« PreviousContinue »
RICHARD BRINSLEY SHERIDAN 497
I trust your Lordships will not believe that, because something is necessary to retrieve the British character, we call for an example to be made without due and solid proof of the guilt of the person whom we pursue:—no, my Lords, we know well that it is the glory of this Constitution, that not the general fame or character of any man ; not the weight or power of any prosecutor; no plea of moral or political expediency; not even the secret consciousness of guilt which may live in the bosom of the Judge ; can justify any British court in passing any sentence to touch a hair of the head, or an atom, in any respect, of the property, of the fame, of the liberty of the poorest or meanest subject that breathes the air of this just and free land. We know, my Lords, that there can be no legal guilt without legal proof, and that the rule which defines the evidence is as much the law of the land as that which creates the crime. It is upon that ground we mean to stand.
Major Scott comes to your Bar; describes the shortness of time; represents Mr. Hastings as it were contracting for a character, putting his memory into commission, making departments for his conscience. A number of friends meet together, and he, knowing (no doubt) that the accusation of the Commons had been drawn up by a Committee, thought it necessary, as a point of punctilio, to answer it by a Committee also. One furnishes the raw material of fact, the second spins the argument, and the third twines up the conclusion, while Mr. Hastings, with a master's eye, is cheering and looking over this loom. He says to one, “You Have got my good faith in your hands; you, my veracity to manage. Mr. Shore, I hope you will make me a good financier. Mr. Middleton, you have my humanity in commission.” When it is done, he brings it to the House of Commons, and says, “I was equal to the task. I knew the difficulties, but I scorn them ; here is the truth, and if the truth will convict me, I am content myself to be the channel of it!” His friends hold up their heads, and say, “What noble magnanimity This must be the effect of conscious and real innocence.” Well, it is so received, it is so argued upon ; but it fails of its effect,
Then says Mr. Hastings: “That my defence no, mere journeyman work—good enough for the Commons, but not fit for your Lordships' consideration.” He then calls upon his counsel to save him : “I fear none of my accusers’ witnesses. I know some of them well ; I know the weakness of their memory, and the strength of their attachment; I fear no testimony but my own—save me from the peril of my own panegyric; preserve me from that, and I shall be safe.” Then is this plea brought to your Lordships' Bar, and Major Scott gravely asserts that Mr. Hastings did, at the Bar of the House of Commons, vouch for facts of which he was ignorant, and for arguments of which he had never read.
498 RICHARD BRINSLEY SHERIDAN
After such an attempt, we certainly are left in doubt to decide to which set of his friends Mr. Hastings is the least obliged, those who assisted him in making his defence, or those who advised him to deny it. I am perfectly convinced that there is one idea which must arise in your Lordships' minds as a subject of wonder: how a person of Mr. Hastsings' reputed abilities can furnish such matter of accusation against him. self. He knows that truth must convict him, and concludes a converso, that falsehood will acquit him ; forgetting that there must be some connection, some system, some co-operation, or, otherwise, his host of falsities fall without an enemy, self-discomfited and destroyed. But of this he never seems to have had the slightest apprehension. He falls to work, an artificer of fraud, against all the rules of architecture; he lays his ornamental work first, and his massy foundation at the top of it; and thus his whole building tumbles upon his head. Other people look well to their ground, choose their position, and watch whether they are likely to be surprised there; but he, as if in the ostentation of his heart, builds upon a precipice, and encamps upon a mine, from choice. He seems to have no one actuating principle, but a steady, persevering resolution not to speak the truth or to tell the fact. It is impossible, almost, to treat conduct of this kind with perfect seriousness; yet I am aware that it ought to be more seriously accounted for ; because I am sure it has been a sort of paradox, which must have struck your Lordships, how any person having so many motives to conceal ; having so many reasons to dread detection ; should yet go to work so clumsily upon the subject. It is possible, indeed, that it may raise this doubt, whether such a person is of sound mind enough to be a proper object of punishment; or at least it may give a kind of confused notion that the guilt cannot be of so