... I proceed to the particular objections [to unlimited enquiry].
I. The propagation of falsehood is as injurious, as the propagation of truth is beneficial....
Who is to be the judge of truth or falsehood? The lawgivers who sedulously screen their own conduct from the public eye? If those who arrogate the right to decide on the truth or falsehood of opinion (for of facts we will speak presently) are liable to be mistaken, do they not deal out their punishments in the dark? And who can pretend to political infallibility? ...
No error can be forcibly suppressed but at the hazard of suppressing truth also. Galileo was imprisoned. Locke was interdicted in an English university. Common Sense was sedition in America, and the Rights of Man are sedition in Great Britain. In how many countries was the perusal of the Bible prohibited? ...
VI. The right of unlimited discussion, or rather accusation, would tend to exclude valuable men from public offices: for they would be cautious of exposing themselves to situations of unmerited calumny.
Every situation has its peculiar advantages and disadvantages, which arise from the same source, and are generally proportionate to each other. Elevated stations attach distinction and celebrity, but in cases of real or supposed dereliction of duty, they incur a proportionate degree of reproach and obloquy. The man who enjoys the one, must run the risk of the other. Indeed, persons in these cases seem prone enough to think the former, a sufficient compensation for the latter; nor do we find that offices of profit or of honour are frequently rejected from this refined delicacy.
Ingratitude is not a vice common to the public mind; but excessive, unreasonable gratitude and veneration of high civil rank, is a weakness to which in all ages it has been peculiarly prone. Aristides, it is true, was banished, and Socrates put to death; but the annals of every nation testify, that while a single meritorious act in a prince or magistrate, will often excite veneration approaching to idolatry, a thousand instances of the wanton abuse of power -- of arbitrary and oppressive conduct, have passed unnoticed....
VIII. The mass of the people are, and always will be ignorant, and therefore we ought not to permit their prejudices to be worked upon by designing men. Witness the Western insurrection and the Northampton riots.
The most effectual way to keep the people ignorant, if they are so, is to perpetuate those restrictions on freedom of enquiry, which this objection is intended to support. Diffuse knowledge -- enable the people to read, and incite them to think, and the objection is done away: they are no longer Mr. Sedgwick's ignorant herd, or Mr. Burke's swinish multitude. I know, and allow, that the modern doctrines of the perfectibility of man, can never take away the necessity of human labour, or make every blacksmith a Newton; but every man may and OUGHT to be taught to read, to write, and to be familiar with the common operations of arithmetic: he ought to have the means of knowledge put in his power; nor does any station imply, of necessity, such unremitting labour as not to afford some leisure to make use of these means. The country where this unremitting labour is necessary to the comfortable subsistence of any class of the community, is a bad one; in some shape or other there is despotism in it. The country where every man and woman cannot read and write, has reason to complain of its rulers. These truths require no defence in the present day, however they may be neglected, and in this country shamefully neglected, in practice. The objection then destroys itself; if the people are ignorant it is for want of the general diffusion and practice of the truths which discussion would bring incessantly into view. And when it is considered that the cautious opinions of philosophers of half a century ago, are now common axioms, especially on political subjects, the argument from ignorance can be of little weight.
As to the Western insurrection, and the riots in Northampton county, much as was made of them at the time, and most grossly as they have been exaggerated, they would never have happened at all, if reasoning and argument, if fair representation and mild and conciliatory remonstrance, had been sufficiently the precursors of military force. But that military force has taught the people to think as well as to obey, and in those counties where its effects have been experienced, there are few indeed so ignorant, as not to feel the extreme importance of public investigation, unlimited by the powerful jealousy of those whose conduct is obnoxious to it.
It is the general diffusion of knowledge -- it is free discussion, that eradicates the prejudices of the people: a prejudice, or prejudgment, is a view of one side of a question, and an opinion formed and acted on from this partial view, before all the facts and arguments that may be conveniently obtained, are fairly considered. It is self-evident that the right we contend for is the cure of prejudice. In like manner, people will be governed by their passions, if they are not governed by their reason. What is the cure for this evil? Surely to call their reason into play -- to incite them to reflect -- to teach them that every question has two sides -- that as their neighbour is not infallible, so neither are they. In short, to accustom them to free enquiry on all subjects.
In a government in which the people have a voice -- in all governments not completely despotic, it will surely be allowed that some knowledge is requisite in the people at large. The better they are informed, the more readily may they be expected to approve and acquiesce in wise measures. Ignorance, we grant, is the certain parent of error and obstinacy, nor can there be a more effectual means of removing it, than the free exercise of the right in question. If the complaints of the multitude, be they well or ill founded, are forcibly suppressed, there is danger: for people will think, though they may be prohibited from speaking; and sometimes they will act: but in nine cases out of ten, let the ebullitions of political opinion evaporate as they arise, and they will not acquire force enough to justify apprehension.
IX. An author is sufficiently protected where he is permitted to defend himself, as in this country, by giving in evidence the truth of the facts stated.
This is not a sufficient protection; for, a public fact may be notorious, and yet strict legal proof almost impossible to be procured by an individual. Suppose it commonly known and believed in England, that Lord Hawkesbury has declared there is a British party in this country; or that such a sentiment were expressed in a report of the council, how could an author here bring forward legal evidence of the fact? Secondly, The expence of producing such evidence, even where it could be obtained, is sufficient to discourage any author from stating a known fact, where the purse of the government is to be employed against him. Suppose I were to assert, that Mr. Pickering wrote a letter to Judge Bee, stating that it was the advice and request of the President that Jonathan Robbins should be given up to the British, must I not (legally speaking) resort to Carolina or to Braintree for evidence, should the President be gone home? Thirdly, This liberty still leaves opinion open to punishment. We cannot draw conclusions with impunity, if they tend directly or indirectly, in the cautious language of our sedition law, to criminate the persons whose characters are sheltered by that law. For the investigation of public characters and measures, I think no action for libel ought to be permitted: but if it must, the accused should have the right of producing, unchecked by the court, any evidence whatever, that he may think will prove his case; and the jury should have the right of determining what weight is due to it.
After all, the most cautious must acknowledge, that public officers ought to be amenable to those they serve; and that public opinion is a salutary check on those who guide the helm of state. What should we think of an agent who forbad his employers to examine his accounts, or scrutinize his conduct, in cases where their interest was materially concerned, and respecting the business they had entrusted to his care?
Every page of history attests the proneness of mankind to abuse power; and if the conduct of governors be not to be open to investigation and reprehension, room is left for the introduction of every abuse. What avails a good constitution, if the spirit of it may be counteracted, and its essential principles infringed with impunity, by those who administer it? Nor are the people in any country addicted to suspicion or unreasonable complaint; on the contrary, it is well known they will bear much, before they have recourse to opposition....
[For more of Mr. Cooper's portion of the essay, and for Mrs. Priestley's, please see this PDF.]
Related Posts (on one page):
- On the Propriety and Expediency of Unlimited Enquiry (Continued):
- On the Propriety and Expediency of Unlimited Enquiry:
- Address to the Readers of the Sunbury and Northumberland Gazette, June 29, 1799:
- Reply to "Observations on the Fast Day":
- Observations on the Fast Day:
- Elizabeth Ryland Priestley:
- Thomas Cooper:
- Thomas Cooper & Elizabeth Ryland Priestley, Guest-Blogging: