- 1817:The Year without Habeas Corpus
"I like the freedom of the press and quill; / I like the Habeas Corpus (when we've got it)," Lord Byron wrote in Beppo in October 1817.1 In the dedication to Canto IV of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, dated January 2, 1818, Byron wrote, "What Italy has gained by the late transfer of nations, it were useless for Englishmen to enquire, till it becomes ascertained that England has acquired something more than a permanent army and a suspended Habeas Corpus" (CPW, ii, 124). If a Briton were asked at the year's end to characterize 1817, he or she might have pointed to the government's efforts to suppress dissent. On March 4, 1817, Parliament suspended the right to writs of habeas corpus in cases of "high treason, suspicion of high treason, or treasonable practices," and this suspension remained in effect until the following January.2 Later in March 1817, the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, announced that magistrates might detain people for criminal libel before charges had been filed. The government prosecuted two prominent publishers, T. J. Wooler (for sedition) and William Hone (for blasphemy and sedition). Whereas 1816 was the year of a bad harvest, economic distress, and demands for parliamentary reform, 1817 was the year in which the British government responded to 1816. After the Year without a Summer, the Year without Habeas Corpus.
My topic is the steps taken by the government or its members that would discourage the publication of imaginative writings that might be deemed seditious or blasphemous. In addition to discussing Hone's famous trials for criminal libel, I will examine two rulings in the Court of Chancery in March 1817 that had repercussions for authors and publishers: in Shelley v. Westbrook, the lord chancellor, Lord Eldon, ruled that Percy Bysshe Shelley's published writings, such as Queen [End Page 136] Mab (1813), showed that he was unfit to have custody of his children from his first marriage. In Southey v. Sherwood, the same month, Eldon applied to Robert Southey's Wat Tyler the principle that the Court of Chancery would not suppress unauthorized editions of a work if the court had well-founded suspicions that the work at issue was criminal (seditious, blasphemous, or obscene).
William Cobbett responded to the suspension of habeas corpus thus: "When our children's children shall read of this event, they will be all anxiety to know … what was the cause of putting, for several months at the least, the Personal Safety of every man, however innocent he may be, within the absolute power of a Secretary of State, or of Six Privy Councillors."3 On December 2, 1816, the radical meeting at Spa Fields in London degenerated into violence, and on January 28, 1817, shots reportedly were fired at the Prince Regent while he was returning to Carlton House from the House of Lords. The government and its supporters took the view that such events demanded countermeasures. The Quarterly Review that appeared on February 11 contained an article by Southey demanding aggressive prosecution of the reformist press.4 The Seditious Meetings Act was passed on March 31.5 At the end of March, Cobbett left for the United States, announcing that he would no longer be able to express himself freely if he remained: "The laws, which have just been passed, especially if we take into view the real objects of those laws, forbid us to entertain the idea, that it would be possible to write on political subjects according to the dictates of truth and reason, without drawing down upon our heads certain and swift destruction."6 The government overreached. Though James Watson was tried for treason for his role in the Spa Fields events, he was acquitted; though Wooler was convicted of seditious libel, the conviction was vacated; though Hone was tried three times in the Court of King's Bench for blasphemy (in one of his trials, sedition was charged, as well), he was acquitted thrice.7 Yet not everyone fought back: before Hone [End Page 137] was tried and acquitted, James Williams pleaded guilty to libel for printing Hone's The Late John Wilkes...