The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 6

Author: John Philpot Curran  | Date: 1794


In Behalf of Rowan and Free Speech*

The peculiarity of the British Constitution (to which, in its fullest extent, we have an undoubted right, however distant we may be from the actual enjoyment, and in which it surpasses every known government in Europe) is this: that its only professed object is the general good, and its only foundation the general will. Hence the people have a right, acknowledged from time immemorial, fortified by a pile of statutes, and authenticated by a revolution that speaks louder than them all, to see whether abuses have been committed, and whether their properties and their liberties have been attended to as they ought to be. This is a kind of subject which I feel myself overawed when I approach. There are certain fundamental principles which nothing but necessity should expose to a public examination. They are pillars the depth of whose foundation you can not explore without endangering their strength; but let it be recollected that the discussion of such topics should not be condemned in me nor visited upon my client. The blame, if any there be, should rest only with. those who have forced them into discussion. I say, therefore, it is the right of the people to keep an eternal watch upon the conduct of their rulers; and in order to do that the freedom of the Press has been cherished by the law of England. In private defamation let it never be tolerated; in wicked andwanton aspersion upon a good and honest administration let it never be supported—not that a good government can be exposed to danger by groundless accusation, but because a bad government is sure to find in the detected falsehood of a licentious Press a security and a credit which it could never otherwise obtain.

Gentlemen, without any observation of mine, you must see that this indictment contains a direct charge upon Mr. Rowan; namely, that he did, with the intents set forth in the information, publish this paper, so that here you have, in fact, two or three questions for your decision: first, the matter of fact of the publication; namely, did Mr. Rowan publish that paper? If Mr. Rowan did not, in fact, publish that paper, you have no longer any question on which to employ your minds. If you think that he was in fact the publisher, then, and not till then, arises the great and important subject to which your judgments must be directed. And that comes shortly and simply to this: Is the paper a libel; and did he publish it with the intent charged in the information?

But whatever you may think of the abstract question, whether the paper be libelous or not, and of which paper it has not even been insinuated that he is the author, there can be no ground for a verdict against him unless you also are persuaded that what he did was done with a criminal design. I wish, gentlemen, to simplify, and not to perplex; I therefore sayagain, if these three circumstances conspire—that he published it, that it was a libel, and that it was published with the purposes alleged in the information—you ought unquestionably to find him guilty; if, on the other hand, you do not find that all these circumstances concurred; if you can not, upon your oaths, say that he published it; if it be not in your opinion a libel; and if he did not publish it with the intention alleged; I say upon the failure of any one of these points my client is entitled, in justice and upon your oaths, to a verdict of acquittal.

Gentlemen, Mr. Attorney-General has thought proper to direct your attention to the state and circumstances of public affairs at the time of this transaction; let me also make a few retrospective observations on a period at which he has but slightly glanced; I speak of the events which took place before the close of the American war. You know, gentlemen, that France had espoused the cause of America, and we became thereby engaged in war with that nation. "Heu nescia mens hominum futuri!"

Little did that ill-fated monarch know that he was forming the first causes of those disastrous events that were to end in the subversion of his throne, in the slaughter of his family, and the deluging of his country with the blood of his people. You can not but remember that at a time when we had scarcely a regular soldier for our defense, when the old and the young were alarmed and terrified with theapprehension of invasion, Providence seemed to have worked a sort of miracle in our favor.

You saw a band of armed men come forth at the great call of nature, of honor, and their country. You saw men of the greatest wealth and rank; you saw every class of the community give up its members and send them armed into the field to protect the public and private tranquillity of Ireland. It is impossible for any man to turn back to that period without reviving those sentiments of tenderness and gratitude which then beat in the public bosom; to recollect amid what applause, what tears, what prayers, what benedictions, they walked forth among spectators agitated by the mingled sensations of terror and reliance, of danger and protection, imploring the blessings of Heaven upon their heads and its conquest upon their swords. That illustrious and adored and abused body of men stood forward and assumed the title which I trust the ingratitude of their country will never blot from its history—" The Volunteers of Ireland."

