Imágenes de página
PDF
ePub

verance ultimately effects, some great improvement in the condition of large classes of the community, is rated, by that ungrateful community, as a far inferior personage, and obtains, for his nights and days of successful toil, a far less share even of the cheap reward of popular applause than is earned by the other, merely in following the impulse of his own ambitious nature. No man in this country ever rose to a high political station, or even obtained any great personal power and influence in society, merely by originating in Parliament measures of internal regulation, or conducting with judgment and success improvements, however extensive, that did not affect the interests of one or other of the two great parties in the State. Mr Wilberforce may perhaps be mentioned as an exception; and certainly the greatness, the long endurance, and the difficulty of the struggle, which he at last conducted to so glorious a termination, have given him a fame and popularity which may be compared, in some respects, with that of a party leader. But even Mr Wilberforce would be at once demolished in a contest with the leaders of party; and could do nothing, out of doors, by his own individual exertions; while 'it is quite manifest, that the greatest and most meritorious exertions to extend the reign of Justice by the correction of our civil code to ameliorate the condition of the Poor-to alleviate the sufferings of the Prisoner-or, finally, to regenerate the minds of the whole people by an improved system of Education, will never give a man half the power or celebrity that may be secured, at any time, by à brilliant speech on a motion of censure, or a flaming harangue on the boundlessness of our resources, or the glories of our arms.

It may be conjectured already, that with all due sense of the value of party distinctions, and all possible veneration for the talents which they call most prominently into action, we are inclined to think, that this estimate of public services might be advantageously corrected; and that the objects which would exclusively occupy our statesmen, if they were all of one mind upon constitutional questions, ought more frequently to take precedence of the contentions to which those questions give rise. We think there is, of late, a tendency to such a change in public opinion. The nation, at least, seems at length heartily sick of those heroic vapourings about our efforts for the salvation of Europe, which have ended in the restoration of old abuses abroad, and the imposition of new taxes at home ;--and about the vigour which was required for the maintenance of our glorious constitution,—which has only displayed itself in the suspension of its best bulwarks, and the organization of spy systems and vindictive persecutions, after the worst fashion of ar

bitrary governments ;-and seems disposed tô require, at the hands of its representatives, some substantial pledge of their concern for the general welfare, by an active and zealous cooperation in the correction of admitted abuses, and the redress of confessed wrongs.

It is mortifying to the pride of human wisdom, to consider how much evil has resulted from the best and least exceptionable of its boasted institutions--and how those establishments that have been most carefully devised for the repression of guilt, or the relief of misery, have become themselves the fruitful and pestilent sources both of guilt and misery, in a frightful and disgusting degree. Laws, without which society could not exist, become, by their very multiplicatoin and refinement, à snare and a burden to those they were intended to protect, and let in upon us the hateful and most intolerable plagues of pettyfogging, chicanery, and legal persecution. Institutions for the relief and prevention of Poverty have the effect of multiplying it tenfold -hospitals for the cure of Diseases become centres of infection. The very Police, which is necessary to make our cities habitable, give birth to the odious vermin of informers, thief-catchers, and suborners of treachery;--and our Prisons, which are meant chiefly to reform the guilty and secure the suspected, are converted into schools of the most atrocious corruption, and dens of the most inhuman torture.

Those evils and abuses, thus arising out of intended benefits and remedies, are the last to which the attention of ordinary men is directed—because they arise in such unexpected quarters, and are apt to be regarded as the unavoidable accompaniments of indispensable institutions. There is a selfish delicacy which makes us at all times averse to enter into details of a painful and offensive nature, and an indolent sort of optimism, by which we naturally seek to excuse our want of activity, by charitably presuming that things are as well as they can easily be made, and that it is inconceivable that any very flagrant abuses should be permitted by the worthy and humane people who are more immediately concerned in their prevention. To this is added a fear of giving offence to these same worthy visitors and superintendants and a still more potent fear of giving offence to his Majesty's Government ;--for though no administration can : really have any interest in the existence of such abuses, or can be suspected of wishing to perpetuate them, from any love for them or their authors, yet it is but too true that most long established administrations have looked with an evil eye upon the detectors and redressers of all sorts of general abuses, VOL. XXX. NO. 60.

Hh

however little connected with politics or political persons first, because they feel that their long and undisturbed continuance is a tacit reproach on their negligence and inactivity, in not having made use of their own great opportunities to discover and correct them--secondly, because all such corrections are innovations upon old usages and establishments, and practical admissions of the flagrant imperfection of these boasted institutions, towards which it is their interest to maintain a blind and indiscriminate veneration in the body of the people-and, thirdly, because, if general abuses affecting large classes of the community are allowed to be exposed and reformed in any one department, the people might get accustomed to look for the redress of all similar abuses in other departments, and reform would cease to be a word of terror and alarm to all loyal subjects.

