Admiral Forbes's reasons for not signing Admiral Byng's Death Warrant

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Admiral Forbes's reasons for not signing Admiral Byng's Death Warrant (1757)
John Forbes

Draft copy, hand written, of Forbes' note explaining his refusal to sign the death warrant of John Byng, in the archives of the Society of Genealogists. Another copy, signed "J.F. 16 February 1757", is in the Senate House Library at the University of London. It was also published as a broadside.[1]

  1. Abrahart, Sherryl (September 2017). "Admiral Forbes' Conscience". Genealogists' Magazine (Society of Genealogists) 32 (7): 264–266. ISSN 0016-6391. 
2907716Admiral Forbes's reasons for not signing Admiral Byng's Death Warrant1757John Forbes

Admiral Forbes's reasons for not signing Admiral Byng's Dead Warrant

It may be thought great presumption in me to differ from so great Authority as that of the Twelve Judges but when a man is call'd upon to sign his name to an act, which is to give Authority for the shedding of blood, He ought to be guided by his Conscience, & not by the Opinion of other men.

In the Case before us, it is not The merit of Adml Byng that I consider; whether he deserves Death or not, is not a Question for me to decide; but whether, or not, his Life can be taken away by the Sentence pronounc'd upon him by the Court Martial, and after having so clearly explain'd their motives for pronouncing such a Sentence, is the point alone has imploy'd my most serious attention.

The 12th Art. of War, upon wch Adml Byng's Sentence is grounded, Says __According to my understanding of its meaning, "That every person who shall in time of action withdraw, or keep back, or not come into fight, or who shall not do his utmost & through Motive's of Cowardice, Negligence, or Disaffection, shall suffer Death. The Court Martial does, in Express Words, acquit Adml Byng of Cowardice & Disaffection, & does not name the word negligence. ___Adml Byng does not, as I conceive, fall under the letter, or description of the 12th Art of War____ It may be said, that negligence is implied, tho the word is not nam'd, otherwise the Ct Martial wou'd not have brought his offence under the 12th Art of War, having acquitted him of Cowardice, & Disaffection.

But it must be acknowledg'd, that the negligence imply'd cannot be wilfull negligence; for wilfull negligence in Adml Byng's situation must proceed either from Cowardice, or Disaffection, & he is expressly acquited of both these crimes; besides crimes wch are imply'd only, & are not nam'd, may indeed justify suspicion, & private opinion, but cannot satisfy the Conscience in a case of Blood.

Adml Byng's fate was reffer'd to a Court Martial, his Life & Death was left to their opinions; The Ct Martial condemn him to Death, because as they expressly say they were under a necessity of doing so by reason of the letter of the law; the severity of wch they complain of, because it admits of no mitigation. ________The Ct Marl expressly say that for the sake of their consciences, as well as in justice to the prisoner, they do, in the most earnest manner, recommend him to his Majts mercy; it is then evident, that in the opinion, and Consciences of the Judges, he was not deserving of Death.

The Question then is, shall the opinion, or necessities of the Ct Marl determine Adml Byng's fate? If it shou'd be the latter, he will be Executed contrary to the intentions, & the meaning of the Judges; who, to do justice, do most earnestly recommend him for mercy; and if it shou'd be the former, his Life is not forfeited. His Judges declare he is not deserving of Death; but mistaking either the meaning of the Law, or the nature of his offence, they bring him under an Article of War, which according to their own description of his offence he does not I conceive fall under; and then they condemn him to death, because, as they say, the law admits of no mitigation. Can a Man's life be taken away by such a Sentence? I wou'd not willingly be understood, & have it believ'd, that I Judge of Adml Byng's deserts; that was the business of the Ct Marl; & it is my Duty only to Act according to my conscience; which, after deliberate consideration, & assisted by the best lights that a poor understanding is capable of attaining, it remains still in doubt; and therefore I cannot consent to Sign a warrant, Whereby the Sentence of the Ct Marl may be carried into execution; for I cannot help thinking, that however criminal Adml Byng may be, his life is not forfeited by that Sentence. I don't mean to find fault in the least with the Opinion of other men; all I endeavour at, is to give reasons for my own; and all I desire, or wish is, that my meaning may not be misunderstood. I do not pretend to Judge of Adml Byng's desert nor to give my opinion of the propriety of the Act.

This work was published before January 1, 1929, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

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