« PreviousContinue »
what has been proved of their characters, however good in other respects, is against them in this case. In that point of * view, I should state the evidence respecting their characters to you, were I to dwell upon it, which, however, I shall refrain from doing. Indeed I shall notice it no farther, than merely to mention as matter of curiosity, that evidence of the * same sort was brought forward and insisted upon in the trials of 1794- and 1795. In fact, the defence in the present case seems modelled upon those cases of a similar description that have gone
before it, and will, I trust, meet with the same fate. Having thus, Gentlemen, detained you at so great length, I shall leave the case to you, perfectly satisfied with having done
my duty in bringing it before you. It appeared to me, after a full consideration, to be a case which could not be passed over, as it was necessary to put limits to the circulation of the dangerous and seditious publications disseminating at present in every quarter of the country. It is for you to say upon the evidence, whether my opinion has been correct or not. I am satisfied myself that my opinion is right, and that
the expressions charged in the indictment are seditious; and 3 I have had to-day the satisfaction to hear that the Court thinks so likewise. You will afterwards learn their Lordships? opinion upon the evidence, as you have now heard mine. That I have thought it my duty to give you plainly and without varnish. But clear though I be on the whole case, I shall be satisfied with whatever verdict you may give, and I can have no doubt the country will be so likewise.
Mr CLERK, senior Coursel for Alexander M‘Laren, then rose, and addressed the Jury in the following terms.
Gentlemen of the Jury, In the long and able argument which you have just heard, the Lord Advocate has attempted to convince you that both of the prisoners at the bar have been guilty of the crimes laid to their chargeI attend you for one of them only, Mr M.Laren, and shall leave the defence of the other, Mr Baird, to his own Counsel Mr Jeffrey, who is able to do the most ample justice to his client. Mr M‘Laren is accused of having made a seditious harangue to the people assembled at a numerous meeting held in a field near Kilmarnock, and of having afterwards caused his speech to be printed, along with other speeches of a like tendency, as a pamphlet, which was sold and distributed in that neighbourhood.
Gentlemen, That Mr M.Laren was present, and spoke a few sentences at the public meeting already mentioned, is certainly true; but I hope to satisfy you, that, considering the occasion and circumstances under which it was delivered, the
speech (if speech it might be called) contained nothing seditious or otherwise criminal. As to the publication of the pamphlet, Mr M.Laren had no concern with it, and knows nothing of it. There is no evidence that he assisted in the printing or publication even of that speech, which is said to have been spoken by himself; and certainly there is no pretence for saying that he took a concern in the publication, sale, or distribution of the pamphlet. I hope, therefore, that I may disençumber myself of this branch of the accusation, as not affecting Mr M'Laren at all, and leave it, in so far as it may be thought to affect the other pannel, to the consideration of Mr Jeffrey, who will address you for him.
As to the criminality of the specch at the public meeting, much eloquence has been employed, and some points, both in fact and in law, have been strained to the utmost against the pannel, in declamatory comments on the wickedness of his supposed intention to blow up the flames of sedition in the mul titude, as well as on the supposed illegal and dangerous tendency of his words, as being utterly subversive of the British Constitution and of all good government. But in making these violent and uncharitable strictures, it was forgotten that a public meeting having been called for lawful purposes, the occasion rendered it necessary that the pannel (who had been appointed to open the business) should make some remarks on the subject of public grievances. This is his defence. In addressing the people, he had no intention to excite them to sedition or rebellion, to any species of violence, or to any unlaw. ful act. They had met with the fair and legal purpose of petitioning the different branches of the Legislature for relief against the grievances of which they complained ; and in speaking of those grievances, the pannel did nothing more than asşist in the previous deliberations necessary to ascertain the views and wishes of the people assembled,
as to the nature of the applications that ought to be made. This defence, so important for the pannel, was opened at the beginning of the trial; but so far from attempting to refute it, the Lord Advocate did not, in the course of his very long argument, so much as allude to it: and you will see, Gentlemen, that the Indictment, unfairly suppressing the object and purposes of the lawful meeting at which the pannel made his speech, represents it, as well as the other speeches there made, as seditious and inflammatory harangues, uttered without the pretence of any fair or legal purpose. These circumstances are not a little extraordinary, if the Public Prosecutor really had hopes of being successful in his charge. With such hopes he should have argued the case as it stands upon the evidence: he should have attempted to answer the defence on the fact, or on the law, or on both ; whereas, by taking no notice of a defence unquestionably relevant, he either held it to be unanswerable, or intended to rely upon a doctrine (which can never be admitted, and which, indeed, the Lord Advocate himself did not directly maintain), that occasion and circumstances can make no difference as to the criminality of words,--that the same words must, if they are seditious on any occasion, be seditious on all occasions, without the least regard to the purpose or intent of the speaker. But against such an absurdity it is unnecessary to reason. Every one must allow that the same words may be highly criminal, or altogether innocent, nay absolutely required by duty, according to the different situations in which they may be uttered ; and on this ground I maintain, that even if the words of the pannel could not have been spoken without criminality in other situations, they were justifiable as they were spoken to men assembled in deliberation about lawful and dutiful petitions, representing their grievances or complaints to the different branches of the Legislature. Nor does it appear of any importance that warm or intemperate expressions, not suficiently respectful to their superiors, occasionally fell, in the course of their deliberations, from people in the lowest ranks of life, unable to express themselves with that decency which is required from men in higher situations, if it be certain, which it is, that they looked forward to no other result from their meeting, than the exercise of their unquestionable right to petition, quietly and peaceably, without disorder or disturbance.
