Front Page Titles (by Subject) PETITION FROM MARY ANN CARLILE FOR RELEASE FROM IMPRISONMENT 26 March 1823 - The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo, Vol. 5 Speeches and Evidence
PETITION FROM MARY ANN CARLILE FOR RELEASE FROM IMPRISONMENT 26 March 1823 - David Ricardo, The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo, Vol. 5 Speeches and Evidence 
The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo, ed. Piero Sraffa with the Collaboration of M.H. Dobb (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005). Vol. 5 Speeches and Evidence 1815-1823.
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First published by Cambridge University Press in 1951. Copyright 1951, 1952, 1955, 1973 by the Royal Economic Society. This edition of The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo is published by Liberty Fund, Inc., under license from the Royal Economic Society.
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PETITION FROM MARY ANN CARLILE FOR RELEASE FROM IMPRISONMENT
26 March 1823
Mr. Hume presented a petition from Mary Ann Carlile, shopwoman of her brother Richard Carlile; she had been prosecuted by the Society for the Suppression of Vice for selling a copy of An Appendix to the Theological Works of Thomas Paine and had been sentenced for blasphemous libel to a year’s imprisonment and a fine of 500l. or to be imprisoned till that fine was paid. The year of her imprisonment had expired, but she was kept in gaol from her inability to pay the fine.
Mr. Ricardo trusted that the House would excuse him if he ventured to say a few words upon this petition. The hon. and learned gentleman who had just sat down, appeared to conceive, that Mary Ann Carlile would have been entitled to some lenity, had she expressed contrition for her past offences, or had she stated any change to have taken place in her religious sentiments. Now, they were bound in common justice, to consider that the petitioner was expressing her own sentiments in the libel of which she had been found guilty. The demand, therefore, of the attorney-general was, that she must acknowledge that to be right, which she conscientiously believed to be wrong, before she could entitle herself to any lenity; or, in other words, that she must commit an act of the most shameless duplicity, in order to become a proper object for the mercy of the crown. While upon that subject, he must be permitted to find fault with a rule that prevailed in the courts of justice. A witness, before he was examined, was asked whether he believed in a future state: if he replied that he did not, his oath could not be taken. Supposing that an individual did not believe in a future state, and by replying that he did not, showed that he was an honest man, he was put aside as an incompetent witness; whereas, if he belied his belief, and did not act the part of an honest man, he was considered as a witness worthy of credit. He contended, that the hon. member for Devonshire had by no means answered the case which his hon. friend had made out. His hon. friend had stated, that these prosecutions had aggravated the very evil which they were instituted to check. The hon. baronet asserted, that the fact was not so—and how did he prove it? Why, he read a passage which proved that the sale continued in spite of his prosecutions, and thus confirmed the very argument which he had intended to refute. Besides, it appeared to him, that the hon. baronet, in reading the opinions of which he complained so loudly, had not taken a wise course, to keep them from the knowledge of the public. He fully agreed with his hon. friend that the prosecutions of the Society for the Suppression of Vice had done much mischief. Blasphemy was an offence which it was quite impossible to define. Nobody, in committing it, was aware of what he was offending against. It was one thing in this country, and another thing in France; indeed, that which was blasphemy here, was not blasphemy there, and vice versâ. Indeed, as the law was now laid down, the mere disputing the truths of Christianity was an offence; and, therefore, the moment it was shown that the individual had sold a work reflecting upon them, that moment he stood convicted. If he said that he believed in what he wrote or sold, and attempted to state the grounds on which he rested his belief, he was told immediately he was aggravating his original offence by repeating it; and being thus precluded from making a defence, and bound as it were hand and foot, was delivered over to the vengeance of the prosecutor. The attorney-general found great fault with his hon. friend for saying, that the jury would never have returned a verdict of guilty against Mary Ann Carlile if they could have anticipated the punishment that awaited her; and had argued, that the doctrines which such a sentence inculcated was most dangerous to the interests of public morality and justice. Now he (Mr. Ricardo) fully agreed in all that his hon. friend had said upon that subject; and so far from the doctrine of his hon. friend being new or unheard of, it was a doctrine that was perpetually influencing the conduct of juries. Juries were constantly taking into their consideration the consequences that were likely to follow from their verdicts. If not, why were they so often finding individuals guilty of stealing property under the value of 40s. when every man was convinced that the property was worth much more? Why, but because they knew that, if they did not return such a verdict, a punishment would be inflicted incompatible with the spirit of the times? In forgeries, too, would any man deny, that the punishment which followed on conviction did not often come within the contemplation of the jury? [Hear hear!] He should therefore dismiss the observations of the attorney-general, without any further remark. He must now inform the House, that after a long and attentive consideration of the question, he had made up his mind that prosecutions ought never to be instituted for religious opinions. All religious opinions, however absurd and extravagant, might be conscientiously believed by some individuals. Why, then, was one man to set up his ideas on the subject as the criterion from which no other was to be allowed to differ with impunity? Why was one man to be considered infallible, and all his fellow men as frail and erring creatures? Such a doctrine ought not to be tolerated: it savoured too much of the Inquisition to be received as genuine in a free country like England. A fair and free discussion ought to be allowed on all religious topics. If the arguments advanced upon them were incorrect and blasphemous, surely they might be put down by sound argument and good reasoning, without the intervention of force and punishment. He was convinced that if it had not been for the indiscreet conduct of certain societies in prosecuting Mr. Carlile and his connexions, that family would never have acquired the notoriety by which it was at present distinguished.