Sir Henry Mildmay
presented a petition from Peter Stuart, proprietor of the paper called The Oracle, then in custody of the serjeant at arms, by order of the house, for a breach of privilege in a paragraph in that paper, and moved, that the said petition be read. The petition was accordingly read by the clerk, and is as follows:—"To the honourable the house of commons in parliament assembled, the petition of Peter Stuart, printer and publisher of a morning newspaper intitled 'The Daily Advertiser, Oracle, and True Briton,' most humbly sheweth, that for the publication of that part of his paper of Thursday last, deemed highly offensive to this honourable house, he feels the deepest regret; and that although certain expressions in that paragraph be indiscreet and unguarded, and such as have incurred the displeasure of so important a branch of the British constitution, yet that your petitioner humbly hopes, on this acknowledgment of his sincere sorrow, that this honourable house, in the plenitude of its condescension and liberality, will be pleased to pardon him for a transgression solely attributable to the hasty composition of a newspaper, and not to any 543 deliberate design of offending this honourable house. That your petitioner is emboldened to solicit your indulgence and forgiveness on his well founded assurance, that during the several years in which he has conducted a newspaper, it has uniformly been his principle and pride zealously to support the character and dignity of the house of commons; and that it has frequently fallen to his lot to have vindicated both from the charges of societies expressly instituted to bring them into public disrepute and contempt.—In any observations which your petitioner may have published on the conduct of lord Melville, he could not but bear in mind, that the views of those societies, abetting domestic treason, and assisted by the co-operation of the revolutionary power of France, would, he verily believes, have effected the destruction of the British constitution, had not the wise and efficient measures brought forward by that administration, in which lord Melville held so conspicuous a situation, been adopted; and this honourable house would not, in that case, perhaps, have been now in existence, either to censure lord Melville, or to pardon your petitioner.—That if any thing could increase your petitioner's regret, it would be its being supposed that the objectionable paragraph was directed also against the right hon. the speaker of the house of commons; that your petitioner has no hesitation to declare, that no idea was ever more remote from his mind; and that your petitioner would be the very last person to insinuate any thing disrespectful of a character whom he, in conjunction with the whole nation, highly esteems as a private gentleman, and most profoundly venerates as the head and public organ of this hon. house.—That your petitioner most humbly hopes this hon. house will consent to his release; and your petitioner will ever pray, &c. STUART."—The petition being read, the hon. baronet moved, that the said Peter Stuart be brought to the bar and discharged.
§ Mr. Windham
called the attention of the house to the insolence of this petition, and asked whether any thing like it had ever been known? The condescension of the petitioner in bearing testimony to the private character of the speaker, and the office he held, was indeed extraordinary. However far the house could go in tolerating the insolence offered to it, and to every thing else sacred in the state, he was decidedly of opinion that the insolence of this petition was beyond all toleration. He left it to the 544 house, whether ever any thing in the form of apology came up to this, which not only justified what the house had thought reprehensible, but even made accusations upon the house. He also pointed out the extraordinary claim of merit in opposing certain societies out of doors, which, it was modestly said, would, if not opposed by this person, and those to whom he referred, have prevented the house from ever sitting. He left it to the house what opinion it should form of this extraordinary petition. He should not offer any new motion; but he put it to the hon. baronet whether the original one ought to be persevered in. The petition was, by general desire, read a second time.
Sir Henry Mildmay
said, he really saw nothing improper in the petition, nor could he understand why the hon. gent. should cry out so much against it. If it was the allusion to lord Melville, and the credit given to him, and those who acted with him, for those measures which enabled the house to preserve its place, he had no hesitation for himself to avow the same sentiments, He could not help believing that the right hon. gent. misunderstood the language of the petition. He did not see the smallest impropriety in the petition, and he therefore continued his motion.