Give me leave, now, with great respect, to put one question to you: Do you think the assembling of that glorious band of patriots was an insurrection? Do you think the invitation to that assembling would have been sedition? They came under no commission but the call of their country; unauthorized and unsanctioned except by public emergency and public danger. I ask: Was that meeting aninsurrection or not? I put another question: If any man had then published a call on that body, and stated that war was declared against the State; that the regular troops were withdrawn; that our coasts were hovered round by the ships of the enemy; that the moment was approaching when the unprotected feebleness of age and sex, when the sanctity of habitation, would be disregarded and profaned by the brutal ferocity of a rude invade: if any man had then said to them, "Leave your industry for a while, that you may return to it again, and come forth in arms for the public defense,"—I put this question boldly to you, gentlemen,—it is not the case of the volunteers of that day; it is the case of my client at this hour, which I put to you—would that call have been then pronounced in a court of justice, or by a jury on their oaths, a criminal and seditious invitation to insurrection? If it would not have been so then, upon what principle can it be so now? What is the force and perfection of the law?

It is a question, gentlemen, upon which you only can decide; it is for you to say whether it was criminal in the defendant to be so misled, and whether he is to fall a sacrifice to the prosecution of that government by which he was so deceived. I say again, gentlemen, you can look only to his own words as the interpreter of his meaning, and to the state and circumstances of his country, as he was made to believe them, as the clue to his intention. Theease, then, gentlemen, is shortly and simply this: A man of the first family and fortune and character and property among you reads a proclamation stating the country to be in danger from abroad and at home, and thus alarmed—thus upon authority of the prosecutor alarmed—applies to that august body before whose awful presence sedition must vanish and insurrection disappear.

You must surrender, I hesitate not to say it, your oaths to unfounded assertion, if you can submit to say that such an act of such a man, so warranted, is a wicked and seditious libel. If he was a dupe, let me ask you who was the impostor? I blush and I shrink with shame and detestation from that meanness of dupery and servile complaisance which could make that dupe a victim to the accusation of that impostor.

You perceive, gentlemen, that I am going into the merits of this publication before I apply myself to the question which is first in order of time—namely, whether the publication, in point of fact, is to be ascribed to Mr. Rowan or not. I have been unintentionally led into this violation of order. I should effect no purpose of either brevity or clearness by returning to the more methodical course of observation. I have been naturally drawn from it by the superior importance of the topic I am upon—namely, the merit of the publication in question.

This publication, if ascribable at all to Mr. Rowan, contains four distinct subjects. Thefirst, the invitation to the volunteers to arm. Upon that I have already observed; but those that remain are surely of much importance, and no doubt are prosecuted as equally criminal. The paper next states the necessity of a reform in Parliament; it states, thirdly, the necessity of an emancipation of the Catholic inhabitants of Ireland; and, as necessary to the achievement of all these objects, does, fourthly, state the necessity of a general delegated convention of the people.

Be pleased now, gentlemen, to consider whether the statement of the imperfection in your representation has been made with a desire of inflaming an attack upon the public tranquillity or with an honest purpose of procuring a remedy for an actually existing grievance. It is impossible not to revert to the situation of the times; and let me remind you, that whatever observations of this kind I am compelled thus to make in a court of justice, the uttering of them in this place is not imputable to my client, but to the necessity of defense imposed upon him by this extraordinary prosecution.

Gentlemen, the representation of your people is the vital principle of their political existence. Without it they are dead, or they live only to servitude; without it there are two estates acting upon and against the third, instead of acting in cooperation with it; without it, if the people are oppressed by their judges, where is the tribunal to which their judges can be amenable?Without it, if they are trampled upon and plundered by a minister, where is the tribunal to which the offender shall be amenable? Without it, where is the ear to hear, or the heart to feel, or the hand to redress their sufferings? Shall they be found, let me ask you, in the accursed bands of imps and minions that bask in their disgrace, and fatten upon their spoils, and flourish upon their ruin? But let me not put this to you as a merely speculative question. It is a plain question of fact: rely upon it, physical man is everywhere the same; it is only the various operations of moral causes that give variety to the social or individual character and condition. How otherwise happens it that modern slavery looks quietly at the despot on the very spot where Leonidas expired? The answer is easy; Sparta has not changed her climate, but she has lost that government which her liberty could not survive.

I call you, therefore, to the plain question of fact. This paper recommends a reform in Parliament: I put that question to your consciences; do you think it needs that reform? I put it boldly and fairly to you; do you think the people of Ireland are represented as they ought to be?

