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AN ACCOUNT OF THE HIGHEST COURT OF NUDICATURE
IN PENNSYL¥ANIA, YI2.
THE COURT OF THE PRESS
Power of this court. : It may receive and promulgate accusations of all kinds, against all persons and characters among the citizens of the state, and against all inferior courts ; and may judge, sentence and condemn to infamy, not only private individuals, but public bodies, &c. with or without inquiry or hearing, at the court's discretion. IVhose favour, or for whose emolument this court is
In favour of about one citizen in five hundred, who, by education, or practice in scribbling, has acquired a tolerable style as to grammar and construction, so as to bear printing; or who is possessed of a press and a few types. This five hundredth part of the citizens have the liberty of accusing and abus. ing the other four hundred and ninety-nine parts at their pleasure; or they may hire out their pens and press to others, tor that purpose.
Practice of this Court.
It is not governed by any of the rules of the comnon courts of law. The accused is allowed no grand jury to judge of the truth of the accusation before it is publicly made; nor is the name of the accuser inade known to him, nor has he an opportunity of confronting the witnesses against him, for they are kept in the dark, as in the Spanish court of inquisi. tion. Nor is there any petty jury of his peers swom to try the truth of the charges. The proceedings are also sometimes so rapid, that an honest good citizen may find himself suddenly and unexpectedly accused,
and in the same moment judged and condemned, and sentence pronounced against him that he is a rogue and a villian. Yet if an officer of this court receives the slightest check for misconduct in this his office, he claims imniediately the rights of a free citizen by the constitution, and demands to know his accuser, to confronų the witnesses, and have a fair trial by the jury of his peers.,
The foundation of its authority.
It is said to be founded on an article in the state constitution, which establishes the liberty of the press-a liberty which every Pennsylvanian would night and die for, though fow of us, I believe, have distinct ideas of its nature and extent. It seems, indeed, somewhat like the liberty of the press, that felons have, by the common law of England before conviction; that is, to be either pressed to death or hanged. If by the liberty of the press, we understood merely the liberty of discussing the propriety of public measures and political opinions, let us have as much of it as you please ; but if it means the liberty of affronting, calumniating, and defaming one another, I, for my part, own myself willing to part with my share of it, whenever our legislators shall please to alter the law; and shall chcerfully consent to ex change my liberty of abusing others, for the privi. lege of not being abused myself,
this court is commissioned or
It is not by any commission from the supreme ex. ecutive council, who might previously judge of the abilities, integrity, knowledge, &c. of the persons to be appointed to this great trust, of deciding upon the characters and good fame of the citizens: for this court is above that council, and may accuse, judge, and condemn it at pleasure. Nor is it hereditary, as is the court of dernier resort in the peerage of England. But any man who can procure pen, ink, and
paper, with a press, a' few types, and a huge pair of blacking balls, may commissionate himself, and his court is immediately established in the plenary possession and exercise of its rights; for if you make the least complaint of the judge's conduct, he daubs his blacking balls in your face wherever he meets you: and besides tearing your private character to splinters, marks you out for the odium of the public, as an enemy to the liberty of the press.
Of the natural support of this courf.
Its support is founded in the depravity of such minds as have not been mended by religion, nor improved by good education.
There is a lust in man no charm can tame,
On eagle's wings immortal scandals fly,
Whoever feels pain on hearing a good character of his neighbour, will feet a pleasure in the reverse. And of those who, despairing to rise in distinction by their virtues, are happy if others can be depressed to a level with themselves, there are a number sufficient in every great town to maintain one of these courts by subscription. A shrewd observer once said, that in walking the streets of a slippery morning, one Inight see where the gocd natured people lived, by the ashes thrown on the ice before the doors : probabiy he would have formed a different conjecture of the temper of those of whom he might find engaged in such subscriptions.
Of the checks proper to be established against the
abuses of power in those courts. Hitherto there are none. But since so much has been written and published on the federal constitution; and the necessity of checks in all parts of good government, has been so clearly and learnedly explained, I find myself so far enlightened as to sus. pect some check may be proper in this part also; but I have been at a loss to imagine any that may not be construed an infringement of the sacred liberty of the press. At length, however, I think I have found one, that instead of diminishing general liberty, shall aug. ment it; which is, by restoring to the people a species of liberty, of which they have been deprived by our laws--I mean the liberty of the cudgel! In the rude state of society, prior to the existence of laws, if one man gave another ill language, the affronted person might return it by a box on the ear; and, if repeated, by a good drubbing; and this without offending against any law : but now the right of making such returns is denied, and they are punished as breaches of the peace, while the right of abusing seems to remain in full force; the laws made against it being rendered ineffectual by the liberty of the press.
My proposal then is, to leave the liberty of the press untouched, to be exercised in its full extent, force, and vigour, but to permit the liberty of the cudgel to go with it, parri passu. Thus, my fellowcitizens, if an impudent writer attacks your reputation-dearer perhaps to you than your life, and puts his name to the charge, you may go to him as openly, and break his head. If he conceals himself behind the printer, and you can nevertheless discover who he is, you inay, in like manner, waylay him in the night, attack him behind, and give him a good drubbing. If you adversary hires better writers than himself to abuse you more effectually, you may hire as many porters, stronger than yourself, to assist you in giving him a more effectual drubbing, Thus far goes my project as to private resentment and retri. bution. But if the public should ever happen to be
affronted, as it ought to be, with the conduct of such writers, I would not advise proceeding immediately to these extremities, but that we should in moderation content ourselves with tarring and feathering, and tossing in a blanket.
If, however, it should be thought, that this propo. sal of mine may disturb the public peace, I would then humbly recommend to our legislators to take up the consideration of both liberties, that of the press, and that of the cudgel; and by an explicit law mark their extent and limits: and at the same time that they secure the person of a citizen from assaults, they would likewise provide for the security of his reputation.
Some wit of old-such wits of old there wereWhose hints show'd ineaning, whose allusions care By one brave stroke to mark all human kind Call'd clear blank paper ev'ry infant mind; When still, as opening sense her dictates wrote, Fair virtue put a seal, or vice a blot.
The thought was happy, pertinent and true;
Various the papers various wants produce,
Pray note the fop---half powder and half lace-