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At first, he spoke but little in the House, but soon afterwards we find him debating on most of the great subjects that came under discussion. He made several able speeches during the trial of Mr. Hastings ; and especially in support of the petition of that gentleman, complaining of the introduction of irrelevant matter at the bar of the House of Lords. On that occasion he reminded the members of the House of Commons, that the prosecution ought to be conducted in such a manner as to do honour to their branch of the legislature; and that two things in particular ought to be adhered to, viz.
never to bring forward a fact that was matter of calumny to the accused, and never to inflame the passions of those who were to decide as judges."
On the 23d of June, 1789, Mr. Mitford obtained leave to bring in a bill “ to relieve, upon certain conditions, and under due restrictions, persons called Protestant Catholic Dissenters, from certain penalties and disabilities to which Papists, or persons professing the Catholic religion, are by law subject.” Men of different parties in parliament approved of this measure; yet, in consequence of certain technical objections, a period of nearly two years elapsed before the provisions of the bill were carried into a law.
At the general election in 1790, Mr. Mitford was again returned for Beeralston.
Soon after the meeting of the new parliament, a question arose with reference to Mr. Hastings, and was argued with great ability on both sides, namely, “ Whether an impeachment ought not to abate by the dissolution of parliament ?". Mr. Mitford contended, “ that the house had no power to revive an impeachment, since it was an acknowledged principle of the constitution, that the parliament should die, and all proceedings determine with its existence."
In May 1791, Mr. Fox brought in his celebrated libel bill, the object of which was “ to declare and enact that the right of juries to give a general verdict on a general issue, extended to prosecutions on libels, as well as all other proceedings whatever in criminal matters." Mr. Mitford opposed the
measure; observing “ that no man could revere more than he did the institution of juries, wbich he considered as the bulwark of public and private liberty; but that at the same time he thought the House would do well to pause a little, before it resolved to unsettle doctrines of law which had almost uniformly prevailed ever since the Revolution, or to take away that jurisdiction which appeared, from the practice of the courts ever since that period, to belong to the judges, and not to the jury.”
In February 1793, on Sir John Scott being promoted to the office of Attorney General, Mr. Mitford was made Solicitor General, and received the honour of knighthood. He was also returned a fourth time for the borough of Beeralston.
In his official capacity, Sir John Mitford was of course employed by Government to conduct the celebrated state trials in the year 1794. On the first of those trials, that of Mr. Hardy, he replied to the argument of Mr. Gibbs, the prisoner's counsel, in a speech which occupied many hours in its delivery. The subsequent prosecution, that of Mr. Horne Tooke, Sir John Mitford opened by a long and elaborate argument on the law of treason, and an application of its specific provisions to the case in question. In the course of his speech, in anticipation of the probable assertion that the prisoner at the bar had on various occasions expressed himself as a man attached to the constitution of his country, attached to the hereditary monarchy, and to the House of Lords, and that he had always professed to approve of both, the Solicitor General eloquently observed, “ Men, however, frequently profess that which they do not
A man may have monarchy on his lips, when his heart is far from it. Lord Lovat, for instance, was perpetually protesting his loyalty, whilst he was engaged for a course of years in a deep scheme to overturn that Government to which he professed and avowed such attachment. The language of the French Assembly in 1791, was noticed by Mr. Paine, by Mr. Barlow, and by others of their eulogists, whose works were admired by the prisoner at the bar. Several of the
members of that assembly spoke with the greatest reverence of monarchy, until the time arrived when they thought they could overturn it. And there has been a memorable instance that the greatest of traitors may pretend attachment in the moment of the deepest treason. We know that the vilest traitor professed his loyalty whilst he was contemplating an act of the meanest treachery; and in the completion of that act criedHail, Master! and kissed him.'
The close of his address was peculiarly emphatic : now, gentlemen of the jury, I have nothing more to offer. I have discharged, God knows, with much pain, the harsh duty imposed upon me. You will now do
yours. If shall discharge the prisoners, I know you will give it with joy; if the contrary, yet it must be given. The cup, although it may be bitter, must not pass away from you. I have had á duty to perform beyond my strength and my ability; but I have discharged it faithfully and satisfactorily to my conscience.” Sir John was so much affected on the occasion, that, as he resumed his seat, the tear was seen to roll down his cheek.
