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a subject which agitates and distresses me. Since lord George Gordon stands clear of every hostile act or purpose against the legislature of his country, or the properties of his fellow subjects; since the whole tenour of his conduct repels the belief of the traitorous intention charged by the indictment; my task is finished. I shall make no address to your passions; I will not remind you of the long and rigorous imprisonment he has suffered; I will not speak to you of his great youth, of his illustrious birth, and of his uniformly animated and generous zeal in parliament for the constitution of his country. Such topicks might be useful in the balance of a doubtful case; yet, even then, I should have trusted to the honest hearts of Englishmen to have felt them without excitation. At present, the plain and rigid rules of justice and truth, are sufficient to entitle me to your verdict.” I. 132–135.
A singular passage, to be found in this speech, affords a great contrast to the calm, and even mild tone of its peroration. It is, indeed, as far as we know, the only instance of the kind in the history of modern eloquence; and we might justly have doubted, if even Mr. Erskine’s skill and well known discretion as a publick speaker had not forsaken him, and allowed his heat and fancy to hurry him somewhat too far, had we not, in the traditional account of the perfect success which attended this passage, the most unequivocal evidence in his favour. After reciting a variety of circumstances in lord George's conduct, and quoting the language which he used, the orator, suddenly, abruptly, and violently, breaks out with this exclamation:“I say, BY GoD, that man is a ruffian, who shall, after this, presume to build upon such honest, artless, conduct, as an evidence of guilt l” [vol. I. p. 125.] The sensation produced by these words, and by the magick of the voice, the eye, the face, the figure, and all we call the manner, with which they were uttered, is related, by those present on this great occasion, to have been quite electrical, and to baffle all power of description. The feeling of the moment alone; that sort of
sympathy which subsists between an observant speaker and his audience, which communicates to him, as he goes on, their feelings under what
he is saying; decyphers the language
of their looks; and even teaches him, without regarding what he sees, to adapt his words to the state of their minds, by merely attending to his own—this intuitive and momentary impulse could alone have prompted a flight, which it alone could sustain; and as its failure would, indeed, have been fatal, so its eminent success must be allowed to rank it among the most famous feats of oratory. The speech which we are inclined to rank the next in importance, but the first in oratorical talent, and happily the most accurately reported and revised, is the celebrated tiefence of Stockdale, whose trial may be termed the case of libels; for in it we have clearly laid down, and most powerfully enforced, the doctrine which now enters into every such question; viz. that if, taking all the parts of a composition together, it shall not be found to exceed the bounds of a free and fair discussion; so fair as a regard to good order, the peace of society, and the security of the government requires; but so free as the nature of our happy constitution, and the unalienable right of Englishmen to canvass publick affairs, allows; if, in short, the
discussion be, upon the whole, suffi
ciently decent in its language, and peaceable in its import, although marked with great frecdom of opinion, and couched in terms as animated as a free man can use, on a subject that interests him deeply; although even a great share of heat should be found in the expression, and such invective as, surpassing the bounds of candour and of charity, can only be excused by the violence of honest feelings; nay, although detached passages may be pitched upon, in their nature and separate capacity amounting to libels; yet these also shall be overlooked, and the defendant acquitted, on the ground that he has only used the grand right of political discussion with uncommon vehemence. This great doctrine, now on the whole generally received, was first fully expounded in the defence of Stockdale; and it forms obviously the foundation of whatever is more than a mere name in the liberty of the press, the first and proudest preeminence of this country over all the rest of Europe. While the trial of Mr. Hastings was going on, Mr Stockdale, a bookseller in London, published a pamphlet, written by the late Mr. Logan, one of the ministers of Leith, and a gentleman of very distinguished genius. It was a defence of Mr. Hastings; and, in the course of it, the author was led into several reflections upon the conduct of the managers, which the house of commons deemed highly contemptuous and libellous. The language of certain passages was, indeed, rather free and offensive. The charges against Mr. Hastings were said to “ originate from misrefiresentation and falsehood.” The house of commons, in making one of those charges, was compared to “a tribumal of inquisition, rather than a court of parliament.” Others of them were stigmatized as “so insignificant in themselves, or founded on such gross misreforesentations, that they would not affect an obscure individual, much less a publick character.” And, after a great deal of other invective, somewhat more diffuse, and less offensive in single terms, but fully more bitter and sarcastick in substance, the impeachment of Mr. Hastings was said to be “carried on from motives of personal animosity, not from regard to publick justice.” This pamphlet made a considerable impression on the publick mind; and it was complained of by Mr. Fox, on the part of the managers. It deserves, however, to be remarked, that although it was
