THE following is an attempt towards an Examination into the just grounds of a proposition, which hath been advanced by some sages of the law, and assented to by many other persons; but which the Writer of this little Tract apprehends to be false in itself, and of the most dangerous consequence with respect to public liberty in general, and the Liberty of the Press in particular. If the light in which he considers it be a just one, no subject can be more worthy of the public attention. It is observed by Mr. Hume, that whenever any attempts to wrest from us the Liberty of the Press shall succeed, we may then conclude, that the liberty of Britain is gone for ever. And though the freedom of the press may often degenerate into a censurable licentiousness, yet it is certain, that a free people have much more danger to apprehend from a restraint of the Liberty of the Press, than from any, even the worst abuse of it.
The ingenious author just quoted, observes; that, “’tis sufficiently known, that despotic power would steal in upon us, were we not extremely watchful to prevent its progress; and were there not an easy method of conveying the alarm from one end of the kingdom to the other. The spirit of the people must frequently be routed to curb the ambition of the court; and the dread of rousing this spirit, must be employed to prevent that ambition. And nothing is so effectual to this purpose as the Liberty of the Press; by which all the learning, wit, and genius of the nation, may be employed on the side of liberty, and every one animated to its defence.”
That the freedom of the Press may, and sometimes does, degenerate into licentiousness, cannot be disputed; but the laws against sedition and libelling are already amply sufficient, and much too strong to be left to the arbitrary decision of any Lord Chief Justice. The liberty which this nation enjoys, has rendered it the admiration and the envy of Europe; the man who is insensible of its value and its importance, is unworthy to live in a free country. With the Liberty of the Press in particular, Civil Liberty in general is closely and inseparably connected: they will stand or fall together. Let us not, then, suffer our opinion of the value of this inestimable Privilege to be lessened, because it is attended, as every thing human is, with some inconveniences; but which are infinitely overbalanced by its advantages; nor let us suffer that Liberty, for which our gallant ancestors have so often and so nobly hazarded their lives and fortunes, to be wrested from us by the quibbling of lawyers.
Whether in the following pages any light is thrown upon the subject which is attempted to be investigated, the Public will determine. They are not written to serve the purposes of any party; nor has the Writer, in what be has advanced, been influenced by any motives, but the love of Freedom, and of his Country.