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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. 1780, upon an Information filed against him by the ATTORNEY GENERAL, for a Libel on the HOUSE OF COMMONS.
SUBJECT OF THE TRIAL, &c.
THE trial of Mr. John Stochdale, of Piccadilly, is so immediately connected with the well-known Impeachment of Mr. Hastings, the 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 Mr. Ed. mund Burke, who had the lead in all the inquiries which led to it, and, instead of being drawn up in the asual dry method of legal accusation, were expanded into great length, and were characterized by that 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 obb struction 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 impression against the accused.
To repel the effects of the Articles, thus (according to the reasoning of Mr. Erskine). prematurely published, the Rev. Mr. Logan, one of the ministers of Leith in Scotland, a person eminent for learning, drew up a Review of the Articles of Impeachment (which, as has been already stated, were then in general circulation), and carried it to Mr. Stockdale, an eminent and respectable bookseller in Piccadilly,—who published it in the usual course of his business. Mr. Logan's Review was composed with great accuracy and judgment, but undoubtedly with strong severity of observation against the accusation of Mr. Hastings, and having an immediate, and very extensive sale, was complained of by Mr. Fox, to the House of Commons, and upon the motion of that great and eminent person, then one of the Managers of the Impeachment--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, which was filed accordingly.
It is not necessary to lengthen this preface, by the passages from Mr. Logan's book, which were selected by the Attorney General in forming the Information, and which gave the greatest offence to the House of Commons ; neither is it necessary to print the Information itself, because the principal passages complained of and contained in it, were read by Lord Chief Baron Macdonald, then Attorney General, in kis very fair and able address to the Jury, which we have printed, as well as his judicious reply and the summing up of Lord Chief Justice Kenyon ; because this trial, above any other in print, contains the invaluable principles of a free press, and the important privilege of the Jury, since the passing of the memorable Libel Act. The application of these principles to an acquitial or conviction in this particular instance, is not within our province : but we may state as a fact, that the verdict gave very general satisfaction, and what is a proud consideration for the subjects of this country, under our invaluable constitution, neither the highest Court in the kingdom, nor the House of Commons, who were the accusers, had a right to question its authority.
The evidence consisted of nothing but the common proof of publication, and is therefore omitted as un necessary,
The ATTORNEY General opened the case as
GENTLEMEN OF THE JURY,
This Information, which it has been my daty to file against the Defendant, John Stockdale, comes before you in consequence 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 every body must think it-to be the fittest to bring before a Jury of the country, an offender against themselves, avoiding thereby what sometimes 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 or
dinary legislative character, but when acting in its accusatorial capacity, conceiving it to be their duty, on adequate occasions, to investigate the conduct of persons in high stations, and to leave that conduct to be judged of hy 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 to submit the conduct of a servant of this country, who had governed one of its most opus lent dependencies for many years, to an inquiry be fore that tribunal. One would have thought that every good subject of this country would have for born 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 the very first tribunal that this country knows; namely, the great inquest of the nation, the Coinmons 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 an attack so