Front Page Titles (by Subject) A SPEECH IN DEFENCE OF JEAN PELTIER, ACCUSED OF A LIBEL ON THE FIRST CONSUL OF FRANCE. DELIVERED IN THE COURT OF KING'S BENCH ON THE 21ST OF FEBRUARY, 1803. * - The Miscellaneous Works
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
A SPEECH IN DEFENCE OF JEAN PELTIER, ACCUSED OF A LIBEL ON THE FIRST CONSUL OF FRANCE. DELIVERED IN THE COURT OF KING’S BENCH ON THE 21ST OF FEBRUARY, 1803. * - Sir James Mackintosh, The Miscellaneous Works 
The Miscellaneous Works. Three Volumes, complete in One. (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1871).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
A SPEECH IN DEFENCE OF JEAN PELTIER, ACCUSED OF A LIBEL ON THE FIRST CONSUL OF FRANCE. DELIVERED IN THE COURT OF KING’S BENCH ON THE 21ST OF FEBRUARY, 1803.*
Gentlemen of the Jury,
The time is now come for me to address you on behalf of the unfortunate Gentleman who is the defendant on this record.
I must begin with observing, that though I know myself too well to ascribe to any thing but to the kindness and good-nature of my learned friend the Attorney-General† the unmerited praises which he has been pleased to bestow on me, yet I will venture to say, he has done me no more than justice in supposing that in this place, and on this occasion, where I exercise the functions of an inferior minister of justice,—an inferior minister indeed, but a minister of justice still,—I am incapable of lending myself to the passions of any client, and that I will not make the proceedings of this Court subservient to any political purpose. Whatever is respected by the laws and government of my country, shall, in this place, be respected by me. In considering matters that deeply interest the quiet, the safety, and the liberties of all mankind, it is impossible for me not to feel warmly and strongly; but I shall make an effort to control my feelings, however painful that effort may be, and where I cannot speak out at the risk of offending either sincerity or prudence, I shall labour to contain myself and be silent.
I cannot but feel, Gentlemen how much I stand in need of your favourable attention and indulgence. The charge which I have to defend is surrounded with the most invidious topics of discussion. But they are not of my seeking. The case, and the topics which are inseparable from it, are brought here by the prosecutor. Here I find them, and here it is my duty to deal with them, as the interests of Mr. Peltier seem to me to require. He, by his choice and confidence, has cast on me a very arduous duty, which I could not decline, and which I can still less betray. He has a right to expect from me a faithful, a zealous, and a fearless defence; and this his just expectation, according to the measure of my humble abilities, shall be fulfilled. I have said, a fearless defence:—perhaps that word was unnecessary in the place where I now stand. Intrepidity in the discharge of professional duty is so common a quality at the English Bar, that it has, thank God! long ceased to be a matter of boast or praise. If it had been otherwise, Gentlemen,—if the Bar could have been silenced or overawed by power, I may presume to say, that an English jury would not this day have been met to administer justice. Perhaps I need scarce say that my defence shall be fearless, in a place where fear never entered any heart but that of a criminal. But you will pardon me for having said so much, when you consider who the real parties before you are.
Gentlemen, the real prosecutor is the master of the greatest empire the civilized world ever saw. The Defendant is a defenceless proscribed exile. He is a French Royalist, who fled from his country in the autumn of 1792, at the period of that memorable and awful emigration when all the proprietors and magistrates of the greatest civilized country of Europe were driven from their homes by the daggers of assassins;—when our shores were covered, as with the wreck of a great tempest, with old men, and women, and children, and ministers of religion, who fled from the ferocity of their countrymen as before an army of invading barbarians. The greater part of these unfortunate exiles,—of those I mean who have been spared by the sword, or who have survived the effect of pestilential climates or broken hearts,—have been since permitted to revisit their country. Though despoiled of their all, they have eagerly embraced even the sad privilege of being suffered to die in their native land. Even this miserable indulgence was to be purchased by compliances,—by declarations of allegiance to the new government,—which some of these suffering royalists deemed incompatible with their conscience, with their dearest attachments and their most sacred duties. Among these last is Mr. Peltier. I do not presume to blame those who submitted; and I trust you will not judge harshly of those who refused. You will not think unfavourably of a man who stands before you as the voluntary victim of his loyalty and honour. If a revolution (which God avert!) were to drive us into exile, and to cast us on a foreign shore, we should expect, at least, to be pardoned by generous men, for stubborn loyalty, and unseasonable fidelity, to the laws and government of our fathers.
This unfortunate Gentleman had devoted a great part of his life to literature. It was the amusement and ornament of his better days: since his own ruin, and the desolation of his country, he has been compelled to employ it as a means of support. For the last ten years he has been engaged in a variety of publications of considerable importance: but, since the peace, he has desisted from serious political discussion, and confined himself to the obscure journal which is now before you,—the least calculated, surely, of any publication that ever issued from the press, to rouse the alarms of the most jealous government,—which will not be read in England, because it is not written in our language,—which cannot be read in France, because its entry into that country is prohibited by a power whose mandates are not very supinely enforced, nor often evaded with impunity,—which can have no other object than that of amusing the companions of the author’s principles and misfortunes, by pleasantries and sarcasms on their victorious enemies. There is, indeed, Gentlemen, one remarkable circumstance in this unfortunate publication: it is the only, or almost the only, journal, which still dares to espouse the cause of that royal and illustrious family, which but fourteen years ago was flattered by every press, and guarded by every tribunal, in Europe. Even the court in which we are met affords an example of the vicissitudes of their fortune. My Learned Friend has reminded you, that the last prosecution tried in this place, at the instance of a French government, was for a libel on that magnanimous princess, who has since been butchered in sight of her palace.
I do not make these observations with any purpose of questioning the general principles which have been laid down by my Learned Friend. I must admit his right to bring before you those who libel any government recognised by His Majesty, and at peace with the British empire. I admit that, whether such a government be of yesterday or a thousand years old,—whether it be a crude and bloody usurpation, or the most ancient, just, and paternal authority upon earth,—we are equally bound by His Majesty’s recognition to protect it against libellous attacks. I admit that if, during our Usurpation, Lord Clarendon had published his History at Paris, or the Marquis of Montrose his verses on the murder of his sovereign, or Mr. Cowley his Discourse on Cromwell’s Government, and if the English ambassador had complained, the President de Molé, or any other of the great magistrates who then adorned the Parliament of Paris, however reluctantly, painfully, and indignantly, might have been compelled to have condemned these illustrious men to the punishment of libellers. I say this only for the sake of bespeaking a favourable attention from your generosity and compassion to what will be feebly urged in behalf of my unfortunate Client, who has sacrificed his fortune, his hopes, his connections, and his country, to his conscience,—who seems marked out for destruction in this his last asylum.
That he still enjoys the security of this asylum,—that he has not been sacrificed to the resentment of his powerful enemies, is perhaps owing to the firmness of the King’s Government. If that be the fact, Gentlemen,—if his Majesty’s Ministers have resisted the applications to expel this unfortunate Gentleman from England, I should publicly thank them for their firmness, if it were not unseemly and improper to suppose that they could have acted otherwise,—to thank an English Government for not violating the most sacred duties of hospitality,—for not bringing indelible disgrace on their country. But be that as it may, Gentlemen, he now comes before you perfectly satisfied that an English jury is the most refreshing prospect that the eye of accused innocence ever met in a human tribunal; and he feels with me the most fervent gratitude to the Protector of empires, that, surrounded as we are with the ruins of principalities and powers, we still continue to meet together, after the manner of our fathers, to administer justice in this her ancient sanctuary.
There is another point of view, Gentlemen, in which this case seems to me to merit your most serious attention. I consider it as the first of a long series of conflicts between the greatest power in the world, and the only free press remaining in Europe. No man living is more thoroughly convinced than I am, that my Learned Friend will never degrade his excellent character,—that he will never disgrace his high magistracy by mean compliances,—by an immode rate and unconscientious exercise of power; yet I am convinced by circumstances which I shall now abstain from discussing, that Iam to consider this as the first of a long series of conflicts, between the greatest power in the world, and the only free press now remaining in Europe. Gentlemen, this distinction of the English press is new: it is a proud and melancholy distinction. Before the great earthquake of the French Revolution had swallowed up all the asylums of free discussion on the Continent, we enjoyed that privilege, indeed, more fully than others, but we did not enjoy it exclusively. In great monarchies the press has always been considered as too formidable an engine to be intrusted to unlicensed individuals. But in other Continental countries, either by the laws of the state, or by long habits of liberality and toleration in magistrates, a liberty of discussion has been enjoyed, perhaps sufficient for the most useful purposes. It existed, in fact, where it was not protected by law: and the wise and generous connivance of governments was daily more and more secured by the growing civilization of their subjects. In Holland, in Switzerland, and in the Imperial towns of Germany, the press was either legally or practically free. Holland and Switzerland are no more: and, since the commencement of this prosecution, fifty Imperial towns have been erased from the list of independent states, by one dash of the pen. Three or four still preserve a precarious and trembling existence. I will not say by what compliances they must purchase its continuance. I will not insult the feebleness of states whose unmerited fall I do most bitterly deplore.
These governments were in many respects one of the most interesting parts of the ancient system of Europe. Unfortunately for the repose of mankind, great states are compelled, by regard to their own safety, to consider the military spirit and martial habits of their people as one of the main objects of their policy. Frequent hostilities seem almost the necessary condition of their greatness: and, without being great, they cannot long remain safe. Smaller states, exempted from this cruel necessity,—a hard condition of greatness, a bitter satire on human nature,—devoted themselves to the arts of peace, to the cultivation of literature, and the improvement of reason. They became places of refuge for free and fearless discussion: they were the impartial spectators and judges of the various contests of ambition, which, from time to time, disturbed the quiet of the world. They thus became peculiarly qualified to be the organs of that public opinion which converted Europe into a great republic, with laws which mitigated, though they could not extinguish, ambition, and with moral tribunals to which even the most despotic sovereigns were amenable. If wars of aggrandisement were undertaken, their authors were arraigned in the face of Europe. If acts of internal tyranny were perpetrated, they resounded from a thousand presses throughout all civilized countries. Princes on whose will there were no legal checks, thus found a moral restraint which the most powerful of them could not brave with absolute impunity. They acted before a vast audience, to whose applause or condemnation they could not be utterly indifferent. The very constitution of human nature,—the unalterable laws of the mind of man, against which all rebellion is fruitless, subjected the proudest tyrants to this control. No elevation of power,—no depravity, however consummate,—no innocence, however spotless, can render man wholly independent of the praise or blame of his fellow-men.
These governments were in other respects one of the most beautiful and interesting parts of our ancient system. The perfect security of such inconsiderable and feeble states,—their undisturbed tranquillity amidst the wars and conquests that surrounded them, attested, beyond any other part of the European system, the moderation, the justice, the civilization to which Christian Europe had reached in modern times. Their weakness was protected only by the habitual reverence for justice, which, during a long series of ages, had grown up in Christendom. This was the only fortification which defended them against those mighty monarchs to whom they offered themselves so easy a prey. And, till the French Revolution, this was sufficient. Consider, for instance, the situation of the republic of Geneva: think of her defenceless position in the very jaws of France; but think also of her undisturbed security,—of her profound quiet,—of the brilliant success with which she applied to industry and literature, while Louis XIV. was pouring his myriads into Italy before her gates. Call to mind, if ages crowded into years have not effaced them from your memory, that happy period when we scarcely dreamt more of the subjugation of the feeblest republic of Europe, than of the conquest of her mightiest empire, and tell me if you can imagine a spectacle more beautiful to the moral eye, or a more striking proof of progress in the noblest principles of true civilization.
