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JOHN PHILPOT CURRAN 317



ENGLAND AND ENGLISH LIBERTIES — IN THE CASE OF ROWAN

(From the Speech in Behalf of Archibald Hamilton Rowan, Esq., for a Libel
in the Court of King's Bench, Ireland, on the 29th of January, 1794)

I KNOW no case in which a jury ought to be more severe than
where personal calumny is conveyed through a vehicle, which

ought to be consecrated to public information; neither, on
the other hand, can I conceive any case in which the firmness
and the caution of a jury should be more exerted than when a
subject is prosecuted for a libel on the State. The peculiarity of
the British Constitution (to which in its fullest extent we have an
undoubted right, however distant we may be from the actual en-
joyment), and in which it surpasses every known government in
Europe, is this: that its only professed object is the general
good, and its only foundation the general will; hence the people
have a right acknowledged from time immemorial, fortified by a
pile of statutes, and authenticated by a revolution that speaks
louder than them all, to see whether abuses have been com-
mitted, and whether their properties and their liberties have
been attended to as they ought to be.

This is a kind of subject which I feel myself overawed when
I approach; there are certain fundamental principles which noth-
ing but necessity should expose to public examination; they are
pillars, the depth of whose foundation you cannot explore with-
out endangering their strength; but let it be recollected that the
discussion of such topics should not be condemned in me, nor
visited upon my client: the blame, if any there be, should rest
only with those who have forced them into discussion. I say,
therefore, it is the right of the people to keep an eternal watch
upon the conduct of their rulers; and in order to that, the free-
dom of the press has been cherished by the law of England. In
private defamation let it never be tolerated; in wicked and wan-
ton aspersion upon a good and honest administration let it never
be supported. Not that a good government can be exposed to
danger by groundless accusation, but because a bad government
is sure to find in the detected falsehood of a licentious press a
security and a credit, which it could never otherwise obtain.

I said a good government cannot be endangered; I say so
again, for whether it is good or bad it can never depend upon
assertion; the question is decided by simple inspection; to try the
tree, look at its fruit; to judge of the government, look at the



oj8 JOHN PHILPOT CURRAN

people. What is the fruit of a good government ? The virtue
and happiness of the people. Do four millions of people in this
country gather those fruits from that government, to whose in-
jured purity, to whose spotless virtue and violated honor, this
seditious and atrocious libeler is to be immolated upon the altar
of the Constitution ? To you, gentlemen of the jury, who are
bound by the most sacred obligation to your country and your
God, to speak nothing but the truth, I put the question. Do the
people of this country gather those fruits ? Are they orderly, in-
dustrious, religious, and contented ? Do you find them free from
bigotry and ignorance, those inseparable concomitants of sys-
tematic oppression ? . . .

This paper, gentlemen, insists upon the necessity of emanci-
pating the Catholics of Ireland, and that is charged as a part of
the libel. If they had waited another year, if they had kept this
prosecution impending for another year, how much would remain
for a jury to decide upon, I should be at a loss to discover. It
seems as if the progress of public information was eating away
the ground of the prosecution. Since the commencement of the
prosecution, this part of the libel has unluckily received the sanc-
tion of the legislature. In that interval our Catholic brethren
have obtained that admission, which it seems it was a libel to
propose; in what way to account for this I am really at a loss.
Have any alarms been occasioned by the emancipation of our
Catholic brethren ? Has the bigoted malignity of any individuals
been crushed, or has the stability of the government, or that of the
country been weakened ? Or is it one million of subjects stronger
than four millions ? Do you think that the benefit they received
should be poisoned by the sting of vengeance ? If you think so,
you must say to them, " you have demanded emancipation and
you have got it; but we abhor your persons, we are outraged
at your success, and we will stigmatize by a criminal prose-
cution, the adviser of that relief which you have obtained from
the voice of your coii^try. '^ I ask you, do you think, as honest
men, anxious for the public tranquillity, conscious that there are
wounds not yet completely cicatrized, that you ought to speak
this language at this time, to men who are too much disposed to
think that in this very emancipation they have been saved from
their own Parliament by the humanity of their sovereign ? Or do
vQu wish to prepare them for the revocation of these improvi-
dent concessions c Do you think it wise or humane at this



