The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 4

Author: James Mackintosh  | Date: 1803


A Plea for Free Speech*

You will not think unfavorably of a man who stands before you as the voluntary victim ofhis loyalty and honor. If a revolution (which God avert) were to drive us into exile, and to cast us on a foreign shore, we should expect, at least, to be pardoned by generous men, for stubborn loyalty and unseasonable fidelity to the laws and government of our fathers.

This unfortunate gentleman had devoted a great part of his life to literature. It was the amusement and ornament of his better days. Since his own ruin and the desolation of his country, he has been compelled to employ it as a means of support. For the last ten years he has been engaged in a variety of publications of considerable importance; but since the peace he has desisted from serious political discussion, and confined himself to the obscure journal which is now before you; the least calculated, surely, of any publication that ever issued from the Press, to rouse the alarms of the most jealous government; which will not be read in England, because it is not written in our language; which can not be read in France, because its entry into that country is prohibited by a power whose mandates are not very supinely enforced, nor often evaded with impunity; which can have no other object than that of amusing the companions of the author’s principles and misfortunes, by pleasantries and sarcasms on their victorious enemies. There is, indeed, gentlemen, one remarkable circumstance in this unfortunate publication; it is the only, or almost the only, journal which still dares to espousethe cause of that royal illustrious family which but fourteen years ago was flattered by every Press and guarded by every tribunal in Europe. Even the court in which we are met affords an example of the vicissitudes of their fortune. My learned friend has reminded you that the last prosecution tried in this place, at the instance of a French government, was for a libel on that magnanimous princess, who has since been butchered in sight of her palace.

There is another point of view in which this case seems to me to merit your most serious attention. I consider it as the first of a long series of conflicts between the greatest power in the world and the only free Press remaining in Europe. No man living is more thoroughly convinced than I am that my learned friend, Mr. Attorney-General, will never degrade his excellent character, that he will never disgrace his high magistracy by mean compliances, by an immoderate and unconscientious exercise of power; yet I am convinced, by circumstances which I shall now abstain from discussing, that I am to consider this as the first of a long series of conflicts between the greatest power in the world and the only free Press now remaining in Europe. Gentlemen, this distinction of the English Press is new; it is a proud and melancholy distinction. Before the great earthquake of the French Revolution had swallowed up all the asylums of free discussion on the continent, we enjoyed that privilege, indeed, more fullythan others; but we did not enjoy it exclusively.

Unfortunately for the repose of mankind, great States are compelled by regard to their own safety, to consider the military spirit and martial habits of their people as one of the main objects of their policy. Frequent hostilities seem almost the necessary condition of their greatness; and, without being great, they can not long remain safe. Smaller States exempted from this cruel necessity—a hard condition of greatness, a bitter satire on human nature—devoted themselves to the arts of peace, to the cultivation of literature, and the improvement of reason. They became places of refuge for free and fearless discussion; they were the impartial spectators and judges of the various contests of ambition which from time to time disturbed the quiet of the world. They thus became peculiarly qualified to be the organs of that public opinion which converted Europe into a great republic, with laws which mitigated, tho they could not extinguish, ambition; and with moral tribunals to which even the most despotic sovereigns were amenable. If wars of aggrandizement were undertaken, their authors were arraigned in the face of Europe. If acts of internal tyranny were perpetrated, they resounded from a thousand presses throughout all civilized countries. Princes, on whose will there were no legal checks, thus found a moral restraint which the most powerful of them could not brave with absolute impunity. They acted before a vastaudience, to whose applause or condemnation they could not be utterly indifferent. The very constitution of human nature, the unalterable laws of the mind of man, against which all rebellion is fruitless, subjected the proudest tyrants to this control. No elevation of power, no depravity however consummate, no innocence however spotless, can render man wholly independent of the praise or blame of his fellow men.

One asylum of free discussion is still inviolate. There is still one spot in Europe where man can freely exercise his reason on the most important concerns of society, where he can boldly publish his judgment on the acts of the proudest and most powerful tyrants. The Press of England is still free. It is guarded by the free Constitution of our forefathers. It is guarded by the heart and arms of Englishmen, and I trust I may venture to say that if it be to fall, it will fall only under the ruins of the British Empire.

