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The Reign of George III. - (Concluded.) page 16

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It would seem that the law officers of the crown despaired of proceeding in the old way, but they, or the ministers themselves, hit on a new and more daring one. On the 27th of March the secretary of state addressed a circular - letter to the lords-lieutenant of counties, informing them that the law officers were of opinion that a justice of the peace may issue warrants to apprehend persons charged with the publication of political libels, and compel them to give bail; and he required the lords-lieutenant to communicate this opinion to the ensuing quarter sessions, that all magistrates might act upon it. This was the most daring attack on the liberty of the subject which had been made in England since the days of the Stuarts. There was not a man now living in the kingdom who might not, under the operation of the liabeas corpus suspension act, at any moment, be dragged from his family and business, and lodged in a dungeon, without power of compelling the magistrates to bring him to trial. And now this law was particularly directed against the proprietors of the press. Not a syllable could be uttered that ministers might deem offensive, without the uttered of it being liable to be arrested and imprisoned, and the action of his press stopped. It was truly called a " gagging" measure. Thus was the whole race of ignorant and hot-headed country justices, who knew little beyond dogs and horses, made the judges of all the subtleties and delicacies of literature, and even a well-affected poet like Coleridge, humming his verses on the Quantoc Hills, was put into jeopardy by one of them. Lord Grey, on the 12th of May, made a most zealous and able speech in the house of lords against this proceeding, denouncing the investment of justices of the peace with the power to decide beforehand questions which might puzzle the acutest juries, and to arrest and imprison for what might turn out to be no offence at all. He said: - " If such be the power of the magistrate, and if this be the law, where, I ask, are all the boasted securities of our independence and freedom? "

But, from the correspondent of lord Sidmouth, sine( published, he was at this moment glorying in this expedient, and triumphing in its imagined success. He said the charge of having put such power into the hands of magistrates, he would do his best and most constant endeavour to deserve; and that already the activity of the dealers in libellous matter was much diminished. He had, in truth, Struck a deadly terror to the hearts of the stoutest patriots, who saw no prospect but ruin and incarceration if they dared to speak the truth. The great Cobbett himself fled, and got over to America. In taking leave of his readers, in his " Register " of March 28th, he gave his reasons for escaping from the storm: - " Lord Sidmouth was ' sorry to say ' that I had not written anything that the law of offences could prosecute with any chance of success. I do not remove," he continued, " for the purpose of writing libels, but for the purpose of being able to write what is not libellous. I do not retire from the combat with the attorney-general, but from a combat with a dungeon, deprived of pen, ink, and paper. A combat with the attorney-general is quite un- equal enough; that, however, I would have encountered. I know too well what a trial by special jury is; yet that, or any sort of trial, I would stand to face. So that I could be sure of a trial of whatever sort, I would have run the risk; but against the absolute power of imprisonment, without even a hearing, for time unlimited, in any gaol in the kingdom, without the use of pen, ink,-and paper, and without communication with any soul but the keepers - against such a power it would have been worse than madness to attempt to strive."