JOHN PHILPOT CURRAN

moment to insult them, by sticking up in a pillory the man who
dared to stand forth as their advocate ? I put it to your oaths ;
do you think that a blessing of that kind, that a victory ob-
tained by justice over bigotry and oppression, should have a
stigma cast upon it by an ignominious sentence upon men bold
and honest enough to propose that measure ? To propose the
redeeming of religion from the abuses of the church, the reclaim-
ing of three millions of men from bondage, and giving liberty to
all who had a right to demand it; giving, I say, in the so much
censured words of this paper, giving ^* Universal Emancipation !"
I speak in the spirit of the British law, which makes liberty
commensurate with and inseparable from British soil; which pro-
claims even to the stranger and the sojourner, the moment he
sets his foot upon British earth, that the ground on which he
treads is holy, and consecrated by the genius of universal eman-
cipation. No matter in what language his doom may have been
pronounced; no matter what complexion incompatible with free-
dom, an Indian or an African sun may have burnt upon him;
no matter in what disastrous battle his liberty may have been
cloven down; no matter with what solemnities he may have
been devoted upon the altar of slavery, — the first moment he
touches the sacred soil of Britain the altar and the god sink to-
gether in the dust; his soul walks abroad in her own majesty;
his body swells beyond the measure of his chains that burst
from around him, and he stands redeemed, regenerated, and dis-
enthralled by the irresistible genius of universal emancipation.

[Here Mr. Curran was interrupted by a burst of applause.]

Gentlemen, I am not such a fool as to ascribe any effusion of
this sort to any merits of mine. It is the mighty theme, and not
the inconsiderable advocate, that can excite interest in the hearer:
What you hear is but the testimony which nature bears to her
own character; it is the effusion of her gratitude to that power
which stamped that character upon her.

And, permit me to say, that if my client had occasion to
defend his cause by any mad or drunken appeals to extravagance
or licentiousness, I trust in God I stand in that situation, that,
humble as I am, he would not have resorted to me to be his
advocate, I was not recommended to his choice by any connec-
tion of principle or party, or even private friendship; and saying
this, I cannot but add that I consider not to be acquainted with



^20 JOHN PHILPOT CURRAN

such a man as Mr. Rowan a want of personal good fortune.
But upon this great subject of reform and emancipation there is
a latitude and a boldness of remark, justifiable in the people,
and necessary to the defense of Mr. Rowan, for which the habits
of professional studies and technical adherence to established
forms have rendered me unfit. It is, however, my duty, standing
here as his advocate, to make some few observations to you,
which I conceive to be material.

Gentlemen, you are sitting in a country which has a right to
the British Constitution, and which is bound by an indissoluble
union with the British nation. If you were now even at liberty
to debate upon that subject; if you even were not by the most
solemn compacts, founded upon the authority of your ancestors
and of yourselves, bound to that alliance, and had an election
now to make; in the present unhappy state of Europe, if you
had been heretofore a stranger to Great Britain, you would now
say we will enter into society and union with you;

Una salus ambobus erit, commune periculum.

But to accomplish that union, let me tell you, you must learn
to become like the English people. It is in vain to say you will
protect their freedom, if you abandon your own. The pillar whose
base has no foundation can give no support to the dome under
which its head is placed; and if you profess to give England
that assistance which you refuse to yourselves, she will laugh at
your folly, and despise your meanness and insincerity. Let us
follow this a little further; I know you will interpret what I say
with the candor in which it is spoken. England is marked by a
natural avarice of freedom, which she is studious to engross and
accumulate, but most unwilling to impart; whether from any
necessity of her policy, or from her weakness, or from her pride,
I will not presume to say; but so is the fact. You need not
look to the east, nor to the west, you need only look to your-
selves. ^

In order to confirm this observation I would appeal to what
fell from the learned counsel for the Crown, "that notwithstand-
ing the alliance subsisting for two centuries past between the
two countries, the date of liberty in one goes no further back
than the year 1784."

