HC Deb 08 May 1823 vol 9 cc114-7
Mr. Hume

presented a petition from Richard Carlile, a prisoner in Dorchester gaol, praying the House to consider the hardship to which he had been put. The treatment which Mr. Carlile had received was novel in its nature. There were strong prejudices against Carlile, which he regarded-as being wholly without foundation. The fact was, that Carlile was, previously to the distresses in 1816, a very respectable mechanic. Those distresses had so reduced him in his circumstances, that he was forced to become a hawker of pamphlets; and at the time of lord Sidmouth's circular he had been employed under Sherwin, who published a Political Register. But, up to this day he would say, that Mr. Carlile was one of the best moral characters in England [hear!]. Notwithstanding that "hear!" he would persist in his opinion. Mr. Carlile's religious opinion might differ from that of some other persons; but that did not affect his moral character; and he would dare any one to contradict him when he said, that as a husband, as a father, as head of a family, and as a neighbour, Mr. Carlile might challenge calumny itself. Now, what had those by whom this man had been persecuted made of it? Why, it appeared that the circulation of the books had been prodigiously increased by the measures which had been adopted for the purpose of suppressing them. Previous to Mr. Carlile's first trial, he had published an edition of Paine's religious works, and though 250 copies of that edition were subscribed for by the trade before it was published, still the sale was very limited till the trials began; but, in the Course of those trials the sale of that, and of; all Mr. Carlile's other publications had, been encreased to 13,000 copies. If this was the way in which the sale of works, supposed to be hostile to religion was to be diminished, it was, he would say, a very strange way. But why be so Scrupulous about those works? Were the principles of religion not to be explained? Was there not to be a freedom of opinion on that very subject upon which men had the greatest personal grounds for having themselves well informed? The Course which had been taken with respect to Mr. Carlile in the court of King's-bench was such as entitled him to complain. Upon the ground that the judge could not hear the Christian religion questioned by a defendant, he had been debarred of that full hearing which was his right as an English subject. The petitioner also complained of the interruption given by the court to his defence, and of the oppressive sentence passed upon him of three years imprisonment, and 1,500l. fine, and also of the still more oppressive execution of alevari facias, took away from him all power of paying the fine, and subjected him, in default thereof, to continual imprisonment. A course so arbitrary was more worthy of the Inquisition than an English tribunal; and the only effect of such proceedings would be, to awaken a spirit of enthusiasm among the lower orders, and prepare the minds of hundreds among them for a new species of martyrdom. His own opinion was, that if the devil were put on his trial, he ought to be fairly heard, and receive no more than his due proportion of punishment. He begged the law officers of the Crown to pay particular attention to the fact, that the prosecution of this person bad caused an unprecedented diffusion of the works, for the publishing of which he had been prosecuted.

The Solicitor General,

in answer to the remark of the hon. gentleman, as to the interruption of the defence, begged leave to remind the House of the course taken by the petitioner. He had occupied from eight to ten hours of three successive days in his defence, after which he was convicted. He had a motion in term to set aside the Verdict, which he argued for Several hours. The member for Nottingham had moved in arrest judgment in a speech of considerable length, after which the petitioner was heard for a still longer time in mitigation of punishment. Thus much for the conduct of the trial. The petitioner, after these various proceedings, had boasted that he would continue to publish the same works—that his wife was willing to become a martyr in this cause—that if she should be prosecuted, convicted, and imprisoned, he had a sister who would take her place, and encounter the same perils—and that if the same fate should overtake his sister, there were hundreds willing to run the same risks over and over again. How well he had kept his word the House would judge, when they should learn that his wife and sister and others of his agents, had been convicted and were now in prison for the offences, and that at this moment a prosecution was pending against another of his agents on the same account. As to the levari facias, the whole proceeding was according to the usual course of law. If not, Mr. Carlile had only to move the court, and the writ would have been stayed. As to his inability to pay the fine, by the statement just made by the hon. member, it appeared that Mr. Carlile had sold 15,000 copies of the work in question, at half-a-guinea each. So that, by the admission of the petitioner, the prosecution must have put much more money into his pocket than the fine levied upon him.

Mr. Lennard

considered the sentence passed on Mr. Carlile as one of unconstitutional severity. That severity he looked upon as one of the signs of the times. It appeared to him that the supporters of the six acts having failed in their efforts to procure the punishment of perpetual banishment, had contrived, through the agency of the judges, to supply that deficiency by sentences which amounted to perpetual imprisonment.

Mr. Hume

accounted for the inability of Mr. Carlile to pay the fine, by the fact that he had invested the profits of his former sale, in the expense of the works which were seized under the levy.

Mr. Denman

observed, that the proceedings in the case before the, House proved that irreligion could also produce its martyrs. Such were the effects of that re-action which the operation of the joint-stock purse of the self-called "Constitutional Association" had produced. He understood that the funds of that purse were exhausted, never, he trusted, to be replenished. The punishment he considered to be excessive. Had the judges been aware of the inability of Mr. Carlile to pay the fine, at the time judgment was passed, he was sure they never would have passed it. He trusted, therefore, that the government would interfere and modify it to the actual circumstances of the petitioner.

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, it was admitted that the prosecutions had caused so extensive a sale of the libellous books, that the petitioner must have been fully enabled to pay the fine. But Mr. Carlile was not in prison merely for the non-payment of the fine; he was also called upon for recognizances for his good behaviour. He had, however, continued, according to his promise, up to the latest minute, to publish the offensive books. He did not wish to press the circumstance against him; but certainly it formed a good ground for using precaution as to the persons who were prepared to become bound for him. As the margin of the petition contained the titles of all the offensive books sold by the petitioner, if the House should print it, they would give a publicity to them which it was, on all accounts, desirable to avoid.

The petition was ordered to lie on the table.