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was just such a parcel of arms, of different sorts and sizes, as a man collecting amongst his friends for his defence against the sudden violence of a riotous multitude might be expected to have collected : here lay three or four rusty guns of different dimensions, and here or there a bayonet or broadsword, covered over with dust and rust, so as to be almost undistinguishable ; for, notwithstanding what this infamous wretch has sworn, we will prove by witness after witness, till you desire us to finish, that they were principally collected on the 11th of December, the day of the riot, and that from the 12th in the evening, or the 13th in the morning, they have lain untouched as I have described them; that their use began and ended with the necessity, and that from that time to the present there never has been a firearm in the warehouse of any sort or description.”
In the speech on the trial of Horne Tooke a brilliant passage of the same kind occurs.
“ But to give the case of Lord Lovat any bearing upon
the present, you must first prove that our design was to arm, and I shall then admit the argument and the conclusion. But has such proof been given on the present trial ? It has not been attempted ; the abortive evidence of arms has been abandoned. Even the solia tary pike, that formerly glared rebellion from the corner of the court, no longer makes its appearance, and the knives have retired to their ancient office of carving. Happy was it indeed for me, that they were ever produced ; for so perfectly common were they throughout all England, and so notoriously in use for the most ordinary purposes, that public justice and benevolence, shocked at the perversion of truth in the evidence concerning them, kept pouring them in upon me from all quarters. The box before me is half full of them; and if all other trades should fail me, I might set up a cutler's shop in consequence of this cause.
In the course of the same speech Mr. Erskine accounts for that general absence of humour which is noticed above. He considered it incompatible with the
dignity of such efforts. “ There is not only no evidence upon which reasonable men could deliberate between a verdict of Guilty and Not guilty, but literally no evidence at all: nothing that I could address myself to, but through the medium of ridicule, which, much as it would apply to the occasion in other respects, it would be indecent to indulge in, in a great state trial so deeply concerning the dignity of the country, and so seriously affecting the unfortunate persons whom I shall be called upon to defend hereafter.”
Even in Lord Erskine's miscellaneous speeches few instances occur of any attempt at humour; though, in the case of Morton v. Fenn, which was an action brought by a middle-aged woman against an old and infirm man, for breach of promise of marriage, there occurs a sufficiently droll description of the unfortunate defendant. “ It is probable,” said Mr. Erskine, “ that her (the plaintiff's) circumstances were very low, from the character in which she was introduced to the defendant, who, being an old and infirm man, was desirous of some elderly person as a housekeeper ; and no imputation can be justly cast upon the plaintiff for consenting to such an introduction ; for, by Mr. Wallace’s favour, the jury had a view of this defendant, and the very sight of him rebutted every suspicion that could possibly fall upon a woman of any age, constitution, or complexion. I am sure every body who was in court must agree with me, that all the diseases catalogued in the dispensatory seemed to be running a race for his life, though the asthma appeared to have completely distanced his competitors, as the fellow was blowing like a smith’s bellows the whole time of the trial. His teeth being all gone, I shall say nothing of his gums; and as to his shape, to be sure, a bass-fiddle is perfect gentility compared to it.” He concluded with expressing a wish, that the young woman whom the defendant had married “ would manifest her affection by furnishing him with a pair of horns, sufficient to defend himself against the sheriff, when he came to levy the money under the verdict.”