If it required additional confirmation I should state the case
of the invaded American, and the subjugated Indian, to provf



JOHN PHILPOT CURRAN



321



that the policy of England has ever been to govern het connec
tions more as colon-' ~s than as allies; and it must be owing to
the great spirit, indeed, of Ireland if she shall continue free.
Rely upon it, she will ever have to hold her course against an
adverse current; rely upon it, if the popular spring does not con-
tinue strong and elastic, a short interval of debilitated nerve and
broken force will send you down the stream again, and recon-
sign you to the condition of a proviuce.



THE LIBERTIES OF THE INDOLENT

(Exordium of the Speech on the Right of Election of Lord Mayor of the
City of Dublin. Delivered before the Lord-Lieutenant and Privy Council
of Ireland, X790)

My Lords: —

I HAVE the honor to appear before you as counsel for the Com^
mons of the corporation of the metropolis of Ireland, and

also for Mr. Alderman Howison, who hath petitioned for your
approbation of him as a fit person to serve as Lord Mayor in vir-
tue of his election by the Commons to that high office; and in
that capacity I rise to address you on the most important sub-
ject that you have ever been called upon to discuss. Highly in-
teresting and momentous indeed, my lords, must every question
be, that, even remotely and eventually, may afEect the well-being
of societies, or the freedom or the repose of nations; but that
question, the result of which, by an immediate and direct neces-
sity, must decide either fatally or fortunately the life or the
death of that well-being, of that freedom, and that repose, is
surely the most important subject on which human wisdom can
be employed, if any subject on this side the grave can be entitled
to that appellation.

You cannot, therefore, my lords, be surprised to see this place
crowded by such numbers of our fellow-citizens; heretofore, they
were attracted hither by a strong sense of the value of their
rights, and of the injustice of the attack upon them; they felt
all the magnitude of the contest, but they were not disturbed
by any fear for the event; they relied securely on the justice of
their cause, and the integrity of those who were to decide upon
H. But the public mind is now filled with a fear of danger, the
nore painful and alarming: because hitherto unforeseen; the pub-

4 - 2I



322 JOHN PHILPOT CURRAN

lie are now taught to fear that their cause may be of doubtful
merits and disastrous issue; that rights which they considered
as defined by the wisdom and confirmed by the authority of writ-
ten law may now turn out to be no more than ideal claims,
without either precision or security; that acts of Parliament
themselves are no more than embryos of legislation, or at best
but infants, whose first labors must be, not to teach, but to
learn; and which, even after thirty years of pupilage, may have
thirty more to pass under that guardianship, which the wisdom
of our policy has provided for the protection of minors. Sorry
am I, my lords, that I can offer no consolation to my clients
on this head, and that I can only join them in bewailing that
the question, whose result must decide upon their freedom or
servitude, is perplexed with difficulties of which we never
dreamed before, and which we are now unable to comprehend.
Yet surely, my lords, that question must be difficult, upon which
the wisdom of the representative of our dread sovereign, aided
by the learning of his chancellor and his judges, assisted also by
the talents of the most conspicuous of the nobles and the gen-
try of the nation, has been twice already employed, and em-
ployed in vain. "We know, my lords, that guilt and oppression
may stand irresolute for a moment ere they strike, appalled by
the prospect of danger, or struck with the sentiment of remorse;
but to you, my lords, it were presumption to impute injustice;
we must, therefore, suppose that you have denied your determi-
nation, not because it was dangerous, but because it was difficult
to decide; and indeed, my lords, a firm belief of this difficulty,
however undiscoverable by ordinary talents, is so necessary to the
character which this august assembly ought to possess and to
merit from the country, that I feel myself bound to achieve it
by an effort of my faith if I should not be able to do so by any
exertion of my understanding.

In a question, therefore, so confessedly obscure as to baffle so
much sagacity, I am not at liberty to suppose that certainty
could be attained by a concise examination. Bending then, as I
do, my lords, to your high authority, I feel this difficulty as a
call upon me to examine it at large; and I feel it as an assur-
ance that I shall be heard with patience.