published during the proceedings against Mr. Hastings, and had a direct and undeniable tendency to influence the judgment of the peers as well as the country, no attempt was made to commit the printer or the author, by the mere authority of the house of commons; and Mr. Fox himself was content to move an address for a prosecution in a court of common law. Mr. Stockdale, the publisher, was accordingly tried on an information filed by the attorney general, ex offcio. The passages, of which we have just given a summary, were set forth and stated as libellous. The fact of publication was admitted; and Mr. Erskine then delivered the finest of all his orations, whether we regard the wonderful skill with which the argument is conducted; the sound. ness of the principles laid down, and their happy application to the case;
or the exquisite fancy with which
they are embellished and illustrated;
and the powerful and touching language in which they are conveyed. It is justly regarded, by all English lawyers, as a consummate specimen of the art of addressing a jury; as a standard, a sort of precedent for treating cases of libel, by keeping which in his eye, a man may hope to succeed in special pleading his client’s case, within its principle, who is destitute of the talent required even to comprehend the other and higher merits of his original. By those merits, it is recommended to lovers of pure diction; of copious and animated description; of lively, picturesque, and fanciful illustration; of all that constitutes, if we may so speak, the poetry of eloquence; all for which we admire it, when prevented from enjoying its musick and its statuary. We shall venture to re.
commend this exquisite specimen of
Mr. Erskine's powers, by extracting a few passages almost at random. He thus introduces his audience to a striking view of the grand trial in Westminster Hall, not for the
sake of making fine sentences, or of adorning his speech with a beautiful description; for the speeches of this great advocate may be searched
through by the most crafty special pleader, from beginning to end, and no one instance of such useless ornament will be found; but for the solid and important purpose of interesting his hearers in the situation of Mr. Hastings, and of his defender, the author of the pamphlet; of leading the mind to view the prisoner as an oppressed man, overwhelmed by the weight of parliamentary resentment, and ready to be crushed, in the face of the country, by the very forms and solemnities of his trial; of insinuating that the pamphlet only ventures to say something in defence of this unhappy person; and that, in such an unequal contest, an English jury may well excuse a little intemperance in the language of such a generous and almost hopeless defence.
“Gentlemen—before I venture to lay the book before you, it must be yet further remembered (for the fact is equally notorious) that, under these inauspicious circumstances, the trial of Mr. Hastings at the bar of the lords, had actually commenced long before its publication.
“There, the most august and striking spectacle was daily exhibited, which the world ever witnessed. A vast stage of justice was erected, awful from its high authority; splendid from its illustrious dignity; venerable from the learning and wisdom of its judges; captivating and affecting from the mighty concourse of all ranks and conditions which daily flocked into it, as into a theatre of pleasure. There, when the whole publick mind was at once awed and softened to the impression of every human affection, there appeared, day af. ter day, one after another, men of the most powerful and exalted talents, eclipsing by their accusing eloquence the most boasted harangues of antiquity; rousing the pride of national resentment, by the boldest invectives against broken faith and violated treaties; and shaking the bosom with alternate pity and horrour, by the most glowing pictures of insulted nature and humanity;-ever animated and energetick, from the love of fame, which is the inherent passion of genius;–firm and indefa
tigable, from a strong prepossession of the justice of their cause. * Gentlemen—when the author sat down to write the book now before you, all this terrible, unceasing, exhaustless artillery of warm zeal, matchless vigour of understanding, consuming and devouring eloquence, united with the highest dignity, was daily, and without prospect of conclusion, pouring forth upon one private, unprotected man, who was bound to hear it, in the face of the whole people of England, with reverential submission and silence. I do not complain of this, as I did of the publication of the charges, because it is what the law allowed and sanctioned in the course of a publick trial. But when it is remembered that we are not angels, but weak, fallible men, and that even the noble judges of that high tribunal are clothed beneath their ermines with the common infirmities of man’s nature, it will bring us all to a proper temper for considering the book itself, which will, in a few moments, be laid before you. But first, let me once more remind you, that it was under all these circumstances, and amidst the blaze of passion and prejudice, which the scene I have been endeavouring faintly to describe to you, might be supposed likely to produce, that the author whose name I will now give to you, sat down to compose the book which is prosecuted to day as a libel.” II. 229–231.
