London Debating Societies 1776-1799. Originally published by London Record Society, London, 1994.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying and sponsored by London Record Society. All rights reserved.
LONDON DEBATING SOCIETIES
'As a proof that the Society for the Recovery of Drowned Persons is well received by the publick, the Debating Society at the Crown Tavern in Bow lane where every subject is fully discussed, have given 5 guineas as a token of their approbation.'
'Which are the most loyal subjects, and the best friends to liberty, those who in their Addresses to the King approve or those who in their Petitions condemn, the present proceedings against America?'
'Notwithstanding the exhausted state of the American debate, the question was very ingeniously handled, and some new matter thrown out on both sides. Determined by a very small majority in favour of the petitions.'
'Is not the doctrine of justification, as held by the Church of Rome, a damnable doctrine? - Would it not be advisable for the legislative body to treat with the Congress upon terms of reconciliation, without considering it as derogatory to their dignity?'
'A correspondent hopes that the dissolution (which will, it is said, shortly be) of a certain disputing society in Bow-lane, will be the cause of a great revolution in another society in Newgate-street; that instead of the tedious speeches of an O—11 and a C—n, the auditory will be entertained with the flowery language of a D—n, and the patriotic declamations of a F—r, those two ornaments of elocution. Our correspondent does not mean to insinuate, that there is a total want of pleasing oratory in the latter society; that will never be the case so long as a P—d and a D—s favour it with their sanction and the exercise of their abilities; to hear them our correspondent has often been induced to devote some of his leisure time; and whenever it has then happened that the little unmeaning, consequential President, and the flaming Catholic (wou'd-be President) have trespassed upon the patience of the audience, by the insignificant cant of the one, and the unbounded assurance of the other, our correspondent has not wondered at his disappointment, but rather considered it as a matter of surprize, that the society has so long continued its establishment.'
'The comparative excellence of a Monarchial and Republican Government' was argued a third time, and at last determined in favour of a Monarchical form; so this side of the question has had two verdicts out of three trials. The company was very respectable and the speakers very ingenious.'
The question concerning the propriety of surrendering all claim to Canada unto the French Government &c. was carried almost nem. con. in the negative; some, not unplausible arguments, however, were offered on the contrary side, as, that removing all ground of dispute about the local limits or boundaries, by totally expelling the French, was the original cause of the bounds of British authority over the rest of America being disputed.'
'Whether Administration, or the Opposition at this juncture, proceed more upon the true principles of the British Constitution? Another question likely to come on, is, Whether Coercive or Conciliatory Measures, respecting the Colonies, are now most eligible?'
The Theme, relating to the discovery of Anti-Christ, debated here . . . after hearing many ingenious arguments, was adjourned; in consequence of which will be reheard subsequent to the foregoing Discourse and Lecture: And if time will permit, the following text will be investigated: "Know this first, that no prophecy of scripture is of any private interpretation." 2 Peter, chap. 2, ver. 20.'
'Whether Administration, or the Opposition at this juncture, proceed more upon the true principles of the English constitution? Whether coercive or lenient measures, respecting the Colonies, at this time are more eligible?'
On the first question 'it was extremely difficult, or rather impossible, to know which side had most hands: the room being crowded, some persons on the floor and others mounted on the benches; it was left doubtful.'
'Owing to the unfavourableness of the weather, the company was rather thin, and of course a dearth of speakers; but notwithstanding, many sensible arguments were advanced on both sides.' Determined almost unanimously 'that the proposed act would be of no public utility'.
'Is the breach between England and the Colonies reparable - And is it manifest that the Americans affect independency? Another question put, viz. Whether coercive or lenient measures are more eligible, &c. was manifestly included in the first, as administration are for one and opposition for the other.'
'In consequence of the very extraordinary question advertised to be debated at the Queen's Arms tavern in Newgate-street, on Friday evening last, the croud was so great, that many persons could not get into the room; the friends of the respective candidates for the office of Chamberlain had occupied all the seats early in the evening, and those who came afterwards time enough to gain admittance remained upon their legs. At length the Chairman ascended the rostrum, and with the utmost gravity acquainted the assembly, that the author of the question had been informed, that it was couched in such terms as would render a free discussion of it liable to legal notice; that several members of the society had expressed their disapprobation of it, and for those reasons the author, who declined to avow himself, had authorised him to beg permission to withdraw it. Mr. Saffory, the surgeon, then arose, and animadverted on the baseness of the author to bring a question so evidently levelled to prejudice one of the candidates for the office of Chamberlain at this critical period. He said, that the author's reasons, as assigned by the Chairman, did not operate with him as the most striking objection against a discussion of the question. Justice and equity should have prevailed with the author more forcibly than any disagreeable apprehensions of the consequence; those were motives that actuated him (Mr. Saffory) to move 'that the question be expunged out of the book.' This was seconded by Mr. Denham, who supported his ingenious leader by remarking, that when public societies descended to personal disputes, and stepped out of the path of general discussion, they were no longer worthy the countenance of the public. The Chairman, with evident reluctance, complied with the almost unanimous cry of "expunge the question"; of which (our correspondent avers) himself was the author, without attempting to answer the just reflections cast upon him for his uncandid, ungenerous design.'
