Page images



policy, must be considered as a whole, and judged according to its success or failure. Pitt's policy failed, and he must be held responsible for it. We met with some successes at sea, notably, Lord Howe's victory of the 1st of June, but these were due to the energy and spirit wbich Lord Spencer, the Whig First Lord of the Admiralty, displayed in his administration. Unfortunately, they did not greatly influence the ultimate issue of the war. It seems to us that Pitt's father, in Pitt's place, and with Pitt's opportunities, would have avoided Pitt's disasters. We do not think he would have entrusted England's armies to incapable generals, or frittered away her strength on numberless small disunited efforts, or wasted her resources in subsidies to foreign powers that had no need of such assistance, and gave nothing in return. We believe that Chatham would have devised from the first a comprehensive plan of hostilities, would have selected one or two convenient bases of operation, and have concentrated the power and wealth of the country upon some great enterprise not unworthy of them. To use Mr. Goldwin Smith's apt phrase, Pitt had not his father's eye for men; and when a man struggled forward, he did not care to distinguish or to reward him. When Nelson won the great victory of the Nile, Pitt gave him only the lowest rank in the peerage, and excused this parsimony on the plea that Nelson would live as the hero of the greatest of naval victories, and none would ask whether he had been made baron, viscount, or earl. Then why reward him at all ?

With the war began a Reign of Terror in Great Britain. Lord Stanhope calls it “a vigorous, nay severe




exertion of the law.” We should prefer to call it an abuse of legal forms, a prostitution of the law to party purposes. Lord Stanhope enlarges on the dangers that existed from the licence of the press, and the proceedings of revolutionary societies; but, we as have shown, the mass of the people were thoroughly, we may almost say, fanatically loyal ; and so strong a Government as Pitt's could have afforded to smile at the occasional ebullitions of hot-headed enthusiasts. But in its ardour to convict everybody who was not satisfied that the constitution was incapable of further improvement, and in its anxiety to work to the utmost the powers of the law, it had no time for prudent consideration. The year 1793 was occupied with a series of political trials, in almost all cases for offences which would now be denominated trivial, the worst feature of which was that the judges generally acted as both prosecutors and judges. In 1794, the work of repression went on with increased vigour. In London two revolutionary societies, the “Corresponding" and the “ Constitutional Information,” had combined their strength, and proposed to call a Convention of the People which should hold its sessions in London. The idea was an absurd one, and could never have been realised. But the Government fell into a panic; and causing eight of the principal members to be

apprehended, namely, Thomas Hardy, Daniel Adams, John Horne Tooke (author of "The Diversions of Purley'), the Rev.Jeremiah Joyce(author of the “Scientific Dialogues'), John Thelwall, John Augustus Bonney, John Richter, and John Lovett, flung them into the Tower. Their books and papers were seized, and referred by Mr. Pitt

[ocr errors]




to a Secret Committee of the House of Commons, who in less than twenty-four hours reported that they had discovered ample proofs of a traitorous conspiracy. “However,” they said, “at different periods the term of Parliamentary Reform may have been employed, it is obvious that the present view of these societies is not intended to be prosecuted by any application to Parliament, but, on the contrary, by an open attempt to supersede the House of Commons." Armed with this report, Pitt introduced a bill for the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act; and, in spite of the eloquent and energetic opposition of Fox and Sheridan, carried it triumphantly through the House of Commons. In the Lords it was opposed only by nine peers. .

In September, the number of prisoners charged with high treason was increased, by fresh arrests, to thirteen, including Thomas Holcroft, the dramatist. It is important to observe that not one of these supposed criminals was of a social rank or influence which could have rendered him a formidable adversary to an established Government; or of a character likely to be induced to accede with fervour to any schemes of violence or bloodshed. In bringing them to trial, it is obvious that the Ministry incurred a serious responsibility. Success could bring them no credit, while failure could not but cover them with obloquy. And if it be surprising that the Cabinet, strengthened as it now was by the accession of the Duke of Portland, Earl Fitzwilliam, Mr. Windham, and others of the Rockingham Whigs, should have ordered the prosecution of these men at all, it is still more surprising that they should have done so on what was unquestionably imperfect and unsatisfactory evidence.



The first trial, that of Thomas Hardy, the shoemaker, began on the 28th of October before a special jury. The case was opened by Sir John Scott (afterwards Lord Eldon) in a speech of nine hours' length. Erskine conducted the defence, and cross-examined with much ingenuity the witnesses brought forward by the Government. His speech for the defence lasted seven hours,—no very long time compared with that occupied by counsel on recent occasions, but then regarded as an extraordinary effort,--and was a masterpiece of ingenious argument. Never, says Lord Stanhope, was the public expectation, though high, more fully answered; and never did his ability as an advocate shine more conspicuously. In these great State Trials his forensic fame reached its culminating point. The main drift of his reasoning, which is now accepted as a fundamental principle of law, was to show that the statutes on high treason, inflicting as they did the most tremendous penalties, required a specially rigid and literal construction. They had been enacted for the safety of the royal life and person, not for the protection of the royal Government. It was undoubtedly a crime to conspire against the King's lawful authority, supposing such conspiracy to be proved, but that was not the crime alleged against the prisoner Hardy; that was not high treason as defined by the Act of Edward the 3rd. The jury were of Erskine's opinion, and, to the mortification of the Ministry, returned a verdict of “ Not Guilty.” Mr. Horne Tooke was then

“ indicted on a similar charge, supported by almost the same

[ocr errors]

* Erskine's 'Speeches,' iii. 53.



evidence. Erskine again acted as counsel ; though the prisoner, a man of ready and considerable ability, took an active part in his own defence. A verdict of "Not Guilty” was returned. The baffled. Government, contrary to all custom, and, it may be said, all the rules of justice, undertook a third prosecution, that of Thelwall.* In this, too, they were defeated; and they then retired from the struggle, with signal loss of credit.t

In the following year, Pitt pushed his repressive system still further. A succession of bad harvests, the heavy burden of increasing taxation, the languor of trade, the ill-success which had attended the military projects of the Ministry,—these and other causes had at length fomented a wide-spread feeling of discontent and irritation, which


* Thelwall, in the course of the trial, feeling dissatisfied with Erskine's conduct of the case, wrote to him, “ I'll be hanged if I don't plead my own cause;" to which Erskine replied, “You'll be hanged if you do!”

+ “ Most fortunate,” remarks Sir Erskine May, was the result of these trials. Had the prisoners been found guilty, and suffered death, a sense of injustice would have aroused the people to dangerous exasperation. The right of free discussion and association would have been branded as treason ; public liberty would have been crushed; and no man would have been safe from the vengeance of the Government. But now it was acknowledged, that if the executive had been too easily alarmed, and Parliament too readily persuaded of the existence of danger, the administration of justice had not been tampered with; and that, even in the midst of panic, an English jury would see right done between the Crown and the meanest of its subjects. And while the people were made sensible of their freedom, ministers were checked for a time in their perilous career. Nor were these trials, however impolitic, without their

On the one hand, the alarmists were less credulous of dangers to the State; on the other, the folly, the rashness, the ignorance, and criminality of many of the persons connected with political associations were exposed,"— Constitutional History,' ii. 158.

" VOL. II.



« PreviousContinue »