Do you hesitate for an answer? If you do, let me remind you that until the last year three millions of your countrymen have, by the express letter of the law, been excluded from the reality of actual, and even from the phantomof virtual representation. Shall we, then, be told that this is only the affirmation of a wicked and seditious incendiary? If you do not feel the mockery of such a charge, look at your country; in what state do you find it? Is it in a state of tranquillity and general satisfaction? These are traces by which good are ever to be distinguished from bad governments without any very minute inquiry or speculative refinement. Do you feel that a veneration for the law, a pious and humble attachment to the Constitution, form the political morality of the people? Do you find that comfort and competency among your people which are always to be found where a government is mild and moderate, where taxes are imposed by a body who have an interest in treating the poorer orders with compassion, and preventing the weight of taxation from pressing sore upon them?

Gentlemen, I mean not to impeach the state of your representation; I am not saying that it is defective or that it ought to be altered or amended; nor is this a place for me to say whether I think that three millions of the inhabitants of a country whose whole number is but four ought to be admitted to any efficient situation in the state.

It may be said, and truly, that these are not questions for either of us directly to decide; but you can not refuse them some passing consideration at least when you remember that on this subject the real question for your decisionis whether the allegation of a defect in your Constitution is so utterly unfounded and false that you can ascribe it only to the malice and perverseness of a wicked mind and not to the innocent mistake of an ordinary understanding; whether it may not be a mistake; whether it can be only sedition.

And here, gentlemen, I own I can not but regret that one of our countrymen should be criminally pursued for asserting the necessity of a reform at the very moment when that necessity seems admitted by the Parliament itself; that this unhappy reform shall at the same moment be a subject of legislative discussion and criminal prosecution.

Far am I from imputing any sinister design to the virtue or wisdom of our government; but who can avoid feeling the deplorable impression that must be made on the public mind when the demand for that reform is answered by a criminal information! I am the more forcibly impressed by this consideration when I consider that when this information was first put on the file the subject was transiently mentioned in the House of Commons.

This paper, gentlemen, insists upon the necessity of emancipating the Catholics of Ireland, and that is charged as a part of the libel. If they had kept this prosecution impending for another year, how much would remain for a jury to decide upon, I should be at a loss to discover. It seems as if the progress of publicreformation was eating away the ground of the prosecution. Since the commencement of the prosecution this part of the libel has unluckily received the sanction of the Legislature. In that interval our Catholic brethren have obtained that admission which it seems it was a libel to propose. In what way to account for this I am really at a loss.

Have any alarms been occasioned by the emancipation of our Catholic brethren? Has the bigoted malignity of any individuals been crushed? Or has the stability of the government or has that of the country been weakened? Or are one million of subjects stronger than three millions? Do you think that the benefit they received should be poisoned by the stings of vengeance? If you think so you must say to them: "You have demanded your emancipation and you have got it; but we abhor your persons, we are outraged at your success, and we will stigmatize by a criminal prosecution the relief which you have obtained from the voice of your country."

I ask you, gentlemen, do you think as honest men anxious for the public tranquillity, conscious that there are wounds not yet completely cicatrized, that you ought to speak this language at this time to men who are too much disposed to think that in this very emancipation they have been saved from their own Parliament by the humanity of their sovereign? Or do you wish to prepare them for the revocation of these improvident concessions? Do you thinkit wise or humane at this moment to insult them by sticking up in a pillory the man who dared to stand forth their advocate?

I put it to your oaths, do you think that a blessing of that kind, that a victory obtained by justice over bigotry and oppression, should have a stigma cast upon it by an ignominious sentence upon men bold and honest enough to propose that measure; to propose the redeeming of religion from the abuses of the Church, the reclaiming of three millions of men from bondage, and giving liberty to all who had a right to demand it—giving, I say, in the so-much-censured words of this paper, "Universal Emancipation?"

I speak in the spirit of the British law, which makes liberty commensurate with and inseparable from the British soil; which proclaims, even to the stranger and the sojourner, the moment he sets his foot upon British earth, that the ground on which he treads is holy and consecrated by the genius of universal emancipation.

