Tuesday 9 February 2016

9th February 1816: Charles Sutton is sentenced to 12 months in prison for political libel

On Friday 9th February 1816, Charles Sutton returned to the Court of King's Bench to receive sentence, after losing his appeal 8 days earlier. The Times of 10th February 1816 covered the hearing in its Law Report section:

The ATTORNEY-GENERAL moved for the sentence of the Court upon the defendant: we noticed the principal facts of the case in the argument on the motion for arresting the judgment: the information was for a libel inserted in the defendant's newspaper, entitled "The Nottingham Review," in which, under the form of a letter to the editor, a comparison was made between the conduct of the British forces at Washington, who had been rewarded, and the riots of the Luddites, at Nottingham, who had been executed. 
The defendant having taken his place on the floor, several affidavits were put in on his behalf from members of the corporation of Nottingham, who gave him a good character as a peaceable and well-disposed subject, and stated an opinion that the libel had been published from an error in judgment. The defendant’s affidavit set forth the age of his mother, who in her 74th year was dependent upon him, the sickness of his wife; and the heavy pecuniary charges he had sustained in consequence of this information. 
Mr. DENMAN then addressed the Court in extenuation of the offence. He was, of course, not nowat liberty to argue that the publication was not libellous; but he had contended that the trial, and begged leave now to repeat, that the conduct of the British troops at Washington, and of the Ministers who ordered that enterprise, was a fair subject of public discussion; and if it were restrained, the boasted liberty of the press, which professed to give this privilege as one of the main supports of our constitution, would be converted into a snare to entrap the unwary: the conduct of all the functionaries of the state had hitherto been deemed free to the canvass of the people; and it courts of justice were too rigid in punishment every time the bound was a little overstepped, the injury would be much greater the benefit. Such topics and others he had urged at the Assizes, and had quoted the words of Lord Ellenborough, in the King v. Perry, in which it had been once more laid down, that the administration of the King’s ministers was open to a fair and free scrutiny; the Sovereign himself was not free from errors to which God has subjected his creatures, and from which he alone was exempt. It had appeared to him, that to no defendant could that doctrine be more fitly applied than to the present; for at the period he published this libel, while the ill-gotten treasures of the Louvre had been spared, the public edifices and private dwellings of an unoffending capital had been razed to the ground. He would not enter before their Lordships upon points he had pressed upon the jury. In the court he now addressed, the language of the great Roman orator was verified:—"In hoc loco falsa invidia imbecilla esse debet, dominetur in concionibus, jaceat in judiciis—ab ingeniis prudentium repudietur.” ["in this place unpopularity arising on false grounds ought to be powerless, let it have sway in assemblies, but let it be overthrown in courts of justicebut let it be rejected by the dispositions of the wise" - paraphrased from the speech of Cicero in defence of Aulus Cluentius Avitus]. He was instructed to express the deep regret of the defendant that a Jury of his countrymen had found him guilty of a libel, not printed in the years 1811 and 1812, when the spirit of disturbance prevailed, but two years after it had subsided: which libel it was stated in the information, was intended to re-animate that spirit. It was some consolation, however, to the defendant to find that such calamitous effect had been produced. 
Mr. JUSTICE BAYLEY.—You do not swear that there have been no disturbances since 1812, and the fact is known to be otherwise. 
Mr. DENMAN was confident that no general resistance to constituted authorities have been shown since that period, though partial and temporary disturbances might have been committed. However it might be charged in the information, that truth was more especially with regard to the riots of the Luddites, that newspapers and pamphlets had had little or no influence, and that the true operating causes were "malesuada fames et turpis egestas." ["hunger and vile want are bad counsellors"]—The manner of treating it might be ill advised, but the subject which the libel dwelt might by some be considered as affording a fair ground from which to assail the government that had directed an enterprise, more like the lawless effort of an enraged multitude, that the regular attack of a disciplined army. He concluded by pressing upon the Court the facts stated in the affidavits. 
Mr. PHILLIPS, on the same side, declined making any additional observations. 
The ATTORNEY-GENERAL was not disposed to call for any undue degree of severity, or to ask the Court to break through the barrier that defended the liberty of the press; but it was not so trite as true that the licentiousness of the press was the greatest enemy to its liberty. If public measures were discussed, misrepresentation ought to be avoided, and, above all, no attempts should be made to excite discontents among the people. The influence of newspapers and pamphlets was greater than was generally believed, and for this reason it behoved those who preserved the public peace to be especially watchful that there nothing appeared that was likely to disturb it: distress and hunger might do much, but they alone would never have occasioned the dreadful scenes of 1811 and 1812. With respect to the effect of the libel in question, although it was contended that tranquillity had been perfectly restored long before its appearance, it was not a little singular that a person had been shot in his own house on the very day this publication appeared. 
Mr. DENMAN submitted that no such fact appearing upon the affidavits, the Attorney General could not refer to it: at the trial, the defendant was prepared with evidence to show that the libel before the court could have had no influence on that event, as it had been contemplated and plotted before its appearance. 
The ATTORNEY-GENERAL admitted the correctness of Mr. Denman’s remark: he had only mentioned the circumstance to show that the general spirit of insubordination was still alive at the time the libel was thrown among the discontented at Nottingham. 
Mr. JUSTICE LE BLANC passed the sentence of the Court:—that the defendant should be imprisoned in Northampton gaol for one year, and at the end of that time should give securities for his good behaviour, himself in 500l. and two sureties in 250l. each.

Many thanks to Matthijs Krul for help with translating and identifying the Latin passages in this article.

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