deep and black a grain, over which such a thin veil was thrown, and so little trouble taken to avoid detection. I am aware that, to account for this seeming paradox, historians, poets, and even philosophers—at least of ancient times—have adopted the superstitious solution of the vulgar, and said that the gods deprive men of reason whom they devote to destruction or to punishment. But to unassuming or unprejudiced reason there is no need to resort to any supposed supernatural interference; for the solution will be found in the eternal rules that formed the mind of man, and gave a quality and nature to every passion that inhabits it. An honorable friend of mine, who is now, I believe, near me, has told you that Prudence, the first of virtues, never can be used in the cause of vice. But I should doubt whether we can read the history of a Philip of Macedon, a Caesar, or a Cromwell, without confessing that there have
RICHARD BRINSLEY SHERIDAN 499
been evil purposes, baneful to the peace and to the rights of men, conducted—if I may not say, with prudence or with wisdom—yet with awful craft and most successful and commanding subtlety. If, however, I might make a distinction, I should say that it is the proud attempt to mix a variety of lordly crimes that unsettles the prudence of the mind and breeds this distraction of the brain. One master-passion, domineering in the breast, may win the faculties of the understanding to advance its purpose, and to direct to that object everything that thought or human 1<nowledge can effect; but, to succeed, it must maintain a solitary despotism in the mind—each rival profligacy must stand aloof, or wait in abject vassalage upon its throne. For the Power that has not forbade the entrance of evil passions into man's mind, has, at least, forbade their union;–if they meet they defeat their object; and their conquest, or their attempt at it, is tumult. To turn to the Virtues—how different the decree Formed to connect, to blend, to associate, and to co-operate ; bearing the same course, with kindred energies and harmonious sympathy; each perfect in its own lovely sphere; each moving in its wider or more contracted orbit with different, but concentering powers; guided by the same influence of reason, and endeavoring at the same blessed end—the happiness of the individual, the harmony of the species, and the glory of the Creator. In the Vices, on the other hand, it is the discord that insures the defeat; each clamorous to be heard in its own barbarous language; each claims the exclusive cunning of the brain ; each thwarts and reproaches the other; and even while their full rage assails with common hate the peace and virtue of the world, the civil war among their own tumultuous legions defeats the purpose of the foul conspiracy. These are the Furies of the mind, my Lords, that unsettle the understanding; these are the Furies that destroy the virtue, Prudence; while the distracted brain and shivered intellect proclaim the tumult that is within, and bear their testimonies, from the mouth of God himself, to the foul condition of the heart.
WILLIAM WILBERFORCE (1759-1833)
THE SLAVES ELOQUENT ADVOCATE
F William Wilberforce it has been said: “With talents of the 0 highest order, and eloquence surpassed by few, he entered upon public life possessed of the best personal connections in his intimate friendship with Mr. Pitt.” Entering Parliament in 1780, his first movement toward the suppression of the slave-trade was taken in 1787, in conjunction with Thomas Clarkson and several others. From that time forward the abolition of slavery was the great object in Wilberforce's life. His bills defeated again and again, and bitter opposition to his purpose shown, he unyieldingly persisted, and at length, in 1807, had the satisfaction of seeing his bill passed in the House of Commons with a great majority. He had gradually educated the House and the nation to that point. About 1818 he began to agitate for the emancipation of the slaves in the British West Indies. This he followed up in his old, inflexible manner, till the day of his death, his bill for the abolition of slavery passing its second reading only three days before the demise of its great projector.
ABOLITION OF THE SLAVE-TRADE
[From one of Wilberforce's many speeches on the subject of his most earnest attention, we select a brief passage in illustration of his style of oratory and the character of his appeals to his fellow-members.]
I cannot but persuade myself that, whatever difference of opinion
there may have been, we shall this day be at length unanimous. I can
not believe that a British House of Commons will give its sanction to the
continuance of this infernal traffic, the African slave-trade. We were for
a while ignorant of its real nature; but it has now been completely
developed, and laid open to view in all its horrors. Never was there,