Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 01.djvu/18

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Abbot
Abbot
4

he brought before parliament a plan for the due promulgation of the statutes in all public offices and courts of justice, including magistrates' courts, by furnishing them with a copy of all acts of parliament as soon as printed; thus enabling them to see readily the state of the law which they had to administer, instead of being obliged to refer to private collections of acts. He was also ‘exceedingly desirous to have introduced a more improved style and diction in all public acts, but the matter was full of difficulties, and, though exhorted by all, he was helped by none.’ The project therefore fell to the ground (Memoir).

In 1797 a finance committee was appointed by Pitt, of which Abbot was the chairman; and for two years he gave his undivided attention to it. The committee made thirty-six reports, of which many were drawn up by Abbot himself; and one of the most beneficial results of his investigations was a bill for charging public accountants with the payment of interest. In the year 1800 he obtained a committee to inquire into the condition of the national records. And in December of the same year he introduced the first Census Act for ascertaining the population of Great Britain.

Abbot had always lived on terms of great intimacy with Addington, and on the latter becoming prime minister in February 1801, the member for Helston was selected to fill the post of chief secretary for Ireland. The office of secretary of state for Ireland, which was then held by Lord Castlereagh, was at the time abolished, and to do the work of the office a secretary to the lord lieutenant, and a keeper of the privy seal for Ireland, a sinecure office which might be held for life, were appointed. The latter post was added to Abbot's secretaryship to compensate him for the loss of his situation in the King's Bench. He arrived in Ireland in July 1801, and in the following October received the tidings of the peace of Amiens, which liberated the Irish government from its gravest anxieties. The remainder of his term of office was devoted to those official and departmental reforms for which he was so eminently qualified; but on the death of Lord Clare, the Irish lord chancellor, in January 1802, Sir John Mitford, the successor of Addington in the speakership, received the great seal, and Abbot was recalled from Dublin to occupy the vacant chair. His diary and correspondence whilst in Ireland may still be read with great profit.

Abbot was elected to the speakership on 11 Feb. 1802. He paid, he says, to his predecessor 1,060l. for the state coach which had been built in 1701, 1,000l. for wine, and 500l. for furniture. At the general election of 1802 the new speaker was returned for Woodstock, a seat which he held till 1806, when, on the dissolution of parliament by Lord Grenville, he was returned for the university of Oxford. His tenure of office was far from uneventful. It fell to his lot to give the casting vote on Mr. Whitbread's resolutions impugning the conduct of Lord Melville as treasurer of the navy, amid a scene long remembered as one of the most striking that have ever been witnessed within the walls of the House of Commons. Mr. Pitt had moved the previous question, and on the division the numbers were 216 on each side. Abbot turned as white as a sheet, says an eye-witness, and paused for at least ten minutes, after which he explained very briefly his reasons for voting in favour of the question being put, which was accordingly put and carried, to the intense grief of Mr. Pitt, who pulled his cocked hat over his face to hide the tears which trickled down his cheeks.

Two important controversies, touching the duty and authority of the speaker, occurred during Abbot's speakership. The earlier of the two arose on the resistance by Sir Francis Burdett to the execution of the speaker's warrant for committing him to the Tower in the year 1810. Sir Francis denied the legality of the warrant, and refused to surrender to it; whereupon the question arose whether the sergeant-at-arms was empowered by Mr. Abbot's warrant to break open the doors of his house. The attorney-general, Sir Vicary Gibbs, gave a very guarded opinion; but one, nevertheless, on which the sergeant felt justified in acting: he forced Burdett's doors, and the prisoner was conveyed to the Tower, where he remained till the prorogation set him free. He at once brought an action against both the speaker and the sergeant in the court of King's Bench, when judgment was given for the defendants. The question was carried by writ of error to the Exchequer Chamber, and afterwards to the House of Lords, but in each case with the same result.

The second of the two questions raised during Abbot's tenure of office was the right of the speaker to include in his address to the sovereign on the prorogation of parliament a reference to measures to which the house had not given its consent. In his address to the prince regent in July 1813, Abbot had introduced some remarks on the bill for the removal of Roman catholic disabilities which had been defeated in committee. Mr. Grant said in the debate, ‘What it is not lawful for the king to notice, it is not lawful for the speaker to express.’ Lord Morpeth moved, on 22 April 1814, that the address of the