Henry Grattan’s Speech on Legislative Independence before the House of Commons, Dublin (16 April 1782); from Life and Times of Rt. Hon. Henry Grattan (1839-46), q.pp.

[Mr. Grattan rose, and spoke as follows:] I am now to address a free people: ages have passed away, and this is the first moment in which you could be distinguished by that appellation.

I have spoken on the subject of your liberty so often, that I have nothing to add, and have only to admire by what heaven-directed steps you have proceeded until the whole faculty of the nation is braced up to the act of her own deliverance.

I found Ireland on her knees, I watched over her with an eternal solicitude; I have traced her progress from injuries to arms, and from arms to liberty. Spirit of Swift! spirit of Molyneux! your genius has prevailed! Ireland is now a nation! in that new character I hail her! and bowing to her august presence, I say, Esto perpetua!

She is no longer a wretched colony, returning thanks to her governor for his rapine, and to her king for his oppression; nor is she now a squabbling, fretful sectary, perplexing her little wits, and firing her furious statutes with bigotry, sophistry, disabilities, and death, to transmit to posterity insignificance and war.

Look to the rest of Europe, and contemplate yourself, and be satisfied. Holland lives on the memory of past achievement; Sweden has lost her liberty; England has sullied her great name by an attempt to enslave her colonies. You are the only people - you, of the nations in Europe, are now the only people who excite admiration, and in your present conduct you not only exceed the present generation, but you equal the past. I am not afraid to turn back and look antiquity in the face: the revolution - that great event, whether you call it ancient or modern I know not, was tarnished with bigotry: the great deliverer [315] (for such I must ever call the Prince of Nassau [William III]) was blemished with oppression; he assented to, he was forced to assent to acts which deprived the Catholics of religious, and all the Irish of civil and commercial rights, though the Irish were the only subjects in these islands who had fought in his defence. But you have sought liberty on her own principle: see the Presbyterians of Bangor petition for the freedom of the Catholics of Munster. You, with difficulties innumerable, with dangers not a few, have done what your ancestors wished, but could not accomplish; and what your posterity may preserve, but will never equal: you have moulded the jarring elements of your country into a nation, and have rivalled those great and ancient commonwealths, whom you were taught to admire, and among whom you are now to be recorded: in this proceeding you had not the advantages that were common to other great countries; no monuments, no trophies, none of those outward and visible signs of greatness, such as inspire mankind and connect the ambition of the age which is coming on with the example of that going off, and forms the descent and concatenation of glory: no; you have not had any great act recorded among all your misfortunes, nor have you one public tomb to assemble the crowd, and speak to the living the language of integrity and freedom.

Your historians did not supply the want of monuments; on the contrary, these narrators of your misfortunes, who should have felt for your wrongs, and have punished your oppressors with oppressions, natural scourges, the moral indignation of history, compromised with public villainy and trembled; they excited your violence, they suppressed your provocation, and wrote in the chain which entrammelled their country. I am come to break that chain, and I congratulate my country, who, without any of the advantages I speak of, going forth as it were with nothing but a stone and a sling, and what oppression could not take away, the favour of Heaven, accomplished her own redemption, and left you nothing to add and every thing to admire.

You want no trophy now; the records of Parliament are the evidence of your glory: I beg to observe, that the deliverance of Ireland has proceeded from her own right hand: I rejoice at it, for had the great requisition of your freedom proceeded from the bounty of England, that great work would have been defective both in renown [316] and security: it was necessary that the soul of the country should have been exalted by the act of her own redemption, and that England should withdraw her claim by operation of treaty, and not of mere grace and condescension; a gratuitous act of parliament, however express, would have been revocable, but the repeal of her claim under operation of treaty is not: in that case, the legislature is put in covenant, and bound by the law of nations, the only law that can legally bind Parliament: never did this country stand so high; England and Ireland treat ex æquo . Ireland transmits to the King her claim of right, and requires of the Parliament of England the repeal of her claim of power, which repeal the English Parliament is to make under the force of a treaty which depends on the law of nations - a law which cannot be repealed by the Parliament of England.