§ Mr. Fox,
although he professed himself to be no way averse to the object of the petition, thought that the petition itself was a very improper one to be presented to the house. It was unnecessary and improper to introduce in a petition of this nature, the opinions of the petitioner respecting the conduct of lord Melville in other times, and upon former occasions. He was at a loss to know for what other meaning this topic had been introduced, but for the object of attacking those who brought him before that house. The other topic which he had chosen for his defence, namely, the general principles on which he had long conducted a newspaper, appeared to him a most unseemly ground for the petitioner to rest his defence upon. In the first place, how was the house to know the fact? How was it to be expected that they should know what newspapers he conducted, or what was his manner of conducting them? He could not conceive that the house could admit of such a ground of defence, unless ministers wished now to inculcate the doctrine, that it will always be admitted as an excuse for those who may be brought before them for libelling that house, that the person who has, 545 been guilty of it has uniformly been a supporter of administration, and of all those majorities which could be supposed to be procured by the influence of the minister, and that he had before been in the habit of only libelling those minorities which opposed the wishes of ministers.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer
could not well understand the conclusion drawl by the hon. gent. from the topic he had last stated. If the petitioner had stated generally, that he had been in the habit of sup porting administration, or any set of ministers, that would certainly have been nothing to urge in vindication or extenuation of the offence which drew upon him the displeasure and punishment of the house; but when it was recollected, that it was for a libel on the house of commons that he had been ordered into custody, it was undoubtedly a topic of extenuation of the offence to alledge, that so far from being in the habit of libelling them, he had always before supported, as much as in him lay, the resolutions and decisions of the house of commons. He must allow, however, that the language and tone of the petition were not exactly what would have appeared to him the most proper. It was not, however, with this petitioner alone, but it appeared to him a common fault with almost all who were connected with the press, that they assumed a loftier stile, and gave themselves something more of importance, than appeared naturally to belong to them. As to the danger of the times, in which the petitioner alledges that he has supported the house of commons, in that he was fully borne out by the high authority of the right hon. gent. (Mr. Windham) who had frequently and very forcibly described those dangers in that house; and who, as well as the petitioner, had often attributed to that administration of which lord Melville formed a part, the salvation of the country. This opinion was not singular: it had been for many years the prevailing opinion of both houses of parliament, and of a considerable portion of the people of this country. It in common with them the petitioner had felt the importance of the services that had been rendered to the public by lord Melville, and those with whom he acted, it was certainly competent to him to state this circumstance in his vindication. He had stated the ground of his partiality to lord Melville to proceed from his opinion of the great services he had performed; it was therefore not surprising that those who do not relish 546 that opinion should also dislike the statement of it in the petition. That opinion was, however, entirely agreeable to the opinion which had for many years been entertained by a great majority of that house, and of the other house of parliament, and although the petitioner might have thought his testimony of much more importance than it really was, both with respect to lord Melville and to the speaker of that house, yet he could not see any thing improper or insulting to the house in his introducing those topics in extenuation of his offence. It was in the recollection of the house, that on the day that this business was first brought forward, considerable stress had been laid on the majority having been formed by the decision of the speaker, and therefore the libelling the majority under such circumstances, was an aggravated offence, as conveying a personal libel on the character of the speaker, whose vote made the majority. When this had been relied upon at the time the libel was complained of, it was not extraordinary that the petitioner should positively disclaim every idea of reflecting upon the speaker, and take that opportunity of expressing his respect for his character. For his part, it appeared to him that the decision of the majority of the house of commons should at all times be treated with the greatest respect; but certainly it did not appear to him to be entitled to more respect for having been obtained by the casting vote of the speaker than those decisions which are agreed to, either unanimously, or by very large majorities of the house. The only topics then which were objected to in the petition, were those expressions with respect to the speaker which appeared very naturally to have been introduced in consequence of his having been supposed to have libelled the speaker, and his professions of respect for lord Meiville's services, which were urged in extenuation of the zeal with which he undertook to defend his character. All the rest of the petition was merely the expression of sorrow and contrition for having offended the house, and this part certainly could not be objected to.
§ Mr. Windham
begged the house would observe how small a part of this petition was taken up with expressions of sorrow and contrition in comparison to what had been allotted to the other topics. It certainly could not be supposed that he disagreed altogether from the opinions stated in those topics, and more particularly in that one which was complimentary to the speak- 547 er. His objection was not to the observation itself, but the time and place in which it appeared. It was not the commentary and the criticism itself which he found fault with; they might be very good, but non erat hic locus. The petition of a person under punishment for libelling the house was not the place in which a commentary on the conduct of the speaker ought to be found. It was the complexion and character of the performance altogether, that made it impossible to agree to the motion, and he therefore intended to move an amendment.
§ Sir William Burroughs
rose to order. He thought it irregular for a member to make a second speech with a view of moving an amendment.
§ The Speaker
gave his opinion, that by the rules of the house the right hon. gent. could not make a second speech to move an amendment.
