Thomas Cooper & Elizabeth Ryland Priestley, Guest-Blogging:

I'm delighted to report that Thomas Cooper and Elizabeth Ryland Priestley will be guest-blogging this week, reprising some of their work in Political Essays (2d ed. 1800). The New York University Journal of Law & Liberty has just reprinted much of the Essays, and I thought I'd further reprint excerpts here, to give our readers a direct taste of some of the debates that were going on in early America.


Thomas Cooper:

I first heard about Thomas Cooper when I came across the case that bears his name, United States v. Cooper. I wanted to teach my students about the infamous Sedition Act of 1798 and was looking for a case that best illustrated how it had been applied. Cooper proved to be a prime example — Thomas Cooper was prosecuted essentially for writing the following:

At that time [President Adams] had just entered into office. He was hardly in the infancy of political mistake. Even those who doubted his capacity thought well of his intentions. Nor were we yet saddled with the expense of a permanent navy, or threatened, under his auspices, with the existence of a standing army. Our credit was not yet reduced so low as to borrow money at eight per cent. in time of peace, while the unnecessary violence of official expressions might justly have provoked a war.

Mr. Adams had not yet ... interfered, as president of the United States, to influence the decisions of a court of justice — a stretch of authority which the monarch of Great Britain would have shrunk from — an interference without precedent, against law and against mercy. This melancholy case of Jonathan Robbins, a native citizen of America, forcibly impressed by the British, and delivered up, with the advice of Mr. Adams, to the mock trial of a British court-martial, had not yet astonished the republican citizens of this free country; a case too little known, but of which the people ought to be fully apprised, before the election, and they shall be.

This, Justice Chase concluded (and the jury ultimately agreed), was not only a "scandalous and malicious libel ... against ... the president," but "false" as well. The charge related to the nation's credit was supposedly false because the late 1790s weren't really a "time of peace." The condemnation of the president's conduct in the Jonathan Robbins matter was supposedly false because the president was required by treaty to hand Robbins over. And the "standing army" statement was supposedly false because (Justice Chase reasoned) the army couldn't be "standing" given that, in accordance with the Constitution, its expenses could only be authorized for two years.

Today, these disagreements between Cooper and his critics would be treated as matters of opinion, and Cooper's statements could not be condemned as false. But the Cooper case illustrated how a law ostensibly aimed at punishing "malicious" falsehoods could end up punishing opinions as well. Cooper's case remains the only non--Supreme Court opinion that I've included as a main case in my First Amendment textbook.

But I soon learned that Cooper was more than just a partisan polemicist — he was also an incisive commentator on free speech, religious freedom, and other matters. The essays that the New York University Journal of Law & Liberty is reprinting ... help illustrate that; On the Propriety and Expediency of Unlimited Enquiry, cowritten with Elizabeth Ryland Priestley, is an especially good example.

Cooper was also one of the leading public intellectuals of post-revolutionary America, a man with a remarkable breadth of interests and a talent for controversy.

Cooper's libel prosecution stemmed from his anti-administration efforts, but indirectly. In 1797, [Joseph] Priestley had written to the newly elected Adams, with whom Priestley was at the time friendly, urging Adams to appoint Cooper to a federal post as the American agent before a board of commissioners for resolving disputes between the U.S. and England. In 1799, when Cooper had become editor of the Northumberland Gazette and an opponent of the administration, Cooper's enemies tried to use the application against him, arguing that his not getting the job is what turned him against Adams. Cooper in turn responded with the handbill that formed the basis of his prosecution under the Sedition Act. The phrase "hardly in the infancy of political mistake" referred to why Cooper thought well of Adams in 1797; the remainder explained why Cooper had changed his mind.

Cooper's libel was published in late 1799, but the prosecution came only some months later, follwing Cooper's continuing attacks on the Federalists. In particular, in 1800, anti-administration editor William Duane criticized the Senate Federalists' drafting of a proposed electoral count bill, and the Senate sought to try Duane for contempt of Congress. Duane asked Cooper and Alexander J. Dallas (who is known today chiefly as the reporter for the Supreme Court's earliest decisions) to serve as his counsel, but they publicly declined.

