Here is a passionate defence of the liberty of the press, from 1730.
There are some subjects, which cannot be handled too often; especially that of liberty; because it is the interest of ill-designing men to watch all opportunities of restraining and destroying it. If their attempts happen to be anticipated, disconcerted and frustrated one time, by a vigorous opposition, they will drop them in silence, or perhaps confidently disown them, till the clamour is stopped, and the arguments made use of against them are forgot; and then, if they see a proper occasion, will resume them again. It therefore behoves the friends of liberty, who desire the continuance of this invaluable blessing, to be as vigilant and active and indefatigable as the enemies of it. They ought to be constantly upon their guard against all their opposers; to make them no concessions; to give them no advantages; nor slacken and grow indolent in their duty; but keep a watchful eye upon their measures, and be always read to meet every appearance of danger, as often as it returns, with firmness, intrepidity and resolution.
I have already appeared (more frequently, I believe, than some men could wish) in defence of the liberty of the press; and it is a subject of such importance to all our other liberties, both ecclesiastical and civil, that I am resolved to pursue it as long and as often as there shall appear any remains, or suspicions, or overtures of a design to invade it; by which I not only mean the open declarations, or concerted efforts of great men for this purpose; but likewise all endeaours to depreciate it by loose, general and idle reflections against the abuse of it; all fallacious distinctions between liberty and licentiousness, which confound them together; and above all, those scurrilous, abusive invectives upon persons of the highest rank, which are commonly spread abroad about this time of the year; and which we have great reason to apprehend come from some men, who are no well-wishers to the present liberty of the press.
These writings, indeed, are always disowned when the design of them is exposed, and their effect prevented; but that is far from being any reason to me that the authors of them are not secretly employed and encouraged. The gentlemen who work thus in the dark, must give me leave to form some judgment on what has passed, and to take proper measures against what may happen again. I have not lived so long in the world, without making some observations on the conduct of statesmen, and the private methods, which they often make use of to compass their designs. There are too many instances in history of ministers, who have set men at work to abuse their masters, and sometimes even themselves with this view. Nay, perhaps, it may be sometimes thought no impolitic artifice to make the scurrilous writings of their own tools a proof of the licentiousness of the press, and an argument for the restraint of it. They may apprehend that it will look a little too selfish to attempt such an essential alteration in the constitution of our government for their own sakes only; and may therefore endeavor to disguise it, by putting on an appearance of tenderness to those, who oppose them. These gentlemen, indeed, have long been exposed to the grossest insults and calumnies from the press; but I believe they look upon them only as the bad effects of a good cause; of liberty; (of liberty, the best cause in the world) and that they abhor the thought of being made the occasion and pretence of any restraints upon it.
There is one thing, which ought not to be passed over on this subject; and I don’t remember whether I have ever mentioned it before. I mean, that no laws whatsoever for the regulation of the press will be able to put a stop to what are really and properly libels; such writings being always dispersed secretly and in the dark. It is well known that all those papers at present, which are written without any regard to decency, or the laws, are dispersed in this manner; and if the free publication of our thoughts should be taken away, what can be expected but that men will have recourse to this method; which will introduce a much greater licence, than was ever complained of under the most unrestrained, legal liberty of the press; because those writings being privately written and dispersed, as I said before, nobody makes himself answerable for them? Nay, let the danger of doing this be never so great, and the penalties never so severe, such is the love of liberty in some men, and the impatience o grievances and oppressions in others, that they will run any hazards to vent their resentments and awaken their countrymen to a sense of their condition. This was the case in the reign of Tiberius and some succeeding emperors; whose terrible cruelties and tyrannical prosecutions could not deter men from this practice; and the same spirit has been exerted in England, under some late reigns, when the press lay under the strictest restraint and inquisition of a licenser.
The late translator of Tacitus makes the following just observation, in one of his discourses before that author, viz. that the passions are not to be extinguished but with life; and to forbid people, especially a suffering people, to speak, is to forbid them to feel. He goes farther and says, that the more men express of their hate and resentment, perhaps the less they retain; and sometimes they vent the whole that way; but these passions, where they are smothered, will be apt to fester; to grow venomous, and to discharge themselves by a more dangerous organ than the mouth; even by an armed and vindictive hand. Less dangerous is a railing mouth than a heart filled with bitterness and curses; and more terrible to a prince ought to be the secret execrations of his people than their open revilings, or than even the assaults of his enemies. And again. In truth, where no liberty is allowed to speak of governors, besides that of praising them, their praises will be little regarded. Their tenderness and aversion to have their conduct examined will be apt to prompt people to think their conduct guilty or weak; to suspect their management and designs to be worse than perhaps they are; and to become turbulent and seditious, rather than be forced to be silent.