§ Mr. Grey
felt extremely sorry to be obliged again to trouble the house on this business. He did not know what was the precise nature of the amendment intended to be moved by his rt. hon. friend (Mr. Windham) but he thought it was evident that the house was now placed in a situation that made it impossible to avoid passing some severer punishment than was at first thought of. If the nature of the composition which was presented as a petition was considered, it would appear to have been written altogether in a strain of defiance and accusation. This was the general tone of it, and nothing proved it more strongly than the defence of the right hon. gent. (Mr. Pitt). Could the house countenance the petition of a person who placed himself in the situation of accuser of one of the parties? Was it not evident that the general object of the petition was to attack those who brought this business before the consideration of the house? He must confess it gave him very uneasy sensations the other night, when he heard an hon. friend of his (Mr. Sheridan) give the term of "milk and water," to what he conceived the grossest libel against the character of the house that ever was submitted to their consideration. It was by no means to be considered as an animated discussion of public affairs, but a mere composition of unqualified abuse against the majority of the house. It was an attack upon their character as judges sitting in a court of justice; it called them intemperate, partial and presumptuous. He, on the former night, had left the libel to the consideration of the house, without making any observa- 548 tions in aggravation, which he now conceived that he had a right to make. He should therefore now state, that gross and enormous as he conceived the libel to be which he had submitted to the consideration of the house, it was in his opinion highly aggravated by the style of defiance which appeared throughout this petition, and which was highly indecent and insulting to the house. He did not exactly know what amendment to move for, but he thought that the punishment ought now to be increased.
§ Mr. Canning
thought the hon. member might have spared all those topics that related to the libel itself, and have confined himself to the petition which was before the house. If the hon. member who had himself brought forward this business, was content on the night he brought it forward with the small measure of punishment that was mentioned, or rather with the no punishment, it was not competent to him now to go back and argue that a severe punishment should be inflicted for that offence. The hon. gent. took great credit to himself for being so ready to comply with the suggestion of a light punishment; he should also have given equal credit to the conduct of his right hon. friend (Mr. Pitt) on that occasion. Whatever feelings he might have had in bringing the business forward, was best known to himself; but it was most clear that nothing but a sense of duty to the house could have governed the conduct of his hon. friend on that occasion. Whatever might be the motives of the apparent lenity of the very persons who complained of the libel, it was evident that the motive of his right hon. friend (Mr. Pitt) in suggesting a more serious punishment was, that he conceived it due to the character and dignity of the house, and that even when he was himself in a minority, he felt that the decisions of the majority ought to be treated with the highest respect. As to the part of the petition which contained complimentary expressions towards the speaker, although strictly speaking the petitioner was not to be supposed to know that it had been dwelt on as an aggravation of his offence that he had spoken so disrespectfully of a decision which was determined by the casting vote of the speaker, yet he did not suppose that any member could so adhere to strict formality, as to censure the petitioner for merely answering a charge that had been made against him. Although it might, at first sight, appear somewhat ludicrous to hear 549 the petitioner complimenting the private character of the speaker, yet if that had been left out, and the compliment was only to his situation as presiding over this house, the omission might be complained of with more reason, and would appear to convey something of a reflection on his private character. He wished, however, now, that the editors of papers in general, not only those who conducted daily, but those who published weekly papers, should take notice, and receive warning that a great change had taken place in the system of forbearance that had hitherto been adhered to. Justice, impartial justice, must be done on both sides. A new æra had now begun, and if any general clamour should be raised with respect to the abridgment of the liberty of the press, it must be recollected by the house and the country, on which side of the house these prosecutions first commenced, and who it was who began them. As the petitioner had defended, with mistaken zeal, the man who had been the victim of the anger of that house, was it unfair for him, in extenuation, to shew the causes which had produced that zeal which drew upon him the displeasure of that house? It was certainly fair in him to point out the reason why he entertained so great a partiality for lord Melville; to state the services which that noble lord, and those with whom he acted, had rendered to the country; and it was not extraordinary, or unnatural, that any member of the community, who felt strongly that the salvation of the country, and the protection that he enjoyed in common with all his fellow subjects, was owing to the salutary laws which were then enacted to be strongly impressed with gratitude for those services, and to undertake zealously, although imprudently, and perhaps presumptuously, to defend a person whom the house had condemned. As to the merits of lord Melville in those times to which the petition alludes, no resolution of the house of commons could erase that page from the history of the country, or from the recollection of the supporters of the constitution. He again repeated, that a great change had now taken place, and that the house and the country must recollect on which side of the house it had begun.
