HC Deb 15 September 1831 vol 7 cc52-8
Mr. Hume

had also a Petition to present, to which he must entreat the attention of his Majesty's Ministers. It was the petition of William Carpenter, who was a prisoner in the Court of King's Bench prison, and whose case was a strong illustration of the injustice and oppression of the Act 60 George 3rd, c. 9., which was one of the Six Acts. He held in his hand a list of the minority on the passing of that Act, and among the names in the list he found those of five of the present Cabinet Ministers, and of upwards of thirty of the supporters of the existing Government. The minority included all the principal persons of intelligence and liberality who were Members of the House of Commons which passed the Act. The present First Lord of the Admiralty, the Attorney General, and other members of the Administration, had spoken against the Act, when it was in progress through the House, under which the prisoner had been committed; and having before him the conduct and opinions of the present Ministers and their supporters, on the occasion of the passing of the Act, he could not allow himself to doubt that the law would be altered at no very distant period. He did not look at the question as one of revenue. He could not allow himself so to look at it when he was sensible that it involved much higher considerations. He considered this law as a check upon the diffusion of knowledge, and he could view it in no other light. Ignorance was the bane of the lower orders of this country, who could be drawn from paths of drunkenness and other vices by no other means than imparting knowledge to them. He must say, that he deeply regretted that a Whig Administration should have been the first to put men into prison under this Act. Let him assure the noble Lord (Althorp) and his colleagues, that nothing was so calculated to withdraw from them the confidence of the country, as finding that principles which they advocated, and conduct which they pursued while on that (the Opposition) side of the House, were lost sight of and abandoned as soon as they crossed over to the other side. The petitioner said, he was prepared to prove, that not only had there been nothing of an objectionable tendency published in his Political Letter, but that the good advice contained in that letter had actually prevented the commission of many acts of violence which were contemplated during the turns-out in the manufacturing districts. The petitioner also stated, that his confinement had reduced him, he believed, to his death-bed, while his wife and family at home were without the means of supporting themselves. The prayer of the petitioner was, that the penalties of 244l. 15s. which had been imposed upon him, might be remitted—since, if they were enforced, it would amount to perpetual imprisonment, and he had already been three months in confinement.

Mr. O'Connell

would not have troubled the House on this occasion, but that he had been requested by the petitioner—who was on a bed of sickness, and whose health had been ruined by confinement—to support the prayer of the petition. He entreated hon. Members and the Government to recollect that the petitioner had not been guilty of publishing blasphemous or seditious doctrines; but that his offence was a mere violation of a law which he did not know that he was violating. Mr. Carpenter thought that the law was in his favour, but he had been guilty of no contumacy, and as soon as the point had been decided against him by a competent tribunal, he at once stopped the publication. This conduct, and the unobjectionable nature of the publication, were surely very strong circumstances in favour of the petitioner, in whose case the law had been vindicated, who had undergone already no slight punishment for his mistake, and who, therefore, he (Mr. O'Connell) must take the liberty of saying, was a person in all respects most deserving of having the royal prerogative extended for his relief. He would only add, that his hon. friend was, he believed, mistaken upon one point; for this was a prosecution under the Stamp Act, and not under the Act which his hon. friend had so justly reprobated.

Sir Francis Burdett

concurred in all that had fallen from the hon. member for Middlesex, and the hon. and learned member for Kerry. It was impossible to deny, that the present state of the law was most mischievous, in stopping the publication of information which ought to be accessible to every one, and particularly to the lower classes. He was sure that the present Government would take the earliest opportunity of altering this part of the law; and he was equally confident, that the distressing case of the petitioner would be taken into the consideration of the Ministers. It had always been his desire—a desire which, instead of being abated by time, had increased with his years and his experience—it had always, he said, been his ardent desire to see the Press of this country placed in a state of perfect and unrestricted freedom.

Mr. Warburton

said, that it could not be too strongly impressed upon the Government, that Mr. Carpenter had not been guilty of publishing blasphemous or seditious matter. The fact was, that Mr. Carpenter thought that his Political Letter was not within the meaning of the Act, and he determined to try the question. The object of the publication was, in all respects, most laudable, and Gentlemen would search it in vain for any doctrines of an objectionable tendency. These were the grounds upon which he earnestly entreated his Majesty's Ministers to take the case of Mr. Carpenter into their consideration. He would only observe, that among other mischievous consequences of the present law, it allowed the poison to be circulated, and stopped the antidote. The blasphemous and seditious publications which were now circulated at a penny and two pence each, would be met by successful refutation, and superseded by the communication of sound and useful knowledge, which plenty of persons were willing to publish, if the law would allow them.

