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David J. (David Josiah) Brewer.

Crowned masterpieces of eloquence, representing the advance of civilization, as collected in The world's best orations, from the earliest period to the present time (Volume 4) online

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orator and the facility of speech habitual to such a man as Curran,
there is a distinction which forces itself at once on attention. Cur-
ran, when he is speaking in his habitual manner, has the faculty of
compelling language to sonorous music, so wedded to the thought, so
much a part of the thought itself, so fully in harmony with the deep
laws of the mind itself, that it delights us, unconsciously, merely as
so much sound, without any regard whatever to the meaning of it;
leaving us, however, unaware of the source of this pleasure and
never distracting our attention from ideas to which, when noble, all
nature, as it operates through the process of human expression, strives
to give the noblest possible vehicle.

Such men as Curran master us first by mere expression that they
may shackle us with their thought; they compel us with music that
they may hold us with intellect; they take us captive through mel-
ody that they may compel our unwilling natures to suffer as they
suffer all the pathos of the universal human life as its wrongs and

26S



JOHN PHILPOT CURRAN 260

its sufferings take hold upon them. Of the sources of Curran's in-
spiration, his compatriot, Rev. R. M. Buckley writes : —

« There is an Irish school of oratory, and it was about Curran's time it
came into vogue. When, indeed, was there such occasion for it? When the
speaker's passions were roused by the contemplation of the cruelty with which
his country was visited, and the sufferings his countrymen endured, the cold-
est nature should be eloquent, when speaking of those atrocious deeds. The
grandest specimens of eloquence ever recorded in history were delivered in
times of great social strife, great national upheaving, amid the ruins of a
country, or over the cradle of a young revolution. It was towards the close
of the Hebrew nationality that their prophets started up and proclaimed the
ruin and captivity about to befall their fellow-countrymen. What eloquence
can compare with that of Isaiah, sublime and impassioned ? or with Jeremiah,
wailing and despondent over the calamities of his race ? Demosthenes flour-
ished — the greatest orator the world ever saw — amid the crash of the Grecian
republics. Cicero was the last orator of Rome: standing on the bridge that
separated the prosperous Rome of the Consuls from the effete and degenerate
Rome of the Csesars. Mirabeau's eloquence flamed like a meteor amid the chaos
of the French Revolution. So it was with Curran; he lived and spoke when
his native land was steeped to the very lips in woe ; when < 'twas treason to
love her, and death to defend. > Manifold were the thoughts that stirred his
brain and quickened his tongne; the ancient glory of his country, the virtues
of her children, their courage and constancy, through every peril and misfor-
tune; the gleam of sunshine, short and transient, beaming from the Irish
Parliament, and its sudden extinction in the Act of Union. Here was food
for thought; here was fuel for the fire of eloquence, pride, passion, glory, hope,
and, last of all, despair !»

Curran was born at Newmarket, County Cork, July 24th, 1750, and
educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and the Middle Temple, London.
He was admitted to the Irish bar in 1775, and although after his
election to the Irish Parliament in 1783 he made many speeches sup-
porting the patriotic party of which Grattan was the leader, it is
only as a lawyer defending his countrymen against charges of libel,
sedition, and treason preferred against them because of their deter-
mination to establish Irish nationality, that he is at his best. He
defended the leaders of the Insurrection of 1798, and although he
managed to remain sufficiently loyal to the English administration, to
be appointed Master of the Rolls under Fox in 1806, a position from
which, at the expiration of eight years, he retired with a pension of
;^3,ooo, his sympathy with Irish struggles for national individuality
was so intense that the Union caused him the bitterest disappoint-
ment and made him contemplate voluntary exile from his country.
A romantic incident of his biography was the attachment between
his daughter and the celebrated Robert Emmett, at whose arrest
Curran himself was examined before the privy council, which dis-
charged him, as it appears, on his own evidence. After his retire-



270 JOHN PHILPOT CURRAN

ment as Master of the Rolls he spent several years in London in the
society of such men as Sheridan, Erskine, Thomas Moore, and William
Godwin. He died at Brompton, near London, October 14th, 18 17. It
was during his residence in London that Byron, speaking of Curran
as "Longbow,*^ made this famous comparison between him and
*Strongbow,*' by whom Erskine is meant: —

« There also were two wits, by acclamation,

Longbow from Ireland, Strongbow from the Tweed,

Both lawyers, and both men of education;

But Strongbow's wit was of more polished breed.