The Lord Mayor of this city hath from time immemorial been
a magistrate, not appointed by the Crown, but elected by hi?
fellow -citizens. From the hijtory of the early periods of this



JOHN PHILPOT CURRAN



Z^Z



corporation and a view of its charters and by-laws, it appears
that the Commons had from the earliest periods participated in
the important right of election to that high trust; and it was
natural and just that the whole body of citizens, by themselves
or their representatives, should have a share in electing those
magistrates who were to govern them, as it was theii birthright
to be ruled only by laws which they had a share in enacting.

The aldermen, however, soon became jealous of this partici-
pation, encroached by degrees upon the Commons, and at length
succeeded in engrossing to themselves the double privilege of
eligibility and of election; of being the only body out of which,
and by which, the Lord Mayor could be chosen. Nor is it
strange that in those times a board, consisting of so small a
number as twenty-four members, with the advantages of a more
united interest, and a longer continuance in office, should have
prevailed, even contrary to so evident principles of natural jus-
tice and constitutional right, against the unsteady resistance of
competitors, so much less vigilant, so much more numerous, and
therefore so much less united. It is the common fate of the in-
dolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The con-
dition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal
vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the
consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.



HIS FAREWELL TO THE IRISH PARLIAMENT

(From the Speech Delivered May 15th, 1797, i° Support of the Ponsonby

Reform Resolution)

I CONSIDER this as a measure of justice, with respect to the
Catholics and the people at large. The Catholics in former
times groaned under the malignant folly of penal laws — wan-
dered like herds upon the earth, or gathered under some thread-
bare grandee who came to Dublin, danced attendance at the
Castle, was smiled on by the Secretary, and carried back to his
miserable countrymen the gracious promise of favor and protec-
tion. They are no longer mean dependants but owners of their
country, and claiming simply and boldly, as Irishmen, the na-
tional privileges of men and natives of their country. . . .

I now proceed to answer the objections to the measure. I
was extremely shocked to see the agent of a foreign cabinet rise



224 JOHN PHILPOT CURRAN

Up in the assembly that ought to represent the Irish nation and
oppose a motion that was made on the acknowledged and de-
plored corruption which has been imported from his country.
Such an opposition is a proof of the charge, which I am astonished
he could venture upon at so awful a crisis. I doubt whether the
charge, or this proof of it, would appear most odious. However,
I will examine the objections. It is said — It is not the time.
This argument has become a jest in Ireland, for it has been used
in all times; in war, in peace, in quiet, and in disturbance. It
is the miserable, dilatory plea of persevering and stupid corrup-
tion, that wishes to postpone its fate by a promise of amendment,
which it is resolved never to perform. Reform has become an
exception to the proverb that says there is a time for all things;
but for reform there is no time, because at all times corruption
is more profitable to its authors than public virtue and propriety,
which they know must be fatal to their views. As to the pres-
ent time, the objections to it are a compound of the most un-
blushing impudence and folly. Forsooth it would seem as if the
house had yielded through fear. Personal bravery or fear are
inapplicable to a public assembly. I know no cowardice so des-
picable as the fear of seeming to be afraid. To be afraid of
danger is not an unnatural sensation ; but to be brave in absurdity
and injustice, merely from fear of having your sense of honesty
imputed to your own apprehension, is a stretch of folly which I have
never heard of before. But the time is pregnant with arguments
very different, indeed, from those I have heard; I mean the re-
port of the Secret Committee and the dreadful state of the coun-
try. The allegation is that the people are not to have justice,
because a rebellion exists within, and because we have an enemy
at our gates — because, forsooth, reform is only a pretext, and
separation is the object of the leaders. If a rebellion' exist, every
good subject ought to be detached from it. But if an enemy
threaten to invade us, it is only common sense to detach every
subject from the hostile standard and bring him back to his duty
and his country.

