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“ To expose further the extreme absurdity of this accusation, if it be possible further to expose it, let me suppose that we were again at peace with France, while the other nations, who are now our allies, should continue to prosecute the war, would it then be criminal to congratulate France upon her successes against them? When that time arrives, might I not honestly wish the triumph of the French arms ? And might I not lawfully express that wish ?
I know certainly that I might — and I know also that I would ! I observe, that this sentiment seems a bold one ; but who is prepared to tell me that I shall not? I will assert the freedom of an Englishman; I will maintain the dignity of man; I WILL vindicate and glory in the principles which raised this country to her pre-eminence among the nations of the earth ; and as she shone the bright star of the morning, to shed the light of liberty upon nations which now enjoy it, so may she continue in her radiant sphere to revive the ancient privileges of the world, which have been lost, and still to bring them forward to tongues and people who have never yet known them, in the mysterious progression of things."
The principle which governed Mr. Erskine in these defences was fully developed by him afterwards in his speech, in the following year, upon Mr. Sheridan's motion for the repeal of the habeas corpus suspension act.* “ Little reliance had we upon the law as we stated it; for though we were firmly convinced that the defence was invulnerable in point of law, not only by the statute, but even by all the authorities, yet we did not expect that the jury would prefer our statement, as advocates, to the judgment of the court, whether well or ill-founded; but we looked to the great sheet-anchor of the cause, viz. the gross falsehood and absurdity of the supposed conspiracy, on which we relied, and on which we prevailed.”
During the session of 1795-96 Mr. Erskine distinguished himself in parliament by his strenuous opposi
• Parl. Hist. vol xxxi, p. 1094.
tion to two measures, which were, as he conceived, directed against the liberty of the subject. Upon the first of these, the seditious meetings' bill, he spoke with an energy and boldness not often exhibited within the walls of parliament. If the king's ministers,'” said he, adopting the words of Lord Chatham, “will not admit a constitutional question to be decided on according to the forms and on the principles of the constitution, it must then be decided in some other manner; and rather than that it should be given up, rather than the nation should surrender their birth-right to a despotic minister, I hope, my lords, old as I am, I shall see the question brought to issue, and fairly tried between the people and the government.' With the sanction of the sentiments of the venerable and illustrious Earl of Chatham, I will maintain that the people of England should defend their rights, if necessary, by the last extremity to which freemen can resort. For my own part, I shall never cease to struggle in support of liberty. In no situation will I desert the cause; I was born a free man, and, by God, I will never die a slave !” * In the debates on the prcceedings respecting Mr. Reeve's libel on the British constitution Mr. Erskine also took an active part.
In the first session of the new parliament which met in 1796, Mr. Erskine, having been again returned for Portsmouth, took a part in the debates on the king's message respecting the rupture of the negotiation for peace. His speech on this occasion was interrupted by a sudden attack of illness: “ he suddenly stopped, and, after a pause, sat down under evident symptoms of indisposition.” +
The subject of reform being again brought before parliament by Mr. Grey in 1797, Mr. Erskine supported him in a very argumentative speech I, his only effort in parliament in the course of that year. Nor does his name occur again in the debates until the year 1800, upon the debate on the king's message respecting overtures of peace * Parl. Hist. vol. xxxii. p. 313.
+ Id. p. 1466. * Id. vol. xxxiii. p. 653.
