« НазадПродовжити »
blishments were admirably adapted to promote the very evil they were designed to crush. This state of things had continued generation after generation, at an immense cost to the nation, and yet our sapient legislators wondered that crime was not repressed. For every criminal whom our barbarous code sentenced to death, some half dozen were created by our prison system. The extinction of crime was sought by legal murders, while its perpetuation and increase were insured by the corrupting associations of our administrative policy. To this great evil the attention of a few philanthropists was happily directed, at the commencement of the present century, and Mr. Buxton was foremost amongst them. As in other cases, he spared neither pains nor time, in order to acquaint the public with the real facts of the case. He devoted considerable attention to the subject, and in February, 1818, published a work entitled, “An Inquiry whether Crime be Produced or Prevented by our Present System of Prison Discipline,' which ran through six editions in the course of a year, and gave an impulse to public feeling which has never been lost. Sir James Mackintosh did not exceed the truth when, referring to this volume, in the House of Commons, he said :
• The question of our penal code, as relating to prison abuses, has been lately brought home to the feelings of every man in the country, by a work so full of profound information, of such great ability, of such chaste and commanding eloquence, as to give that House and the coun. try a firm assurance, that its author could not embark in any undertaking which would not reflect equal credit upon himself and upon the object of his labours.'—p. 75.
It is no marvel that Mr. Wilberforce and others now began to look to Mr. Buxton, as destined to find his appropriate sphere of action in St. Stephen's. He was ripe for parliamentary life. His principles were fixed. His character had been tested. He had passed his novitiate with distinguished credit, and now awaited the summons of duty to enter parliament. That summons came in 1818. In the spring of that year a general election took place, and Mr. Buxton was returned for Weymouth. Thirty years ago, it was not unusual for English elections to be disgraced by brutal conflicts, as well as systematic bribery. This was the case at Weymouth, and it required all Mr. Buxton's decision to put a stop to it. ' Beat them,' he said to his supporters, 'in vigour, beat them in the generous exercise of high principle, beat them in disdain of corruption, and the display of pure integrity; but do not beat them with bludgeons. His views in entering on this new sphere of labor were characteristic of his religious spirit, and afforded good augury of the honorable course he pursued. They are thus stated by himself, and we should have more hope of our country, if a larger number of her representatives contemplated their responsibilities in a similar temper. We quote his words, as containing the secret of his strength, and affording the best illustration of his character :
Now that I am a member of Parliament, I feel earnest for the honest, diligent, and conscientious discharge of the duty I have undertaken. My prayer is for the guidance of God's Holy Spirit, that, free from views of gain or popularity,—that, careless of all things but fidelity to my trust, I may be enabled to do some good to my country, and something for mankind, especially in their most important concerns. I feel the responsibility of the situation, and its many temptations. On the other hand, I see the vast good which one individual may do. May God preserve me from the snares which may surround me; keep me from the power of personal motives, from interest or passion, or prejudice or am. bition, and so enlarge my heart to feel the sorrows of the wretched, the miserable condition of the guilty and the ignorant, that I may never turn my face from any poor man ;' and so enlighten my understanding, that I may be a capable and resolute champion, for those who want and deserve a friend.'-p. 80.
His earliest parliamentary efforts were directed to the state of our criminal population. He had deeply studied the subject, was master both of its principles and of its details, and—which constitutes no trifling element of success—was thoroughly sincere and earnest. On the 2nd of March, 1819, he seconded a motion of Sir James Mackintosh, for the appointment of a committee on criminal law, and the speech he delivered established his reputation with the House. His intellect was that of a cultivated Englishman,-masculine, energetic, and practical, having more respect to the end contemplated, than to the subtleties of logic or the ornaments of speech. Not that he was deficient in either, but that they were kept in due subordi. nation. They were his means, not his end, and his speech on this occasion clearly illustrated the fact :
• There are persons living,' he said, 'at whose birth the criminal code contained less than sixty capital offences, and who have seen that number quadrupled,—who have seen an act pass, making offences capital by the dozen and by the score; and what is worse, bundling up together offences, trivial and atrocious,—some, nothing short of murder in malignity of intention, and others, nothing beyond a civil trespass,--I say, bundling together this ill-sorted and incongruous package, and stamping upon it death without benefit of clergy.”—p. 84.
His views on the subject of parliamentary oratory were sound, and to his strict adherence to them he owed much of his success in the House. Writing to his friend, Mr. North, soon after his election, he says, 'Perhaps you will like to hear the impression the House makes upon me. I do not wonder that so many distinguished men have failed in it. The speaking required is of a very peculiar kind: the House likes good sense and joking, and nothing else; and the object of its utter aversion is that species of eloquence which may be called Philippian. There are not three men from whom a fine simile or sentiment would be tolerated; all attempts of the kind are punished with general laughter. An easy flow of sterling, forcible, plain sense, is indispensable; and this, combined with great powers of sarcasm, gives Brougham his station. He then adds, what perhaps will surprise some, considering that such men as Canning, Mackintosh, Plunkett, and Brougham, were at this time members of the House—“And now let me tell you a secret: these great creatures turn out, when viewed closely, to be but men, and men with whom you need not fear competition,
His attention was now divided between various philanthropic objects, each one of which would have sufficed for a man of ordinary diligence and earnestness. He describes himself as 'working very, very hard,' and the catalogue of his labors fully justifies his statement. The condition of our criminal law engaged his special notice. He frequently spoke on the subject, and the practical cast of his mind was strikingly shewn in the line of argument he took. Referring in one speech to the punishment of forgery, he triumphantly contrasted the effect of increased severity with the results of an opposite policy, in the case of another crime:
*For a multitude of years,' he said, ' every wretch who was overtaken by the law, without regard to age or sex, or circumstances in extenuation, was consigned to the hangman. You accomplished your object, no doubt! By dint of such hardness you exterminated the offence as well as the offenders : forgeries of course ceased in a country under such a terrible method of repressing them! No! but they grew, they multiplied, they increased to so enormous an extent-victim so followed victim, or rather one band of victims was so ready to follow another, that you were absolutely compelled to mitigate your law, because of the multitude of the offenders—because public feeling, and the feeling of the advisers of the crown, rebelled against such continued slaughter.
