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Unlike the days when those old walls * arose,
But changes great those hoary tow'rs have known,
COPIED FROM THE WINDOW OF AN OBSCURE LODGING HOUSE.
WHAT tho' to deck this roof no arts combine
* Portchester castle, said to have been built by the Romans, its bold rains stand at the bottom of Portsdown hill, projecting into the harbou..
AN ACCOUNT OF THE COURT OF THE PRESS.
ASCRIBED TO THE HONOURABLE Benjamin Franklin, ESQ.
Power of this court.
Ir may receive and promulgate accusations of all kinds, against all persons and characters among the citizens of the state, and even against all inferior courts; and may judge, sentence, and condemn to infamy, not only private individuals, but public bodies, &c. with or without inquiry or hearing, at the court's discretion.
In whose favour, or for whose emolument, this court is established.
In favour of about one citizen in five hundred, who, by education, or practice in scribbling, has acquired a tolerable stile as to grammar and construction, so as to bear printing; or who is possessed of a press and a few types. This 500th part of the citizens have the privileges of accusing and abusing the other 499 parts, at their pleasure; or they may hire out their pens and prefs to others for that purpose.
Practice of this court.
It is not governed by any of the rules of common courts of law. The accused is allowed no grand jury to judge of the truth of the accusation before it is publicly made; nor is the name of the accuser made known to him; nor has he an opportunity of confronting the witnesses against him; for they are kept in the dark, as in the Spanish court of inquisition; nor is there any petty jury of his peers sworn to try the truth of the charges. The proceedings are also sometimes so rapid, that an honest good citizen may find himself suddenly and unexpectedly accused, and, in the same morning, judged, and condemned, and sentence
pronounced against him, that he is a rogue and a villain. Yet if an officer of this court receives the slightest check for misconduct in his office, he claims immediately the rights of a free citizen, by the constitution, and demands to know his accuser, to confront the witnesses, and to have a fair trial by a jury of his peers.
The foundation of its authority.
It is said to be founded on an article in the state constitution, which establishes the liberty of the press—a liberty which every Pensylvanian would fight and die for; though few of us, I believe, have distinct ideas of its nature and extent. It seems indeed somewhat like the liberty of the prefs that felons have, by the common law of England, before conviction, that is, to be either prefsed to death, or hanged. If by the liberty of the prefs were understood, merely, the liberty of discussing the propriety of public measures and political opinions, let us have as much of it as you please; but if it means the liberty of affronting, calumniating, and defaming one another, I, for my part, own myself willing to part with my fhare of it, whenever our legislators fhall please so to alter the law; and fhall cheerfully consent to exchange my liberty of abusing others, for the privilege of not being abused myself.
By whom this court is commifsioned or constituted.
It is not by any commifsion from the supreme executive council, who might previously judge of the abilities, integrity, knowledge, &'c. of the persons to be appointed to this great trust of deciding upon the characters and good fame of the citizens; for this court is above that council, and may accuse, judge, and condemn it, at pleasure. Nor is it hereditary, as is the court of dernier resort in the peerage of England; but any man, who can procure pen, ink, and paper, with a prefs, a few types, and a huge pair of
blacking balls, may commifsionate himself; and his court. is immediately established in the plenary possession and exercise of its rights. For if you make the least complaint of the judge's conduct, he daubs his blacking balls in your face wherever he meets you; and besides tearing your private character to slitters, marks you out for the odium of the public, as an enemy to the liberty of the prefs.
Of the natural support of this court.
Its support is founded on the depravity of such minds as have not been mended by religion, nor improved by good education.
There is a lust in man no charm can tame,
On eagle's wings, immortal scandals fly,
Whoever feels pain in hearing a good character of his heighbour, will feel a pleasure in the reverse. And of those, who despairing to rise into distinction by their virtues, are happy if others can be deprefsed to a level with themselves, there are a number sufficient in every great town to maintain one of these courts by their subscriptions. A fhrewd observer once said, that in walking the streets in a slippery morning, one might see where the good-natured people lived, by the ashes thrown on the ice before their doors; probably he would have formed a different conjecture of the temper of those whom he might find engaged in such subscriptions.
Of the checks proper to be established against the abuse of power in those courts.
Hitherto there are none. But since so much has been written and published on the federal constitution, and the
necessity of checks, in all other parts of good government, has been so clearly and learnedly explained, I find myself so far enlightened as to suspect some check may be proper in this part also; but I have been at a loss to imagine any that may not be construed an infringement of the sacred liberty of the prefs. At length, however, I think I have found one, that instead of diminishing general liberty, shall augment it; which is, by restoring to the people a species of liberty, of which they have been deprived by our laws, I mean the liberty of the cudgel! In the rude state of society, prior to the existence of laws, if one man gave another ill language, the affronted person might return it by a box on the ear; and if repeated, by a good drubbing; and this, without offending against any law; but now the right of making such returns is denied, and they are punished as breaches of the peace, while the right of abusing seems to remain in full force; the laws made against it being rendered ineffectual by the liberty of the prefs.
My proposal, then, is, to leave the liberty of the prefs untouched, to be exercised in its full extent, force, and vigour, but to permit the liberty of the cudgel to go with it, pari pafsu. Thus, my fellow citizens, if an impudent writer attacks your reputation, dearer perhaps to you than your life, and puts his name to the charge, you may go to him as openly, and break his head. If he conceals himself behind the printer, and you can nevertheless discover who he is, you may, in like manner, way-lay him in the night, attack him behind, and give him a good drubbing. If your adversary hire better writers than himself, to abuse you more effectually, you may hire brawny porters, stronger than yourself, to afsist you in giving him a more effectual drubbing. Thus far goes my project as to private resentment and retribution. But if the public should ever happen to be affronted, as it ought to be, with the con