I rejoice that the people are a party to this treaty, because they are bound to preserve it. There is not a man of forty shillings freehold that is not associated in this our claim of right, and bound to die in its defence; cities, counties, associations, Protestants and Catholics; it seems as if the people had joined in one great national sacrament; a flame has descended from heaven on the intellect of Ireland, plays round her head, and encompasses her understanding with a consecrated glory.

There are some who think, and a few who declare, that the assoclations to which I refer are illegal: come, then, let us try the charge, and state the grievance. And, first, I ask, What were the grievances? an army imposed on us by another country, that army rendered perpetual; the privy-council of both countries made a part of our legislature; our legislature deprived of its originating and propounding power; another country exercising over us supreme legislative authority; that country disposing of our property by its judgments, and prohibiting our trade by its statutes: these were not grievances, but spoliations, which left you nothing. When you contended against them, you contended for the whole of your condition; when the minister asked, by what right? we refer him to our Maker: we sought our privileges by the right which we have to defend our property against a robber, our life against a murderer, our country against an invader, whether coming with civil or military force - a foreign army, or a foreign legislature. This is a case that wants no precedent; the revolution wanted no precedent: for such things arrive to reform a course of bad precedents, and, instead of being founded on precedent, become such: the gazing world, whom they come to save, begins by doubt and concludes by worship. Let other nations be deceived by the sophistry of courts, Ireland has studied politics in the lair of oppression, and, [317] taught by suffering, comprehends the rights of subjects and the duty of kings. Let other nations imagine that subjects are made for the monarch, but we conceive that kings, and parliaments, like kings, are made for the subjects. The House of Commons, honourable and right honourable as it may be; the Lords, noble and illustrious as we pronounce them, are not original but derivative. Session after session they move their periodical orbit about the source of their being, the nation; even the King’s Majesty must fulfil his due and tributary course round that great luminary; and created by its beam, and upheld by its attraction, must incline to that light, or go out of the system.

Ministers, we mean the ministers who have gone out (i rely on the good intentions of the present), former ministers, I say, have put questions to us; we beg to put questions to them. They desired to know by what authority this nation has acted. This nation desires to know by what authority they have acted. By what authority did Government enforce the articles of war? By what authority does Government establish the post-office? By what authority are our merchants bound by the charter of the East India Company? By what authority has Ireland, for near one hundred years been deprived of her export trade? By what authority are her peers deprived of their judicature? By what authority has that judicature been transferred to the peers of Great Britain, and our property in its last resort referred to the decision of a non-resident, unauthorised, and unconstitutional tribunal? Will ministers say it was the authority of the British Parliament? On what ground, then, do they place the question between the Government on one side, and the volunteer on the other? According to their own statement, the government has been occupied in superseding the lawgiver of the country; and the volunteers are here to restore him. The Government has contended for the usurpation, and the people for the laws. His Majesty’s late ministers imagined they had quelled the country when they had bought the newspapers; and they represented us as wild men, and our cause as visionary; and they pensioned a set of wretches to abuse both: but we took little account of them or their proceedings, and we waited and we watched, and we moved, as it were, on our native hills, with the minor remains of our parliamentary army, until that minority became Ireland. Let those ministers now go home, and congratulate their king on the redemption of his people. Did you imagine that those little parties whom three years ago you beheld in awkward squads parading in the streets, should have now arrived to such distinction and effect? What was the cause; for it was not the sword of the volunteer, nor his muster, nor his spirit, nor his promptitude to put down accidental disturbance or public disorder, nor his own unblamed and distinguished deportment. This was much; but there was more than this: the upper orders, the property, and the abilities of the country, formed with the volunteer; and the volunteer had sense enough to obey them. This united the Protestant with the Catholic, and the landed proprietor with the people. There was still more than this; there was a continence which confined the corps to limited and legitimate objects; there was a principle which preserved the corps from adultery with French politics; there was a good taste which guarded the corps from the affectation of such folly: this, all this, made them bold; for it kept them innocent, it kept them rational: no vulgar rant against England; no mysterious admiration of France; no crime to conceal, no folly to be ashamed of. They were what they professed to be; and that was nothing less than the society asserting her liberty, according to the frame of the British constitution, her inheritance to be enjoyed in perpetual connection with the British empire.

I do not mean to say that there were not divers violent and unseemly resolutions; the immensity of the means was inseparable from the excess.