These feeble states,—these monuments of the justice of Europe,—the asylums of peace, of industry, and of literature,—the organs of public reason,—the refuge of oppressed innocence and persecuted truth,—have perished with those ancient principles which were their sole guardians and protectors. They have been swallowed up by that fearful convulsion which has shaken the uttermost corners of the earth. They are destroyed and gone for ever. One asylum of free discussion is still inviolate. There is still one spot in Europe where man can freely exercise his reason on the most important concerns of society,—where he can boldly publish his judgment on the acts of the proudest and most powerful tyrants. The press of England is still free. It is guarded by the free constitution of our forefathers;—it is guarded by the hearts and arms of Englishmen; and I trust I may venture to say, that if it be to fall, it will fall only under the ruins of the British empire. It is an awful consideration, Gentlemen:—every other monument of European liberty has perished: that ancient fabric which has been gradually reared by the wisdom and virtue of our fathers still stands. It stands, (thanks be to God!) solid and entire; but it stands alone, and it stands amidst ruins.
In these extraordinary circumstances, I repeat that I must consider this as the first of a long series of conflicts between the greatest power in the world and the only free press remaining in Europe; and I trust that you will consider yourselves as the advanced guard of liberty, as having this day to fight the first battle of free discussion against the most formidable enemy that it ever encountered. You will therefore excuse me, if on so important an occasion I remind you at more length than is usual, of those general principles of law and policy on this subject, which have been handed down to us by our ancestors.
Those who slowly built up the fabric of our laws, never attempted anything so absurd as to define by any precise rule the obscure and shifting boundaries which divide libel from history or discussion. It is a subject which, from its nature, admits neither rules nor definitions. The same words may be perfectly innocent in one case, and most mischievous and libellous in another. A change of circumstances, often apparently slight, is sufficient to make the whole difference. These changes, which may be as numerous as the variety of human intentions and conditions, can never be foreseen or comprehended under any legal definitions; and the framers of our law have never attempted to subject them to such definitions. They left such ridiculous attempts to those who call themselves philosophers, but who have in fact proved themselves most grossly and stupidly ignorant of that philosophy which is conversant with human affairs.
The principles of the law of England on the subject of political libel are few and simple; and they are necessarily so broad, that, without an habitually mild administration of justice, they might encroach materially on the liberty of political discussion. Every publication which is intended to vilify either our own government or the government of any foreign state in amity with this kingdom, is, by the law of England, a libel. To protect political discussion from the danger to which it would be exposed by these wide principles, if they were severely and literally enforced, our ancestors trusted to various securities; some growing out of the law and constitution, and others arising from the character of those public officers whom the constitution had formed, and to whom its administration is committed. They trusted in the first place to the moderation of the legal officers of the Crown, educated in the maxims and imbued with the spirit of a free government, controlled by the superintending power of Parliament, and peculiarly watched in all political prosecutions by the reasonable and wholesome jealousy of their fellow-subjects. And I am bound to admit, that since the glorious era of the Revolution,—making due allowance for the frailties, the faults, and the occasional vices of men,—they have upon the whole not been disappointed. I know that, in the hands of my Learned Friend, that trust will never be abused. But, above all, they confided in the moderation and good sense of juries,—popular in their origin,—popular in their feelings,—popular in their very prejudices,—taken from the mass of the people, and immediately returning to that mass again. By these checks and temperaments they hoped that they should sufficiently repress malignant libels, without endangering that freedom of inquiry which is the first security of a free state. They knew that the offence of a political libel is of a very peculiar nature, and differing in the most important particulars from all other crimes. In all other cases the most severe execution of law can only spread terror among the guilty; but in political libels it inspires even the innocent with fear. This striking peculiarity arises from the same circumstances which make it impossible to define the limits of libel and innocent discussion,—which make it impossible for a man of the purest and most honourable mind to be always perfectly certain, whether he be within the territory of fair argument and honest narrative, or whether he may not have unwittingly overstepped the faint and varying line which bounds them. But, Gentlemen, I will go farther:—this is the only offence where severe and frequent punishments not only intimidate the innocent, but deter men from the most meritorious acts, and from rendering the most important services to their country,—indispose and disqualify men for the discharge of the most sacred duties which they owe to mankind. To inform the public on the conduct of those who administer public affairs, requires courage and conscious security. It is always an invidious and obnoxious office; but it is often the most necessary of all public duties. If it is not done boldly, it cannot be done effectually: and it is not from writers trembling under the uplifted scourge, that we are to hope for it.
There are other matters, Gentlemen, to which I am desirous of particularly calling your attention. These are, the circumstances in the condition of this country, which have induced our ancestors, at all times, to handle with more than ordinary tenderness that branch of the liberty of discussion which is applied to the conduct of foreign states. The relation of this kingdom to the commonwealth of Europe is so peculiar, that no history, I think, furnishes a parallel to it. From the moment in which we abandoned all projects of Continental aggrandisement, we could have no interest respecting the state of the Continent, but the interests of national safety, and of commercial prosperity. The paramount interest of every state,—that which comprehends every other, is security: and the security of Great Britain requires nothing on the Continent but the uniform observance of justice. It requires nothing but the inviolability of ancient boundaries, and the sacredness of ancient possessions, which, on these subjects, is but another form of words for justice.
As to commercial prosperity, it is, indeed, a secondary, but still a very important branch of our national interest; and it requires nothing on the Continent of Europe but the maintenance of peace, as far as the paramount interest of security will allow. Whatever ignorant or prejudiced men may affirm, no war was ever gainful to a commercial nation. Losses may be less in some, and incidental profits may arise in others. But no such profits ever formed an adequate compensation for the waste of capital and industry which all wars must produce. Next to peace, our commercial greatness depends chiefly on the affluence and prosperity of our neighbours. A commercial nation has, indeed, the same interest in the wealth of her neighbours, that a tradesman has in the wealth of his customers. The prosperity of England has been chiefly owing to the general progress of civilized nations in the arts and improvements of social life. Not an acre of land has been brought into cultivation in the wilds of Siberia, or on the shores of the Mississippi, which has not widened the market for English industry. It is nourished by the progressive prosperity of the world; and it amply repays all that it has received. It can only be employed in spreading civilization and enjoyment over the earth; and by the unchangeable laws of nature, in spite of the impotent tricks of governments, it is now partly applied to revive the industry of those very nations who are the loudest in their senseless clamours against its pretended mischiefs. If the blind and barbarous project of destroying English prosperity could be accomplished, it could have no other effect than that of completely beggaring the very countries, which now stupidly ascribe their own poverty to our wealth.
Under these circumstances, Gentlemen, it became the obvious policy of this kingdom,—a policy in unison with the maxims of a free government,—to consider with great indulgence even the boldest animadversions of our political writers on the ambitious projects of foreign states. Bold, and sometimes indiscreet, as these animadversions might be, they had at least the effect of warning the people of their danger, and of rousing the national indignation against those encroachments which England has almost always been compelled in the end to resist by arms. Seldom, indeed, has she been allowed to wait, till a provident regard to her own safety should compel her to take up arms in defence of others. For, as it was said by a great orator of antiquity, “that no man ever was the enemy of the republic who had not first declared war against him,”* so I may say, with truth, that no man ever meditated the subjugation of Europe, who did not consider the destruction, or the corruption, of England as the first condition of his success. If you examine history you will find, that no such project was ever formed in which it was not deemed a necessary preliminary, either to detach England from the common cause, or to destroy her. It seems as if all the conspirators against the independence of nations might have sufficiently taught other states that England is their natural guardian and protector,—that she alone has no interest but their preservation,—that her safety is interwoven with their own. When vast projects of aggrandisement are manifested,—when schemes of criminal ambition are carried into effect, the day of battle is fast approaching for England. Her free government cannot engage in dangerous wars, without the hearty and affectionate support of her people. A state thus situated cannot without the utmost peril silence those public discussions, which are to point the popular indignation against those who must soon be enemies. In domestic dissensions, it may sometimes be the supposed interest of government to overawe the press: but it never can be even their apparent interest when the danger is purely foreign. A King of England who, in such circumstances, should conspire against the free press of this country, would undermine the foundations of his own throne;—he would silence the trumpet which is to call his people round his standard.
Gentlemen, the public spirit of a people (by which I mean the whole body of those affections which unites men’s hearts to the commonwealth) is in various countries composed of various elements, and depends on a great variety of causes. In this country, I may venture to say, that it mainly depends on the vigour of the popular parts and principles of our government; and that the spirit of liberty is one of its most important elements. Perhaps it may depend less on those advantages of a free government, which are most highly estimated by calm reason, than upon those parts of it which delight the imagination, and flatter the just and natural pride of mankind. Among these we are certainly not to forget the political rights which are not uniformly withheld from the lowest classes, and the continual appeal made to them, in public discussion, upon the greatest interests of the state. These are undoubtedly among the circumstances which endear to Englishmen their government and their country, and animate their zeal for that glorious institution which confers on the meanest of them a sort of distinction and nobility unknown to the most illustrious slaves who tremble at the frown of a tyrant. Whoever was unwarily and rashly to abolish or narrow these privileges (which it must be owned are liable to great abuse, and to very specious objections), might perhaps discover, too late, that he had been dismantling the fortifications of his country. Of whatever elements public spirit is composed, it is always and every where the chief defensive principle of a state (it is perfectly distinct from courage:—perhaps no nation—certainly no European nation ever perished from an inferiority of courage); and undoubtedly no considerable nation was ever subdued, in which the public affections were sound and vigorous. It is public spirit which binds together the dispersed courage of individuals, and fastens it to the commonwealth:—it is therefore, as I have said, the chief defensive principle of every country. Of all the stimulants which rouse it into action, the most powerful among us is certainly the press: and the press cannot be restrained or weakened without imminent danger that the national spirit may languish, and that the people may act with less zeal and affection for their country in the hour of its danger.
These principles, Gentlemen, are not new: they are genuine old English principles. And though in our days they have been disgraced and abused by ruffians and fanatics, they are in themselves as just and sound as they are liberal; and they are the only principles on which a free state can be safely governed. These principles I have adopted since I first learnt the use of reason; and I think I shall abandon them only with life.
On these principles I am now to call your attention to the libel with which this unfortunate Gentleman is charged. I heartily rejoice that I concur with the greatest part of what has been said by my Learned Friend, who has done honour even to his character by the generous and liberal principles which he has laid down. He has told you that he does not mean to attack historical narrative;—he has told you that he does not mean to attack political discussion;—he has told you also that he does not consider every intemperate word into which a writer, fairly engaged in narration or reasoning, might be betrayed, as a fit subject for prosecution. The essence of the crime of libel consists in the malignant mind which the publication proves, and from which it flows. A jury must be convinced, before they find a man guilty of libel, that his intention was to libel,—not to state facts which he believed to be true, or reasonings which he thought just. My Learned Friend has told you that the liberty of history includes the right of publishing those observations which occur to intelligent men when they consider the affairs of the world; and I think he will not deny that it includes also the right of expressing those sentiments which all good men feel on the contemplation of extraordinary examples of depravity or excellence.
