Page images


a robbery; he throws down the distinction between liberty and slavery.”

This seems now like familiar doctrine. But it was thus announced by Camden some ten years before the immortal declaration was proclaimed to an admiring world.

It is easy to go with the tide, to agree with the majority, provided their sentiments can be definitely ascertained; an undertaking occasionally fraught with some little difficulty, as modern politicians can testify. But Camden was not of this sort. He followed his convictions. Like Chatham and our own Sumner and Garrison and Lowell, he felt:

“Then to side with Truth is noble when we share her wretched

crust, Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and 'tis prosperous to be


I know of no finer figure in English Parliamentary history than Camden, thus maintaining the rights of America against an administration which had just called him to the peerage and the overwhelming sentiment of the hour. In this he was animated solely by that generous passion for liberty which pervaded every fibre of his being and invariably guided and controlled his conduct upon all public questions.

Camden became Lord Chancellor in 1766, under the elder Pitt's second administration. His attainments were entirely adequate to the judicial duties of this high office. Of scholariy tastes and studious habits, he was familiar not merely with the common law of England but also profoundly versed in the civil law—that great fountain of inspiration for a judge who aspires to distinction in the chancery.

It is said that only one of his decrees was reversed in the House of Lords and that on a point on which Lord Eldon subsequently expressed a preference for his views as against those held by the House.


But the Chancellor of England is not merely the highest judicial officer of the realm; he is speaker of the House of Lords, participates in its debates, appoints all the judges and in many respects exercises powers that are not at all judicial.

I must refer to one instance, where, in his capacity as a member of the upper house, he gave a characteristic exhibi. tion of his devotion to liberty and his independence of charac. ter. Pitt had been ill in body and mind for some time and as a consequence had withdrawn from public affairs

He reappeared in Parliament in 1770, at a time when Wilkes was again on the stage, contesting for a seat in the Commons and keeping the country in a turmoil; and also when the controversy with the American colonies was rapidly reaching an acute condition.

He had resigned from the government and at this time attacked its measures with characteristic power and vigor in the House of Lords, of which, as Earl of Chatham, he was a member, declaring that the liberty of the subject had been invaded not only in the colonies but at home; and moved an amendment to the address, that “the House would with all convenient speed, take into consideration the cause of the present discontent and particularly the proceedings of the House of Commons, touching the incapacity of John Wilkes, Esq., depriving the electors of Middlesex of their free choice of a representative.”

Mansfield undertook the defense of the government and intimated that all their measures must be regarded as having the full approbation of the Chancellor, who, he said, "was ere: considered the champion of popular rights."

Camden at once descended from the wool sack and replied in a burst of indignation. In the course of his remarks he said: "For some time I have beheld with silent indignation the arbitrary measures of the minister; I have often drooped and hung down my head in counsel, and disapproved by my looks those steps which I knew my avowed opposition


could not prevent. I will do so no longer; but openly and boldly speak my sentiments. I now proclaim to the world, that I entirely coincide in the opinion expressed by my noble friend, whose presence again reanimates us, respecting this unconstitutional and illegal vote of the House of Commons. If, in giving my opinion as a judge, I were to pay any respects to that vote, I should look upon myself as a traitor to my trust and an enemy to my country. By their violent and

. tyrannical conduct, ministers have alienated the minds of the people from his majesty's government, I had almost said from his majesty's person. In consequence, a spirit of discontent has spread itself into every corner of the kingdom, and is every day increasing; insomuch that if some methods are not devised to appease the clamors so universally prevalent, I know not, my Lords, whether the people, in despair, may not become their own avengers and take the redress of their grievances into their own hands." Of course he did not continue long in office; eight days later, January 17, 1770, at the royal summons, he surrendered the great seal into the King's own hands.

I will not attempt to trace his career in any detail through subsequent years. He was justly and severely criticised for his well known defense of an order of the King in council, prohibiting the exportation of grain, in which he spoke of the power of the crown to act during the recess of Parliament as "at most but a forty days' tyranny." Sir William Temple reproached him severely for expressions so inconsistent with his past history as the great champion of English liberty.

In 1782 he was appointed under the second administration of Lord Rockingham, President of the Privy Council, but soon resigned owing to the political complications arising from the successful attack by Fox and Lord North upon the government.

He was, however, again appointed to the same position in 1781, under the administration of William Pitt, and held it


during the rest of his life. He took an active part in the debates of the House of Lords and was always one of the great figures in that then brilliant and influential assembly.

He remained the consistent and outspoken friend of America and employed all his great powers to secure a reconciliation with the colonies and their retention as a part of the kingdom in the enjoyment of all the rights of English liberty which were possessed by citizens of the mother country. Writing to his life long friend, the Duke of Grafton, in 1776, he said, referring to the attempt to conquer the colonies: "I shall persist to the last in giving my testimony against this pernicious war, though I neither expect success nor popular applause."

He earnestly strove to secure liberal measures for the government of Ireland, and always urged generous treatment towards the oppressed and misgoverned people of that unfortunate island; and in debate upon these questions dwelt eloquently upon the virtues of the Irish and the hardships they had suffered. His generous nature could not reconcile tyranny, either at home or abroad, with the spirit of that English liberty of which he had been, during his entire public career, the foremost champion. He stoutly opposed and denounced the efforts to disfranchise the Middlesex electors by refusing John Wilkes admission to the House, to which he had been repeatedly elected by that constituency.

But it is after all his persistent and successful advocacy of free speech and the freedom of the press which in my opinion best entitles him to the gratitude and admiration of posterity.

In order to appreciate his services to this great cause it is well to recall the general situation during that time.

George III ascended the English throne in 1760 and reigned, sane and insane, for sixty years.

By nature and education he was a narrow, obstinate, and bigoted tyrant.

Of him, Lord Brougham, after referring to


some virtues of a personal character which he undoubtedly possessed, has said: “But the instant that his prerogative was concerned or his bigotry interfered with, or his will thwarted, the most unbending pride, the most bitter animosity, the most calculating coldness of heart, the most unforgiving resentment, took possession of his whole heart, and swayed it by turns. The habits of friendship, the ties of blood, the dictates of conscience, the rules of honesty, were alike forgotten; and the fury of the tyrant, with the resources of a cunning, which mental alienation is supposed to whet, were ready to circumvent or to destroy all who interposed an obstacle to the fierceness of unbridled desire."

Such a nature could no more tolerate free discussion of the measures of government than could the hungry lion show mercy to his helpless prey.

His enemies, the enemies of the State, must be crushed and destroyed, their seditious utterances stifled and the dissemination of their inflammatory doctrine prevented and suppressed, si possis recte; si non, quo cunque modo.

With freedom of speech and of the press tyrrany under any form of government is impossible; when these fundamental rights are denied, there is no liberty, whatever may be the Constitution of the State. The times were troublous. Abroad was war, rebellion ripening in the colonies, at home discord and dissension. Party spirit and party strife ran high, and hostile criticism and discussion of the measures of government were frequent, bitter and inevitable.

To such a nature as that of the king, the remedy was plain; a rigorous enforcement of the law against criminal libel in which the whole power of the government, including particularly the machinery of the courts, must be enlisted and in which every judge was expected to be, and too often was, a willing and eager volunteer. The result was numerous prosecutions by the crown for criminal libel, many of them begun by information instead of indictment, to some of which I have

« PreviousContinue »