The genius of Erskine seems to have been created at the very period which enabled it to shine forth in its brightest lustre. Had he lived in the generation either preceding or following his own, his eloquence would never have been called out, as it was by the extraordinary and perilous circumstances in which this country was placed at the latter end of the last century. All the great principles of human action and human government were called in question; and while, on the one hand, amongst the people, rash and ill-advised individuals were found, who pressed to their extremities those just theories of politics upon which the welfare of nations depends; the government, on the other hand, terrified at the excesses to which such speculations had led in France, under circumstances totally different from any that existed in England, grew jealous even of those liberties and privileges which were guaranteed by the constitution. Societies and affiliated societies for procuring a reform in parliament increased in rapid progression, and language was occasionally employed, of the seditious tendency of which no doubt could be entertained. At length, the subject of these dangerous associations was brought before parliament, which granted extraordinary powers to government, by an act reciting that a treacherous and detestable conspiracy had been formed for subverting the existing laws and constitution, and for introducing the system of anarchy and confusion which had lately prevailed in France. The popular mind being thus, by the highest authority, suitably affected with apprehensions and terrors, the minister resolved to strike a blow which should place at his absolute mercy the blood of every man who had ventured to become a member of the obnoxious associations. The attorney-general was directed to proceed against several of the more conspicuous members of these societies for high treason, as having been guilty of a conspiracy to compass and imagine the death of the king. The first person brought to trial was Mr. Thomas Hardy, a re
# 34 G. 3. c. 54.
spectable tradesman, who had acted as the secretary of the Constitutional Society. Mr. Erskine, assisted by Mr. Gibbs, appeared as his counsel, and never in the judicial history of this country did so weighty, so overwhelming, so appalling a duty devolve upon any one man. The lives and fortunes of thousands of his countrymen, nay the liberties of his country itself, were involved in the issue. Had a conviction been obtained against Hardy, the consequences might have been most fatal. The streams of blood flowing from the scafföld must have been swelled by that shed in civil disturbances. Already the passions of the people were excited to a degree which every day threatened the public tranquillity; and nothing was wanting but some grand spectacle of blood, like that contemplated by the government, to rouse them into action. In addition to these overpowering considerations, the trial itself was of a nature to waste or to crush the energies and courage of the most constant mind. Such a proceeding was unparalleled in the annals of the state trials of England. The charge against the prisoner was to be proved from the conduct, speeches, and publications of a thousand different persons, at various periods of time and in various places. The trial commenced on Tuesday the 28th of October; and the opening of Sir John Scott, the attorney-general, occupied upwards of seven hours. The evidence for the crown was not concluded until two o'clock on the following Saturday, when Mr. Erskine, who had petitioned for and obtained an adjournment for a few hours on that morning, to afford him an opportunity of arranging the evidence, came into court, and delivered a speech which, standing alone, would place his name at the very head of the English forensic orators. The two grand objects to which he applied himself, were to cut down the law of constructive treason, and to prove the innocent and legal intentions of the accused. His argument on the first branch was even superior to that which he delivered on the trial of Lord George Gordon, and may be regarded as
the most substantial monument of his genius. Of his indignant and triumphant defence of the principles upon which the obnoxious societies were founded, it is impossible to speak in terms adequate to its skill, its force, and its splendour. The noble effort was crowned with merited success, and the verdict of the jury might have been foretold in the popular acclamations which attended the close of the speech. " When Mr. Erskine had finished his speech, an irresistible acclamation pervaded the court, and to an immense distance around. The streets were seemingly filled with the whole of the inhabitants of London ; and the passages were thronged, that it was impossible for the judges to get to their carriages. Mr. Erskine went out and addressed the multitude, desiring them to confide in the justice of the country, reminding them that the only security of Englishmen was under the inestimable laws of England, and that any attempt to overawe or bias them would not only be an affront to public justice, but would endanger the lives of the accused. He then besought them to retire, and in a few minutes there was scarcely a person to be seen near the court. No spectacle could be more interesting and affecting.”
Notwithstanding the acquittal of Hardy, so intent was the government upon convincing the country of the existence of that treasonable conspiracy, which it ought to have considered its own deep disgrace, that Mr. Horne Tooke was immediately put upon his trial, and Mr. Erskine had once more to go over the same ground which he had so triumphantly trod in his defence of Hardy. His speech was, consequently, in all its essential parts, a repetition of the brilliant oration he had just delivered. But the circumstances in which he now stood induced him to assume even a higher and more confident tone ; and in one instance, where his doctrines seemed to excite something like disapprobation, he enforced them in a manner which showed his full confidence in the verdict.
* Erskine's Speeches, vol. iii. p. 502.