One more privilege of the historian, which the Attorney-General has not named, but to which his principles extend, it is now my duty to claim on behalf of my client:—I mean, the right of republishing, historically, those documents (whatever their original malignity may be) which display the character and unfold the intentions of governments, or factions, or individuals. I think my Learned Friend will not deny, that an historical compiler may innocently republish in England the most insolent and outrageous declaration of war ever published against His Majesty by a foreign government. The intention of the original author was to vilify and degrade his Majesty’s government: but the intention of the compiler is only to gratify curiosity, or perhaps to rouse just indignation against the calumniator whose production he republishes; his intention is not libellous,—his republication is therefore not a libel. Suppose this to be the case with Mr. Peltier;—suppose him to have republished libels with a merely historical intention. In that case it cannot be pretended that he is more a libeller than my learned friend Mr. Abbott,* who read these supposed libels to you when he opened the pleadings. Mr. Abbott republished them to you, that you might know and judge of them: Mr. Peltier, on the supposition I have made, also republished them that the public might know and judge of them.
You already know that the general plan of Mr. Peltier’s publication was to give a picture of the cabals and intrigues,—of the hopes and projects, of French factions. It is undoubtedly a natural and necessary part of this plan to republish all the serious and ludicrous pieces which these factions circulate against each other. The Ode ascribed to Chenier or Ginguené I do really believe to have been written at Paris,—to have been circulated there,—to have been there attributed to one of these writers,—to have been sent to England as their work,—and as such, to have been republished by Mr. Peltier. But I am not sure that I have evidence to convince you of the truth of this. Suppose that I have not: will my Learned Friend say that my client must necessarily be convicted? I, on the contrary, contend, that it is for my Learned Friend to show that it is not an historical republication:—such it professes to be, and that profession it is for him to disprove. The profession may indeed be a “mask:” but it is for my Friend to pluck off the mask, and expose the libeller, before he calls upon you for a verdict of “guilty.”
If the general lawfulness of such republications be denied, then I must ask Mr. Attorney-General to account for the long impunity which English newspapers have enjoyed. I must request him to tell you why they have been suffered to republish all the atrocious, official and unofficial, libels which have been published against His Majesty for the last ten years, by the Brissots, the Marats, the Dantons, the Robespierres, the Barrères, the Talliens, the Reubells, the Merlins, the Barras’, and all that long line of bloody tyrants who oppressed their own country, and insulted every other which they had not the power to rob. What must be the answer? That the English publishers were either innocent if their motive was to gratify curiosity, or praiseworthy if their intention was to rouse indignation against the calumniators of their country. If any other answer be made, I must remind my Friend of a most sacred part of his duty—the duty of protecting the honest fame of those who are absent in the service of their country. Within these few days, we have seen in every newspaper in England, a publication, called the Report of Col. Sebastiani, in which a gallant British officer (General Stuart) is charged with writing letters to procure assassination. The publishers of that infamous Report are not and will not be prosecuted, because their intention is not to libel General Stuart. On any other principle, why have all our newspapers been suffered to circulate that most atrocious of all libels against the King and the people of England, which purports to be translated from the Moniteur of the 9th of August, 1802; a libel against a Prince, who has passed through a factious and stormy reign of forty-three years without a single imputation on his personal character,—against a people who have passed through the severest trials of national virtue with unimpaired glory, who alone in the world can boast of mutinies without murder, of triumphant mobs without massacre, of bloodless revolutions and of civil wars unstained by a single assassination;—that most impudent and malignant libel, which charges such a King of such a people not only with having hired assassins, but with being so shameless,—so lost to all sense of character, as to have bestowed on these assassins, if their murderous projects had succeeded, the highest badges of public honour,—the rewards reserved for statesmen and heroes,—the Order of the Garter;—the Order which was founded by the heroes of Creçy and Poitiers,—the Garter which was worn by Henry the Great and by Gustavus Adolphus,—which might now be worn by the Hero* who, on the shores of Syria, the ancient theatre of English chivalry, has revived the renown of English valour and of English humanity,—that unsullied Garter, which a detestable libeller dares to say is to be paid as the price of murder.
If I had now to defend an English publisher for the republication of that abominable libel, what must I have said on his defence? I must have told you that it was originally published by the French Government in their official gazette,—that it was republished by the English editor to gratify the natural curiosity, perhaps to rouse the just resentment, of his English readers. I should have contended, and, I trust, with success, that his republication of a libel was not libellous,—that it was lawful,—that it was laudable. All that would be important, at least all that would be essential in such a defence I now state to you on behalf of Mr. Peltier; and if an English newspaper may safely republish the libels of the French Government against His Majesty, I shall leave you to judge whether Mr. Peltier, in similar circumstances, may not, with equal safety, republish the libels of Chenier against the First Consul. On the one hand you have the assurances of Mr. Peltier in the context that this Ode is merely a republication;—you have also the general plan of his work, with which such a republication is perfectly consistent. On the other hand, you have only the suspicions of Mr. Attorney-General that this Ode is an original production of the Defendant.
But supposing that you should think it his production, and that you should also think it a libel,—even in that event, which I cannot anticipate, I am not left without a defence. The question will still be open:—is it a libel on Buonaparte, or is it a libel on Chenier or Ginguené? This is not an information for a libel on Chenier; and if you should think that this Ode was produced by Mr. Peltier, and ascribed by him to Chenier for the sake of covering that writer with the odium of Jacobinism, the Defendant is entitled to your verdict of “not guilty.” Or if you should believe that it is ascribed to Jacobinical writers for the sake of satirising a French Jacobinical faction, you must also in that case acquit him. Butler puts seditious and immoral language into the mouths of rebels and fanatics; but Hudibras is not for that reason a libel on morality or government. Swift, in the most exquisite piece of irony in the world (his Argument against the Abolition of Christianity), uses the language of those shallow, atheistical coxcombs whom his satire was intended to scourge. The scheme of his irony required some levity, and even some profaneness of language; but nobody was ever so dull as to doubt whether Swift meant to satirise atheism or religion. In the same manner Mr. Peltier, when he wrote a satire on French Jacobinism, was compelled to ascribe to Jacobins a Jacobinical hatred of government. He was obliged, by dramatic propriety, to put into their mouths those anarchical maxims which are complained of in this Ode. But it will be said, these incitements to insurrection are here directed against the authority of Buonaparte. This proves nothing, because they must have been so directed, if the Ode was a satire on Jacobinism. French Jacobins must inveigh against Buonaparte, because he exercises the powers of government: the satirist who attacks them must transcribe their sentiments, and adopt their language.
I do not mean to say, Gentlemen, that Mr. Peltier feels any affection, or professes any allegiance to Buonaparte. If I were to say so, he would disown me. He would disdain to purchase an acquittal by the profession of sentiments which he disclaims and abhors. Not to love Buonaparte is no crime. The question is not whether Mr. Peltier loves or hates the First Consul, but whether he has put revolutionary language into the mouth of Jacobins, with a view to paint their incorrigible turbulence, and to exhibit the fruits of Jacobinical revolutions to the detestation of mankind.
Now, Gentlemen, we cannot give a probable answer to this question without previously examining two or three questions on which the answer to the first must very much depend. Is there a faction in France which breathes the spirit, and is likely to employ the language of this Ode? Does it perfectly accord with their character and views? Is it utterly irreconcilable with the feelings, opinions, and wishes of Mr. Peltier? If these questions can be answered in the affirmative, then I think you must agree with me, that Mr. Peltier does not in this Ode speak his own sentiments,—that he does not here vent his own resentment against Buonaparte, but that he personates a Jacobin, and adopts his language for the sake of satirising his principles.
These questions, Gentlemen, lead me to those political discussions, which, generally speaking, are in a court of justice odious and disgusting. Here, however, they are necessary, and I shall consider them only as far as the necessities of this cause require.
Gentlemen, the French Revolution—I must pause, after I have uttered words which present such an overwhelming idea. But I have not now to engage in an enterprise so far beyond my force as that of examining and judging that tremendous revolution. I have only to consider the character of the factions which it must have left behind it. The French Revolution began with great and fatal errors. These errors produced atrocious crimes. A mild and feeble monarchy was succeeded by bloody anarchy, which very shortly gave birth to military despotism. France, in a few years, described the whole circle of human society. All this was in the order of nature. When every principle of authority and civil discipline,—when every principle which enables some men to command, and disposes others to obey, was extirpated from the mind by atrocious theories, and still more atrocious examples,—when every old institution was trampled down with contumely, and every new institution covered in its cradle with blood,—when the principle of property itself, the sheet-anchor of society, was annihilated,—when in the persons of the new possessors, whom the poverty of language obliges us to call proprietors, it was contaminated in its source by robbery and murder, and became separated from the education and the manners, from the general presumption of superior knowledge and more scrupulous probity which form its only liberal titles to respect,—when the people were taught to despise every thing old, and compelled to detest every thing new, there remained only one principle strong enough to hold society together,—a principle utterly incompatible, indeed, with liberty, and unfriendly to civilization itself,—a tyrannical and barbarous principle, but, in that miserable condition of human affairs, a refuge from still more intolerable evils:—I mean the principle of military power, which gains strength from that confusion and bloodshed in which all the other elements of society are dissolved, and which, in these terrible extremities, is the cement that preserves it from total destruction. Under such circumstances, Buonaparte usurped the supreme power in France;—I say usurped, because an illegal assumption of power is an usurpation. But usurpation, in its strongest moral sense, is scarcely applicable to a period of lawless and savage anarchy. The guilt of military usurpation, in truth, belongs to the authors of those confusions which sooner or later give birth to such an usurpation. Thus, to use the words of the historian, “by recent as well as all ancient example, it became evident, that illegal violence, with whatever pretences it may be covered, and whatever object it may pursue, must inevitably end at last in the arbitrary and despotic government of a single person.”* But though the government of Buonaparte has silenced the Revolutionary factions, it has not and it cannot have extinguished them. No human power could reimpress upon the minds of men all those sentiments and opinions which the sophistry and anarchy of fourteen years had obliterated. A faction must exist, which breathes the spirit of the Ode now before you.
It is, I know, not the spirit of the quiet and submissive majority of the French people. They have always rather suffered, than acted in, the Revolution. Completely exhausted by the calamities through which they have passed, they yield to any power which gives them repose. There is, indeed, a degree of oppression which rouses men to resistance; but there is another and a greater which wholly subdues and unmans them. It is remarkable that Robespierre himself was safe, till he attacked his own accomplices. The spirit of men of virtue was broken, and there was no vigour of character left to destroy him, but in those daring ruffians who were the sharers of his tyranny.
As for the wretched populace who were made the blind and senseless instrument of so many crimes,—whose frenzy can now be reviewed by a good mind with scarce any moral sentiment but that of compassion,—that miserable multitude of beings, scarcely human, have already fallen into a brutish forgetfulness of the very atrocities which they themselves perpetrated: they have already forgotten all the acts of their drunken fury. If you ask one of them, who destroyed that magnificent monument of religion and art? or who perpetrated that massacre? they stupidly answer, “The Jacobins!”—though he who gives the answer was probably one of these Jacobins himself: so that a traveller, ignorant of French history, might suppose the Jacobins to be the name of some Tartar horde, who, after laying waste France for ten years, were at last expelled by the native inhabitants. They have passed from senseless rage to stupid quiet: their delirium is followed by lethargy.