It is an awful consideration, gentlemen. Every other monument of European liberty has perished. That ancient fabric which has been gradually reared by the wisdom and virtue of our fathers still stands. It stands, thanks be to God! solid and entire; but it stands alone, and it stands amid ruins.

In these extraordinary circumstances, I repeat that I must consider this as the first of a long series of conflicts between the greatest power in the world and the only free Press remaining in Europe. And I trust that you will consideryourselves as the advanced guard of liberty, as having this day to fight the first battle of free discussion against the most formidable enemy that it ever encountered.

You already know that the general plan of Mr. Peltier’s publication was to give a picture of the cabals and intrigues, of the hopes and projects, of French factions. It is undoubtedly a natural and necessary part of this plan to republish all the serious and ludicrous pieces which these factions circulate against each other. The ode ascribed to Chenier2 or Ginguene3 I do really believe to have been written at Paris, to have been circulated there, to have been there attributed to some one of these writers, to have been sent to England as their work, and as such to have been republished by Mr. Peltier. But I am not sure that I have evidence to convince you of the truth of this. Suppose that I have not; will my learned friend say that my client must necessarily be convicted? I, on the contrary, contend that it is for my learned friend to show that it is not an historical republication. Such it professes to be, and that profession it is for him to disprove. The profession may indeed be "a mask"; but it is for my friend to pluck off the mask, and expose the libeler, before he calls upon you for a verdict of guilty.

If the general lawfulness of such republications be denied, then I must ask Mr. Attorney-General to account for the long impunity which English newspapers have enjoyed. I must request him to tell you why they have been suffered to republish all the atrocious official and unofficial libels which have been published against his majesty for the last ten years, by the Brissots, the Marats, the Dantons, the Robespierres, the Bareres, the Talliens, the Reubells, the Merlins, the Barrases, and all that long line of bloody tyrants who oppressed their own country and insulted every other which they had not the power to rob. What must be the answer? That the English publishers were either innocent, if their motive was to gratify curiosity, or praiseworthy, if their intention was to rouse indignation against the calumniators of their country. If any other answer be made, I must remind my friend of a most sacred part of his duty—the duty of protecting the honest fame of those who are absent in the service of their country. Within these few days we have seen, in every newspaper in England, a publication, called the Report of Colonel Sebastiani4 in which a gallant British officer [General Stuart] is charged with writing letters to procure assassination. The publishers of that infamous report are not, and will not be prosecuted, because their intention is not to libel General Stuart.On any other principle, why have all our newspapers been suffered to circulate that most atrocious of all libels against the king and people of England, which purports to be translated from the Moniteur of the ninth of August, 1802, —a libel against a prince who has passed through a factious and stormy reign of forty-three years, without a single imputation on his personal character; against a people who have passed through the severest trials of national virtue with unimpaired glory—who alone in the world can boast of mutinies without murder, of triumphant mobs without massacre, of bloodless revolutions, and of civil wars unstained by a single assassination.

The French Revolution began with great and fatal errors. These errors produced atrocious crimes. A mild and feeble monarchy was succeeded by bloody anarchy, which very shortly gave birth to military despotism. France, in a few years, described the whole circle of human society.

All this was in the order of nature. When every principle of authority and civil discipline, when every principle which enables some men to command, and disposes others to obey, was extirpated from the mind by atrocious theories, and still more atrocious examples; when every old institution was trampled down with contumely, and every new institution covered in its cradle with blood; when the principle of property itself, the sheet-anchor of society, wasannihilated; when in the persons of the new possessors, whom the poverty of language obliges us to call proprietors, it was contaminated in its source by robbery and murder, and it became separated from that education and those manners, from that general presumption of superior knowledge and more scrupulous probity which form its only liberal titles to respect; when the people were taught to despise everything old, and compelled to detest everything new, there remained only one principle strong enough to hold society together—a principle utterly incompatible, indeed, with liberty and unfriendly to civilization itself, a tyrannical and barbarous principle, but in that miserable condition of human affairs, a refuge from still more intolerable evils. I mean the principle of military power which gains strength from that confusion and bloodshed in which all the other elements of society are dissolved, and which, in these terrible extremities, is the cement that preserves it from total destruction.

