§ On the Order of the Day being read for the House to go into a Committee on the Bill for Suppressing Disturbances in Ireland,
§ Mr. Feargus O'Connor
rose to bring forward the motion of which he had given notice, for an Address to his Majesty, praying that he would be graciously pleased 401 to pardon Mr. Patrick Grant and Mr. John Bell, editors of the True Sun newspaper, now confined in the King's Bench prison; he said he was desirous most earnestly of pressing upon the House the adoption of the motion with which he intended to conclude, for clemency and mercy were amongst the best prerogatives of the Crown. The hon. Member then proceeded to read extracts from the Standard, the Albion, the Guardian and Public Ledger, Blackwood's Magazine, the Examiner, the John Bull, the Morning Post, The Times, the Manchester Advertiser, the Dublin Freeman's Journal, Cobbett's Register, &c., &c., censuring the severity of the proceedings against Messrs. Grant and Bell, observing, that however opposed in politics these several publications were to the True Sun, they all agreed in reprobating the conduct of the Government towards the editors of that paper. They all agreed that it was ill-timed, oppressive, and totally unjustifiable. He begged to call the attention of the House to the opinion pronounced by the present Lord Chancellor when examined before the Committee now silting on the subject of the Law of Libel. That great law authority had stated, that he would not punish for a political libel. He had been present in the Court of King's Bench when the Attorney-General addressed that Court in aggravation of punishment, and in the course of that speech, he admitted that he would not plead for punishment for speeches delivered at elections or after dinners. If he would not prosecute the speakers, why prosecute the publishers? If one man might innocently utter such language, so might another. Why make a distinction between Lord Milton and Mr. Grant? Lord Milton and Mr. Brougham might be permitted to pass, and so might The Times newspaper, for then the hon. Gentleman needed its support, but he did not fear to attack the True Sun. There was scarcely a man in the country ignorant of the fact, that the party of the present Ministers were, when out of power, most strenuous advocates for the liberty of the Press; the country had now a specimen of the manner in which their professions were acted on. It would be recollected that last year the House of Commons rescinded a vote to which it had previously come respecting the Malt-tax, and on the day following there appeared an article in the True Sun 402 advising the people to resist the payment of taxes, in the hope that the imposition of a Property-tax, in lieu of the existing taxes, would thereby be rendered necessary. This article was published, be it remembered, at a period of great excitement; and if it was thought deserving of prosecution, why was it that The Times escaped prosecution? The reason was, because that paper had a party in the House ready to defend it. When this prosecution was first commenced, the proprietors of the True Sun were informed, that if they apologized, or made any concession, the judgment of the court would be asked for merely as a matter of form. This they very properly refused to do; and they were punished therefore, not for having made a flagitious publication, but because they had the manliness to refrain from doing an act which they considered would have disgraced them. As the law of libel now stood, the public derived no benefit from it; and in his conscience he believed that, in the case to which he was now drawing the attention of the House, it had been perverted to suit the wishes of the Government. He regarded the course pursued by the Government towards the True Sun as most impolitic; and instead of endeavouring to stifle public opinion, he would recommend them to depend upon it as their best support. The present Ministers had been fortunate enough to have several votes of confidence passed in their favour; but if they continued to prosecute the Press, could they fancy that those votes would be repeated, or if repeated, that they would be sincere? He contended, that too much freedom could not be allowed to the public Press of this country; for, taken on the whole, a purer or more honourable Press did not exist in the world. He appealed, then, to the hon. and learned Gentleman's mercy and sense of justice. He appealed to his common sense. It surely could not be the intention of the Government to crush this paper. The proprietors were men of family and respectability: one of them was connected with two Cabinet Ministers. They had expended a large amount of money on the paper, which was conducted with great talent and honesty; and he really thought, that as the law was satisfied by the verdict which had been given against them, the Government could not do better than release them from a tedious imprisonment. The hon. Member con- 403 cluded by making the Motion above stated, as an Amendment to the Order of the Day.
§ Mr. Hume
seconded the Amendment, and said, that he was at a loss to understand how it was, that in the prosecution of the True Sun, his Majesty's Ministers had acted so contrary to the principles they had always professed, and to the recently expressed opinion of the Lord Chancellor, who had openly declared, that he disapproved of prosecutions for offences like that of which the proprietors of the True Sun had been accused. He therefore asked not for mercy, but for justice, on behalf of the proprietors of that newspaper; being entirely of the same opinion as the Lord Chancellor, that that man was oppressed who was prosecuted for expressing his opinions on any subject. He believed, that the hon. and learned Attorney General contended, that it was illegal for one person to advise another not to pay taxes, but he (Mr. Hume) had always understood, that occasions might arise when resistance to Government would become a virtue. There could be no doubt that if the principles on which the prosecution of the True Sun was founded were acted on to their full extent, the consequence must be, that all discussion respecting the conduct of Government would be stifled in this country.