§ Mr. Sheridan
said, that although it was peculiarly disagreeable to him to mix in any debate, when his partiality even to the excesss of liberty for the press would interfere with the opinion he would otherwise have formed, yet, on the present occasion, he 550 could not give a silent vote; nor was the to be deterred from giving his opinion by the indecent threat that had been thrown out by the hon. gent. who had spoken last. That gentleman had stated pretty strongly, that it was in the contemplation of his friends to curtail and abridge the liberty of the press, and wished to have it supposed that he and his friends were to be responsible for the determination on the other side of the house to abridge the real liberty of the press. He saw nothing inconsistent in the conduct of his hon. friend, (Mr. Grey) on a former night with his conduct to-night. He had on a former night given way to that disposition for lenity which he perceived to have been then the prevailing sentiment in the house; but when he now found this disposition towards lenity had been abused, and that the stile of the petition shewed strongly the spirit in which the libel had been written, there was no inconsistency in thinking that this lenity had been misplaced, and that some severer punishment should now take place. He confessed that he himself had used the words stated by the hon. gent. and although he gave his opinion that the paragraph alluded to was a very gross libel, yet he called it milk and water comparatively with others which had not yet been noticed. However, he must confess that some bounds ought to be set to the licentiousness of the press; yet when he considered in whose hands the pruning-knife was to be placed, to lop off its exuberances, he was much afraid they would destroy the pith and vital sap of the tree. On this ground he had hitherto opposed all those measures for restricting the freedom of the press; he had opposed all the increase of duties on those smaller publications which might at a cheap rate disseminate general and useful information; he had opposed the bill which required a printer's name to be inserted on every hand-bill; but above all, he had opposed that infamous act (if he might be allowed to call any thing infamous that was still in the statute book), which allowed magistrates and courts to transport persons to Botany Bay upon the second conviction for a libel. Upon the present occasion he had himself been applied to by some friends of the petitioner, and waited on him in consequence. Having read his petition, he entreated him to leave out those passages, and struck his pen across them. It appeared, however, that after he had seen him, the petitioner took the advice of some other persons, and re-inserted those passages. Af- 551 ter having done so, he had, however, the decency not to ask him to present his petition. The right hon. gent. (Mr. Pitt) had considered it as a fair set-off in the petitioner to state the former services of lord Melville; if that was any argument, why did not his lordship's defenders in the house make use of it? When the petitioner chose to state that they sat there as a parliament owing to the exertions of lord Melville and his friends, was that language which the house could endure? If it was owing to so lutary laws, surely it was to the legislature and not to one or two individuals, that those laws were owing. It was equally objectionable in a petition to speak of either the merits or demerits of any of the parties in parliament. If a person under punishment for a libel on the character of the house should have taken another ground, and in stead of attributing the safety of the state to lord Melville and his colleagues, had attributed it solety to the firm stand which the opposition in parliament had made to all the fabricated plots and conspiracies which had been invented on the part of government, for the purpose of preserving ministers it power and office, such a statement would have been equally objectionable. A petition ought not to be so framed as to revive those topics of discussion which were no relative to the matter before the house. He felt sorry that the petition had been so worded that he could not give it his support Upon the ground he had stated, he should find himself obliged to agree in the vote of his hon. friend.
§ Mr. Dent
thought the petition contained no matter that could he adduced in aggravation of the original libel. It appeared to him a great inconsistency in the hon. member, (Mr. Sheridan) to give credit to the legislature for the salutary laws it had enacted, and yet give no credit to the administration who had brought them forward.
§ Mr. Sheridan,
in explanation, said the hon. gent. had completely misunderstood him. He neither meant to give credit to those laws as salutary, nor to the government that introduced those laws.
The Attorney General
thought it was a most extraordinary speech which the house had just now heard from the hon. gent. (Mr. Sheridan). His expression on the other night was a remarkable one, and would not easily be forgotten. He had described the libel as a " mere milk and water" production, when compared with many others, and yet this night be found out that it was a 552 most grave and serious libel. The great zeal that some gentlemen now shewed to punish a libel on the majority of the house, appeared difficult for him to account for in any other way than he had already done, by supposing they were attached to majorities, or minorities, exactly as they themselves happened to belong to the one description or the other. Having now found a libel on a majority to include themselves, they were ready to vote for increasing the punishment.
