Imágenes de página
PDF
ePub

T H E LIMITATIONS OF F RE E SPEECH

BY

LORD THOMAS ERS KINE

IORD THOMAS ERSKINE
1750–1823

The third son of a rather impecunious Scotch peer, Thomas Erskine was obliged to look to himself for a living; and after attending school at Edinburgh, and getting some further instruction at St. Andrews University, he was embarked at Leith as a midshipman in the navy. The year of his birth was 1750; and after this early departure from Scotland, he never saw it again until his life was drawing to its close. After serving four years in the navy, he quitted it for the army, in 1768. Two years later he married, and went with his regiment to Minorca for three years. Altogether, his army service lasted six years; but no opportunity for military distinction offered itself, and he was noted chiefly for a remarkable conversational talent; which seems to have led his friends, and chief among them his mother, a woman of talent and discernment—to urge upon him the career of the bar. He took the advice; entered Trinity College, Cambridge, for the degree to which his being the son of a nobleman entitled him; became a student at Lincoln's Inn and was called to the bar in 1778. By an accident, he was almost immediately called upon to plead against a motion of the Attorney-General in the case of Baillie against Lord Sunderland; and his spirit and eloquence were so marked in this maiden effort, that as he left the court he received no less than thirty retainers from attorneys who had heard him. Again, a few months later, he was called on to plead at the bar of the House of Commons in behalf of the publisher Carman, against the university monopoly in almanacs; his argument was successful, and the reputation he thus gained assured his fortune; and he was engaged in every important case for the ensuing twenty-five years.

In 1783 he was elected member of Parliament for Portsmouth, and retained his seat for that constituency till his elevation to the peerage in 1806. But his speeches in the House were not his chief title to fame as an orator; it was in his forensic efforts that he excelled. His defence of Stockdale from libel in 1789 was one of his most admired achievements; and in 1792 he defended Thomas Paine, when prosecuted for his “Rights of Man.” This cost him his place at AttorneyGeneral. Another famous instance of his ability was in the trial of Tooke and others for high treason. In 1802 he was restored to the office of Attorney-General, and on the death of Pitt, he was made a peer and raised to the dignity of Lord High Chancellor. His latter years were somewhat embittered, owing to loss of fortune through unfortunate land investments. He performed a good deal of literary labor in his leisure times, but his ability in this direction was not of the first order. He died in 1823.

THE LIMITATIONS OF FREE SPEECH

Delivered in 1797 at the trial of Williams for the publication of Paine's “Age of Reason"

ENTLEMEN OF THE JURY: The charge of blasG phemy, which is put upon the record against the publisher of this publication, is not an accusation of the servants of the Crown, but comes before you sanctioned by the oaths of a grand jury of the country. It stood for trial upon a former day; but it happening, as it frequently does, without any imputation upon the gentlemen named in the panel, that a sufficient number did not appear to constitute a full special jury, I thought it my duty to withdraw the cause from trial, till I could have the opportunity of addressing myself to you who were originally appointed to try it. I pursued this course from no jealousy of the common juries appointed by the laws for the ordinary service of the court, since my whole life has been one continued experience of their virtues; but because I thought it of great importance that those who were to decide upon a cause so very momentous to the public, should have the highest possible qualifications for the decision; that they should not only be men capable from their educations of forming an enlightened judgment, but that their situations should be such as to bring them within the full view of their country, to which, in character and in estimation, they were in their own turns to be responsible. Not having the honor, gentlemen, to be sworn for the King as one of his counsel, it has fallen much oftener to my lot to defend indictments for libels than to assist in the prosecution of them; but I feel no embarrassment from that recollection. I shall not be bound to-day to express a sentiment or to utter an expression inconsistent with those invaluable principles for which I have uniformly contended in the defence of others. Nothing that I have ever said, either professionally or personally, for the liberty of the press, do I mean to-day to contradict or counteract. On the contrary, I desire to preface the very short discourse I have to make to you with reminding you that it is your most solemn duty to take care that it suffers no injury in your hands. A free and unlicensed press, in the just and legal sense of the expression, has led to all the blessings, both of religion and government, which Great Britain or any part of the world at this moment enjoys, and it is calculated to advance mankind to still higher degrees of civilization and happiness. But this freedom, like every other, must be limited to be enjoyed, and, like every human advantage, may be defeated by its abuse. Gentlemen, the defendant stands indicted for having published this book, which I have only read from the obligations of professional duty, and which I rose from the reading of with astonishment and disgust. Standing here with all the privileges belonging to the highest counsel for the Crown, I shall be entitled to reply to any defence that shall be made for the publication. I shall wait with patience till I hear it. Indeed, if I were to anticipate the defence which I hear and read of, it would be defaming by anticipation the learned counsel who is to make it; since, if I am to collect it from a formal notice given to the prosecutors in the course of the proceedings, I have to expect that, instead of a defence conducted according to the rules and principles of English law, the foundation of all our laws, and the sanctions of all justice, are to be struck at and insulted. What gives the court its jurisdiction? What but the oath which his lordship, as well as yourselves, has sworn upon the gospel to fulfil? Yet in the King's Court, where His Majesty is himself also sworn to administer the justice of England—in the King's Court—who receives his high authority under a solemn oath to maintain the Christian religion, as it is promulgated by God in the Holy Scriptures, I am nevertheless called upon as counsel for the prosecution to “produce a certain book described in the indictment to be the Holy Bible.” No man deserves to be upon the rolls who has dared as an attorney to put his name to such a notice. It is an insult to the authority and dignity of the court of which he is an officer; since it calls in question the very foundations of its jurisdiction. If this is to be the spirit and temper of the defence; if, as I collect from that array of books which are spread upon the benches behind me, this publication is to be vindicated by an attack of all the truths which the Christian religion promulgates to mankind, let it be remembered that such an argument was neither suggested nor justified by anything said by me on the part of the prosecution. In this stage of the proceedings I shall call for reverence to the sacred Scriptures, not from their merits, unbounded as they are, but from their authority in a Christian country; not from the obligations of conscience, but from the rules of law. For my own part, gentlemen, I have been ever deeply devoted to the truths of Christianity; and my firm belief in the Holy Gospel is by no means owing to the prejudices of education, though I was religiously educated by the best of parents, but has arisen from the fullest and most continued reflections of my riper years and understanding. It forms at this moment the great consolation of a life, which, as a shadow passeth away; and without it, I should consider my long course of health and prosperity, too long perhaps and too uninterrupted to be good for any man, only as the dust which the wind scatters, and rather as a snare than as a blessing. Much, however, as I wish to support the authority of Scripture from a reasonable consideration of it, I shall repress that subject for the present. But if the defence, as I have suspected, shall bring them at all into argument or question, I must then fulfil a duty which I owe not only to the court, as counsel for the prosecution, but to the public, and to the world, to state what I feel and know concerning the evidences of that religion, which is denied without being examined, and reviled without being understood. I am well aware that by the communications of a free press, all the errors of mankind, from age to age, have been dissipated and dispelled; and I recollect that the world, under the banners of reformed Christianity, has struggled through persecution to the noble eminence on which it stands at this moment, shedding the blessings of humanity and science upon the nations of the earth. It may be asked, then, by what means the Reformation would have been effected if the books of the reformers had been suppressed, and the errors of now exploded superstitions had been

« AnteriorContinuar »