Front Page Titles (by Subject) 382.: THE ATTEMPT TO EXCLUDE UNBELIEVERS FROM PARLIAMENT DAILY NEWS, 26 MAR., 1849, P. 4 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXV - Newspaper Writings December 1847 - July 1873 Part IV
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382.: THE ATTEMPT TO EXCLUDE UNBELIEVERS FROM PARLIAMENT DAILY NEWS, 26 MAR., 1849, P. 4 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXV - Newspaper Writings December 1847 - July 1873 Part IV 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, XXV - Newspaper Writings December 1847 - July 1873 Part IV, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
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THE ATTEMPT TO EXCLUDE UNBELIEVERS FROM PARLIAMENT
In a speech on 19 Feb., 1849 (PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 102, cols. 906-17), Lord John Russell introduced “A Bill to Alter the Oaths to Be Taken by Members of the Two Houses of Parliament Not Professing the Roman Catholic Religion,” 12 Victoria (23 Feb., 1849), PP, 1849, IV, 419-24. The bill, similar to an unsuccessful one of the year before, was designed to admit Jews to Parliament. It was debated in the Commons on 19 and 23 Feb., 7 May, and 11 June, when it passed second reading, and in the Lords on 26 June, but was not enacted. On 21 Feb., 1849, Mill had written Harriet Taylor, in France for her health, pointing out that Russell, “although he is actually abolishing the old oaths & framing new, still has the meanness to reinsert the words ‘on the true faith of a Christian’ for all persons except Jews, & justifies it by saying that the Constitution ought not avowedly to admit unbelievers into Parliament.” She replied in a letter now lost, and on 17 Mar. he said: “As you suggested I wrote an article on Russell’s piece of meanness in the Jew Bill and have sent it to [Eyre Evans] Crowe [editor of the Daily News] from whom I have not yet any answer—there has been no time hitherto fit for its publication—the time will come when the subject is to come on again in Parlt. But I fear the article, even as ‘from a correspondent’ will be too strong meat for the Daily News, as it declares without mincing the matter, that infidels are perfectly proper persons to be in parliament.” (In fact it appeared as first leader, not as “from a correspondent.”) He continues: “I like the article myself. I have carefully avoided anything disrespectful to Russell personally, or any of the marks, known to me, by which my writing can be recognized.” Four days later he reported again: “Crowe’s answer was ‘I shall be but too happy to print the article. The Jews bill is put off till after Easter, but if you will allow me I will insert it immediately.’ ” Mill adds, in what is now a mysterious as well as unpleasant allusion, “There is nothing like kicking people of the D[aily] N[ews] sort it appears. I answered telling him if he thought it would be of as much use now as about the time when the bill comes on by all means to print it now. It has not yet made its appearance.” (LL, CW, Vol. XIV, pp. 13, 18, and 20.) This first leader, headed “London, Monday, Mar. 26,” is described in Mill’s bibliography as “A leading article on the attempt to exclude unbelievers from parliament, in the Daily News of 26th March 1849”
(MacMinn, p. 71).
the bill of lord john russell for the admission of Jews into parliament, affords by the mode it adopts of effecting that purpose, an example of the rooted aversion of our practical politicians to anything like a principle. If there is a principle which is supposed to be sacred in the eyes of a Russell, it is religious freedom. If there is a maxim in politics which whigs are understood to cherish, it is that no one should be subjected to civil disabilities on the ground of any opinions which he may entertain in matters of religion. Yet a whig and a Russell,1 finding the Jews excluded from parliament by the imposition of certain words interpreted as expressing a belief in Christianity proposes to dispense with the words, but to dispense with them for Jews only. For all who do not declare themselves to be Jews, he not only leaves the words as he found them, but actually re-enacts them. He is proposing to abolish the old oaths and to establish new, and in the oaths which he establishes he introduces de novo these very words, granting to Jews a special exemption from their use.2 He opens the door of parliament just wide enough to allow one particular class of dissenters from Christianity to slip in, and closes it, as far as depends upon him, against all others.
Why is this? If we take his own account of the matter, it is because he does not think it right to announce that sceptics and infidels ought to be admitted into parliament; therefore he declares ineligible, not only sceptics and infidels, but Hindoos, Buddhists, and Mahomedans, none of whom are commonly counted among infidels, and who compose nearly three-fourths of the population of the British dominions. But we will discuss the question as if it concerned only those whom Lord John would have it believed that he actually cares about rendering ineligible.
First, what sort of sceptics and infidels does he really suppose that his oaths will keep out of parliament? Those who take his side of the question usually profess the charitable belief that infidels are persons whom oaths will not bind. It is certain at least that an infidel who can be excluded by such words as those used, “on the true faith of a Christian,” words which rather insinuate than profess a belief in Christianity—equivocating, jesuitical words, which seem chosen on purpose to afford a loophole to the conscience—must be a person more than ordinarily under the influence of honour and moral obligation, and, therefore, more than ordinarily fit to be a member of any assembly where honest men are required; and more than usually undeserving to have any discreditable mark put upon him.