§ Mr. Whitbread
considered that his hon. friend (Mr. Sheridan) had properly stated the grounds from which the disposition to lenity on a former night proceeded. There were two solutions of it. In the first place, his hon. friend (Mr. Grey) had complained of a libel; the house unanimously agreed that it was a gross libel; and, under these circumstances, it was not surprising that his hon. friend (Mr. Grey) should, as usual, feel a greater disposition to lenity than the right hon. gent. (Mr. Pitt). If the fact, however, was, that it was one of the minority of the 8th of April, who both wrote that libel and drew up the petition, it was not extraordinary that that hon. member should warmly defend his own productions. The set-off in this case is curious. The editor, who is punished for libelling the majority of the house, tells you, in his vindication, that he has very frequently libelled the minority. Was it to be endured, that an editor of a newspaper should tell the house of commons that he had sat in judgment upon them and their proceedings, and pronounced his applause or his censure on the different parties in parliament as he thought fit? This set-off stated, that lord Melville had been an old and faithful servant of the crown. It had, however, been proved, that for more than 16 years of the time he was in office, he had been an unfaithful servant; and that the principal object of him and his colleagues was to cling to office as long as they could. As to the party heats which prevailed at those times, they were in a great measure gone and obliterated from the page of history, The right hon. gent. himself (Mr. Pitt) had, if there was any faith in man, proposed and recommended his hon. friend (Mr. Fox) as a fit person to hold a high office in the government of the country; and, therefore, he could not have supposed that he deserved those scandalous libels which had been thrown out against his character. Without wishing for any severity of punishment to be inflicted on the present occasion, 553 he should be very glad that the hon. baronet would see this petition in the same light that it appeared to him in, and consent to withdraw it for the purpose of preparing another that would be more decent and seemly. The expressions in the first part of it would be sufficient to obtain the object, and the remainder had much better be omitted. He then appealed to the hon. baronet, whether it would not be better to withdraw his petition?
Sir H. Mildmay
answered, that he had heard nothing in the latter part of the discussion which altered in any manner the opinion he had before formed.
§ Mr. Ryder
thought that the topics objected to had been very fairly and naturally introduced into the petition, and if the house was to consent to have the petition withdrawn upon these grounds, he thought it would convey a severe reflection and libel on the conduct of that government to whom the country had been so much indebted. Although he by no means wished to revive party animosities, yet he considered that the petitioner had a right, when the question came in his way, to state, in extenuation, the reasons for which he felt so much zeal in the cause of lord Melville; and, for his part, although he was not at all personally acquainted with his lordship, he should not hesitate to say, that whatever offences he may have committed, he had rendered great and important services to his country.
Newport wished to give an hon. member (Mr. Canning) an opportunity of explaining what he meant by saying lord Melville had fallen a victim to the anger of that House?
§ Mr. Canning
did not recollect having used the expression: he thought he had said the displeasure of the house, and that even that phrase he had given with a qualification.
§ Lord De Blaquiere
thought the origina llibel was much aggravated by the stile of the petition. He did not think that the house should take notice of every sentiment that was put in writing by a blockhead. He could not bring himself to think that a man was worth notice, who would not take advice even for his own relief. The hurry of the press was given in excuse for the original paragraph; but, it should be recollected that the circumstance upon which that writer had thought fit to comment, took place before the recess, and it was not right to admit any thing which was untrue as an extenuation. He had received good advice, and had not availed himself of it, but had acted in oppo- 554 sition to it; he thought he should not be allowed to pass with impunity.
§ Lord Marsham
thought equal credit was due to those who first brought this business forward, and those who, when it was brought forward, decided on it according to what was due to the character of the house. He did not think that every printer should be allowed to appoint himself a censor of the proceedings of that house. He, however, did not wish the punishment to proceed any farther, but should be glad that a more seemly and becoming petition was presented to the house, than that which had been read.
§ Mr. Whitbread
then said, he should move that the petition be negatived and returned to the petitioner, in order that another might be immediately presented which would be fitter for the house to receive. The first page of the petition would be fully sufficient.
§ The Speaker
thought that the previous question could not be put upon the motion in its present form.
§ Mr. Whitbread
then said, he should negative the question, intending, however, to vote for the receiving a petition that might be unobjectionable immediately after.