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from the consular government of France.*
In the course of the same year he spoke in favour of an attempt made to repress adultery by the sanctions of criminal justice. He said, “ That it never, perhaps, had fallen to the lot of any man to have conducted so many civil actions of this description, and that it was the result of that experience that had convinced him, not merely of the impropriety, but of the senseless absurdity, of considering adultery as a civil injury, instead of a high public offence.” + In the following year he took a part in the debates on the eligibility of Mr. Horne Tooke to sit in the house of commons *; and in 1802 he spoke at some length on the motion for an address respecting the removal of Mr. Pitt. $
In general all the great efforts of Mr. Erskine at the 'bar, especially in the political cases in which he was engaged, were on behalf of the accused; but in 1797 he appeared as counsel for the prosecution in the case of Williams, indicted for the publication of Paine's " Age of Reason.” The task, which in other hands would have been easy, presented to him considerable difficulties, which, however, he avoided with great discretion and success, deserting not a single one of the principles which he had on other occasions maintained. The prosecution in this case had been instituted by the 5. Proclamation Society,” an association for the suppression of blasphemous and seditious publications, and Mr. Erskine appeared to support it by virtue of the general retainer which he held for the society. Williams was convicted, and on the motion of Mr. Erskine was brought up for judgment. Between the time of that motion and the judgment of the court being passed upon him, some circumstances occurred which induced Mr. Erskine to suggest, to those who employed him, the propriety of instructing him to state that they were satisfied with the punishment already inflicted on the defendant by his commitment to Newgate. The answer * Parl. Hist. vol. xxxiv. p. 1286.
+ Id. vol. XXXV. p. 312. * Id. p. 1335. 1397.
Id. vol. xxxvi. p. 616
from the society was that though they did not wish to press for a severe judgment, they did not feel themselves justified in expressing a wish for lenity. This resolus tion being communicated by the secretary to Mr. Erskine, he declined being further concerned for the society, and returned their retainer. A statement of the circumstances, which induced Mr. Erskine to adopt this unusual step, was many years afterwards communicated by him to Mr. Howell, the editor of the State Trials, at the request of that gentleman.*
The narrative is a very interesting one. Having convicted Williams, as will appear by your report of his trial, and before he had notice to attend the court to receive judgment, I happened to pass one day through the Old Turnstile, from Holborn, in my way to Lincoln's Inn Fields, when in the narrowest part of it I felt something pulling me by the coat, when on turning round I saw a woman at my feet bathed in tears, and emaciated with disease and sorrow, who continued almost to drag me into a miserable hovel in the passage, where I found she was attending upon two or three unhappy children in the confluent small-pox, and in the same apartment, not above ten or twelve feet square, the wretched man whom I had convicted was sewing up little religious tracts, which had been his principal employment in his trade; and I was fully convinced that his poverty and not his will had led to the publication of this infamous book, as, without any kind of stipulation for mercy on my part, he voluntarily and eagerly engaged to find out all the copies in circulation, and to bring them to me to be destroyed,
“ I was most deeply affected with what I had seen, and feeling the strongest impression that he offered a happy opportunity to the prosecutors of vindicating, and rendering universally popular, the cause in which they had succeeded, I wrote my opinion to that effect, ob serving (if I well remember), that mercy being the grand characteristic of the Christian religion, which
* State Trials, vol. xxvi. p. 714.
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had been defamed and insulted, it might be here exercised not only safely, but more usefully to the objects of the prosecution, than by the most severe judgment, which must be attended with the ruin of this helpless family.
My advice was most respectfully received by the society, and I have no doubt honestly rejected, because that most excellent prelate Bishop Porteus, and many other honourable persons, concurred in rejecting it; but I had still a duty of my own to perform, considering myself not as counsel for the society, but for the
If I had been engaged for all or any of the individuals composing it, prosecuting by indictment for any personal injury punishable by indictment, and had convicted a defendant, I must have implicitly followed my instructions, however inconsistent with my own ideas of humanity or moderation; because every man who is injured has a clear right to demand the highest penalty which the law will inflict; but in the present instance I was in fact not retained at all, but responsible to the crown for my conduct. Such a voluntary society, however respectable or useful, having received no injury, could not erect itself into a custos morum, and claim a right to dictate to counsel who had consented to be employed on the part of the king for the ends of justice only."
In the year 1797, Mr. Erskine published his View of the Causes and Consequences of the present War with France, a pamphlet which attracted very great attention, and in the course of the first year after its publication went through several large editions. To expose the folly and futility of that apparently interminable war of principle in which we were then engaged with France was the object of this excellent publication, which, although it produced a considerable effect upon the public mind, failed in any manner to influence the measures of government. In point of composition this pamphlet, when compared with the speeches, undoubtedly appears inferior. There is an effort in the style