• Have I not then a right to cast myself upon the House, and to implore them no longer to continue so desperate and so unsuccessful a system ; and to lay side by side the two cases-forgery and stealing from bleaching grounds,-both offences only against property- both unattended with violence. In the one we have tried a mitigation of the law, and have succeeded beyond our most sanguine expectations; in the other we have tried severity to the utmost extent--and to the utmost ex. tent it has failed. Well then : are we not bound--I will not say by our feelings, or by tenderness for life—but by every principle of reason and equity; of common sense and common justice; to discontinue a system
which has so utterly failed, and to embrace a system which has been so eminently successful ?'—p. 110. The evil, however, was too gigantic to be speedily corrected. A powerful party opposed amelioration, and the efforts of Sir James Mackintosh-one of the most humane and enlightened of English statesmen – continued in consequence, for some years, to be apparently unsuccessful. Mr. Buxton and others were always at his side, and though their motions were rejected by a stolid majority, they prepared the way for Sir Robert Peel, who, on taking office in 1826, commenced a revisal of the criminal code. In 1830, the laws relating to forgery were consolidated, but the punishment of death was retained. Against this an amendment was proposed by Sir James Mackintosh, which being lost, Mr. Buxton immediately gave notice, in the name of Sir James, of another motion to the same effect, in a subsequent stage of the bill. On this motion a majority was obtained against the punishment of death for furgery; and though the Lords, with characteristic wisdom and humanity, rejected the decision of the Commons, the question was virtually carried, and no execution for forgery has since taken place. It should be remembered by their countrymen, that at the time Sir James Mackintosh and Mr. Buxton brought forward the subject, two hundred and thirty offences were punishable with death. What a fearful amount of guilt must have been accumulated by the operation of so barbarous a code! The success of the early laborers in this field may well stimulate their successors, in fol. lowing out their good task to its completion.
Mr. Buxton was now approaching the great work of his life. His parliamentary career had been narrowly observed by Mr. Wilberforce and others, and the impression became general, that he was destined to succeed that great and good man in the leadership of the anti-slavery cause. Mr. Wilberforce was advanced in years, and his infirmities called for rest. But he was desirous, before retiring from the House, to commit the cause of the negro to some faithful advocate, whose ability and parliamentary station would enable him to do it justice. With this view his attention was directed to Mr. Buxton; and, in a letter, dated May 24, 1821, he earnestly entreated his acceptance of the post. The letter is honorable to both parties, and will be read with great interest. The following passage breathes a spirit of noble consecration, in which all personal and selfish views are merged in devout attachment to one of the holiest enterprises of humanity :
• I have been waiting,' says Mr. Wilberforce, with no little solicitude, for a proper time and suitable circumstances of the country, for intro
ducing this great business; and, latterly, for some member of Parliamen, who, if I were to retire or to be laid by, would be an eligible leader in this holy enterprise.
*I have for some time been viewing you in this connection; and after what passed last night, I can no longer forbear resorting to you, as I formerly did to Pitt, and earnestly conjuring you to take most seriously into consideration, the expediency of your devoting yourself to this blessed service, so far as will be consistent with the due discharge of the obligations you have already contracted, and in part so adınirably ful. filled, to war against the abuses of our criminal law, both in its structure and its administration. Let me then entreat you to form an alliance with me, that may truly be termed holy, and if I should be unable to commence the war (certainly not to be declared this session); and still more, if, when commenced, I should (as certainly would, I fear, be the case) be unable to finish it, do I entreat that you would continue to prosecute it. Your assurance to this effect would give me the greatest plea. sure-pleasure is a bad term-let me rather say peace and consolation ; for alas, my friend, I feel but too deeply how little I have been duly assiduous and faithful in employing the talents committed to my stewardship ; and in forming a partnership of this sort with you, I cannot doubt that I should be doing an act highly pleasing to God, and beneficial to my fellow-creatures. Both my head and heart are quite full to overflowing, but I must conclude. My dear friend, may it please God to bless you, both in your public and private course.'-p. 118.
Mr. Buxton deliberated long and thoughtfully on this proposition, and, like a prudent and honest man, sought by diligent study of the whole question, to ascertain what it involved. His decision was at length taken, and he instantly proceeded to put it in action. New life was at once infused into the antislavery cause. Early in March, 1823, Mr. Wilberforce published his 'Appeal on Behalf of the Slaves,' and about the same time the Anti-Slavery Society was formed, and commenced the collection and publication of evidence on the condition of the Negro population of the Colonies. We need not attempt any minute detail of what followed. On the 15th of May, Mr. Buxton moved in the Commons, That the state of slavery is repugnant to the principles of the British constitution, and of the Christian religion; and that it ought to be gradually abolished throughout the British colonies, with as much expedition as may be consistent with a due regard to the well-being of the parties concerned. An animated debate ensued, and certain amendments proposed by Mr. Canning were ultimately adopted. The government pledged itself to amelioration, and, though its promises were unfulfilled, an important step was gained. The question of emancipation was fairly mooted. Public attention was diverted from the slave-trade to slavery itself; the colonies were warned of what awaited them, and the