said he was a friend to the liberty of the press, and particularly as it related to subjects of a political nature, which were more important to be discussed than any other, as far as the interest of the public was concerned; and for that reason he should be disposed to make greater allowance even for excess of liberty in those topics than in others, because they were more likely to lead men to a warmth of expression than any other, and because they ought to be discussed with greater boldness, and boldness of discussion naturally lead to excess, upon some occasions. He allowed also what had been hinted at already, that wherever any one was accused of misconduct, it was but fair that he should call his conduct, previous to that accusation, in aid of his case, as it might operate to soften the rigour of judgment against him; and therefore he should, in a case like the present, be among those who were disposed to be most liberal; for he wished to allow all possible latitude to political discussion. He therefore wished to see no attack made on the liberty of the press, for which reason he could have wished that this had not been 555 made matter of complaint; but being brought forward, the house must dispose of it in the best manner it could. And hen he, with all his partiality for the liberty o the press, could not help observing, that that stile and mode of the petition were such as he should not wish to hear at the bar of that house. He trusted he should not often see a person, whose general conduct he mirth approve, making the sort of apology non offered to the house; for although he admitted that an apology should not be too humble, yet, when it was made at all, it should have been made to the whole house of commons, for when any attack made upon it became subject to the censure of the house, the apology, whenever it was made, should be made not to one side of the house, but to the whole house, and if any person had incurred the displeasure of the house and made his apology, when he solicited its forgiveness, the apology should not be allotted to that party which usually constituted its majority, or with a view to procure to the petitioner the favour of those whom he might conceive constituted the majority of the house, for that was language totally improper for a supplicant. Now, if he recollected the words of the petition correctly, there was one among them of an ambiguous meaning; it was not the word sorrow, but regret; so that it reminded him of a story, wherein a person who had been guilty of a crime and apprehended for it, being called upon to make his apology, said he was sorry, not for the act, but for his being taken. But whatever course was taken, the house would take care of its character, and that if the present petition was withdrawn, the house did not enter into any compromise with the petitioner as to what sort of petition he was to be at liberty to present. He did not think that the dignity of the house should be engaged in discussing what petition would he right, but it was sufficient to say that the present was not so. Supposing the house to be of that opinion, he wished it to be understood, that if the present petition was not received, it was because it was not in that stile of expression which ought to be presented to the house of commons in behalf of a person who had offended its dignity. The present petition appeared to him to be deficient in the temper and view of it, for it was apparently preferring one part of its members to others. He would suppose that a person came to receive the sentence of a court of justice, and that he were to present a petition to the 556 judges, and suppose he were to endeavour to set one part of the bench against the other, and that, instead of intreating the lenity of the whole court, lie had endeavoured to foment a quarrel among the judges; such a person, he apprehended, would not be considered as having thereby done any thing tending to mitigation of punishment. On the whole of this matter, he did really think it such as he had already stated it to be. It was a case in which the petitioner ought to make an apology, but he confessed he was not for a very humble apology; merely a gentlemanly apology, but that such apology should be made to the whole house of commons, and not to one side of the house, which he could not help considering to be the case in the present instance.
The Solicitor General
said, that with the opinions of the hon. gent. behind him (Mr. Wilberfore) he entirely concurred, and with those of the noble lord sitting below him likewise, for he concurred in the sentiment, that the apology ought to he offered, not to one side of the house, but to the whole house. He concurred in the observation, that whenever a libel was published on the house of commons, it was not one side of it only that ought to be offended, but the whole house ought to be so, and most undoubtedly was so. In such case the dignity of the whole house ought to be vindicated; and if any petitioner had endeavoured to make his escape from the indignation of the house by conciliating one part of it instead of the whole house—if he endeavoured to shelter himself by any such attempt, the judgment of the house would only be the more severe against him. But he had been accustomed, when he heard an argument on any document, to look at the document itself, instead of taking the contents of it from the description of another, before he drew any conclusion from it; in other words, he chose to examine the premises before he drew any conclusion because if the premises were not true, the conclusion was not likely to be correct.—Now his hon. friend behind him (if he was allowed to give him that name) had observed that the apology ought to have extended to the whole house in this case; and he had observed there was no sorrow exprest in the petition; there was only regret stated. Hearing that stated from that hon. member, who was usually accurate in his expressions, he was induced to look at the petition itself, and by it he found that the words were 557 these—"Your petitioner humbly hopes, on this acknowledgment of his sincere sorrow, that this hon. house, in the plenitude of its condescension and liberality, will be pleased to pardon him." Now, he though this was a complete answer to that part of the observation of the hon. gent. behind him. He confessed he was very mud struck by what fell from an hon. gent. on this occasion who sat below him, that the offence in this petition was not matter of accident, but had been pointed out to the petitioner, and that he had refused to withdraw that which was offensive. If then was matter of offence in the petition, he should not have attempted to defend it, for he could not think of defending any thing was justly