The Attorney General
said, as he had been so pointedly alluded to, both by the hon. mover and the hon. seconder of the Motion, he hoped for the indulgence of the House, whilst he defended himself from the attack which had been made upon him. It might be enough to state, that this exofficio information was filed by his hon. and learned predecessor, with the full concurrence of every member of his Majesty's Government, including the Lord Chancellor. From the mere accident of his hon. and learned friend being indisposed and confined to his bed, he conducted the prosecution in court, with which otherwise he should have had nothing more to do than to call a witness from the Stamp-office to prove that Messrs. Bell and Grant had made an affidavit, that they were the proprietors of the True Sun. But he did not by that observation seek to shelter himself from the responsibility which was sought to be cast upon him. He was willing to acknowledge, although then he held only the office of Solicitor General, that he entirely concurred in that prosecu- 404 tion, and thought that his Majesty's Government, and the law-officers of the Crown, would have been guilty of a gross dereliction of duty had it not been instituted. With regard to the present Motion, he believed, that it was the first instance of an attempt being made, under such circumstances, to interfere with the prerogative of the Crown. Hitherto, if a harsh sentence had been passed, or circumstances, after the passing of a just sentence, had occurred, to give the party a claim to have it mitigated, the Crown had been applied to for the indulgence. But if the Motion were to be carried, the House would supersede the prerogative of the Crown, and with all deference for the House, he must say, that the prerogative of mercy was better vested in the Crown than in any popular assembly. Let the responsible advisers of the Crown be answerable for not giving proper advice as to the exercise of this prerogative, but let not the House take the exercise into its own hands. There was another objection to the Motion of the hon. and learned member for Cork. The hon. Member had not moved to have the record of the proceedings laid before the House, and he called upon the House, in entire ignorance of the nature of the prosecution and of the offence for which the sentence of the Court of King's Bench was passed, to address the Crown to set it aside. The hon. Member had not, in fact, told the House what the charge and the sentence were in the course of his long and eloquent speech. The hon. member for Middlesex, who seconded the Motion, evidently had not even read the publication. With his usual candour, the hon. Member assented to the truth of the observation. The hon. Member said, that it was for abuse of his Majesty's Ministers. It was not for any abuse of his Majesty's Ministers that the prosecution was instituted. As long as he held the situation that he had now the honour to fill, he should never sanction any prosecution for mere abuse of the existing Government, or for mere vituperation of a public man. He was willing that there should be the most ample discussion of all political subjects—he was willing that every opinion, that every sentiment that might be entertained respecting the Government, or any member of the Government, should be fairly and fully expressed. If those sentiments or opinions were true, they ought to be expressed, and to be acted upon; if they were false, they might be safely despised. 405 He disapproved of the present Law of Libel; there were several parts of it which were a reproach to English jurisprudence. He was of opinion, that proof of the truth of the libel should be admitted in evidence—not necessarily to justify the libel, but to go to the Jury, in order that they might judge whether the publication was malicious or not. There was another material Amendment of the Law of Libel, which he wished to be carried into effect. At present, if an action were brought for a libel, even a farthing damages carried costs, and the defendant was generally obliged to pay the costs of both parties. The consequence was, that the most scandalous pettifogging actions were brought, without the hope of obtaining substantial damages; but merely for the sake of the Attorney's costs. But there was no Amendment of the Law of Libel which, in his humble judgment, could ever render innocent a publication such as was the subject of prosecution in the case of the True Sun. Although opinions might be published with impunity, the laws must be respected; and when a publication openly incited to a violation of the duty which every citizen owed to the State, and to a breach of the public peace, it became imperatively necessary that the authority of the laws must be vindicated. The hon. member for Middlesex smiled, and seemed to think, that there ought to be no punishment for any publication whatever; but that must depend on the nature of the publication, and the circumstances under which it was ushered to the would. Suppose, for instance, that a man should publish as his opinion, that the houses, or stacks, or barns of certain individuals should be burnt, would the hon. Member regard that as the expression of an innocent opinion, unworthy of the notice of the law? He agreed with the hon. Member, that the expression of opinion upon political topics ought to be free; but when advice was given, which, if acted on, must necessarily lead to a violation of the law—to disturbance of the public peace—to insurrection—to bloodshed—to treason—then it was indispensably necessary that the law should interpose; and no Government, whatever the form of it might be, could possibly be sustained whilst such publications were allowed. Although he was far from defending the Law of Libel as it at present stood, he must nevertheless observe, that much undeserved obloquy had been thrown upon it by the absurd attempts to define a libel. It had been said, 406 that anything was a libel by which the feelings of another might be hurt. He spurned such a definition. It was like Shylock being allowed his pound of flesh, but "not one drop of blood." It would be almost impossible, in political discussion, to avoid saying something by which the feelings of others might be hurt. In all cases, the intention of the writer ought to be regarded; the necessary tendency of what he wrote should be canvassed; the question should be put—"Is this fair discussion?"