§ Mr. Roebuck
—I have, Sir, to present two petitions to the House, respecting persons now in prison for offences by the Press. I present both together, because I am about to support them both by the same wide general principle, and because I wish also to advert to what I consider a blameable inconsistency in the punishments awarded. The first petition is from a person of the name of Reeves, who was prosecuted for what is termed a seditious libel. This libel was a gross, vulgar, and ignorant appeal to the people to assemble in National Convention. I am informed, that this paper was printed during the short time that the present Ministers were out of office, on the passing of the Reform Bill. The prisoner bought the paper the last Westminster election, and sold it in the crowd assembled round the hustings; being, as he said, ignorant of its contents. This, be it remembered, was long after the publication of the paper, which had, in fact, long lain as waste paper in the shop, I believe, of Mr. Hetherington. On the day upon which this poor and illiterate person was condemned, Messrs. Grant and Bell were also condemned. Now, in both cases, the prosecutions were instituted because of danger to the State; and I beg to ask the House, whence, if danger were to arise, was it most likely to come, from the ignorant Reeves, or the instructed and intelligent gentlemen, Messrs. Grant and Bell? Unquestionably, if these various persons should think fit to assail the Government, no one could for a moment believe but that the danger, if any, was far more likely to exist in the case of Messrs Grant and Bell, than in that of Reeves. But it appeared to the whole Court, upon deliberation, that three months were sufficient to ward off such danger as resulted from the 1135 conduct of Messrs. Grant and Bell. I assume that it was quite sufficient. But, now I ask, how it comes, that twelve months is required in the case of Reeves? In this case, then, reasoning upon their own principles, I show, that where least danger exists, there, for some curious reason, the Judge awards the severer punishment. I must own, that I should like to hear this inconsistency explained. But, Sir, I have a stronger objection to urge—an objection which arises out of a very extraordinary petition from the town of Cheltenham. This petition sets forth some remarkable opinions—opinions, which to this House may appear new and dangerous, but which have received not merely the sanction of some of the first political writers of the day, but also of a noble and learned Lord, who lately, on giving evidence before a Committee of the House, contemplating this very case, supported the opinions of this petition which I now read. The petition states, first,—"that there are some cases in which the duty of obedience may cease on the part of subjects to their governors." And it further states,—"that resistance to the payment of taxes was one mode of marking the cessation of obedience." The petition afterwards states,—"that if persons by inflammatory writings or speeches, should incite the people to resist the payment of taxes, one of two things must happen—either the people would not agree with those inciting them, or they would. If they did not agree, then no danger to the Government could exist, and the writings might safely be left to the neglect of the people. If the people did agree with them, then ought the Government not to proceed to punish the writers, but to reform themselves; not to make attacks upon the Press, but to act upon the wishes of the people." To this extremely well put argument, I have little to add. With the petitioners, I believe, that the Government would do well not to attack the Press, but to watch the feelings of the people. The True Sun, whose conduct I am not now either about to defend or impugn, might safely have been left to the people of England as a Jury. That people, calm, intelligent, and well knowing the benefit of good government, and a peaceful administration of the laws, would not rush hastily into resistance—and should a time come when they believed resistance necessary, no prosecutions of 1136 this kind would avail to keep it down. In the case before us, they did not yield a response to the advice of the True Sun, and what danger, I ask, could have arisen had the writers been ten times more outrageous? But just see what mischief arises from these prosecutions. The people did not agree with the True Sun, but now, by this persecution, you raise up sympathy—you disturb the judgments of the people, and so far to make them, by sympathy, adopt the very opinions you profess to dread. Leave truth to herself, unincumbered by the dangerous aid of prosecutions, and she will assuredly triumph. Bring the law to her assistance, and you endanger her success.
§ Viscount Howick
thought it would be much better to postpone the consideration of these cases for the present, as a notice was already in the Order-book respecting one of them. He must, nevertheless, protest against the doctrine held forth in the libels in question, that because a Government was unpopular, it was competent to persons to assemble, calling themselves a National Convention, and pass measures with a direct tendency to the subversion of the Government; and if such proceedings could not be sanctioned, how could the hon. Member, in common consistency, refuse to punish persons who were guilty of instigating the people to adopt such measures?
§ Sir Henry Hardinge
thought, that the petitioners were entitled to consideration, not so much on their own merits, as on account of what had passed in this House. Had it not been stated by the brother of the Lord Chancellor, and other persons connected with the Government, or of high stations in society, that if certain measures were not conceded, the people would be justified in withholding the payment of taxes? If such examples were given to the people by persons of rank, and individuals connected with the Government, what was to be expected from the people themselves? He thought these circumstances ought to have some weight with the House as to mitigating the punishment of these offenders.
§ Mr. Feargus O'Connor
hoped, when the case of which he had given notice should come before the House, the individuals now suffering imprisonment would be considered as having followed the course recommended by Lord Milton and persons connected with the Government.
§ Viscount Howick
denied, that the Government or any persons connected with it, had sanctioned the proceedings alluded to in the articles in the True Sun.
§ Sir Robert Peel
deprecated long premeditated discussions on the presentation of petitions. Only nine hours a-week were allowed for the presentation of petitions, and if such discussions were indulged in, it was impossible one-half of the petitions could ever be presented to the House.
§ Petitions laid on the Table.