The present miserable state of Ireland — its distractions, its
distresses, its bankruptcy — are the effects of the war, and it is
the duty of the authors of that war to reconcile the people by
the most timely and liberal justice; the utmost physical strength
should be called forth, and that can be done only by union.
This is a subject so tremendous I do not wish to dwell on it; I



JOHN PHILPOT CURRAN ,or

will therefore leave it; I will support a Reform on its own
merits, and as a measure of internal peace at this momentous
juncture. Its merits are admitted by the objection to the time,
because the objection admits that at any other time it would be
proper. For twenty years past there was no man of any note in
England or Ireland who did not consider the necessity of it as a
maxim; they all saw and confessed that the people are not rep-
resented, and that they have not the benefit of a mixed monarchy.
They have a monarchy which absorbs the two other estates, and,
therefore, they have the insupportable expense of a monarchy, an
aristocracy, and a democracy, without the simplicity or energy of
any one of those forms of government. In Ireland this is pecu-
liarly fatal, because the honest representation of the people is
swallowed in the corruption and intrigue of a cabinet of another
country. From this may be deduced the low estate of the Irish
people ; their honest labor is wasted in pampering their betrayers,
instead of being employed, as it ought to be, in accommodating
themselves and their children. On these miserable consequences
of corruption, and which are all the fatal effects of inadequate
representation, I do not wish to dwell. To expatiate too much
on them might be unfair, but to suppress them might be treason
to the public. It is said that reform is only a pretense, and that
separation is the real object of leaders; if this be so, confound
the leaders by destroying the pretext, and take the followers to
yourselves. You say there are one hundred thousand; I firmly
believe there are three times the number. So much the better for
you; if these seducers can attach so many followers to rebellion
by the hope of reform through blood, how much more readily
will you engage them, not by the promise, but the possession,
and without blood ? You allude to the British fleet ; learn from
it to avoid the fatal consequence that may follow even a few
days' delay of justice. It is said to be only a pretext; I am
convinced of the contrary — I am convinced the people are sin-
cere, and would be satisfied by it. I think so from the persever-
ance in petitioning for it for a number of years; I think so,
because I think a monarchy, properly balanced by a fair repre-
sentation of the people, gives as perfect liberty as the most cele-
brated republics of old. But, of the real attraction of this object
of reform, you have a proof almost miraculous; the desire of
reform has annihilated religious antipathy and united the coun-
try. In the history of mankind it is the only instance of so fatal



326 JOHN PHILPOT CURRAN

a religious fanaticism being discarded by the good sense of man
kind, instead of dying slowly by the development of its folly.
And I am persuaded the hints thrown out this night to mak*?
the different sects jealous of each other will be a detected trick
and will only unite them still more closely. The Catholics have
given a pledge to their countrymen of their sincerity and their
zeal, which cannot fail of producing the most firm reliance; they
have solemnly disclaimed all idea of what is called emancipation,
except as a part of that reform without which their Presbyterian
brethren could not be free. Reform is a necessary change of
mildness for coercion. The latter has been tried; what is its
success ? The convention bill was passed to punish the meetings
at Dungannon and those of the Catholics; the Government consid-
ered the Catholic concessions as defeats that called for vengeance,
and cruelly have they avenged them. But did that act, or those
which followed it, put down those meetings ? The contrary was
the fact. It concealed them most foolishly. When popular dis-
contents are abroad, a wise government should put them into a
hive of glass. You hid them. The association at first was small;
the earth seemed to drink it as a rivulet, but it only disappeared
for a season. A thousand streams, through the secret windings
of the earth, found their way to one course, and swelled its
waters, until at last, too mighty to be contained, it burst out a
great river, fertilizing by its exudations or terrifying by its
cataracts. This is the effect of our penal code; it swelled sedi-
tion into rebellion. What else could be hoped from a system
of terrorism ? Fear is the most transient of all the passions; it
is the warning that nature gives for self-preservation. But when
safety is unattainable the warning must be useless, and nature
does not, therefore, give it. Administration, therefore, mistook
the quality of penal laws; they were sent out to abolish conven-
tions, but they did not pass the threshold; they stood sentinels
at the gates. You think that penal laws, like great dogs, will



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 31 of 39)