I know the advocates for ignorance and implicit obedience will call this method of reasoning an apology for libels, faction and sedition; but I make use of it only to show the folly, as well as the wickedness, of any scheme for preventing the publication of our thoughts on matters of government. It is wicked, because it is an attempt to destroy one of the most valuable, and fundamental rights of a free people. It is foolish, because it will not have the effect proposed by it; but produce worse consequences and expose men in power to severer invectives and more dangerous methods of resentment than the utmost liberty of the press; and I think that both the wickedness and the folly of it cannot be better exposed, than by producing their own arguments for it; which are comprised in Judge Allybone’s speech, at the trial of the seven Bishops. I will quote some part of it, which runs in the following strain.
“The single question that falls to my share is, to give my sense of this petition, whether it shall be in construction of law a libel in itself, or a thing of great innocence. I shall endeavor to express myself in as plain terms as I can, and as much as I can by way of proposition.
And I think, in the first place, that no man can take upon him to write against the actual exercise of the government, unless he have leave from the government, but he makes a libel, be what he writes true or false; for if once we come to impeach the government by way of argument, it is the argument that makes the government, or not the government; so that I lay it down that, in the first place, the government ought not to be impeached by argument, because I can manage a proposition, in itself doubtful, with a better pen than another man. This I say is a libel.
Then I lay down this for my next position; that no private man can take upon him to write concerning the government at all; for what has any private man to do with the government, if his interest be not stirred or shaken? It is the business of the government to manage matters relating to the government. It is the business of subjects to mind only their own properties and interest. If my interest is not shaken, what have I to do with matters of government? They are not within my sphere. If the government does come to shake my particular interest, the law is open for me, and I may redress myself by law; and when I intrude myself into other men’s business, that does not concern my particular interest, I am a libeler.
These I have laid down for the plain propositions. Now let us consider farther whether, if I will take upon me to contradict the government, and specious pretence, that I shall put upon it, shall dress it up into another form and give it a better denomination; and I truly think it will not. I think ‘tis the worse, because it comes in a better dress; for by that rule every Man, that can put on a good vizard, may be as mischievous as he will to the government at the bottom; so that whether it be in the form of a supplication, or an address, or a petition; if it be what it ought not to be, let us call it by its true name, and give it its right denomination. It is a libel.”
And a little farther he says, that, “We are not to measure things from any truth they have in themselves, but from that aspect they have upon the government; for there may be every tittle of a libel true, and yet it may be a libel still; so that I put no great stress upon that objection, that the matter of it is not false; and for sedition, it is that, which every libel carries in itself; and as every trespass implies vi & Armis, so every libel against the government carries in it sedition and all the other epithets, that are in the information. This is my opinion, as to the law in general.”
I must beg leave to make a remark or two on the speech of this infamous judge, which contains the sum of all the arguments of our modern advocates against the liberty of the press.
In the first place, this egregious oracle of the law lays it down as a proposition that no man can take upon him to write against the actual exercise of the government, unless he have leave from the government; a very pleasant proposition truly! As if any men in power would give us leave to write against them, unless it were to serve some such purposes, as I have already mentioned; that is, according to him, no man ought to write against ministers, but those, who do it by their direction, in order to carry on some private view against the liberties of the people.
His second proposition is, that no private man can take upon him, to write concerning the government at all. By no private man, I suppose he means every man, who has not a commission from the ministry; for he seems to allow in his first proposition, that a man, who has their leave, may write against the government. His reasons for this assertion are excellent, viz. that private men have nothing to do with matters of government; that the only business of subjects it to mind their own properties and interests; and if they are shaken, the law is open; though I am very apprehensive that if such doctrines should prevail, and the bench should be filled with such interpreters of the law, our private properties would not be much safer than our public liberties.
But it is to our happiness that the English nation, at that time, would not brook such slavish doctrines, nor swallow the principles of a Popish judge, who was made use of as the vile instrument of a court, which had set up a power to dispense with all our law and liberties at pleasure. Our brave countrymen asserted their ancient rights; and though the press was, at that time, under the restraint of a licenser, they took upon them not only to write, but to act very freely, and openly against the exercise of government; and they had the good fortune to do it with success. The liberty of the press was then established with our other liberties, to whose restoration it greatly contributed; and though it has since been looked upon with an evil eye by some men in power, yet it has hitherto stood its ground, and I hope ever will. Cursed be the hand, that attempts to destroy it!
I shall perhaps be told, by my adversaries, that all this zeal, is unreasonable and impertinent, and that no body has any such design. I hope not; though I confess I don’t much like the method of writing at present in vogue; and the rumours, which have lately been spread about town. I shall be glad to find them and my own apprehensions equally groundless; but whether any persons have such a design or not, it cannot be improper to defend so glorious a privilege in season and out of season. The liberty of the press, which is the chief bulwark of all our other liberties, cannot be too often exerted in its own defence.
Indeed, when we consider the circumstances of the present times; that his Majesty’s title is founded entirely on revolution-principles and the liberties of the people; we can hardly conceive that any men will have the boldness to attempt such an innovation on both; much less than an English Parliament will be induced to begin the present new year, with undoing the work of above an hundred years past.