Page images
PDF
EPUB

within the operation of this great principle. Distin, guishing between the attempt to inculcate a resistance to government upon the minds of individuals, and the endeavour to impress upon the community at large what- ever principles of government the party honestly entertains, he argued that to the latter instance the doctrine of the liberty of the press extended, and that the

Rights of Man" came within the protection of that doctrine. He developed perhaps more clearly in this than in any of his other speeches his own notions of the liberty of the press in the following words :

The proposition which I mean to maintain as the basis of the liberty of the press, and without which it is an empty sound, is this:--that every man not intending to mislead, but seeking to enlighten others with what his own reason and conscience, however erroneously, have dictated to him as truth, may address himself to the universal reason of a whole nation, either upon the subject of governments in general, or upon that of our own particular country; that he may analyse the principles of its constitution, point out its errors and defects, examine and publish its corruptions, and warn his fellowcitizens against their ruinous consequences, and exert his whole faculties in pointing out the most advantageous changes in establishments which he considers to be radically defective, or sliding from their object by abuse. All this every subject of this country has a right to do, if he contemplates only what he thinks would be for its advantage, and but seeks to change the public mind by the conviction that flows from reasonings dictated by conscience.

“ If, indeed, he writes what he does not think; if, contemplating the misery of others, he wickedly condemns what his own understanding approves ; or, even admitting his real disgust against the government or its corruptions, if he calumniates living magistrates, or holds out to individuals that they have a right to run before the public mind in their conduct; that they may oppose by contumacy or force what private reason only

[ocr errors]

disapproves; that they may disobey the law because their judgment only condemns it; or resist the public will, because they honestly wish to change it, -he is then a criminal upon every principle of rational policy, as well as upon the immemorial precedents of English justice; because such a person seeks to disunite individuals from their duty to the whole, and excites to overt acts of misconduct in a part of the community, instead of endeavouring to change, by the impulse of reason, that universal assent, which in this and every country constitutes the law for all.”

Paine was convicted ; and Mr. Erskine, as a reward for the brave and honest defence which his duty compelled him to make for his client, was, to the lasting disgrace and infamy of those from whom the measure proceeded, removed from his office of attorney-general to the Prince of Wales. To this removal he adverted in his defence of Horne Tooke in the following man

Gentlemen, Mr. Tooke had an additional and a generous motive for appearing to be the supporter of Mr. Paine: -the constitution was wounded through his sides. I blush, as a Briton, to recollect, that a conspiracy was formed among the highest orders, to deprive this man of a British trial. This is the clue to Mr. Tooke's conduct, and to which, if there should be no other witnesses, I will step forward to be examined. I assert, that there was a conspiracy to shut out Mr. Paine from the privilege of being defended : he was to be deprived of counsel ; and who now speak to you, was threatened with the loss of office if I appeared as his advocate. I was told in plain terms that I must not defend Mr. Paine. I did defend him, and I did lose

ner:

my office.”

Of this transaction Lord Erskine, a few years

before his death, gave a detailed account, in a letter addressed to Mr. Howell, editor of the State Trials.* " When attorney-general to the Prince of Wales, I was retained by Thomas Paine in person to defend him on his approaching

* State Trials, vol. xxvi. p. 715.

trial for publishing the second part of his ' Rights of Man;' but it was soon intimated to me by high authority, that it was considered to be incompatible with my situation, and the prince himself in the most friendly manner acquainted me that it was highly displeasing to the king, and that I ought to endeavour to explain my conduct, which I immediately did in a letter to his majesty himself, in which, after expressing my sincere attachment to his person and to the constitution of the kingdom, attacked in the work which was to be defended, I took the liberty to claim, as an invaluable part of that very constitution, the unquestionable right of the subject to make his defence by any counsel of his own free choice, if not previously retained, or engaged by office from the crown; and that there was no other way of deciding whether that was or was not my own situation as attorney-general to the prince, than by referring, according to custom, that question to the bar, which I was perfectly willing and even desirous to do. In a few days afterwards I received, through my friend the late Admiral Paine, a most gracious message from the prince, expressing his deep regret in feeling himself obliged to receive my resignation, which was accordingly sent. But I owe it to his royal highness to express my opinion, that, circumstanced as he was, he had no other course to take in those disgraceful and disgusting times, and that my retainer for Paine was made a pretext by the king's ministers for my removal, because my worthy and excellent friend Sir A. Piggott was removed from the office of the prince's solicitor-general at the very same moment, although he had nothing whatever to do with Mr. Paine or his book. The fact is, that we were both, I believe, at that time members of a society for the reform of parliament, called “ The Friends of the People.”'