Cooper's reply was characteristically harsh. It began with "I have every inclination to render service to you and to your cause, but I will not degrade myself by submitting to appear before the Senate with their gag in my mouth" (referring to the limitations that the Senate was planning to impose on the arguments that counsel could make). And it ended with "Where rights are undefined, and power is unlimited — where the freedom of the press is actually attacked, under whatever intention of curbing its licentiousness, the melancholy period cannot be far distant when the citizen will be converted into a SUBJECT." This attack on the Senate Federalists seems likely to have prompted Cooper's prosecution for the earlier handbill.

Cooper's six-month Sedition Act prison term did not dampen his passions. Within a month of being released, Cooper proceeded to New York to pursue Alexander Hamilton, who was then Secretary of Treasury but who had publicly broken with Adams in a scathing pamphlet labeled Letter from Alexander Hamilton, Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq., President of the United States. Hamilton, Cooper reasoned, had libeled Adams at least as much as Cooper had and thus likewise merited prosecution under the Sedition Act. As Cooper wrote to Hamilton in asking for an admission that Hamilton had indeed written the anti-Adams pamphlet,

Under [the Sedition Act], passed through the influence of a party, of which you are (and I think justly) regarded as the head, I have suffered six months tedious imprisonment, and paid a fine of 400 dollars. I therefore have a right to retaliate: I have a right to try the experiment, whether Republicanism is to be the victim of a law, which Aristocracy can break through with impunity. — There have been many petty offenders in this respect among what is called the Federal party; but I have nothing to do with the Fennos, the Waynes and the journeymen of federalism. You are worth trying the experiment upon. — Your energy and your talents have rendered you a conspicuous object of praise and blame.

Cooper's call for prosecution of Hamilton went nowhere legally, but it did attract a good deal of public attention.


Elizabeth Ryland Priestley:

Two of the items in Thomas Cooper's Political Essays -- the first part of On the Propriety and Expediency of Unlimited Enquiry, and the reply to Cooper's Observations on the Fast Day -- are written by Elizabeth Ryland Priestley (1769--1816), the daughter-in-law of Cooper's friend and eminent chemist and philosopher Dr. Joseph Priestley.

Cooper gave credit to his coauthor by labeling the items as having been written by "E.P.," and by noting her more specifically ("Mrs. Priestley") in the preface to On the Propriety. But her work has since gone unremarked. Leonard Levy cited On the Propriety as "a two-part essay," but credited it entirely to Cooper. An essay in The Press & the American Revolution cited several passages that it credited to Cooper, yet all but one of the citations were to Priestley's part; Priestley's name was not mentioned. One of the few works on Cooper and free speech, a master's dissertation published by the University of Wisconsin, discusses Cooper's work extensively but doesn't mention Priestley's contribution. Cooper's biographer Dumas Malone mentions her only very briefly.

The source through which Cooper's work has been recently known, Freedom of the Press from Hamilton to the Warren Court, reprinted only Cooper's portion and didn't mention Priestley's contribution. I could find no law review articles that mention her. A few articles in other disciplines mention her in passing, chiefly in discussing her illustrious father-in-law. A few books mention her in connection with the Joseph Priestley House. Her writing is briefly noted in Jane DuPree-Begos's Joseph Priestley's Feminist Legacy, a pamphlet published by the Joseph Priestley House, and in Esteem, Regard and Respect for Rationality: Joseph Priestley's Female Connections, an article in the Bulletin for the History of Chemistry cowritten by Professor Kathleen L. Neeley and Joseph Priestley House's M. Andrea Bashore. Nor could I find any original sources from that era mentioning Elizabeth Ryland Priestley, except for a fleeting reference that sheds no light on her intellectual interests.

