« PreviousContinue »
artillery, cavalry, and elephants, calling upon you for the dominions you have robbed them of? Justice may, no doubt, in such a case, forbid the levying of a fine to pay a revolting soldiery;--a treaty may stand in the way of increasing a tribute to keep up the very existence of the government; - and delicacy for women may forbid all entrance into a zenana for money, whatever may be the necessity for taking it. All these things must ever be occurring. But under the pressure of such constant difficulties, so dangerous to national honour, it might be better, perhaps, to think of effectually securing it altogether, by recalling our troops and our merchants, and abandoning our Asiatic empire. Until this be done neither religion nor philosophy can be pressed very far into the aid of reformation and punishment. If England, from a lust of ambition and dominion, will insist on maintaining despotic rule over distant and hostile nations, beyond all comparison more numerous and extended than herself, and gives commission to her viceroys to govern them, with no other instructions than to preserve them, and to secure permanently their revenues, with what colour or consistency of reason can she place herself in the moral chair, and affect to be shocked at the execution of her own orders, adverting to the exact measure of wickedness and injustice necessary to their execution, and complaining only of the excess as the immorality ;-considering her authority as a dispensation for breaking the commands of God, and the breach of them as only punishable when contrary to the ordinances of man?
“ Such a proceeding, gentlemen, begets serious reflections. It would be, perhaps, better for the masters and servants of all such governments to join in supplication that the great Author of violated humanity may not confound them together in one common judgment.”
In defending the overcharged expressions of which the writer of the tract had made use, Mr. Erskine produced one of the most eloquent apologies for excess existing in our language.
“ From minds thus subdued by the terrors of punishment there could issue no works of genius to expand the empire of human reason, nor any masterly compositions on the general nature of government, by the help of which the great commonwealths of mankind have founded their establishments ; much less any of those useful applications of them to critical conjunctures, by which, from time to time, our own constitution, by the exertions of patriot citizens, has been brought back to its standard. Under such terrors all the great lights of science and civilization must be extinguished : for men cannot communicate their free thoughts to one another with a lash held over their heads. It is the nature of every thing that is great and useful, both in the animate and inanimate world, to be wild and irregular; and we must be contented to take them with the alloys which belong to them, or live without them. Genius breaks from the fetters of criticism ; but its wanderings are sanctioned by its majesty and wisdom when it advances in its path : subject it to the critic, and you tame it into dulness. Mighty rivers break down their banks in the winter, sweeping to death the flocks which are fattened on the soil that they fertilize in the summer: the few may be saved by embankments from drowning, but the flock must perish for hunger. Tempests occasionally shake our dwellings and dissipate our commerce; but they scourge before them the lazy elements which without them would stagnate into pestilence.' In like manner, Liberty herself, the last and best gift of God to his creatures, must be taken just as she is. You might pare her down into bashful regularity, and shape her into a perfect model of severe scrupulous law; but she would then be Liberty no longer : and you must be content to die under the lash of this inexorable justice, which you had exchanged for the banners of freedom.”
The jury having withdrawn, after a consultation of about two hours, returned with a verdict of “ Not guilty.”
For several years Mr. Erskine had taken little interest in his parliamentary duties, probably from the very burthensome nature of his professional labours. But in the session of 1790 he again appeared as a speaker in the house, and delivered a very long argument on the abatement of impeachments by a dissolution. * In his first speech on this subject, after laying down what he termed the foundation of his argument at considerable length, he was proceeding to the consideration of the precedents, when, owing to his fatigues in the earlier part of the day, and to the intense heat of the house, he told the speaker that he was unable to pursue his argument.t He resumed it, however, on a subsequent evening.
