Page images

gentlemen who have any such property, are all, I hope, our friends. Do not let us subject them to any unnecessary or arbitrary restraint. I must own I cannot easily agree to the laying of any tax upon wit: but by this bill it is to be heavily taxed; it is to be excised for, if this bill passes, it cannot be retailed in a proper way without a permit, and the lord chamberlain is to have the honour of being chief gauger, supervisor, commissioner, judge, and jury. But what is still more hard, though the poor author, the proprietor I should say, cannot perhaps dine till he as found out and agreed with a purchaser; yet, before he can propose to seek for a purchaser, he must patiently submit to have his goods rummaged at this new excise office, where they may be detained for fourteen days, and even then he may find them returned as prohibited goods, by which his chief and best market will be for ever shut against him; and that without any cause, without the least shadow of reason, either from the laws of his country, or the laws of the stage.

These hardships, this hazard, which every gentleman will be exposed to, who writes any thing for the stage, must certainly prevent every man of a generous and free spirit from attempting any thing in that way; and, as the stage has always been the proper channel for wit and humour, therefore, my lords, when I speak against this bill, I must think, I plead the cause of wit; I plead the cause of humour; I plead the cause of the British stage, and of every gentleman of taste in the kingdom. But it is not, my lords, for the sake of wit only; even for the sake of his majesty's lord chamberlain, I must be against this bill. The noble duke who has now the honour to execute that office has, I am sure, as little inclination to disoblige as any man? but, if this bill passes, he must disoblige, he may disoblige some of his most intimate friends. It is impossible to write a play, but some of the characters, or some of the satire, may be interpreted so as to point at some person or another, perhaps at some person in an eminent station. When it comes to be acted, the people will make

the application; and the person against whom the application is made will think himself injured, and will at least privately resent it; at present this resentment can be directed only against the author; but, when an author's play appears with my lord chamberlain's passport, every such resentment will be turned from the author, and pointed directly against the lord chamberlain, who by his stamp made the piece current. What an unthankful office are we therefore by this bill to put upon his majesty's lord chamberlain an office which can no way contribute to his honour or profit, and such a one as must necessarily gain him a great deal of ill will, and create him a number of enemies.

The last reason I shall trouble your lordships with, for my being against the bill, is that, in my opinion, it will in no way answer the end proposed: I mean the end openly proposed; and I am sure the only end which your lordships propose. To prevent the acting of a play which has any tendency to blasphemy, immorality, sedition, or private scandal, can signify nothing, unless you can prevent its being printed and published. On the contrary, if you prevent its being acted, and admit of its being printed, you will propagate the mischief. Your prohibition will prove a bellows, which will blow up the fire you intended to extinguish. This bill can therefore be of no use for preventing either the publick or the private injury intended by such a play; and consequently can be of no manner of use, unless it be designed as a precedent, as a leading step towards another for subjecting the press likewise to a licenser. For such a wicked purpose it may indeed be of great use; and in that light it may most properly be called a step towards arbitrary power.

Let us consider, my lords, that arbitrary power has seldom or never been introduced into any country at once. It must be introduced by slow degrees, and as it were step by step, lest the people should perceive its approach. The barriers and fences of the people's liberty must be plucked up one by one, and some

plausible pretences must be found for removing or hood-winking, one after another, those sentries who are posted by the constitution of a free country, for warning the people of their danger. When these preparatory steps are once made, the people may then indeed, with regret, see slavery and arbitrary power making long strides over their land; but it will be too late to think of preventing or avoiding the impending ruin. The stage, my lords, and the press, are two of our out-sentries; if we remove them, if we hoodwink them-if we throw them in fetters, the enemy may surprise us. Therefore I must look upon the bill now before us as a step, and a most necessary step too, for introducing arbitrary power into this kingdom: it is a step so necessary, that if ever any future ambitious king, or guilty minister, should form to himself so wicked a design, he will have reason to thank us, for having done so much of the work to his hand; but such thanks, or thanks from such a man, I am convinced, every one of your lordships would blush to receive, and scorn to deserve.

[blocks in formation]



On the 22d of January, 1770, the Marquis of Rockingham moved, "That a day be fixed to take into consideration the state of the nation," which then, was singularly agitated by the dissensions of party at home, and by the alarming aspects of disaffection that began to be displayed in the American colonies. This motion he prefaced with a speech of great length, in which he insisted that the unhappy posture of affairs, and the universal discontents of the people did not arise from any immediate or temporary cause; but had grown by degrees and were deeply implanted. From the accession of his present majesty, he contended that there had been a total change of the old system of English government, and a new maxim adopted fatal to their liberties, namely, "that the royal prerogative was alone sufficient to support government to whatever hands the administration of it might be committed."

Imputing all the bad measures of his majesty's reign to the obstinate adherence to this principle, he entered into a minute examination of those measures, tracing their connexion with the principle, and pointing out their direct agency in producing the critical condition of the country.

He concluded by recommending to their lordships to appoint an early day for the discussion of his motion, when he trusted the situation of the country

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »