Fined Two Thousand Pounds at the Leicester Assizes, 23rd of March, 1820, and sent to Prison for Three Months for a Seditious Libel
THIS was an information filed by his Majesty's Attorney-General against the defendant, Sir Francis Burdett, for a libel. The first count charged that the defendant did on the 22nd of August, 1819, publish a certain libel.
The count then set out the libel verbatim, which was in these words:
TO THE ELECTORS OF WESTMINSTER
GENTLEMEN, -- On reading the newspaper this morning, having arrived late yesterday evening, I was filled with shame, grief and indignation at the account of the blood spilled at Manchester.
This, then, is the answer of the borough-mongers to the petitioning people -- this is the proof of our standing in no need of reform -- these the practical blessings of our glorious borough-mongers' domination -- this the use of a standing army in time of peace. It seems our fathers were not such fools as some would make us believe, in opposing the establishment of a standing army, and sending King William's Dutch Guards out of the country. Yet would to Heaven they had been Dutchmen, or Switzers, or Hessians, or Hanoverians, or anything rather than Englishmen, who have done such deeds. What! Kill men unarmed, unresisting, and, gracious God! women too! -- disfigured, maimed, cut down and trampled on by dragoons! Is this England? This a Christian land? A land of freedom? Can such things be, and pass by us like a summer cloud, unheeded? Forbid it every drop of English blood in every vein that does not proclaim his owner, bastard. Will the gentlemen of England support, or wink at, such proceedings? They have a great stake in their country: they hold great estates, and they are bound in duty and in honour to consider them as retaining fees, on the part of their country, for holding its rights and liberties: surely they will at length awake, and find they have duties to perform.
They never can stand tamely by, as lookers-on, whilst bloody Neros rip open their mother's womb; they must join the general voice, loudly demanding justice and redress; and head public meetings throughout the United Kingdom, to put a stop, in its commencement, to a reign of terror and of blood; to afford consolation, as far as it can be afforded, and legal redress to the widows and orphans -- mutilated victims of this unparalleled and barbarous outrage.
For this purpose I propose that a meeting should be called in Westminster, which the gentlemen of the committee will arrange, and whose summons I will hold myself in readiness to attend. Whether the penalty of our meeting will be death by military execution, I know not; but this I know, a man can die but once, and never better than in vindicating the laws and liberties of his country.
Excuse this hasty address. I can scarcely tell what I have written; it may be a libel, or the Attorney-General may call it one, just as he pleases. When the Seven Bishops were tried for libel, the army of James II., then encamped on Hounslow Heath, for supporting arbitrary power, gave three cheers on hearing of their acquittal.
The King, startled at the noise, asked "What's that?" "Nothing, sir," was the answer, "but the soldiers shouting at the acquittal of the Seven Bishops." "Do you call that nothing?" replied the misgiving tyrant; and shortly after abdicated the government.
Tis true, James could not inflict the torture on his soldiers -- could not tear the living flesh from their bones with the cat-o'-nine-tails -- could not flail them alive. Be this as it may, our duty is to meet; an England expects every man to do his duty. I remain, gentlemen, most truly and faithfully, your most obedient servant,
The information contained other counts, laying the charge in a different manner.
Mr Samuel Brooks lived at No. 101 Strand, London. He knew the defendant, and was acquainted with his handwriting. On being shown the paper in question, he said he believed it to be the handwriting of the defendant -- it came to him through the hands of Mr Bickersteth, a professional gentleman; it was in an envelope, which had been mislaid -- he did not look on the envelope to see whether it had a postmark on it. The envelope contained no direction to him, but merely to Mr Bickersteth, to pass it to him. When he received it, he supposed that it was intended that he should publish it. He sent it to several papers, and afterwards saw it in The Times, but could not recollect when. The letter was dated the 22nd of August, and he received it, he believed, a day or two afterwards.
Mr Tooke, an attorney of London, was then called, and proved the handwriting of Sir Francis Burdett on the envelope. W. Simpkin, the keeper of the toll-gate near Kirby, being called, said that he saw Sir Francis Burdett near the gate on the 22nd of August, 1819. The gate was about a hundred yards from the house of Sir Francis Burdett. He saw him again on the following day about the same place. This was in the county of Leicester.
The witness retired from the box, but was recalled, and asked some questions by Sir Francis Burdett. He did not know that Kirby Farm was on the borders of several counties. He knew that it was in the county of Leicester. Mr Brooks was called again, and said that he had inserted the letter of Sir Francis Burdett in several papers, and among others The British Press. This paper was produced. When he sent the letter to the newspapers, its publication was left to their own discretion. They were not paid for it.
Sir Francis Burdett observed that he could not conceive why it should be considered disaffection in him to lament that soldiers had cut people to pieces; or how it could excite disaffection in the military. He had addressed the letter to his constituents, and to the country gentlemen of England, with the very view of obtaining legal redress. He contended that the Manchester meeting, which was the subject of this letter, was not illegal; for he had been in Parliament a quarter of a century, and he always understood that any number of persons might legally meet to present petitions, and it was not until very lately that a noble and learned Lord had twisted out some obscure points of law to prove that a meeting when it became very numerous became illegal. Until that declaration was made, all public meetings were considered as legal. In support of this assertion he quoted the opinion that had been given by Lord Chief Justice Holt, who declared that any person who killed another on account of being in a great meeting was guilty of murder. As to reading The Riot Act, it ought not to be read till there was a riot, when an hour was allowed to the people to disperse; and there was nothing in this case to justify the sending of military among the rioters.
Mr Denman offered evidence to prove the statements respecting the Manchester meeting.
Mr Justice Best said that which related to the proceedings at Manchester was irrelevant; he would allow no evidence of what had passed there.
Mr Serjeant Vaughan admitted the legality of the Manchester meeting at its first assembling, but denied that that question could affect the present case.
Mr Justice Best said he had no hesitation in saying that it was a libel. Nothing occurred that could form any excuse for the most intemperate of men saying that a reign of terror and blood was commenced in this country. The government rested not on the army, but on the affections of the people. If the paper was calculated to do infinite mischief, that mischief must have been intended. More poisonous ingredients never were condensed in one paper.
The jury conversed together in the box for about two minutes; the foreman then stepped into his place, and called out: "Guilty of libel."
The defendant was sentenced to a fine of two thousand pounds and three months' imprisonment in the Marshalsea of the court.