Daily Archives: April 5, 2007

Item of the Day: Preface from the Letters of Junius (1772)

 Full Title:  The Letters of Junius.   Vol. I. London:  Printed for Henry Sampson Woodfall, in Pater Noster Row. MDCCLXXII.


It remains to say a few words upon the liberty of the press.  The daring spirit, by which these letters are supposed to be distinguished, seems to require that something serious should be said in their defence.  I am no lawyer by profession, nor do I pretend to be more deeply read, than every English gentleman should be in the laws of his country.  If therefore the principles I maintain are truly constitutional, I shall not think myself answered, though I should be convicted of a mistake in terms, or of misapplying the language of the law.  I speak to the plain understanding of the people, and appeal to their honest, liberal construction of me. . . .

Some opinion may now be expected from me, upon a point of equal delicacy to the writer, and hazard to the printer.  When the character of the chief magistrate is in question, more must be understood, than may safely be expressed.  If it be really a part of our constitution, and not a mere dictum of the law, that the King can do no wrong, it is not the only instance, in the wisest of human institutions, where theory is at variance with practice. — that the sovereign of this country is not amenable to any form of trial, know to the laws, in unquestionable.  But exemption from punishment is a singular privilege annexed to the royal character, and no way excludes the possibility of deserving it.  How long, and to what extent a King of England may be protected by the forms, when he violates the spirit of the constitution, deserves to be considered.  A mistake in this matter proved fatal to Charles and his son. — For my own part, far from thinking that the King can do no wrong, far from suffering myself to be deterred or imposed upon by the language of forms in opposition to the substantial evidence of truth, if it were my misfortune to live under the inauspicious reign of a prince, whose whole life was employed in one base, contemptible struggle with the free spirit of his people, or in the detestable endeavour to corrupt their moral principles, I would not scruple to declare to him, “Sir, You alone are the author of the greatest wrong to your subjects and to yourself.  Instead of reigning in the hearts of your people, instead of commanding their lives and fortunes thro’ the medium of their affection, has not the strength of the crown, whether influence or prerogative, been uniformly exerted, for eleven years together, to support a narrow, pitiful system of government, which defeats itself, and answers no one purpose of real power, profit, or personal satisfaction to You?  With the greatest unappropriated revenue of any prince in Europe, have we not seen You reduced to such vile, and sordid distresses, as would have conducted any other man to a prison? — With a great military, and the greatest naval power in the known world, have not foreign nations repeatedly insulted You with impunity? — Is it not notorious that the vast revenues extorted from the labour and industry of your subjects, and given You to do honour to Yourself and to the nation, are dissipated in corrupting their representatives? — Are You a prince of the House of Hanover, and do You exclude all the leading Whig families from your councils? — Do you profess to govern according to Law, and is it consistent with that profession, to impart your confidence and affection to those men only, who, though now perhaps detached from the desperate cause of the Pretender, are marked in this country by an hereditary attachment to high and arbitrary principles of government?  Are you so infatuated as to take the sense of your people from the representation of ministers, or from the shouts of a mob, notoriously hired to surround your coach, or stationed at a theatre? — And if You are, in reality, that public Man, that King, that Magistrate which these questions suppose You to be, is it any answer to your people, to say that among your domestics You are good-humoured, — that to one lady You are faithful; — that to your children You are indulgent? — Sir, the man, who addresses You in these terms is your best friend.  He would willingly hazard his life in defence of your title to the crown; and if power be your object, would still shew You how possible it is for a King of England, by the noblest means, to be the most absolute prince in Europe.  You have no enemies, Sir, but those, who persuade You to aim at power without right, and who think it flattery to tell You that the character of King dissolves the natural relation between guilt and punishment.”

I cannot conceive that there is a heart so callous, or an understanding so depraved as to attend to a discourse of this nature, and not to feel the force of it.  But where is the man, among those who have access to the closest, resolute and honest enough to deliver it.  The liberty of the press is our only resource.  It will command an audience, when every honest man in the kingdom is excluded.  This glorious priviledge may be a security to the King, as well as a resource to his people.  Had there been no star-chamber, there would have been no rebellion against Charles the first.  The constant censure and admonition of the press would have corrected his conduct, prevented a civil war, and saved him from an ignominious death. — I am no friend to the doctrine of precedents exclusive of right, though lawyers often tell us, that whatever has been once done,  may lawfully be done again.


Leave a comment

Filed under 1770's, Great Britain, Political Commentary, Posted by Rebecca Dresser, Press