English and American women of the late 1700s participated in public intellectual life only rarely. There were a few who did write history or political commentary: Mercy Otis Warren was a prominent American playwright, historian of the American revolution, and (though under a pseudonym) critic of the proposed Constitution. In England, Catharine Macaulay was a noted historian and reformist political writer. Macaulay's Letters on Education, with Observations on Religious and Metaphysical Subjects (1790) and Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) were leading early political works in favor of women's rights. And of course there were important women writers of fiction, most notably Fanny Burney. But despite these examples, when it came to discussion of political theory, or of free speech in particular, female commentators were very rare. Priestley deserves attention; at least she deserves not to be forgotten. Perhaps some historian can uncover more on this intriguing woman, if something survives to be uncovered. All I can do is note her contribution to the essays that follow.

I can also note that at least three of Priestley's descendants have not languished in obscurity. Elizabeth Priestley's granddaughter, Bessie Rayner Parkes, became a prominent English feminist author of the mid-1800s. Parkes in turn was the mother of noted authors Marie Adelaide Belloc Lowndes and Hilaire Belloc.


[Thomas Cooper, guest-blogging, August 24, 2009 at 7:10pm] Trackbacks
Observations on the Fast Day:

Thursday [April 25, 1799] being the day appointed by the President of the United States for a general fast, the Court of Quarter Session at Sunbury, transacted no business on that day.

I confess myself ignorant by what part of the constitution or laws of the Union, the President is invested with the power of appointing a day of fasting or prayer. If it be a mere recommendation, it is of no more importance than that of any other person to the same purpose, being not within the pale of the President's constitutional authority. Indeed I should be inclined to pay still less attention to it, because it has more than a semblance of uniting two subjects that in my opinion ought never to be joined together, POLITICS and RELIGION. It is a recommendation, to which if authority be given by usage, when it can derive none by law, a commencement is formed in AMERICA as in the old corrupt and corrupting governments of Europe, of "an alliance between church and state," of which the President for the time being is the head.

I should pay more respect to the recommendation of the Clergy and Presbytery, because it is in the way of their profession; but I am jealous in a free government, of any gradual assumption on the part of persons high in office, of powers not given to them by the law of the land. What is now a recommendation, may be soon arrogated as a right, and Privilege and Prerogative may soon become as fashionable and as undefinable in this country, as in the old governments of Europe.

Nor do I like to see the examples of those governments pursued here, even to circumstances apparently trifling and minute. When the late Empress of Russia of notorious memory, heard that Suwarrow had immolated 40,000 Poles at the Shrine of Despotism, after the cruel siege of Cracow and Warsaw, she ordered a solemn day of religious exercise throughout her savage dominions. Louis the XIVth always sung Te Deum after the slaughter of the people whose territories he had invaded; and his most sacred Majesty George the IIId appointed a day of fasting and prayer immediately after it was determined to reject the offers of peace of the French Ministry. These solemnities have been frequently repeated at the command of that religious Monarch, in England during the present war; but as the Elector of Hanover has long ago made a treaty of peace with the French nation, I hear of nothing of this kind in that Electorate.

I have no objection, but much otherwise, to religious acts and exercises where they are voluntary and sincere. But I hope we shall never be drilled into them, or compelled to wheel to the east, or wheel to the west in religious discipline at the direction of any MAN whatever. "My kingdom is not of this world," says Jesus Christ; but we imitate too closely those who are determined that it shall be.

That devout frame of mind which leads a man to repress his passions, to become master of himself, to imitate on a small scale the conduct of his Infinite Maker, by cultivating dispositions of kindness and benevolence, of peace and good will toward men, is a frame of mind earnestly to be sought, and highly to be commended; but there appears to me something like impiety in making religion an engine of state, and much as I may approve of religion in its proper place, I am decidedly averse to POLITICAL RELIGION.

Nor do I see upon what ground the good sense of the Judges, can justify their well-meant omission of public duty on account of the President's appointment of a fast day. The highest act of tyranny under the despotic reign of Henry the VIIIth, was his inducement of parliament to give to his Proclamations the force of Law. In the present case, the Court have voluntarily done the same thing. The Law says to the Judges, you shall hear and decide causes, on that day — the President proclaims it a day of fasting and prayer — and Magistrates, appointed and sworn to execute the laws, think proper to dispense with them in favour of the President's proclamation! Nor is the expence and inconvenience the public are put to on this occasion a trifling object. The attendance of juries and witnesses is at all times a heavy tax on the community, and especially so in this time of general poverty. To increase it unnecessarily is a measure hardly to be approved.

