« PreviousContinue »
something, though it be mere repetition. -Both these gentlemen said, that there had been a series of libels published against the duke of York; which may be very true; and, if they mean falsehood as an essential ingredient to constitute a libel, no man in all the world can wish the libellers to be punished more sincerely than I do; though I cannot help repeating what I have a thousand times said, that I do not think, that an aspersion upon the character of any man, was ever wiped off by an appeal to the law. No man ever practised what he preached more strictly than I do this doctrine. I have been, for about thirteen years, and am at this very day (see the Morning Post of Monday last,) the object of almost continual printed calumny. Not calumny conveyed in inuendoes, but in downright charges of the most infamous nature. I do not think, that there is a crime known to man, that I have not, either in America, or at home, been charged with. Knowing them to be false, those charges never gave me a moment's uneasiness. Once in a while, I have given a contradiction to lies, and have exposed misrepresentations. Trust ing to the force of truth, I have, for the most part, left falsehood and malice to work their way; and, I do not believe, that in the opinion of one single sensible man that ever even heard of me, I have suffered, in the smallest degree, by the publications that have been made against me; and, as for fools, it is no matter what are their opinions.-But, there were two positions, one from Mr. Yorke and the other from Mr. Canning, to which I am disposed to pay particular attention.-The first of these gentlemen said, that libels had, of late, been more abundant, against persons in authority, than at any former period, in this country, so fertile in libels; and the latter said, that, in publications, rank ought to be regarded like sex, and that, to assail persons of exalted rank, was an act of baseness and cowardice, equal to that of assaulting a defenceless woman.Mr. Canning may have been misrepresented by the reporters; they may not have caught his meaning; but, if they did, that meaning is decidedly hostile to my sentiments upon the subject; nay, it is the very reverse of those sentiments. There was much said about the "blessings of a "free press;" but, if it be to be regarded as an act of baseness to assail men of rank, I should be glad to know in what those blessings" consist? The "freedom of "the press" means, the freedom of ex
amining and exposing the actions of publie men; men who are entrusted with the nation's affairs; and these are necessarily men of high rank. If the "freedom of "the press" has not this meaning, it has no meaning at all, and all the talk about it is nonsense; and, therefore, according to this new doctrine, to use the freedom of the press at all, is an act of baseness and cowardice. Of all bad, or despicable, qualities, that of cowardice is the last that I should have expected to hear imputed to an unsupported individual, who assails men in power. Cowardice might, indeed, well be imputed to those, who, supported by the powerful, should send their publications forth like a mail coach, under government protection. To those, who, thus backed, should assail individuals, pour out upon them all sorts of calumnies, having no dread of punishment, cowardice may well be imputed. Here the charge of cowardice is due; for, not only would the calumniator be pretty secure from the dangers to which the opponents of men in power are exposed; but, worst come to worst, he would be sure of a compensation for his pains and his losses.I have never yet got any answer to this question; "What is freedom of the press?" I want an answer to this question from some one of those, who talk of the "licentiousness of "the press. It does not consist in publishing books upon planting, farriery, or fox-hunting. There is not a despot upon earth, who attempts to prevent such publications. In short, it is farcical to talk about freedom of the press, unless by it we mean the right, the acknowledged legal right, of freely expressing our opinions, be they what they may, respecting the character and conduct of men in power; and of stating any thing, no matter what, if we can prove the truth of the statement. -In this sense the freedom of the press is a great "blessing." In this sense it is a terror to evil doers, and a reward to "those who do well;" but, if the freedom of the press means, that we are not to assail men in power; that they are to be as sacred from the quill as women are from the sword; while, on the other hand, the press is to praise them as much as it pleases; then, the "freedom of the press" is the greatest curse that ever fell upon a
nation. It is in the character and conduct of men in power that the public are interested. These are the very matters, upon which they want, and ought to receive information. The babble of the day is of no public utility. The particulars of who
walks or rides out with the king; of where |
to the nation? Of full as little use are
nius, whose works are read with such ad-
Dragg'd in the dust! his arms hang idly round,
Shew there was one who held it in disdain.
