HC Deb 23 December 1830 vol 2 cc71-81
Mr. A. Trevor,

in rising, according to his notice, to direct the attention of the House to the inflammatory language contained in one of the political publications of the day, entreated them to grant him their indulgence while he attempted to perform what to him appeared to be a very important duty. He did not know whether the inflammatory language to which he alluded was or was not contrary to the law of the country; but on the purport and tendency of it there could be no quest ion; and he thought it was the duty of that House, if it was not within the immediate province of the law-officers of the Crown, to adopt some measure with respect to it; and at all events to record their sense of the mischiefs it must produce. The language to which he wished to draw the attention of the House was to be found in the publication of a person named Cobbett, called The Political Register. There were, unfortunately a vast number of passages in that publication which were well calculated to excite the people to sedition, and to support their hopes of advantage from scenes of mischief and disorder; but he should confine himself to one, taken from The Political Register for Dec. 11th, which combined in it more than others, all that was mischievous and offensive. One great object of the writer seemed to be, to excite dissatisfaction among the agricultural population, and to induce them to believe, that the destruction of tithes and the ruin of the clergy would prove advantageous to their interests and better their condition. In the first instance which he would select, the writer, after declaring in the most violent terms against a clergyman of Suffolk, who had published an address to his parishioners, warning them against the consequences of their conduct, and entreating them to abandon a system of destruction of property, which must plunge all classes in ruin, thus proceeds: — In the meanwhile, however, the parsons are reducing their tithes with a tolerable degree of alacrity! It seems to come from them like drops of blood from the heart; but it comes; and it must all come now; or England will never again know even the appearance of peace. 'Out of evil comes good.' We are not, indeed, upon that mere maxim, ' to do evil that good may come from it.' But without entering at present into the motives of the working people, it is unquestionable that their acts have produced good, and great good too. They have been always told, and they are told now, and by the very parson that I have quoted above, that their acts of violence, and particularly the burnings, can do them no good, but add to their wants, by destroying the food that they would have to eat. Alas! they know better; they know that one thrashing-machine takes wages from ten men; and they also know, that they should have none of this food; and that potatoes and salt do not burn! Therefore, this argument is not worth a straw. Besides, they see and feel that the good comes, and comes instantly too. They see that they do get some bread in consequence of the destruction of part of the corn; and while they see this, you attempt in vain to persuade them, that that which they have done is wrong. And as to one effect, that of making the parsons reduce their tithes, it is hailed as a good by ninety-nine hundredths even of men of considerable property; while there is not a single man in the country who does not clearly trace the reduction to the acts of the labourers, and especially to the fires; for it is to the terror of these, and not the bodily force, that has prevailed. To attempt to persuade either farmers or labourers, that the tithes do not do them any harm, is to combat plain common sense. They must know, and they do know, that whatever is received by the parson, is just so much taken from them, except that part which he may lay out for productive labour in the parish; and that is a mere trifle compared with what he gives to the East and West Indies, to the wine countries, to the footmen, and to other unproductive labourers. In short, the tithe-owners take away from the agricultural parishes a tenth part of the gross produce, which in this present state of the abuse of the institution, they apply to purposes not only not beneficial, but generally mischievous to the people of those parishes. Now, for what purpose was this said, unless to excite the people to acts of riot, and to increase the discontent of the labourers? Was it not proving that the laws of the country were at best merely calculated to preserve a species of rapine, and that the people were justified in violating them? The writer then goes on to allude in these terms to the late disturbances in the Midland Counties,—"The accounts from Cambridgeshire say, that since the terrible fires that have taken place in that county, ' the Magistrates have met, and resolved immediately to make inquiry into the actual state and condition of the poor in every parish of the county.' Very just, very wise; but never so much as talked of, much less resolved on, until the labourers rose, and the 6res began to blaze." Was not this declaring in plain terms that the people were justified in their incendiary proceedings; that to them they were indebted for the relief they had received, and for the inquiries which were promised; and that in them they would find a remedy for their grievances? Again, the writer says, as if aware of the dangerous character of the preceding passages, and anxious to screen himself from the consequences of promulgating such opinions—"The acts committed by the labourers are unlawful in themselves. Nobody denies this; but all men agree that they were starving; and what says the law