Under such circumstances, Bonaparte usurped the supreme power in France. I say usurped, because an illegal assumption of power is a usurpation. But usurpation, in its strongest moral sense, is scarcely applicable to a period of lawless and savage anarchy. The guilt of military usurpation, in truth, belongs to the author of those confusions which sooner or later give birth to such a usurpation.

It is, I know, not the spirit of the quiet andsubmissive majority of the French people. They have always rather suffered than acted in the Revolution. Completely exhausted by the calamities through which they have passed, they yield to any power which gives them repose. There is, indeed, a degree of oppression which rouses men to resistance; but there is another and a greater, which wholly subdues and unmans them. It is remarkable that Robespierre himself was safe till he attacked his own accomplices. The spirit of men of virtue was broken, and there was no vigor of character left to destroy him, but in those daring ruffians who were the sharers of his tyranny.

As for the wretched populace who were made the blind and senseless instrument of so many crimes, whose frenzy can now be reviewed by a good mind with scarce any moral sentiment but that of compassion; that miserable multitude of beings, scarcely human, have already fallen into a brutish forgetfulness of the very atrocities which they themselves perpetrated. They have already forgotten all the acts of their drunken fury. If you ask one of them, Who destroyed that magnificent monument of religion and art? or who perpetrated that massacre? they stupidly answer, the Jacobins! tho he who gives the answer was probably one of these Jacobins himself; so that a traveler, ignorant of French history, might suppose the Jacobins to be the name of some Tartar horde who, afterlaying waste France for ten years, were at last expelled by the native inhabitants. They have passed from senseless rage to stupid quiet. Their delirium is followed by lethargy.

In a word, gentlemen, the great body of the people of France have been severely trained in those convulsions and proscriptions which are the school of slavery. They are capable of no mutinous, and even of no bold and manly political sentiments. And if this ode professed to paint their opinions, it would be a most unfaithful picture. But it is otherwise with those who have been the actors and leaden in the scene of blood. It is otherwise with the numerous agents of the most indefatigable, searching, multiform, and omnipresent tyranny that ever existed, which pervaded every class of society, which had ministers and victims in every village in France.

Some of them, indeed, the basest of the race, the sophists, the rhetors, the poet-laureates of murder, who were cruel only from cowardice and calculating selfishness, are perfectly willing to transfer their venal pens to any government that does not disdain their infamous support. These men, Republican from servility, who published rhetorical panegyrics on massacre, and who reduced plunder to a system of ethics, are as ready to preach slavery as anarchy. But the more daring, I had almost said, the more respectable ruffians, can not so easily bend theirheads under the yoke. These fierce spirits have not lost

"The unconquerable will, And study of revenge, immortal hate."

They leave the luxuries of servitude to the mean and dastardly hypocrites, to the Belials and Mammons of the infernal faction. They pursue their old end of tyranny under their old pretext of liberty. The recollection of their unbounded power renders every inferior condition irksome and vapid; and their former atrocities form, if I may so speak, a sort of moral destiny which irresistibly impels them to the perpetration of new crimes. They have no place left for penitence on earth. They labor under, the most awful proscription of opinion that ever was pronounced against human beings. They have cut down every bridge by which they could retreat into the society of men.

Awakened from their dreams of democracy, the noise subsided that deafened their ears to the voice of humanity; the film fallen from their eyes which hid from them the blackness of their own deeds, haunted by the memory of their inexpiable guilt, condemned daily to look on the faces of those whom their hands made widows and orphans, they are goaded and scourged by these real furies, and hurried into the tumult of new crimes, which will drown the cries of remorse, or, if they be too depraved for remorse, will silence the curses of mankind. Tyrannicalpower is their only refuge from the just vengeance of their fellow creatures. Murder is their only means of usurping power. They have no taste, no occupation, no pursuit but power and blood. If their hands are tied, they must at least have the luxury of murderous projects. They have drunk too deeply of human blood ever to relinquish their cannibal appetite.

Such a faction exists in France. It is numerous; it is powerful; and it has a principle of fidelity stronger than any that ever held together a society. They are banded together by despair of forgiveness, by the unanimous detestation of mankind. They are now contained by a severe and stern government. But they still meditate the renewal of insurrection and massacre; and they are prepared to renew the worst and most atrocious of their crimes, that crime against posterity and against human nature itself, that crime of which the latest generations of mankind may feel the fatal consequences—the crime of degrading and prostituting the sacred name of liberty.

