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enterprising traveller, present at a meeting of the Constitutional Society, had humorously observed that he was disposed to go to greater lengths than any of us would choose to follow him ;” an observation which was faithfully reported by a spy, as evidence of dangerous designs."
Messrs. Bonney, Joyce, Kyd, and Holcroft were next arraigned, but the attorney-general, having twice Other prisfailed in obtaining a conviction upon the evidence chersuisat his command, consented to their acquittal and Dec. 1st, 1794. lischarge. But Thelwall, against whom the Thelwall
. prosecution had some additional evidence personal to himself, was tried, and acquitted. After this last failure, no further trials were ventured upon. The other prisoners, for whose trial the special commission had been issued, were discharged, as well as sereral prisoners in the country, who had been implicated in the proceedings of the obnoxious societies.
Most fortunate was the result of these trials. Had the prisoners been found guilty and suffered death, a sense of injustice would have aroused the people result of these 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 gove ernment. But now it was acknowledged, that if the executive had been too easily alarmed, and Parliament 100 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.:
1 St. Tr., xxv. 310. 2 lbid., 746.
8 Mr. Speaker Addington, writing after these events, said, “It is of more consequence to maintain the credit of a mild and unprejudiced administration of justice than even to convict a Jacobin." — Lord Side mouth's Life, i. 132. See also Belsham's Hist., ix. 244 ; Cartwright's Life, i. 210; Holcroft's Mem., ii. 180.
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. On the meeting of Parliament, in December, the failure
of these prosecutions at once became the subject
of discussion. Even on the formal reading of the on the trials, Dec. 30th,
Clandestine Outlawries Bill, Mr. Sheridan urged 1794.
the immediate repeal of the act for the suspension of the Habeas Corpus. While he and other members of the opposition contended that the trials had discredited the evidence of dangerous plots, ministers declined to accept any such conclusion. The solicitor-general maintained, that the “ only effect of tlie late verdicts was, that the persons acquitted could not be again tried for the same offence;” and added, that if the juries had been as well informed as himself, they would have arrived at a different conclusion ! These expressions, for which he was rebuked and ridiculed by Mr. Fox, were soon improved upon by Mr. Windham. The latter wished the opposition “joy of the innocence of an acquitted felon," — words which, on being called to order, he was obliged to explain away."
A few days afterwards, Mr. Sheridan moved for the repeal Jan. 5th, 1795. of the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act, in a speech abounding in wit, sarcasm, and personalities. The debate elicited a speech from Mr. Erskine, in which he proved, in the clearest manner, that the acquittal of the prisoners had been founded upon the entire disbelief of the jury in any traitorous conspiracy, — such as had been alleged to exist. His arguments were combated by Mr. Serjeant Adair, who, in endeavoring to prove that the House had been right, and the juries in error, was naturally rewarded
i Parl. Hist., xxxi. 994-1061.
with the applause of his audience. His speech called forth this happy retort of Mr. Fox. The learned gentleman, he said, “ appealed from the jury to the House. And here let me adore the trial by jury. When this speech was made to another jury, - a speech which has been to-night received with such plaudits that we seemed ready ire pedibus in sententium, - it was received with a cold . not guilty.'” The minister maintained a haughty silence; but being ap pealed to, said that it would probably be necessary to con tinue the act. Mr. Sheridan's motion was supported by no more than forty-one votes."
The debate was soon followed by the introduction of the Continuance Bill. The government, not having
Suspension any further evidence of public danger, relied upon of Habeus
, the facts already disclosed in Parliament and in continued, the courts. Upon these they insisted, with as much contidence as if there had been no trials; while, on the other side, the late verdicts were taken as a conclusive refutation of all proofs hitherto offered by the executive. These arguments were pressed too far, on either side. Proof's of treason had failed: proofs of seditious activity abounded. To condemn men to death on such evidence was one thing: to provide securities for the public peace was another : but it was clear that the public danger had been magnified, and its character misapprelrended. The bill was speedily passed by both Houses.
While many prisoners charged with sedition had been released after the state trials, Henry Redhead Yorke was excepted from this indulgence. He
Henry Redwas just twenty-two years old, - of considerable talent; and had entered into politics, when a mere spirace July boy, with more zeal than discretion. In April, 1794, he had assembled a meeting at Castle Hill, Sheffield, whom he addressed, in strong and inflammatory language,
1 Ayes, 41; Noes, 185; Parl. Hist., xxxi. 1062.
2 Ibid., 1144-1194; 1280-1293. VOL. II.
head Yorke for con:
upon the corruptions of the House of Commons, and the necessity of parliamentary reform. The proceedings at this meeting were subsequently printed and published; but it was not proved that Mr. Yorke was concerned in the publication, nor that it contained an accurate report of his speech. Not long afterwards, he was arrested on a charge of high treason. After a long imprisonment, this charge was abandoned ; but in July 1795, he was at length brought to trial at the York Assizes, on a charge of conspiracy to defame the House of Commons, and excite a spirit of disaffection and sedition amongst the people. He spoke ably in his own defence; and Mr. Justice Rooke, before whom he was tried, admitted in his charge to the jury that the language of the prisoner, — presuming it to be correctly reported, - would have been innocent at another time and under other circumstances; but that addressed to a large meeting, at a period of excitement, it was dangerous to the public peace. The jury being of the same opinion, found a verdict of guilty ; and the defendant was sentenced to a fine of 2001., and two years' imprisonment in Dorchester jail. The year 1795 was one of suffering, excitement, uneasi
ness, and disturbance: “the time was out of riots, 1795.
joint.” The pressure of the war upon industry, aggravated by two bad harvests, was already beginning to be felt. Want of employment and scarcity of food, as usual, provoked political discontent; and the events of the last three years had made a wide breach between the gove ernment and the people. Until then, the growth of freedom had been rapid : many constitutional abuses had already been corrected ; and the people, trained to free thought and discussion, had been encouraged by the first men of the age, - by Chatham, Fox, Grey, and the younger Pitt himself, - to hope for a wider representation as the consummation of their
1 St. Tr., xxv. 1003.
liberties. But how had the government lately responded to these popular influences ? By prosecutions of the press, by the punishment of political discussion as a crime, - by the proscription of parliamentary reformers, as men guilty of sedition and treason, — and by startling restraints upon public liberty. Deeply disturbed and discontented was the public mind. Bread riots, and excited meetings in favor of parliamentary reform, disclosed the mixed feelings of the populace. These discontents were inflamed by the mischievo ous activity of the London Corresponding Society, emboldened by its triumphs over the government, and by demagogues begotten by the agitation of the times. On the 26th of October, a vast meeting was assembled by the London Corresponding Society at Copenhagen House, at which 150,000 persons were said to have been present. An address to the nation was agreed to, in which, among other stirring appeals, it was said, “ We have lives, and are ready to devote them, either separately or collectively, for the salvation of the country." This was followed by a remonstrance to the king, urging parliamentary reform, the removal of ministers, and a speedy peace.
Several resolutions were also passed describing the sufferings of the people, the load of taxation, and the necessity of universal suffrage and annual parliaments. The latter topic had been the con tant theme of all their proceedings; and however strong their language, no other object had ever been avowed. The meeting dispersed without the least disorder.?
Popular excitement was at its height, when the king was about to open Parliament in person. On the 29th Attack of October, the Park and streets were thronged king, Oct. with an excited multitude, through which the royal 29111, 1795. procession was to pass, on its way to Westminster. Instead
i See their addresses to the nation and the king, June 29th, 1795, in support of universal suffrage and annual parliaments. — llist. of the Two Acts
2 Jlist. of the Two Acts, 98-108.