in this case? Why the laws of God and of man, and especially the laws of England say, that it is no crime to take by force that which is necessary to the preservation of life. It is against nature to suppose the contrary. All the great authorities concur as to this matter." This was a new reading of national law, for he (Mr. Trevor) certainly had never heard it asserted before that any species of distress justified the taking by force from another any portion of property of which he was rightfully and legally possessed. The next passage he should read was of much the same character:— But, short of death, how great, merciful God, have been the sufferings of the labourers and their families! And is not the parish allowance slow starvation? Has not this been proved over and over again, before the committees of the House of Commons? Has it not been proved, before those committees, that the allowance for a man at work has not been one-half of what is allowed to the felons in the jails? Has it not been proved be-fore those committees, that a working man, his wife and three children, are allowed less to live on than is paid to one common foot soldier, who has clothing, fuel, and lodging into the bargain, which the labourer and his family have not? And if this be their horrible state, will this Ministry shed their blood? No: I fear not to assert, that they will not shed their blood; let the hell-hounds of loan-jobbers and News cry for blood as long as they may. No: this will not be done. The course of these ill-used men has been so free from ferocity, so free from any thing like bloody-mindedness! They have not been cruel even to their most savage and insolent persecutors. The most violent thing that they have done to any person has not amounted to an attempt on the life or limb of the party; and in no case, but in self-defence, except in the cases of the two hired overseers in Sussex, whom they nearly trundled out of the carts, which those hirelings had had constructed for them to draw like cattle. Had they been bloody, had they been cruel, then it would have been another matter; had they burnt people in their beds, which they might so easily have done; had they beaten people wantonly, which has always been in their power; had they done any of these things, there would have been some plea for severity; but they have been guilty of none of these things: they have done desperate things, but they were driven to desperation. All men except the infamous stock-jobbing race, say, and loudly say, that their object is just; that they ought to have that which they are striving for; and all men, except that same hellish crew, say, that they had no other means of obtaining it. In reading these, and similar inflammatory addresses to the feelings and prejudices or the lower classes, it was impossible to avoid exclaiming with the eloquent Roman, "Quousque tandem abutere, Cutilina, patentia nostra?" It was the opinion of one of the most eloquent and able men that ever sat in that House (the late Mr. Burke) and of a noble and learned Lord of high character in the other House, but whose health prevented his taking any part in public business—he alluded to Lord Grenville—that to the dissemination of opinions like these, in language such as he had. read, the Revolution of France, with all its concomitant horrors, was mainly to be attributed. Let it not, however, be said, that in endeavouring to repress or extinguish the publication of such sentiments, he was an enemy to the rational freedom of the Press, or that he wished to place any restriction on its power of promulgating the opinions of the public. He considered it the best means of conveying to the House and to the country the wishes and the feelings of the people—wishes and feelings to which they were at all times bound to attend; but when it became the organ of sedition, and the medium of scattering abroad such poison and venom as they had just heard, then indeed, he was entitled to say of it, "corruptio optimi pessima est." To the unfortunate persons who were suffering from distress, and who were driven by language such as he had read to acts of violence, he would extend the utmost compassion; but he could feel none for those who wantonly urged them to pursue such a course, and endeavoured to corrupt their minds for the purpose of profiting by the confusion and mischief their violence must produce. A storm was gathering in the country—a storm mainly occasioned, in his opinion, by publications such as those to which he had directed the attention of the House; and, unless the best energies of that House, and of the loyal and peaceably disposed portion of the population, were brought into active exertion to resist its effects, he was much afraid it would spread devastation and ruin throughout the kingdom. He did not wish to embarrass the Government, by pledging it to any particular course; but. he had felt it his duty to call its attention to the subject; and, whatever might be the fate of the Resolution he intended to propose to the House, he trusted that, the exposure of the insidious and inflammatory proceedings to which he had adverted, would not be without some beneficial result. The hon. Member concluded by thanking the House for the attention with which it had favoured him, and moved the following Resolution:— "It is the opinion of the House, that the publication of Saturday, the 11th of December, entitled, Cobbetts Political Register, is a false, malicious, and scandalous libel, inconsistent with the principles of government in this country, an audacious insult to the Church Establishment, and having a direct tendency to subvert the laws, and introduce general anarchy and confusion."