The Attorney General

was not aware of the intention of his hon. friend to present this petition to-day; and it was only by accident that he was in his place. Sorry, indeed, should he be to interpose one word between the merciful exercise of royal prerogative and a person who was in so unfortunate a situation as that into which the petitioner had fallen. He had not the least doubt that the circumstances which had been now stated would be taken into consideration by the Government, who would neither neglect to do justice to the public, nor be backward in advising the extension of lenity to a deserving object. But after what had been said upon this case, he felt it his duty to make one or two observations upon it. The fact was, that he did not institute this prosecution, though he had carried it on. He found the prosecution instituted when he came into office. After the institution of the prosecution, and while he was in office, Mr. Carpenter published a prospectus, in which he declared that he could and would evade the law. This was a tolerably bold declaration of war, and if Mr. Carpenter had proved successful in it, others would have followed his example, and a very serious loss to the revenue would have been the result. He had, therefore, thought it right to carry on the prosecution as a matter materially affecting the revenue. The subpœna which had been served upon Mr. Carpenter ran in the name of George 4th, and not of William 4th, and this technical defect rendered it necessary that other proceedings should be taken. During the time which thus elapsed, Mr. Carpenter went on publishing his Political Letter. He believed that no Gentleman who was at all conversant with the law on this subject, and who had seen Mr. Carpenter's publication, could doubt for a moment that that publication came under the description of a newspaper. In this prosecution it was necessary to proceed against Mr. Carpenter for two offences against the statute: the first was, for not using the regular stamp, and the other for not making the prescribed affidavit at the office. By the decision which was given against him, Mr. Carpenter incurred penalties to the amount of many thousand pounds, but he had called for only one penalty, because the decision of the question, and not the punishment of the individual, was his object; and he did not, until this moment, know that Mr. Carpenter was not in a situation to pay the penalty. It was true that he had opposed the law of which his hon. friend, the member for Middlesex, had complained, and he begged to assure his hon. friend, that he looked back with pride and satisfaction to that opposition. But as long as that law remained in force, while he filled the situation which he had the honour to hold, and when the question became one purely of revenue regulations, his hon. friend must surely see that there was but one course open to him. Besides, his hon. friend would not surely have had Mr. Carpenter placed in a situation which gave him great advantages over all other publishers. Let the question of an alteration of the law be brought forward, and his hon. friend might rest assured, that he would do his duty upon it as independently, and with as much ardour, as any other Member of that House, and that the circumstance of his filling the office of Attorney General would not cause him to take a part in the discussion which should be inconsistent with the views and principles which he had advocated when he resisted the passing of the law.

Mr. Hunt

begged to inform the hon. and learned Gentleman that the petitioner supported the Reform Bill, and denounced him (Mr. Hunt), and had asserted the most extraordinary libels against him, one of which was, that he had sold himself to the Tories. He had, however, the satisfaction of knowing that he had materially curtailed the sale of his papers in Preston.

Mr. Maurice O'Connell

was highly pleased at what had fallen from the Attorney General, and trusted that the case of the petitioner would be taken into favourable consideration without delay.

Lord Althorp

said, my hon. friend, the member for Middlesex, has mixed up the state and effects of the law with the peculiar circumstances attending the case of the petitioner. With regard to Mr. Carpenter's case, all I can say of it at present is, that if the circumstances which have been now stated turn out to be correct, I have no doubt that it will be taken into consideration. With regard to the law, it was my intention, but for the course which the public business has taken, to have brought under the consideration of the House, in the present Session, the subject of the consolidation of the Stamp Laws. In dealing with that subject, I should have adverted to the amount and effect of the stamps at present imposed upon all organs of intelligence, and I should have proposed to make certain changes in the law with regard to those stamps. I need hardly observe, that, for the present, I am prevented from executing this intention. My hon. friend, the member for Middlesex, has said, that I opposed the Six Acts. No doubt I did, as eagerly as any other Member, and perhaps more eagerly; for I believe that I was the only Member who made a distinct motion in opposition to those Acts. My hon. friend does me injustice, if he supposes either that I have myself forgotten the part I took upon that occasion, or that I am desirous that others should not bear it in mind. I am now, as I was then, most anxious that the liberty of the Press should be protected to the utmost possible extent that is consistent with the prevention of the dissemination of immorality, and the circulation of private scandal, or attacks upon the characters of private individuals. As to public men, I think that, as far as they are concerned, the Press ought to be perfectly free and unrestricted. They take their situation in the face of the public, and put themselves forward to undertake the regulation of public matters; and if, in the discharge of the offices which they thus voluntarily assume, attacks are made upon their public conduct, I do not think that they have any right to complain. Of course, in making these observations, I do not forget that I am a public man myself; but it is very seldom that I read any attacks that are made on me, because I do not wish to read them. I do not think it a very agreeable occupation to read attacks upon oneself; and therefore, when I heard that there were attacks upon me, I avoided reading them. I have now very little time for reading newspapers, so little, indeed, that I am not aware whether I am attacked in them or not; but if I am, and if those attacks should come under my observation, I hope I should not mind them much. Sure I am, however, that my being attacked would not induce me to alter my opinion, that the Press ought not to be restrained from censuring the public conduct of public men. I admit that private individuals ought to be protected by the law from being dragged into public notice, and having their characters assailed in a newspaper; but the prominent position which we assume before the public, and the forward line which we pursue in public affairs, ought, I think, to prevent our complaining, if our public conduct is visited with criticisms, and very severe criticisms too.

Mr. Edward Lytton Bulwer

said, that it was with the greatest delight that he had heard the manly and sensible observations which had fallen from the noble Lord. From the speech of the noble Lord he was led to hope, that after the attainment of the great blessing of Parliamentary Reform, they should have no great difficulty in attaining also that further and greater blessing—the removal of all restraints upon the circulation of political opinions, by which removal, and by which removal alone, it was, that all permanent Reform could be effected. But he had risen only for the purpose of suggesting, in favour of the unhappy petitioner, the moderate tone and the good tendency of his writings. If Gentlemen would look over the publication that had been alluded to, they would see that it repeatedly exhorted the people never to act or speak otherwise than in a constitutional manner; and, above all things, to abstain from violence.

Petition to lie on the Table.