In a word, Gentlemen, the great body of the people of France have been severely trained in those convulsions and proscriptions which are the school of slavery. They are capable of no mutinous, and even of no bold and manly political sentiments: and if this Ode professed to paint their opinions, it would be a most unfaithful picture. But it is otherwise with those who have been the actors and leaders in the scene of blood: it is otherwise with the numerous agents of the most indefatigable, searching, multiform, and omnipresent tyranny that ever existed, which pervaded every class of society,—which had ministers and victims in every village in France.
Some of them, indeed,—the basest of the race,—the Sophists, the Rhetors, the Poetlaureates of murder,—who were cruel only from cowardice, and calculating selfishness, are perfectly willing to transfer their venal pens to any government that does not disdain their infamous support. These men, republicans from servility, who published rhetorical panegyrics on massacre, and who reduced plunder to a system of ethics, as are ready to preach slavery as anarchy. But the more daring—I had almost said the more respectable—ruffians cannot so easily bend their heads under the yoke. These fierce spirits have not lost
“The unconquerable will, the study of revenge, immortal hate.”*
They leave the luxuries of servitude to the mean and dastardly hypocrites,—to the Belials and Mammons of the infernal faction. They pursue their old end of tyranny under their old pretext of liberty. The recollection of their unbounded power renders every inferior condition irksome and vapid: and their former atrocities form, if I may so speak, a sort of moral destiny which irresistibly impels them to the perpetration of new crimes. They have no place left for penitence on earth: they labour under the most awful proscription of opinion that ever was pronounced against human beings: they have cut down every bridge by which they could retreat into the society of men. Awakened from their dreams of democracy,—the noise subsided that deafened their ears to the voice of humanity,—the film fallen from their eyes which hid from them the blackness of their own deeds,—haunted by the memory of their inexpiable guilt,—condemned daily to look on the faces of those whom their hand has made widows and orphans, they are goaded and scourged by these real furies, and hurried into the tumult of new crimes, to drown the cries of remorse, or, if they be too depraved for remorse, to silence the curses of mankind. Tyrannical power is their only refuge from the just vengeance of their fellow creatures: murder is their only means of usurping power. They have no taste, no occupation, no pursuit, but power and blood. If their hands are tied, they must at least have the luxury of murderous projects. They have drunk too deeply of human blood ever to relinquish their cannibal appetite.
Such a faction exists in France: it is numerous, it is powerful; and it has a principle of fidelity stronger than any that ever held together a society. They are banded together by despair of forgiveness,—by the unanimous detestation of mankind. They are now contained by a severe and stern government: but they still meditate the renewal of insurrection and massacre; and they are prepared to renew the worst and most atrocious of their crimes,—that crime against posterity and against human nature itself,—that crime of which the latest generations of mankind may feel the fatal consequences,—the crime of degrading and prostituting the sacred name of liberty. I must own that, however paradoxical it may appear, I should almost think not worse, but more meanly of them if it were otherwise. I must then think them destitute of that—I will not call it courage, because that is the name of a virtue—but of that ferocious energy which alone rescues ruffians from contempt. If they were destitute of that which is the heroism of murderers, they would be the lowest as well as the most abominable of beings. It is impossible to conceive any thing more despicable than wretches who, after hectoring and bullying over their meek and blameless sovereign, and his defenceless family,—whom they kept so long in a dungeon trembling for their existence,—whom they put to death by a slow torture of three years,—after playing the republicans and the tyrannicides to women and children,—become the supple and fawning slaves of the first government that knows how to wield the scourge with a firm hand.
I have used the word “Republican,” because it is the name by which this atrocious faction describes itself. The assumption of that name is one of their crimes. They are no more “Republicans” than “Royalists:” they are the common enemies of all human society. God forbid, that by the use of that word, I should be supposed to reflect on the members of those respectable republican communities which did exist in Europe before the French Revolution. That Revolution has spared many monarchies, but it has spared no republic within the sphere of its destructive energy. One republic only now exists in the world—a republic of English blood, which was originally composed of republican societies, under the protection of a monarchy, which had therefore no great and perilous change in their internal constitution to effect, and of which (I speak it with pleasure and pride), the inhabitants, even in the convulsions of a most deplorable separation, displayed the humanity as well as valour, which, I trust, I may say they inherited from their forefathers. Nor do I mean, by the use of the word “Republican,” to confound this execrable faction with all those who, in the liberty of private speculation, may prefer a republican form of government. I own, that after much reflection, I am not able to conceive an error more gross than that of those who believe in the possibility of erecting a republic in any of the old monarchical countries of Europe,—who believe that in such countries an elective supreme magistracy can produce any thing but a succession of stern tyrannies and bloody civil wars. It is a supposition which is belied by all experience, and which betrays the greatest ignorance of the first principles of the constitution of society. It is an error which has a false appearance of superiority over vulgar prejudice; it is, therefore, too apt to be attended with the most criminal rashness and presumption, and too easy to be inflamed into the most immoral and anti-social fanaticism. But as long as it remains a mere quiescent error, it is not the proper subject of moral disapprobation.
If then, Gentlemen, such a faction, falsely calling itself “Republican,” exists in France, let us consider whether this Ode speaks their sentiments,—describes their character,—agrees with their views. Trying it by the principle I have stated, I think you will have no difficulty in concluding, that it is agreeable to the general plan of this publication to give an historical and satirical view of the Brutus’ and brutes of the Republic,—of those who assumed and disgraced the name of Brutus,* and who, under that name, sat as judges in their mock tribunals with pistols in their girdles, to anticipate the office of the executioner on those unfortunate men whom they treated as rebels, for resistance to Robespierre and Couthon.
I now come to show you, that this Ode cannot represent the opinions of Mr. Peltier. He is a French Royalist; he has devoted his talents to the cause of his King; for that cause he has sacrificed his fortune and hazarded his life;—for that cause he is proscribed and exiled from his country. I could easily conceive powerful topics of Royalist invective against Buonaparte: and if Mr. Peltier had called upon Frenchmen by the memory of St. Louis and Henry the Great,—by the memory of that illustrious family which reigned over them for seven centuries, and with whom all their martial renown and literary glory are so closely connected,—if he had adjured them by the spotless name of that Louis XVI., the martyr of his love for his people, which scarce a man in France can now pronounce but in the tone of pity and veneration,—if he had thus called upon them to change their useless regret and their barren pity into generous and active indignation,—if he had reproached the conquerors of Europe with the disgrace of being the slaves of an upstart stranger,—if he had brought before their minds the contrast between their country under her ancient monarchs, the source and model of refinement in manners and taste, and since their expulsion the scourge and opprobrium of humanity,—if he had exhorted them to drive out their ignoble tyrants, and to restore their native sovereign, I should then have recognised the voice of a Royalist,—I should have recognised language that must have flowed from the heart of Mr. Peltier, and I should have been compelled to acknowledge that it was pointed against Buonaparte.
But instead of these, or similar topics, what have we in this Ode? On the supposition that it is the invective of a Royalist, how is it to be reconciled to common sense? What purpose is it to serve? To whom is it addressed? To what interests does it appeal? What passions is it to rouse? If it be addressed to Royalists, then I request, Gentlemen, that you will carefully read it, and tell me whether, on that supposition, it can be any thing but the ravings of insanity, and whether a commission of lunacy be not a proceeding more fitted to the author’s case, than a conviction for a libel. On that supposition, I ask you whether it does not amount, in substance, to such an address as the following:—“Frenchmen! Royalists! I do not call upon you to avenge the murder of your innocent sovereign, the butchery of your relations and friends, or the disgrace and oppression of your country. I call upon you by the hereditary right of Barras, transmitted through a long series of ages,—by the beneficent government of Merlin and Reubell, those worthy successors of Charlemagne, whose authority was as mild as it was lawful,—I call upon you to revenge on Buonaparte the deposition of that Directory who condemned the far greater part of yourselves to beggary and exile,—who covered France with Bastiles and scaffolds,—who doomed the most respectable remaining members of their community, the Pichegrus, the Barbé-Marbois’, the Barthelemis, to a lingering death in the pestilential wilds of Guiana. I call upon you to avenge on Buonaparte the cause of those Councils of Five Hundred, or of Two Hundred, of Elders or of Youngsters,—those disgusting and nauseous mockeries of representative assemblies,—those miserable councils which sycophant sophists had converted into machines for fabricating decrees of proscription and confiscation,—which not only proscribed unborn thousands, but, by a refinement and innovation in rapine, visited the sins of the children upon the fathers and beggared parents, not for the offences but for the misfortunes of their sons. I call upon you to restore this Directory and these Councils, and all this horrible profanation of the name of a republic, and to punish those who delivered you from them. I exhort you to reverence the den of these banditti as ‘the sanctuary of the laws,’ and to lament the day in which this intolerable nuisance was abated as ‘an unfortunate day.’ Last of all, I exhort you once more to follow that deplorable chimera,—the first lure that led you to destruction,—the sovereignty of the people; although I know, and you have bitterly felt, that you never were so much slaves in fact, as since you have been sovereigns in theory!” Let me ask Mr. Attorney-General, whether, upon his supposition, I have not given you a faithful translation of this Ode; and I think I may safely repeat, that, if this be the language of a Royalist addressed to Royalists, it must be the production of a lunatic. But, on my supposition, every thing is natural and consistent. You have the sentiments and language of a Jacobin:—it is therefore probable, if you take it as an historical republication of a Jacobin piece; it is just, if you take it as a satirical representation of Jacobin opinions and projects.
Perhaps it will be said, that this is the production of a Royalist writer, who assumes a Republican disguise to serve Royalist purposes. But if my Learned Friend chooses that supposition, I think an equal absurdity returns upon him in another shape. We must then suppose it to be intended to excite Republican discontent and insurrection against Buonaparte. It must then be taken as addressed to Republicans. Would Mr. Peltier, in that case, have disclosed his name as the publisher? Would he not much rather have circulated the Ode in the name of Chenier, without prefixing his own, which was more than sufficient to warn his Jacobinical readers against all his counsels and exhortations. If he had circulated it under the name of Chenier only, he would indeed have hung out Republican colours; but by prefixing his own, he appears without disguise. You must suppose him then to say:—“Republicans! I, your mortal enemy for fourteen years, whom you have robbed of his all,—whom you have forbidden to revisit his country under pain of death,—who, from the beginning of the Revolution, has unceasingly poured ridicule upon your follies, and exposed your crimes to detestation,—who in the cause of his unhappy sovereign braved your daggers for three years, and who escaped, almost by miracle, from your assassins in September,—who has since been constantly employed in warning other nations by your example, and in collecting the evidence upon which history will pronounce your condemnation,—I who at this moment deliberately choose exile and honourable poverty, rather than give the slightest mark of external compliance with your abominable institutions,—I your most irreconcilable and indefatigable enemy, offer you counsel which you know can only be a snare into which I expect you to fall, though by the mere publication of my name I have sufficiently forewarned you that I can have no aim but that of your destruction.” I ask you again, Gentlemen, is this common sense? Is it not as clear, from the name of the author, that it is not addressed to Jacobins, as, from the contents of the publication, that it is not addressed to Royalists? It may be the genuine work of Chenier; for the topics are such as he would employ: it may be a satire on Jacobinism; for the language is well adapted to such a composition: but it cannot be a Royalist’s invective against Buonaparte, intended by him to stir up either Royalists or Republicans to the destruction of the First Consul.