Longbow was rich in an imagination,
As beautiful and bounding as a steed,

But sometimes stumbling over a potato,

While Strongbow's best things might have come from Cato>

« Strongbow was like a new tuned harpsichord.

But Longbow wild as an ^olian harp.
With which the winds of heaven can claim accord.

And make a music either flat or sharp.
Of Strongbow's talk you would not change a word;

At Longbow's phrases you would sometimes carp;
Both wits — one born so, and the other bred —
This by the heart, his rival by the head.»



IN THE CASE OF JUSTICE JOHNSON — CIVIL LIBERTY AND

ARBITRARY ARRESTS

(In the Cause of the King against the Justice Johnson, in the Court of
Exchequer, Dublin, February 4th, 1805)

My Lords: —

IT HAS fallen to my lot, either fortunately or unfortunately, as
the event may be, to rise as counsel for my client on this
most important and momentous occasion. I appear before
you, my lords, in consequence of a writ issued by his Majesty,
commanding that cause be shown to this his court, why his sub-
ject has been deprived of his liberty; and upon the cause shown
in obedience to this writ, it is my duty to address you on the
most awful question, if awfulness is to be judged by consequences
and events, on which you have been ever called upon to decide.
Sorry am I that the task has not been confided to more adequate
powers; but feeble as they are, they will at least not shrink from
it. I move yoii, therefore, that Mr. Justice Johnson be released
from illegal imprisonment.



John philpot curran 271

I cannot but observe the sort of scenic preparation with which
this sad drama is sought to be brought forward. In part I ap-
prove it; in part it excites my disgust and indignation. I am
glad to find that the attorney and solicitor-general, the natural
and official prosecutors for the State, do not appear; and I infer
from their absence, that his excellency the lord-lieutenant dis-
claims any personal concern in this execrable transaction. I
think it does him much honor; it is a conduct that equally agrees
with the dignity of his character and the feelings of his heart.
To his private virtues, whenever he is left to their influence, I
willingly concur in giving the most unqualified tribute of respect.
And I do firmly believe, it is with no small regret that he suffers
his name to be even formally made use of, in avowing for a re-
turn of one of the judges of the land, with as much indifference
and nonchalance as if he were a beast of the plow. I observe,
too, the dead silence into which the public is frowned by author-
ity for the sad occasion. No man dares to mutter; no news-
paper dares to whisper that such a question is afloat. It seems
an inquiry among the tombs, or rather in the shades beyond
them.

Ibant sola sub node per umbram.

I am glad it is so — I am glad of this factitious dumbness; for if
murmurs dared to become audible, my voice would be too feeble
to drown them; but when all is hushed — when Nature sleeps —

Cum quies mortalibus cegris,

the weakest voice is heard — the shepherd's whistle shoots across
the listening darkness of the interminable heath, and gives notice
that the wolf is upon his walk; and the same gloom and still-
ness that tempt the monster to come abroad, facilitate the com-
munication of the warning to beware. Yes, through that silence
the voice shall be heard; yes, through that silence the shepherd
shall be put upon his guard; yes, through that silence shall the
felon savage be chased into the toil. Yes, my lords, I feel my-
self cheered and impressed by the composed and dignified atten-
tion with which I see you are disposed to hear me on the most
important question that has ever been subjected to your consid-
eration; the most important to the dearest rights of the human
being; the most deeply interesting and animating that can beat
in his heart, or burn upon his tongue — Oh! how recreating is it