Nor do these fast days answer even the ostensible purpose of appointing them. I appeal to the experience of my readers whether they are not generally days of idleness and of feasting? I doubt extremely if one man in the United States really and sincerely fasted on that day.

I believe Mr. Adams is a sincerely religious man, and that his motives may be good: the greater is the danger from the example. Proclamations for fasts may be issued hereafter, by persons who have no pretence to religion at all: for it is not necessary that a magistrate should be a true believer to convert religion into an instrument of state intrigue.

[For the PDF version, see here.]


[Elizabeth Ryland Priestley, guest-blogging, August 24, 2009 at 9:18pm] Trackbacks
Reply to "Observations on the Fast Day":


PERMIT me to send you a few comments on your strictures respecting the late fast. The occasion gave you an opportunity of exercising the ingenuity you are well known to possess; and as I am willing to suppose the object of investigation with you is the attainment of truth, by means of free enquiry, I shall make no apology for controverting the opinions you have advanced. I am liberal enough to believe that if you are wrong, you wish not to shrink from confutation; if you are right, opposition will render more conspicuous the justice of your cause.

That the observance of a Fast was merely recommended by the President, cannot I think admit of doubt, since the constitution vests him with no power to appoint them, and no penalty is consequent on non-observance.

And why should the recommendation have less weight coming from so distinguished a character? The man who by the suffrages of a free people is appointed to the first office of government, may fairly be supposed to possess and deserve their confidence and good opinion in a pre-eminent degree; and advice coming from so respectable a quarter will excite particular attention, not from the station itself, but from the respectability of character such appointment pre-supposes.

I see no ground for the alarm you manifest of an alliance of Church and State from this assumption (as you would call it) on the part of the President. In calculating the probable consequences of public acts, the spirit of the times is an important consideration. It is from the tendency of the public mind, such acts must derive complexion and importance. This is as soil and climate to the plant. When (as was the case at the time the government of England strengthened itself by ecclesiastical influence) the public mind leans to a superstitious reverence for religion, the Church may be converted to a dangerous state engine; and first approaches to a combination of ecclesiastical with civil power, are in such circumstances, to be carefully guarded against. But in the present day, when religion has lost and continues to lose ground, and when infidelity with dauntless front makes rapid strides among us, we need be under no apprehension of the State seeking so old fashioned a coadjutor as the Church. The spirit of the times is a pledge of security on this score.

Were the sole aim of government the extension of its own power, with a total disregard of what ought to be the great object of all governments — the common good, sound policy, even with this view, would not seek the alliance you deprecate. In this country sects are numerous, and no one has pretensions to an ascendency that shall balance an union of rival claims. By this measure therefore enemies would be multiplied beyond all proportion to the accession of friends. For such is the spirit (not of Christianity) but of Bigotry that too generally pervades every denomination of Christians, that, however desirous all may be of secular influence, each would I believe prefer a government that should countenance no religion at all, to one that should support a system in the most trivial particulars inimical to its own.

That the President should recommend industry and attention to commerce, to agriculture, to education, or to objects of public utility in general, would be considered fit and laudable. On what principle then, can it be thought unbecoming in him to recommend religious exercises, which he may deem equally important in promoting the welfare of society? If no compulsory means are used to enforce their observance, and every person is free to follow the dictates of his own mind, where is the reasonable ground of complaint? And when the interests of religion are visibly declining, I think it highly desirable that influential characters should manifest their respect for it.

Jesus Christ, you observe, says his kingdom is not of this world. It is true that its rewards and punishments are not; but it will not be denied that the object of it, which is to render men more virtuous and useful, concerns this life; and religious acts may be fairly considered as a means to this end.

Your next argument, being founded on a supposed alliance of Church and State which has at present no existence, nor in my opinion is likely to have, does not call upon me for a reply.

