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1792 had determined the English Ministry to crush in the bud the revolution they pretended they saw springing up at home Their real object was to prostrate the reformatory associations, Louis was deposed, and the Republic had decreed fraternity and aid to the people of all nations in recovering their liberties. Riots occurred in a few English manufacturing towns. The King suddenly convened Parliament, and declared in his speech, that conspiracies existed for overthrowing the Government, and that the kingdom was on the eve of a revolution. In the debate on the King's speech, the Minister said that seditious societies had been instituted, under the plausible pre
of discussing constitutional questions, but really to promote an insurrection of the people. Mr. Fox met the assertions of King and Minister with a denial, whose language borders on temerity. He declared, “there was not one fact stated in His Majesty's speech which was not false—not one assertion or insinuation which was not unfounded. The prominent feature in it was, that it was an intolerable calumny on the people of Great Britain ; an insinuation of so gross and black a nature that it demanded the most rigorous inquiry and the most severe punishment !” Bold words, these ; not unlike those of Cromwell, who declared “he would as soon put his sword through the heart of the King as that of any other man.”
But the Government was not to be arrested in its course by the bold words of the Opposition leader. It continued to prosecute printers and lecturers for seditious libels and speeches, fining, imprisoning, cropping, branding, and transporting, at will. The progress of events in France was precipitating the crisis. In 1793, Louis and his Queen were guillotined, and the next year saw the Princess Elizabeth's head fall, while the bloody star of Robespierre loomed in the ascendant. At these scenes, the cheek of monarchical Europe turned pale. Pitt was alarmed. Prosecutions for sedition did not reach the seat of the disease. Royal proclamations did not silence the reformers. The constitutional societies still met and debated. Early in the session of 1794, he brought in bills to clothe the Government with extraordinary powers to detect suspicious persons, (i. e. reformers,) and to suspend the habeas corpus act. After a furious contest, in which Fox, Grey, and Sheridan, stood by the popular cause, the bills passed. The habeas corpus was suspended in May, 1794. The safeguard of English liberty being prostrated, a fell blow was aimed at the societies, through the persons of some of their leading members. Informations for high treason were filed in May by the Attorney General (Sir John Scott-Lord Eldon) against Tooke, Hardy, Thelwall, and nine others, and they were sent to the Tower to await their trials. Both parties now prepared for a death-struggle. The Ministers trusted for success to the power of the Crown, the subserviency of the judges, and the wide-spread panic among the higher classes. The common people, though alarmed at the strength of this combination, relied upon the innocence of the accused persons ; but, at all events, (though the more timid erased their names from the roll of the societies,) the mass resolved to make a stand for the freedom of speech and the press, and the right of associating for a redress of grievances, worthy of the exigency. From the papers of the London Society, which had been seized, it appeared that the members contemplated holding a National Convention to promote Parliamentary reform ; and this was regarded as a conspiracy to subvert the monarchy and establish a republic !
I have stated the crime with which these men were charged. Indicted for conspiring to subvert the monarchy, depose the King, and compass his death, it was only pretended that they had uttered and published seditious words with the intent to alter bis Government; when, in fact, they had only advocated radical reforms in the two Houses of Parliament. The existence of the constitutional societies and their doings were clearly legal. No doubt, many unguarded and some unwarranted expressions about the King and Parliament had been used. But nothing had been said or done which, on a fair construction, exposed the parties to a just conviction of any crime. Most assuredly they were not guilty of high treason ; and as surely their words and deeds were tame and puerile, compared with what the English press and people have since said and done in the ear of Ministers and under the eye of Majesty. In short, they were to be immolated on the judicial
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The character and station of the prisoners excited the interest of different ranks of society. They had been shut up
in the Tower six months, closely confined, and all access to them by their friends denied. Hardy was a shoemaker, and, with two or three others, was from the upper strata of the lower orders. Kyd was a barrister ; Holcroft, a dramatic writer; Joyce, a minister; and Thelwall, a political lecturer. These belonged to the middle class. JOHN Horne TOOKE, the most considerable person among them, held a debatable position in the higher circles. He was a gentleman of limited aristocratic connections, and a scholar of rare and varied learning. He had taken holy orders in his youth, but had long ago left the altars of the church for the closet, of the student and the forum of the politician. He was the author of the profound philosophical treatise on the English language, called “ The Diversions of Purley.” Many then supposed him to be the author of Junius. He had had a violent newspaper controversy, feigned or real, with that writer, and had worsted him. He was the ablest pamphleteer and debater among the ultra-liberals, and was ever ready, with his keen pen and bold tongue, to contend with the soribes of the Government, through the press, or its orators on the rostrum, and he never gave cause to either to congratulate themselves on the results of the encounter. Nearly twenty years ago he had stood before the same tribunal, and defended himself with consummate skill, and a courage bordering on audacity, against a prosecution for publishing a defense of “the American rebels” at the battle
of Lexington. He and his associates were now to make a stand for their lives.
