Imágenes de páginas












Printed by C. and W. REYNELL, Little Pulteney street, Haymarket.

(! )
232. e. 480.




It hath pleased the paternal government of this country to lay certain restrictions upon the means of conveying information to the people: some of these restrictions are im. posed under the pretence of levying a reve. nue; others, without disguise, have been forged for the express purpose of prevente ing the people knowing what is being done by their so-called representatives. It is to the last class that, for the present moment, I desire to call the attention of the reader.

Mr Cobbett, during the time of great dis. tress that followed the peace of 1815, com. menced a publication, called “Two-penny

Trash.' This publication, from its price, was within the reach even of the poor. Mr Cobbett chose to indulge in strictures upon the conduct of the then government, and he clothed his strictures in language so strike ing, while his price was so low, that not only did he render the people able, but what was worse in this case, he made them willing to buy and read them. The goveriiment took alarm at this proceeding. The people, in the widest signification of that term, were now about to be made actually cognizant of the conduct of their rulers. Hating the salutary control that would have resulted from this knowledge, the government set themselves diligently to work in order to put an end to the inculcation of it.

What the government feared was, that the mass of the people, that is, the labour. ing millions, should hear of and understand their proceedings. So long as the rich few were the only persons informed of them, they were perfectly at their ease: when the poor many were enabled to pry into and criticise their conduct, then, indeed, the ministers were naturally and dreadfully

frightened. The grand object was to shut out the gaze of the multitude to build up a high and thick wall between themselves and the millions without. Having a shrewd sense of the evil, they formed the remedy with great care, and no small sinister sagacity. When mischief is to be done, the best instrument is an act of parliament; so they determined to pass certain acts, now consigned to deserved ignominy, under the well-known title of “the Six Acts ;” the precious offspring of the brains and cankered hearts of Lord Castlereagh and company. One of these acts was distinguished from its brethren by the popular name of Cobbett's “Two-penny Trash Act.” The thunders of the law were to be directed against the means of conveying knowledge to the poor, and the following were the means adopted. It was rendered a crime to convey intelligence, to relate any circumstances connected with church or state, or to publish any “comments thereon ” in any publication, the price of which was under sixpence, and which issued oftener than once in twenty-six days, unless the publication paid a four-penny stamp duty. The framers of this exquisite specimen of legislation knew two things. They knew first, that the people, that is, the labouring millions, were little interested in publications that did not convey what they signified by intelligence,-meaning thereby the intelligence of the day, did not treat of matters relating to church or state. They knew secondly, that, by imposing the stamp duty upon such publications, the price would be raised above the means of the people. They therefore believed that they should thus be able to consigo the people to helpless ignorance.

The atrocity of this disgraceful enactment deserves to be duly appreciated—and that for two reasons; we shall in the first place be able fairly to estimate the character of the statesmen who enacted this stain upon our laws, and in the second, to understand the patriotism of those liberal and reform ing ministers who continue it.

I assume that it is the first duty of a go. vernment to take the most effectual means of making the people obey all laws which justly protect person, property, and reputa. tion. I also assume it to be the duty of the government to seek rather for means of prevention, than of punishment; that is, that it should not so much seek to deter the citi. zens generally from breaking the law through the terror created by punishing such as have broken it, as by taking precautions, that no one should have the desire to break it. Now one of the most effectual, one of the most necessary, means of creating this desire, is to teach the people what the law is. Let is understand the mode in which the government of England teaches the law to its people. In the first place, it writes its laws in a language totally unintelligible to any one · who has not spent a life in trying to under stand it; and this, in England, is called learning the science of the law. Secondly, having promulgated the law in this jargon, it next creates a monopoly in the printing of it. Let us see the true working of this ma. chinery, by taking a particular case of it.

The Parliament passes an Actof Parliament, - say, respecting combinations of the working people: the act is totally unintelligible, and takes its place amid a heap of other acts, and lies hidden in the mass called the “statutes at large,” of which the people, that is, not one person in one hundred thousand, ever see even the outside: sometime after, -the Parliament passes another act, relating to the same subject-without which, the former act now becomes unintelligible, even to lawyers themselves and this second act is buried in the same way, and in the same -voluminous publication : both the one and the other are completely hidden from the persons whose conduct they are intended to regulate. Some years after this the rich people became frightened by the temper and proceedings of the working classes. While the rich are thus frightened, a few ignorant labourers,--say the Dorchester labourers,