Fasts you observe are approved and directed by despotic governments; but this alone is not sufficient to condemn them: measures should be weighed by their tendencies and effects, and not by the quarter whence they come. There is no government whose measures uniformly and invariably tend to evil; and since the object of arbitrary power in the appointment of these Ceremonies can be no other than to please and conciliate the people, it proves they are acceptable to and thought well of by them; certainly a presumptive argument in their favour.

To your reprobation of the conduct of the Judges in sanctioning this act of the President by the suspension of business on that day, I think this answer may be made. The fast may have appeared to them useful and proper, and they might suppose that the persons who had business to transact at court, would concur in the opinion. To your objection of the inconvenience and expence to which it may have subjected persons who were of different sentiments, I confess I have nothing to reply. Such persons may perhaps justly argue that the laws of the country ought not to be superseded by presidential recommendation.

In answer to your objection that fasts do not answer the ostensible purpose of their appointment, I shall not have recourse to the common observation that "the abuse of a thing is no argument against its use;" for wisdom would not prescribe that which would probably be abused. I shall content myself with saying that what you call idleness and feasting, I think may occasionally be very good things; though I should rather call them recreation and social enjoyment. Whatever promotes friendly intercourse between man and man, and calls the kind affections into play, is as favourable to virtue as to pleasure; and a holiday of this kind is, to the mass of the people, a flower in the path of life: a sentiment in which I dare say you will agree with me, although a panegyric on feasting, may seem a paradoxical mode of defending fasting.

You entertain fears that this example may induce future Presidents, with less respect for religion, to make it subservient to purposes of state intrigue; I have no apprehensions of the kind. The mere garb of piety will not go far in this country. The people have too much good sense, and too little predilection for religion, to be deceived by it.

If, Mr. Editor, you think the above remarks are worth inserting in your paper, they are much at your service.

[For the PDF version, see here.]


[Thomas Cooper, guest-blogging, August 25, 2009 at 5:51pm] Trackbacks
Address to the Readers of the Sunbury and Northumberland Gazette, June 29, 1799:

Having no correspondence to communicate, it is my duty to fill up the vacant columns of the week as well as I am able; and as this is the last opportunity I shall have to intrude on the patience of the public in the capacity of Editor, I shall dedicate the space that is left to a subject of some importance.

There is a party in this country accused of an indiscriminate opposition to the measures of government; who in their turn insinuate an indiscriminate support of every measure calculated to increase the power of the Executive at the expence of the interest of the country. Like all other party accusations, these are doubtless too violent on both sides; but I cannot help thinking that of late years, measures have been adopted and opinions sanctioned in this country, which have an evident tendency to stretch to the utmost the constitutional authority of our Executive, and to introduce the political evils of those European governments whose principles we have rejected. I do not feel myself in any degree authorized to reflect on the motives or undervalue the judgment of the gentlemen, whose conduct and opinions I disapprove. With superior talents, and more ample means of information, they may well be in the right: But these do not confer infallibility; and therefore the tendency of the measures pursued, however praise worthy the motives which have led to them, is a fair object of decent and temperate discussion.

I can best illustrate my meaning by supposing a case. Let me place myself in the President's chair, at the head of a party in this country, aiming to extend the influence of the governing powers at the expence of the governed; to increase the authority and prerogative of the Executive, and to reduce by degrees to a mere name, the influences of the people. How should I set about it? What system should I pursue?

1st. As the rights reserved by the State Governments and the bounds and limits set by the Constitution of the Union, are the declared barriers against the encroachments of entrusted power, my first business would be to undermine that Constitution, and render it useless, by claiming authority which, though not given by the express words of it, might be edged in under the cover of general expressions or implied powers — by stretching the meaning of the words used to their utmost latitude, — by taking advantage of every ambiguity — and by quibbling upon distinctions to explain away the plain and obvious meaning. It would be my business to extend the powers of the Federal Courts and of Federal Officers — to encroach upon the State jurisdictions — to throw obloquy on the State Governments as clogs upon the wheel of the General Government — for that purpose to promote a spirit of party among them, and subject to accusations of disaffection those who were opposed to the measures I would pursue. In addition to this I would now and then exercise trifling acts of authority not granted by the Constitution, under some undefined notion of prerogative. If by such means one encroachment should be made good, it would be a precedent for another, until the public by degrees would become accustomed and callous to them.