He now brings the author more immediately before the audience, thus skilfully prepared to give him a favourable reception; and he proceeds to put to them at once the chief question they have to decide, but in a striking shape.
“He felt for the situation of a fellow citizen, exposed to a trial, which, whether right or wrong, is undoubtedly a severe one; a trial, certainly not confined to a few criminal acts like those we are accustomed to, but comprehending the transactions of a whole life, and the complicated policies of numerous and distant nations; a trial, which had neither visible limits to its duration, bounds to its expense, nor circumscribed compass for the grasp of memory or understanding; a trial, which had therefore broke loose from the common form of decision, and had become the universal topick of discussion in the world, superseding not only every other grave pursuit, but every fashionable dissipation.
“Gentlemen, the question you have therefore to try upon all this matter is exed in it by God and his country, is a victim and a sacrifice.” II. 232—234.
tremely simple. It is neither more nor less than this. At a time when the charges against Mr. Hastings were, by the implied consent of the commons, in every hand, and on every table; when, by their managers, the lightning of eloquence was incessantly consuming him, and flashing in the eyes of the publick; when every man was with perfect impunity saying, and writing, and publishing just what he pleased of the supposed plunderer and devastator of nations, would it have been criminal in Mr. Hastings himself to have reminded the publick that he was a native of this free land, entitled to the common protection of her justice, and that he had a defence in his turn to offer to them, the outlines of which he implored them in the mean time to receive, as an antidote to the unlimited and unpunished poison in circulation against him This is, without colour or exaggeration, the true question you are to decide. Because I assert, without the hazard of contradiction, that if Mr. Hastings himself could have stood justified or excused in your eyes for publishing this volume in his own defence, the author, if he wrote it bona fide to defend him, must stand equally excused and justified; and if the author be justified, the publisher cannot be criminal, unless you had evidence that it was published by him with a different spirit and intention from those in which it was written. The question, therefore, is correctly what I just now stated it to be. Could Mr. Hastings have been condemned to infamy for writing this book “Gentlemen, I tremble with indignation, to be driven to put such a question in England. Shall it be endured, that a subject of this country (instead of being arraigned and tried for some single act in her ordinary courts, where the accusation, as soon at least as it is made publick, is followed within a few hours by the decision) may be impeached by the commons for the transactions of twenty years, that the accusation shall spread as wide as the region of letters; that the accused, shall stand, day after day, and year after year, as a spectacle before the publick, which shall be kept in a perpetual state of inflammation against him; yet that he shall not, without the severest penalties, be permitted to submit any thing to the judgment of mankind in his defence : If this be law (which it is for you to day to decide) such a man has no trial. That great hall, built by our fathers for English justice, is no longer a court, but an altar; and an Englishman, instead of being judg
We pass over the whole critical argument which follows on the true meaning of the work in question, and come to perhaps the most interesting passage of the speech. Although Mr. Frskine very judiciously disavows all intention of defending the opinions contained in the pamphlet, or of censuring the managers, and vindicating Mr. Hastings, he is nevertheless led to show, that Mr. Hastings's defender only made a sincere and bona fide appeal to the publick in his behalf; and that he only used, in doing so, the topicks which would naturally strike every one who impartially considered the subject. Without defending Mr. Hastings, therefore, he shows how he may be defended, in order to vindicate his client from the charge of making his book a cloak for abusing the house of commons; and, it is evident, that the higher he can state the grounds of Mr. Hastings's defence, though without actually entering upon it, the better it must be for Mr. Stockdale. Yet this is not to be rashly done neither. On no account could the orator palliate the enormities of the Indian administration; the publick mind was too fulf of them; the cars of his audience still rang with the prodigious eloquence which had been called in to blazon them. Any thing absolutely favourable to such conduct; any appearance of callousness or carelessness to such scenes, and consequently any admission which mixed up the pamphleteer too intimately with the author of the wrongs complained of, was studiously to be shunned. How does this most dexterous advocate proceed He studiously separates his defence of Stockdale as much as possible from a defence of Hastings; yet he begins to feel his way, by remarking, that the supporter of the governour-general might
fairly wonder at the want of Indian 3CCuSel’S.
