Daily Archives: April 16, 2007

Item of the Day: The Speech of Thomas Erskine at a Meeting of the Friends to the Liberty of the Press (1792)

Full Title:  The Speech of the Honorable Thomas Erskine, at a Meeting of the Friends to the Liberty of the Press, at Free-Mason’s Tavern, Dec. 22, 1792.  With the Resolutions, &c of that Truly Patriotic Society.  London:  Printed for James Ridgway, York-Street, St. James’s-Square. (Price Threepence, or Twenty Shillings per Hundred.) 1792. 


 “. . . From the temper the firmness, and the perseverance which you have evinced this day, I augur that England will feel, from one extremity to the other, the good effects of your deliberations. — One of the Resolutions you have passed, is, “that a system of arbitrary coercion has always been dangerous to the Government of England.” — This is the fact; and should ever any Administration adopt such a system, I trust that we shall convince them that it is not only dangerous to the peace of the country, but personally dangerous to themselves. . . .

In the defence of Mr. Paine, I neither supported nor surrendered the doctrines he has advanced.  I pleaded his cause in the same manner as he would have been permitted to plead it himself.  I told the Jury that should they even be satisfied that Monarchy was an evil, and that a Republican form of Government was, as Harrington in his Oceana calls it, the ancient prudence of the world, yet that they would not be justified in pronouncing a verdict of acquittal, if it should be proved that what was done was done with a view to excite sedition, and to overturn the Constitution of the Country.

Gentlemen, when I look back and see what has happened in this kingdom within the last seven months, I consider it more as a shocking prodigy than and natural charge in human affairs.  What was the cause of the abolition of the infamous Star Chamber?  That men might discuss all public measures.  It was destroyed on this principle, That all Governments proceeded from the people, and stood alone on their will for their continuance.  The right of discussing the private character of a man is not within the right of the people, because if such man shall have violated the laws, the laws are competent to punish that violation, and the people cannot be his judges.  But the liberty of discussing public subjects, subjects that affect the community does belong to the people; because there the people may be judges.

Gentlemen, I should indeed consider myself as a most disgraceful being, if I did not devote myself to the service of those to whom I owe every thing.  When I left the Army, struggling with distress and want, I learned what was the practice in cases of libels, and thought it strange if the Law was so.  I trusted that perseverance and fortitude would renovate what was necessary to be renovated; and I thank God that I have not been disappointed.  When I addressed the Jury in the case of the Dean of St. Asaph, I observed at large on those words, wicked, scandalous and seditious words, that are to be found in every pleader’s shop.  I contended for the right of publishing opinions on Government, and was told, as a child is, not to disturb the Court with my idle prattle.  And here, Gentlemen, in justice to Lord Mansfield, I must say, that the exploded doctrine of Libels had not its origin in him.  No blame, therefore, is to be attached to his character on this account.  If he does deserve reprehension, it is for not exercising the great talents he possessed in throwing off a system so destructive to the liberties of the subject.  Eight years ago I was told that the Jury had no power — that they were only to see whether print was print, and to decide whether a book had been published, and on such proof were they to pronounce a Defendant guilty of a Libel alledged to be most scandalous, wicked, and seditious.  I was considered then, as I shall be to-morrow, and I hope to all eternity by these Associations, as using language dangerous to the constitution — I was beat down by a yell as loud as that which has occasioned us to assemble here at this present moment.  I came back to the charge again and again as those ought to do who are once foiled.  The people of England in the mean time were spiritless and dead.  But there is a time when delusion must end.  If we look back into the history of the world we shall find that all our Liberties have been produced from sparks. — The People, spiritless and dead so long, began to rouse themselves.  The danger at length grew greater and greater, and as in the beginning of the storm, wave impels wave to the shore, till at length the whole sea becomes agitated; so the storm of popular indignation arose to such a height, that even this virtuous House of Commons at last attended to the wishes of the People.  It became now a consideration who was to be the Midwife.  If I had introduced the Libel Bill into the House of Commons, I am convinced that there were so many devoted to the judges that the Bill would not have passed.  I therefore committed it to a man possessed of infinite judgment, of the clearest mind, of the soundest heart.  I committed it to Mr. Fox — there my voyage ended. . . .

The People now awoke as from a deep sleep — They flocked round the standard of Mr. Fox, and the House of Commons acceded to the Bill.  but when it went up to the House of Lords there were some there who stuck it to the very bone. — Am I angry with them?  No.  But it ought to be a lesson to them who are only as three in a whole country, how they convict people of Libels, merely to support the singularity of their opinions.

If I am asked what is the definition of an insurrection, I reply that I do not know.  Is it a few boys planting the Tree of Liberty at Dundee?  I remember rather a vulgar song, which I wish I had recollected on a recent occasion.  It began with —

“There was an Old Woman who lived at Dundee,

And out of her Backside there grew a Plumb-Tree.”

If should seem as if this good old Lady had risen from the dead, in pity to the present Administration, and for the purpose of giving some countenance to their Proclamation.

If the people were convened to decide whether the Power of Judgment in Libels should be restored to the Judges, I am convinced that not one hand would be held up in support of such a proposition.  When a man has an opinion, he ought to publish it without being calumniated.  The Administration of Justice, is or ought to be pure and impartial.  Freedom of discussion ought to be allowed, and ‘the issue of the brain,’ in the words of Milton, ‘ought to be as free as the issue of the womb.’

If these Associations, Gentlemen, continue, I shall move for establishment of a public licenser.  The danger and the oppression will be less.  I may give him my book, and if he refuses to license it, I know the consequences of publishing it.  But if the purses of all the placement and pensioners in England are to be employed in rewarding spies and informers, if the wealth of the treasury, and those who live on the treasury is to be spent in checking the operation of thought, how are the poor to resist the oppression, and to avert the evil?

Let us, therefore, Gentlemen, oppose law to those who are not guided by law.  In a short time, the people will look at each picture, and find which is right and which is wrong.  These Associators will then separate fast enough; they will be dissipated as the insects are at the rising of the sun.

I am happy, Gentlemen, that we have met:  Let us continue to meet, and our numbers will rapidly encrease. — I belong to the people — they raised me from poverty to affluence — from obscurity to notice — they have a right to demand my services — they shall have them.”

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Filed under 1790's, England, Legal, Posted by Rebecca Dresser, Press