said, he had a Petition to present on a subject of the greatest importance, intimately connected as it was with the state of the Press in this country. It was from a number of persons who had assembled at the Rotunda, in Blackfriars-road, on the 4th of last July. The petition had been put into his hands on the 5th day of 10 July; but he had had no opportunity of presenting it before. The petition was against all laws which prevented the circulation of truth, and which laid imposts on knowledge. No one, certainly, would deny, that the whole community should be rendered as instructed and enlightened as possible, and that ignorance was the bane of society. The petitioners prayed that there should be no longer any laws having for their object to retain the people in ignorance. Many hon. Members might not be aware of the nature of the laws at present affecting the Press. By the 60th Geo. 3rd cap. 9, (one of those laws which were commonly known by the name of the Six Acts), whoever published a pamphlet, containing information or news, of less than two sheets in size, and at a less price than sixpence, was compelled to pay the same duty as a newspaper. The rich were, by this Act, allowed to have information at the same rate as that which they had been accustomed to pay for it; but the poor were precluded from the same privilege. The result was, that for a long period persons abstained from issuing publications such as the Act contemplated; but of late, and in defiance of the law, such a description of pamphlets, containing news and information, had been published, as brought those by whom they were published under the operation of the Stamp Acts. A Mr. Carpenter was at present suffering under the odious law to which he had alluded. That gentleman had published something in the shape of a pamphlet, which the Officers of Government chose to call a newspaper, but which he called a Political Letter. Now, if there was any one thing which had a greater tendency than another to brutalize a people, it was such a law as this. Was not the whole kingdom busy in establishing schools for the poor? But of what use would those schools be, if the law prevented the working classes from having cheap publications to read? Nothing could be devised more hostile to the interests of good Government. The Act in question was passed for the purpose of putting down Cobbett's paper, a two penny publication; the arguments and ability of which were found to be so inconvenient, that Government determined to adopt that mode of suppressing it. What was the present consequence of the law? That any man—he did not speak of particular individuals—but, that any man who might 11 not have the good of the public at heart, in defiance of the law, issued publications, many of them containing much that was offensive; among other things, challenging the utility of the right of property, and even asserting, that it ought not to exist at all—[Mr. Hunt expressed his dissent.] he asserted emphatically—they did, they did; while well-disposed people, who were aware how injurious such doctrines were to the country, were, nevertheless, prevented from contradicting them in the same shape, accessible to the people, for fear of incurring the penalties of the law. He agreed with the petitioners, therefore, that a tax on knowledge, or the spread of information, was injurious both to individuals and to the community at large. He also agreed with them in the declaration, that every man who was now in prison for having contributed to the diffusion of information, was suffering unjustly. He knew no legitimate way of opposing opinions but by arguments; and that opinion which could not be met by argument, must be a sound and just one.
§ Mr. Hunt
concurred in the prayer of the petition, that the Act in question should be repealed. He denied, however, the statement of the hon. member for Middlesex, that the publications to which he had alluded questioned the right of property. At least, he had never seen any such. They objected to property qualification in an elector; but that was quite a different thing.
said, that he had seen several of those publications, which did impugn the right of property. They circulated that and other mischief, which no man could reply to on equally cheap terms, and send his reply among the lower classes, without defying the law, which honest and honourable men did not like to do. The publishers of such works had, therefore, a monopoly of mischief. He was exceedingly sorry that Government had not brought in a Bill for the repeal of the Act in question. It was an Act which had been levelled at an individual; and was most unconstitutional and improper. It was levelled against Mr. Cobbett, and had compelled him to raise his Register from 2d. to 6d. Now, though it was impossible to agree to all Mr. Cobbett's opinions, there was no man possessing a spark of common sense who must not say, that he was one of the most able and powerful writers that this or any 12 other country ever produced. The working classes ought not to be deprived of information. They had as much intellect as their superiors in station, and understood reasoning, and, above all, facts quite as well as their masters; and it would be no difficult matter to show them, if the means were afforded, that the evils of violent revolutions in society, would be as injurious to them as to the other classes of the community.
§ Colonel Torrens
cordially concurred with those who thought, that the only way to prevent the working classes from being imposed upon and influenced by injurious doctrines was, to counteract the effect of those doctrines, by rendering knowledge cheap. In proportion as they extended the elective franchise, in the same proportion they owed it to the safety of the empire to extend the means of diffusing knowledge amongst the people. If the people wore excluded from knowledge, the country would never want a Swing to burn corn-ricks and break machinery. If the people had knowledge, they would see that their interests wore dovetailed in with the interests of society; they would find that, however large the property of an individual, his powers of consumption were not thereby increased; and therefore, that the whole of the people had, after all, the whole of the produce of the soil. These were truths which, to those who knew them, were as clear as the sun at noon-day; but, by the present system, the people were kept in ignorance of the very first principles of political science.
§ The Petition brought up and read. On the Motion that it lie on the Table,
§ Mr. Hunt
wished to correct an error into which the hon. and learned member for Kerry had fallen. The Act in question was not directed against Mr. Cobbett alone. There was at that time the Black Dwarf, conducted by Mr. Wooller, and a number of other cheap publications. Nor had the immediate effect of the Act been to raise the publication from twopence to sixpence.
said, that being legally disqualified from selling his Register at two pence, Mr. Cobbett had been compelled to raise the price to sixpence. If the hon. Member would look at the reports of the Debates of those days, he would see that the great object was, to put down Cobbett's Two penny "Trash;" a name which it was far from deserving.
§ Petition to lie on the Table.