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CHAP. XXVIII.

LIBERTY OF THE PRESS.

“ The last thirty years of the reign of GEORGE THE Third will be remembered as one of the most remarkable epochs in the moral history of the world. Among other memorable things, it will hereafter be celebrated for the extraordinary elevation which the oratory both of the bar and the senate attained. It will require other events and circumstances equally stupendous with those of the past, to call forth again the energies of eloquence to the same degree of effect and splendour. But perhaps no single occurrence in all those mighty and manifold exertions is more interesting than the trial in the Court of King's Bench of Mr Peltier, for a libel on Buonaparte. It was considered as the first attempt of that magnificent adventurer to overthrow the liberty of the British press; and it was instituted at a time when many gathering and darkening circumstances indicated that a war was coming on in which the very existence of the British state would be put to the most imminent peril, by all the efforts that prodigious power and boundless profligacy could exert,-in every shape that force and fraud, either combined or separate, can employ. But although the speech of Sir James Mackintosh on that occasion is one of the most splendid compositions of the time, it has not obtained that durable popularity of which so noble an effort

might have been deemed beyond all question secure.”

The Nymph, in making this observation, took down the published speech from the shelf, where it lay covered with dust, and read the following extract relative to the press, which is in itself not only very beautiful, but may be considered as a curious memorial, illustrative of the popular opinions and apprehensions of the time:

“ I am convinced, by circumstances which I shall now abstain from discussing, that this is the first of a long series of conflicts, between the greatest power in the world, and the only free press now remaining in Europe. Gentlemen, this distinction of the English press is new-it is a proud and melancholy distinction. Before the great earthquake of the French revolution had swallowed up all the asylums of free discussion on the continent, we enjoyed that privilege, indeed, more fully than others, but we did not enjoy it exclusively. In great monarchies, the press has always been considered as too formidable an engine to be intrusted to unlicensed indi. viduals. But in other continental countries, either by the laws of the estate, or by long habits of liberality and toleration in magistrates, a liberty of discussion has been enjoyed, perhaps sufficient for most useful purposes. It existed, in fact, where it was not protected by law; and the wise and generous connivance of governments was daily more and more secured by the growing civilization of their subjects. In Holland, in Switzerland, in the imperial towns in Germany, the press was either legally or practically free. Holland and Switzerland are no more ; and since the commencement of this prosecution, fifty imperial towns have been erased from the list of independent states, by one dash of the pen. Three or

four still preserve a precarious and trembling existence. I will not say by what compliances they must purchase its continuance. I will not insult the feebleness of states, whose unmerited fall I do most bitterly deplore.

“ These governments were in many respects one of the most interesting parts of the ancient system of Europe. Unfortunately for the repose of mankind, great states are compelled, by regard to their own safety, to consider the military spirit and martial habits of their people as one of the main objects of their policy. Frequent hostilities seem almost the necessary condition of their greatness; and, without being great, they cannot long remain safe. Smaller states, exempted from this cruel necessity—a hard condition of greatness, a bitter satire on human nature devoted themselves to the arts of peace, to the cultivation of literature, and the improvement of reason. They became places of refuge for free and fearless discussion; they were the impartial spectators and judges of the various contests of ambition, which from time to time disturbed the quiet of the world. They thus became peculiarly qualified to be the organs of that public opinion, which converted Europe into a great republic, with laws which mitigated, though they could not extinguish ambition; and with moral tribunals, to which even the most despotic sovereigns were amenable. If wars of aggrandizement were undertaken, their authors were arraigned in the face of Europe. If acts of internal tyranny were perpetrated, they resounded from a thousand presses throughout all civilized countries. Princes, on whose will there were no legal checks, thus found a moral restraint, which the most powerful of them could not brave with absolute impunity. They acted before a vast audience, to whose applause or condemnation they could not be utterly indifferent. The very constitution of human nature, the unalterable laws of the mind of man, against which all rebellion is fruit

less, subjected the proudest tyrants to this control. No elevation of power,—no depravity, however consummate,-no innocence, however spotless, can render man wholly independent of the praise or blame of his fellow. men.

“ These governments were, in other respects, one of the most beautiful and interesting parts of our ancient system. The perfect security of such inconsiderable and feeble states, their undisturbed tranquillity amidst the wars and conquests that surrounded them, attested, beyond any other part of the European system, the moderation, the justice, the civilization, to which Christian Europe had reached in modern times. Their weakness was protected only by the habitual reverence for justice, which, during a long series of ages, had grown up in Christendom. This was the only fortification which defended them against those mighty monarchs to whom they offered so easy a prey. And, till the French revolution, this was sufficient. Consider, for instance, the situation of the republic of Geneva: think of her dee fenceless position, in the very jaws of France ; but think also of her undisturbed security, of her profound quiet, of the brilliant success with which she applied to industry and literature, while Louis XIV. was pouring his myriads into Italy before her gates ; call to mind, if ages crowded into years have not effaced them from your memory, the happy period when we scarcely dreamt more of the subjugation of the feeblest republics of Europe, than of the conquest of her mightiest empire, and tell me if you can imagine a spectacle more beautiful to the moral eye, or a more striking proof of progress in the noblest principles of true civilization.

“ These feeble states, these monuments of the justice of Europe, the asylum of peace, of industry, and of literature, the organs of public reason, the refuge of oppressed innocence, and persecuted truth, have perished

with these ancient principles which were their sole guardians and protectors. They have been swallowed up by that fearful convulsion, which has shaken the uttermost corners of the earth. They are destroyed and gone for ever.

« One asylum of free discussion is still inviolate. There is still one spot in Europe where man can freely exercise his reason on the most important concerns of society ; where he can boldly publish his judgment on the acts of the proudest and most powerful tyrants. The press of England is still free. It is guarded by the free constitution of our forefathers. It is guarded by the hearts and arms of Englishmen; and I trust I may venture to say, that if it be to fall, it will fall only under the ruins of the British empire.

It is an awful consideration, gentlemen. Every other monument of European liberty has perished.That ancient fabric, which has been gradually reared by the wisdom and virtue of our fathers, still stands.-It stands, thanks be to God ! solid and entire but it stands alone, and it stands amidst ruins.”

“ But,” added Egeria, “ one of the ablest passages in this most able oration, is that in which the speaker, with admirable taste and dexterity, in affecting to describe the policy of Queen Elizabeth, drew the minds of his auditors to feel the full force of that character of Buonaparte, with which he wished to impress them; and that too without even seeming to allude to him. It is one of the most artful and effective pieces of modern oratory.”

“ The reign of Queen Elizabeth may be considered as the opening of the modern history of England, especially in its connexion with the modern system of

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