—and the Jury should determine whether it was for the general good that the publication complained of should be permitted or punished. What was it, however, for which the prosecution in the present case was instituted? It was not for abuse of the Government or of any Minister of the Crown, or of either House of Parliament,—for if such things were made the subjects of prosecution, prosecutions must be instituted every day; and they might be passed over without danger to the safety of the State; but while he held office, he would not, be the consequences what they might to himself, allow writings which incited to a direct violation of the law to pass with impunity. He would inform the House what the nature of this publication was. The first part of the publication of which he complained declared, that the House of Commons—the Reformed House of Commons, too—ought to be entirely pulled down, and that some other ruling authority should be established in its stead. Speaking of the House of Commons, the writer said:—'It stands in all its unseemliness before us, right in our path, shocking us with its disgusting and loathsome brutality of aspect, and resolved not to crawl an inch out of our way. We must make it. It must move forward. The hideous thing cannot be suffered to squat where it does. If we cannot stir it, we must leap over it at all hazards. We cannot stand looking at it day after day; the sight is too sickening—the creature is too venomous—its attitude is too revoltingly ugly. Neither call we descend the precipice which we have scaled, and sink again into the slough of despond. No, we must go on at any rate, or be starved. Well, then, we have tried all ordinary means. We have soothed and implored—we must employ threats, as we have done before with success; and if threats operate no better than smiles and fair words, we must put these same threats into force. In another passage were 407 these words:—Those who are suffering under wrongs must petition Heaven, and not the House of Commons. They are past mans help. In another passage it was said:—It (the House of Commons) has decided, that the amount which every man is called upon to pay to Government, shall not be regulated according to his property. What, then, remains to be done? The House has rescinded its own Resolution of Friday,—the people must rescind the Resolution of the House of Tuesday. They must refuse to pay what they can only pay at the expense of their common ruin.' He contended, that such remarks were not simply an expression of an opinion; but it was stating broadly, that the House of Commons had so conducted itself, that it ought to be superseded, and that the payment of all taxes which might be imposed ought to be resisted. One of the defendants, in fact, did not disguise the obvious meaning of the article, for he boldly stated on his trial, that the actual state of the country was worse than any anarchy which could arise. The article in which it was thus laid down, that the House of Commons ought to be superseded, and that the people should take the Government into their own hands, appeared in the True Sun on the 1st of May, 1833; and on the following day, a letter appeared in the same paper, pointing out how this should be done. The editor said,—'We select the following from the numerous letters which we have received 'upon the subject;'—and that subject was the non-payment of taxes. Then came the letter, in which were the following passages:—'As defiance has been offered to 'the wishes of the people by the non-representative Parliament, defiance must be the remedy on the part of the people. Since petitioning is evidently useless, and since it is the will of the majority of the householders, that the Assessed-taxes should be removed, they must take this branch of political affairs into their own hands; and, with a view to that end, I propose that associations should be formed for mutual aid and advice, for the resistance of these odious and unpopular taxes.' There was first the article of the editor himself, in which he said, that the House of Commons must be superseded; and then, on the following day, some person, who had read that article, wrote the letter which he had just quoted, pointing out the manner in which the suggestion of the editor might be most completely and most 408 speedily carried into effect. Was it possible, he asked, that any Government whatever could possibly stand, if such publications as these were suffered to pass without notice? Allusion had been made to the evidence given before the Libel Committee by the Lord Chancellor, in which it was said, that that noble and learned Lord expressed his disapprobation of prosecutions of this kind. Any opinions given before that Committee could not be quoted, because the Committee had not yet made its Report, and because no member of it could divulge the evidence taken before it without a gross breach of confidence. The evidence, it was true, had been printed and circulated for the use of the members of the Committee; but, with the express caution, that it was not to be divulged to any person not on the Committee. If the Lord Chancellor, in giving his evidence before that Committee, intimated any such opinion as that attributed to him by the hon. and learned member for Cork, he begged leave to say, that be entirely dissented from it. To say, that it would be time enough to prosecute associations for resisting the payment of taxes when they were actually formed, but that we ought not to prosecute those who had advised and promoted the formation of them, was to lay down a principle in which he could never concur; for he held, that if any act, when done, was criminal, and a fit subject for prosecution and punishment, those who had encouraged and incited others to the commission of that act of criminality were themselves amenable to punishment, and fit objects of prosecution. With respect to the expediency of instituting this prosecution, if the House considered what was the state of the public mind at the time, it might judge how much publications of this kind, from their mischievous tendency, required to be suppressed. Associations were forming on the advice given—for the purpose of refusing to pay taxes. Many did refuse to pay, and attempts were made to rescue the goods seized in consequence of that refusal. It was necessary to show the public, by instituting this prosecution, that the law would not tolerate such proceedings. In the debates on the Irish Coercion Bill, the Government had been taunted with not resorting in proper time to the remedies given by the Common Law, for preserving the public peace, and upholding the institutions of the country. Had this prosecution not been instituted—had the system of 409 passive resistance been adopted and established in England—who could tell whether the melancholy necessity might not have arisen of proposing a suspension of the Constitution, or some temporary encroachment upon the liberties of the people. Let him now ask, had there been the smallest complaint as to the manner in which the prosecution was conducted? Would the hon. and learned member for Cork, who, he believed, was present upon the occasion, say, that the defendants had not a fair trial? The