I cannot conceive it to be necessary that I should minutely examine this Poem to confirm my construction. There are one or two passages on which I shall make a few observations. The first is the contrast between the state of England and that of France, of which an ingenious friend* has favoured me with a translation, which I shall take the liberty of reading to you:—
Here, at first sight, you may perhaps think that the consistency of the Jacobin character is not supported—that the Republican disguise is thrown off,—that the Royalist stands unmasked before you:—but, on more consideration, you will find that such an inference would be too hasty. The leaders of the Revolution are now reduced to envy that British constitution which, in the infatuation of their presumptuous ignorance, they once rejected with scorn. They are now slaves (as themselves confess) because twelve years ago they did not believe Englishmen to be free. They cannot but see that England is the only popular government in Europe; and they are compelled to pay a reluctant homage to the justice of English principles. The praise of England is too striking a satire on their own government to escape them; and I may accordingly venture to appeal to all those who know any thing of the political circles of Paris, whether such contrasts between France and England as that which I have read to you be not the most favourite topics of the opponents of Buonaparte. But in the very next stanza:—
you see that though they are forced to render an unwilling tribute to our liberty, they cannot yet renounce all their fantastic and deplorable chimeras. They endeavour to make a compromise between the experience on which they cannot shut their eyes, and the wretched systems to which they still cling. Fanaticism is the most incurable of all mental diseases; because in all its forms,—religious, philosophical, or political,—it is distinguished by a sort of mad contempt for experience, which alone can correct the errors of practical judgment. And these democratical fanatics still speak of the odious principle of “hereditary government;” they still complain that we have not “equality:” they know not that this odious principle of inheritance is our bulwark against tyranny,—that if we had their pretended equality we should soon cease to be the objects of their envy. These are the sentiments which you would naturally expect from half-cured lunatics: but once more I ask you, whether they can be the sentiments of Mr. Peltier? Would he complain that we have too much monarchy, or too much of what they call “aristocracy?” If he has any prejudices against the English government, must they not be of an entirely opposite kind?
I have only one observation more to make on this Poem. It relates to the passage which is supposed to be an incitement to assassination. In my way of considering the subject, Mr. Peltier is not answerable for that passages, whatever its demerits may be. It is put into the mouth of a Jacobin; and it will not, I think, be affirmed, that if it were an incitement to assassinate, it would be very unsuitable to his character. Experience, and very recent experience, has abundantly proved how widely the French Revolution has blackened men’s imaginations,—what a daring and desperate cast it has given to their characters,—how much it has made them regard the most extravagant projects of guilt as easy and ordinary expedients,—and to what a horrible extent it has familiarised their minds to crimes which before were only known among civilized nations by the history of barbarous times, or as the subject of poetical fiction. But, thank God! Gentlemen, we in England have not learned to charge any man with inciting to assassination,—not even a member of that atrocious sect who have revived political assassination in Christendom,—except when we are compelled to do so by irresistible evidence. Where is that evidence here? in general it is immoral,—because it is indecent,—to speak with levity, still more to anticipate with pleasure, the destruction of any human being. But between this immorality and the horrible crime of inciting to assassination, there is a wide interval indeed. The real or supposed author of this Ode gives you to understand that he would hear with no great sorrow of the destruction of the First Consul. But surely the publication of that sentiment is very different from an exhortation to assassinate.
But, says my Learned Friend, why is the example of Brutus celebrated? Why are the French reproached with their baseness in not copying that example? Gentlemen, I have no judgment to give on the act of Marcus Brutus. I rejoice that I have not: I should not dare to condemn the acts of brave and virtuous men in extraordinary and terrible circumstances, and which have been, as it were, consecrated by the veneration of so many ages. Still less should I dare to weaken the authority of the most sacred rules of duty, by praises which would be immoral, even if the acts themselves were in some measure justified by the awful circumstances under which they were done. I am not the panegyrist of “those instances of doubtful public spirit at which morality is perplexed, reason is staggered, and from which affrighted nature recoils.”* But whatever we may think of the act of Brutus, surely my Learned Friend will not contend that every allusion to it, every panegyric on it, which has appeared for eighteen centuries, in prose and verse, is an incitement to assassination. From the “conspicuæ divina Philippica famæ,” down to the last schoolboy declamation, he will find scarce a work of literature without such allusions, and not very many without such panegyrics. I must say that he has construed this Ode more like an Attorney-General than a critic in poetry. According to his construction, almost every fine writer in our language is a preacher of murder.
Having said so much on the first of these supposed libels, I shall be very short on the two that remain:—the Verses ascribed to a Dutch Patriot, and the Parody of the Speech of Lepidus.
In the first of these, the piercing eye of Mr. Attorney-General has again discovered an incitement to assassinate,—the most learned incitement to assassinate that ever was addressed to such ignorant ruffians as are most likely to be employed for such purposes!—in an obscure allusion, to an obscure, and perhaps fabulous, part of Roman history,—to the supposed murder of Romulus, about which none of us know any thing, and of which the Jacobins of Paris and Amsterdam probably never heard.
But the Apotheosis:—here my Learned Friend has a little forgotten himself:—he seems to argue as if Apotheosis always pre-supposed death. But he must know, that Augustus, and even Tiberius and Nero, were deified during their lives; and he cannot have forgotten the terms in which one of the court-poets of Augustus speaks of his master’s divinity:—
If any modern rival of Augustus should choose that path to Olympus, I think he will find it more steep and rugged than that by which Pollux and Hercules climbed to the etherial towers; and that he must be content with “purpling his lips” with Burgundy on earth, as he has very little chance of doing so with nectar among the gods.
The utmost that can seriously be made of this passage is, that it is a wish for a man’s death. I repeat, that I do not contend for the decency of publicly declaring such wishes, or even for the propriety of entertaining them. But the distance between such a wish and a persuasive to murder, is immense. Such a wish for a man’s death is very often little more than a strong, though I admit not a very decent, way of expressing detestation of his character.
But without pursuing this argument any farther, I think myself entitled to apply to these Verses the same reasoning which I have already applied to the first supposed libel on Buonaparte. If they be the real composition of a pretended Dutch Patriot, Mr. Peltier may republish them innocently: if they be a satire on such pretended Dutch patriots, they are not a libel on Buonaparte. Granting, for the sake of argument, that they did contain a serious exhortation to assassinate, is there any thing in such an exhortation inconsistent with the character of these pretended patriots? They who were disaffected to the mild and tolerant government of their flourishing country, because it did not exactly square with all their theoretical whimsies,—who revolted from that administration as tyrannical, which made Holland one of the wonders of the world for protected industry, for liberty of action and opinion, and for a prosperity which I may venture to call the greatest victory of man over hostile elements,—who served in the armies of Robespierre, under the impudent pretext of giving liberty to their own country, and who have, finally, buried in the same grave its liberty, its independence, and perhaps its national existence,—such men are not entitled to much tenderness from a political satirist; and he will scarcely violate dramatic propriety if he impute to them any language, however criminal and detestable. They who could not brook the authority of their old, lazy, goodnatured government, are not likely to endure with patience the yoke of that stern domination which they have brought upon themselves, and which, as far as relates to them, is only the just punishment of their crimes.
I know nothing more odious than their character, unless it be that of those who invoked the aid of the oppressors of Switzerland to be the deliverers of Ireland! The latter guilt has, indeed, peculiar aggravations. In the name of liberty they were willing to surrender their country into the hands of tyrants, the most lawless, faithless, and merciless that ever scourged Europe,—who, at the very moment of the negotiation, were covered with the blood of the unhappy Swiss, the martyrs of real independence and of real liberty. Their success would have been the destruction of the only free community remaining in Europe,—of England, the only bulwark of the remains of European independence. Their means were the passions of an ignorant and barbarous peasantry, and a civil war, which could not fail to produce all the horrible crimes and horrible retaliations of the last calamity that can befall society,—a servile revolt. They sought the worst of ends by the most abominable of means. They laboured for the subjugation of the world at the expense of crimes and miseries which men of humanity and conscience would have thought too great a price for its deliverance.
The last of these supposed libels, Gentlemen, is the Parody on the Speech of Lepidus, in the Fragments of Sallust. It is certainly a very ingenious and happy parody of an original, attended with some historical obscurity and difficulty, which it is no part of our present business to examine. This Parody is said to have been clandestinely placed among the papers of one of the most amiable and respectable men in France, M. Camille Jourdan, in order to furnish a pretext for involving that excellent person in a charge of conspiracy. This is said to have been done by a spy of Fouché. Now, Gentlemen, I take this to be a satire of Fouché,—on his manufacture of plots,—on his contrivances for the destruction of innocent and virtuous men; and I should admit it to be a libel on Fouché, if it were possible to libel him. I own that I should like to see Fouché appear as a plaintiff, seeking reparation for his injured character, before any tribunal, safe from his fangs,—where he had not the power of sending the judges to Guiana or Madagascar. It happens that we know something of the history of M. Fouché, from a very credible witness against him,—from himself. You will perhaps excuse me for reading to you some passages of his letters in the year 1793, from which you will judge whether any satire can be so severe as the portrait he draws of himself:—“Convinced that there are no innocent men in this infamous city,” (the unhappy city of Lyons), “but those who are oppressed and loaded with irons by the assassins of the people,” (he means the murderers who were condemned to death for their crimes) “we are on our guard against the tears of repentance! nothing can disarm our severity. They have not yet dared to solicit the repeal of your first decree for the annihilation of the city of Lyons! but scarcely anything has yet been done to carry it into execution.” (Pathetic!) “The demolitions are too slow. More rapid means are necessary to republican impatience. The explosion of the mine, and the devouring activity of the flames, can alone adequately represent the omnipotence of the people.” (Unhappy populace, always the pretext, the instrument, and the victim of political crimes!) “Their will cannot be checked like that of tyrants—it ought to have the effects of thunder!”* The next specimen of this worthy gentleman which I shall give, is in a speech to the Jacobin Club of Paris, on the 21st of December, 1793, by his worthy colleague in the mission to Lyons, Collot d’Herbois:—“We are accused” (you, Gentlemen, will soon see how unjustly) “of being cannibals, men of blood; but it is in counter-revolutionary petitions, hawked about for signature by aristocrats, that this charge is made against us. They examine with the most scrupulous attention how the counter-revolutionists are put to death, and they affect to say, that they are not killed at one stroke.” (He speaks for himself and his colleague Fouché, and one would suppose that he was going to deny the fact,—but nothing like it.) “Ah, Jacobins, did Chalier die at the first stroke?” (This Chalier was the Marat of Lyons.) “A drop of blood poured from generous veins goes to my heart” (humane creature!); “but I have no pity for conspirators.” (He however proceeds to state a most undeniable proof of his compassion.) “We caused two hundred to be shot at once, and it is charged upon us as a crime!” (Astonishing! that such an act of humanity should be called a crime!) “They do not know that it is a proof of our sensibility! When twenty criminals are guillotined, the last of them dies twenty deaths: but those two hundred conspirators perished at once. They speak of sensibility; we also are full of sensibility! The Jacobins have all the virtues! They are compassionate, humane, generous!” (This is somewhat hard to be understood, but it is perfectly explained by what follows;) “but they reserve these sentiments for the patriots who are their brethren, which the aristocrats never will be.”†
The only remaining document with which I shall trouble you, is a letter from Fouché to his amiable colleague Collot d’Herbois, which, as might be expected in a confidential communication, breathes all the native tenderness of his soul:—“Let us be terrible, that we may run no risk of being feeble or cruel. Let us annihilate in our wrath, at a single blow, all rebels, all conspirators, all traitors,” (comprehensive words in his vocabulary) “to spare ourselves the pain, the long agony, of punishing like kings!” (Nothing but philanthropy in this worthy man’s heart.) “Let us exercise justice after the example of nature; let us avenge ourselves like a people; let us strike like the thunderbolt; and let even the ashes of our enemies disappear from the soil of liberty! Let the perfidious and ferocious English be attacked from every side; let the whole republic form a volcano to pour devouring lava upon them; may the infamous island which produced these monsters, who no longer belong to humanity, be for ever buried under the waves of the ocean! Farewell, my friend! Tears of joy stream from my eyes” (we shall soon see for what); “they deluge my soul.”* Then follows a little postscript, which explains the cause of this excessive joy, so hyperbolical in its language, and which fully justifies the indignation of the humane writer against the “ferocious English,” who are so stupid and so cruel as never to have thought of a benevolent massacre, by way of sparing themselves the pain of punishing individual criminals. “We have only one way of celebrating victory. We send this evening two hundred and thirteen rebels to be shot!”