In the course of the war with France, Sir John Mitford gave his cordial support to the measures of Mr. Pitt's administra tion, and spoke upon almost every public question that occurred. In 1799, when Sir John Scott was created Lord Eldon, and appointed Lord Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, Sir John Mitford succeeded him as Attorney General.
Soon after, he was returned for the borough of East Looe; and on Mr. Addington's quitting the chair of the House of Commons to succeed Mr. Pitt as Premier, Sir John Mitford was deemed a fit person to sustain the important office of Speaker; and was accordingly elected on the 18th of February, 1801. He was proposed by Lord Hawkesbury, who was seconded and supported by Mr. J. H. Browne, Mr. Pitt, Mr. Martin, and others.
He occupied the Chair of the House of Commons, however, only during that session, and a part of the next. A new employment and new honours were in store for him; and on the
death of the Earl of Clare, it was determined that he should receive the Great Seal of Ireland, and be invested at the same time with an English peerage.
The cabinet was doubtless inclined to this measure in consequence of his early habits in life. It was but reasonable to suppose that he, who had so much distinguished himself in a British court of equity, would be admirably calculated to preside as the Chancellor of another portion of the empire. In
consequence of these arrangements, when the House of Commons met, on the 9th of February, 1802, Mr. Ley, the clerk, rose, and stated that he had received the following letter from Mr. Speaker :
“ Palace Yard, February 9. 1802. “ SIR— His Majesty having been graciously pleased to signify his intention to appoint me Chancellor of Ireland, it becomes my duty to resign my office of Speaker of the House of Commons.
“ I have, therefore, to entreat of you to communicate my resignation to the House at their meeting of this day. I request that you will, at the same time, have the goodness to express to the House the extreme reluctance with which I relinquish the high and honourable station to which their, favour had raised me; and to return them
my warmest thanks for the kind and liberal support which they afforded me in discharging the duties of that arduous and important office.
“ I am, Sir, &c.
(Signed) 66 John MITFORD."
The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Addington, now Viscount Sidmouth) seized the opportunity “ to express those sentiments of respect which he entertained for the right honourable gentleman whose resignation had been read: but, however inclined he might be to give scope to the feelings he entertained of his conduct in the discharge of the arduous duties of that most honourable station which he had lately filled, from every sentiment of private friendship, as well as
every consideration of public duty, yet, under the restraint in which he was now placed, it was only incumbent on him at present to make known to the House, that it was his Majesty's pleasure they should proceed to the election of a new Speaker."
The next day, Sir William Grant, then Master of the Rolls, said he rose to propose a gentleman to fill the chair, which was then vacant by the removal of Sir John Mitford, whom his Majesty had been pleased to appoint Lord High Chancellor of Ireland. “ Before I proceed, however," observed that eminent and venerable individual, 6 to enumerate the talents and the qualities which characterise the person whom it is my intention to propose for the choice of the House, I cannot pass over in silence the supereminent endowments which so peculiarly distinguish the right honourable and learned gentleman who is now retiring from that high station. To bestow adequate praise on such endowments is no light attempt; for I ask if it were possible for any man, during the short period which my right honourable and learned friend has filled the chair, to have evinced a knowledge more various, and at the same time so profound; an information more extensive, and at the same time so accurate; a more ardent and enlightened love of the constitution, and at the same time so punctilious a regard to all the forms of the House, and all the rules of our proceedings ? Such, indeed, was the display which my right honourable and learned friend made of the necessary qualifications for that exalted office, that it is but justice to acknowledge that they enabled him to rise to distinction in a situation, in which the character and conduct of his predecessor rendered it most difficult for him to excel. And if now the House is to experience the loss of the immediate service of these great and manifold talents, the regret attendant on that loss will be somewhat alleviated by the reflection, that a particular part of the empire is to enjoy the benefit of them; and that in a sphere in which my right honourable friend may expand the whole compass of his capacious mind;- a mind that embraces equally the minutest rules of forensic practice,