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Case of the KING against JOHN STOCKDALE, tried in
the Court of King's Bench, before Lord Kenyon and a Special Jury at Westminster, on the Ninth of December, A. D. 1798, upon an Information filed against him by the Attorn-y-General, for a Libel on the House of Commons.
STATEMENT OF THE CASE.
The trial of Mr. John Stockdale, of Piccadilly, is so immediately connected with the well-known impeachment of Warren Hastings, Governor-General of India, that very little preface is necessary for the illustration of Mr. Erskine's defence of him.
When the Commons of Great Britain ordered that impeachment, the articles were prepared by Burke, who had the lead in all che inquiries which led to it, and, instead of being drawn up in the usual dry method of legal accusation, they were expanded into great length, and were characterized by the fervid and affecting language which distinguishes all the writings of that extraordinary person. The articles so prepared, instead of being confined to the records of the House of Commons, until they were carried up to the Lords for trial, were printed and sold in every shop in the kingdom, without question or obstruction by the managers of the impeachment or the House of Commons, and undoubtedly, from the style and manner of their composition, made a very considerable impiession against the accused.
To repel the effects of the articles, thus prematurely published, the Rev. Mr. Logan, one of the ministers of Leith, in Sectland, a person eminent for learning, drew up a review of the articles of impeachment, and carried it to Mr. Stockdale, en eminent and respectable bookseller in Piccadilly, who
published it in the usual course of his business. Mr. Logan's review having an immediate and very extensive sale, was complained of by Mr. Fox, to the House of Commons. Upon motion of Mr. Fox, then one of the managers of the in peachment, the House unanimously voted an address to the King, praying his Majesty to direct his Attorney-General to file an information against Mr. Stockdale, as the publisher of a libel upon the Commons House of Parliament; and the information was accordingly filed.
It must be confessed that the book in question contained some very indiscreet and offensive passages. For example, Mr. Logan did not scruple to assert that the charges against Hastings had their origin in misrepresentation and falsehood; that the House of Commons, in pushing one of these charges, was “a tribunal of inquisition, rather than a court of Parliament,” and that the impeachment was
“ carried on fion motives of personal animosity-not from regard to public justice.” Still the merits of the case were ably and exhaustively treated, the author seeming desirous of demonstrating the innocence of the illustrious accused. It is deserving .f remark that, notwithstanding the book was published pending the trial of Hastings, and doubtless was not without its influence upon the august tribunal before which he was arraigned, yet no effort was made to commit either author or publisher by authority of the Commons, and the prosecution was left to take the ordinary course at law.
The evidence consisted simply of the common proof of publication, and is therefore omitted as unnecessary.
The Attorney-General, Sir Archibold Macdonald, opened the case as follows:
GENTLEMEN OF THE JURY: This information, which it has been my duty to file against the defendant, John Stockdale, comes before you in con
sequence of an address from the House of Commons. This you may well suppose I do not mention as in any degree to influence the judgment which you are by and by to give upon your oaths. I state it as a measure which they have taken, thinking it in their wisdom, as everybody must think it, to be the fittest to bring before a jury of the country an offender against themselves, avoiding thereby what sometime indeed is unavoidable, but which they wish to avoid, whenever it can be done with propriety, the acting both as judges and accusers; which they must necessarily have done had they resorted to their own powers, which are great and extensive, for the purpose of vindicating themselves against insult and contempt, but which, in the present instance, they have wisely forborne to exercise, thinking it better to leave the defendant to be dealt with by a fair and impartial jury.
The offence which I impute to him is that of calumniating the House of Commons; not in its ordirary legislative character, but when acting in its accusatoriai capacity, conceiving it to be their duty, on adequate occasions, to investigate the conduct of persons li high stations, and to leave that conduct to be judged of by the proper constitutional tribunal, the peers in Parliament assembled.
After due investigation, as it is well known to the public, the Commons of Great Britain thought it their duty tu submit the conduct of a servant of this country, who had governed one of its mosi opulent dependencies for many years, to an inquiry before the tribunal. One would have thought that every good subject in this country would have forborne imputing to the House of Commons motives utterly unworthy of them, and of those whom they represent; instead of this, to so great a degree now has the licentiousness of the press arisen, that motives, the most unbecoming that can actuate any individual who may be concerned in the prosecution of public justice, are imputed to the representatives of the people. No credit is given to them for meaning to do justice to their country, but, on the contrary, private, personal, and malicious motives have been imputed to the Commons of Great Britain.
When such an imputation is made upon he very first tribunal that this country knows; namely, the great inquest of the nation, the Commons in Parliament assembled, carrying a subject, who, as they thought, had offended, to the bar of the House of Lords, I am sure you will think this attack so dangerous to the whole administration of justice, that if it be well proved you cannot fail to give it your stigma, by a verdict against the defendant.
Gentlemen, the particular passages which I shall put my finger upon in this libel, it will now be my duty to state. You know very well that it is your duty to consider the meaning that I have imputed