Leigh Hunt (1784-1859)
A Blupete Biography Page

Seditious Liable (1808-15), Part 3 to the Life & Works of
Leigh Hunt

During the last part of the 18th century, between the opening years of the American Revolution and the beginning of the French Revolution, journalism, or rather the power of journalism, came of age. As literacy spread and the population grew, reading was becoming an increasingly popular pastime; publishing was becoming a big business. With the turning of the century there were to be found on the streets of London, papers, such as: the The Morning Chronicle, The Morning Post, The Morning Herald, and The Times. Public opinion from this point was to be moulded by what was written in the public press.12 And because of the better established periodicals, such as has been just mentioned, there came "a new tone of responsibility and intelligence."13 In the beginning years of the 19th century, however, the state of journalism was to shift with the coming of the "radical press"; and, against which, the aristocratic institutions in England, having been thoroughly shaken by the American and French revolutions, took action.
"The differences and animosities were fully reflected in the radical press, which included Henry White's Independent Whig, T.J. Wooler's Black Dwarf, the Hunt Brothers' (Leigh and John) the Examiner, Cobbett's Political Register, and the many scurrilous sheets with names like The Cap of Liberty and Medusa. Such publications abused each other as often as they did the government. The government and its friends studied them nervously, from time to time, and occasionally prosecuted, though doing so had become much more difficult since Charles James Fox's 1792 amendment to the law of libel, which allowed the jury (as opposed to the judge) to decide whether the words complained of were libelous. Juries, especially those in the London area, were usually unpredictable, notably in cases involving freedom of the press. In the years 1808-21 the authorities embarked on 101 prosecutions for seditious liable, and as often as not failed to get a conviction."14
From its very first edition, those who made up the aristocratic institutions perceived the Examiner to be a threat. As Hunt set out in his Autobiography: "In the course of its warfare with the Tories, the Examiner was charged with Bonapartism, with republicanism, with disaffection to Church and State, with conspiracy at the tables of Burdett, and Cobbett, and Henry Hunt."15 The first prosecution against the Hunts came about in consequence of some remarks in respect to a British army officer in that he showed favouritism and was guilty of corruption. The prosecution against the paper prompted an internal investigation in the services, which, in turn, brought on a move by the prosecution to drop the charges. Within the year, yet another prosecution was brought against the Hunts because of a less than complimentary set of words about the old king; also, at the same time, charges were brought against a Mr. Perry of the Morning Chronicle. Perry's case came up first and he obtained an acquittal, which led to the dropping of the charges against the Hunts.16

During 1812, the Hunts were once again brought into a court of law. In that year, on March 22nd, there appeared in the Examiner a ferocious attack on the Prince Regent, viz. that he "was a violator of his word, a libertine over head and ears in disgrace, a despiser of domestic ties, the companion of gamblers and demireps, a man who has just closed half a century without one single claim on the gratitude of his country, or the respect of posterity!" They could not escape this one. The government attempted to negotiate a settlement but the Hunts were uncompromising. The prosecution proceeded, and, in the result, both brothers were convicted. The sentence was pronounced on February 3rd, 1813. Because of my interest in things legal, I set out the pronouncement of the sentencing judge, Mr Justice Le Blanc, who addressed the defendants in the following terms:

"-- 'John Hunt and Leigh Hunt, you have been tried and convicted by a jury of your country, of printing and publishing a scandalous and defamatory libel upon his royal highness the prince regent. The libel is contained in the information, and ... is expressed, in the newspaper of which you, John Hunt, were the printer, and you, Leigh Hunt, the editor ... What were the motives which induced you either to compose, or to adopt the composition of others, and which in your minds appeared honourable, and not with any design to slander from personal malice, it is impossible for me to conceive; but this one may venture to pronounce, that no man filling the character of a good subject could, with any motive but a bad one, print a libel of this description, attacking and vilifying the head of the government of the country; because the individual occupying that station, standing at the head of the government of a nation, is not to be held up in public newspaper, in the manner you have held up the prince regent, as an object of detestation and abhorrence, which you endeavour to persuade your readers that he is. Whether your motive was to gratify the mischievous curiosity of the public -- to satisfy the diseased taste of the people, greedy to catch at anything which, by destroying the respect due to the constituted authorities, pulls down those at the head of affairs to the lowest possible level -- if such were the motive which you call not malicious or dishonourable, the court cannot pronounce. But when they have before them men who have been convicted of offences like the present, it behoves those who are entrusted with the administration of criminal justice to protect that government under which we all live, and to support the head of that government, without which the present state of society could not exist. In passing, therefore, the sentence of the court, it is necessary to keep in view that which is ever an object of criminal justice -- to hold forth to the world, that those who are found in your situation, must answer to the country for the mischief which their publication must necessarily occasion, since the effect of it is to destroy the bonds of society, by holding up the government to disgrace and contempt. We must point out wholesome examples to others, to deter them from being guilty of offences similar to that of which you have been convicted.
The sentence of the court upon you, therefore, is, that you severally pay to the king a fine of £500 each; that you be severally imprisoned for the space of two years; you, John Hunt, in the prison in Coldbath-fields, and you, Leigh Hunt, in the New Jail for the county of Surrey in Horsemonger-lane; that at the expiration of that time, you each of you give security in £500 and two sufficient sureties in £250 for your good behaviour during five years, and that you be further severally imprisoned until such fine be paid, and such security given.'
The defendants bowed, and withdrew from the court in custody."
Hunt's prison term was not as one might imagine it; he was not confined to one small dingy room to live on water and bread and to stare continuously at a brick wall with a small barred window. No, Hunt was not uncomfortable17 in prison; he was able to have his friends and family with him.18 He was able to continue to carry out his journalistic work. His experience in prison, however, was to permanently change Leigh Hunt.
"At night-time the door was locked; then another on the top of the staircase, then another on the middle of the staircase, then a fourth at the bottom, a fifth that shut up the little yard belonging to that quarter, and how many more, before you got out of the gates, I forget: but I do not exaggerate when I say there were ten or eleven. The first night I slept there, I listened to them, one after another, till the weaker part of my heart died within me. Every fresh turning of the key seemed a malignant insult to my love of liberty. I was alone, and away from my family."19
Imprisonment, viz. the condition of being kept in captivity and forcibly deprived of personal liberty, is an experience -- thankfully, I can only but imagine -- which impacts greatly on the life of the imprisoned person. There is no question, notwithstanding that he made the most of it, Leigh Hunt was indelibly marked by the experience: as he himself declared many years later in his Autobiography, "I have never thoroughly recovered the shock given my constitution." Upon his release from prison, in 1815, Hunt turned from things political to things literary.



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Peter Landry

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