I have used the word republican because it is the name by which this atrocious faction describes itself. The assumption of that name is one of their crimes. They are no more republicans than royalists. They are the common enemies of all human society. God forbid that by the use of that word I should be supposed to reflect on the members of those respectable republican communities which didexist in Europe before the French Revolution. That Revolution has spared many monarchies, but it has spared no republic within the sphere of its destructive energy. One republic only now exists in the world—a republic of English blood, which was originally composed of republican societies, under the protection of a monarchy, which had, therefore, no great and perilous change in their internal constitution to effect; and of which, I speak it with pleasure and pride, the inhabitants, even in the convulsions of a most deplorable separation, displayed the humanity as well as valor which, I trust I may say, they inherited from their forefathers.

Believing, as I do, that we are on the eve of a great struggle, that this is only the first battle between reason and power, that you have now in your hands, committed to your trust, the only remains of free discussion in Europe, now confined to this kingdom; addressing you, therefore, as the guardians of the most important interests of mankind, convinced that the unfettered exercise of reason depends more on your present verdict than on any other that was ever delivered by a jury, I can not conclude without bringing before you the sentiments and examples of our ancestors in some of those awful and perilous situations by which divine Providence has in former ages tried the virtue of the English nation. We are fallen upon times in which it behooves us to strengthen our spirits by the contemplation of great examples ofconstancy. Let us seek for them in the annals of our forefathers.

The reign of Queen Elizabeth may be considered as the opening of the modern history of England, especially in its connection with the modern system of Europe, which began about that time to assume the form that it preserved till the French revolution. It was a very memorable period, of which the maxim ought to be engraved on the head and heart of every Englishman. Philip II., at the head of the greatest empire in the world, was openly aiming at universal domination, and his project was so far from being thought chimerical by the wisest of his contemporaries that, in the opinion of the great Duke of Sully,5 he must have been successful, "if, by a most singular combination of circumstances, he had not at the same time been resisted by two such strong heads as those of Henry IV, and Queen Elizabeth." To the most extensive and opulent dominions, the most numerous and disciplined armies, the most renowned captains, the greatest revenue, he added also the most formidable power over opinion. He was the chief of a religious faction, animated by the most atrocious fanaticism, prepared to second his ambition by rebellion, anarchy, and regicide in every Protestant state. Elizabeth was among the first objects of his hostility. That wise and magnanimous princess placed herselfin the front of the battle for the liberties of Europe. Tho she had to contend at home with his fanatical faction, which almost occupied Ireland, which divided Scotland, and was not of contemptible strength in England, she aided the oppressed inhabitants of the Netherlands in their just and glorious resistance to his tyranny; she aided Henry the Great in suppressing the abominable rebellion which anarchical principles had excited and Spanish arms had supported in France; and after a long reign of various fortune, in which she preserved her unconquered spirit through great calamities and still greater dangers, she at length broke the strength of the enemy, and reduced his power within such limits as to be compatible with the safety of England and of all Europe.

Her only effectual ally was the spirit of her people, and her policy flowed from that magnanimous nature which in the hour of peril teaches better lessons than those of cold reason. Her great heart inspired her with a higher and a nobler wisdom, which disdained to appeal to the low and sordid passions of her people even for the protection of their low and sordid interests, because she knew, or rather, she felt, that these are effeminate, creeping, cowardly, short-sighted passions, which shrink from conflict even in defense of their own mean objects. In a righteous cause, she roused those generous affections of her people which alone teach boldness, constancy, and foresight, and which aretherefore the only safe guardians of the lowest as well as the highest interests of a nation. In her memorable address to her army, when the invasion of the kingdom was threatened by Spain, this woman of heroic spirit disdained to speak to them of their ease and their commerce, and their wealth and their safety.

