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- Prisoner for Blasphemy - 4/34 -
Truth, as Renan says, can dispense with politeness; and while we shall never stoop to personal slander or innuendo, we shall assail error without tenderness or mercy. And if, as we believe, ridicule is the most potent weapon against superstition, we shall not scruple to use it."
These extracts from my old manifestoes may possess little other value, but they at least show this, that the peculiar policy of the _Freethinker_ was not adopted in a moment of levity, but was from the first deliberately pursued; and that while I held on the even tenor of my way, I was fully conscious of its dangers.
Early in January there fell into my hands a copy of a circular to Members of Parliament by Henry Varley, the Notting Hill revivalist. This person was a notorious trader in scandal, and he still pursues that avocation. Many of his discourses are "delivered to men only," an advertisement which is sure to attract a large audience; and one of them, which he has published, is just on a level with the quack publications that are thrust into young men's hands in the street. Henry Varley had already issued one private circular about Mr. Bradlaugh, full of the most brazen falsehoods and the grossest defamation; and containing, as it did, garbled extracts from Mr. Bradlaugh's writings, and artfully-manipulated quotations from books he had never written or published, it undoubtedly did him a serious injury. The new circular was worthy of the author of the first. It was addressed "To the Members of the House of Commons," and was "for private circulation only." The indignant butcher, for that is his trade, wished "to submit to their notice the horrible blasphemies that are appended, and quoted from a new weekly publication issued from the office where Mr. Bradlaugh's weekly journal, the _National Reformer_, is published. The paper is entitled the _Freethinker_, and is edited by G. W. Foote, one of Mr. Bradlaugh's prominent supporters, and one of his right hand men at the Hall of Science." The Commons of England were also requested to notice that "Dr. Aveling, who for some years has been one of Mr. Bradlaugh's chief helpers, is another contributor to this disgraceful product of Atheism." In conclusion, they were called upon to "devise means to stay this hideous prostitution of the liberty of the Press, by making these shameless blasphemers amenable to the existing law."
It is a curious thing that such a fervid champion of religion should always attack unbelievers with private circulars. Yet this is the policy that Henry Varley has always pursued. He is a religious bravo, who lurks in the dark, and strikes at Freethinkers with a poisoned dagger. More than once he has flooded Northampton with the foulest libels on Mr. Bradlaugh, invariably issued without the printer's name, in open violation of the law. He is liable for a fine of five pounds for every copy circulated, but the action must be initiated by the Attorney-General, and our Christian Government refuses to punish when the offence is committed by one of their own creed, and the sufferer is only an Atheist.
Varley's circular served its evil purpose, for soon after Parliament assembled in February, Mr. C. K. Freshfield, member for Dover, asked the Home Secretary whether the Government intended to prosecute the _Freethinker_.
Sir William Harcourt gave the following reply:
"I am sorry to say my attention has been called to a paper bearing the title of the _Freethinker_, published in Northampton, and I agree that nothing can be more pernicious to the minds of right-thinking people than publications of that description-- (cheers)--but I think it has been the view for a great many years of all persons responsible in these matters, that more harm than advantage is produced to public morals by Government prosecutions in cases of this kind. (Hear, hear). I believe they are better left to the reprobation which they will meet in this country from all decent members of society. (Cheers)."
This highly disingenuous answer was characteristic of the member for Derby. His reference to the _Freethinker_ as published at Northampton, clearly proves that he had never seen it; and his unctuous allusions to "public morals" and "decent members of society" are further evidence in the same direction. The _Freethinker_ was accused of blasphemy, but until Sir William Harcourt gave the cue not even its worst enemies charged it with indecency. In a later stage of my narrative I shall have to show that the "Liberal" Home Secretary has acted the part of an unscrupulous bigot, utterly regardless of truth, justice and honor.
I thought it my duty to write an open letter to Sir William Harcourt on the subject of his answer to Mr. Freshfield, in which I said-- "I tell you that you could not suppress the _Freethinker_ if you tried. The martyr spirit of Freethought is not dead, and the men who suffered imprisonment for liberty of speech a generation ago have not left degenerate successors. Should the necessity arise, there are Freethinkers who will not shrink from the same sacrifice for the same cause." The sequel has shown that this was no idle boast.
A few days later the _Freethinker_ was again the subject of a question in the House. Mr. Redmond, member for New Ross, asked the Home Secretary "whether the Government had power to seize and summarily suppress newspapers which they considered pernicious to public morals; and, if so, why that power was not exercised in the case of the _Freethinker_ and other papers now published and circulated in England." Sir William Harcourt repeated the answer he gave to Mr. Freshfield, and added that it would not be discreet to say whether the Government had power to seize obnoxious publications.
