[Continuation of Mr. ERSKINE's Defence of PAINE; and of The Liberty of the Press, from page 193.]
THE Attorney General, throughout the whole course of his address to you (I knew it would be so), has avoided the most distant notice or hint of any circumstance having led to the appearance of the Author in the political world, after a silence of so many years; he has not even pronounced or even glanced at the name of Mr. Burke, but has left you to take it for granted, that the Defendant volunteered this delicate and momentous subject; and that with∣out being led to it by the provocation of political controversy, he had seized a favourable moment to stigmatize, from mere malice, and against his own confirmed opinions, the constitution of this country.
Gentlemen, my learned friend knows too well my re∣spect and value for him to suppose that I am charging him with a wilful suppression; I know him to be inca∣pable of it; he knew it would come from me. He will permit me, however, to lament that it should be Page 224left for me, at this late period of the cause, to in∣form you, that, not only the Work before you, but the First Part, of which it is a natural continuation, were written avowedly, and upon the face of them, IN ANSWER TO MR. BURKE. They were written besides under circumistances which I shall hereafter explain, and in the course of which explanation I may have occasion to cite a few passages from the Works of that celebrated person. And I shall speak of him with the highest respect; for, with whatever contempt he may delight to look down upon my hamble talents, however he may disparage the prin∣ciples which direct my public conduct, he shall never force me to forget the regard which this country owes to him for the Writings which he has left upon record for the illumination of our most distant poste∣rity. After the gratitude which we owe to God for the divine gifts of reason and understanding, our next thanks are due to those, from the fountain of whose enlightened minds they are fed and fructified. But pleading, as I do, the cause of freedom of opi∣nions, I shall not give offence by remarking, that this great Author has been thought to have changed some of his; and, if Thomas Paine had not thought so, I should not now be addressing you, because the Book, which is my subject, would never have been written. Who is right and who is wrong, in the contention of doctrines, I have repeatedly disclaim∣ed to be the question; I can only say, that Mr. Paine may be right throughout, but that Mr. Burke cannot—Mr. Paine has been uniform in his opinions, but Mr. Burke has not—Mr. Burke can only be right in part; but, should Mr. Paine be even mis∣taken in the whole, still I am not removed from the principle of his defence. My defence has nothing to do with either the concealment or rectitude of his doctrines. I admit Mr. Paine to be a Republican; you shall soon see what made him one—I do not seek to shade or qualify his attack upon our consti∣tution; Page 225I put my defence on no such matter—he un∣doubtedly means to declare it to be defective in its forms, and contaminated with abuses, which in his judgment, will one day or other bring on the ruin of us all: it is in vain to mince the matter; this is the scope of his Work. But still, if it contains no attack upon the King's majesty, nor upon any other living magistrate; if it excites to no resistance to magistracy; but, on the contrary, if it even in∣culeates, as it does, obedience to government, then, wherever may be its defects, the question continues as before, and ever must remain an unmixed question of THE LIBERTY OF THE PRESS. I therefore con∣sider it as no breach of professional duty, nor in∣jurious to the cause I am defending, to express my own admiration of the real principles of our consti∣tation— a constitution which I hope never to see give way to any other—a constitution which has been productive of various benefits, and which will produce many more hereafter, if we have wisdom enough to pluck up those weeds that grow in the richest soils, and among the brightest flowers. I agree with the merchants of London, that the English government is equal to the reformation of its own abuses; and, as an inhabitant of the city, I would have signed their declaration, if I had known, of my own knowledge, the facts recited in its preamble. But abuses the English constitution unquestionably has which call loudly for reformation, the existence of which has been the theme of our greatest states∣men, which have too plainly formed the principles of the Defendant, and created the very conjecture which produced this Book.
Gentlemen, we all but too well remember the calamitous situation in which our country stood but a few years ago—a situation which no man can look back upon without horror, nor feel himfelf safe from relapsing into it again, while the causes remain which produced it. The event I allude to, you must know to be the American war, and the still Page 226existing causes of it, the corroption of this Govern∣ment. In those days it was not thought virtue by the Patriots of England to conceal their existence from the people; but them, as now, authority con∣demned them as disaffected subjects, and deseated. the end• they sought by their promulgation.
Hear the opinion of Sir George Saville;—not his speculative opinion concerning the structure of car government in the abstract, but his opinion of the set∣tled abuses which prevailed in his own time, and which continue at this moment. But first let me re∣mind you who Sir George Saville was—I fear we s•all hardly look upon his like again—How shall I ••scri•• him to you?—In my own words I cannot. I was lately commended by Mr. Burke, in the House of Commons, for strongthening my own language by an appeal to Dr. Johnson. Were the honourable gentleman present at this moment, he would no doubt doubly applaud my choice in resorting to his own Works for the description of Sir George Saville:
It is impossible to ascribe to such a character any principal but patriotism, when he expresses himself as follows:
I return to you baffled and dispirited, and I am sorry that truth obliges me to add, with hardly a ray of hope of seeing any change in the miserable Page 227course of public calamities. On this melancholy d• of account, in rence•ing up to you my trust, I deliver to you your share of a country maimed and weakened; 〈◊〉 treasure lavished and mispent; its honours faded; and its conduct the laughing-stock of Europe: our nation in a manner without allies or friends, except such as we have hired to destroy ••r follow-subjects, and to ravage a coun∣try, in which we once claimed an invaluable share. I return to you some of your principal privileges impeached and mangled. And, lastly, I leave you, as I conceive, at this hour and moment fully, effec∣tually, and absolutely, under the discretion and power of a military force, which is to act without waiting for the authority of the civil magistrates.
Some have been accused of exaggerating the public misfortunes, nay, of having endeavoured to help forward the mischief, that they might afterwards raise discontents. I am willing to hope, that neither my temper, nor my si••ation in life, will be thought naturally to urge me to promote misery, discord, or confusion, or to exult in the subversion of order, or in the ruin of property. I have no reason to contemplate with pleasure the poverty of our country, the increase of our debts, and of our taxes; or the decay of our commerce.—Trust not, however, to my report: reflect, compare, and judge for yourselves.
But, under all these disheartening circumstances, I could yet entertain a chearful hope, and under∣take again the commission with alacrity, as well as zeal, if I could see any effectual steps taken to remove the original cause of the mischief.— Then would there be a hope?
But, till the purity of the constituent body, and thereby that of the representation be restored, there is NONE.
I gladly embrace this most public opportunity of delivering my sentiments, not only to all my Page 228constituents, but to those likewise not my consti∣tuents, whom yet, in the large sense, I represent, and am faithfully to serve.
I look upon restoring election and representa∣tion in some degree (for I expect no miracles) to their original purity, to be that without which all other efforts will be vain and ridiculous.
If something be not done, you may, indeed, re∣tain the outward form of your Constitution, but not the power thereof.