This is only one instance. others he named the corrupt persons. But, POPE was called a “ libeller;" and, in his preface to that part of his inestimable works, from which the above extract is made, he observes, that "there is not in "the world a greater error, than that "which fools are so apt to fall into, and "knaves with good reason to encourage, "the mistaking a satyrist for a libeller." He says, that the clamour raised on some of his former writings, induced him to bring before the public the writings of HORACE and Dr. DONNE. With a similar view I now appeal to him, who exceeded them both in genius, and yielded to neither in any estimable quality. Having shown the public with what freedom those authors wrote, he next gives us his own sentiments upon what was, by the venal tribe of his day, called libellous, gross, course, filthy, brutal, personal and scilitious; and one cannot help being struck with the exact similarity in the clamours of that day and the clamours of this; though, indeed, there is nothing wonderful in it, sceing that profligacy and corruption, being always the same in nature, must always have the same antipathies, as surely as vipers of the present day inherit the fears as well as the poison of their progenitors of a century ago. Here, in the following extracts, we have all the old
grounds of clamour, together with the re-
Friend. 'Tis all a libel, Paxton, Sir, will say.
Po. Why that's the thing you bid me not to do.
Po. I don't. Fr. You do.
Arraign no mightier thief than wretched Wild,
Fr. Stop! stop!-Po. Must Satire, then, nor
Speak out, and bid me blame no rogues at all.
Whoever borrow'd, could not be to blame,
Ask you what provocation I have had?
Po. So proud, I am no slave
O sacred weapon! left for Truth's defence,
Spin all your cobwebs o'er the eye of day,
[Press, All, all but Truth, drops dead-born from the Like the last Gazette, or the last Address.
Yes, the last pen for Freedom let me draw, When Truth stands trembling on the edge of
Here, last of Britons! let your names be read:
Leaves the dull cits, and joins (to please the fair)
If any of us were to publish, from our pens, a story like this, it would be produced as a certain proof of our intention, scheme, for overturning the privileged of our settled design, of our deliberate orders, and with them the whole of the establishments of the kingdom. Yet, in the days of POPE, that man would have Such were the sentiments of that writer, been laughed to scorn, who should have who, more than all the rest put together, attempted to set up such a clamour; has done honour to English literature. though despotism was much less prevaSuch was the language of the friend and lent in that day, throughout the whole companion of BOLINGBROKE and ATTER- of Europe, than in the day in which we BURY; of the man, whose writings were live. Here is "coarseness" for you! Yet the admiration of his day, and the model is this poem published now, daily; and is for succeeding times; of the man, whose to be sold, and is sold, at every bookseller's acquaintance and friendship were sought shop in England. Why not suppress these by all the statesmen of his time; of a publications? That they have their effect man, whom a queen wished to visit, but is evident, even from the use I am now whose scrupulous independence declined making of them. And, a publication is the intended honour.--Now, can any still a publication, whether the book be of man shew me in any periodical publica- ancient or modern date. Why not put tion of the present day, language more down all these publications, with which completely divested of squeamishness than our printing-offices, and book-shops, and this? Does any political writer of this circulating-libraries teem? Why not put day presume to go beyond what is here them down, and not expose us to the morexhibited; and what was practised by tification of seeing, and the danger of bethis accomplished gentleman? To our ing led to imitate, the boldness of our ceclamourers we may say as he did to his :lebrated countrymen? Why not put down "Speak out, and bid us blame no rogues at "all;" for that is the point, at which, it is evident, the venal writers are aiming. POPE was freely permitted to " strike that Wild," the famous pick-pocket; but the clamourers wished to prevent him from soaring higher. Here, too, we see an exact similarity: we, too, may take a free range in attacking the poor shoe-less caitiffs, who are brought before the police magistrates, whom, before they are tried, we call rogues, villains, and what else we please, naming them at the same time. Here, against these miserable wretches, we have "free"dom of the press enough;" but, if we so much as laugh at those, who "make saints "of queens, and gods of kings," we are branded as conspiring traitors, as men having formed a settled scheme for overturning the monarchical branch of the constitution. In another poem, and that, too, the most admirable of all his admirable works, he has these verses.