Mr. Redmond's question was a fine piece of impudence. Assuming that he represented all the voters in New Ross, his constituents numbered two hundred and sixty-one; and they could all be conveyed to Westminster in a tithe of the vehicles that brought people to Holloway Gaol to welcome me on the morning of my release. The total population of New Ross, including men, women and children, is less than seven thousand; a number that fell far short of the readers of the _Freethinker_ even then. Representing a mere handful of people, Mr. Redmond had the audacity to ask for the summary suppression of a journal which is read in every part of the English-speaking world.
Nothing further of an exciting nature in connexion with my case occurred until early in May, when a prosecution for Blasphemy was instituted at Tunbridge Wells against Mr. Henry Seymour, Honorary Secretary of the local branch of the National Secular Society. This Branch had been the object of continued outrage and persecution, chiefly instigated, I have reason to believe, by Canon Hoare. The printed announcements outside their meeting-place were frequently painted over in presence of the police, who refused to interfere. Finally the police called on all the local bill-posters and warned them against exhibiting the Society's placards. Stung by these disgraceful tactics, Mr. Seymour issued a jocular programme of an evening's entertainment at the Society's hall, one profane sentence of which, while it in no way disturbed the peace or serenity of the town, aroused intense indignation in the breasts of the professional guardians of religion and morality. They therefore cited Mr. Seymour before the Justices of the Peace, and charged him with publishing a blasphemous libel. He was committed for trial at the next assizes, and in the meantime liberated on a hundred pounds bail. Acting under advice, Mr. Seymour pleaded guilty, and was discharged on finding sureties for his appearance when called up for judgment. This grievous error was a distinct encouragement to the bigots. Their appetite was whetted by this morsel, and they immediately sought a full repast.
My own attitude was one of defiance. In the _Freethinker_ of May 14 I denounced the bigots as cowards for pouncing on a comparatively obscure member of the Freethought party, and I challenged them to attack its leaders before they assailed the rank and file. This challenge was cited against me on my own trial, but I do not regret it; and indeed I doubt if any man ever regretted that his sense of duty triumphed over his sense of danger.
OUR FIRST SUMMONS.
Some day in the first week of July (I fancy it was Thursday, the 6th, but I cannot distinguish it with perfect precision, as some of my memoranda were scattered by my imprisonment) I enjoyed one of those very rare trips into the country which my engagements allowed. I was accompanied by two old friends, Mr. J. M. Wheeler and Mr. John Robertson, the latter being then on a brief first visit to London. We went up the river by boat, walked for hours about Kew and Richmond, and sat on the famous Terrace in the early evening, enjoying the lovely prospect, and discussing a long letter from Italy, written by one of our best friends, who was spending a year in that poet's paradise. How we chattered all through that golden day on all subjects, in the heavens above, on the earth beneath, and in the waters under the earth! With what fresh delight, in keeping with the scene, we compared our favorite authors and capped each other's quotations! Rare Walt Whitman told Mr. Conway that his _forte_ was "loafing and writing poems." Well, we loafed too, and if we did not write poems, we startled the birds, the sheep, the cattle, and stray pedestrians, by reciting them. I returned home with that pleasant feeling of fatigue which is a good sign of health--with tired limbs and a clear brain, languid but not jaded. Throwing myself into the chair before my desk, I lit my pipe, and sat calmly puffing, while the incidents of that happy day floated through my memory as I watched the floating smoke-wreaths. Casually turning round, I noticed a queer-looking sheet of paper on the desk. I picked it up and read it. It was a summons from the Lord Mayor, commanding my attendance at the Mansion House on the following Tuesday, to answer a charge of Blasphemy. Strange ending to such a day! What a tragi-comedy life is--how full of contrasts and surprises, of laughter and tears.
Two others were summoned to appear with me: Mr. W. J. Ramsey, as publisher and proprietor, and Mr. E. W. Whittle, as printer. Mr. Bradlaugh, who was not included in the prosecution until a later stage of the proceedings, rendered us ungrudging assistance. Mr. Lickfold, of the well-known legal firm of Lewis and Lewis, was engaged to watch the case on behalf of Mr. Whittle. As for my own defence, I resolved from the very first to conduct it myself, a course for which I had excellent reasons, that were perfectly justified by subsequent events. In the _Freethinker_ of July 30, 1882, I wrote:
"I have to defend a principle as well as myself. The most skilful counsel might be half-hearted and over-prudent. Every lawyer looks to himself as well as to his client. When Erskine made his great speech at the end of last century in a famous trial for treason, Thomas Paine said it was a splendid speech for Mr. Erskine, but a very poor defence of the "Rights of Man."
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