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- Prisoner for Blasphemy - 30/34 -


the Blasphemy Laws they shall find that so long as these laws exist--whatever I may think about their wisdom--they will have but one rule of law laid down in this court."

Another point I raised, which I neglected in my previous defences, was this. What is it that men have a right to at law?

"Every man has a right to three things--protection for person, property and character, and all that can be legitimately derived from these. The ordinary law of libel gives a man protection for his character, but it is surely monstrous that he should claim protection for his opinions and tastes. All that he can claim is that his taste shall not be violently outraged against his will. I hope, gentlemen, you will take that rational view of the question. We have libelled no man's character, we have invaded no man's person or property. This crime is a constructed crime, originally manufactured by priests in the interest of their own order to put down dissent and heresy. It now lingers amongst us as a legacy utterly alien to the spirit of our age, which unfortunately we have not resolution enough to cast among those absurdities which Time holds in his wallet of oblivion."

My peroration is the only other part of the defence which I shall extract.

"Gentlemen, I have more than a personal interest in the result of this trial. I am anxious for the rights and liberties of thousands of my countrymen. Young as I am, I have for many years fought for my principles, taken soldier's wages when there were any, and gone cheerfully without when there were none, and fought on all the same, as I mean to do to the end; and I am doomed to the torture of twelve months' imprisonment by the verdict and judgment of thirteen men, whose sacrifices for conviction may not equal mine. The bitterness of my fate can scarcely be enhanced by your verdict. Yet this does not diminish my solicitude as to its character. If, after the recent scandalous proceedings in another court, you, as a special jury in this High Court of Justice, bring in a verdict of Guilty against me and my co-defendant, you will decisively inaugurate a new era of persecution, in which no advantage can accrue to truth or morality, but in which fierce passions will be kindled, oppression and resistance matched against each other, and the land perhaps disgraced with violence and stained with blood. But if, as I hope, you return a verdict of Not Guilty, you will check that spirit of bigotry and fanaticism which is fully aroused and eagerly awaiting the signal to begin its evil work; you will close a melancholy and discreditable chapter of history; you will proclaim that henceforth the press shall be absolutely free, unless it libel men's characters or contain incitements to crime, and that all offences against belief and taste shall be left to the great jury of public opinion; you will earn the gratitude of all who value liberty as the jewel of their souls, and independence as the crown of their manhood; you will save your country from becoming ridiculous in the eyes of nations that we are accustomed to consider as less enlightened and free; and you will earn for yourselves a proud place in the annals of its freedom, its progress, and its glory."

I delivered this appeal to the jury as impressively as I could. There was a solemn silence in court. A storm cloud gathered while I spoke, and heavy drops of rain fell on the roof as I concluded.

Lord Coleridge lifted his elbow from his desk, and addressed the jury:

"Gentlemen, I should have been glad to have summed up this evening, but the truth is, I am not very strong, and I propose to address you in the morning, and that will give you a full opportunity of reflecting calmly on the very striking and able speech you have just heard."

My defence was a great effort, and it exhausted me. Until I had to exert myself I did not know how the confinement and the prison fare had weakened me. The reader will understand the position better if I remind him that the only material preparation I had in the morning for the task of defending myself against Sir Hardinge Giffard and Mr. Maloney was six ounces of dry bread and a little thin cocoa, which the doctor had ordered instead of the "skilly" to stop my diarrhoea. The Governor kindly allowed one of my friends to fetch me a little brandy. Then we drove back to prison, where I had some more dry bread and thin cocoa. The next morning, after an exactly similar meal, we drove down again to the court.

Lord Coleridge's summing-up lasted nearly two hours, and, like my defence, it was listened to by a crowded court, which included a large number of gentlemen of the wig and gown. His lordship's address is reported at length in the "Three Trials for Blasphemy," and a revised copy was published by himself. His view of the law has been dealt with already in my Preface. What I wish to say here is, that Lord Coleridge's demeanor was in marked contrast with Judge North's. I cannot do better than quote a few passages from an open letter I addressed to his lordship soon after my release:

