« ForrigeFortsæt »
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 major 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 and 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 to 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,
merely because exempt from the burthen of public, duty, should on that account, be privileged to inculcate, with impunity, the most dangerous and destructive opinions? Does it stand to common sense that, solely because living in political obscurity, he should be permitted to instil into the minds of those around him, sentiments that if imbibcd cannot but have some weight in reconciling society to the adoption of whatever change in government it was the desire of the delinquent to accomplishi, whether it be an increase of power and dignity in their present ruler, or an absolute change in the constitution, from its present state, to one bearing on its face stronger and more perceptible traits of despotism? From these remarks it would appear that it is by no means incompatible with the strictest justice, to disclose such particulars in the conduct of a private individual, as menace the good of society. On the contrary I am of opinion that it is the duty of an impartial press, to notice and expose every thing of the kind, whenever and wherever perceivable; but a little reflection will teach us the propriety of not disclosing any circumstance implicating the good name of a fellow-citizen until sufficient proof has rendered us certain, that what we intend detailing is perfectly well founded and correct, and will also show that a contrary method will evidently lead to much abuse of that very liberty which, if admirers of a free press, we cannot be too cautious in guarding from becoming elevated to an unlimited privilege of publishing what we please of others, however unfounded and un
The point at which the change from a well regulated freedom to unbridled licentiousness, in the publication of opinions, becomes visible, has frequently been made a subject of controversy, among those who have examined the subject, and on inquiry, will be found to vary, according to the ideas of the several essayists, precisely in proportion to the political sentiments they have conceived, with regard to the nature of the government under which they write. Thus a person who believes that an absolute and despotic form of government is better calculated than any other, to preserve the interests and safety of its subjects, will perceive that a liberty of discussion
on the propriety of those measures pursued by the heads of government is utterly inconsistent with that unlimited power he so much admires in his rulers, and consequently will confine the privileges of the press within very narrow limits; while, on the other hand, a member of a republican institution, from perceiving the importance, attached on all occasions to the people's voice, will, if induced to make politics the subject of his pen, give as extended a latitude as possible to their jurisdiction, over the ministerial acts of the officers of government. In some civil institutions, of a milder nature however than those we term despotic, the freedom of the press, if perfectly unrestricted, may become prejudicial to the interests of the society: for a monarchical institution may be so regulated and modulated by a well constructed constitution, as to be deprived of all those offensive sources, from which the heads of government may draw the power of raising themselves to a situation which may endanger the civil freedom of the nation; and may consequently be as agreeable to the wishes and apparently as consonant with the real liberties of the people as any other. Whatever therefore tends to invade the constitutional privileges of the officers of a government, so acceptable to the body of the people, must, in some degree, prove injurious. For if such bounds have been placed to their prerogative as they may find difficult to overlean, such proceedings will have no other consequence, than of exciting a spirit of innovation in the breasts of the subjects, which, when once it acquires an ascendant in the public mind, is constantly stirring and impelling men to the formation of visionary schemes of government, under which the security of their rights and liberties would be more certain, and the attempts toward the adoption of which will probably end in producing a civil war, one of the most dreadful and destructive evils the Almighty ever sent, as a punishment to nations. Some may here perhaps
, imagine, that I am a decided enemy to all kinds of alteration in forms of government, however inconsistent with the civil liberties they are intended to preserve uninjured. I will here observe, that far from allowing tenets so despotic to constitute a portion of my political creed, there can be no one who more
· VOL. V
admires those institutions in which the people possess the most extensive privileges, or that would be happier at seeing such changes effected, in some of the present governments of the earth, as would tend to elevate the subject from a condition of slavery to the enjoyment of that liberty, which is the immediate gift of the Almighty, and the depriving mankind of which, will subject tyrants to a punishment, hereafter, the extent of which they are by no means aware of. In almost every government that is regulated by an established constitution, we find the most decisive and effectual measures entered into for the prevention of unnecessary and dangerous innovation; which clearly points out the injurious consequences that have been so generally apprehended, by such as have been concerned in the direction of those affairs. Hence it is evident, that no change, however slight, in the constitution of a state, ought to be adopted without the most solemn deliberation on, and examination of its propriety, and this, more on account of the deleterious effects which may result from the possibility of such changes becoming frequent, than the immediate bad consequences that may follow the adoption of any one of them.
If then, agreeable to these remarks, the point at which the liberty of the press may according to the circumstances of some particular cases prove variable, to distinguish and settle it, is to all appearance not to be effected with facility; but when we attend to a distinction that must be obvious between unbridled licentiousness, and mere local impropriety, we will discover, perhaps, that what was imagined a difficult undertaking proves, on examination, rather easier than we expected. From a certain combination of circumstances, in a civil institution, it may be deemed extremely improper to make the capacity of the heads of government, a subject of public discussion; and if ever a case of this kind should occur, it could not certainly be deemed an injurious abridgment of its privileges, for the press to be restricted from commenting on them, when such a proceeding would be attended by evil consequences; but with the licentiousness of the press it is entirely different in regard to this, the line which separates it from real liberty is too broad and conspicuous, to allow us, for a moment, to be