No! She touched another chord—she spoke of their national honor, of their dignity as Englishmen, of "the foul scorn that Parma or Spain should dare to invade the borders of her realms." She breathed into them those grand and powerful sentiments which exalt vulgar men into heroes, which led them into the battle of their country, armed with holy and irresistible enthusiasm; which even cover with their shield all the ignoble interests that base calculation and cowardly selfishness tremble to hazard, but shrink from defending. A sort of prophetic instinct, if I may so speak, seems to have revealed to her the importance of that great instrument for rousing and guiding the minds of men, of the effects of which she had no experience, which, since her time, has changed the condition of the world, but which few modern statesmen have thoroughly understood or wisely employed; which is, no doubt, connected with many ridiculous and degrading details, which has produced, and which may again produce, terrible mischiefs, but of which the influence must, after all, be considered as the most certain effect and the most efficacious cause ofcivilization, and which, whether it be a blessing or a curse, is the most powerful engine that a politician can move—I mean the Press. It is a curious fact that in the year of the Armada, Queen Elizabeth caused to be printed the first gazettes that ever appeared in England; and I own, when I consider that this mode of rousing a national spirit was then absolutely unexampled, that she could have no assurance of its efficacy from the precedents of former times, I am disposed to regard her having recourse to it as one of the most sagacious experiments, one of the greatest discoveries of political genius, one of the most striking anticipations of future experience that we find in history. I mention it to you to justify the opinion that I have ventured to state of the close connection of our national spirit with our Press even our periodical Press.

The next great conspirator against the rights of men and of nations, against the security and independence of all European states, against every kind and degree of civil and religious liberty, was Louis XIV. In his time the character of the English nation was the more remarkably displayed, because it was counteracted by an apostate and perfidious government. During a great part of his reign, you know that the throne of England was filled by princes who deserted the cause of their country and of Europe, who were the accomplices and the tools of the oppressor of the world, who were evenso unmanly, so unprincely, so base, as to have sold themselves to his ambition; who were content that he should enslave the continent, if he enabled them to enslave Great Britain. These princes,6 traitors to their own royal dignity and to the feelings of the generous people whom they ruled, preferred the condition of the first slave of Louis XIV, to the dignity of the first freemen of England; yet even under these princes, the feelings of the people of this kingdom were displayed, on a most memorable occasion, toward foreign sufferers and foreign oppressors.

The revocation of the Edict of Nantes threw fifty thousand French Protestants on our shores. They were received as I trust the victims of tyranny ever will be in this land, which seems .chosen by Providence to be the home of the exile, the refuge of the oppressed. They were welcomed by a people high-spirited as well as humane, who did not insult them by clandestine charity; who did not give alms in secret lest their charity should be detected by the neighboring tyrants! No! They were publicly and nationally welcomed and relieved. They were bid to raise their voice against their oppressor, and to proclaim their wrongs to all mankind. They did so. They were joined in the cry of just indignation by every Englishman worthy of the name. It was a fruitful indignation, which soon produced the successful resistance ofEurope to the common enemy. Even then, when Jeffreys disgraced the bench which his lordship [Lord Ellenborough] now adorns, no refugee was deterred by prosecution for libel from giving vent to his feelings, from arraigning the oppressor in the face of all Europe.

During this ignominious period of our history, a war arose on the continent, which can not but present itself to the mind on such an occasion as this; the only war that was ever made on the avowed ground of attacking a free Press. I speak of the invasion of Holland by Louis XIV. The liberties which the Dutch gazettes had taken in discussing his conduct were the sole cause of this very extraordinary and memorable war, which was of short duration, unprecedented in its avowed principle, and most glorious in its event for the liberties of mankind. That republic, at all times so interesting to Englishmen —in the worst times of both countries our brave enemies; in their best times our most faithful and valuable friends—was then charged with the defense of a free Press against the oppressor of Europe, as a sacred trust for the benefit of all generations. They felt the sacredness of the deposit, they felt the dignity of the station in which they were placed, and tho deserted by the unEnglish government of England, they asserted their own ancient character, and drove out the great armies and great captains of the oppressor with defeat and disgrace. Such was the result of the only war hitherto avowedlyundertaken to oppress a free country because she allowed the free and public exercise of reason. And may the God of justice and liberty grant that such may ever be the result of wars made by tyrants against the rights of mankind, especially that which is the guardian of every other!

This war, gentlemen, had the effect of raising up from obscurity the great Prince of Orange, afterward King William III., the deliverer of Holland, the deliverer of England, the deliverer of Europe; the only hero who was distingnished by such a happy union of fortune and virtue that the objects of his ambition were always the same with the interests of humanity; perhaps the only man who devoted the whole of his life exclusively to the service of mankind. This most illustrious benefactor of Europe, this "hero without vanity or passion," as he has been justly and beautifully called by a venerable prelate [Doctor Shipley, Bishop of St. Asaph], who never made a step toward greatness without securing or advancing liberty, who had been made Stadtholder of Holland for the salvation of his own country, was soon after made king of England for the deliverance of ours.

