Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Mat 21, 1880 --- So Help Me God

Charles Bradlaugh, anti-monarchist, atheist and birth control proponent, approaches the bar of the House of Commons to be seated as the newly elected member for Northampton. However, Bradlaugh proposes not to swear the usual oath, which concludes "So help me God." Instead, he offers to "solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm" his allegiance. In a defiant letter printed in that morning's Times, Bradlaugh declares, "So much the worse for those who would force me to repeat words which I have scores of times declared are to me sounds conveying no clear and definite meaning."

His entry into the House prompts an uproar; irate Tories block the path of a man denounced as an "infidel blasphemer." A resolution to bar Bradlaugh is quickly introduced and debated, amid high feelings. No agreement is reached and the matter stands over for the weekend; Prime Minister Gladstone advises the Queen it is "an occasion of considerable difficulty." The break cooled few tempers. In Monday's session, Randolph Churchill read from a Bradlaugh pamphlet on the Royal family: "I loathe these small German breast-bestarred wanderers ... In their own country they vegetate and wither unnoticed. Here we pay them highly to marry and perpetuate a pauper-prince race." Churchill threw the pamphlet down and stomped on it, calling its author, "a professedly disloyal person."

The debate and accompanying theatrics ran for a month. At one point, Bradlaugh again invaded the House unwelcomed and was ordered taken to the lockup located near the base of the Clock Tower, thereby becoming history's last occupant of that historic cell. He spent the night, well-fed and visited by his supporters. But, in the end, the House voted 275-230 not to seat Bradlaugh.

The defiant electors of Northampton continued to return Bradlaugh to Westminster at every opportunity. It wouldn't be until January, 1886, when affirmation of the oath was ruled sufficient, that Bradlaugh was seated. The devoutly religious Gladstone consistently voted for seating Bradlaugh, arguing that religious tests must not be placed in the path of entry to the House, "the highest prize of an Englishman's ambition."

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