Item of the Day: The Trial at Large of Thomas Paine (1792)

 Full Title:  The Trial at Large of Thomas Paine for a Libel, in The Second Part of Rights of Man. Before Lord Kenyon and a Special Jury, in the Court of King’s Bench, Guildhall, Dec. 18, 1792. By A Student or the Inner Temple.  London:  Printed for James Ridgway, York-Street, St. James’s Square.

Mr. Percival opened the pleadings on the part of the Crown.  he said, this was an information against Thomas Paine, for that he being a person of a wicked, malicious, and seditious disposition; and wishing to introduce disorder and confusion, and to cause it to be believed, that the Crown of this kingdom was contrary to the Rights of the Inhabitants of this kingdom; and to cause it to be believed also, that the Bill of Rights was a Bill of Wrongs and Insults; all tending to bring the government of this country into contempt, and endeavouring to cause it to be believed, that the Parliament of this country was openly corrupt in the face of day; and in order to withdraw the affection of the people of this kingdom, against the Law and Constitution of this country; that he, Thomas Paine, wishing and intending this mischief, did, on the 16th of February, 1791, wickedly, falsely, maliciously, scandalously, and seditiously publish a certain book, called Second Part of the Rights of Man, signed Thomas Paine, containing many false, wicked, scandalous, malicious, and seditious assertions; with which he should not trouble the Jury, as they would have them from the Attorney General.  The Defendant had pleaded Not Guilty, upon which issue was joined.

The Attorney General said, the Jury would permit him to state, in this stage of the proceeding, that in his mind a cause, which brought its own merit with it, a cause more plain, more clear, more certain, and indisputable, never came before a Court.  Was it not that certain circumstances had happened, and contributed to make the book in question an object of considerable magnitude, and rendered it important, he should at once propose reading the pages of the book, as they were included in the information, to the Jury, and then have left the case to be disposed by their good sense; but the particular mischief that naturally flowed from this wicked publication, had rendered it necessary for him to open the case in a fuller way than usual upon such occasions.  To speak of himself was what he had no delight in, and what could not be entertaining to the Jury; but as circumstances made it necessary, he hoped the Jury would forgive it.  A rumour had been spread, that this prosecution did not correspond with his private judgment.  To this he answered, that if he did not think this a fit object for prosecution, he should think such an opinion disqualified him from holding the office he now filled, he would be degraded in the estimation of every professional man, and he ought to be despised if he felt any unwillingness to bring this enormous case before a Jury of this Country.

This was not the first of the kind which this defendant had thought fit to published against Government.  He was not, perhaps, warranted in not bringing the first before the Gentlemen of the Jury.  He passed it by, however, as it was ushered into the world in that shape, that it was likely to fall only into the hands of tolerably informed persons, who would have the sense to see the poison, and consequently would be able to apply the antidote, and refute it as they went along; but when another appeared in a smaller size, printed on white-brown paper, and thrust into the hands of all persons, of all ages, sexes, and conditions: they were even wrapped up with sweetmeats for children.  Such were the steps that had been taken to forward the publication, and he did what his duty demanded of him, he filed an information against the defendant the first day of the succeeding term, putting the queestion upon record, which they, the Jury had to try.

What it was that was the intention of this man by these publications, would not be matter of difficulty for the Jury to discover; it was manifested by every test that could apply to the explanation of a man’s intention, and the Jury would have to say, whether they were not satisfied that the whole of the book in question did not deserve the flame which had been imputed to it by the information.  It was written with a view to villify, degrade, and to bring into abhorrence and contempt all the establishments of this country in all the departments of the state.  The whole of the book, the Jury would see, was artfully written for the purpose for which it was intended, namely to make the lower orders of society disaffected to Government, and it was the most gross artifice that ever imposed upon the credulous part of mankind.  It was all written in the dogmatical manner.  It consisted of so many ready made propositions; without regard to truth, and without the least application to circumstances, and also without the least reasoning or deduction whatever; addressed to men who were very properly anxious about their rights, but who, from too little knowledge of our Constitution, and from being too little habituated to reflection, were easily imposed upon by shallow artifice,  and when these honest, but deluded men, came to be persuaded, that they were deprived by the despotic temper of government of Rights, to which they were certainly intitled, it was a matter of no wonder they should manifest an abhorrence at the whole fabric.  He defied any man to shew a system capable of creating more mischief than this book.   It stated that the regular system of our legislation was inherently corrupt, that the Legislature altogether was, without a single exception, grounded upon usurpation; that this usurped authority framed what was called law, but that in reality there was scarcely such a thing as law in the country.  thus ten or twelve millions of people were told they were governed by usurpation; and that of course, as there was no such thing as law, each individual would be left to govern all his actions by his own partial notions of moral duty.  Were we indeed to follow these doctrines?  Were we to fall into a lawless banditti?  Were we to be reduced back again into a savage state of nature, where man was the enemy of man, where all his faculties were useless, except strength and cunning?  Were we to return to this state?  The Jury knew what the answer was to these questions.  What was to be said to a man who would thus, with a general sweep take away all law, or the force of all law, by asserting that all laws which had been hitherto made, are null and void; this sort of artifice was very  gross, it was true, but it did not appear so to those who could not detect the artifice.  Objections too were stated in this book to Monarchy, in general terms, without one word being said of its advantages.  The power of the Aristocracy was objected to, but not a word was said about the Democratic part of our Constitution.  It was well known that England had a powerful Democracy, but not a word of that, because it would not make the lower classes of the people discontented; this was the common artifice; and artifice so very shallow, that some people might wonder perhaps at the success of it; but to whom were these things addressed?  To the ignorant, the credulous, and the desperate — the latter were naturally the enemies of all government, order, or regularity; every restraint was irksome to them, and nothing was so plausible or convincing to them, even upon the point of propriety, as to inform them we shall have no government at all; the others were easily to be imposed upon, and made the dupes of the crafty and designing, who might chuse to deceive them.

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1 Comment

Filed under 1790's, England, Posted by Rebecca Dresser, Trials

One response to “Item of the Day: The Trial at Large of Thomas Paine (1792)

  1. Larry

    Is this the complete trial transcript?

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