« PreviousContinue »
importance of learning and science. For what benefit to society can ever result from knowledge, however extensive, if possessed solely by a few that are either unable or unwilling to share it with others-Who could ever consider the philosopher, that from some obvious reason, was incapable of allowing the world ever to taste the fruits of his labours, a useful or profitable member of society?-In how important a light then, must we not view a discovery, that enabled man to scatter the results of his literary researches, with rapidity and equality, among those around him; that rendered all the divisions of a state capable of participating in the knowledge of their ci-devant superiors, that released the scientific riches of the learned from the narrow limits of their closets, and empowered them to spread free and unconfined but by the bounds of society itself. View the art of printing in whatever light fancy may dictate, and we find it equally useful and important. Whether connected with civil government, religion or literature, it is to mankind of similar utility. To enumerate and demonstrate the dangers of despotism and make generally known the point at which the devest. ing man of his natural liberty, when becoming a member of a civilized community, should with propriety stop; to infuse into the soul suitable ideas of our Creator's excellence, and expand the mind by a knowledge of his omnipotence and infinitude, and “to pour the fresh instruction o'er the mind,” are in the end equally beneficial to society, and are among the many important advantages of which as rapid and effectual conveyance to the world in general, and the various classes of society in particular, has been primarily derived from the invention of printing
To illustrate the vast importance of this discovery by examining the subject under the first of the three above-mentioned points of view is my intention in this essay; and of consequence the freedom of the press will engage the most considerable portion of my attention.-My remarks on the subject will be characterised by brevity and their object shall be to distinguish the point at which a change from civil to natural liberty in the publication of sentiments, if I may be allowed the expression, becomes perceptible.
To the comprehension of some it has been an inquiry of considerable difficulty to investigate the nature of the methods which one or more individuals must pursue in order to succeed in acquiring a tyrannical power over millions of others. This difficulty arises from considering only the great improbability, nay, apparent impossibility there exists of a few persons taking forcible possession of the extensive prerogatives of tyranny, and is in a moment obviated by reflecting on the absolute necessity, in the persons interested, of using concealed and insidious measures, in order to secure the affections and confi. dence of those who are to co-operate with them in obtaining the elevation they aspire to. That one man can never by open and undisguised efforts succeed in obtaining despotic sway over a nation of fellow'men I hold to be an undeniable principle. To acquire in safety this ne plus ultra of human power, he must resort to other unjustifiable methods than those of which man can be externally sensible. He will be necessitated to use secret and concealed methods of attack, and must make hypocrisy. his covering from the scrutiny of patriotism. For as men even although intellectually blind to the powers and dictates of reason and sense, can never voluntarily shut their eyes to their external and personal advantages, it follows, that secresy is the grand support and prop of political tyranny, and that disguised methods of proceeding are the only effectual means of finally succeeding in its acquirement and retention. It may perhaps be urged in objection to the truth of this opinion, that it is expressly contradicted by the instances on record of generals, by means of their armies, arriving at imperial power: but is it not evident that, by the most unpar. donable methods, the commander, in a case of this kind, must first acquire the capability of making the army subservi. ent to the completion of his own designs; is it not obvious, that by the most insidious means, he must first secure the inte. resls of his soldiers that he may afterwards succeed in rendering them assistant to his personal aggrandizement; and that, although force is the immediate agent in his elevation, yet the power of using that force, was obtained by at first concealing his original intentions.---It may also be argued that as the army
co-operates with him, openly in attempting to assume the diadem of tyranny, it must be considered as no longer blind to the object of his wishes, and therefore, from the period at which this becomes disclosed, forcible endeavours usurp the place of', insidious and secret, although equally successful attacks. To the truts of this apparent objection, I assent, for as no one before he had obtained the sincere and undivided affections of his soldiery would ever dare, openly and without some previous salutary precautions, to declare his wishes, this objection can- . not possibly have the least effect, in detracting from the certainty of the opinion I advanced.