A nymph of quality admires our Knight:
these works, which are read more in one day, than all the Anti-Jacobin writings. that ever were published, or have ever been read, not excepting the Weekly AntiJacobin, with which the series began, the writers of which, by-the-by, affected to imitate POPE, but whose poetry as well as whose prose, after having assisted to ruin the bookseller, have, long since, been consigned over to the trunk-maker; though not destitute of "personality," or of "filthy" allusion? Why not put down the works of POPE, and SWIFT, and GAY, and GARTH, and AKENSIDE, and CHURCHILL, and scores of others; nay, and of poor JOHNSON, too, though a dependent and a pensioner;' and of MILTON, and LOCKE, and PALEY. The list is endless. Why not put them all down? Why not burn them all by the hands of the common hangman, and not expose us to the danger of imbibing, and acting upon, their principles, and, according to our abilities, imitating their writings?Of the constitution of England the liberty of the press constitutes an essential part. The powers, lodged in the
crown and its ministers, has been there -Had the Charleses and the Jameses, lodged upon the presumption, upon the instead of listening to the counsel of paimplied condition, that the exercise of it rasites calling themselves "the loyal,” to shall be open to public, free, and unre- the exclusion of others, permitted free strained, investigation, through the means discussion; had they allowed corruption of the press. It is in this sense, and to be checked in its course; had they, as this sense only, that the phrase, "liberty it was manifestly their interest, suffered "of the press" has any comprehensible their people to obtain timely redress of political meaning. To utter lies is always their wrongs; their descendants would a moral offence; to utter them to any now have been upon the throne of this one's injury is, and always has been, an country, which they would have enjoyed, offence punishable by law. If, therefore, without any danger from plots and conspithe utterer cannot prove the truth of racies. But, they arrayed power against truth, what he has uttered, and if it be proved and in that conflict, they finally fell. that his lies have produced even a fair What is the reason, that all these reports probable injury, he ought to suffer for about the Duke of York; all this " talking the offence. But as to opinions; to make " him down," have so long prevailed, and men liable to punishment for opinions, is, have gone rolling on, till, at last, they at once, to say, "slave! you shall not ut- have collected into that form, in which "ter your thoughts." If the opinion be they have been exhibited to the parliaaccompanied with reasons, these are the ment? The reason simply is, that the press reasons to be examined; if good, the opi- has been timid. If this had not been the nion will, and ought, to have weight with case, some one or other of the reports the reader; if bad, or if no reasons at all would, long ago, have been embodied into be given, the opinion is mere wind; it a plain statement, when it would, if false, passes for nothing, and can have no effect. have met with as plain a denial, and there -It is an observation that can have es- would have ended the calumny; if true, caped no man, that despotic governments the effect would have been, a stop to the have never tolerated free discussions on reported practices in time; before any political matters. The reason is plain; great degree of discontent had been engenthat their deeds will not bear the display dered, and leaving only a trifling fault to of reason and the light of truth. But, be atoned for. But, punish men for what has been the invariable consequence? writing plainly, and they will have reThe sudden final destruction of those go- course to metaphor or fable; punish them vernments. The flame of discontent is for that, and they will talk; punish them smothered, not extinguished; the embers for that, and they will whisper; and, at are still alive, the materiais drying, the com- every stage of restriction, they will, by bustibles engendering; some single acci- their additional bitterness, show that to dental spark, from within or without, at last the feeling of public is added the feeling communicates the destructive principle, of personal injury, and also of personal reand down comes the pile, crumbling upon sentment.I hope, and trust, that these the heads of its possessors. Let free discus-observations, and others of a similar tension take its course, and, as you proceed, dency from abler hands, will have their abuses and corruptions are done away, re- due weight, and that the conspiracy dress from time to time, is obtained; or, against the remaining freedom of the press, at the very least, the breast of the injured as well as against the persons now under and indignant is unloaded. The Charleses government prosecution, will not be perseand the Jameses had recourse, under the vered in; but, upon one thing I am resol colour of law, to imprisoning, ear-crop-ved, be the consequences to myself what ping, and hanging; and what were the final consequences? James was the intigator to the beheading of Russel, and James, when, in the hour of distress he appealed to Russel's father for support, received for answer: "I had once a son,
who, if he had been now alive, might "have been able to give you assistance."
they may, and that is, to continue to exercise the freedom of writing and of speaking, as my forefathers were wont to exer cise it, as long as I have my senses, and the power of doing either one or the other. As witness my hand,
WILLIAM COBBETT. Botley, 2d February, 1809.
LONDON: Printed by T. C. HANSARD, Peterborough Court, Fleet Street; Published by R. BAGSHAW, Brydges-Street, Covent-Garden: Sold also by J. BUDD, Pall-Mall.