2. My next object would be to restrict by every means in my power the liberty of the press. For the free discussion of public characters is too dangerous for despotism to tolerate. Hence I would multiply laws against libel and sedition, and fence round the characters of the officers of government by well contrived legal obstacles. Whatever should tend to bring them into contempt should be sedition, however contemptible or reprehensible they might be. Hence too, I would impress the idea that all who were opposed to my measures were enemies of the government, that is (in my construction) of their country. It should be the business of my partizans to inculcate this, and cry down all such persons as dangerous and seditious, as disturbers of the peace of society, and desirous of overturning the Constitution. The obloquy induced by these charges, dwelt upon in the public prints under my controul, and vociferously urged by the dependants of office in private conversation, would make opposition to my measures obnoxious and dangerous, and suppress all political conversation.

For the rest of the address, please click here, and go to page 3.


[Elizabeth Ryland Priestley, guest-blogging, August 26, 2009 at 5:17pm] Trackbacks
On the Propriety and Expediency of Unlimited Enquiry:

There is perhaps no political question so important to the interests of society, as that of the operation of unrestrained discussion on all subjects whatever. Governors have, at all times, and in all places, been prone to discountenance it on political questions, and the clergy have induced the same proneness on religious topics. But the situation either of political rulers, or the adherents of clerical hierarchy, by no means secures their judgment from bias, and implicit confidence is hardly due to opinion from this quarter. If, upon investigation, it should appear, that almost every valuable improvement in human society, has originated in discussion, partial and limited as it has hitherto been, and that it is the only permanent source, whence all future improvements in knowledge, virtue or happiness, can be reasonably expected, we shall do well, sedulously to watch over and preserve it, as the most important and inestimable of our rights.

The great object of society -- that object for which alone government itself has been instituted, is the general good. But to obtain this, we should understand in what it consists; and discover, so far as we can, what are the best means of securing it. This cannot be known by intuition, but must be the fruit of knowledge founded on experience. All reasoning is deduced from facts: we all agree with the poet -- "How can we reason but from what we know?"

For judgment, expectation, prediction -- every conclusion whatever, can be formed only from what has been previously observed and known. Whence has the present age derived its superior wisdom, and superior accommodations to remoter periods, but by improving on the practice, and reasoning from the experience, of former times? Natural intellect is not more vigorous or more acute now, than it was in the infancy of society. It has been the multiplication of facts alone, those sole materials of knowledge, that has conferred this pre-eminence.

Most of the evils, indeed all the political evils of life, may be ascribed to ignorance. This prolific source of mischief and misery, has made the mass of mankind, in all countries, insensible to their own welfare, and subservient to the caprice, resentment or ambition of the few; and rendered the page of history little more than the chronicle of war, oppression and calamity. Even virtue, or the active desire to do good, unless directed by knowledge, may produce much evil. Of this, the long and horrid catalogue of religious persecutions affords abundant proof.

It appears, therefore, that knowledge is the most important instrument of human welfare. But it can exist in an eminent degree, and on a stable foundation, only by discussion; and its increase and extension will be proportioned to the freedom of discussion.

Knowledge is valuable as it furnishes the means of just conclusions: but as the conclusions from moral and political (I may add religious) propositions, are not self-evident, the more they are discussed and examined, and the more various the points of view in which they are considered, the greater is the probability that truth will be the result: there is no exploded error, however absurd and pregnant with mischief, that has not been regarded in its day as a valuable truth, and tenaciously defended.

