Front Page Titles (by Subject) 307.: THE CASE OF PRIVATE MATTHEWSON MORNING CHRONICLE, 6 OCT., 1846, P. 4 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III
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307.: THE CASE OF PRIVATE MATTHEWSON MORNING CHRONICLE, 6 OCT., 1846, P. 4 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
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THE CASE OF PRIVATE MATTHEWSON
John Thomas Matthewson (b. ca. 1823), a private soldier, was brought before a court-martial on 29 Sept., 1846, for using abusive language to Sergeant Robert O’Donnell; see the report (from which Mill quotes), in “Court-Martial at Hounslow,” The Times, 30 Sept., p. 3. His sentence of six months, including two months’ solitary confinement, was reported in The Times, 9 Oct., pp. 4-5. This, the third of the unheaded articles on injustice and cruelty by Harriet Taylor and Mill (see No. 303) is described in his bibliography as “A leading article on the case of Private Thomas Matthewson, in the Morning Chronicle of 6th October 1846, a joint production very little of which was mine”
(MacMinn, p. 60).
we think it very desirable that the Government and the public should keep their attention fixed on the case of Private Thomas Matthewson, who was tried by court-martial at Hounslow, on Tuesday last, for abusive language to a non-commissioned officer. Whether he was found guilty by the court has not yet transpired, as the publication of the sentence does not take place until it has been confirmed by the Commander-in-Chief; but there is far more than enough apparent on the proceedings to require that the result should be watched.
This man Matthewson, it may be remembered, was one of the witnesses in the case of death from flogging, which contributed so much to bring about the partial abolition of that punishment.1 His evidence was of a nature to be peculiarly disagreeable to his commanding officer, being one of those which imputed to him, in the most direct manner, neglect and want of feeling with regard to the sufferer. Matthewson, also, was the witness to whom menaces were said to have been indirectly held out as to the probable consequences to himself of the evidence he gave; and although this was not thought to have been substantiated, it was not denied that Colonel Whyte publicly addressed him on parade, saying that he was as near as—(what type of nearness the colonel employed we do not think it necessary to repeat)—to having perjured himself. This gentle apostrophe, however merited it may in the colonel’s opinion have been, neither betokened in the present, nor augured for the future, any amicable feelings on the part of the commanding officer towards Private Matthewson. We are far from implying that because an officer has received what he thinks provocation from a private, he must necessarily become his unscrupulous enemy. But Private Matthewson must have had far more than ordinary confidence in the magnanimity of his commanding officer, if he did not feel certain that, in some way or other, he would be made to smart severely for his evidence; that if a charge were not actually got up against him, an opportunity would be watched of exaggerating some trifling peccadillo into a grave offence; that, in short, he would be a marked man, and if not to the colonel himself, to some of those miserable waiters upon power, who, we may be sure, are not wanting in a regiment any more than in a court, and who might think that the ruin of one who had made himself obnoxious would be a satisfaction to those whom they wished to please, even if it were only the satisfaction derived from the fulfilment of a prophecy. If this surmise is not already verified by what has just taken place, there is a coincidence most unfortunate for all those upon whom any share of the suspicion can possibly fall.
We will suppose that Matthewson, after giving the evidence which reflected discredit upon Colonel Whyte, was really guilty of a serious military offence. We should have expected that, considering what had happened, and the prejudice likely to exist against him, not only in his own regiment, but among any officers composing a court-martial (for the great majority of officers are supporters of corporal punishment, and it is no secret that the sympathies of officers are almost always with the officer against the soldier)—we should have expected, we say, that scrupulous care would have been taken to make it impossible for even the prisoner himself to deny that the most generous justice was done him. We should have expected that the testimony against him would have been sifted with the most jealous vigilance; that rather a greater amount of evidence than is deemed sufficient in ordinary cases would have been insisted on; and that the most studious and ostentatious attention would have been paid to giving him every facility, and to showing that every facility had been given, for the production of any evidence which he might think available to weaken, though it were only in a slight degree, the strength of the case against him.
Instead of this, what do we see? By a most unfortunate accident, if it be an accident, the trial takes place after Matthewson’s own regiment has left the neighbourhood, and along with it the witnesses whom he could have called, either to points of the case itself, or to his general character. This obstacle, probably, was not insuperable; he might have “applied to the commanding officer” (Colonel Whyte himself) to have the witnesses detained; and if he had done so, we will hope that the request would have been complied with. We, therefore, do not insist further on this point, which may be worse in appearance than in reality. But there is another feature in the case, which would be fatal to the prosecution—whether with a military tribunal we know not—but with any civil tribunal of decent impartiality. The man’s alleged offence is the use of insulting words, and there is absolutely no evidence to the words he used, or to his having used insulting words at all, except that of Sergeant O’Donnell, the very man alleged to have been insulted. There is no circumstantial evidence, and no corroborative testimony but that of Corporal Routh, who “was not sufficiently near to hear what took place,” and could only affirm that “by his manner the prisoner appeared to be speaking disrespectfully to the sergeant.” But it was not for disrespectfulness of manner that he was brought before the court. In the circumstances alleged there was nothing to explain or render probable the abusive expressions said to have been used, which are such as were only likely to be employed in the heat of passion, or as the consequence of a previous altercation. When policemen are declared to be in the habit of giving false evidence against innocent persons, is it too much to suspect an affronted sergeant of some exaggeration? Especially when the prisoner declares him to have been drunk at the time, and against the assertion of one of the two parties to a dispute it is not unfair to oppose the denial of the other.
We have argued the matter on the footing of simple justice, and the treatment due to every human being. If it were to be looked at on grounds of chivalrous or gentlemanly feeling, it would be much more concisely disposed of. Supposing such feelings to have had any voice in the matter, the commanding officer, one may presume, would rather have given up his commission than that Private Matthewson, while under his command, should be in a position in which it would be felt that the one was inflicting, and the other undergoing vengeance for unacceptable evidence in a court of justice. There are means enough for ridding a regiment of a troublesome character, when his presence is no longer supportable. If Matthewson was such a character, the consequences of giving him his discharge would have been (in the peculiar circumstances of this case) less prejudicial to discipline than the moral impression of his being made a victim—which, truly or not, he will be thought to be, if found guilty and sentenced on this inadequately supported charge.
The part of prosecutor was worthily filled by a Viscount St. Lawrence,2 who came armed with all the means which the books of the regiment and his own testimony could supply for crushing the already crushed man.
[1 ]On 15 June, 1846, Frederick John White (1819-46), a private in the 7th Regiment of Hussars, had been given 150 lashes in a flogging, presided over by Lieut.-Col. John James Whyte (1806-89), that was ordered as punishment for an assault on a sergeant of the same regiment. White died on July 11. An inquest held at Hounslow on 15, 20, 27 July, and 3 Aug., presided over by Dr. Thomas Wakley (1795-1862), the radical medical reformer, as coroner, reached a verdict that death had been caused by the flogging. Private Matthewson, who had also been flogged for disrespect, was one of the witnesses at the inquest on White’s death. The case attracted considerable attention and protest. On 7 Aug., Russell in a speech on flogging in the army revealed that Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington (who had been re-appointed Commander-in-Chief for life in 1842) had subsequently limited the number of lashes to fifty, and had directed that precautions should be taken about the health of the culprit and attention paid to the physical conditions (PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 88, col. 375). Wellesley confirmed his attitude in a speech of 11 Aug. (ibid., cols. 600-2).
[2 ]William Ulick Tristram St. Lawrence (1827-1909), later Earl of Howth, Lieutenant in the 7th Hussars.