Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Freedom of Speech
By Sir James Mackintosh (17651832)
Defence of Jean Peltier
IN the course of the eighteenth century, a great change took place in the state of political discussion in this country:I speak of the multiplication of newspapers. I know that newspapers are not very popular in this place, which is indeed, not very surprising, because they are known here only by their faults. Their publishers come here only to receive the chastisement due to their offences. With all their faults, I own, I cannot help feeling some respect for whatever is a proof of the increased curiosity and increased knowledge of mankind; and I cannot help thinking, that, if somewhat more indulgence and consideration were shown for the difficulties of their situation, it might prove one of the best correctives of their faults, by teaching them that self-respect which is the best security for liberal conduct towards others. But, however that may be, it is very certain that the multiplication of these channels of popular information has produced a great change in the state of our domestic and foreign politics. At home, it has, in truth, produced a gradual revolution in our government. By increasing the number of those who exercise some sort of judgment on public affairs, it has created a substantial democracy, infinitely more important than those democratic forms which have been the subject of so much contest. So that I may venture to say, England has not only in its forms the most democratic government that ever existed in a great country, but, in substance, has the most democratical government that ever existed in any country;if the most substantial democracy be that state in which the greatest number of men feel an interest, and express an opinion upon political questions, and in which the greatest number of judgments and wills concur in influencing public measures.
The same circumstance gave great additional importance to our discussion of continental politics. That discussion was no longer, as in the preceding century, confined to a few pamphlets, written and read only by men of education and rank, which reached the multitude very slowly and rarely. In newspapers an almost daily appeal was made, directly or indirectly, to the judgment and passions of almost every individual in the kingdom upon the measures and principles, not only of his own country, but of every state in Europe. Under such circumstances, the tone of these publications in speaking of foreign governments became a matter of importance. You will excuse me therefore, if, before I conclude, I remind you of the general nature of their language on one or two very remarkable occasions, and of the boldness with which they arraigned the crimes of powerful sovereigns, without any check from the laws and magistrates of their own country. This toleration, or rather this protection, was too long and uniform to be accidental. I am, indeed, very much mistaken if it be not founded upon a policy which this country cannot abandon without sacrificing her liberty, and endangering her national existence.
The first remarkable instance which I shall choose to state of the unpunished and protected boldness of the English press,of the freedom with which they animadverted on the policy of powerful sovereigns, is on the partition of Poland in 1772an act not perhaps so horrible in its means, nor so deplorable in its immediate effects, as some other atrocious invasions of national independence, which have followed it, but the most abominable in its general tendency and ultimate consequences of any political crime, recorded in history, because it was the first practical breach in the system of Europe, the first example of atrocious robbery perpetrated on unoffending countries, which has been since so liberally followed, and which has broken down all the barriers of habit and principle that guarded defenceless states. The perpetrators of this atrocious crime were the most powerful sovereigns of the continent, whose hostility it certainly was not the interest of Great Britain wantonly to incur. They were the most illustrious princes of their age; and some of them were doubtless entitled to the highest praise for their domestic administration, as well as for the brilliant qualities which distinguished their character. But none of these circumstances, no dread of their resentment, no admiration of their talents, no consideration for their rank, silenced the animadversion of the English press. Some of you remember, all of you know, that a loud and unanimous cry of reprobation and execration broke out against them from every part of this kingdom. It was perfectly uninfluenced by any considerations of our own mere national interest, which might perhaps be supposed to be rather favourably affected by that partition. It was not, as in some other countries, the indignation of rival robbers, who were excluded from their share of the prey: it was the moral anger of disinterested spectators against atrocious crimes, the gravest and the most dignified moral principle which the God of justice has implanted in the human heart, that one, the dread of which is the only restraint on the actions of powerful criminals, and the promulgation of which is the only punishment that can be inflicted on them. It is a restraint which ought not to be weakened: it is a punishment which no good man can desire to mitigate. That great crime was spoken of as it deserved in England. Robbery was not described by any courtly circumlocutions: rapine was not called policy; nor was the oppression of an innocent people termed a mediation in their domestic differences. No prosecutions, no criminal informations followed the liberty and the boldness of the language then employed. No complaints even appear to have been made from abroad; much less any insolent menaces against the free constitution which protected the English press. The people of England were too long known throughout Europe for the proudest potentate to expect to silence our press by such means.
