THE BRADLAUGH JUDGMENT.
THE trial at Bar of Mr. Bradlaugh before three Judges of the Queen's Bench Division and a Special Jury is one of those incidents in English life which will be viewed in different lights, according to the ability of those who consider it to detach themselves from the questions actually raised by it. Impatient people on one side will say,—What nonsense all this is ! Is there any doubt that Mr. Bradlaugh is an atheist ? And if there be no doubt about this, what right can he have to take the oath or the seat to which the oath is a preliminary ? Again, impatient people on the other side will equally say,—
What nonsense all this is Is there any doubt that Mr. Bradlaugh has been returned to Parliament by the electors of Northampton, or that he is willing to go through all the forms which are imposed on him in that character ? And if there be no doubt about this, what right can any one have to prevent him from doing his duty by his constituents ? At this point the Queen's Bench Division interposes. There are other things, it tells us, to be considered, be- sides what Mr. Bradlaugh's friends or enemies wish to be done. We have to consider, not what this or that person thinks the law ought to be, but what the law actually is ; not what Parliament would do if it were better advised, but what it actually has done. We will put aside, if you please, the in- quiry what you would severally wish, and simply ask what you have to put up with until you can get the law altered ? Never mind what Mr. Bradlaugh wanted to do, or ought to be allowed to do ; the question is what he did do, and what the law required him to do. To our minds, there is something elevated in this superiority of the law to current controversies, this indifference of those who administer it to all considerations but those of fact and interpretation. And the spectacle is the more grateful by reason of the contrast it offers to the heat and passion with which the question of Mr. Bradlaugh's Parliamentary status is ordinarily debated on both sides.
In the legal atmosphere to which the question is now removed, two questions present themselves for decision. The Crown contends that Mr. Bradlaugh has sat and voted with- out taking the oath. To this Mr. Bradlaugh replies that he has taken it. Not so, the Crown rejoins, you have not even gone through the form of taking the oath ; and if you had done so, it would have been a form only, since you are not legally capable of taking it. The first point turned mainly on the position of the Speaker at the moment on February 11, 1884, when Mr. Bradlaugh came to the table of the House of Commons, and there " read from a paper which he had in his hands, and having read it, proceeded to kiss a book which he had also brought with him." It does not seem to have been contended that this method of taking the oath would, in itself, have been insufficient. Mr. Bradlaugh swore allegiance to the Queen, added the words " So help me, God," and kissed the New Testament. He used the prescribed words, made the prescribed appeal to a Supreme Being, and kissed the prescribed book. But he did not do this while the Speaker was in the Chair; and the rules of the House determine that this is a necessary condition of taking the oath. To ascertain whether the Speaker was in the Chair, evidence on both sides was offered. It was admitted that on seeing Mr. Bradlaugh approach the table, the Speaker had risen and called, " Order, order." But there was a conflict of testimony on the point, whether he had sat down again at the moment when Mr. Bradlaugh read from his manuscript, signed his paper, and kissed the book. Sir Erskine May thought that he was still standing when this was going on. Mr. Labouchere thought that he was sitting. But the Court held that, for Mr. Bradlaugh's purpose, it was not enough to prove that he was sitting. It must further he shown that he had resumed his seat for the purpose of allowing Mr. Bradlaugh to take the oath, and not merely to make notes of what he was about to say to him by way of explaining why he could not be allowed to take the oath. The Jury found that the Speaker was sitting when Mr. Bradlaugh went through his self-imposed forms at the table, but that he had not resumed his seat for the pur- pose of allowing him to go through them. This was tanta- mount to finding that the Speaker was not in the Chair at the time. He had put a stop to all other business by rising and calling " Order, order ;" and it was only when he found that this had no effect on Mr. Bradlaugh, and that some more de- tailed remonstrance must be addressed to him, that he sat down for the purpose of preparing it. On any other hypothesis, the Speaker must have been so impressed with Mr. Bradlaugh's demeanour that, like Balaam, he rose up to curse and sat down to bless,—rose up to prevent him from taking the oath, and sat down to enable him to take it.
Upon the second point urged by the Crown, the Court had no doubt as to the meaning assigned by the law to the act of taking an oath. The oath, at least as it is prescribed by the House of Commons, is not a mere promise which may lawfully be taken by any man who believes that the act of promising binds him in honour and conscience to speak the truth. It is, in the House of Commons at least, more than a promise ; and it derives its supposed binding force from the fact that it involves an appeal to a Supreme Being. Parliament might have been content with something less than this. It might have said to Mr. Bradlaugh,—We have nothing to do with your religious belief ; we only want to get hold of some formula which shall pledge you, by whatever sanctions you think most binding, to bear true allegiance to the Queen. But this is not the light in which the Court of Queen's Bench regards the Parliamentary oath. The opinion of the Judges is that the oath, as it is exacted by Parliament, differs from a promise in this one essential characteristic,—that an oath does, while a promise does not, constitute an appeal to a Supreme Being to reward the observance and punish the violation of the pledge then given. It follows necessarily from this that a man who does not believe in a Supreme Being is not capable of taking the Parliamentary oath. To the man who does not believe in a God, the words " So help me, God," are, as Mr. Bradlaugh himself described them, "a meaningless adden- dum." When once the law of the Parliamentary oath
has been declared in this sense, Mr. Bradlaugh's claim to take the oath is disposed of. There may be technical difficulties in any given proceeding in the way of ascertaining what Mr. Bradlaugh's opinions are ; but unless he is falsely accused of being an atheist—in which case the remedy is in his own hands—it is plain that he cannot honestly take the Parlia- mentary oath in the sense in which alone the Court of Queen's Bench has declared that Parliament intended it to be taken. We may regret that this should be the law ; we may wish that the Court could have seen its way to treating the words " So help me, God," as not belonging to the essence of the oath ; we may feel that if a man is bound in his honour and in his conscience, we have all the securities that can properly or to any purpose be demanded of him. But these are only our views of what the law ought to be ; and if we wish to give effect to them, it must be done, not by making out that the law is different, but by actually making it different. And this is precisely what we maintain that Parliament should do.