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The Catholic Question is often treated as if it were of a religious character, and we find ourselves involved in a variety of theological controversies. It is, however, exclusively political, and resolves itself into the simple question, “ Whether a large body of our fellow-citizens shall enjoy the same rights with their neighbours, or shall be deprived of some, which every one must admit to be important.” To exclude them from the legislature on account of their religious opinions, would be justifiable on no principle which I can discover ; nor can I admit any defence of the restrictions which now exist short of this, that they are necessary for the political security of the State.
I can enter, therefore, into the feelings of those, who, admitting no such necessity, and
believing that the laws now in force are directed against the religious errors of the Catholics, have considered them as a very unjust restraint upon liberty of opinion. In some degree, perhaps, they have been confirmed in their view by the very topics so clamorously insisted upon by the opposite party. When the Catholic claims were resisted, on the ground of the bigotry and superstition of the claimants, it was natural to suppose that there was no reason for their rejection, but the caprice and groundless apprehension of the stronger party. It was to be believed, that the cause was indefensible which was so badly defended. That any one should propose to punish his neighbour for his erroneous opinions, and visit religious mistakes with civil penalties, was not to be expected in this age, and such a statement was calculated to excite surprise and indignation - Non defensoribus istis. A man is surely not the less fit to act his part as a legislator, because he says mass or worships the Virgin.
But these are not the reasons which have induced so many men of sound judgment to question the policy of removing those restrictions which now exclude the Catholic from Parliament; and we must entreat that they
may not be judged of by the more clamorous members of the party, but may be allowed to claim credit for the liberality and temperance for which, in ordinary cases, they are distinguished.
Without entering into any minute inquiry into the principles of the English constitution, it is obvious that a seat in Parliament is not open to every one who chooses to claim it; certain qualifications are necessary before any one can sit in the legislature, and a place there is not the birthright of every one, but the privilege of those who are worthy of it. The duty of legislating for our fellow-citizens is considered, as it undoubtedly is, a trust of the highest importance, which ought only to be confided to those who are likely to discharge it faithfully. And this is, at least, perfectly reasonable. No man in private life puts the management of his affairs into the hands of a stranger : he ascertains his qualifications for the office. And in that most important management of all, the guardianship of national liberty, it cannot be surprising if similar precautions are taken. Whether, however, this is correct in theory or not, the fact is so; and it is on this principle that all our election laws
proceed, which require both from the elector and his representative, a qualification in a fixed amount of property. It could never be imagined, that by such a system we secured ability, or provided for the introduction of men of talent into the house : genius might be kept outside, while wealthy dulness found its way within. But it was thought sufficient to leave talent to its own resources, and it was felt that it would always make good its entrance into a popular assembly ; all that was necessary was, to provide that the majority should be faithful to the State; and there is nothing which secures men's fidelity so effectually as a sense of interest, for we are never found to perform our duty so well as when it is for our advantage. A needy and indigent legislator may be indifferent to the safety of the state, and careless about innovation; but when he finds his own interests are at stake, he becomes scrupulously loyal. To this, more than to any other circumstance, we should be disposed to attribute the preservation of our constitution, and the successful stand which it has always made against encroachments, whether on the side of the prerogative or of the populace. The majority have been occasionally led astray, but a sense of interest has soon recalled them to their duty, and kept them firm in maintain