272 JOHN PHILPOT CURRAN

to feel that occasions may arise in which the soul of man may
resume her pretensions; in which she hears the voice of Nature
whisper to her, Os homini sublime dedi ccelunique tiieri; in which
even I can look up with calm security to the court, and down
with the most profound contempt upon the reptile I mean to
tread upon! I say reptile, because when the proudest man in
society becomes so the dupe of his childish malice as to wish to
inflict on the object of his vengeance the poison of his sting, to
do a reptile's work he must shrink into a reptile's dimension;
and so shrunk, the only way to assail him is to tread upon him.
But to the subject: — this writ of habeas corpus has had a return.
That return states that Lord EUenborough, chief-justice of Eng-
land, issued a warrant reciting the foundation of this dismal
transaction: that one of the clerks of the crown-office had certi-
fied to him that an indictment had been found at Westminster,
charging the honorable Robert Johnson, late of Westminster, one
of the justices of his Majesty's court of common pleas in Ireland,
with the publication of certain slanderous libels against the gov-
ernment of that country; against the person of his excellency
Lord Hardwicke, lord-lieutenant of that country; against the
person of Lord Redesdale, the chancellor of Ireland; and against
the person of Mr. Justice Osborne, one of the justices of the
court of king's bench in Ireland. One of the clerks of the
crown-office, it seems, certified all this to his lordship. How
many of those there are, or who they are, or which of them so
certified, we cannot presume to guess, because the learned and
noble lord is silent as to those circumstances. We are only in-
formed that one of them made that important communication to
his lordship. It puts me in mind of the information given to one
of Fielding's justices: "Did not, ^^ says his worship's wife, "the
man with the valet make his fidavy that you was a vagrant ? ^^ I
suppose it was some such petty bag officer who gave Lord Ellen-
borough to understand that Mr. Justice Johnson was indicted.
And being thus given to understand and be informed, he issued
his warrant to a gentleman, no doubt of great respectability, a
Mr. Williams, his tipstaff, to take the body of Mr. Justice John-
son and bring him before a magistrate, for the purpose of giving
bail to appear within the first eight days of this term, so that
there might be a trial within the sittings after; and if, by the
blessing of God, he should be convicted, then to appear on the
return of the postea^ to be dealt with according to law



JOHN PHILPOT CURRAN 273

Perhaps it may be a question for you to decide, whether that
warrant, such as it may be, is not now absolutely spent; and, if
not, how a man can contrive to be hereafter in England on a
day that is past. And high as the opinion may be in England
of Irish understanding, it will be something beyond even Irish
exactness to bind him to appear in England, not a fortnight
hence, but a fortnight ago. I wish, my lords, we had the art of
giving time this retrograde motion. If possessed of the secret,
we might be disposed to improve it from fortnights into years.

There is something not incurious in the juxtaposition ' of
signatures. The warrant is signed by the chief-justice of all
England. In music, the ear is reconciled to strong transitions
of key by a preparatory resolution of the intervening discords;
but here, alas ! there is nothing to break the fall : the august title
of Ellenborough is followed by the unadorned name of brother
Bell, the sponsor of his lordship's warrant. Let me not, how-
ever, be suffered to deem lightly of the compeer of the noble
and learned lord. Mr. Justice Bell ought to be a lawyer; I re-
member him myself long a crier, and I know his credit, too, with
the State; he has had a noli prosequi. I see not, therefore, why
it may not fairly be said fortunati ambo! It appears by his
return, that Mr. Justice Bell indorses this bill of lading to an-
other consignee, Mr. Medlicot, a most respectable gentleman. He
describes himself upon the warrant, and he gives a delightful
specimen of the administration of justice, and the calendar of
saints in office; he describes himself a justice and a peace officer
— that is, a magistrate and a catchpole : — so that he may receive
informations as a justice. If he can write, he may draw them as
a clerk; if not, he can execute the warrant as bailiff, and, if it
be a capital offense, you may see the culprit, the justice, the
clerk, the bailiff, and the hangman, together in the same cart;
and, though he may not write, he may *ride and tie!" What a
pity that their journey should not be further continued together!
That, as they had been "lovely in their lives, so in their deaths
they might not be divided ! '> I find, my lords, I have undesign-
edly raised a laugh; never did I less feel merriment. Let not
me be condemned — let not the laugh be mistaken. Never was
Mr. Hume more just than when he says that "in many things
the extremes are nearer to one another than the means.'* Few
are those events that are produced by vice and folly, that fire

the heart with indignation, that do not also shake the sides with
4 — lb



274 JOHN PHILPOT CURRAN

laughter. So when the two famous moralists of old beheld the
sad spectacle of life, the one burst into laughter, the other melted
into tears: they were each of them right, and equally right.

Si credas utrique
Res sunt humance flebile ludibrium.