Nor were the fears of Cobbett imaginary. The ministry at this time were such fanatics in tyranny, that they would have rejoiced to have thus caged the great political lion, and kept him in silence. At this very moment they had pounced upon one who was equally clever in his way, and who had, perhaps, annoyed them-still more, but whom they did not so much fear to bring into a court of justice. This was William Hone, who had for some time been making them the laughing-stock of the whole nation by his famous parodies. Hone was a poor bookseller in the Old Bailey, who had spent his life in the quest after curious books, and in the accumulation of more knowledge than wealth. His parodies had first brought him into notice, and it did not appear a very formidable thing for the government to try and commit a secluded book-worm, who was not even able to fee counsel in his defence. Lord Grey, on the 12th of May, made the public aware that the man who had lately so much amused them, was laid hands upon by those whom he had so severely ridiculed, and committed to prison. He asked whether ministers were intending to prosecute other parodists, whether they happened to be in the cabinet or out of it: and he recited a portion of Canning's parody of the Benedicite - " Fraise Lepaux" - and passages in the book of Job, which had been published in the " Anti-Jacobin." This was because it was the intention of government to prosecute Hone, not for the parodies on themselves - the real offence - but for others on the Catechism, the Lord's Prayer, &c., so as to excite the religious world against him as a blasphemer. His trial did not come on till the 18th of December, and then it was evident that the man of satirical fun meant to make a stout fight. He sent into court whole boxes of books, but they were not such books as are usually seen on the table of a court of justice; but old dingy folios, tattered octavos, and crumpled yellow pamphlets. When the parodist was summoned, there did not appear in him anything at which lawyers, in their smart gowns and their calf-skin bound law-books, need dread. He way a pale, quiet-looking man, of middle age, in a very threadbare coat, and with an air that betrayed the absent and cogitating, rather than the alert and ready-witted one, prompt to seize and turn everything to his advantage. The judge was Mr. justice Abbot, and the attorney-general Sir Samuel Shepherd, who, from their manner of surveying the accused, did not apprehend much difficulty in obtaining a verdict against him. But they very soon discovered their mistake. The charge against Hone was for having published a profane and impious libel upon the Catechism, the Lord's Prayer, and the Ten Commandments, thereby bringing into contempt the Christian religion. The special indictment was for the publication of the late John Wilkes's catechism. The attorney-general did not very judiciously commence his charge, for he admitted that he did not believe that Hone meant to ridicule religion, but to produce a telling political squib. This let out the whole gist of the prosecution, though that was very well perceived by most people before; and it was in vain that lie went on to argue that the mischief was just the same. Hone opened his own defence with the awkwardness and timidity natural to a man who has passed his life amid books, and not in courts; but he managed to complain of his imprisonment, his harsh treatment, of his poverty in not being able to fee counsel, of the expense of copies of the informations against him, and of the haste, at last, with which he had been called to plead. The judge repeatedly interrupted him, with a mild sort of severity, and the spectators were expecting him to make a short and ineffective defence. Hone, on the con- trary, began to show more boldness and pertinacity. Ho began to open his books, and to read parody after parody of former times. In vain Mr. justice Abbot and the attorney- general stopped him, and told him that he was not to be allowed to add to his offence by producing other instances of the crime in other persons. But Hone told them that he was accused of putting parodies on sacred things into his books, and it was out of his books he must defend himself. He asserted that it was no crime in him not to be a church- man; it was enough that he was a Christian, and held in reverence the doctrines of Christianity as much as any one in that court. Would they venture to call such men as he could name, authors of famous parodies on sacred things, blasphemers? and again he began to read. Again Mr. justice Abbot desired him not to read such things; but ho went on, only remarking: - " My lord, your lordship's observation is in the very spirit of what pope Leo the Tenth said to Martin Luther - ' For God's sake don't say a word about the indulgences and the monasteries, and I will give you a living' - thus precluding Mm from mentioning the very thing in dispute. I must go on with these parodies, or I cannot go on -with my defence." And he went on quoting from such an ocean of books, that the lawyers found themselves quite out of their depth, and all their ordinary weapons - statutes and precedents - knocked out of their hands. The poor, pale, threadbare retailer of old books was now warmed into eloquence, and stood in the most unquestionable ascendancy on the floor of the court, reading and commenting as though he would go on for ever; and he did go on for six hours. He declared that the editor of Black- wood's Magazine" was a parodist - he parodied chapter of Ezekiel; Martin Luther was a parodist - he parodied the first Psalm; bishop Latimer was a parodist; so was Dr. Boys, dean of Canterbury; so was the author of the " Rolliad; " so was Mr. Canning. He proved all that he said by reading passages from the authors, and he concluded by saying that he did not believe that any of these writers meant to ridicule the Scriptures, and that he could not, therefore, see why he should be supposed to do so more than they. Nay, he had done what they never did: as soon as lie was aware that his parodies had given offence he suppressed them - and that long ago, not waiting till he was prosecuted. They, in fact, were prosecuting him for what he had voluntarily and long ago suppressed. The attorney-general, in reply, asserted that it would not save the defendant, that he had quoted Martin Luther and Dr. Boys, for he must pronounce them both libellous. The judge charged the jury as if it were their sacred duty to find the defendant guilty; but, after only a quarter of an hour's deliberation, they acquitted him.

