors from his paternal estate, he was disabled from acquiring any other by any industry, donation, or charity; but was rendered a foreigner in his native land, only because he retained the religion, along with the property, handed down to him from those who had been the old inhabitants of that land before him.
Does any one who hears me approve this scheme of things, or think there is common justice, common sense, or common honesty in any part of it? If any does, let him say it, and I am ready to discuss the point with temper and candor. But instead of approving, I perceive a virtuous indignation beginning to rise in your minds on the mere cold stating of the statute.”
After explaining how and why the Act was passed Burke continued: “From that time, every person of that communion, lay and ecclesiastic, has been obliged to fly from the face of day. The clergy, concealed in garrets of private houses, or obliged to take a shelter (hardly safe to themselves, but infinitely dangerous to their country) under the privileges of foreign ministers, officiated as their servants and under their protection. The whole body of the Catholics, condemned to beggary and to ignorance in their native land, have been obliged to learn the principles of letters, at the hazard of all their other principles, from the charity of your enemies. They have been taxed to their ruin at the pleasure of necessitous and profligate relations, and according to the measure of their necessity and profligacy. Examples of this are many and affecting. Some of them are known by a friend who stands near me in this hall. It is but six or seven years since a clergyman, of the name of Malony, a man of morals, neither guilty nor accused of anything noxious to the state, was condemned to perpetual imprisonment for exercising the functions of his religion; and after lying in jail two or three years, was relieved by the mercy of government from perpetual imprisonment, on condition of perpetual banishment. A brother of the Earl of Shrewsbury, a Talbot, a name respectable in this country whilst its glory is any part of its concern, was hauled to the bar of the Old Bailey, among common felons, and only escaped the same doom, either by some error in the process, or that the wretch who brought him there could not correctly describe his person,—I now forget which. In short, the persecution would never have relented for a moment, if the judges, superseding (though with an ambiguous example) the strict rule of their artificial duty by the higher obligation of their conscience, did not constantly throw every difficulty in the way of such informers. But so ineffectual is the power of legal evasion against legal iniquity, that it was but the other day that a lady of condition, beyond the middle of life, was on the point of being stripped of her whole fortune by a near relation to whom she had been a friend and benefactor; and she must have been totally ruined, without a power of redress or mitigation from the courts of law, had not the legislature itself rushed in, and by a special act of Parliament rescued her from the injustice of its own statutes. One of the acts authorizing such things was that which we in part repealed, knowing what our duty was, and doing that duty as men of honor and virtue, as good Protestants, and as good citizens. Let him stand forth that disapproves what we have done!”
Burke was making this speech in Bristol because he was running for re-election and was in electoral trouble for three reasons: his position in favor of abolishing the Catholic penal laws, his sympathy for the American colonists in revolt against the King, and his stance in favor of free trade with Ireland.
In regard to the penal acts, after years of effort Burke and his colleagues in Parliament passed the Catholic Relief Act of 1778. Upon taking an oath of loyalty to the reigning monarch, an abjuration of the Jacobite Pretender, a denial that an excommunicated prince may be lawfully murdered, a denial that no faith should be kept with heretics, and a disclaimer that the pope had temporal as well spiritual jurisdiction in Great Britain, Catholics were exempted from the most galling provisions of the penal acts, could keep schools and could inherit and purchase land, and no longer could a Protestant heir and longer enter and enjoy the estate of his Catholic kinsman.
To modern eyes a very small step in the right direction. In the context of the times a revolutionary advance for religious tolerance. Anti-Catholic bigots in England and Scotland went wild after passage. This culminated in the violence of the Gordon Riots during which anti-Catholic mobs rioted in London from June 2-June 9 1780. 290 people were killed, and 100 Catholic buildings, churches and private homes, were looted and/or burned. The riots were put down by the Royal Army. Burke during the riots was absolutely fearless. Upon encountering one of the mobs he stated that he was indeed in favor of relieving Catholics from civil disabilities and refused to change his position when howled at by the mob. Burke also participated in armed defense of homes during the riots.
