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AN ACCOUNT OF THE HIGHEST COURT OF JUDICATURE IN PENNSYLVANIA, VIZ.
THE COURT OF THE PRESS.
POWER OF THIS COURT.
IT may receive and promulgate accufations of all kinds, against all perfons and characters among the citizens of the ftate, and even against all inferior courts; and may judge, fentence, and condemn to infamy, not only private individuals, but public bodies, &c. with or without enquiry or hearing, at the court's difcretion.
In whofe favour, or for whofe emolument this court is established.
In favour of about one citizen in five hundred who by education, or practice in fcribbling, has acquired a tolerable ftyle as to grammar and conftruction, so as to bear printing; or who is poffeffed of a prefs and a few types. This five hundredth part of the citizens have the privilege of accufing and abufing the other four hundred and ninety-nine parts, at their pleasure; or they may hire out their pen and prefs to others, for that purpose.
Practice of this court.
It is not governed by any of the rules of the common courts of law. The accufed is allowed no grand jury to judge of the truth of the accu.... fation before it is publicly made; nor is the name of the accufer made known to him; nor has he
an opportunity of confronting the witneffes against him, for they are kept in the dark, as in the Spanish court of inquifition. Nor is there any petty jury of his peers fworn to try the truth of the charges. The proceedings are alfo fometimes fo rapid, that an honest good citizen may find himself fuddenly and unexpectedly accused, and in the fame morning judged and condemned, and fentence pronounced againft him that he is a rogue and a villain. Yet if an officer of this court receives the flighteft check for misconduct in this his office, he claims immediately the rights of a free citizen by the conftitution, and demands to know his accufer, to confront the witneffes, and to have a fair trial by a jury of his peers. .
The foundation of its authority.
It is faid to be founded on an article in the state conftitution, which efstablished the liberty of the prefs- -a liberty which every Pennfylvanian would fight and die for, though few of us, I believe, have diftinct ideas of its nature and extent. It feems, indeed, fomewhat like the liberty of the prefs, that felons have, by the common law of England before conviction; that is, to be either preffed to death or hanged. If, by the liberty of the prefs, were understood merely the liberty of difcuffing 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 legiflators fhall please fo to alter the law; and fhall cheerfully confent to exchange my liberty of abufing others, for the pri vilege of not being abufed myself.
By whom this court is commiffioned or conftituted. It is not by any commiffion from the fupreme executive council, who might previously judge of the abilities, integrity, knowledge, &c. of the person to be appointed to this great truft, of deciding upon the characters and good fame of the citizens: for this court is above that council, and may accufe, judge, and condemn it at pleasure. Nor is it hereditary, as is the court of dernier refort 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 commiflionate himself, and his court is immediately established in the plenary poffeffion and exercife of its rights. For if you make the leaft complaint of the judge's conduct, he daubs his blacking balls in your face wherever he meets you: and befides tearing your private character to fplinters, 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 fupport is founded in the depravity of such minds as have not been mended by religion, nor improved by good education.
There is a luft in man no charm can tame,
On eagles' wings, immortal fcandals fly,
Whoever feels pain in hearing a good character of his neighbour, will feel a pleasure in the reverse. And of thofe who, despairing to rife
to diftinction by their virtues, are happy if others can be depreffed to a level with themselves, there are a number fufficient in every great town to maintain one of these courts by their fubfcription. A fhrewd obferver once faid, that in walking the ftreets of a flippery morning, one might fee where the good-natured people lived, by the ashes thrown on the ice before the doors: probably he would have formed a different conjecture of the temper of those whom he might find engaged in fuch fubfcriptions.
Of the checks proper to be established against the abufes of power in thofe courts.
Hitherto there are none. But fince fo much has been written and published on the federal conflitution; and the neceffity of checks, in all other parts of good government, has been fo clearly and learnedly explained, I find myself fo far enlightened as to fufpect fome check may be proper in this part alfo: but I have been at a lofs to imagine any that may not be conftrued an infringement of the facred liberty of the prefs. At length, however, I think I have found one, that, inftead of diminishing general liberty, fhall augment it; which is, by reftoring to the people a fpecies 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 exiftence of laws, if one man gave another ill-language, the affronted perfon 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 fuch returns is denied, and they are punished as breaches of the peace, while the right of abufing feems to remain in full force; the laws made against it being rendered ineffectual by the liberty of the prefs.
My propofal 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 paffu. 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 neverthelefs difcover 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 adverfary hires better writers than himself, to abuse you more effectually, you may hire brawney porters, ftronger than yourself, to affift you in giving him a more effectual drubbing. Thus far goes my project, as to private refentment and retribution. But if the public fhould ever happen to be affronted, as it ought to be, with the conduct of fuch writers, I would not advife proceeding immediately to thefe extremities, but that we fhould in moderation content ourselves with tarring and feathering, and toffing them in a blanket.
If, however, it fhould be thought that this propofal of mine may difturb the public peace,
fhould then humbly recommend to our legiflators to take up the confideration of both liberties, that of the prefs, and that of the cudgel; and by an explicit law mark their extent and limits: and at the fame time that they fecure the person of a citizen from affaults, they would likewife provide for the fecurity of his reputation.