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SIR VICKARY GIBBS, KNT.
This able lawyer, whose reputation as a gentleman, and as a profound and acute professional man, was great before he became his Majesty's attorneygeneral, struck upon the rock of an honest man rather too zealous for the cause in which he was employed; and probably he was misled by acting on a conviction for which the public is not willing to make a sufficient allowance.
Having been one of the defenders of Thomas Hardy the shoe-maker, Horne Tooke, and other patriots, in 1794, he probably got into respecting the plans, the principles, and the mean's of such men; but whether he did or not, he could not but know, that to libel the government, and public men, was become a profitable occupation; that it procured men money and friends: that this fat time when the nation is struggling for its liberty, and for that of all the world) was a practice that ought to be suppressed* is doubtless, as being dan
* It is most singular, in the history of this new era, that the
gerous to the state, and indeed to the whole nation; and that the man who can be accessary to such transactions, deserves punishment; and therefore, having settled in his mind that the end was good, he paid little attention to the means, and proceeded by the short, obnoxious, and unfair mode termed ex officio*, thereby depriving the accused of one of the best, and the firmest barriers * against oppression, and the only barrier an honest and innocent man has against persecution, namely, the grand jury, which is an admirable invention or device, without which the trial by jury is but a mutilated institution: it resembles a broken piece of machinery, of which we admire the construction, and lament the inutility.
saine men who excited discontent here at the tiine that France was
supposed to have established liberty on the widest basis, and to the greatest extent, do so still, though the French government is the most despotic that ever, perhaps, was established, or known. This is the more amazing, that they must see, that were it not for Britain, .she same cruel despotism would cover the wbole habitable globe. In fact the pretended friends of liberty are now fighting against freedom; and the only consolation we have on this score, is to see, that whenever any individual patriot has an advantageous opportunity for himself, he deserts, and goes over to the other side, so that, cousequently, the patriots all mistrust each other, and are constantly quarreling amongst themselves.
• The ex officio mode of proceeding was never intended but in sases of great emergency, when time required uncommon expedition, or when the nature of the case was such that sufficient grounds for a trial could not be made out before a grand jury, although they might be sufficient to get a man found guilty when he came on his trial. In such cases, this summary mode of proceeding derives its justice only from necessity, and consequently, when not necessary, is not just.
Mr. Gibbs was much admired and praised before he was attorney-general, and no man was more abused than he was after he accepted that office, which is the less to be wondered at, that most of the prosecutions, er officio, were against the liberty of the presst; that is to say, that he occupied him
* The grand jury prevents any proceedings against a man where there are not good grounds for suspicion; but, by setting it aside, an innocent man may be tried, and though acquitted, be a great sufferer: this is oppression. As to persecution, it may be thus: the attorney general bolds a man to bail, and frightens him with legal proceedings, drops proceedings when the cause is ready to be tried, so that a man cannot vindicate himself; and even, if he pleases, he may revive the proceedings after a long interval of time. As the king pays no costs, this is very expensive; and, as to the destruction of coinfort and peace of mind, those are self-evident,
+ The law of libel is so badly understood, and so inadequately defined, that there is no wonder prosecutions cause alarm, as in addition to
self, as it were, in ransacking a hornet's nest, and to be stung was a matter of course, and therefore to be expected.
Sir Vickary is now removed from a political station, perhaps for life, but probably for a length of time; and it must be said, in answer to his friends, that when attorney-general, his zeal exceeded his discretion, and blinded his judgment; and to his enemies it may with no less propriety be
this the punishment is arbitrary and undefined also. From a few days imprisonment, and a shilling fine, to a severe fine, long imprisonment, and the eternal disgrace of the pillory.
Our English courts go too much upon law-practice, and too little upon law-principle. At the end of two or three centuries we may perhaps get at sometbing like a libel-law, which it will cost an immense labour to apply. The French pay too little regard to precedent, and make very foolish and inefficient attempts to legislate on theory and the nature of things; but there is a mediuin between the two. The English error is certainly the least dangerous, as it is safer to keep to the coast than to go to the open sea without a compass.
The basis of the law of libel is simple, but many volumes might be written on its application. The basis is this: truth spoken to the detriment of another, where one has no concern, is a libel. What is false, spoken to the detriment of another, whether one has or has not a concern with it, is a libel. But the truth spoken, when one is concerned with the business, is not a libel.
observed, that thongh he was wrong in the manner he took to do what was right, yet that he never attempted to disturb the peace of a man who had not himself tried to disturb the peace of some one else; or if not the
peace of an individual, the peace of society, which is a still greater crime.
The effects of the libels against the French government, (when it ceased to punish libellers), were so fatal, and so evident, that much is to be said in defence of what Sir Vickary did; yet no man will be sorry to see the whip of Mr. Attorney-general iu less active and less vigorous hands: we say less vigorous and less active, without making any
allusion to abilities; for moderation and mildness are not less nearly allied to ability than they are to vigour; as honey is as useful in medicine as vinegar, and in the administration far more agreeable.
The higher line of politics is not within the sphere of an attorney-general, and his education to the bar naturally leads him to look only to one side of a question; that is to say, to be prejudiced, partial, and unfair in his arguments, leaving to his opponent to be equally prejudiced, partial, and unfair*; it is not therefore to be expected that he will
. The honourable business of a barrister is one very contrary to