These, no doubt, are formidable obstacles; and therefore it is, that gross abuses have been allowed to subsist so long. But they are so far from being insurmountable, that we are perfectly persuaded that nothing more is necessary to ensure the effeetual correction of all those evils to which we have alluded, than to satisfy the public, I'st, of their existence and extent-and, 2dly, of there being means for their effectual redress and prevention. Evils that are directly connected with the power of the existing administration-abuses. of which they are themselves the authors or abettors, or of which they have the benefit, can only be corrected by their removal from office and are substantially irremediable, however enormous, while they continue in power.. All questions as to them, therefore, belong to the department of party politics, and fall within the province of the polemical statesman. But with regard to all other plain violations of reason, justice or humanity, it is comfortable to think that we live in such a stage of society as to make it impossible that they should be allowed to subsist many years, after their mischief and iniquity have been made manifest to the sense of the country. at large. Public opinion, which is still potent and formidable even to ministerial corruption, is omnipotent against all inferior malversations and the invaluable means of denunciation and authoritative and irresistible investigation which we possess in our representative legislature, puts it in the power of any man of prudence, patience, and respectability in that House, to bring to light the most secret, and to shame the most arrogant delinquent, and to call down the steady vengeance of public execration, and the sure light of public intelligence, for the repression and redress of all public injustice.

The charm is in the little word PUBLICITY;-and it is cheering to think how many wonders have already been wrought by that precious talisman. If the House of Commons was of no other use but as an organ for proclaiming and inquiring into all alleged abuses, and making public the results, under the sanction of names and numbers which no man dares to suspect of unfairness or inattention, it would be enough to place the country in which it existed far above all terms of comparison with any other, ancient or modern, in which no such institution had been devised. Though the great work is done, however, by that House and its committees—though it is there only that the mischief can be denounced with a voice that reaches to the utmost borders of the land and there only that the seal of unquestioned and unquestionable authority can be set to the statements which it authenticates and gives out to the world ;--there is still room, and need too, for the humbler ministry of inferior agents, to circulate and enforce, to repeat and expound, the momentous facts that have been thus collected, and upon which the public must ultimately decide. It is this unambitious, but useful function that we now propose to perform, in laying before our read. ers a short view of the very interesting facts which are detailed in the two little works of which the titles are prefixed, and in the parliamentary papers to which they refer. • Prisons are employed for the confinement and security of at least three different descriptions of persons :—first, of those who are accused of crimes and offences, but have not yet been brought to trial; 2d, of those who have been convicted, and are imprisoned preparatory to, or as a part of, their punishment; and, 3d, of debtors, who are neither convicted nor accused of any crime whatsoever. In both the first classes, and even in that least entitled to favour, there is room for an infinity of distinctionsfrom the case of the boy arraigned or convicted for a slight assault or breach of the peace, up to that of the bloody murderer or hardened depredator, or veteran leader of the housebreaking gang. All these persons must indeed be imprisoned--for so the law has declared; but, under that sentence, we humably conceive there is no warrant to inflict on them any other punishment-any thing more than a restraint on their personal freedom. This, we think, is strictly true of all the three classes we have mentioned; but it will scarcely be disputed, at all events, that it is true of the first and the last. A man may avoid the penalties of crime, by avoiding all criminality: But no man can be secure against false accusation; and to condemn him who is only suspected, is to commence his punishment when his crime is up

certain. Nay, it is not only uncertain as to all who are untried, but it is the fixed presumption of the law that the suspicion is unfounded, and that a trial will establish his innocence. We suppose there are not less than ten or fifteen thousand persons taken up yearly in Great Britain and Ireland on suspicion of crimes, of whom certainly there are not two-thirds convicted; so that, in all likelihood, there are not fewer than seven or eight thousand innocent persons placed annually in this painful predicament-whose very imprisonment, though an unavoidable, is beyond all dispute a very lamentable evil, and to which no unnecessary addition can be made without the most tremendous injustice.

The debtor, again, seems entitled to nearly as much indulgence. “He may indeed,' says Mr Buxton, have been redu

ced to his inability to satisfy his creditor by the visitation of • God,-by disease, by personal accidents, by the failure of * reasonable projects, by the largeness or the helplessness of his « family. His substance, and the substance of his creditor, may “ have perished together in the flames, or in the waters. Hu

man foresight cannot always avert, and human industry can- not always repair, the calamities to which our nature is suba.

jected; surely, then, some debtors are entitled to compas-.

sion.' (p.4.) Of the number of debtors at any one time in confinement in these kingdoms, we have no means of forming a conjecture; but beyond all doubt they amount to many thousands, of whom probably one half have been reduced to that state by venial errors, or innocent misfortune.

Even with regard to the convicted, we humbly conceive it to be clear, that where no special severity is enjoined by the law, any additional infliction beyond that of mere coercion, is illegal. If the greater delinquents alone were subjected to such severities, there might be a colour of equity in the practice; but, in point of fact, they are inflicted according to the state of the pria son, the usage of the place, or the temper of the jailor ;-and, in all cases, they are inflicted indiscriminately on the whole inmates of each unhappy mansion. Even if it were otherwise, & Who,' says Mr B., . is to apportion this variety of wretched

ness? The Judge, who knows nothing of the interior of the • jail; or the jailor, who knows nothing of the transactions of • the Court? The law can easily suit its penalties to the cir« cumstances of the case. It can adjudge to one offender im• prisonment for one day; to another for twenty years: But « what ingenuity would be sufficient to devise, and what discre« tion could be trusted to inflict, modes of imprisonment with 6 similar variations ?' (p. 8.)

« AnteriorContinuar »