In his speech in Bristol Burke praised the forbearance of Catholics during the riots: “But I am well informed, and the thing speaks it, that their clergy exerted their whole influence to keep their people in such a state of forbearance and quiet, as, when I look back, fills me with astonishment,—but not with astonishment only. Their merits on that occasion ought not to be forgotten; nor will they, when Englishmen come to recollect themselves. I am sure it were far more proper to have called them forth, and given them the thanks of both Houses of Parliament, than to have suffered those worthy clergymen and excellent citizens to be hunted into holes and corners, whilst we are making low-minded inquisitions into the number of their people; as if a tolerating principle was never to prevail, unless we were very sure that only a few could possibly take advantage of it. But, indeed, we are not yet well recovered of our fright. Our reason, I trust, will return with our security, and this unfortunate temper will pass over like a cloud.” Unfortunately for Burke most of the electors of Bristol shared to the full the anti-Catholic prejudice common in England at the time.
In regard to America, Burke had always been a friend of the Americans, who he regarded as simply demanding the traditional rights of Englishmen, and had always opposed the policy of the English government to conquer the rebellious colonies. He described to the voters of Bristol the development of English public opinion towards the war: “You remember that in the beginning of this American war (that era of calamity, disgrace, and downfall, an era which no feeling mind will ever mention without a tear for England) you were greatly divided,—and a very strong body, if not the strongest, opposed itself to the madness which every art and every power were employed to render popular, in order that the errors of the rulers might be lost in the general blindness of the nation. This opposition continued until after our great, but most unfortunate victory at Long Island. Then all the mounds and banks of our constancy were borne down, at once, and the frenzy of the American war broke in upon us like a deluge. This victory, which seemed to put an immediate end to all difficulties, perfected us in that spirit of domination which our unparalleled prosperity had but too long nurtured. We had been so very powerful, and so very prosperous, that even the humblest of us were degraded into the vices and follies of kings. We lost all measure between means and ends; and our headlong desires became our politics and our morals. All men who wished for peace, or retained any sentiments of moderation, were overborne or silenced; and this city was led by every artifice (and probably with the more management because I was one of your members) to distinguish itself by its zeal for that fatal cause. ” Burke went on to state that all were now of the same opinion in opposing the American war. This was not the case in Bristol as Burke was soon to learn.
In May of 1778 Burke voted to lift restrictions on Irish free trade. He realized such a change was violently opposed by the electors of Bristol, a great trading port, which had benefited from the restrictions which had been removed. Burke understood the risk he undertook by supporting the bill, but was unmoved by the possible possible political consequences to himself. “If, from this conduct, I shall forfeit their suffrages at an ensuing election, it will stand on record an example to future representatives of the Commons of England, that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong”.
Burke ended his September 6 address to the voters of Bristol with these words: “And now, Gentlemen, on this serious day, when I come, as it were, to make up my account with you, let me take to myself some degree of honest pride on the nature of the charges that are against me. I do not here stand before you accused of venality, or of neglect of duty. It is not said, that, in the long period of my service, I have, in a single instance, sacrificed the slightest of your interests to my ambition or to my fortune. It is not alleged, that, to gratify any anger or revenge of my own, or of my party, I have had a share in wronging or oppressing any description of men, or any one man in any description. No! the charges against me are all of one kind: that I have pushed the principles of general justice and benevolence too far,—further than a cautious policy would warrant, and further than the opinions of many would go along with me. In every accident which may happen through life, in pain, in sorrow, in depression, and distress, I will call to mind this accusation, and be comforted.”
Three days later Burke withdrew from the election when it was obvious that he would be defeated. Without a trace of bitterness, he thanked the electors of Bristol.
“But, Gentlemen, I will see nothing except your former kindness, and I will give way to no other sentiments than those of gratitude. From the bottom of my heart I thank you for what you have done for me. You have given me a long term, which is now expired. I have performed the conditions, and enjoyed all the profits to the full; and I now surrender your estate into your hands, without being in a single tile or a single stone impaired or wasted by my use. I have served the public for fifteen years. I have served you in particular for six. What is past is well stored; it is safe, and out of the power of fortune. What is to come is in wiser hands than ours; and He in whose hands it is best knows whether it is best for you and me that I should be in Parliament, or even in the world.”
Burke would live to see much of what he fought for triumph. The Catholic Relief Act of 1791 was another step on the path of Catholic Emancipation which Burke supported and, although he did not live to see ultimate victory in 1829, he could die content in the knowledge that the direction was set for freedom for Catholics. In 1783 America won its war for independence and peaceful relations were reestablished with Great Britain. Irish free trade was firmly established. Burke’s defeat in 1780 is of interest only to historians. The principles for which he fought: religious tolerance, liberty under law, basic fairness, are still of interest to all of humanity.