Mr. Bulwer

said, that if the hon. Gentleman brought forward the subject as one particularly deserving the attention of the House, he would find on examination that it was not in the habit of noticing such publications, unless they more particularly attacked its own rights and priviledges; but if he meant it as a reproach or censure upon the Attorney General, for neglecting to prosecute the publication he had quoted as a seditious libel, he could assure him, that he could not more condemn the omission of the Attorney General than he (Mr. Bulwer) applauded it. The hon. Gentleman would probably agree with him, that if the prosecution of this publication were to be followed by an acquittal, it would neither be advantageous to the country nor creditable to the Government. As the hon. Gentleman had described himself as unacquainted with the law of libel, perhaps he was ignorant that the law of libel such as it was laid down by the decision of Judges in arbitrary times, who, from the manner in which they rose to their office, were particularly attached to high prerogative, was very different from that which popular juries would consider to be the law, and would lend themselves to enforce. The number of cases, of late years, in which juries had come to a verdict very different from that to which the direction of the Judge would have produced in former times should always be a warning against prosecutions for libel. The hon. Member had surely not forgotten that famous parody, beginning,—"I believe in his Majesty's Ministry, &c." for which Mr. Hone was tried, as for a libel, and acquitted. He put it to the hon. Gentleman, whether it might not be argued that this publication was no libel at all? "No man," it might be said, "upon reading the whole of it, could conceive that the writer meant to say, that those burnings were productive of good, and therefore ought to be encouraged. If Mr. Cobbett's intentions had been seditious, would he have confined his argument to the promotion of fires? Certainly not; and the only view with which he could have been supposed to recommend fires, with a seditious intention, must have been, because he thought they would lead to rebellion, revolution, and change in the established form of Government. But so far from such ideas being encouraged, in the context of the alleged libel, he states, that he is in favour of the established form of Government; that he is not for pulling down the Houses of Lords and Commons; that he supports the present Administration, and calls upon the public to give that Administration its confidence in the most able manner." He was not speaking in his own person; but as he thought a counsel might speak who was advocating the cause of Mr. Cobbett. It was very unlikely, in times like those which had returned Mr. Hunt as member for Preston, for his political principles —it was very unlikely that Mr. Cobbett would be found guilty of libel by a jury for expressions like those. He would leave, however, the question of law; merely observing, that, on grounds of general policy, the Attorney General would have been liable to censure had he entered upon a prosecution of this publication. The law of libel was indeed the law of the land, but a most unpopular law, being looked upon by the people as a sword in the hands of the Government, the edge of which juries were always desirous to turn aside. It was the duty of the Attorney General not to consider what he could prosecute, but what he could avoid prosecuting. The public press being more an instrument of good than of evil, when in troublesome times a man professed himself a friend of the people, and excited them to mischief, it was not by punishing and prosecuting him that calm could be restored, but by convincing the people that he was not their friend. It was by the press, and not by the pillory or the prison, that a libeller could be reduced to his natural insignificance. He was as little inclined to favour factious demagogues as the hon. Mover, and he reprobated the cry against landlords and landed proprietors, whom he considered to have been most unjustly traduced, and who, he thought, ought to be favoured as the support and staff of the country. The clamour raised against them was the offspring of ignorance and malice, but the Press would do more to put it down than all the barbarous laws that barbarous times had invented, or than all the cruel punishments the laws in barbarous times were authorised to inflict. The hon. Gentleman had himself used language more likely to excite discontent in the people of this country, than any thing to be found in Mr. Cobbett's writings. When the hon. Gentleman said, on a former evening, that the people were in a more wretched state, and in a worse condition than colonial slaves, did he not use language more calculated to exasperate their minds than any he had read to the House? If the hon. Gentleman, at any future time, should happen not to be a Member of the House, and should print and circulate such language, and Mr. Cobbett, "being a Member, should rise in his place and declare that the hon. Gentleman ought to be prosecuted by the Attorney General, he would then say to Mr. Cobbett, "expose fallacy by truth, put down ignorance by knowledge, and do not give it importance by the dignity of a prosecution." He believed, though, perhaps, he ought to apologise to the House for intruding upon it his opinions, that the cheap publications of the "Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge,"— a title most appropriate,— were more likely to put down disturbance than expensive prosecutions to enforce severe and ill-defined laws. Experience shewed, that prosecutions made proselytes, and raised the prosecuted into notice which they would otherwise never have attained. Let the House only look to the case of M. de Potter, who had been made a very important person age by a state prosecution. Let the House take warning by the events of a neighbouring country, where the King had been driven from an hereditary throne by prosecutions similar to those which the hon. Gentleman probably wished the Attorney General to undertake. He believed, that the principles of the right hon. Gentlemen on the Treasury-bench, would prevent them from adopting such a course; but he would nevertheless call upon them to take warning by the example of the Belgians; and rather to make men love the Government by its wisdom, its tolerance, and the diffusion of knowledge, than inflame the minds of the people, by seeking to check the expression of opinions by severe, arbitrary, and hated laws.