Jury were indifferently chosen, and showed the greatest impartiality; no improper topic had been addressed to them by the Counsel for the Crown, and to the charge of the Judge no exception could be taken by any one who admitted that a publication might be criminal. The Counsel for the defendants—nay, the defendants themselves admitted, that the trial was fairly conducted, and that they could not complain of the verdict. After trial and conviction, it was of course necessary that the defendants should be brought up for judgment. If they had made any concession, he should have prayed for a mitigation of the punishment, or even for a nominal judgment. He had no personal feeling whatever on the subject. He believed, that the defendants were respectable in private life; but if the public safety required that the prosecution should he instituted, the private character of the individuals could not be taken into consideration. The sentence of three months' imprisonment, he believed, was milder than had been before passed on any similar occasion. Even when they came up to receive the judgment of the Court, Mr. Bell still adhered to the doctrine laid down at the trial, that the then existing state of society in this country was worse than any anarchy that could arise in consequence of any publication of his. It had been said, that he spoke in aggravation of the sentence. That was not the fact. On the contrary, he called upon the Court to inflict the mildest punishment that it should deem consistent with the extent of the offence. That was an outline of the whole matter. How, then, were the Government or the law-officers of the Government to blame? Reference had been made to other articles published in other journals, which it was said were fully as deserving of prosecution. He knew of no such articles. Reference had also been made to certain expressions said to have been made use of with respect to resistance to taxes by a 410 noble Lord (now a Member of the Upper House). The learned Judge who tried the defendants very properly observed, that these expressions could not be made the subject of a prosecution, and when these expressions were mentioned in this House, his noble friend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had strongly condemned them. Reference had likewise been made to certain language said to have been used by an hon. Member of this House in addressing his constituents. He did not see how evidence of the use of such expressions could be obtained so as to make them subjects of prosecution, unless the Government were to adopt a system of spies and informers. Besides, he thought that a very great latitude ought to be allowed to a Member in addressing his constituents. Allusion had also been made to words said to have been spoken in this House. Hon. Members who used that argument ought to know that words spoken in this House were sacred. When published by others, they might in strictness be prosecuted, but, God forbid, that he for one, should ever sanction the principle of prosecuting parties for publishing bonâ fide reports either of what took place in that House, or at public meetings, or in the Courts of Law. But, then, the hon. member for Middlesex, feeling, as he apprehended, that he had no real ground of accusation against the Government, or any member of the Government, for the course taken upon this particular occasion, exclaimed, "Oh! you are general persecutors of the Press,—you are attempting to put down the liberty of the Press,—you will not allow the free expression of opinion." He denied the charge in the broadest and most positive terms. There had been only one ex-officio information filed since Earl Grey came into office. It was well known, that former Governments were not so sparing of this power of the law; and it was a fact that Sir Vicary Gibbs filed twenty ex-officio informations in one single morning. But the present was the only ex-officio information which had been filed within the last three years and a-half. It was submitted to a jury, and the jury, after a patient and most impartial investigation, found the parties guilty. Allusion had been made on a former occasion, in his absence, by the hon. member for Bath, to a prosecution which that hon. Gentleman blamed the Government for having instituted. As he was not present upon that occasion, and consequently had no opportunity of de- 411 fending the conduct of the Government, he trusted he should be allowed to say one or two words upon that subject now. The prosecution to which the hon. Gentleman referred, was instituted against an individual for having distributed a handbill, containing the grossest abuse of his present Majesty,—abuse expressed in terms the most revolting, and which, out of respect to the House, he would not venture to repeat. ["Read! Read!" "No! No!"] If it were called for, to gratify the hon. Gentlemen opposite, he would read the paper, though it would be with repugnance. It began, "Poor William Guelph."—["No, no!"] He certainly thought, that the dignity of the House would be best consulted, if he abstained from reading such a foul and slanderous libel upon the Sovereign, and he was glad, that the good feeling of so many hon. Gentlemen interposed to prevent him. But, passing over that part of the hand-bill which referred to the King, he might state what was the general character of the rest. It began by asserting, that every man had a right to vote in the election of those who were to assist in making the laws which he was required to obey—that if that right were denied him, he was absolved from all obligation to obey the law, and the people were justified in taking the government into their own hands. "If," said the hand-bill, "this right be denied you, stand forward boldly, manfully, and at once; there never was a more favourable opportunity for a simultaneous movement than the present. If you wish to know how the people who are not represented are to obtain representation—here is the secret—represent yourselves." The hand-bill then went on to point out how this could be done, which was, by electing delegates from the different towns and boroughs in the country; and that nothing would be more easy than for the real to turn out the mock delegates, who were, in fact, only waiting for a "notice to quit." He understood it was argued, on the occasion to which he referred, that the party who was prosecuted for the sale of these hand-bills was totally ignorant of their contents. But he could prove, that the defendant had a large bag full of them at Covent Garden, and that he announced his knowledge of their contents, by calling, "Here, for a penny, you have a remedy for all your evils—a national convention." The hon. member for Middlesex laughed at that; but let him remember that the following up of the ad- 412 vice given in this