Upon the motion made by Mr. Fox, in 1792, for the appointment of a minister to treat with the persons exercising the functions of the executive government in France, Mr. Erskine supported the motion with more energy and eloquence than were usually displayed in his parliamentary harangues. He painted in strong colours the fortunes of the soldier, and contrasted them with those of the persons who profited at home by the calamities of war. “ The life of the modern soldier is ill represented by heroic fiction. War has means of destruction more formidable than the cannon and the sword. Of the thousands and tens of thousands that perished in our late contests with France and Spain, a. very small part ever felt the stroke of an enemy; the rest languished in tents and ships, amidst damps and putrefaction-pale, torpid, spiritless, and helpless; gasping and groaning unpitied among men, made obdurate by long continuance of hopeless misery, and were at last whelmed into pits or heaved into the ocean without notice, without remembrance.” « But at the conclusion of a ten years' war how are we recompensed for the death of multitudes, and the expense of millions, but by contemplating the sudden glories of paymasters and agents, contractors and commissaries, whose equi* Cobbett's Parl, Deb. vol. xxviii, p. 1035.
+ Id. p. 1043.
pages shine like meteors, and whose palaces rise like exhalations ? These are the men who, without virtue, labour, or hazard, are growing rich as their country is impoverished; they rejoice when obstinacy or ambition adds another year to slaughter and devastation; and laugh from their desks at bravery and science, while they are adding figure to figure, and cypher to cypher, hoping for a new contract from a new armament, and computing the profits of a siege or a tempest.
In the course of the same session Mr. Erskine opposed the introduction of the traitorous correspondence bill t, and supported, at considerable length, Mr. (now Lord) Grey's motion in favour of parliamentary reform. I
It had hitherto been in general the good fortune of Mr. Erskine that his genius had been exerted in cases which a good man and even a prudent man might wish to defend ; but in the year 1792 he was called upon to act as the advocate of one who, whatever may have been the integrity of his intentions, betrayed a grievous want of common sense and common decency in the expression of his opinions, and who by his writings cast more discredit on the cause of freedom than the pens of her most zealous enemies could have effected. In the second part of his celebrated Rights of Man, Thomas Paine attacked, in the most coarse and unmeasured language, the constitution and government of England, and an information was consequently filed against him, which came or to be tried in the year 1792.
Mr. Erskine was retained for the defendant, at that period an odious and obnoxious duty, from which, however, with his characteristic magnanimity, he never for a moment attempted to withdraw himself. In the opening of his address to the jury he thus adverted to the calumnious reports which had been circulated on the subject : “ With regard to myself, every man within hearing at this moment, nay, the whole people of England, have been witnesses to the calumnious clamour that
* Parl. Hist. vol. xxx. p. 97. + Id, p. 588. | Id. p. 826.
by every art has been raised and kept up against me. In every place where business or pleasure collects the public together, day after day my name and character have been the topics of injurious reflection. And for what? only for not having shrunk from the discharge of a duty, which no personal advantage recommended, and which a thousand difficulties repelled. But, gentlemen, I have no complaint to make either against the printers of these libels, or even against their authors.
The greater part of them, hurried away perhaps by honest prejudices, may have believed they were serving their country, bý rendering me the object of its suspicion and contempt; and if there have been amongst them others, who have mixed in it from personal malice and unkindness, I thank God, I can forgive them also. Little indeed did they know me, who thought that such calumnies would influence my conduct: I will for ever, at all hazards, assert the dignity, independence, and integrity of the ENGLISH BAR, without which impartial justice, the most valuable part of the English constitution, can have no existence. From the moment that any advocate can be permitted to say that he will or will not stand between the crown and the subject arraigned in the court where he daily sits to practise, from that moment the liberties of England are at an end. If the advocate refuses to defend, from what he may think of the charge or of the defence, he assumes the character of the judge, nay, he assumes it before the hour of judgment, and in proportion to his rank and reputation puts the heavy influence of perhaps a mistaken opinion into the scale against the accused, in whose favour the benevolent principle of the English law makes all presumptions, and which commands the very judge to be his counsel.”
In meeting the difficulties of this extraordinary case, Mr. Erskine adopted the only course which was open to him with any chance of success. He rested the defence entirely on “ the nature and extent of the liberty of the English press," striving, although vainly, with all the powers of his energetic mind, to bring his client's case