Lord Althorp

said, that the question as to the expediency of prosecutions for libel was, in his opinion, and, he was sure, in the opinion of the best judging persons in the country, better intrusted to the discretion of the Ministers of the Crown, than a proper subject for discussion in that House. There might, indeed, be occasions on which, if the House of Commons had no confidence, that discretion would be properly exercised. A case might arise for the independent Members of that House to call for a prosecution; but even then, he thought the better course would be, not to call for the prosecution beforehand, but to censure the neglect, if any neglect took place. If the House had no confidence that his Majesty's Ministers would prosecute where there was just occasion for it, he could conceive that they would support the motion of the hon. Gentleman; but if they felt —and he hoped they would feel —a confidence, that the Ministers would act properly in that respect, he hoped they would not interfere with the discretion of those Ministers. For himself individually, he hoped that his Majesty's Government did deserve confidence; and the House might give them credit for having no unwillingness to prosecute, as the hon. Member's motion seemed to assume, when he stated the fact, that one prosecution had been already instituted by the Attorney General. With respect to the particular publication at present in question, he should abstain from expressing any opinion upon it. He felt it his duty so to abstain. He wished it to be understood, that he did not mean to say whether it was a libel or not, or whether or not it ought to be prosecuted, or even whether it was the intention of his Majesty's Government to institute a prosecution; but he must observe, that if the Motion were carried, stating the opinion which it did, it certainly would have the effect of pre-judging the question, and of rendering it impossible, under any circumstances, to bring the subject fairly under the consideration of a Court of Justice. For the last 20 years —at least so far as he could learn — there had been no precedent of that House, ordering the Attorney General to institute a prosecution, unless it was on some matter concerning its own privileges; and even in that case, he considered it an evil that such a question should come under discussion there. Undoubtedly the House of Commons, as an independent branch of the Legislature, had the power to discuss such a matter, and order a prosecution. He did not, therefore, dispute the right of the House to agree to the present Motion. It had a full right to do so. But all that he would urge and press upon the House was, that it was not discreet, at the present moment, to bring such a question forward. With these views, he did not think it necessary to trouble the House at any length. If at any time the discretion ought to be left in the hands of Government, surely at a time of difficulty, at a crisis like the present, it was peculiarly expedient that that course should be pursued. He would beg the hon. Gentleman to recollect, that it was not because a publication might be mischievous, that the Government was bound to prosecute it. There were other considerations to be looked to; these were questions which could not be advantageously discussed in a popular assembly. It was impossible to discuss the question, whether or not a publication ought to be prosecuted, without Members being obliged to express opinions which must interfere with the administration of justice. A discretion must be left to those who were responsible, and if it were the practice in that House for Members who were not responsible, to bring forward such questions, upon their own views of the bearings of them, most mischievous consequences must ensue, and he hoped that the precedent would not be established. He did not wish to give a direct negative to the Motion, but rather would move the previous question.

Mr. Croker

would put it to his hon. friend, whether, after the exposition which the noble Lord had made of his own views, and of those of the Government, and after the pledge, that there was no unwillingness to prosecute where there was just cause, and that one prosecution had, in fact, already been commenced —after the intimation that this Motion would tend to defeat its own object —and, above all, when his hon. friend admitted the state of excitement which existed at present, and the great danger which there would be in bringing this Motion to a hostile division in the House; —he would humbly submit, whether it would not be better, both for his hon. friend's views, and the interests of the country, to withdraw the Motion, than to hazard a disagreement with Gentlemen, on the application of a principle, the validity of which they acknowledged as firmly as he did.

Mr. G. Price

concurred in this recommendation but explained, that his hon. friend, the member for Romney, did not wish to urge the House to recommend a prosecution by the Attorney General. He only wished to attract the attention of the House to the subject, hoping that thereby a check might be given to similar publications. Now that he had accomplished this object, he hoped his hon. friend would withdraw his Motion.

Lord Norreys

expressed a hope, that his Majesty's Government would, during the recess, take into consideration the distress which was so prevalent, and which was the cause of those seditious publications, and by relieving that distress, they would do more towards checking such violent appeals than any prosecution could effect.

Mr. A. Trevor

briefly replied. He wished only to notice the observation of the hon. member for Wilton, (Mr. Bulwer) as to what fell from him on a former occasion. He did say, that the slaves of the colonies were in a better condition than the peasantry of this country, but he meant as regarded food, clothing, and lodging, and that they, notwithstanding the charitable rhodomontades of some Gentlemen, could not be benefited by changing situations with our peasantry. He had no wish, however, by the statement of what he conceived to be a fact, to excite discontent in the minds of our own people, but to allay the agitation of another subject, and of other people. As the sense of the House appeared to be against him, he agreed to withdraw the Motion.

Motion withdrawn.

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