Such, Gentlemen, is M. Fouché, who is said to have procured this Parody to be mixed with the papers of my excellent friend Camille Jourdan, to serve as a pretext for his destruction. Fabricated plots are among the most usual means of such tyrants for such purposes; and if Mr. Peltier intended to libel—shall I say?—Fouché by this composition, I can easily understand both the Parody and the history of its origin: But if it be directed against Buonaparte to serve Royalist purposes, I must confess myself wholly unable to conceive why Mr. Peltier should have stigmatised his work, and deprived it of all authority and power of persuasion, by prefixing to it the infamous name of Fouché.
On the same principle I think one of the observations of my Learned Friend, on the title of this publication, may be retorted on him. He has called your attention to the title,—“L’Ambigu, ou Variétés atroces et amusantes.” Now, Gentlemen, I must ask whether, had these been Mr. Peltier’s own invectives against Buonaparte, he would himself have branded them as “atrocious?” But if they be specimens of the opinions and invectives of a French faction, the title is very natural, and the epithets are perfectly intelligible. Indeed I scarce know a more appropriate title for the whole tragi-comedy of the Revolution than that of “atrocious and amusing varieties.”
My Learned Friend has made some observations on other parts of this publication, to show the spirit which animates the author; but they do not seem to be very material to the question between us. It is no part of my case that Mr. Peltier has not spoken with some unpoliteness,—with some flippancy,—with more severity than my Learned Friend may approve, of factions and of administrations in France. Mr. Peltier cannot love the Revolution, or any government that has grown out of it and maintains it. The Revolutionists have destroyed his family; they have seized his inheritance; they have beggared, exiled, and proscribed himself. If he did not detest them he would be unworthy of living; he would be a base hypocrite if he were to conceal his sentiments. But I must again remind you, that this is not an Information for not sufficiently honouring the French Revolution,—for not showing sufficient reverence for the Consular government. These are no crimes among us. England is not yet reduced to such an ignominious dependence. Our hearts and consciences are not yet in the bonds of so wretched a slavery. This is an Information for a libel on Buonaparte, and if you believe the principal intention of Mr. Peltier to have been to republish the writings or to satirise the character of other individuals, you must acquit him of a libel on the First Consul.
Here, Gentlemen, I think I might stop, if I had only to consider the defence of Mr. Peltier. I trust that you are already convinced of his innocence. I fear I have exhausted your patience, as I am sure I have very nearly exhausted my own strength. But so much seems to me to depend on your verdict, that I cannot forbear from laying before you some considerations of a more general nature.
Believing as I do that we are on the eve of a great struggle,—that this is only the first battle between reason and power,—that you have now in your hands, committed to your trust, the only remains of free discussion in Europe, now confined to this kingdom; addressing you, therefore, as the guardians of the most important interests of mankind; convinced that the unfettered exercise of reason depends more on your present verdict than on any other that was ever delivered by a jury, I cannot conclude without bringing before you the sentiments and examples of our ancestors in some of those awful and perilous situations by which Divine Providence has in former ages tried the virtue of the English nation. We are fallen upon times in which it behoves us to strengthen our spirits by the contemplation of great examples of constancy. Let us seek for them in the annals of our forefathers.
The reign of Queen Elizabeth may be considered as the opening of the modern history of England, especially in its connection with the modern system of Europe, which began about that time to assume the form that it preserved till the French Revolution. It was a very memorable period, the maxims of which ought to be engraven on the head and heart of every Englishman. Philip II., at the head of the greatest empire then in the world, was openly aiming at universal domination; and his project was so far from being thought chimerical by the wisest of his contemporaries, that in the opinion of the great Duc de Sully he must have been successful, “if, by a most singular combination of circumstances, he had not at the same time been resisted by two such strong heads as those of Henry IV. and Queen Elizabeth.” To the most extensive and opulent dominions, the most numerous and disciplined armies, the most renowned captains, the greatest revenue, he added also the most formidable power over opinion. He was the chief of a religious faction, animated by the most atrocious fanaticism, and prepared to second his ambition by rebellion, anarchy, and regicide, in every Protestant state. Elizabeth was among the first objects of his hostility. That wise and magnanimous Princess placed herself in the front of the battle for the liberties of Europe. Though she had to contend at home with his fanatical faction, which almost occupied Ireland, which divided Scotland, and was not of contemptible strength in England, she aided the oppressed inhabitants of the Netherlands in their just and glorious resistance to his tyranny; she aided Henry the Great in suppressing the abominable rebellion which anarchical principles had excited and Spanish arms had supported in France; and after a long reign of various fortune, in which she preserved her unconquered spirit through great calamities, and still greater dangers, she at length broke the strength of the enemy, and reduced his power within such limits as to be compatible with the safety of England, and of all Europe. Her only effectual ally was the spirit of her people: and her policy flowed from that magnanimous nature which in the hour of peril teaches better lessons than those of cold reason. Her great heart inspired her with the higher and a nobler wisdom, which disdained to appeal to the low and sordid passions of her people even for the protection of their low and sordid interests; because she knew, or rather she felt, that these are effeminate, creeping, cowardly, short-sighted passions, which shrink from conflict even in defence of their own mean objects. In a righteous cause she roused those generous affections of her people which alone teach boldness, constancy, and foresight, and which are therefore the only safe guardians of the lowest as well as the highest interests of a nation. In her memorable address to her army, when the invasion of the kingdom was threatened by Spain, this woman of heroic spirit disdained to speak to them of their ease and their commerce, and their wealth and their safety. No! She touched another chord;—she spoke of their national honour, of their dignity as Englishmen, of “the foul scorn that Parma or Spain should dare to invade the borders of her realms!” She breathed into them those grand and powerful sentiments which exalt vulgar men into heroes,—which led them into the battle of their country armed with holy and irresistible enthusiasm, which even cover with their shield all the ignoble interests that base calculation and cowardly selfishness tremble to hazard, but shrink from defending. A sort of prophetic instinct,—if I may so speak,—seems to have revealed to her the importance of that great instrument for rousing and guiding the minds of men, of the effects of which she had had no experience,—which, since her time, has changed the condition of the world,—but which few modern statesmen have thoroughly understood or wisely employed,—which is no doubt connected with many ridiculous and degrading details,—which has produced, and which may again produce, terrible mischiefs,—but the influence of which must after all be considered as the most certain effect and the most efficacious cause of civilization,—and which, whether it be a blessing or a curse, is the most powerful engine that a politician can move:—I mean the press. It is a curious fact, that, in the year of the Armada, Queen Elizabeth caused to be printed the first Gazettes that ever appeared in England; and I own, when I consider that this mode of rousing a national spirit was then absolutely unexampled,—that she could have no assurance of its efficacy from the precedents of former times,—I am disposed to regard her having recourse to it as one of the most sagacious experiments,—one of the greatest discoveries of political genius,—one of the most striking anticipations of future experience, that we find in history. I mention it to you, to justify the opinion that I have ventured to state, of the close connection of our national spirit with our press, and even our periodical press. I cannot quit the reign of Elizabeth without laying before you the maxims of her policy, in the language of the greatest and wisest of men. Lord Bacon, in one part of his discourse on her reign, speaks thus of her support of Holland:—“But let me rest upon the honourable and continual aid and relief she hath given to the distressed and desolate people of the Low Countries; a people recommended unto her by ancient confederacy and daily intercourse, by their cause so innocent, and their fortune so lamentable!”—In another passage of the same discourse, he thus speaks of the general system of her foreign policy, as the protector of Europe, in words too remarkable to require any commentary:—“Then it is her government, and her government alone, that hath been the sconce and fort of all Europe, which hath lett this proud nation from over-running all. If any state be yet free from his factions erected in the bowels thereof, if there be any state wherein this faction is erected that is not yet fired with civil troubles; if there be any state under his protection that enjoyeth moderate liberty, upon whom he tyrannizeth not; it is the mercy of this renowned Queen that standeth between them and their misfortunes!”
The next great conspirator against the rights of men and nations, against the security and independence of all European states, against every kind and degree of civil and religious liberty, was Louis XIV. In his time the character of the English nation was the more remarkably displayed, because it was counteracted by an apostate and perfidious government. During great part of his reign, you know that the throne of England was filled by princes who deserted the cause of their country and of Europe,—who were the accomplices and the tools of the oppressor of the world,—who were even so unmanly, so unprincely, so base, as to have sold themselves to his ambition,—who were content that he should enslave the Continent, if he enabled them to enslave Great Britain. These princes, traitors to their own royal dignity and to the feelings of the generous people whom they ruled, preferred the condition of the first slave of Louis XIV. to the dignity of the first freeman of England. Yet, even under these princes, the feelings of the people of this kingdom were displayed on a most memorable occasion towards foreign sufferers and foreign oppressors. The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, threw fifty thousand French Protestants on our shores. They were received, as I trust the victims of tyranny ever will be in this land, which seems chosen by Providence to be the home of the exile,—the refuge of the oppressed. They were welcomed by a people high-spirited as well as humane, who did not insult them by clandestine charity,—who did not give alms in secret lest their charity should be detected by neighbouring tyrants! No! they were publicly and nationally welcomed and relieved. They were bid to raise their voice against their oppressor, and to proclaim their wrongs to all mankind. They did so. They were joined in the cry of just indignation by every Englishman worthy of the name. It was a fruitful indignation, which soon produced the successful resistance of all Europe to the common enemy. Even then, when Jeffreys disgraced the Bench which his Lordship* now adorns, no refugee was deterred by prosecution for libel from giving vent to his feelings,—from arraigning the oppressor in the face of all Europe.
During this ignominious period of our history, a war arose on the Continent, which cannot but present itself to the mind on such an occasion as this,—the only war that was ever made on the avowed ground of attacking a free press. I speak of the invasion of Holland by Louis XIV. The liberties which the Dutch gazettes had taken in discussing his conduct were the sole cause of this very extraordinary and memorable war, which was of short duration, unprecedented in its avowed principle, and most glorious in its event for the liberties of mankind. That republic, at all times so interesting to Englishmen,—in the worst times of both countries our brave enemies,—in their best times our most faithful and valuable friends,—was then charged with the defence of a free press against the oppressor of Europe, as a sacred trust for the benefit of all generations. They felt the sacredness of the deposit, they felt the dignity of the station in which they were placed: and though deserted by the un-English Government of England, they asserted their own ancient character, and drove out the great armies and great captains of the oppressor with defeat and disgrace. Such was the result of the only war hitherto avowedly undertaken to oppress a free country because she allowed the free and public exercise of reason:—and may the God of Justice and Liberty grant that such may ever be the result of wars made by tyrants against the rights of mankind, especially of those against that right which is the guardian of every other.