'Are those magistrates, commonly called Trading Justices, hurtful or beneficial to this country? And, if time permits, Do those Constables who are remarkable for their vigilance, in apprehending the unfortunate women of the town, deserve censure or applause?
The two Questions relating to TRADING Justices and REFORMING Constable . . . being by their principal speakers reduced to one, produced many ingenious and sensible arguments, both for and against those officers. In the conclusion, however, a great majority appeared in their favour.'
The Question relating to the Scotch Militia Bill was . . . unanimously decided in favour of that measure: the other subject proposed for discussion in reference to a Reformation of the Abuses of the Press, was postponed by the unanimous desire of the company . . .'
'The following theme will be investigated, "For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion." - "So that it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy." Romans, chap. ix, ver. 15 and 16 - And, if there remains sufficient time, this also, "By which likewise he went and preached unto the spirits in prison" together with the succeeding verse, taken from the third chapter of the first of Peter.'
Question 'was carried in the affirmative. - It was expected that a proposer of such a question would have taken (Mons. Rousseau's, or) the uphill side; but it happened otherwise, and a speaker, who wondered such a question could be put, very ingeniously supported the difficult side of it.'
Question 'was carried in the negative. It was allowed that the number of capable men might exceed the Doctor's numbers: but a doubt of their unanimity or concurrence in the same cause, when the English should appear, put the negative to the position. One orator was very conspicuous both as to elegance of language, and a knowledge of the American country, as well as to the controversy respecting the same.'
'Whether triennial Parliaments are not preferable to any other mode?' The Question 'was carried in favour of triennial: some ironical arguments were thrown out in favour of annual, as that the constituents and representatives would become better acquainted by feasting together annually, &c. but the serious part of the debate was between the favourers of the other two modes [triennial or septennial], and passed as above by a considerable majority.'
The Question 'was very candidly and ingeniously discussed before a very numerous and respectable audience, and the decis on (by a small majority) was, "that the said Pamphlet was likely to be more prejudicial than beneficial". Possibly upon the idea, that as truth may not be spoken at all times there might be some political truths which should not be divulged to the whole world at any time, or at least at this time.'
Those who contended for vice observed, that virtue restrains its votaries from partaking of various enjoyments grateful to human nature. Those who supported virtue insisted that vice cannot produce pleasure, every sin being attended by pain. The latter of these arguments prevailed.'
The Question 'was very agreeably and ingeniously discussed. Two avowed classical gentlemen were opponents, which gave the question consequence; and it was determined in the affirmative, i.e. that a classical education was proper for a merchant.'
'Can a Roman Catholic, consistent with his religious principles, be a good subject to a Protestant Prince? and Are all the works of creation alike beautiful, or can there be a general criterion attained, to distinguish real beauty?'
Those gentlemen who supported the affirmative, built their arguments on the ground of their being taxed without representation; those who maintained the negative, observed, that the reasoning contained in that celebrated performance was merely ideal; that it tended to confusion and anarchy; and the plan of government there laid down such as never had, or can have any existence, and therefore totally inapplicable to the general principle of legislation, and to those of the British constitution in particular; the latter opinion was confirmed by a considerable majority of the company.'
On behalf of Mr. Wilkes and his supporters it was urged, that as friends to free elections, they were consistent in endeavouring to destroy the effect of one, wherein freedom had been grossly violated. On the other hand it was argued, that a scrutiny would have been much better, as by it every one who affirmed a privilege to which by law or equity they had no claim, would have been detected; and, that declining this, shewed an attachment to private interest more than to public justice. These arguments met with the approbation of a majority of the company.'
'Whether Doctor Price, by his late publication, hath not done more to promote Civil and Religious Liberty, than those Bishops who voted for establishing Popery in Canada? Another question was read, viz. Whether impressing of Sailors is justifiable in any case whatsoever?'
'Which is the more honourable profession, that of law, or that of arms' and 'Are all the works of the creation alike beautiful, or can there be a general criterion ascertained, to distinguish real beauty?'
Question 'was carried for its being more beneficial. Some people were for supporting the definitive power of the Ecclesiastical Courts, to prevent endless litigation and expence; others were for totally abolishing the same as a remnant of papal authority; others (who indeed carried the question) were for allowing the usual proceedings of superogative courts under the controul, like other law courts, of the supreme legislative body.'