“Will the attorney-general proceed then to detect the hypocricy of our author, by giving us some detail of the proofs by which these personal enormities have been established, and which the writer must be supposed to have been acquainted with ! I ask this as the defender of Mr. Stockdale, not of Mr. Hastings, with whom I have no concern. I am sorry, indeed, to be so often obliged to repeat this protest; but I really feel myself embarrassed with those repeated coincidences of defence which thicken on me as I advance, and which were, no doubt, overlooked by the com: mons when they directed this interlocutory inquiry into his conduct. I ask then, as counsel for JMr. Stockdale, whether, when a great state criminal is brought for justice at an immense expense to the publick; accused of the most oppressive cruelties, and charged with the robbery of princes, and the destruction of nations; is it not open to any one to ask, who are his accusers ? What are the sources and the authorities of these shocking complaints : Where are the ambassadours or memorials of those princes, whose revenues he has plundered Where are the witnesses for those unhappy men in whose persons the rights of humanity have been violated How deeply buried is the blood of the innocent, that it does not rise up in retributive judgment to confound the guilty! These surely are questions, which, when a fellow citizen is upon a long, painful, and expensive trial, humanity has a right to propose; which the plain sense of the most unlettered man may be expected to dictate, and which all history must provoke from the more enlightened. When Cicero impeached Verres, before the great tribunal of Rome, of similar cruelties and depredations in her provinces, the Roman people were not left to such inquiries. All Sicily surrounded the forum, demanding justice upon her plunderer and spoiler, with tears and imprecations. It was not by the eloquence of the orator, but by the cries and tears of the miserable, that Cicero prevailed in that illustrious cause. Verres fled from the oaths of his accusers and their witnesses, and not from the voice of Tully. To preserve the fame of his eloquence, he composed his five celebrated speeches; but they were never delivered against the criminal; because he had fled from the city, appalled with the sight of the persecuted and the oppressed. It may be said, that the cases of Sicily and India are widely different;
perhaps they may be; whether they are or not is foreign to my purpose. I am not bound to deny the possibility of answers to such questions; I am only vindicating the right to ask them.” II. 242—244.
He here leaves this attempt in favour of the defenders of Hastings, and goes again into some details as to the work and its subject. But seeing, in all probability, how far he might go, he again adverts to the same topick with more perseverance and boldness; and fairly shows how much of the atrocities of Mr. Hastings are to be imputed to his instructions, to his situation, to the wicked policy of England, and of Europe, in distant countries—to the general infamy of civilized man when he disturbs the repose of his less enlightened fellow creatures; till by description and anecdote, and even by a personal adventure of his own in North America, and a speech which, with a fair license, he puts into the mouth of an Indian (a flight to which he evidently did not soar until he perceived that it was safe, from the previous preparation of his hearers) he at last envelops this delicate part of his subject, Hastings, India, the book and all, in a blaze of imagery and declamation, which overpowers the understandings of his audience. We give this wonderful passage entire, premising that the traditional accounts of its effects are to be credited, not even by those who now read it, if they have not also experienced the witchery of this extraordinary man’s voice, cye, and action.
“Gentlemen of the jury—If this be a wilfully false account of the instructions given to Mr. Hastings for his government, and of his conduct under them, the author and publisher of this defence deserve the severest punishment, for a mercenary imposition on the publick. But if it be true that he was directed to make the safety and prosperity of Bengal the first object of his attention, and that under his administration, it has been safe and prosperous; if it be true that the security and preservation of our possessions and revenues in Asia were marked out to him as the great