This war, Gentlemen, had the effect of raising up from obscurity the great Prince of Orange, afterwards King William III.—the deliverer of Holland, the deliverer of England, the deliverer of Europe,—the only hero who was distinguished by such a happy union of fortune and virtue that the objects of his ambition were always the same with the interests of humanity,—perhaps, the only man who devoted the whole of his life exclusively to the service of mankind. This most illustrious benefactor of Europe,—this “hero without vanity or passion,” as he has been justly and beautifully called by a venerable prelate,* who never made a step towards greatness without securing or advancing liberty, who had been made Stadtholder of Holland for the salvation of his own country, was soon after made King of England for the deliverance of ours. When the people of Great Britain had once more a government worthy of them, they returned to the feelings and principles of their ancestors, and resumed their former station and their former duties as protectors of the independence of nations. The people of England, delivered from a government which disgraced, oppressed, and betrayed them, fought under William as their forefathers had fought under Elizabeth, and after an almost uninterrupted struggle of more than twenty years, in which they were often abandoned by fortune, but never by their own constancy and magnanimity, they at length once more defeated those projects of guilty ambition, boundless aggrandisement, and universal domination, which had a second time threatened to overwhelm the whole civilized world. They rescued Europe from being swallowed up in the gulf of extensive empire, which the experience of all times points out as the grave of civilization,—where men are driven by violent conquest and military oppression into lethargy and slavishness of heart,—where, after their arts have perished with the mental vigour from which they spring, they are plunged by the combined power of effeminacy and ferocity into irreclaimable and hopeless barbarism. Our ancestors established the safety of their own country by providing for that of others, and rebuilt the European system upon such firm foundations, that nothing less than the tempest of the French Revolution could have shaken it.
This arduous struggle was suspended for a short time by the Peace of Ryswick. The interval between that Treaty and the War of the Succession enables us to judge how our ancestors acted in a very peculiar situation which requires maxims of policy very different from those which usually govern states. The treaty which they had concluded was in truth and substance only a truce. The ambition and the power of the enemy were such as to render real peace impossible; and it was perfectly obvious that the disputed succession of the Spanish monarchy would soon render it no longer practicable to preserve even the appearance of amity. It was desirable, however, not to provoke the enemy by unseasonable hostility; but it was still more desirable,—it was absolutely necessary, to keep up the national jealousy and indignation against him who was soon to be their open enemy. It might naturally have been apprehended that the press might have driven into premature war a prince who not long before had been violently exasperated by the press of another free country. I have looked over the political publications of that time with some care, and I can venture to say, that at no period were the system and projects of Louis XIV. animadverted on with more freedom and boldness than during that interval. Our ancestors, and the heroic Prince who governed them, did not deem it wise policy to disarm the national mind for the sake of prolonging a truce:—they were both too proud and too wise to pay so great a price for so small a benefit.
In the course of the eighteenth century, a great change took place in the state of political discussion in this country:—I speak of the multiplication of newspapers. I know that newspapers are not very popular in this place, which is, indeed, not very surprising, because they are known here only by their faults. Their publishers come here only to receive the chastisement due to their offences. With all their faults, I own, I cannot help feeling some respect for whatever is a proof of the increased curiosity and increased knowledge of mankind; and I cannot help thinking, that if somewhat more indulgence and consideration were shown for the difficulties of their situation, it might prove one of the best correctives of their faults, by teaching them that self-respect which is the best security for liberal conduct towards others. But however that may be, it is very certain that the multiplication of these channels of popular information has produced a great change in the state of our domestic and foreign politics. At home, it has, in truth, produced a gradual revolution in our government. By increasing the number of those who exercise some sort of judgment on public affairs, it has created a substantial democracy, infinitely more important than those democratical forms which have been the subject of so much contest. So that I may venture to say, England has not only in its forms the most democratical government that ever existed in a great country, but, in substance, has the most democratical government that ever existed in any country;—if the most substantial democracy be that state in which the greatest number of men feel an interest and express an opinion upon political questions, and in which the greatest number of judgments and wills concur in influencing public measures.
The same circumstance gave great additional importance to our discussion of continental politics. That discussion was no longer, as in the preceding century, confined to a few pamphlets, written and read only by men of education and rank, which reached the multitude very slowly and rarely. In newspapers an almost daily appeal was made, directly or indirectly, to the judgment and passions of almost every individual in the kingdom upon the measures and principles not only of his own country, but of every state in Europe. Under such circumstances, the tone of these publications in speaking of foreign governments became a matter of importance. You will excuse me, therefore, if, before I conclude, I remind you of the general nature of their language on one or two very remarkable occasions, and of the boldness with which they arraigned the crimes of powerful sovereigns, without any check from the laws and magistrates of their own country. This toleration, or rather this protection, was too long and uniform to be accidental. I am, indeed, very much mistaken if it be not founded upon a policy which this country cannot abandon without sacrificing her liberty and endangering her national existence.
The first remarkable instance which I shall choose to state of the unpunished and protected boldness of the English press,—of the freedom with which they animadverted on the policy of powerful sovereigns, is on the Partition of Poland in 1772,—an act not perhaps so horrible in its means, nor so deplorable in its immediate effects, as some other atrocious invasions of national independence which have followed it, but the most abominable in its general tendency and ultimate consequences of any political crime recorded in history, because it was the first practical breach in the system of Europe,—the first example of atrocious robbery perpetrated on unoffending countries, which has been since so liberally followed, and which has broken down all the barriers of habit and principle that guarded defenceless states. The perpetrators of this atrocious crime were the most powerful sovereigns of the Continent, whose hostility it certainly was not the interest of Great Britain wantonly to incur. They were the most illustrious princes of their age; and some of them were doubtless entitled to the highest praise for their domestic administration, as well as for the brilliant qualities which distinguished their character. But none of these circumstances,—no dread of their resentment,—no admiration of their talents,—no consideration for their rank,—silenced the animadversion of the English press. Some of you remember,—all of you know, that a loud and unanimous cry of reprobation and execration broke out against them from every part of this kingdom. It was perfectly uninfluenced by any considerations of our own mere national interest, which might perhaps be supposed to be rather favourably affected by that partition. It was not, as in some other countries, the indignation of rival robbers, who were excluded from their share of the prey: it was the moral anger of disinterested spectators against atrocious crimes,—the gravest and the most dignified moral principle which the God of Justice has implanted in the human heart,—that one, the dread of which is the only restraint on the actions of powerful criminals, and the promulgation of which is the only punishment that can be inflicted on them. It is a restraint which ought not to be weakened: it is a punishment which no good man can desire to mitigate. That great crime was spoken of as it deserved in England. Robbery was not described by any courtly circumlocutions: rapine was not called “policy:” nor was the oppression of an innocent people termed a “mediation” in their domestic differences. No prosecutions,—no Criminal Imormations followed the liberty and the boldness of the language then employed. No complaints even appear to have been made from abroad;—much less any insolent menaces against the free constitution which protected the English press.—The people of England were too long known throughout Europe for the proudest potentate to expect to silence our press by such means.
I pass over the second partition of Poland in 1792 (you all remember what passed on that occasion—the universal abhorrence expressed by every man and every writer of every party,—the succours that were publicly preparing by large bodies of individuals of all parties for the oppressed Poles); I hasten to the final dismemberment of that unhappy kingdom, which seems to me the most striking example in our history of the habitual, principled, and deeply-rooted forbearance of those who administer the law towards political writers. We were engaged in the most extensive, bloody, and dangerous war that this country ever knew; and the parties to the dismemberment of Poland were our allies, and our only powerful and effective allies. We had every motive of policy to court their friendship: every reason of state seemed to require that we should not permit them to be abused and vilified by English writers. What was the fact? Did any Englishman consider himself at liberty, on account of temporary interests, however urgent, to silence those feelings of humanity and justice which guard the certain and permanent interests of all countries? You all remember that every voice, and every pen, and every press in England were unceasingly employed to brand that abominable robbery. You remember that this was not confined to private writers, but that the same abhorrence was expressed by every member of both Houses of Parliament who was not under the restraints of ministerial reserve. No minister dared even to blame the language of honest indignation which might be very inconvenient to his most important political projects; and I hope I may venture to say, that no English assembly would have endured such a sacrifice of eternal justice to any miserable interest of an hour. Did the Law-officers of the Crown venture to come into a court of justice to complain of the boldest of the publications of that time? They did not. I do not say that they felt any disposition to do so;—I believe that they could not. But I do say, that if they had,—if they had spoken of the necessity of confining our political writers to cold narrative and unfeeling argument,—if they had informed a jury, that they did not prosecute history, but invective,—that if private writers be at liberty at all to blame great princes, it must be with moderation and decorum,—the sound heads and honest hearts of an English jury would have confounded such sophistry, and would have declared, by their verdict, that moderation of language is a relative term, which varies with the subject to which it is applied,—that atrocious crimes are not to be related as calmly and coolly as indifferent or trifling events,—that if there be a decorum due to exalted rank and authority, there is also a much more sacred decorum due to virtue and to human nature, which would be outraged and trampled under foot, by speaking of guilt in a lukewarm language, falsely called moderate.
Soon after, Gentlemen, there followed an act, in comparison with which all the deeds of rapine and blood perpetrated in the world are innocence itself,—the invasion and destruction of Switzerland,—that unparalleled scene of guilt and enormity,—that unprovoked aggression against an innocent country, which had been the sanctuary of peace and liberty for three centuries,—respected as a sort of sacred territory by the fiercest ambition,—raised, like its own mountains, beyond the region of the storms which raged around on every side,—the only warlike people that never sent forth armies to disturb their neighbours,—the only government that ever accumulated treasures without imposing taxes,—an innocent treasure, unstained by the tears of the poor, the inviolate patrimony of the commonwealth, which attested the virtue of a long series of magistrates, but which at length caught the eye of the spoiler, and became the fatal occasion of their ruin! Gentlemen, the destruction of such a country,—“its cause so innocent, and its fortune so lamentable!”—made a deep impression on the people of England. I will ask my Learned Friend, if we had then been at peace with the French republic, whether we must have been silent spectators of the foulest crimes that ever blotted the name of humanity?—whether we must, like cowards and slaves, have repressed the compassion and indignation with which that horrible scene of tyranny had filled our hearts? Let me suppose, Gentlemen, that Aloys Reding, who has displayed in our times the simplicity, magnanimity, and piety of ancient heroes, had, after his glorious struggle, honoured this kingdom by choosing it as his refuge,—that, after performing prodigies of valour at the head of his handful of heroic peasants on the field of Morgarten (where his ancestor, the Landamman Reding, had, five hundred years before, defeated the first oppressors of Switzerland), he had selected this country to be his residence, as the chosen abode of liberty, as the ancient and inviolable asylum of the oppressed, would my Learned Friend have had the boldness to have said to this hero, “that he must hide his tears” (the tears shed by a hero over the ruins of his country!) “lest they might provoke the resentment of Reubell or Rapinat,—that he must smother the sorrow and the anger with which his heart was loaded,—that he must breathe his murmurs low, lest they might be overheard by the oppressor!” Would this have been the language of my Learned Friend? I know that it would not. I know, that by such a supposition, I have done wrong to his honourable feelings—to his honest English heart. I am sure that he knows as well as I do, that a nation which should thus receive the oppressed of other countries, would be preparing its own neck for the yoke. He knows the slavery which such a nation would deserve, and must speedily incur. He knows, that sympathy with the unmerited sufferings of others, and disinterested anger against their oppressors, are, if I may so speak, the masters which are appointed by Providence to teach us fortitude in the defence of our own rights,—that selfishness is a dastardly principle, which betrays its charge and flies from its post,—and that those only can defend themselves with valour, who are animated by the moral approbation with which they can survey their sentiments towards others,—who are ennobled in their own eyes by a consciousness that they are fighting for justice as well as interest,—a consciousness which none can feel, but those who have felt for the wrongs of their brethren. These are the sentiments which my Learned Friend would have felt. He would have told the hero:—“Your confidence is not deceived: this is still that England, of which the history may, perhaps, have contributed to fill your heart with the heroism of liberty.—Every other country of Europe is crouching under the bloody tyrants who destroyed your country: we are unchanged. We are still the same people which received with open arms the victims of the tyranny of Philip II. and Louis XIV. We shall not exercise a cowardly and clandestine humanity. Here we are not so dastardly as to rob you of your greatest consolation;—here, protected by a free, brave, and high-minded people, you may give vent to your indignation,—you may proclaim the crimes of your tyrants,—you may devote them to the execration of mankind. There is still one spot upon earth in which they are abhorred, without being dreaded!”