I pass over the second partition of Poland in 1792 (you all remember what passed on that occasionthe universal abhorrence expressed by every man and every writer of every party,the succours that were publicly preparing by large bodies of individuals of all parties for the oppressed Poles); I hasten to the final dismemberment of that unhappy kingdom, which seems to me the most striking example in our history of the habitual, principled, and deep-rooted forbearance of those who administer the law towards political writers. We were engaged in the most extensive, bloody, and dangerous war that this country ever knew; and the parties to the dismemberment of Poland were our allies, and our only powerful and effective allies. We had every motive of policy to court their friendship, every reason of state seemed to require that we should not permit them to be abused and vilified by English writers. What was the fact? Did any Englishman consider himself at liberty, on account of temporary interests, however urgent, to silence those feelings of humanity and justice which guard the certain and permanent interests of all countries? You all remember that every voice, and every pen and every press in England, were unceasingly employed to brand that abominable robbery. You remember that this was not confined to private writers, but that the same abhorrence was expressed by every member of both Houses of Parliament who was not under the restraints of ministerial reserve. No minister dared even to blame the language of honest indignation which might be very inconvenient to his most important political projects; and, I hope I may venture to say, no English assembly would have endured such a sacrifice of eternal justice to any miserable interest of an hour. Did the law-officers of the crown venture to come into a court of justice to complain of the boldest of the publications of that time? They did not. I do not say that they felt any disposition to do so;I believe that they could not. But I do say, that if they had,if they had spoken of the necessity of confining our political writers to cold narrative and unfeeling argument,if they had informed a jury that they did not prosecute history, but invective, that, if private writers be at all to blame great princes, it must be with moderation and decorum,the sound heads and honest hearts of an English jury would have confounded such sophistry, and would have declared, by their verdict, that moderation of language is a relative term, which varies with the subject to which it is applied,that atrocious crimes are not to be related as calmly and coolly as indifferent or trifling events,that, if there be a decorum due to exalted rank and authority, there is also a much more sacred decorum due to virtue and to human nature, which would be outraged and trampled under foot, by speaking of guilt in a lukewarm language, falsely called moderate.
Soon after, gentlemen, there followed an act, in comparison with which all the deeds of rapine and blood perpetrated in the world are innocence itself,the invasion and destruction of Switzerlandthat unparalleled scene of guilt and enormity, that unprovoked aggression against an innocent country, which had been the sanctuary of peace and liberty for three centuries, respected as a sort of sacred territory by the fiercest ambition; raised, like its own mountains, beyond the region of the storms which raged round on every side, the only warlike people that never sent forth armies to disturb their neighbours, the only government that ever accumulated treasures without imposing taxes, an innocent treasure unstained by the tears of the poor, the inviolate patrimony of the commonwealth, which attested the virtue of a long series of magistrates, but which at length caught the eye of the spoiler, and became the fatal occasion of their ruin! Gentlemen, the destruction of such a countryits cause so innocent, and its fortune so lamentable!made a deep impression on the people of England. I will ask my learned friend, if we had then been at peace with the French Republic, whether we must have been silent spectators of the foulest crimes that ever blotted the name of humanity? whether we must, like cowards and slaves, have repressed the compassion and indignation with which that horrible scene of tyranny had filled our hearts? Let me suppose, gentlemen, that Aloys Reding, who has displayed in our times the simplicity, magnanimity, and piety of ancient heroes, had, after his glorious struggle, honoured this kingdom by choosing it as his refuge, that, after performing prodigies of valour at the head of his handful of heroic peasants on the field of Morgarten (where his ancestor, the Landamman Reding, had, five hundred years before, defeated the first oppressors of Switzerland), he had selected this country to be his residence, as the chosen abode of liberty, as the ancient and inviolable asylum of the oppressed, would my learned friend have had the boldness to have said to this hero, that he must hide his tears (the tears shed by a hero over the ruin of his country!) lest they might provoke the resentment of Reubell or Rapinat, that he must smother the sorrow and anger with which his heart was loaded, that he must breathe his murmurs low, lest they might be overheard by the oppressor! Would this have been the language of my learned friend? I know that it would not. I know, that by such a supposition, I have done wrong to his honourable feelings, to his honest English heart. I am sure that he knows as well as I do that a nation, which should thus receive the oppressed of other countries, would be preparing its own neck for the yoke. He knows the slavery which such a nation would deserve, and must speedily incur. He knows that sympathy with the unmerited sufferings of others and disinterested anger against their oppressors, are, if I may so speak, the masters which are appointed by Providence to teach us fortitude in the defence of our own rights, that selfishness is a dastardly principle, which betrays its charge and flies from its post, and that those only can defend themselves with valour, who are animated by the moral approbation with which they can survey their sentiments towards others, who are ennobled in their own eyes by a consciousness that they are fighting for justice as well as interesta consciousness which none can feel, but those who have felt for the wrongs of their brethren. These are the sentiments which my learned friend would have felt. He would have told the hero:your confidence is not deceived: this is still that England, of which the history may, perhaps, have contributed to fill your heart with the heroism of liberty. Every other country of Europe is crouching under the bloody tyrants who destroyed your country: we are unchanged. We are still the same people which received with open arms the victims of the tyranny of Philip II. and Louis XIV. We shall not exercise a cowardly and clandestine humanity. Here we are not so dastardly as to rob you of your greatest consolation;here, protected by a free, brave, and high-minded people, you may give vent to your indignation, you may proclaim the crimes of your tyrants, you may devote them to the execration of mankind. There is still one spot upon earth in which they are abhorred without being dreaded!