[Continuation of Mr. ERSKINE'S Defence of PAINE, and of The Liberty of the Press, from page 175.]
LET then the calumniators of Thomas Paine now attend to his Preface, where, to leave no excuse for ignorance or misrepresentation, he expresses himself thus:
I have differed from some professional gentle∣men on the subject of prosecutions, and I since find they are falling into my opinion, which I will here state as fully, but as concisely as I can.
I will first put a case with respect to any law, and then compare |it with a government, or with what in England is, or has been, called a Con∣stitution.
It would be an act of despotism, or what in England is called arbitrary power to make a law to prohibit investigating the principles, good or bad, on which such a law, or any other, is founded.
If a law be bad, it is one thing to oppose the practice of it, but it is quite a different thing to expose its errors, to reason on its defects, and to shew cause why it should be repealed, or why another ought to be substituted in its place. I have always held it an opinion (making it also my practice), that it is better to obey a bad law, making use at the same time of every argument to shew its errors, and procure its repeal, than forcibly to violate it; because the precedent of breaking a bad law might weaken the force, and Page 190lead to a discretionary violation, of those which are good.
The case is the same with principles and forms of government, or to what are called constitutions and the parts of which they are composed.
It is for the good of nations, and not for the emolument or aggrandisement of particular indi∣viduals, that government ought to be established, and that mankind are at the expence of support∣ing it. The defects of every government and con∣stitution, both as to principle and form, must, on a parity of reasoning, be as, open to discussion as the defects of a law; and it is a duty which every man owes to society to point them out. When those defects, and the means of remedying them are generally seen by a nation, that nation will reform its government or its constitution in the one case, as the government repealed or reformed the law in the other.
Gentlemen, you must undoubtedly wish to deal with every man who comes before you in judgment, as you would be dealt by yourselves; and surely you will not lay it down as a law to be binding hereafter even upon yourselves, that if you should publish any opinion concerning the existing abuses in your coun∣try's government, and point out to the whole public the means of amendment, you are to be acquitted or convicted as any twelve men may happen to agree with you in your opinions. Yet this is precisely what you are asked to do to another; it is pre∣cisely the case before you. Mr. Paine expressly says, I obey a law until it is repealed; obedience is not only my principle but my practice, since my disobedience of a law from thinking it bad, might apply to justify another man in the disobedience of a good one; and thus individuals would give the rule for themselves, and not society, for all.
Gentlemen, you will presently see that the same principle pervades the rest of the work; and I am Page 191the more anxious to call your attention to it, how∣ever repetition may tire you, because it unfolds the whole principle of my argument: for, if you find a sentence in the whole book that invests any indivi∣dual, or any number of individuals, or any commu∣nity short of the whole nation, with a power of changing any part of the law or constitution I aban∣don the cause—YES, I freely abandon it, because I will not affront the majesty of a court of justice, by maintaining propositions which, even upon the sur∣face of them, are false.—Mr. Paine, page 162— 186, goes on thus:
When a nation changes its opinion and habits of thinking, it is no longer to be governed as before; but it would not only be wrong, but bad policy, to attempt by force what ought to be accomplished by reason. Rebellion consists in forcibly opposing the general will of a nation, whether by a party or by a government. There ought, therefore, to be, in every nation, a method of occasionally ascertaining the state of public opinion with respect to govern∣ment.
There is therefore, no power but the voluntary Will of the People that has a right to act in any matter respecting a general Reform; and, by the same right that two persons can confer on such a subject, a thousand may. The object in all such preliminary proceedings is, to find out what the general sense of a nation is, and to be governed by it. If it prefer a bad or defective government to a reform, or chuse to pay ten times more taxes than there is occasion for, it has a right so to do; and, so long as the majority do not impose con∣ditions on the minority different to what they im∣pose on themselves, though there may be much error, there is no injustice; neither will the error continue long. Reason and discussion will soon bring things right, however wrong they may be∣gin. By such a process no tumult is to be appre∣hended. Page 192The poor, in all countries, are naturally both peaceable and grateful in all reforms in which their interest and happiness are included. It is only by neglecting and rejecting them that they become tumultuous.
Gentlenen, these are the sentiments of the Author of the Rights of Man; and, whatever his opinions may be of the defects in our government, it can never change our sentiments concerning it, if our senti∣ments are just; and a writing can never be seditious in the sense of the English law, which states that the government leans on the universal will for its sup∣port.
Gentlemen, this universal will is the best and se∣curest title which his Majesty and his family have to the throne of these Kingdoms; and in proportion to the wisdom of our institutions, the title must in com∣mon sense become the stronger: so little idea indeed, have I of any other, that in my place in parliament, not a week ago, I considered it as the best way of expressing my attachment to the constitution, as esta∣blished at the Revolution, to declare (I believe in the presence of the Heir Apparent of the Crown, for whom I have the greatest personal zeal) that his Majesty reigned in England, by choice and consent, as the magistrate of the English people; not indeed a consent and choice by personal election, like a King of Po∣land, the worst of all possible constitutions; but by the election of a family for great national objects; in defiance of that hereditary right, which only becomes tyranny, in the sense of Mr. Paine, when it claims to inherit a nation, instead of governing by their con∣sent, and continuing for its benefit.
Gentlemen, this sentiment has the advantage of Mr. Burke's high authority, he says with great truth, in a letter to his constituents,
Having now, Gentlemen, established the Author's general intention by his own introduction, which is the best and fairest exposition, let us next look at the oc∣casion which gave it birth.