These remarks will tend to evince the manner in which ambitious men must invariably proceed, in order to accompiish their tyrannical designs, and I will now proceed to exhibit the methods, which are to be pursued, in order to prevent the final success of their endeavours. The invention of printing having afforded a ready method of circulating information on every subject, is consequently the grand source whence we derive the means of accomplishing this desirable end, and for this reason it has always been the first care of tyrannical governments, since the discovery, to abridge as much as possible the freedom of the press. Freedom of discussion, and a right of examining and pronouncing on the propriety of public measures, form the noblest and most important prerogative of a free people. The legislative and other acts of their governors to meet with their approbation, both as a community and as individuals, should be liable to an open and public investigation, must be tried at the bar of national opinion, and be pruned by the hands of the subjects of all such parts as are offensive to the common welfare, or as may prove injurious to the general liberty of society. To scrutinize the official conduct of “men in power," and point them out as unworthy of possessing the privileges conferred on them by the people, whenever their behaviour indicates the possession of ambitious sentiments, form the most essential requisites in the freedom of the press. To render those two privileges more extensively beneficial, no official character ought to be allowed an exception from the general right, however elevated his rank or extended his
power. From the consequences that must inevitably result from such an exclusion, it will obviously form no inconsiderable abridgment of that liberty of investigation, I have before noticed as forming so important an article in the rights of a free people. For if one servant of the public be allowed the power of acting as he thinks best, without a reservation of the privilege of reprehension on the part of the people, he will evidently be enabled to augment, with impunity, every source from which he may possibly derive the means of elevating himself above the reach of public opinion. It is also to be recollected that the more important the trust a nation reposes in an individual, and the greater and more serious the consequences that depend on the faithful performance of it, the more extended ought our privilege to be of watching and reprehending him, when any remissness or negligence is perceivable in his attention to the charge committed to his care; and that the right of scrutinizing the measures of men in office, would, if its exercise were restricted to persons of the lowest official capacities, be of no avail in preventing those ruinous effects, which result from the entertainment of despotic desires, and as antedote against which the importance of the discovery of printing is one way manifested. The impropriety then of allowing any individuals to be placed, at the moment of their election to office, above the reach of public scrutiny is thus evinced; but although to be entirely free, the press should not be confined to investigating the conduct of any particular number of their public officers; but on the contrary that no servant of the people should be exempt from the ordeal of public opinion; we must at the same time recollect, that when the inajor part of the citizens of a state have placed an individual at their head, that the prevailing sentiment in his favour is an obvious testimony of the great reliance placed in his talents and integrity, and of their firm belief in his ability to conduct, with fidelity and honour, the affairs of the nation confided to his care; and consequently must be considered as a direction to them not to touch upon his political capacity, but with the most delicate caution. It is to be remembered that when we pretend to point out the path, most proper for the rulers of a nation to pursue, we are opposing
our abilities with theirs, and arrogating to ourselves a superiority of talents and foresight, which, when reflection takes the place of hasty and violent invective, we must feel conscious of not being possessed of. Having now shewn that no official character, in the administration of a government, ought to be sheltered, by an express exception, from the scrutiny " of public opinion,” and the inconsistency of such a privilege with that unrestricted freedom, which is necessary to constitute the press a preservative of liberty, I will observe, that. beside the power which ought to remain with the people of investigating the conduct of individuals in regard to their official capacities, it ought also to be permitted them, to examine the sentiments of private citizens, when their outward actions indicate the possession of opinions, the communication of which to society may be of general and extensive injury. Thus if the conductor of a press gives publicity to sentiments, which are, to all appearance, inconsistent with the welfare of the community, an exposure of the injurious consequences, that must follow their reception and encouragement, is not only justifiable, but proper nd necessary.
In the same manner any thing of the like kind may be openly reprobated and condemned, when observable in a private member of society; so of any dishonesty practised by one citizen against another, but on the contrary the disclosure of private vicious habits, the bad effects of which can only be felt by their possessor, and extend no farther than his own personal disadvantages, evinces a mean and malignant spirit of invective that merits the most decided reprehension.
That the press ought to possess a right of descanting on the impropriety of opinions, tending to impress the necessity of innovation in a long established form of government, even if endeavoured to be inculcated by a private member of the community, must be evident when we consider the manner in which the press is to proceed, when acting as a preventative of the accomplishment of dangerous designs, formed in the restless minds of turbulent and ambitious citizens. Whatever tends endanger liberty, ought immediately to be uncovered and exposed, and this whether originating in a private or public personage; for is it consonant to reason to allow that a man,