I am aware, Gentlemen, that I have already abused your indulgence; but I must entreat you to bear with me for a short time longer, to allow me to suppose a case which might have occurred, in which you will see the horrible consequences of enforcing rigorously principles of law, which I cannot contest, against political writers. We might have been at peace with France during the whole of that terrible period which elapsed between August 1792 and 1794, which has been usually called the “reign of Robespierre!”—the only series of crimes, perhaps, in history, which, in spite of the common disposition to exaggerate extraordinary facts, has been beyond measure under-rated in public opinion. I say this, Gentlemen, after an investigation, which I think entitles me to affirm it with confidence. Men’s minds were oppressed by the atrocity and the multitude of crimes; their humanity and their indolence took refuge in scepticism from such an overwhelming mass of guilt: and the consequence was, that all these unparalleled enormities, though proved, not only with the fullest historical, but with the strictest judicial evidence, were at the time only half-believed, and are now scarcely half-remembered. When these atrocities,—of which the greatest part are as little known to the public in general as the campaigns of Genghis Khan, but are still protected from the scrutiny of men by the immensity of those voluminous records of guilt in which they are related, and under the mass of which they will lie buried, till some historian be found with patience and courage enough to drag them forth into light, for the shame, indeed, but for the instruction of mankind,—which had the peculiar malignity, through the pretexts with which they were covered, of making the noblest objects of human pursuit seem odious and detestable,—which had almost made the names of liberty, reformation, and humanity, synonymous with anarchy, robbery, and murder,—which thus threatened not only to extinguish every principle of improvement, to arrest the progress of civilized society, and to disinherit future generations of that rich succession to be expected from the knowledge and wisdom of the present, but to destroy the civilization of Europe (which never gave such a proof of its vigour and robustness, as in being able to resist their destructive power),—when all these horrors were acting in the greatest empire of the Continent, I will ask my Learned Friend, if we had then been at peace with France, how English writers were to relate them so as to escape the charge of libelling a friendly government?
When Robespierre, in the debates in the National Convention on the mode of murdering their blameless sovereign, objected to the formal and tedious mode of murder called a “trial,” and proposed to put him immediately to death without trial, ‘on the principles of insurrection,”—because to doubt the guilt of the King would be to doubt of the innocence of the Convention, and if the King were not a traitor, the Convention must be rebels,—would my Learned Friend have had an English writer state all this with “decorum and moderation?” Would he have had an English writer state, that though this reasoning was not perfectly agreeable to our national laws, or perhaps to our national prejudices, yet it was not for him to make any observations on the judicial proceedings of foreign states? When Marat, in the same Convention, called for two hundred and seventy thousand heads, must our English writers have said, that the remedy did, indeed, seem to their weak judgment rather severe; but that it was not for them to judge the conduct of so illustrious an assembly as the National Convention, or the suggestions of so enlightened a statesman as M. Marat? When that Convention resounded with applause at the news of several hundred aged priests being thrown into the Loire, and particularly at the exclamation of Carrier, who communicated the intelligence:—“What a revolutionary torrent is the Loire!”—when these suggestions and narratives of murder, which have hitherto been only hinted and whispered in the most secret cabals, in the darkest caverns of banditti, were triumphantly uttered, patiently endured, and even loudly applauded by an assembly of seven hundred men, acting in the sight of all Europe, would my Learned Friend have wished that there had been found in England a single writer so base as to deliberate upon the most safe, decorous, and polite manner of relating all these things to his countrymen? When Carrier ordered five hundred children under fourteen years to be shot, the greater part of whom escaped the fire from their size,—when the poor victims ran for protection to the soldiers, and were bayoneted clinging round their knees, would my Friend—But I cannot pursue the strain of interrogation; it is too much! It would be a violence which I cannot practise on my own feelings; it would be an outrage to my Friend; it would be an affront to you; it would be an insult to humanity.
No! better,—ten thousand times better, would it be that every press in the world were burnt,—that the very use of letters were abolished,—that we were returned to the honest ignorance of the rudest times, than that the results of civilization should be made subservient to the purposes of barbarism;—than that literature should be employed to teach a toleration for cruelty,—to weaken moral hatred for guilt,—to deprave and brutalise the human mind. I know that I speak my Friend’s feelings as well as my own, when I say, God forbid that the dread of any punishment should ever make any Englishman an accomplice in so corrupting his countrymen,—a public teacher of depravity and barbarity!
Mortifying and horrible as the idea is, I must remind you, Gentlemen, that even at that time, even under the reign of Robespierre, my Learned Friend, if he had then been Attorney-General, might have been compelled by some most deplorable necessity, to have come into this Court to ask your verdict against the libellers of Barrère and Collot d’Herbois. Mr. Peltier then employed his talents against the enemies of the human race, as he has uniformly and bravely done. I do not believe that any peace, any political considerations, any fear of punishment, would have silenced him. He has shown too much honour and constancy, and intrepidity, to be shaken by such circumstances as these. My Learned Friend might then have been compelled to have filed a Criminal Information against Mr. Peltier, for “wickedly and maliciously intending to vilify and degrade Maximilian Robespierre, President of the Committee of Public Safety of the French Republic!” He might have been reduced to the sad necessity of appearing before you to belie his own better feelings by prosecuting Mr. Peltier for publishing those sentiments which my Friend himself had a thousand times felt, and a thousand times expressed. He might have been obliged even to call for punishment upon Mr. Peltier, for language which he and all mankind would for ever despise Mr. Peltier, if he were not to employ. Then indeed, Gentlemen, we should have seen the last humiliation fall on England;—the tribunals, the spotless and venerable tribunals of this free country, reduced to be the ministers of the vengeance of Robespierre! What could have rescued us from this last disgrace?—the honesty and courage of a jury. They would have delivered the judges of their country from the dire necessity of inflicting punishment on a brave and virtuous man, because he spoke truth of a monster. They would have despised the threats of a foreign tyrant as their ancestors braved the power of oppressors at home.
In the court where we are now met, Cromwell twice sent a satirist on his tyranny to be convicted and punished as a libeller, and in this court,—almost in sight of the scaffold streaming with the blood of his Sovereign,—within hearing of the clash of his bayonets which drove out Parliaments with scorn and contumely,—a jury twice rescued the intrepid satirist* from his fangs, and sent out with defeat and disgrace the Usurper’s Attorney General from what he had the impudence to call his court! Even then, Gentlemen, when all law and liberty were trampled under the feet of a military banditti,—when those great crimes were perpetrated in a high place and with a high hand against those who were the objects of public veneration, which more than any thing else upon earth overwhelm the minds of men, break their spirits, and confound their moral sentiments, obliterate the distinctions between right and wrong in their understanding, and teach the multitude to feel no longer any reverence for that justice which they thus see triumphantly diagged at the chariot wheels of a tyrant,—even then, when this unhappy country, triumphant indeed abroad, but enslaved at home had no prospect but that of a long succession of tyrants “wading through slaughter to a throne,”—even then, I say, when all seemed lost, the unconquerable spirit of English liberty survived in the hearts of English jurors. That spirit is, I trust in God, not extinct: and if any modern tyrant were, in the plenitude of his insolence, to hope to overawe an English jury, I trust and I believe that they would tell him:—“Our ancestors braved the bayonets of Cromwell;—we bid defiance to yours. Contempsi Catilinæ gladios;—non pertimescam tuos!”
What could be such a tyrant’s means of overawing a jury? As long as their country exists, they are girt round with impenetrable armour. Till the destruction of their country, no danger can fall upon them for the performance of their duty. And I do trust that there is no Englishman so unworthy of life as to desire to outlive England. But if any of us are condemned to the cruel punishment of surviving our country,—if in the inscrutable counsels of Providence, this favoured seat of justice and liberty,—this noblest work of human wisdom and virtue, be destined to destruction (which I shall not be charged with national prejudice for saying would be the most dangerous wound ever inflicted on civilization), at least let us carry with us into our sad exile the consolation that we ourselves have not violated the rights of hospitality to exiles,—that we have not torn from the altar the suppliant who claimed protection as the voluntary victim of loyalty and conscience.
Gentlemen, I now leave this unfortunate gentleman in your hands. His character and his situation might interest your humanity: but, on his behalf, I only ask justice from you. I only ask a favourable construction of what cannot be said to be more than ambiguous language; and this you will soon be told from the highest authority is a part of justice.
[* ] The First Consul had for some time previously shown considerable irritability under the fire of the English journalists, when the Peace of Amiens, by permitting a rapprochement with the English Ministry, afforded an opening through which his paw could reach the source of annoyance. M. Jean Peltier, on whom it lighted, was an emigrant, who had been conducting for some years various periodical works in the Royalist interest. From one of these,—“L’Ambigu”—three articles, which are alluded to separately in the course of the speech, were selected by the law officers of the Crown for prosecution, as instigating the assassination of the First Consul. Nor perhaps, could such a conclusion have been successfully struggled with by any advocate. The proceeding was one that was accompanied with much excitement in public opinion, as was evidenced by the concourse of persons surrounding the court on the day of trial. It was supposed by some that a verdict of acquittal would have had an unfavourable effect upon the already feverish state of the intercourse between the two Governments. In fact, though found ‘guilty,’ the Defendant escaped any sentence through the recurrence of hostilities.—Ed.
[† ] The Right Honourable Spencer Perceval.—Ed.
[* ] The reference is probably to Cicero. Orat. in Catilinam, iv. cap. 10.—Ed.
[* ] The junior counsel for the prosecution, afterwards Lord Tenterden.—Ed.
[* ] Sir Sydney Smith.—Ed.
[* ] Hume, History of England, vol. vii. p. 220.
[* ] Paradise Lost, book ii.—Ed.
[* ] A Citizen Brutus was President of the Military Commission at Marseilles, in January, 1794.
[* ] Mr. Canning.—Ed.
[* ] Burke, Works, (quarto,) vol. iv. p. 427.
[* ] Horace, lib. iii. ode 5.—Ed.
[* ] Moniteur, 24th November, 1793.
[† ] Moniteur, 24th December.
[* ] Moniteur, 25th December.
[* ] Lord Ellenborough.—Ed.
[* ] Dr. Shipley, Bishop of St. Asaph.
[* ] Lilburne.