« ПредишнаНапред »
and of public favour, meant a great deal more to a Government than it means now. A war ministry then, which had the country with it, was terribly formidable to political opponents at home. It might have seemed likely that, after the colonists had recourse to arms, journalists and pamphleteers who went counter to the royal policy would soon have a very bad time in England; but exactly the opposite result ensued. During the first fourteen years of George the Third, the ministerial censorship of the Press had been continuous, inquisitorial, and harsh almost to barbarity. The most exalted magistrates had placed themselves at the service of the executive with culpable facility; not for the first time in our history. Roger North, in his picturesque and instructive family biographies, reports how, throughout the civil dissensions of the seventeenth century, the time of the King's Bench was taken up with factious contentions; and he speaks of that Court as a place where more news than law was stirring. The law, as there laid down by Lord Mansfield in 1763, was fraught with grave consequences to all men who gained their livelihood by writing copy, or by setting up type. Informations began to rain like hail upon authors, editors, publishers, and printers. Crushing fines, protracted terms of imprisonment, and the open shame of the pillory, were, for several years to come, the portion of those who criticised the Cabinet in earnest. Their plight would have been hopeless if they had not sometimes found a refuge in the Common Pleas, where the president of the tribunal was Lord Chief Justice Pratt; who subsequently in the House of Peers, as Lord Camden, ably supported Lord Chatham's endeavours to reconcile Great Britain and America. Pratt, acting in the true spirit of the law wherever liberty was at hazard, and audaciously advancing the limits of his own jurisdiction when he otherwise could not rescue a victim, nobly vindicated the ancient reputation of his Court. As time went on, the ministerial majority in the
1“The parties aggrieved,” (so Lord Campbell writes,) "avoided the Court of King's Bench, and sought redress in the Court of Common Pleas
House of Commons joined in the hunt; and Parliamentary Privilege, which had been devised for the protection of freedom, was perverted, amid scenes of scandalous uproar and irregularity, into an engine of tyranny.
Ministers who had pursued such courses in a time of peace, - when they could not excuse their arbitrary measures by the plea of national danger, or the necessity for preserving an appearance of national unanimity,
- might have been expected, when a war was raging, to have strained and over-ridden legality more unscrupulously than ever for the purpose of paying out old scores, and repressing fresh ebullitions of hostile criticism. But, though the clamour against the King and his ministers waxed ever more shrill and more pertinacious, the censorship seemed to have lost its nerve, and the Opposition press went forward on its boisterous way unmenaced and almost unmolested. Political trials became infrequent, and, after a while, ceased.2 The voice of the Attorney-General calling for vengeance, — now upon grave constitutional essayists, or vehement champions of freedom; now upon some miserable bookseller's hack, and the compositors who had deciphered and printed his lucubrations, - was hushed and silent.
from the Lord Chief Justice Pratt. He liberated Wilkes from the Tower on the ground of parliamentary privilege ; and, declaring general warrants to be illegal, he obtained from juries very heavy damages for those who had been arrested, and whose papers had been seized, on the suspicion that they were concerned in printing, and publishing, the number of the North Briton which had been singled out for prosecution.” Life of Lord Mansfield, chapter xxxvi.
Roger North's discriminating praise of the Common Pleas under the Stuart dynasty is sanctioned by what was then the highest known authority. “As the Lord Nottingham in one of his speeches expresseth, The law is there at home."
1 The excesses into which Parliament was betrayed during those evil years, and the zest with which Fox led the riot within its walls, at an age when he ought to have been taking his degree at Oxford, may be seen in the fifth, sixth, and ninth chapters of the Early History of Charles James Fox.
2 John Horne Tooke's trial, on a charge of seditious libel connected with the American controversy, took place as early as the second year of
His conviction injured the Ministry much more than it alarmed the Press.
Men wrote what they thought and felt, in such terms as their indignation prompted and their taste permitted. However crude and violent might be the language in which the newspapers couched their invectives, the legal advisers of the Government, when it came to a question of prosecution, were awed and scared by the consciousness that there existed immense multitudes of people for whom diatribes against the Court and the Cabinet could not be too highly flavoured. Absolute liberty of discussion thenceforward prevailed; but, to the honour of English fairness, there was no immunity for gross slander. In the case of a false and foul charge, brought against a public man of either party, our tribunals showed themselves ready, according to the racy old judicial phrase, to lay a lying knave by the heels. The "Morning Post," in 1780, accused the Duke of Richmond of treasonable communication with the French Government. But that statesman's display of kindliness towards British colonists, who would still have been the Duke's fellow-subjects but for an insane policy which he himself had consistently opposed, was no proof of guilty sympathy with a foreign enemy in the view of British jurymen. Nor were they disposed to overlook a flagrant insult offered to one of the real heroes of Minden, in order to gratify politicians who were not ashamed of sitting in the same Cabinet with Lord George Sackville. Bate was found guilty, and was incarcerated for a twelvemonth.