But these laughs are the bitter ireful laughs of honest indigna-
tion, or they are the laughs of hectic melancholy and despair.

It is stated to you, my lords, that these two justices, if jus-
tices they are to be called, went to the house of the defendant.
I am speaking to judges, but I disdain the paltry insult it would
be to them, were I to appeal to any wretched sympathy of situa-
tion. I feel I am above it. I know the bench is above it. But
I know, too, that there are ranks and degrees and decorums to
be observed; and, if I had a harsh communication to make to a
venerable judge, and a similar one to his crier, I should certainly
address them in a very different language indeed. A judge of
the land, a man not young, of infirm health, has the sanctuary
of his habitation broken open by these two persons, who set out
with him for the coast, to drag him from his country, to hurry
him to a strange land by the " most direct way ! *^ till the king's
writ stopped the malefactors, and left the subject of the king a
waif dropped in the pursuit.

Is it for nothing, my lords, I say this? Is it without inten-
tion I state the facts in this way? It is with every intention.
It is the duty of the public advocate not so to put forward the
object of public attention, as that the skeleton only shall appear,
without flesh, or feature, or complexion. I mean everything that
ought to be meant in a court of justice. I mean not only that
this execrable attempt shall be intelligible to the court as a mat-
ter of law, but shall be understood by the world as an act of
state. If advocates had always the honesty and the courage, upon
occasions like this, to despise all personal considerations, and to
think of no consequence but what may result to the public from
the faithful discharge of their sacred trust, these phrenetic pro-
jects of power, these atrocious aggressions on the liberty and
happiness of men, would not be so often attempted: for, though
a certain class of delinquents may be screened from punishment,
they cannot be protected from hatred and derision. The great
tribunal of reputation will pass its inexorable sentence upon their



JOHN PHILPOT CURRAN 275

crimes, their follies, or their incompetency; they will sink them-
selves under the consciousness of their situation; they will feel
the operation of an acid so neutralizing the malignity of their
natures, as to make them at least harmless, if it cannot make
them honest. Nor is there anything of risk in the conduct I
recommend. If the fire be hot, or the window cold, turn your
back to either; turn your face. So, if you are obliged to arraign
the acts of those in high station, approach them not in malice,
nor favor, nor fear. Remember that it is the condition of guilt
to tremble, and of honesty to be bold; remember that your false
fear can only give them false courage; that while you nobly
avow the cause of truth, you will find her shield an impenetrable
protection; and that no attack can be either hazardous or ineffi-
cient, if it be just and resolute. If Nathan had not fortified
himself in the boldness and directness of his charge, he might
have been hanged for the malice of his parable.

It is, my lords, in this temper of mind, befitting every advo-
cate who is worthy of the name, deeply and modestly sensible of
his duty, and proud of his privilege, equally exalted above the
meanness of temporizing or of offending, most averse from the
unnecessary infliction of pain upon any man or men whatsoever,
that I now address you on a question, the most vitally connected
with the liberty and well-being of every man within the limits
of the British Empire; which, if decided one way, he may be a
freeman; which, if decided the other, he must be a slave. It is
not the Irish nation only that is involved in this question: every
member of the three realms is equally embarked; and would to
God all England could listen to what passes here this day! They
would regard us with more sympathy and respect, when the
proudest Briton saw that his liberty was defended in what he
would call a provincial court and by a provincial advocate. The
abstract and general question for your consideration is this: My
Lord Ellenborough has signed with his own hand a warrant, which
has been indorsed by Mr. Bell, an Irish justice, for seizing the
person of Mr. Justice Johnson in Ireland, for conveying his per-
son by the most direct way, in such manner as these bailiffs may
choose, across the sea, and afterwards to the city of Westminster,
to take his trial for an alleged libel against the persons intrusted
with the government of Ireland, and to take that trial in a coun-
try where the supposed offender did not live at the time of the
supposed offense, nor, since a period of at least eighteen months



