Page:History of England (Macaulay) Vol 4.djvu/104

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Another question, which slightly and but slightly discomposed the tranquillity of this short session, arose out of the disastrous and disgraceful battle of Beachy Head. Torrington had, immediately after that battle, been sent to the Tower, and had ever since remained there. A technical difficulty had arisen about the mode of bringing him to trial. There was no Lord High Admiral; and whether the Commissioners of the Admiralty were competent to execute martial law was a point which to some jurists appeared not perfectly clear. The majority of the judges held that the Commissioners were competent; but, for the purpose of removing all doubt, a bill was brought into the Upper House; and to this bill several Lords offered an opposition which seems to have been most unreasonable. The proposed law, they said, was a retrospective penal law, and therefore objectionable. If they used this argument in good faith, they were ignorant of the very rudiments of the science of legislation. To make a law for punishing that which, at the time when it was done, was not punishable, is contrary to all sound principle. But a law which merely alters the criminal procedure may with perfect propriety be made applicable to past as well as to future offences. It would have been the grossest injustice to give a retrospective operation to the law which made slavetrading felony. But there was not the smallest injustice in enacting that the Central Criminal Court should try felonies committed long before that Court was in being. In Torrington's case the substantive law continued to be what it had always been.

The definition of the crime, the amount of the penalty, remained unaltered. The only change was in the form of procedure; and that change the legislature was perfectly justified in making retrospectively. It is indeed hardly possible to believe that some of those who opposed the bill were duped by the fallacy of which they condescended to make use. The feeling of caste was strong among the Lords. That one of themselves should be tried for his life by