very hand-bill subsequently led to the shedding of blood. A meeting was held some time after in Calthorpe-street for the purpose recommended by this hand-bill. Many of the persons attending it were armed; some of the police were stabbed by them, and one man lost his life. He was aware that opinions were different as to the conduct of the police on that occasion; but a Committee of the House, after a full investigation of all the facts, acquitted them of any blame. Whether they were to blame or not, he would contend, that this hand-bill was one which any Government must prosecute, or submit to the charge of being accessaries to all the mischief it might occasion. For his own part, he must say, notwithstanding the obloquy which the hon. member for Middlesex had attempted to cast upon him, that he should again take a similar course, under similar circumstances. He would, on all occasions, do his duty. Notwithstanding what had been said, and what had been done by the hon. member for Middlesex, he felt pride in stating the fact, that since the occurrence of these events, a large, and most respectable, and most intelligent body of constituents—the electors of the city of Edinburgh—had returned him to Parliament as their representative. The hon. member for Middlesex interfered to prevent his election. The hon. Member sent a letter to the electors of Edinburgh, advising them by no means to return Sir John Campbell, because he was connected with Ministers who had broken their pledges by refusing an extension of suffrage and vote by ballot. But the hon. Member had much better mind his own affairs, and not attempt to dictate to others. If blame were cast upon the right hon. Gentleman, the former Secretary to the Treasury, for interfering in the return of a Member—if this could not be tolerated in a Secretary to the Treasury—it was still less becoming, still less justifiable, in the hon. member for Middlesex, to take upon himself to nominate candidates to represent different places throughout the country. Notwithstanding the exertions of the hon. member for Middlesex, he gloried in the result, that the metropolis of his native country had approved of his public conduct, by returning him as one of its Representatives to Parliament; and he was not afraid that, by continuing to discharge his public duty as he had hitherto done, his character would suffer in the estimation 413 of his countrymen. He should continue to do all in his power to defend the just prerogative of the Crown, and to maintain the rights and privileges of the people.
§ Mr. Hume
begged leave to explain. The hon. and learned Gentleman had alluded to the letter which he wrote to Edinburgh on the subject of the late election there. The hon. and learned Gentleman ought, in candour, to have mentioned also the letter which he (Mr. Hume) wrote in his behalf to the electors of Dudley, when he contested that borough some time since. The allusion of the hon. and learned Gentleman to a letter addressed to a private party, and not intended for publication, was not quite fair. The Edinburgh letter was written in reply to a gentleman of that city, who applied to him upon the subject of the late election; and as the matter had been mentioned, he had no hesitation in saying, that he expressed an opinion, that the hon. and learned Gentleman, from his situation in connexion with the Government, was not the independent man whom he thought it would be desirable for the electors of Edinburgh to choose as their Representative.
The Attorney General:
The hon. Member no doubt had told the truth, but not the whole truth. There was a great difference between the letter to Edinburgh and the letter to Dudley. In this, which was strictly a private one, the hon. Member said, he would not give his advice unless it were asked; but the letter which he wrote to Edinburgh was read from the hustings, and placarded over the whole town, which he was sure would not have been done by the respectable individual to whom it was addressed if he had not had the hon. Member's consent.
§ Mr. Hume
said, that if the hon. and learned Gentleman would produce the letter which he (Mr. Hume) had written to Mr. Cooke, in answer to one from that Gentleman, it would not bear out the construction which the hon. and learned Gentleman had put upon it. If the hon. and learned Gentleman did not produce it, he (Mr. Hume) would.
§ Sir Henry Hardinge
did not rise to take any part in the dispute between the hon. and learned Gentleman and the hon. member for Middlesex. Leaving that, he would beg to offer a few words on the question now before the House. He did not think that the defendants in the case of the True Sun had, from the nature of 414 the charge brought against them, any claims to the interference of that House, but he agreed that there were some grounds for interference on their behalf in the facts, that the hon. and learned member for South wark, and a noble Lord now a Member of the other House had used worse language than that imputed to the defendants, and had been allowed to escape with impunity. He thought it too bad that the two individuals—one the brother of die Lord Chancellor, and the other a noble Lord of high rank—should have received, not punishment, but honour and emolument, while the editor of the True Sun, who occupied a comparatively humble station in life, should be punished for an offence which in the other instances had been followed by reward. The editor of the True Sun, seeing others promoted after having used nearly the same language, might not unnaturally have thought that some emolument would also have followed in his case. When he saw a noble Lord (the member for Devonshire) receive a vote of thanks from the Birmingham Union, which Union the Lord Chancellor had pronounced little short of treason, and yet found that the noble Lord (Lord John Russell) had acknowledged with thanks the honour conferred on him—he repeated, when he saw this, and when he saw a noble Lord and a Master in Chancery escaping with impunity for words nearly similar to those charged against the editor of the True Sun, he did think there was some ground for interference on behalf of the latter to obtain the clemency of the Crown. When he said this, he was far from agreeing in the opinion that it was cruel to punish an expression of opinion, however honestly meant. If a man spoke treason, it would not be said that, however honest he was in his expression of his opinion, he ought not to be punished for it. He was not surprised that impressions should gain ground that a man was not answerable for opinions honestly expressed when he heard the Lord Chief Justice of England clothed in the authority of his previous official character, say that that was the happiest moment of his life in which the punishment of a party whom he had convicted was remitted, for