This signal and unexpected defeat seemed to rouse the government to a fresh effort for victory over the triumphant bookseller. The lord chief justice Ellenborough, who was not accustomed to let juries and the accused off so easily, rose from his sick bed, where lie was fast drifting towards the close of his career. Abbot did not seem to him, or to ministers, firm and stern enough to deal with this man, who had turned out so able and pertinacious. The defendant was called into court the next morning, the 19th of December. There sate Ellenborough, with a severe and determined air. Abbot sate by his side. Hone this time was charged with having published an impious and profane libel, called, " The Litany, or General Supplication." The attorney- general again asserted that, whatever might be the intention of the defendant, the publication had the effect of bringing into contempt the service of the church. Hone opened his books to recommence the reading of parallel productions of a former day, or by persons high in esteem in the church, but this was precisely what the invalid lord chief justice had left his bed to prevent. He told the defendant to confine himself to the charge against him, and that the court could not allow of the introduction of an endless amount of matter, which, if it inculpated others, did not excuse him; and he gave the defendant to understand that he would not permit the court to be trifled with. But here the lord chief justice found no yielding on the part of the accused. He contended that he had a right to show that publications like his own had long and invariably been tolerated by the government, and approved by the public, and that was his legitimate defence. The judge sternly ordered him to refrain, and to plead directly to the charge; but Hone stood firm, and bearded the old legal lion with a spirit that rose not only into parity with that of the impetuous old judge, but above it. He not only insisted upon his rights, but complained of his wrongs. He denounced the system of ex-offcio informations, asserted his claim to copies of the indictment against him, without the extravagant charges which had been made, and commented strongly on Fox's libel bill. The judge told him all that was beside the mark, but Hone would not allow that it was so, opened his books, and read on in spite of all attempts to stop him. Never had Ellenborough, not even in his strongest and best days, been so stoutly encountered; scarcely ever had such a scene been witnessed in the memory of man. The spectators showed an intense interest in the combat, for such it was, and it was evident that the general sympathy went with the accused, who put forth such extraordinary and unlooked-for power. The exhausted chief justice was compelled to give way, and Hone went on reading one parody after another, and dwelt especially on the parodies of the Litany which the cavaliers wrote to ridicule the puritan roundheads. When he had done, the lord chief justice addressed the jury in a strain of strong direction to find a verdict for the crown. He said " he would deliver the jury his solemn opinion, as lie was required by the act of parliament to do; and under the authority of that act, and still more in obedience to his conscience and his God, he pronounced this to be a most impious and profane libel. Believing and hoping that they, the jury, were Christians, lie had no doubt but they would be of the same opinion." This time the solemn and severe energy of the lord chief justice seemed to have made an impression on part of the jury, for they took an hour and a half to determine their verdict, but they again returned one of Not Guilty. Here, had the government been wise, they would have stopped; but they were not contented without experiencing a third defeat. The next morning, the 20th of December, they returned to the charge, with an indictment against Mr. Hone for publishing a parody on the Athanasian Creed, called, "The Sinecurist's Creed." The old chief justice was again on the bench, apparently as resolved as ever, and this time the defendant, on entering the court, appeared pale and exhausted, as lie well might, for he had put forth exertions and powers of mind which had astonished the whole country, and excited the deepest interest. The attorney-general humanely offered to postpone the trial, but the defendant preferred to go on. He only begged for a few minutes' delay, to enable him to put down a few notes on the attorney-general's address, after that was delivered; but the chief justice would not allow him this trifling favour, but said, if the defendant would make a formal request for the purpose, lie would put off the trial for a day. This would have injured the cause of the defendant, by making it appear that lie was in some degree worsted, and, fatigued as he was, he replied, promptly, "No! I make no such request." And he then read lord Ellenborough a very proper lesson. " My lord," he said, " I am glad to see your lordship here to-day, because I feel that I sustained an injury from your lordship yesterday - an injury which I did not expect to sustain. If your lordship should think proper, on this trial to-day, to deliver your opinion, I hope that opinion will be coolly and dispassionately expressed. My lord, I think it necessary to make a stand here. I cannot say what your lordship may consider to be necessary interruption; but your lordship interrupted me a great many times yesterday, and then said you would interrupt me no more, and yet your lordship did interrupt tell times as much." Then, turning to the jury, lie said, " Gentlemen, it is you who are trying me to-day. His lordship is no judge of me. You are my judges, and you only are my judges. His lordship sits there to receive your verdict. I will not say what his lordship did yesterday, but trust his lordship to-day will give his opinion coolly and dispassionately, without using either expression or gesture which could be construed as conveying an entreaty to the jury to think as he did. I hope the jury will not be beseeched into a verdict of guilty."

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