It was very honourable to the Prince of Wales that he subsequently made reparation to Mr. Erskine for this act of injustice. “It would, however,"continues Lord Erskine, in the same letter, “ be most unjust as well as ungrateful to the Prince Regent not to add, that in a few years after

A S

wards his royal highness, of his own mere motion, sent for me to Carlton House, whilst he was still in bed under a severe illness, and, taking me most graciously by the hand, said to me, that though he was not at all qualified to judge of retainers, nor to appreciate the correctness or incorrectness of my conduct in the instance that had separated us, yet that, being convinced I had acted from the purest motives, he wished most publicly to manifest that opinion, and therefore directed me to go immedia ately to Somerset House, and to bring with me, for his execution, the patent of chancellor to his royal highness, which he said he had always designed for me; adding, that owing to my being too young when his establishment was first fixed, he had declined having a chancellor at that time; that during our separation he had been more than once asked to revive it, which he had refused to do, looking forward to this occasion; and I accordingly held the revived office of chancellor to the Prince of Wales until I was appointed chancellor to the king, when I resigned it, in conformity with the only precedent in the records of the duchy of Cornwall, viz. that of Lord Bacon, who was chancellor to Henry Prince of Wales, and whose resignation is there recorded, because of his acceptance of the great seal in the reign of King James the first."

During the session of 1792, Mr. Fox brought fore ward his celebrated libel bill, which he supported in a most argumentative and forcible speech, in the course of which he took occasion to mention that of Mr. Erskine on the trial of the Dean of St. Asaph ;speech so eloquent, so luminous, and so convincing, that it wanted in opposition to it not a man but a giant." The motion of Mr. Fox was seconded by Mr. Erskine; and his speech on this occasion may be taken as an example of the inferiority of his parliamentary eloquence. Compared with the splendid oration so justly panegyrised by Mr. Fox, it is tame, feeble, and inanimate, a lifeless recapitulation of his former arguments.

* Cobbett's Parl, Deb. vol, xxix. p. 562

a

In the course of the same session Mr. Erskine supe ported the motion of Lord (then Mr.) Grey for reform. This motion was made in consequence of a resolution of a society to which both the mover and seconder belonged, the Society of the Friends of the People. Of the nature of that association, and of his own objects in joining it, he has spoken in his pamphlet on the war with France.* “A few gentlemen, not above fifty in number, and consisting principally of persons of rank, talents, and character, formed themselves into a society, under the name of the Friends of the People. They had observed, with concern, as they professed in the published motives of their association, the grossly una equal representation of the people in the house of commons, its effects upon the measures of government, but, above all, its apparent tendency to lower the dignity of parliament, and to deprive it of the opinion of the people. Their avowed object was, therefore, to bring the very cause, which Mr. Pitt had so recently taken the lead in, fairly and respectfully before the house of commons, in hopes, as they declared, to tranquillise the agitated part of the public, to restore affection and respect for the legislature, so necessary to secure submission to its authority, and, by concentrating the views of all reformers to the preservation of our invaluable constitution, to prevent that fermentation of political opinion, which the French revolution had undoubtedly given rise to, from taking a republican direction in Great Britain. I declare upon my honour,” adds Mr. Erskine, in a note, “ these were my reasons for becoming a member of that society. These were not only the professed objects of this association, but the truth and good faith of them received afterwards the sanction of judicial authority, when their proceedings were brought forward by government in the course of the state trials.” Mr. Grey's motion was supported by Mr. Fox and Mr. Erskine, and opposed by Mr. Burke and Mr. Windham. Mr. Ere skine's speech was upon the whole feeble, and displayed

* Page 13

« PreviousContinue »