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them fined five thousand pounds, and adjudged to lose their ears on the pillory, to be branded on the cheeks with hot irons, and to suffer perpetual imprisonment! Thus these three gentlemen, each of worth and quality in their several professions, viz., divinity, law, and physic, were, for no other offence than writing on controverted points of church government, exposed on public scaffolds, and stigmatized and mutilated as common signal rogues or the most ordinary malefactors.
Such corporeal punishments, inflicted with all the circumstances of cruelty and infamy, bound down all other gentlemen under a servile fear of like treatment; so that, for several years, no one durst publicly speak or write in defence of the liberties of the people; which the king's ministers, his privy council, and his judges, had trampled under their feet. The spirit of the administration looked hideous and dreadful; the hate and resentment which the people conceived against it, for a long time lay smothered in their breasts, where those passions festered and grew venomous, and at last discharged themselves by an armed and vindictive hand.
King Charles II. aimed at the subversion of the government, but concealed his designs under a deep hypocrisy a method which his predecessor, in the beginning of his reign, scorned to make use of. The father, who affected a high and rigid gravity, discountenanced all barefaced immorality. The son, of a gay, luxurious disposition, openly encouraged it thus their inclinations being different, the restraint laid on some authors, and the encouragement given to others, were managed after a different
In this reign a licenser was appointed for the stage and the press; no plays were encouraged but what had a tendency to debase the minds of the people. The original design of comedy was perverted; it appeared in all the shocking circumstances of immod
est double entendre, obscure description, and lewd representation. Religion was sneered out of countenance, and public spirit ridiculed as an awkward oldfashioned virtue; the fine gentleman of the comedy, though embroidered over with wit, was a consummate debauchee; and a fine lady, though set off with a brilliant imagination, was an impudent coquette. Satire, which in the hands of Horace, Juvenal, and Boileau, was pointed with a generous resentment against vice, now became the declared foe of virtue and innocence. As the city of London, in all ages, as well as the time we are now speaking of, was remarkable for its opposition to arbitrary power, the poets levelled all their artillery against the metropolis, in order to bring the citizens into contempt: an alderman was never introduced on the theatre but under the complicated character of a sneaking, canting hypocrite, a miser, and a cuckold; while the court-wits, with impunity, libelled the most valuable part of the nation. Other writers, of a different stamp, with great learning and gravity, endeavoured to prove to the English people that slavery was jure divino. Thus the stage and the press, under the direction of a licenser, became battering engines against religion, virtue, and liberty. Those who had courage enough to write in their defence, were stigmatized as schismatics, and punished as disturbers of the government.
But when the embargo on wit was taken off, Sir Richard Steel and Mr. Addison soon rescued the stage from the load of impurity it laboured under⚫ with an inimitable address, they strongly recom mended to our imitation the most amiable, rational manly characters; and this with so much success that I cannot suppose there is any reader to-day, conversant in the writings of those gentlemen, that can taste with any tolerable relish the comedies of
* By divine right.
the once admired Shadwell. Vice was obliged to retire and give place to virtue this will always be the consequence when truth has fair play: falsehood only dreads the attack, and cries out for auxiliaries: the truth never fears the encounter: she scorns the aid of the secular arm, and triumphs by her natural strength.
But, to resume the description of the reign of Charles II., the doctrine of servitude was chiefly managed by Sir Roger Lestrange. He had great advantages in the argument, being licenser for the press, and might have carried all before him without contradiction, if writings on the other side of the question had not been printed by stealth. The authors, whenever found, were prosecuted as seditious libellers; on all these occasions the king's counsel, particularly Sawyer and Finch, appeared most obsequious to accomplish the ends of the court.
During this blessed management, the king had entered into a secret league with France to render himself absolute and enslave his subjects. This fact was discovered to the world by Dr. Jonathan Swift, to whom Sir William Temple had intrusted the publication of his works.
Sidney, the sworn foe of tyranny, was a gentleman of noble family, of sublime understanding and exalted courage. The ministry were resolved to remove so great an obstacle out of the way of their designs. He was prosecuted for high treason. The overt act charged in the indictment was a libel found in his private study. Mr. Finch, the king's own solicitor-general, urged with great vehemence to this effect, "that the imagining the death of the king is treason, even while that imagination remains concealed in the mind, though the law cannot punish such secret treasonable thoughts till it arrives at the knowledge of them by some overt act. That the matter of the libel composed by Sidney was an imagining how to compass the death of King
Charles II.; and the writing of it was an overt act of treason, for that to write was to act. (Scribere est agere.)" It seems that the king's counsel in this reign had not received the same directions as Queen Elizabeth had given hers; she told them they were to look upon themselves as not retained so much (pro domina regina, as pro domina veritate) for the power of the queen as for the power of truth.
Mr. Sidney made a strong and legal defence. He insisted that all the words in the book contained no more than general speculations on the principles of government, free for any man to write down; especially since the same are written in the parliament rolls and in the statute laws.
He argued on the injustice of applying by innuendoes, general assertions concerning principles of government, as overt acts to prove the writer was compassing the death of the king; for then no man could write of things done even by our ancestors, in defence of the constitution and freedom of England, without exposing himself to capital danger.
He denied that scribere est agere, but allowed that writing and publishing is to act (Scribere et publicare est agere), and therefore he urged that, as his book had never been published nor imparted to any person, it could not be an overt act, within the statutes of treasons, even admitting that it contained treasonable positions; that, on the contrary, it was a covert fact, locked up in his private study, as much concealed from the knowledge of any man as if it were locked up in the author's mind. This was the substance of Mr. Sidney's defence: but neither law, nor reason, nor eloquence, nor innocence ever availed where Jefferies sat as judge. Without troubling himself with any part of the defence, he declared in a rage, that Sidney's known principles were a sufficient proof of his intention to compass the death of the king.
A packed jury therefore found him guilty of high
treason: great applications were made for his pardon. He was executed as a traitor.
This case is a pregnant instance of the danger that attends a law for punishing words, and of the little security the most valuable men have for their lives, in that society where a judge, by remote inferences and distant innuendoes, may construe the most innocent expressions into capital crimes. Sidney, the British Brutus, the warm, the steady friend of liberty; who, from an intrinsic love to mankind, left them that invaluable legacy, his immortal discourses on government, was for these very discourses murdered by the hands of lawless power.
Upon the whole, to suppress inquiries into the administration is good policy in an arbitrary government; but a free constitution and freedom of speech have such reciprocal dependance on each other, that they cannot subsist without consisting together.
The following extracts of a letter, signed Columella, and addressed to the editors of the British Repository for select Papers on Agriculture, Arts, and Manufactures (see vol. i.), will prepare those who read it for the following paper:
"GENTLEMEN,-There is now publishing in France a periodical work, called Ephemeridis du Citoyen,* in which several points, interesting to those concerned in agriculture, are from time to time discussed by some able hands. In looking over one of the volumes of this work a few days ago, I found a little piece written by one of our countrymen, and which our vigilant neighbours had taken from the
• Citizen's Journal.