In the course of the eighteenth century, a great change took place in the state of political discussion in this country. I speak of the multiplication of newspapers. I know that newspapers are not very popular in this place, which is, indeed, not very surprising, because they are known here only by their faults. Theirpublishers come here only to receive the chastisement due to their offenses. With all their faults, I own I can not help feeling some respect for whatever is a proof of the increased curiosity and increased knowledge of mankind; and I can not help thinking that if somewhat more indulgence and consideration were shown for the difficulties of their situation, it might prove one of the best correctives of their faults, by teaching them that self-respect which is the best security for liberal conduct toward others. But however that may be, it is very certain that the multiplication of these channels of popular information has produced a great change in the state of our domestic and foreign politics. At home, it has, in truth, produced a gradual revolution in our government. By increasing the number of those who exercise some sort of judgment on public affairs, it has created a substantial democracy, infinitely more important than those democratical forms which have been the subject of so much contest. So that I may venture to say, England has not only in its forms the most democratical government that ever existed in a great country, but in substance has the most democratical government that ever existed in any country; if the most substantial democracy be that state in which the greatest number of men feel an interest and express an opinion upon political questions, and in which the greatest number of judgments and wills concur in influencing public measures.

The first remarkable instance which I shall choose to state of the unpunished and protected boldness of the English Press, of the freedom with which they animadverted on the policy of powerful sovereigns, is the partition of Poland in 1772; an act not, perhaps, so horrible in its means, nor so deplorable in its immediate effects, as some other atrocious invasions of national independence which have followed it, but the most abominable in its general tendency and ultimate consequences of any political crime recorded in history, because it was the first practical breach in the system of Europe, the first example of atrocious robbery perpetrated on unoffending countries which have been since so liberally followed, and which has broken down all the barriers of habit and principle which guarded defenseless states. The perpetrators of this atrocious crime were the most powerful sovereigns of the continent, whose hostility it certainly was not the interest of Great Britain wantonly to incur. They were the most illustrious princes of their age, and some of them were, doubtless, entitled to the highest praise for their domestic administration, as well as for the brilliant qualities which distinguished their characters. But none of these circumstances, no dread of their resentment, no admiration of their talents, no consideration of their rank, silenced the animadversion of the English Press.

Some of you remember, all of you know, that a loud and unanimous cry of reprobation andexecration broke out against them from every part of this kingdom. It was perfectly uninfluenced by any considerations of our own mere national interest, which might perhaps be supposed to be rather favorably affected by that partition. It was not, as in some other countries, the indignation of rival robbers, who were excluded from their share of the prey. It was the moral anger of disinterested spectators against atrocious crimes, the gravest and the most dignified moral principle which the God of justice has implanted in the human heart; that of which the dread is the only restraint on the actions of powerful criminals, and of which the promulgation is the only punishment than can be inflicted on them. It is a restraint which ought not to be weakened. It is a punishment which no good man can desire to mitigate.

Soon after, gentlemen, there followed an act, in comparison with which all the deeds of rapine and blood perpetrated in the world are innocence itself—the invasion and destruction of Switzerland, that unparalleled scene of guilt and enormity; that unprovoked aggression against an innocent country, which has been the sanctuary of peace and liberty for three centuries; respected as a sort of sacred territory by the fiercest ambition; raised, like its own mountains, beyond the region of the storms which raged around on every side; the only warlike people that never sent forth armies to disturb their neighbors; the only governmentthat ever accumulated treasures without imposing taxes; an innocent treasure, unstained by the tears of the poor; the inviolate patrimony of the commonwealth, which attested the virtue of a long series of magistrates, but which at length caught the eye of the spoiler, and became the fatal occasion of their ruin! Gentlemen, the destruction of such a country, "its cause so innocent, and its fortune so lamentable!" made a deep impression on the people of England. I will ask my learned friend, if we had then been at peace with the French Republic whether we must have been silent spectators of the foulest crimes that ever blotted the name of humanity! whether we must, like cowards and slaves, have repressed the compassion and indignation with which that horrible scene of tyranny had filled our hearts?