that as long as a writer only gave expression to his sincere and honest opinion, he ought to have no torturer behind to punish him for the imputed offence. He would ask, when 415 such opinions came from such a quarter, how was it possible for the editor of a paper to avoid offending against the Law of Libel? When a Master in Chancery, an Attorney General, and a noble Lord uttered such opinions without being reproved by any Minister of the Crown, he thought it was but common justice for the House to interpose to relieve parties of lesser note from the penalties which they might have incurred by following the example of impunity held out in higher stations. He concurred with the hon. and learned Gentleman in the propriety of a Law Officer of the Crown discharging his duty in not letting gross cases of libel escape, but he thought it hard to punish one man for that which in others had been passed over with impunity. He could not agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman, that parties ought not to be prosecuted for libels against the Houses of Lords and Commons, and the hon. and learned Gentleman, if he looked back, would find that a very different practice prevailed in the time of "the pure old Whigs." The hon. and learned Gentleman had also said, that he would not prosecute for a bona fide publication of words spoken at a public meeting, for that such could not be well prosecuted unless by the employment of spies and informers; but surely if seditious or treasonable words were spoken, and they could not reach the utterer, they could come at the editor, or reporter, or publisher. Yet he must admit, that it would be unjust to prosecute the editor for such words spoken, while the party speaking them was suffered to escape. He agreed with the sentiments which his Majesty's Attorney General had that night expressed, though they were undoubtedly opposed to those which he had expressed last night upon the Irish Coercion Bill. He had said last night, that those who excited to sedition must be punished; and yet, by consenting to take out of the Coercion Bill the three clauses against public meetings, he had acted directly in the teeth of that proposition, and done exactly what he ought not to have done. From what he had heard that evening, he thought that a case had been made out for Ministers to interpose in favour of men who had been misled by the example of persons in higher situations than themselves, and those, too, connected with his Majesty's Government.
The Attorney General
rose in explanation. The right hon. Baronet had misunderstood him in supposing that he had stated, that he never would prosecute a libel, however gross, on either House of Parliament. The sentiment which he had expressed was this—that he should be reluctant to prosecute for anything said by constituents of their Representatives, for, in his opinion, they ought to have free opportunity to discuss the proceedings of both Houses of Parliament. With regard to the occurrence of public meetings, he had said, that no account of what took place there could be procured for the Government except through the agency of spies and informers, whom he should be sorry to employ, and that great latitude ought to be given to the speakers who took part in them; but to say that he never would prosecute a man for seditious words used at a public meeting, would be to hold language which would be very unbecoming in him, considering the situation which he had the honour to hold. He had never used the language imputed to him by the right hon. Baronet.
§ Sir Henry Hardinge
I took down the words of the hon. and learned Gentleman, and I understood him to say, "I never will file an ex-officio information so long as I have the honour to hold my present office, for a libel, however gross it may be, either on the House of Lords, or on the House of Commons." It is sufficient for me to hear the hon. and learned Gentleman say what he has said, to convince me that I must have been wrong.
§ Mr. O'Dwyer
thought, that the silence of the gallant Officer who had sat down was much to be deplored. He did wish that the gallant Officer had found it convenient to record his opinions on the Law of Libel, if it was only for the sake of reference in future debates. Certainly the vote of the gallant Officer, if considered abstractedly, was in favour of free discussion and the liberty of the Press; but if the vote were taken in relation with the speech, he should regard the proceeding altogether as one directed against free discussion. In a word, the right hon. and gallant Officer voted for the pardon of Mr. Bell and Mr. Grant, because Lord Milton and Mr. Brougham had not been prosecuted; but if the four individuals had been prosecuted and convicted, the hon. and gallant Officer would then maintain the propriety of their imprisonment. For himself, he was 417 in favour of the Motion, and was opposed to the prosecution. He thought it an unwise and unworthy prosecution; and he had heard nothing from his Majesty's Attorney-General to alter his opinion. The hon. and learned Attorney-General had said, that he would not prosecute speeches made at a public meeting of constituents, who met to convey their opinions to their representatives. Well, then, where was the difference? What was allowable in a public speech could not be improper in an editorial article; and, if Mr. Bell and Mr. Grant might have been permitted to make violent speeches in their individual capacity of electors, there was nothing very aggravating in the altered circumstances of the case, which substituted the use of the imperial "we" for the first person singular. But what was this libel? It was talk—mere talk. Would such articles stir up a mutiny? He thought not. It had been said—falsely said, he believed—that in another country a paragraph might produce a crisis; but the immobility of the English character was not easily acted upon, and the effect of editorial stimulants amongst Englishmen exhibited itself in larger potations of stout, and more extensive consumption of tobacco. If, indeed, the Attorney-General could have connected any overt act of crime with the incitement of the alleged libel, there would be a justification for the prosecution; but there was no result of crime—this vehement address produced no harm to the State. These gentlemen, too, had been convicted previously of another libel, and the Attorney-General had thought it becoming to demand that they, then suffering, should receive an accumulation of punishment. For these reasons, he thought that these gentlemen were fit objects for the royal mercy, and he should support the Motion. He should thus have the honor of dividing with the gallant officer who had spoken before him. He would claim the benefit of his vote, but, in conclusion, he protested against his reasoning.