But (it will be said by Lord John Russell, or by somebody for him) the measure will not really keep anybody out. It is not meant to do so. It is only meant as a declaration that certain persons ought to be kept out. It is an admission under protest. It is a national testimony that nobody who disbelieves in Christianity can be a fit person to sit in parliament.
If it be so, it is a testimony to something which every one who has any knowledge of life knows to be not true. We say nothing about Jews, whom this very measure is intended to let in. Were Hume and Gibbon improper persons to sit in parliament?3 Conservatives, at least, will hardly be of that opinion; for they were both tories; and the sons and daughters of tories to this day get their first notions of English politics from a History written by one of them,4 and very false notions they are. Liberals, again, would deem them valuable members of parliament for different reasons. It is not possible to imagine an assembly where great questions are to be discussed and important public business transacted, in which no good use could be made of such powers of mind as these men possessed.
It is unnecessary, however, to go back to a past age. The present times are sufficient. We should like to put a question to Lord John Russell. Let him mentally reckon up (if they are not too numerous to be reckoned), among persons now in parliament or in office, or who have been so since he entered into public life, all those whom he either positively knows, or has good ground for believing, to be disbelievers in revelation—many of them in more than revelation. We put it to him as a man of the world. Many good Christians, in their innocence and inexperience, would be astonished and shocked at the supposition we are making, but Lord John must know enough of his time, and of the men of his time, to be more or less a competent judge. We wish that after revolving in his mind the various members of the present or any former House of Commons, whom he has known or believed to be what are usually termed infidels, he would ask himself whether, among all the members composing it, these, taken collectively, were the persons whom, in his sincere opinion, the House of Commons could have best spared? We do not mean that many, or perhaps any, of these persons are Humes and Gibbons, or have ever made any public attack on religion, or are at all likely to avow unbelief; if they did, they would emperil, among many other things, all their chances of re-election. The truth is, that there is generally nothing in their conduct by which they could, as a class, be distinguished from the great majority of believers. This ought not to be: a great difference in the conscientious convictions of human beings ought to make a visible difference of some kind or other in their conduct, but in point of fact it seldom does. Certain it is that neither Lord John Russell, nor any other man of the world, would trust the unbelievers less in any relation of life, or would consider them less eligible for the great majority of public functions, than the average of Christians. On this point we should not fear to take the opinion of any man who has been minister of England in the last thirty years, could we be sure that he would speak his real sentiments.
If Lord John Russell really believed that the words he proposes would exclude from parliament all the sincere unbelievers who are now or may hereafter become members of it, we are convinced that he never would have proposed them. Why, then, has he done so? Because he believes that the exclusion will not exclude, but will be a mere brutum fulmen; and, with the usual indifference of our statesmen to a bad principle, when they do not expect that it will be followed by specific bad consequences, he thinks he may as well make this sacrifice at the shrine of bigotry, if it will gain him an additional vote for letting in Mr. Rothschild.5 He has yet to learn that a legislature which either introduces or confirms a bad principle does more harm than is compensated by twenty good practical measures involving no principle: for it is by the principles contained in them that institutions educate the national mind, thus producing more effect for good or evil than “laws or kings” by their direct influence can either “cause or cure.”6 As long as the laws keep up nominal persecution on account of opinion, whether practically operative or not, the seal of bigotry will be upon us; and no letting in of one set of excluded persons after another by the backdoor of the constitution will avail much to make us otherwise.
[1 ]The name of Russell had been associated with religious and civil liberty since the time of William Russell (1639-83), “the patriot,” one of the first Whigs, who had been executed for supposed treason against the Stuarts. Lord John Russell, of the sixth generation in descent, was author of The Life of William Lord Russell (London: Longman, 1819).
[2 ]See Sect. I of the Bill for the oath, and Sect. V for the exemption of Jews.
[3 ]Both Hume and Edward Gibbon (1737-94), the historian, would have been excluded from Parliament by the terms of this Bill on the grounds of religious scepticism. Gibbon in fact served as M.P. 1774-80 and 1781-83.
[4 ]Hume, whose Tory History of England was a frequent target of Mill’s wrath (see esp. CW, Vol. VI, pp. 3-58).
[5 ]Baron Lionel Nathan Rothschild (1808-79), banker and philanthropist, elected Whig M.P. for the city of London in 1847 and repeatedly thereafter, but barred, as a Jew, from taking a seat in Parliament until 1858 after the passing in that year of 21 & 22 Victoria, c. 48.
[6 ]Samuel Johnson, “Lines Added to Oliver Goldsmith’s Traveller,” quoted in James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, 2 vols. (London: Dilly, 1791), Vol. I, p. 275.