combine for certain useful purposes : the rich go to a lawyer and ask him if they (the poor labourers) cannot be punished for thus combining? The lawyer hunts up the two acts that have lain hidden for so long in that grand hiding place, the “statutes at large,” and he pounces upon these unfortunate and necessarily ignorant men. Necessarily ignorant, I say, and I will prove my assertion. A benevolent and really patriotic friend of the working man-in fact, one of themselves (I see no reason why I should not name him)- Mr Place, wished to publish a small and cheap abridgment of the Combination Laws—but before doing so, he had a case laid before the present Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, then Mr Tindal, to know if such a publication would be legal, and it was replied that it would be illegal. The Statutes the people could not buy, if they had wished ; the separate Acts they knew nothing of, and they who desired to instruct them were prevented by this trash act, because it would be publishing intelligence. But to proceed in showing how the Government promulgates the law :-the lawyer, as I said before, pounces upon these necessarily ignorant men: he condemns them to transportation for life, and through this, their sentence, it is expected that the labour. ers will learn the law. But, behold! the newspaper which would tell the labourer the fact of the condennation of his fellows, is taxed so highly, that he cannot buy it, so that he is compelled to rest in ignorance, and perhaps may learn the law like his unfortunate and guiltless fellows, by incurring its penalties. Such, reader, is the mode of promulgating the law, adopted by the paternal Government of England, and such is one of the blessed fruits of those atrocious restrictions on the press, which the present Ministry refuse to abolish.

The catalogue of evils, however, does not end here. It so happens, that, although the man whose mind is trained specifically to the investigation of truth, viz. the philoso. pher, may be content to take, as illustrations of great principles, fictitious cases, which do not interest his feelings, the generality of mankind are unable to bend their attention to such cases, and are always unwilling to

How this opinion was arrived at baffles my apprehension ; nevertheless, the fact is as I have stated it.

entertain them. The great majority of the rich, for example, feel this repugnance, and crave after the news of the day, and the law does not prevent their thus acquiring infor. mation through means that interest and amuse, while they instruct. The poor, how. ever, who are of the same frame of mind, are cruelly shut out from this source of instruction. The rich are allowed, from the passing events of the day, to reap whatever knowledge they convey: the poor, who, like the rich are interested in the occurrences of the present time, are compelled to be ig. norant of them. The law steps in and says to the poor man, “You shall not hear of or learn these events unless you pay a sum above your means. It is true you ought to be instructed—it is true that you wish to be so—that you thirst after knowledge-and that could you attain it, you would be both better and happier-but all this notwithstanding, I condemn you to ignorance, be. cause the rich, who have made me, fear the knowledge of the people. What do they care for your loss of pleasant recreation-of noble and inspiring ideas and feelings? They, the rich, tremble while you read they dread the magnanimous spirit which knowledge creates; and they would rather see you ignorant, wretched, and dependent, than instructed, happy, and blessed with a generous independence.” Such is, in fact, the language of the rich man's law-such is the language of that law which the Liberal Ministry, made by the breath of the people, have determined to retain.

It behoves good men to learn whether the mischievous influence of this law cannot be counteractel. Early in the year 1833, a body of persons united for the pur. pose of devising means of diffusing moral and political knowledge among the people. The chief movers in this scheme were Mr Hume, the member for Middlesex, Mr Grote, the member for London, Mr Warburton, the member for Bridport, Mr Francis Place, and myself. Several others joined us, and we hoped to be able to furnish to the great body of the people the means of acquiring a knowledge of their duty as citizens, as well as of generally instructing themselves. We contemplated the republi. cation of standard works at a low price, and also the publication of new works of solid nstruction expressly written for our asso.

ciation. And we further, as the great, indeed the only means of enabling us to do this, intended to establish a weekly periodical, which should contain moral and political discussions, resulting from the occur. rences of the day. The whole of this scheme was rendered abortive by the state of the law and the conduct of the then ministry. We were given to understand that Lord Althorp contemplated the abolition of the stamp duties on newspapers, as well as the repeal of the odious “Trash Act;” and it was deemed advisable to remain quiet until he had done so, and not to attempt to brave the law, or to devise means by which its enactments might be legally evaded. The world knows but too well what Lord Althorp did or rather did not do. With constant protestations respecting his desire to take off this impost, he allowed it to remain, in spite of the most cogent arguments and convincing evidence that went to prove, first, that the revenue would lose nothing by such repeal, and secondly, that the people at large would derive immense benefit from it. Our society separated, and awaited Lord Althorp's good deeds. These good deeds were never performed, and we are still labouring under the same difficulty, and shackled by the same mischievous law. Mr S. Rice has no intention of being wiser or better than his predecessors. He cannot be made to see that no injury would happen to the revenue by the repeal of the law, and having no popular sympathies, he is careless of the mischievous consequences resulting from restrictions on popular instruction.

What, then, is to be done? Are we to rest contented with this condition; confine ourselves to mere complaining, and leave untried what remains to us of instructing one another? I have, myself, long since answered this question, and have determined to try the value of such means as the law still allows. Being deprived of the best instrument, let us try an inferior one. Good may be effected even by failure. To this end of trying the means that remain to us,

* I say “cannot.” I suspect the more cor. rect phrase would be “will not." Mr Rice is amazingly profuse of liberal professions. The however, who judge of the worth of professions by the character of him who makes them, will be at no loss to estimate the value of Mr Spri . Rice's liberal declarations,

« AnteriorContinuar »