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Trials for seditious
prosecutions for seditious libel, both in England and Ire.
land, were singularly infelicitous. The convictions
secured were few compared with the acquittals; and libels, 1794.
the evidence was so often drawn from spies and informers, that a storm of unpopularity was raised against the government. Classes, heartily on the side of order, began to be alarmed for the public liberties. They were willing that libellers should be punished: but protested against the privacy of domestic life being invaded by spies, who trafficked upon the excitement of the times.?
Crimes more serious than seditious writings were now to be Sonte trials, repressed. Traitorous societies, conspiring to sub
vert the laws and constitution, were to be assailed, and their leaders brought to justice. If they had been guilty of treason, all good subjects prayed that they might be convicted; but thoughtful men, accustomed to free discussion and association for political purposes, dreaded lest the rights and liberties of the people should be sacrificed to the public apprehensions. In 1794, Robert Watt and David Downie were tried, in
Scotland, for high treason. They were accused of Trials of Robert Watt a conspiracy to call a convention, with a view to
usurp legislative power, to procure arms, and resist hiuk
, treason, the royal authority. That their designs were danSept. 1794.
gerous and criminal was sufficiently proved, and was afterwards confessed by Watt. A general convention was to be assembled, comprising representatives from England, Scotland, and Ireland, and supported by an armed insurrection. The troops · were to be seduced or overpowered, the public offices and banks secured, and the king compelled to dismiss his ministers and dissolve Parliament. These alarming projects were discussed by seven obscure individuals in Edinburgh, of whom Watt, a spy, was the leader, and David Downie, a mechanic, the treasurer. Two of the seven soon withdrew from the conferences of the con
1 Adolphus' Hist., vi. 45, 46.
and David Downie for
spirators; and four became witnesses for the crown. Fortyseven pikes had been made, but none had been distributed. Seditious writing and speaking, and a criminal conspiracy, were too evidently established; but it was only by straining the dangerous doctrines of constructive treason, that the prisoners could be convicted of that graver crime. They were tried separately, and both being found guilty, received sentence of death.1 Watt was executed ; but Downie, having been recommended to mercy by the jury, received a pardon. It was the first conviction yet obtained for any those traitorous designs, for the reality of which Parliament had been induced to vouch.
Wbile awaiting more serious events, the public were excited by the discovery of a regicide plot. The conspirators were members of the much-dreaded plot, Sept. Corresponding Society, and had concerted a plan for assassinating the king. Their murderous instrument was a tube, or air-gun, through which a poisoned arrow was to be shot! No wonder that this foul conspiracy at once received the name of the “ Pop-Gun Plot !” A sense of the ridiculous prevailed over the fears and loyalty of the people. But before the ridicule excited by the discovery of such a plot had subsided, trials of a far graver character were approaching, in which not only the lives of the accused, but the credit of the executive, the wisdom of Parliament, and the liberties of the people were at stake.
The pop-gun 1794.
1 St. Tr., xxiii. 1167; Ibid., xxiv. 11. Not long before the commission of those acts which cost him his life, Watt had been giving information to Mr. Secretary Dundas of dangerous plots which never existed; and suspicions were entertained that if his criminal suggestions had been adopted by others, and a real plot put in movement, he would have been the first to expose it and to claim a reward for his disclosures. If such was his design, the “ biter was bit," as he fell a sacrifice to the evidence of his confederates. — St. Tr., xxiii. 1325; Belsham's Hist., ix. 227.
2 Speech of Mr. Curwen in defence of Downie, St. Tr., xxiv. 150; Speech of Mr. Erskine in defence of Hardy, 16., 961, &c.
8 Crossfield, the chief conspirator, being abroad, the other traitors were not brought to trial for nearly two years, when Crossfield and his confederates were all acquitted. - St. Tr., xxvi. 1.
Parliament had declared in May “that a traiturous and State trials, detestable conspiracy had been formed for subvert
ing the existing laws and constitution, and for introducing the system of anarchy and confusion which has so Oct. 6th,
lately prevailed in France.” In October, a special
commission was issued for the trial of the leaders of this conspiracy. The grand jury returned a true bill against Thomas Hardy, John Horne Tooke, John Thelwall, and nine other prisoners, for high treason.
These persons were members of the London Corresponding Society, and of the Society for Constitutional information, which had formed the subject of the reports of secret committees, and had inspired the government with so much apprehension. It had been the avowed object of both these societies to obtain parliamentary reform; but the prisoners were charged with con. spiring to break the public peace, - to excite rebellion, - to depose the king and put him to death, and alter the legislature and government of the country, — to summon a convention of the people for effecting these traitorous designs, - to write and issue letters and addresses, in order to assemble such a convention ; and to provide arms for the purpose of resi-ting the king's authority.