An Hon. Member
also expressed his intention to support the Motion; for he thought, that what was sauce for the goose ought also to be sauce for the gander. In supporting the Motion, he did not mean to say, that the prosecution was improperly instituted, but he recollected the example which had been set by others, and also the great excitement which prevailed at the time of the publication of the libel 418 respecting these taxes. He could see no reason why the Government had determined to repeal the assessed taxes, rather than give relief to the distressed agriculturist, except that the Yorkshire Stingo was nearer Downing-street than either Buckingham or Chester.
§ Lord Althorp
, referring to the observation of the Attorney-General, that he had not undertaken the prosecution of this paper without the concurrence of the Administration, admitted the correctness of that statement in the fullest sense. He could not say, that it was in consequence of this libel that resistance to the law took place, but, certainly, resistance did take place upon the very grounds stated in this paper. Though he was not anxious to prosecute the Press, and though he was anxious for the most free expression of public opinion on the conduct of public men, yet he could not see how the Government could have been justified in forbearing to prosecute papers which excited to a positive breach of the law. This paper had excited the people to a breach of the law, and it therefore became the duty of the Government to interfere.
admitted, that it was impossible to take out of the hands of the Government the power of prosecuting libels which excited men to a breach of the peace. He acknowledged that this libel advised resistance to the law; but then the House ought to consider the excitement which prevailed on the subject of these taxes, and that individuals in high station, and connected with office, had unthinkingly given similar advice on a former occasion. His impression respecting this libel was, that it recommended passive resistance to these taxes, in the hope that the people would thereby obtain what the editors of the True Sun thought very desirable—a more equitable distribution of the pressure of taxation. He knew that similar advice had been given by some Members to their constituents; but he had never employed such language, either in that House or out of it, to his constituents. He suggested the propriety of not coming to a vote upon this proposition, as in that case he thought that the noble Lord might be induced to extend pardon to these individuals.
said, that if this proposition were pressed to a division, he should certainly feel it to be his duty to vote against the Motion of the hon. member 419 for Cork. At the same time, he did not see any reason why the True Sun, the only journal which defended the rights of the unrepresented, should on that account be visited with extraordinary severity. Rather than come to a division, he hoped that the hon. member for Cork would hold his Motion suspended over the head of the Government. He was sure that his Majesty's Ministers must feel the arguments which had been addressed to them on this subject, and that they must be glad to have an opportunity for showing mercy to these unfortunate individuals. If they did not show that mercy, he should, on a future occasion, most certainly give his vote in favour of the proposition of the hon. member for Cork.
said, that there were many parts of our code of law which were disgraceful to the country; but there was none so outrageously disgraceful, none so thoroughly disgusting, as our law of libel. According to that law, the distinct avowal of the most undeniable truth for an honest purpose was criminal. He had brought in a Bill at the early part of this Session to remedy many of the faults of that law; but the wet blanket of a committee had been thrown over that Bill; it had been suffocated by that proceeding; and whether it would ever be suffered to revive again was more than he could pretend to prophesy. The Attorney-General had treated with great contempt the doctrine, that anything which was calculated to offend the feelings of another was a libel; but by whom had that doctrine been held and maintained? By no less an authority than Lord Ellenborough, who had laid it down very distinctly in the case of "The King v. Cobbett." This it was, that had rendered it libelous to call Lord Hardwicke "a Cambridgeshire sheep-feeder," though he unquestionably did feed sheep in Cambridgeshire, and to call Lord Redesdale "a stout-built special pleader," though every body knew that he had been a special pleader, and was at the time of the publication stout-built. He admitted, that, as far as England was concerned, the present Government had been cautious in meddling with libels. Indeed, libels of an atrocious nature passed every day with impunity, owing to the feeling that nothing was so disgusting as to meddle with them. In reference to the observations which had been made upon the impropriety of alluding to the evi- 420 dence taken before the committee on the Law of Libel, he contended, that as the committee was not a secret but an open committee, at which every Member had a right to be present, and which all the public might have attended, had the room been sufficiently large to comprehend such numbers, it was perfectly competent for any Member to quote the evidence which had been given before it. The caution on the back of the printed evidence, to which the hon. and learned Gentleman had alluded, merely stated that the minutes were printed for the use of the committee, and were not to be communicated further; but there was no objection to any Member's availing himself at any time of his recollection of what that evidence was. It was not true, that the Attorney-General was in the chair when the Lord Chancellor was examined. It was the Solicitor-General who was in the chair; and on that occasion the Lord Chancellor did, in the most emphatic terms, condemn all these public prosecutions for libel; and what was more, he condemned them in such general terms, that the Attorney-General felt very uneasy about his prosecution of the True Sun. That prosecution was certainly condemned by the denunciation of the Lord Chancellor; and so strongly did the Attorney-General feel it, that the Lord Chancellor was immediately asked, "Do you condemn the prosecution of the True Sun?" "Oh, no," said the learned Lord, "that was a very good prosecution," and the Attorney-General got off under shelter of the Lord Chancellor, just like a rat under the corner of a cloak. The only thing which palliated that prosecution was the recommendation of resistance to the payment of taxes contained in the libel. Now, upon that libel two questions arose. The first was, whether it was wise to prosecute at all; and to show that it was wise, the Attorney-General, with that tact which had raised him to his present high station in his profession, had thrown in the actual resistance which he said had been made in consequence of it to the payment of the Assessed Taxes. Now, that resistance took place six weeks before this article was written, and therefore could not be a consequence from it.
