Political Essays (1819)/On the Treatment of the State Prisoners

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On the Treatment of the State Prisoners

"O silly sheep, come ye to seek the lamb here of the wolf!"

July 17, 1817.

A Writer in a Morning Paper, a few days ago, commented very wisely and wittily on the situation of the State Prisoners, under the Suspension of the Habeas Corpus, as a warning to the people of England not to meddle in politics. He seemed infinitely amused with the inability of these poor devils "to get out," though he seemed to know no reason why they should be kept in. "One of these gentlemen must have a flute, forsooth!" he exclaims with a very hysterical air, as if it was a good joke truly for a man to have a flute taken from him, and not to be able to get it back again.[1] Even Mr. Hiley Addington allows that Evans might have his flute again, if he did not use it. If this writer had himself been in the habit of blowing a great war-trumpet, and wished to make as much noise as ever with it in time of peace, he might not like to have it taken from him. He, however, consoles Mr. Evans for the loss of his flute, with the very old and original observation, "That the people bear the same relation to the Government, as the sheep to the shepherd, and that the sheep ought not to dictate to the shepherd, or remonstrate against what he does for their good." Now the sheep are not usually in the habit of dictating, or remonstrating on such occasions, except in that sort of language which Lawyer Scout advices Sheep-face to imitate before Justice Mittimus, and to which this Professional Gentleman seems to wish the State Prisoners to resort in their intercourse with the Home Department. The fleecy fools, whom the writer holds up as models of wisdom and spirit to his countrymen, do, to be sure, make a terrible noise at a sheep-shearing, and a short struggle when they feel the knife at their throats. But our allegorist, we suspect, would regard these as Jacobinical, or Ultra-Jacobinical symptoms. He would have the people stand still to be fleeced, and have their throats cut, whenever Government pleases. He has in his eye the sublimest example of self-devotion: "As a lamb, he was led to the slaughter: as a sheep before the shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth." We cannot understand the point of comparison in this sheep-biting argument. If the people are really to be as silly, and as submissive as sheep, they will be worse treated. A flock of sheep pass their time very comfortably on Salisbury plain, biting the short sweet grass, or lying with "meek mouths ruminant," till they are fit to send to market: we have sometimes heard them fill the air with a troublous cry, as they pass down Oxford-street, to Smithfield, and the next morning it is all over with them. But Governments have not the same reason for taking care of the people, "poor, poor dumb mouths," they do not ordinarily sell them or eat them. The comparison would be much nearer to beasts of burden, asses, or "camels in their war," who, as Shakspeare expresses it,—

———"have their provender
Only for bearing burthens, and sore blows
For sinking under them."

However edifying and attractive these kind of examples of simplicity, patience, and good behaviour, taken from sheep, oxen, and asses, must be to the people, they are rather invidious, something worse than equivocal, as they relate to the designs and good-will of the Government towards them. This writer indeed commits himself very strangely on this subject, or, as the phrase is, lets the cat out of the bag, without intending it. In a broadside which he published against the author of the "Political Register," he says with infinite naiveté:—"Mr. Cobbett had been sentenced to two years' imprisonment for a libel; and during the time that he was in Newgate, it was discovered that he had been secretly in treaty with Government to avoid the sentence passed upon him; and that he had proposed to certain of the Agents of Ministers, that if they would let him off, they might make what future use they pleased of him: he would entirely betray the cause of the people: he would either write or not write, or write against them, as he had once done before, just as Ministers thought proper. To this, however, it was replied, that 'Cobbett had written on too many sides already to be worth a groat for the service of Government,' and he accordingly suffered his confinement."

This passage is at least worth a groat: it lets us into the Editor's real opinion of what it is that alone makes any writer "worth a groat for the service of Government," viz. his being able and willing entirely to betray the cause of the people; and, we should hope, may operate as an antidote to any future cant about sheep and shepherds!

The same consistent patriot and loyalist, the Sir Robert Filmer of the day, asked some time ago—"Where is the madman that believes the doctrine of Divine Right? Where is the madman that asserts that doctrine?" As no one else was found to do it, he himself, the other day, took up his own challenge, and affirmed, with a resolute air, that—"Louis XVIII. had the same right to the throne of France, independently of his merits or conduct, that Mr. Coke, of Norfolk, had to his estate at Holkham." He did not say whether James II. had the same right to the throne of England, independently of his conduct or merits, that Louis XVIII. has to the throne of France: but the inference of course is that the people of France belong to Louis XVIII, just as the live stock on a farm belongs to the owner of it, or as the slaves in the West Indies belong to the owners of the plantation, and that mankind are neither more nor less than a herd of slaves, the property of kings. This is at least as good a thing as the doctrine of divine right. We do not wonder that the writer, after this "delicious declaration," thought it proper to apologize to his court-readers for expressing his approbation of the abolition of the Slave Trade, as indirectly compromising those principles of legitimacy, which make one part of the species the property of another, and which we have seen so successfully established in Europe as the basis of liberty, humanity, and social order!


  1. It is the making light of the distresses and complaints of our victims, because we have them in our power, that is the principle of all cruelty and tyranny. Our pride takes a pleasure in the sufferings our malice has inflicted; every aggravation of their case is a provocation to new injuries and insults; and their pretensions to justice or mercy become ridiculous in proportion to their hopelessness of redress. It was thus that Mother Brownrigg whipped her prentices to death; and in the same manner our facetious Editor would work himself up to apply the thumb-screw to any one who was unable to resist the application, with a few "forsooths," and other such "comfit-makers wives' oaths."