'Would it tend to the security of the liberties of Great Britain, to increase the number of Representatives in the House of Commons? Is it reasonable to suppose that any person, otherwise than in a state of insanity, can commit the act of suicide?
The arguments on [the first] subject tended rather to prove the necessity of a more equal representation, than an increase of number, and consequently was determined in the negative. In the discussion of [the second] question, the causes of madness were explained; and the delicate situation of jurymen in cases of suicide, with respect to their oath on the one hand, and tenderness to the friends of the deceased on the other (as a verdict of Felo de se works a forfeiture of personal estate) were fully and ingeniously investigated. It passed in the negative.'
'Which is the happier period of human life, Youth or Old Age? and, if time will permit, the succeeding: Would electing our Representatives in Parliament by ballot, be an additional security of our liberties?'
'Would electing our Representatives in Parliament, by ballot, be an additional security to our liberties? and, if time will permit, the succeeding one also: Are Critics in general serviceable to Literature?'
' "All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them." John chap x, ver. 8 And, if time will allow, a comparative examination "Therefore we conclude, that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of law." Romans chap iii, ver. 28. "Ye see that by works a man is justified, and not by faith alone".'
Last Monday night, at the Robin Hood Society, there was the most numerous and respectable meeting known for many years, upwards of 400 persons being present, and as many obliged to return for want of room . . . It was almost unanimously resolved (not above six hands being held up against the motion) that Mr. Molesworth's Calculations were beneficial to the public.'
Question 'was passed in the negative, i.e. that luxury was the cause, &c. Much excellent argumentation and declamation were displayed against the vice of Gaming; but Luxury appearing the motive to Gaming, might determine the division.'
'Is not the cohabitation of an unmarried man and woman, though attended with harmony and fidelity till death, an immoral connection? and Would it be consistent with Whig principles to adhere to the cause of the Americans, if the French government should openly declare in their favour?'
56. November 22, 1776 'The Society for Free Debate lately held at the Queen's Arms, Newgate Street, is . . . removed to the Horn, in Doctors Commons, at which place the Society will be conducted on the same liberal plan which has hitherto given general satisfaction to the lovers of rational amusement.'
Question was 'very ingeniously debated and carried in the affirmative. The arguments are at times equally clear on both sides [of] this question; for gentlemen in opposition, whether Whigs or Tories, see the desperate consequences of ministerial dependants sitting in the senate; and gentlemen in favour of the government in being, whether Tories or Whigs, can see the necessity of a little influence arising from places, pensions, riding behind, &c. so all parties in power practice, what all out of power reprobate.'
'1. Are predestination and punishment of human actions consistent with our ideas of wisdom and justice? 2. Will not the increase of national debt, in consequence of the American war, greatly over-balance any possible advantage from the reduction of that country?
'Whether the Lord Mayor of London restraining press warrants is any benefit to that city? and Whether a man will sooner arrive at the character of an orator by getting sense by heart, or speaking nonsense extempore?'
'1. Can the Athanasian creed be defended on the Principles of Reason and Revelation? 2. Would it be consistent with the Duty the Corporation of London owe to their Constituents, to pay the Debts contracted by Mr. Wilkes during his Mayoralty, out of the City Cash?'
'Whether facilitating the means of divorce by application of both the married parties, would not promote the happiness of individuals and prosperity of the community? and, Whether a person will sooner arrive at the character of an orator by speaking sense by heart, or nonsense extempore?'
N.B. On the part of the managers no attention will be spared to render the entertainment such an agreeable relish of literary amusement, as not to fail suiting the palate of the scholar and the gentleman. The members presume to rely upon the generosity of the public, not to suffer the private views of a few self important beings to overturn, by a hasty vote, a society which for these thirty years has preserved its establishment.
The utility of an acquaintance with history being universally acknowledged, Lectures on that important science will be delivered every evening, previous to the commencement of the debate. A Discourse introductory to the establishment of the above Lecture, will be delivered from the Chair this evening.'
'Whether the Athanasian Creed can be defended on principles of reason and revelation? Is it consistent with the duty the Common Council owe to their constituents, to apply the city cash in discharge of the debts contracted by Mr. Wilkes during his mayoralty?'
'1. Is it possible to constitute any one form of Government which will suit all states in the world? And 2. Is the doctrine lately urged by an eminent and noble lawyer, to wit, that Judges may not qualify their verdicts, founded on reason and equity?
In order to place this Society on a footing equally respectable with other assemblies of the like nature, the price of admission is raised to 6d each person, to compensate for which all possible attention will be paid to the improvement of the entertainments and accommodations.'
'1. Is it consistent with the duty the Common-council owe their constituents, to apply the City cash in discharge of the debts contracted by Mr. Wilkes during his Mayoralty? 2. Would not an equal Poor Rate be a national advantage?'