The Attorney General
said, that it was written before the resistance was made, and referred to dates, to prove his assertion.
said, that he wished he had a jury to try that point with the hon. and learned Gentleman; but let that pass for the present, and let the House consider what that resistance was. Some old women rescued from a broker certain property that had been seized; and the next day the police were called in, and all the property was recovered. It was not that poor resistance which had terrified the Government into the repeal of part of the assessed taxes, any more than the remonstrances of the farmer had terrified it into giving that relief to the agricultural interest which was so much wanted. It had been said, that his Majesty's Government had censured Sir Thomas Denman in private, for the opinion which he had given in public in that House, on the justification which a libel received from the honesty of intention of the author. He could not bring himself to believe, that such had been the case: but even if it had, the censure must have been light, and must have soon blown over, as the Government had now placed him on the bench as the head of the common law. He did not think that, on the present occasion, either his hon. friend, the member for Cork, who was so zealous an advocate, or the right hon. Baronet, who was so good an officer, had shown much adroitness as tacticians. They had accused men of high station, of recommending similar resistance to that recommended by the True Sun, and had blamed the Government for patronising parties who had given such recommendation. Now, such accusations almost prevented the Government from acceding to the proposition for mercy; for it might be conceived, that in acceding to it, they were tacitly condemning themselves. The course pursued by the right hon. Baronet on this occasion was a good party tactic, but it was a bad expedient for obtaining mercy. It was a good smouch at the Government, but poor Bell and Grant would not be a whit the better for it. He trusted, however, that the noble Lord opposite, yielding to the well-known generosity of his disposition, would overlook these party tactics, and would say, "There is no resistance now, and there can be no resistance in future, to the payment of these taxes. These poor men are counting their continuance in prison, not by days, but by hours; they are struggling 422 for existence,—they have families to support,—their offence has ceased, and therefore their punishment shall cease also." He appealed to the noble Lord opposite, whether there was not an entire cessation of their offence at present, and would it not, therefore, produce a more powerful impression in favour of Ministers on the public mind to remit the sentence awarded to these offenders, than to force them to endure it in all its original severity? He suggested to his hon. friend, the member for Cork, the propriety of not pressing this Motion to a division, lest there should appear an awkward contrast between the conduct of Government in promoting the hon. and learned member for Southwark to a high judicial situation, and its conduct in sending Messrs. Bell and Grant to prison for recommending exactly the same advice to the people. He thought it would be much better to withdraw this proposition for the present, placing confidence in the Government—that as they knew that the suffering of the offenders must continue, although the offence had ceased to exist, they would remit the rest of the sentence which these parties had to suffer. This was the last and only prosecution for libel in England during this Administration. Oh, that such were the case in his unfortunate country! But he would check his feelings: this motion was for mercy, and he would not introduce any topic that was likely to embitter the discussion, or to irritate a single individual.
§ Mr. Feargus O'Connor
said, that he was not in the habit of forestalling confidence, especially when that confidence was to be placed in Ministers. If the noble Lord would give him any promise— ["No, no," "Withdraw the Motion."] He could not do that. In justice to the interests of the parties connected with the True Sun, he could not consent to withdraw this Motion. With respect to the libel, against the prosecution of which the hon. and learned member for Bath had expressed himself so strongly, he had only to say, that it had been as strongly denounced by the True Sun as by any other of the public journals.
§ The House divided on the Motion: Ayes 46; Noes 108—Majority 62.
|List of the AYES.|
|Attwood, T.||Blake, M.|
|Barry, G. S.||Buckingham, J. S.|
|Bish, T.||Brotherton, J.|
|Bulwer, H. L.||Chandos, Marq. of|
|Dashwood, G. H.||Palmer, General|
|Evans, Colonel||Roche, W.|
|Faithfull, G.||Roe, J.|
|Forester, Hon. G.||Ruthven, E. S.|
|Gaskell, D.||Ruthven, E.|
|Grattan, H.||Sheil, R. L.|
|Grey, Hon. C.||Sinclair, G.|
|Gronow, Captain||Tennyson, Rt. Hn. C.|
|Grote, G.||Torrens, Col.|
|Hutt, W.||Tullamore, Lord|
|Kemp, T. R.||Vigors, N.|
|Lynch, A. H.||Vincent, Sir F.|
|Manners, Lord R.||Waddy, C.|
|Mullins, F. W.||Wallace, R.|
|O'Connell, Daniel||Walker, C. A.|
|O'Connell, Morgan||Warburton, H.|
|O'Connell, John||Wood, Alderman|
|O'Connor, Don||Hume, J.|
|O'Dwyer, A. C.||O'Connor, Feargus|