Such are the great works of nature: such is the sea; but, like the sea, the waste and excess were lost in the advantage: and now, having given a parliament to the people, the volunteers will, I doubt not, leave the people to Parliament, and thus close, specifically and majestically, a great work, which will place them above censure and above panegyric. These associations, like other institutions, will perish: they will perish with the occasion that gave them being, and the gratitude of their country will write their epitaph, and say, ’This phenomenon, the departed volunteer, justified only by the occasion, the birth of spirit and grievances, with some alloy of public evil, did more public good to Ireland than all her institutions; he restored the liberties of his country, and thus from the grave he answers his enemies.’ Connected by freedom as well as by alleglance, the two nations, Great Britain and Ireland, form a constitutional confederacy as well as one empire; the crown is one link, the constitution another; and, in my mind, the latter link is the most powerful.

You can get a king any where, but England is the only country with whom you can participate a free constitution. This makes England your natural connexion, and her king your natural as well as your legal sovereign: this is a connexion, not as Lord [Sir Edward] Coke has idly said, [319] not as judge [Sir William] Blackstone has foolishly said, not as other judges have ignorantly said, by conquest; but as Molyneaux has said, and as I now say, by compact; and that compact is a free constitution. Suffer me now to state some of the things essential to that free constitution; they are as follows: the independency of the Irish Parliament; the exclusion of the British Parliament from any authority in this realm; the restoration of the Irish judicature, and the exclusion of that of Great Britain. As to the perpetual mutiny bill, it must be more than limited; it must be effaced; that bill must fall, or the constitution cannot stand; that bill was originally limited by this House to two years, and it returned from England without the clause of limitation. What? a bill making the army independent of Parliament, and perpetual! I protested against it then, I have struggled with it since, and I am now come to destroy this great enemy of my country. The perpetual mutiny bill must vanish out of the statute book; the excellent tract of Molyneux was burned; it was not answered; and its flame illumined posteri . This evil paper shall be burned, but burned like a felon, that its execution may be a peace-offering to the people, and that a declaration of right may be planted on its guilty ashes; a new mutiny-bill must be formed after the manner of England, and a declaration of right put in the front of it.

As to the legislative powers of the Privy Councils, I conceive them to be utterly inadmissible against the constitution, against the privileges of Parliament, and against the dignity of the realm. Do not imagine such power to be theoretical; it is in a very high degree a practical evil. I have here an inventory of bills altered and injured by the interference of the Privy Councils; money bills originated by them, protests by the Crown in support of those money bills, prorogation following these protests. I have here a mutiny bill of 1780, altered by the Council, and made perpetual; a Catholic bill in 1778, where the Council struck out the clause repealing the test act; a militia bill, where the Council struck out the compulsory clause requiring the Crown to proceed to form a militia, and left it optional to His Majesty’s minister whether there should be a militia, in Ireland. I have [320] the money bill of 1775, where the Council struck out the clause enabling His Majesty to take a part of our troops for general service, and left it to the minister to withdraw the forces against act of parliament. I have to state the altered money bill of 1771, the altered money bill of 1775, the altered money bill of 1780; the day would expire before I could recount their ill-doings. I will never consent to have men (God knows whom), ecclesiastics, &c., &c., men unknown to the constitution of Parliament, and only known to the minister, who has breathed into their nostrils an unconstitutional existence, steal to their dark divan to do mischief and make nonsense of bills, which their Lordships, the House of Lords, or we, the House of Commons, have thought good and fit for the people. No; those men have no legislative qualifications; they shall have no legislative power.

1st. The repeal of the perpetual mutiny bill, and the dependency of the Irish army on the Irish Parliament.
2nd. The abolition of the legislative power of the Council.
3rd. The abrogation of the claim of England to make law for Ireland.
4th. The exclusion of the English House of Peers, and of the English King’s Bench, from any judicial authority in this realm.
5th. The restoration of the Irish Peers to their final judicature. The independency of the Irish Parliament in its sole and exclusive legislature.

These are my terms. I will take nothing from the Crown. [END]

[Given in A. N. Jeffares & Peter Van de Kamp, eds., Irish Literature: The Eighteenth Century - An Annotated Anthology (Dublin: IAP 2006), pp.315-21.]
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