It may perhaps be urged, and plausibly urged, that the welfare of the community may sometimes, and in some cases, require certain restrictions on this unlimited right of enquiry: that publications exciting to insurrection or immorality for instance, ought to be checked or suppressed. Not to dwell upon the difficulty of ascertaining the proper boundary of such restrictions, it may be observed, that opinions palpably false and of bad tendency, will never be generally received, and their promulgation must eventually do good. The mass of talents, of knowledge, and of respectability will, in every country, from interest as well as principle, be on the side of good order and morality. There can be few who, from ignorance or design, will be tempted publicly to support opinions inimical to the general welfare; and in cases where it may occur, the investigation that will ensue, and the confutation of such doctrines however plausible (which in the end must take place if they really are unfounded and of mischievous tendency) will establish truth more decisively, than could be effected in any other way. If they appear insidious and less obviously false, we shall do well to remember, that false opinions cannot be suppressed but at the risk of suppressing those that are valuable; for it is only after discussion that their nature and tendency can be known and appreciated. The doctrines of Aristotle have been regarded as inviolable, and the opinions which Galileo was compelled to recant, are now considered as established truths.

It may well admit of question, whether it be safe to entrust any government with a power of this kind. It is one that the public cannot often require to be exercised, but which there may be frequent temptations to abuse; and if the right of government to proscribe the avowal of one opinion be admitted, absolute power is in its hands; for the principle once conceded, may be extended to every other which insidious despotism may think fit to hold out as dangerous.

The only test by which opinion can be tried, is human reason founded upon human experience, and this can perhaps be exercised with a better prospect of just conclusions, by the people than by their rulers. The immediate interest of the people is to discover and promote the general good: that of governors to extend their own power, or preserve it by the continuance of the present order of things. Should false opinions be propagated, is it probable that the majority of the people (especially if they be accustomed to free enquiry) will be misled by them, and that persons in power only will have the acuteness and discernment to detect their fallacy? But were even this the case, surely the friends of the existing establishment, with truth on their side, and the collateral aids of wealth and power, will have no difficulty in confuting them. It is too often the interest of men in power to discourage discussion, and that in proportion as their conduct is faulty; and it may be taken for granted, that the disposition to discourage it, is always a just ground of suspicion. But the people have nothing to dread from investigation: they can derive only advantage from it. Political institutions, moreover, having the most extensive influence on human welfare, and being in their own nature difficult to change or modify, it seems that latitude of discussion is more necessary on this than on any other subject, error having in this case a greater chance of being perpetuated....

The restraints imposed on freedom of speech and writing, are evidently calculated to produce the mischief they ostensibly aim to destroy. While one party assumes a right to suppress the opinions of those who differ from them, and the other experiences a degrading and unjustifiable subjection -- violence, ill-will, and rancour must subsist. Governments tenacious of an unaltered existence, would perhaps do well to consider that these restrictions serve only to excite more ardent opposition, and that the irritation of restraint carries men beyond what in other circumstances, they would have thought of. Men are proverbially careless of advantages always in their power; but to raise any object in their estimation, render it difficult of attainment, and they will desire it with increased ardour, and pursue it with ten-fold activity. Mere liberty of investigation will not induce this rancourous opposition; the ebullitions of party warmth will evaporate of themselves if left to themselves: but when once the spirit of enquiry has gone abroad, prohibitions, penalties, and all that fear may dictate to preserve power, are so many manifestations of impotence, and operate only to animate research. If, indeed, it were possible entirely to suppress communication of sentiment, the desired end might be accomplished: men would then cease to think, and the human mind would soon degenerate to a level with the brutes....

Free investigation gave birth to American independence; and is peculiarly congenial with the spirit of a constitution, that on the wise and animating idea of the perfectability of human nature, has made a periodical provision for peaceful and gradual improvement in its political institutions: and the longer impartial discussion shall precede the period of revision and reform, the more secure shall we be of the adoption of wise and well digested plans....

[For more of Mrs. Priestley's portion of the essay, and for Mr. Cooper's, please see this PDF; I will also blog more of the Cooper portion tomorrow. -EV]


[Thomas Cooper, guest-blogging, August 27, 2009 at 3:57pm] Trackbacks
On the Propriety and Expediency of Unlimited Enquiry (Continued):

... 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.]