The Toleration Act.—Impropriety of making Catholic Emancipation (or any other Important Matter) an Open Question.—Joint Responsibility of all the Ministers.—Detention of Napoleon at St. Helena.—Question whether the Regent could Give Evidence in a Court of Law in a Civil Action.—Agitation for Reform.—Public Meetings.—The Manchester Meeting.—The Seditious Meetings Prevention Bill.—Lord Sidmouth’s Six Acts.
The war was daily becoming of more exciting interest, and, so far as our armies were concerned, was rapidly assuming greater proportions. While the Duke of Portland was still at the head of affairs, Napoleon, by his unprovoked attacks on both the Peninsular kingdoms, had at last opened a field of action to our armies, in which even the most sanguine of those who placed a loyal confidence in the old invincibility of English prowess could not have anticipated the unbroken series of glories which were to reward their efforts. For four years Lord Wellington had contended against all the most renowned marshals of the Empire, driving them back from impregnable lines of defence, defeating them in pitched battles, storming their strongest fortresses, without ever giving them room to boast of even the most momentary advantage obtained over himself; and he was now on the eve of achieving still more brilliant and decisive triumphs, which were never to cease till he had carried his victorious march far into the heart of France itself.
At such a time it may well be supposed that the attention of the new ministry was too fully occupied with measures necessary for the conduct of the war to leave it much time for domestic legislation. Yet even its first session was not entirely barren.
In the first excitement of the Restoration, when the nation was still exasperated at the recollection of what it had suffered under the triumphant domination of the Puritans, two laws had been framed to chastise them, conceived in a spirit as intolerant and persecuting as had dictated the very worst of their own. One, which was called the Conventicle Act, inflicted on all persons above the age of sixteen, who should be present at any religious service performed in any manner differently from the service of the Church of England, in any meeting-house, where more than five persons besides the occupiers of the house should be present, severe penalties, rising gradually to transportation; and gave a single magistrate authority to convict and to pass sentence on the offenders. The other, commonly known as the Five Mile Act, forbade all ministers, of any sect, who did not subscribe to the Act of Uniformity, and who refused to swear to their belief in the doctrine of passive obedience, from teaching in any school, and from coming within five miles of any city, corporate town, or borough sending members to Parliament, or any town or village in which they themselves had resided as ministers.