deemed offensive to the house, and that the more especially, if the offensive part had been pointed out to the petitioner; in such cases, he should agree with the noble lord, that the petitioner was not entitled to any favour; but there again he was induced to look at the premises before he arrived at the conclusion. He agreed it was not the business of a petitioner, when he came to ask for favour of the house, to endeavour to set one part of the house against the other; but he must look into the petition to see whether that was the fact, and he found nothing of that sort in it. It seas not unnatural for a man, accused of having attacked the proceedings of the house, that he should, in mitigation of its sentence, plead that on former occasions he had defended the house; vainly thinking, perhaps, that his labours were more important than in truth they were; but it was not an unnatural thing for an accused person to do so; it was on the contrary the uniform practice of men in every situation, when they were accused of misconduct, in any particular case, to refer to their former conduct, not as a justification of an improper act, but as an extenuation; but the house would not censure a person for making that reference, even if it should think that he had attached more value to his labours than they had. What Were the facts in this part of the case? They were no more than this: the petitioner stated, that formerly the conduct of the house of commons was attacked by certain societies then existing in this country, and that he, as far as his ability could go, defended the house against the evil designs of those societies:—that might be a vain declaration also; but surely it was no aggravation of his offence. He would not represent this part of the case in milder 558 terms than the petitioner himself had used; the words were these:—" That your petitioner is emboldened to solicit your indulgence and forgiveness on his well-founded assurance, that during the several years in which he has conducted a newspaper, it has uniformly been his principle and pride zealously to support the character and dignity of the house of commons, and that it has frequently fallen to his lot to have vindicated both, from the charges of societies expressly instituted to bring them into public disrepute and contempt."—There might be no merit in all this; there might be but little consequence in what he had done, but surely there was nothing culpable in the statement of it, and this was the whole extent of what the petitioner had said. But with respect to what he had said of the character of lord Melville, if he had attempted to vindicate lord Melville on the grounds which the house had disapproved, he should not have attempted to support this petition, but he had not done so; and rather than that he should be supposed to say more for the petitioner than he said for himself in this respect, he should quote his words, the substance of which was, that the petitioner thought the former conduct of my lord Melville was such as entitled him to the gratitude of his country, in which he had not gone further than he ought, perhaps, to have hone on the present occasion. The words of that part of the petition were these In any observations your petitioner may have published on the conduct of lord Melville, he could not but bear in mind, that the views of those societies, abetting domestic treason, and assisted by the co-operation of the revolutionary power of France, would, he verily believes, have effected the destruction of the British constitution, had not the wise and efficient measures brought forward by that administration in which lord Melville held so conspicuous a situation, been adopted, and this hon. house would not, in that case, perhaps, have been now in existence, either to cell-sure lord Melville or to pardon your petitioner." This was a mere statement of the object of certain societies to break in upon the functions of parliament, and of the part which lord Melville, as a conspicuous member of executive government, took in frustrating the designs of such societies, in which statement there appeared to him to be nothing indecorous. He could not find, in any part of this petition, any thing of that offensive matter which had been alluded to by 559 by several gentlemen who had spoken in this debate; and if there was any thing that might be considered as transgressing the bounds of the most perfect propriety in the petition, he was not asking too much, he thought, when he asked the house to make some allowances for the possible misconception of a man in the situation of this petitioner. If any of the expressions in the petition were, and he did not admit they were, but supposing them to be so, they could not aggravate his offence when they were dictated by a spirit which intended to lessen it. The petitioner at least thought he was not doing wrong, and therefore ought not to be held guilty of any intention to offend, and intention alone constituted true guilt in cases of this kind. He considered these societies to which he had alluded, to have had some mischievous designs. He considered that lord Melville had been instrumental in preventing what he apprehended to be great mischief; under these circumstances he could not think there was any thing in this petition which deserved the reprehension of the house. It was not for the purpose of reviving animosities in the house, that the petition had adverted to these topics, but merely to set forth what it was which had actuated his conduct, and what made him venerate, as he did, the character of lord Melville; for these reasons, the solicitor general declared, he found himself called upon to support the motion of the hon. baronet, to call the petitioner to the bar, in order to his being discharged.
Sir H. Mildmay
explained, and observed, that although the petition had been shewn to the hon. gent. on the other side (Mr. Sheridan) it did not contain now any part of the paragraph to which that hon. gent. objected, except the two last lines.
§ Mr. Sheridan
explained also, observing, that he did not mean to say the whole of the paragraph to which he objected when he saw the petition was in it now; but part of that paragraph was retained, and to that part he objected.
Mr. Atkins Wright
observed, that when he first called the attention of the house to this matter, and submitted the propriety of passing it over rather than prosecute the author, he did not so much as know the name of that gentleman. He was still unacquainted with him. He gave his opinion freely, and he was upon reflection confirmed in the propriety of that opinion. He thought the house ought not to consume 560 more time on this occasion, but to proceed to other important business which remained to be heard.