When Robespierre, in the debates in the National Convention on the mode of murdering their blameless sovereign, objected to the formal and tedious mode of murder called a trial, and proposed to put him immediately to death, "on the principles of insurrection," because, to doubt the guilt of the king would be to doubt the innocence of the Convention, and if the king were not a traitor, the Convention must be rebels; would my learned friend have had an English writer state all this with "decorum and moderation?" Would he have had an English writer state that tho this reasoning was not perfectly agreeable to our national laws, orperhaps to our national prejudices, yet it was not for him to make any observations on the judicial proceedings of foreign states?

When Marat, in the same Convention, called for two hundred and seventy thousand heads, must our English writers have said that the remedy did, indeed, seem to their weak judgment rather severe; but that it was not for them to judge the conduct of so illustrious an assembly as the National Convention, or the suggestions of so enlightened a statesman as M. Marat?

Mortifying and horrible as the idea is, I must remind you, gentlemen, that even at that time, even under the reign of Robespierre, my learned friend, if he had then been attorney-general, might have been compelled by some most deplorable necessity to have come into this court to ask your verdict against the libelers of Barere and Collot d’Herbois. Mr. Peltier then employed his talents against the enemies of the human race, as he has uniformly and bravely done. I do not believe that any peace, any political considerations, any fear of punishment would have silenced him. He has shown too much honor, and constancy, and intrepidity, to be shaken by such circumstances as these.

My learned friend might then have been compelled to have filed a criminal information against Mr. Peltier, for "wickedly and maliciously intending to vilify and degrade Maximilian Robespierre, President of the Committee of Public Safety of the French Republic!" Hemight have been reduced to the sad necessity of appearing before you to belie his own better feelings, to prosecute Mr. Peltier for publishing those sentiments which my friend himself had a thousand times felt, and a thousand times expressed. He might have been obliged even to call for punishment upon Mr. Peltier for language which he and all mankind would for ever despise Mr. Peltier if he were not to employ. Then, indeed, gentlemen, we should have seen the last humiliation fall on England; the tribunals, the spotless and venerable tribunals, of this free country reduced to be the ministers of the vengeance of Robespierre! What could have rescued us from this last disgrace? The honesty and courage of a jury. They would have delivered the judges of this country from the dire necessity of inflicting punishment on a brave and virtuous man, because he spoke truth of a monster. They would have despised the threats of a foreign tyrant, as their ancestors braved the power of oppression at home.

Gentlemen, I now leave this unfortunate gentleman in your hands. His character and his situation might interest your humanity; but, on his behalf, I only ask justice from you. I only ask a favorable construction of what can not be said to be more than ambiguous language, and this you will soon be told, from the highest authority, is a part of justice.

*Delivered before the Court of King’s Bench in February, 1803, at the trial of Jean Peltier, accused of libeling Napoleon Bonaparte. Peltier, in a paper called "L’Ambigu," had suggested that Bonaparte, then first consul, be assassinated. He was found guilty, but the sentence was never pronounced, inasmuch as war with France was soon resumed. Leslie Stephen says this speech was Mackintosh’s "greatest performance." Abridged.

2Andre Marie de Chenier, the French poet, who was guillotined on July 25, 1794.

3Pierre Louis Ginguene, historian and critic.

4Afterward one of Napoleon’s marshals.

5Minister of finance under Henry IV., 1597-1610.

6Charles II and James II.

Related Resources

Great Britain, 1780–1801

Download Options

Title: The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 4

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 4

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: James Mackintosh, The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 4 in The World’s Famous Orations, ed. William Jennings Bryan (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, December, 1906), 86–112. Original Sources, accessed May 26, 2024,

MLA: Mackintosh, James. The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 4, in The World’s Famous Orations, edited by William Jennings Bryan, Vol. The World#8217;s Famous Orations, New York, Funk and Wagnalls, December, 1906, pp. 86–112. Original Sources. 26 May. 2024.

Harvard: Mackintosh, J, The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 4. cited in December, 1906, The World’s Famous Orations, ed. , Funk and Wagnalls, New York, pp.86–112. Original Sources, retrieved 26 May 2024, from