The trials took place at the Old Bailey, in October and November, 1794, and extended through several weeks. The prisoners were defended by Erskine, whose name was a tower of strength, and Gibbs, the very embodiment of legal knowledge, (Tooke aiding in his own case,) whilst Scott, longheaded, learned, and unscrupulous, assisted by the Solicitor General, prosecuted for the Crown. The hall and the passages leading to it were densely thronged with persons of all ranks and conditions, eager spectators of or participants in, the most memorable struggle which the courts of the common law have witnessed. No overt acts of any moment could be proved against either of the accused, and the prosecution had to rely mainly on ambiguous words and writings of doubtful import. The whole power of the Court of the King, and the Judges of the King's Court, was brought to bear upon the doomed prisoners, aided by the multifarious lore and subtle reasoning of the Attorney General. Every doubtful word was distorted, every ambiguous look transformed into lurking treason. The rules of evidence were put to the rack, to admit bits of letters and conversations, written and uttered by others than the accused, and to hold them responsible for all that had been said and done by every man who, at any time and anywhere, had belonged to the societies, or taken part in their discussions. The friends of the prisoners spoke with bated breath, as the trials proceeded; for they knew, if the prosecution succeeded, a reign of terror had begun, in which the King was to enact the Robespierre, and they were to be his victims. But neither the ravings of the Court at Windsor, nor the partialities of the Court at London, could suffice against the learning, the logic, the skill, the vigilance, the eloquence, the courage, the soul, which Erskine threw into his cause. He battled as if his own life had been at hazard. He knew that twelve true men” stood between the lion and his prey. The Court
good and ruled that if the jury believed the discussions and writings of the prisoners, or of the societies to which they belonged, tended to subvert the monarchy and depose the King, or change the Constitution, they must find them guilty. But Erskine maintained, with a power of argument which, for the moment, shook the faith of the Court, that for British subjects to utter their sentiments, in ANY FORM, concerning the Government of their country, was not TREASON. So thought the jurors, (though the Court leaned heavily to the side of the Crown,) and one after another these hunted plebeians passed the terrible ordeal. The King lost; the People won. They shouted their triumph so loud, that he heard it within his palace, and the crowned lion growled, gnashed his royal teeth, and beat the bars of his constitutional cage, till his anointed head throbbed with anguish.
Hardy, whose case was extremely perilous, was first set to the bar. His trial lasted nine days. Tooke's came next, and Thelwall's next; when the prosecutors, frantic with rage and mortification at their sigoal overthrow, abandoned the contest. When Tooke was acquitted, the joy of the people knew no bounds. He was an old reformer, had ever been the steady advocate of popular rights, and was the idol of the Radicals. He had suffered much before in the common cause. His library had been repeatedly ransacked for treasonable papers, his family insulted, and his person again and again thrust into prison. And now they had seen him stand for six days, battling with the Court which lowered upon him, and bearing unruffled the taunts with which the Government witnesses had poorly withstood his searching cross-examination, contending for a life whose every pulsation had been given to the service of the people. When the foreman pronounced the words, “Not Guilty,” the arches of Old Bailey rang with plaudits. After addressing a few words to the Court, he turned to Scott, and said : “ I hope, Mr. Attorney General, that this verdict will be a warning to you not to attempt again to shed men's blood