"How were my feelings modified by your lordship's lofty bearing! I found myself in the presence of a judge who was a gentleman. You treated me with impartiality, and a generous consideration for my misfortunes. No one could doubt your sincerity when, in the midst of a legal illustration which might be construed as a reflection on my character, you suddenly checked yourself, and said, 'I mean no offence to Mr. Foote. I should be unworthy of my position if I insulted anyone in his.' You were scrupulously, almost painfully, careful to say nothing that could assist the prosecution or wound my susceptibilities. You appeared to tremble lest your own convictions should prejudice you, and the jury through you, against me and my fellow prisoner. You listened with the deepest attention to my long address to the jury. You discussed all my arguments that you considered essential in your summing-up; and you strengthened some of them, while deprecating others, with a logical force and beauty of expression which were at once my admiration and my despair. You paid me such handsome compliments on my defence in the most trying circumstances as dispelled at once the orthodox theory that I was a mere vulgar criminal. In brief, my lord, you displayed such a lofty spirit of justice, such a tenderness of humanity, and such a dignity of bearing, that you commanded my admiration, my reverence and my love; and if the jury had convicted me, and your lordship had felt obliged by the 'unpleasant law' to inflict upon me some measure of punishment, I could still have kissed the hand that dealt the blow.

"I know how repulsive flattery must be to a nature like yours, but your lordship will pardon one who is no sycophant, who seeks neither to avert your frown nor to gain your favor, who has no sinister object in view, but simply speaks from the fulness of a grateful heart. And you will pardon me if I say that my sentiments are shared by thousands, who hate your creed but respect your character. They watched you throughout my trial with the keenest interest, and they rejoiced when they saw in you those noble human qualities which transcend all dogmas and creeds, and dwarf all differences of opinion into absolute insignificance."

Lord Coleridge also deserves my thanks for the handsome manner in which he seconded my efforts to repudiate the odious charge of "indecency," which had been manufactured by the bigots after my imprisonment. These are his lordship's words:

"Mr. Foote is anxious to have it impressed on your minds that he is not a licentious writer, and that this word does not fairly apply to his publications. You will have the documents before you, and you must judge for yourselves. I should say that he is right. He may be blasphemous, but he certainly is not licentious, in the ordinary sense of the word; and you do not find him pandering to the bad passions of mankind."

I ask my readers to notice these clear and emphatic sentences, for we shall recur to them in the next chapter.

The jury retired at twenty minutes past twelve. At three minutes past five they were discharged, being unable to agree. It was a glorious victory. Acquittal was hopeless, but no verdict amounted practically to the same thing. Two juries out of three had already disagreed, and as the verdict of Guilty by the third had been won through the scandalous partiality and mean artifices of a bigoted judge, the results of our prosecution afforded little encouragement to fresh attacks on the liberty of the press.

I have since had the pleasure of conversing with one of the jury. Himself and two others held out against a verdict of Guilty, and he told me that the discussion was extremely animated. My informant acted on principle. He confessed he did not like my caricatures, and he considered my attacks on the Bible too severe; but he held that I had a perfect right to ridicule Christianity if I thought fit, and he refused to treat any method of attacking opinions as a crime. Of the other two jurors, one was convinced by my address, and the other declared that he was not going to assist in imprisoning like a thief "a man who could make a speech like that."

The next day I asked Lord Coleridge not to try the case again for a few days, as I was physically unable to conduct my defence. His lordship said:

"I have just been informed, and I hardly knew it before, what such imprisonment as yours means, and what, in the form it has been inflicted on you, it must mean; but now that I do know of it, I will take care that the proper authorities know of it also, and I will see that you have proper support."

His lordship added that he would see I had proper food, and he would take the defence whenever I pleased. We fixed the following Tuesday. During the interim our meals were provided from the public-house opposite the prison gates. My diarrhoea ceased at once, and I so far recovered my old form that I felt ready to fight twenty Giffards. But we did not encounter each other again. Feeling assured that if Lord Coleridge continued to try the case, as he obviously meant to until it was disposed of, they would never obtain a verdict, the prosecution secured a _nolle prosequi_ from the Attorney-General. It was procured by means of an affidavit, containing what his lordship branded as an absolute falsehood. So the prosecution, which began in bigotry and malice, ended appropriately in a lie.

CHAPTER XV.

LOSS AND GAIN.


Prisoner for Blasphemy - 30/34

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