Gentlemen, The right of petitioning has belonged to the subjects of this country, and even to the meanest of the people, from ancient times. Since the Revolution it has never been questioned ; and immediately before that glorious event, it was attacked only to enable a tyrannical government to subvert the publie liberty. But the attack was repelled even in the worst of times; and the first act of the government of King William and Queen Mary was to confirm the right of petitioning, as a franchise of which the people could not be deprived. It has ever since been considered as a right unalterably fixed by the fundamental laws of the State; and, accordingly, though the exercise of it is supposed to be sometimes unpleasant to the Government, yet no Administration, and neither House of Parliament, has hitherto thought proper even to discourage the people in the exercise of their right of petitioning. How many hundreds, or rather thousands, of petitions have been presented to the different branches of the Legislature within these few years, representing as grievances things which are not acknowledged to be such; and yet the petitions, as coming
from the people in the exercise of their right, have been graciously received by those to whom they were addressed. And so important is the right of petitioning, that every other right in the people has been supposed to depend upon it, inasmuch as the people, if deprived of that right, would be in danger of losing the protection necessary to defend them in their other rights.
It is obvious that a fair communication from the people of their grievances and discontents to the Legislature, which bas the power, and whose duty it is to protect them, cannot be sedition, if they have a right to make such communication, If the people should petition Parliament without having right by law to do so, these petitions might be, and in almost every case would be seditious and dangerous, in raising or increas sing discontents and disturbances; because every complaint of a public grievance has a tendency io create a public discontent, and this is illegal and seditious in every case where the law does not allow it. For the same reason, any violent plaint of public grievances may be seditious or illegal, where it is not addressed to persons having legal authority to take it into consideration and give relief. But it would be a solea cism to say, that a petition to the King or to either House of Parliament, stating grievances, and praying for redress, is seditious, because, Ist, It is allowed by law ; 2dly, The persons addressed have an authority to take the complaint into consideration and give relief. Petitioning is indeed considered as a means of removing discontents and preventing disturbances, not as a means of raising them; and this may be true in some cases, though it is not always so, and we have frequently seen a ferment of discontent much increased, by numerous meetings of the people, called for the purpose titioning. But still the legal right of petitioning is unquestionable ; and it must be supposed that this right, though it cannot be used without expressing discontent, and thereby communicating it among the people, and possibly raising it, where it had previously no existence, may be legally (and without any crime, or the fear of criminal prosecutions) used in every case whatever, even though the use of it should in some respects have a bad tendency; the utility and even ne: cessity of preserving the right, counterbalancing the mischiefs which may be occasioned by the seditious or discontented spirit which may be raised by it.
But, Gentlemen, it must be plain, that if the people have a right to state their grievances in petitions for redress of grievances to the different branches of the Legislature, it follows as a necessary consequence that they have a right to state
these grievances in the plainest language, and even in what is commonly considered to be strong or coarse language in the description of public abuses, if they do not in their petitions violate that respect that is due to the Legislature; under that restriction, they may assert in their petitions that there are the grossest abuses, even in the Legislature itself. And you need not be told, that even petitions of that kind are occasionally sent from all quarters of the country, when discontents prevail among the people. A stranger to the peculiarities of the British Government might think it odd that petitions of this class, containing inferences of a nature apparently so irreverent, not only indicating an extreme degree of discontent in the petitioners, but directly tending to raise and disseminate the same kind of discontent through the whole of the kingdom, should be tolerated, especially where it is plainly the opinion, not only of the different branches of the Legislature, but also the opinion of the more sensible part of the community, that the petitions are very ill founded in their representations of grievances, and demand, by way of redress, new public measures or arrangements, which would not only be useless, but dangerous and even calamitous. Such considerations, however, have no influence, or very little influence, in the question, whether the people have right to present their petitions, and whether, when offered, the petitions ought to be received. On the contrary, it has long been held by the Legislature, that, as the people have right to petition for redress of grievances, so they have right to state what they consider to be their grievances, whether they are really grievances that ought to be redressed or not. The general rule is, that however unreasonable or unfit to be granted the prayers of the people in their petitions may be, it is not unfit to receive the petitions, and the people have a right to present them, a right that is unalienable. tore
But farther, Gentlemen, if the right of petitioning belongs to the people, they must of necessity have the right of deliberation upon the subject of their petitions, to consult with each other at public meetings, to be advised by those who are able to advise them, or think themselves able, upon the various points which may occur in considering what are grievances, and what are not; and if there are grievances, what are the remedies that ought to be proposed or prayed for in their petitions. With regard to the important claims which may be made in petitions to the Legislature, every man necessarily must have a right to meet with his fellows, either in small or in great numbers, and to discuss the matter with them. One man may think that annual parliaments are necessary: another that they would be hurtful or impracticable. On