2^5 JOHN PHILPOT CURRAN

previous thereto, has ever resided; where the subject of his ac-
cusation is perfectly unknown; where the conduct of his prose-
cutors, which has been the subject of the supposed libel, is
equally unknown; where he has not the power of compelling the
attendance of a single witness for his defense. Under that war-
rant he has been dragged from his family; under that warrant
he was on his way to the water's edge: his transportation has
been interrupted by the writ before you, and upon the return of
that writ arises the question upon which you are to decide, the
legality or illegality of so transporting him for the purpose of
trial. I am well aware, my lords, of the limits of the present
discussion; if the law were clear in favor of the prosecutors, a
most momentous question might arise — how far they may be de-
linquents in daring to avail themselves of such a law for such a
purpose — but I am aware that such is not the present question.
I am aware that this is no court of impeachment; and there-
fore that your inquiry is, not whether such a power hath been
criminally used, but whether it doth in fact exist. The arrest of
the defendant has been justified by the advocates of the crown
under the forty-fourth of his present majesty. I have had the
curiosity to inquire into the history of that act, and I find that
in the month of May 1804 the brother-in-law of one of the pres-
ent prosecutors obtained leave to bring in a bill to ^^ render more
easy the apprehending and bringing to trial offenders escaping
from one part of the united kingdom to another, and also from
one county to another.** That bill was brought in: it traveled in
the caravan of legislation unheeded and unnoticed, retarded by
no difficulties of discussion or debate, and in due fullness of sea-
son it passed into a law, which was to commence from and after
the first of August, 1804.

This act, like a young Hercules, began its exploits in the cradle.
In the November following, the present warrant was issued under
its supposed authority. Let me not be understood to say that
the act has been slided through an unsuspecting legislature,
under any particular influence, or for any particular purpose,
that any such man could be found, or any such influence exist,
or any such lethargy prevail, would not, perhaps, be decent to
suppose; still less do I question the legislative authority of Par-
liament. We all know that a Parliament may attaint itself, and
that its omnipotence may equally extend in the same way to the
whole body of the people. We know also that most unjust and



JOHN PHILPOT CURRAN 277

cruel acts of attainder have been obtained by corrupt men in
bad times; and if I could bring myself to say, which I do not,
that this act was contrived for the mere purpose of destroying
an obnoxious individual, I should not hesitate to call it the most
odious species of attainder that could be found upon the records
of legislative degradation, because, for the simple purpose of
extinguishing an individual, it would sweep the liberty of every
being in the State into the vortex of general and undistinguish-
ing destruction. But these are points of view upon which the
minds of the people of Ireland and England may dwell with
terror or indignation or apathy, according as they may be fitted
for liberty or for chains, but they are not points for the court,
and so I pass them by. The present arrest and detention are
defended under the forty-fourth of the king. Are they warranted
by that act? That is the only question for you to decide; and
you will arrive at that decision in the usual course, by inquiring,
first, how the law stood before upon the subject; next, what the
imperfection or grievance of that law was; and third, what the
remedy intended to be applied by the act in question.

First, then, how stood the law before ? Upon this part it
would be a parade of useless learning to go further back than
the statute of Charles, the Habeas Corpus Act, which is so justly
called the second Magna Charta of British liberty. What was the
occasion of the law ? The arbitrary transportation of the subject
beyond the realm; that base and malignant war, which the
odious and despicable minions of power are forever ready to
wage against all those who are honest and bold enough to de-
spise, to expose, and to resist them. Such is the oscitancy of
man, that he lies torpid for ages under these aggressions, until at
last some signal abuse, the violation of Lucrece, the death of Vir-
ginia, the oppression of William Tell, shakes him from his slum-
ber. For years had those drunken gambols of power been played
in England; for years had the waters of bitterness been rising to
the brim; at last a single drop caused them to sleep — and what
does that great statute do ? It defines and asserts the right, it
points out the abuse, and it endeavors to secure the right and
to guard against the abuse by giving redress to the sufferer and
by punishing the offender; for years had it been the practice to
transport obnoxious persons out of the realm into distant parts
under the pretext of punishment or of safe custody. Well might
they have been said to be sent "to that undiscovered country



o JOHN PHILPOT CURRAN

from whose bourn no traveler returns,'* for of these wretched
travelers how few ever did return. But of that flagrant abuse
this statute has laid the ax to the root: it prohibits the abuse;



Online LibraryDavid J. (David Josiah) BrewerCrowned masterpieces of eloquence, representing the advance of civilization, as collected in The world's best orations, from the earliest period to the present time (Volume 4) → online text (page 26 of 39)