Box 150: progress update from Dr Michael Quinn
By Tim Causer, on 8 June 2015
Below is an update from Dr Michael Quinn of the Bentham Project, on how your transcripts of Box 150 manuscripts are helping in his work editing The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham. If you would like to work on these manuscripts, you can access a list of untranscribed material on the Transcription Desk.
Dear Special Constables,
We always knew that Bentham, alarmed by the violence of the Terror in France, had written some very conservative things in the 1790s—How else to explain his planned essay ‘Rotten Boroughs not Corrupt’, on a plan for which he noted 20 years later ‘What can this be? Surely this was never my opinion?’ There has been long and heated debate among Bentham scholars about the timing of and reasons for Bentham’s conversion to democracy. Now, thanks to Keith Thompson in particular, we have a new piece of evidence in the form of an absolute gem of a passage at Box 150, fos. 585–6, in which JB compares Pitt’s Gagging Acts of 1795 (passed after stones were thrown at George III on his way to open Parliament) to the Magna Carta! The passage has caused something of a stir in the Project Offices, and is a real contender for the most reactionary sentences ever produced by the JB quill! Here is the edited passage:
The Sedition Act may be regarded as a second Magna Charta, preserving against attacks still more destructive that security which the first had formed. (I say security: for as to liberty, the word is so replete with ambiguity and poison as to be scarce fit for use:—it is as if arsenic were sold at the Grocer’s under the same name with Sugar.) The Sedition Act has silenced the mob of inflammatory tongues: but howsoever necessary, and, when considered apart from prejudice, exempt from real danger, it can not be denied to have been a measure of the strongest and most alarming kind. Excellent as far as it goes, it goes after all but half way. To pens of the same complexion the defence it provides does not extend; nor could it receive any such extension, without introducing a licencing system for the press: a measure the bare mention of which would perhaps be scarce endured among some of the warmest advocates for the other. To shut up the court of public opinion altogether would be among the most unpopular, not to say the most dangerous, of all attempts: but the simple faculty of being heard is a privilege which no government whatever can, with the least colour of reason, be censured for securing to itself: even if this were the known object of the Police Gazette, which it is not proposed to be—Laying out of the question altogether the press-licencing system—between the Sedition Act and the proposed Police Gazette the difference in point of roughness of operation is as great as between the strongest drastic, and the most gentle alternative.
There are now only about 22 folios of the text for ‘Observations on the Police Bill’ left to complete, so if anyone has the time and interest it would be wonderful to see any (or all) of the following: Box 150: 614–21, 623–9, 638–9, 677–9, 681, 683. Thanks to all, and keep up the good work!