The exemption from maltreatment which Opposition publicists enjoyed was certainly not purchased by their own moderation or discretion. They wrote in a strain, sometimes of jovial impudence; sometimes of powerfully reasoned, and withering, animadversion; and their swoop was never so direct and savage as when they flew at the highest game. In the “North Briton" of the twenty-third of April 1763, Wilkes had commented on a King's Speech in terms very uncomplimentary to the Cabinet, but, wherever the King was mentioned, in decent and measured phrases. While the Speech was
pronounced to be the most abandoned instance of official effrontery ever attempted to be imposed on mankind, it was expressly declared to be the production of unprincipled Ministers, which in a weak moment had been adopted as his own by a gracious King. At a later time in the annals of journalism, an amiable votary of literature, — whose virtues and weaknesses had rendered him harmless to everybody except himself, — applied to the Prince Regent a jeering epithet which any man of common sense, on the throne or near it, would have read with a contemptuous smile, and dismissed from his memory. And yet Leigh Hunt was heavily fined, and imprisoned for twenty-four months; and George the Third, during ten consecutive years, tried so hard to ruin Wilkes that, in the course of his operations, he came unpleasantly near to upsetting his own throne. The promptness and rigour with which attacks upon royalty were punished both before and since, -as compared to the boundless license which was permitted at that epoch when the sovereign stood before the nation as a prime instigator, and a resolute supporter, of the American war, may be taken as a measure of the distaste which that war then inspired in a very great number of Englishmen.
From 1775 onward the newspapers went straight for the King. The Empire, (they declared,) was under the direction of a bigoted and vindictive prince, whose administration was odious and corrupt in every part: so that the struggles of a handful of his subjects, made furious by oppression, had proclaimed the weakness of that Empire to the world. Those precise words were printed at the beginning of 1776; and towards the end of the year a Christian Soldier addressed George the Third in a sermon of a couple of columns, headed by the first seven verses of the Sixth Chapter in the Wisdom of Solomon. The denunciation against wicked rulers, which those verses contain, was a sufficient sermon in itself; but the preacher did not shrink from the duty of pressing his text home. “Have you not,” he asked the
King, "called your own pretensions the necessity of the State? Have you chosen for your Ministers and Counsellors men of the greatest piety, courage, and understanding ? Have you not dreaded to have such around you, because they would not Aatter you, and would oppose your unjust passions and your misbecoming designs?"
And so the argument continued through a score of interrogatives, any one of which, five years before, or ten years before, would have sent the author, and his printer, and the printer's devils as well, to think out the answer to that string of irreverent queries in the solitude of Newgate.
Whenever the Ministry was mentioned in connection with the King, it was not for the purpose of shielding him from responsibility, but in order to upbraid him for having entrusted the government of the country to such a pack of reprobates. There could not, according to one journalist, be anything more unfortunate for a nation than for its Prince not to have one honest man about him. “ Americans,” wrote another, “are totally indifferent about every change of Ministers which may happen in the Court system. They care not who comes in. They know that a change of men implies nothing more than knaves succeeding to that power which former knaves were fools enough to abuse.” The rea. son why England had come to be ruled by fools and knaves was illustrated by an historical anecdote duly pointed with italics. “Mr. Waller, the celebrated poet, being in the Closet with James the Second one day, the King asked him how he liked a picture of the Princess of Orange. 'I think,' says Waller, she is very like the greatest woman in the world.' Whom do you call so?' said the King. 'Queen Elizabeth,' replied the other. 'I wonder, Mr. Waller,' said the King, you should think so, as Queen Elizabeth owed all her greatness to the wisdom of her Council.' 'And pray, sir,' says Waller, 'did you ever know a fool chuse a wise one?'1
1 The London Evening Post of Saturday, September 27, to Tuesday, September 30, 1777.