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NEWSPAPER STAMP DUTIES BILL.
DECEMBER 22nd, 1819.
LORD CASTLEREAGH moved the third reading of the Newspaper Stamp Duties Bill.
MR. CANNING* congratulated the House on having at length heard, in the long-expected, and much-to-be admired, speech of his honourable and learned friend, (Sir J. Mackintosh) those reasons against the system of measures proposed by His Majesty's Government, which up to that period had not, he thought, been fully stated to the House. In many, perhaps most of the general principles laid down and enforced by his honourable and learned friend, he entirely concurred. But he thought the whole scope of his argument would go, not merely to the present measures, but to any possible restraint by which the complete and unfettered freedom of the press might be affected. Yet even in that principle, as a principle he was not inclined to differ from his honourable and learned friend; for he thought with respect to the press as with every other part of human freedom, that it was a matter of regret when the Legislature was forced to interfere. It certainly was a matter of great regret, when to existing restraints, they were obliged to add others not hitherto enacted; and he considered that the justification of the original, or the augmented restraint, was only to be found in the necessity, or high expediency of the case--not in the value of the rights of any set of individuals, but by a comparison of their rights with the rights and interests of the community of which they were members. It was one great beauty of the English law, that about small things it did not trouble itself. Much was left to the good sense and discretion of the community, and it was only when that good sense was overborne or laid aside, that legislation stepped in, for the purpose of securing those good manners and good morals which formed the cement of society. It undoubtedly was more desirable that they should be secured without positive enactments, but positive enactments were frequently absolutely necessary. His honourable and learned friend seemed to have adopted the idea, that up to this moment the press was that " chartered libertine,” which it had been so eloquently described to be ; and that this was the first time that Parliament had touched the press; as if it did not live under restraints, which showed the impossibility of ascribing that principle of perfectibility to it which his honourable and learned friend had assumed. Whether it was or was not necessary to impose a new modification on the liberty of the press, certain it was that in looking back to former times, they would find precedents sufficient for such a proceeding. He well recollected the conflict of intellect (and a similar conflict he never expected to see again) which was witnessed in the House of Commons in 1794-5. His honourable and learned friend, in adverting to that period, had overlooked the circumstances of the very last restraint which was imposed on the press.
When his honourable and learned friend said, that these measures must operate to the entire destruction of the freedom of the press—that there would be an end to discussion—that men of talent and education would be reduced to complete silence as soon as they were passed, he forgot that the same prophecy, uttered in the same style, was pronounced at the period to which he had adverted. The prophecy did not indeed come from his honourable and learned friend, who was not then in the
House, nor yet from the Whigs, whom his learned friend, had accused him (Mr. Canning) of reproaching (of whom, indeed, he spoke with less respect as a corporation, than he did in their individual capacity), because they had seceded from their duty; but from a right honourable gentleman opposite, who did persevere in his attendance on Parliament. The act which gave rise to this prophecy provided, that presses should be registered; that no person should publish any thing without the printer's name, and that every printer should keep a copy of what he printed. These laws, then introduced, were made permanent laws, of which it was predicated, that if they were passed, they would be equal to an imprimatur, and that the liberty of discussion would be destroyed for ever : yet these laws were passed ; and he would ask of all those within the walls, and of every man without them, to whom what passed in that House was conveyed, whether the permanency
of those laws had tended to narrow the freedom of discussion; or whether, since they had been enacted, one particle of the liberty of the press had been abridged? His honourable and learned friend's present apprehensions were just as visionary as were the fears which existed at the period to which he had adverted. He had no doubt (and it was because he had no doubt that he willingly agreed to those measures), that when they were passed, notwithstanding all that was said of the danger with which they threatened free discussion, there would not be any want of a full canvass that day twelvemonth, of the measures of Government, or of Parliament. And if it became more respectable and efficient by being rid of that extraneous matter by which it was at present incumbered and polluted, he believed, instead of losing any thing of strength or power, the free press of this country, as applied to honest purposes, would have greatly gained. His honourable and
learned friend seemed to forget that the object of these measures was to come at the person really accountable for any writing that might be published. He had drawn from his rich and fervid fancy an animated picture of a young man wishing to raise himself into public notice by literary efforts (as was his own case, and that of his honourable and learned friend), possessing great talents, looking ardently forward to a career of literary glory, and stopped in the very outset of his efforts by this law. His honourable and learned friend was not borne out in delineating this picture. If he looked to those names which flourished in the annals of British literature, he would not find printers and publishers enrolled there, but authors who were dependent on them. They might indeed be found quarrelling, struggling, and estuating under the tyranny of those persons; but his honourable and learned friend could not easily show him a man of that ardent and enthusiastic character which he had supposed his hero to be, anxiously looking at the gain attending practical publications. This measure was not intended, it was not calculated to throw any obstructions in the way of genius, but it was to restrain offences which arose from mere pecuniary considerations, and which could most appropriately be prevented only by means of pecuniary consideration. In speaking to that part of the question, it was not fair in his honourable and learned friend to excite and interest the feelings, by representing a person arrayed in all the splendid colours which the richness of his own fancy could supply; it was not fair to impose upon their judgments by exhibiting before them an ideal representation, dressed up in all the colours of the rainbow. If the young author should be free from the influence of pecuniary motives, this law would not be applicable to him, and all the interest excited in his behalf was not available to the present question. He begged to say,
that in stating the sentiments of young authors respecting printers and booksellers, he did not adopt them as his own.
There were not more respectable persons in the world than those who presided over the press of England. Whatever might be said of those times when literature and bookselling stood to each other more in the relation of market and sale, now that they were not distinct and separate, now that they were united, there were not to be found in the world persons so generous, so noble, so liberal to the young aspirant, as the booksellers of this country. On that score, as well as on others, he would throw no obstruction or impediment in the way of publication; and he as well as his noble friend had accordingly removed from this bill every thing which in their judgment could be removed without impairing its utility and efficacy. What inconveniences still remained, must be classed among the unavoidable inconveniences of the times; and traced, not to an unnecessary pruriency of legislation, but to the diffusion of an evil, with respect to the magnitude and malignity of which there was but one opinion in that House, and with respect to the expediency of checking or not checking of which there was no more question than there could be whether one who had the power should take his stand between the living and the dead, and stop the plague. If a few inconveniencies should exist, if the interests of some persons should be partially injured, if certain difficulties should be presented to those who were now on the threshold of their career, men would soon adjust to the new state of things, their hopes and fears, their plans and exertions; they would gradually obviate all the inconveniencies, and leave only to be contemplated in this measure, an additional security to the peace and prosperity of the country, which would enable them to proceed without impediment and with additional confidence.