Never, since the revolution, had prisoners been placed at so great a disadvantage, in defending themselves from charges of treason. They were accused of the very crimes which Parliament had declared to be rife throughout the country; and in addressing the grand jury, Chief Justice Eyre had referred to the recent act, as evidence of a wide-spread conspiracy to subvert the government. The first prisoner brought to trial was a simple mechanic,
Thomas Hardy, - a shoemaker by trade, and
secretary of the London Corresponding Society. 28th, 1794.
Day after day, evidence was produced by the crown, first to establish the existence and character of this conspiracy; and secondly to prove that the prisoner was con
1 Preamble to Habeas Corpus Suspension Act, 34 Geo. III. c. 54.
cerned in it. This evidence having already convinced Par. liament of a dangerous conspiracy, the jury were naturally predisposed to accept it as conclusive; and a conspiracy being established, the prisoner, as a member of the societies concerned in it, could scarcely escape from the meshes of the general evidence. Instead of being tried for his own acts or language only, he was to be held responsible for all the proceedings of these societies. If they had plotted a revolution, he must be adjudged a traitor; and if he should be found guilty, what members of these societies would be safe?
The evidence produced in this trial proved, indeed, that there had been strong excitement, intemperate language, impracticable projects of reform, and extensive correspondence and popular oryanization. Many things had been said and done, by persons connected with these societies, which probably amounted to sedition ; but nothing approaching either the dignity or the wickedness of treason. Their chief off nce consi-ted in their efforts to assemble a general convention of the people, ostensibly for obtaining parliamentary reform, — but in reality, it was said, for subverting the government. If their avowed object was the true one, clearly no offence had been committed. Such combinations had already been formed, and were acknowledged to be lawful. Mr. Pitt himself, the Duke of Richmond, and some of the first men in the state had been concerned in them. If the prisoner had concealed and unlawful designs, it was for the prosecution to prove their existence by overt acts of treason. Many of the crown witnesses, themselves members of the societies, declared their innocence of all traitorous designs; while other witnesses gained little credit when exposed as spies and informers.
It was only by pushing the doctrines of constructive treason to the most dangerous extremes, that such a crime could even be inferred. Against these perilous doctrines Mr. Erskine had already successfully protested in the case of Lord George Gordon ; and now again he exposed and refuted them, in a speech which, as Mr. Horne Tooke justly said, “will live
The shortcomings of the evidence, and the consummate skill and eloquence of the counsel for the defence, secured the acquittal of the prisoner. Notwithstanding their discomfiture, the advisers of the
crown resolved to proceed with the trial of Mr. Horne Tooke. John Horne Tooke, an accomplished scholar and wit, and no mean disputant. His defence was easier than that of Hardy. It had previously been doubtful how far the fairness and independence of a jury could be relied upon. Why should they be above the influences and prejudices which seemed to prevail everywhere? In his defence of Horne Tooke, Mr. Erskine could not resist ad. verting to his anxieties in the previous trial, when even the “protecting Commons had been the accusers of his client, and had acted as a solicitor to prepare the very briefs for the prosecution.” But now that juries could be trusted, as in ordinary times, the case was clear; and Horne Tooke was acquitted.
The groundless alarm of the government, founded upon the faithless reports of spies, was well exemplified in the case of Horne Tooke. He had received a letter from Mr. Joyce, containing the ominous words “ Can you be ready by Thursday?” The question was believed to refer to some rising, or other alarming act of treason ; but it turned out, that it related only to “ a list of the titles, offices, and pensions bestowed by Mr. Pitt upon Mr. Pitt, his relations, friends, and dependents.". And again, Mr. Tooke, seeing Mr. Gay, an
1 The conclusion of his speech was received with acclamations by th spectators who thronged the court, and by the multitudes surrounding it Fearful that their numbers and zeal should have the appearance of over awing the judges and jury, and interfering with the administration of justice, Mr. Erskine went out and addressed the crowd, beseeching them to disperse. “In a few minutes there was scarcely a person to be seen near the Court." — Note to Erskine's Speeches, iii. 502.
2 State Tr., xxiv. 19; Erskine's Speeches, iii. 53; Lord Campbell's Lives of the Chancellors, vi. 471.
8 St. Tr., xxv. 745.