§ Mr. Sturges Bourne
said he had no wish to procrastinate this debate, but he could not help taking notice of what had been said by some gentlemen to-night of the necessity of the house availing itself of the power of punishing its accuser, and insisting that the petition ought to be withdrawn, and that the petitioner should present another. He was astonished at a good deal of what he had heard on this occasion. He thought that this power of the house ought to be reserved till great occasions called for it, where the offence to the house was serious and deliberate, and not as in this case the effect of haste and mere inadvertence. He had observed some gentlemen very forward in calling themselves the advocates of the liberty of the press, but in their actions they had added to the restraint of it. He alluded to the case of Mr. Reeves, when a certain publication of his had been charged to be a libel upon the constitution of the country, and it was referred to the consideration of a committee of the house of commons; that committee examined a great deal of evidence on the subject, and admitted much under the head of evidence which a court of justice would not have received; and afterwards the hon. gent. made a motion for punishing the author by the authority of the house itself—thus blending two characters, which ought to be united as seldom as possible, that of accuser and judge. Not that he meant that such a thing should never take place, for there might be circumstances in which even that would be unavoidable, but he was sure it ought to be rarely done. This author, however, was sent with his book to a court of justice, where he was tried and acquitted by a jury of his country, and the hon. gent. opposite to him, who had so repeatedly boasted of his attachment to the trial by jury as well as the liberty of the press, had quoted this case on a former night, as a reason for not sending such cases to be tried by jury. With none of these principles did he agree. He was so far from thinking that the power the house possessed of being both accuser and judge was a reason why they should themselves punish any one who offended it, that he thought it a reason of itself why the house should be extremely tender of adopting that course. Gentlemen had opposed the bringing of this petitioner to the bar on this occasion, and had been pleased to say that he should 561 be at liberty to present another petition. This, he confessed, appeared to him to spewing very indifferent attachment to one of the best principles of our constitution, perfect and tender regard to that sacred right of the subject on which the redress o the so materially depended, he mean the right of petitioning. He knew of no constitution principle by which that house should reject any petition which was not worded in an offensive manner, still less did understand the principle on which the house should dictate to any petitioner the form in which he should frame his petition. There could be but little freedom where the party petitioned should dictate the form in which the petition should he drawn. All petitions which were not disrespectful to the house were regular, and which the house, therefore, ought to receive. He believed that in this petition there was not single sentence, word, or syllable, which reflected on the house, or on any part of it. It alluded to certain societies which formerly existed in this country, and to the efforts which certain members of the house made to counteract the machinations of such societies. Why should that give any offence to any members of that house? Were there any gentlemen the house who wished to identify themselves with those societies? How they could feel themselves uneasy under this allusion was what he was at a loss to comprehend, and until now the house had not been called in this case to exercise either its vengeance its anger.
§ Mr. Sheridan
explained, and observed, that the hon. gent. had not accurately recollected the case to which he referred, and Which recollection he intreated him to improve, for he was wrong in every fact he had stated concerning it. He never moved in his life against the press. The motion alluded to was made by an hon. gent. then member for Bridport (Mr. Sturt) who was not now a member of the house. The house came to a determination of appointing a committee, which elected him chairman, by which committee the publication in question was deemed a gross and scandalous libel. A motion was afterwards made, that it should be burnt by the hands of the common hangman. The matter ended in directing the attorney general to prosecute the author. The case went before a jury, who acquitted the author, and that was the history of the whole case.
§ Mr. Sturges Bourne
explained, and observed, that he did not apply what he said to the motion of the hon. gent. who spoke 562 last on that occasion, but to the language he held forth in the debate, by which he called for heavy punishment of the house on a person who was ultimately acquitted by jury.
Sir Ralph Milbank
thought the words used by the petitioner were indecent, and such as the house could not, without a surrender of its dignity, pass over without some punishment to mark the sense it entertained of the misconduct.—The house then divided, for the motion 142—against it 121—majority 21.
The petitioner was then brought to the bar, where he received a reprimand from Mr. Speaker, and was ordered to be discharged out of custody, paying his fees.—The reprimand was as followeth, viz.—Peter Stuart, you having confessed that you were the printer and publisher of a paper which has been complained of to the house as containing libellous reflections upon its character and conduct;— this house resolved that you were thereby guilty of a high breach of its privileges, and ordered you to be taken into custody. By your petition you have this day expressed your sorrow for your offence, and acknowledged the justice of your punishment; and thereupon this house, in its lenity, has ordered that you be now brought to the bar to be reprimanded and discharged. I have now, therefore, to reprimand and admonish you, as a warning to others, that this house doth and will resent it as a high offence in any man who shall presume to slander its character and conduct, and endeavour to degrade it in the public estimation. You being now reprimanded, it is my duty further to acquaint you, that you are discharged;—paying your fees."
§ Mr. Whitbread
moved, "That what Mr. Speaker hath said in reprimanding Peter Stuart be entered on the Journals of this house."—Ordered nem.[...] con.