No matter in what language his doom may have been pronounced; no matter what complexion incompatible with freedom an Indian or an African sun may have burned upon him; no matter in what disastrous battle his liberty may have been cloven down; no matter with what solemnities he may have been devoted upon the altar of slavery; the first moment he touches the sacred soil of Britain, the altar and the god sink together in the dust; his soul walks abroad in herown majesty; his body swells beyond the measure of his chains that burst from around him, and he stands redeemed, regenerated, and disenthralled by the irresistible genius of universal emancipation.1

Gentlemen, I am not such a fool as to ascribe any effusion of this sort to any merit of mine. It is the mighty theme, and not the inconsiderable advocate, that can excite interest in the hearer. What you hear is but the testimony which nature bears to her own character; it is the effusion of her gratitude to that Power which stamped that character. And, gentlemen, permit me to say that if my client had occasion to defend his cause by any mad or drunken appeals to extravagance or licentiousness, I trust in God I stand in such a situation that, humble as I am, he would not have resorted to me to be his advocate. It was not recommended to his choice by any connection of principle or party, or even private friendship; and, saying this, I can not but add that I consider not to be acquainted with such a man as Mr. Rowan a want of personal good fortune.

Gentlemen, upon this great subject of reform and emancipation there is a latitude and boldness of remark, justifiable in the people, andnecessary to the defense of Mr. Rowan, for which the habits of professional studies and technical adherence to established forms have rendered me unfit.

Gentlemen, you are sitting in a country that has a right to the British Constitution, and which is bound by an indissoluble union with the British nation. If you were now even at liberty to debate upon that subject—if you even were not by the most solemn compacts, founded upon the authority of your ancestors and of yourselves, bound to that alliance, and had an election now to make, in the present unhappy state of Europe—if you had heretofore been a stranger to Great Britain, you would now say, we will enter into society and union with you:

     "Commune periculum,
Una salus ambobus erit."

But to accomplish that union, let me tell you, you must learn to become like the English people: it is vain to say you will protect their freedom if you abandon your own. The pillar whose base has no foundation can give no support to the dome under which its head is placed; and if you profess to give England that assistance which you refuse to yourselves she will laugh at your folly and despise your meanness and insincerity.

I know you will interpret what I say with the candor in which it is spoken. England is marked by a natural avarice of freedom which she isstudious to engross and accumulate, but most unwilling to impart, whether from any necessity of policy, or from her weakness, or from her pride, I will not presume to say; but that so is the fact you need not look to the east or to the west—you need only look to yourselves.

In order to confirm that observation I would appeal to what fell from the learned counsel for the Crown, that, notwithstanding the alliance subsisting for two centuries past between the two countries, the date of liberty in one goes no further back than the year 1784. If it required additional confirmation I should state the case of the invaded American and the subjugated Indian to prove that the policy of England has ever been to govern her connections more as colonies than allies; and it must be owing to the great spirit, indeed, of Ireland, if she shall continue free. Rely upon it, she will ever have to hold her course against an adverse current; rely upon it, if the popular spring does not continue firm and elastic, a short interval of debilitated nerve and broken force will send you down the stream again and reconsign you to the condition of a province.

If such should become the fate of your Constitution, ask yourselves what must be the motive of your government? It is easier to govern a province by a faction than to govern a coordinate country by coordinate means. I do not say it is now, but it will be always thought easiest by the managers of the day togovern the Irish nation by the agency of such a faction as long as this country shall be found willing to let her connection with Great Britain be preserved only by her own degradation. In such a precarious and wretched state of things, if it shall ever be found to exist, the true friend of Irish liberty and British connection will see that the only means of saving both must be, as Lord Chatham expressed it, "the infusion of new health and blood into the Constitution."

He will see how deep a stake each country has in the liberty of the other; he will see what a bulwark he adds to the common cause by giving England a coordinate and cointerested ally instead of an oppressed, enfeebled, and suspected dependent; he will see how grossly the credulity of Britain is abused by those who make her believe that her solid interest is promoted by our depression; he will see the desperate precipice to which she approaches by such a conduct, and with an animated and generous piety he will labor to avert her danger.

But, gentlemen of the jury, what is likely to be his fate? The interest of the sovereign must be for ever the interest of his people, because his interest lives beyond his life; it must live in his fame—it must live in the tenderness of his solicitude for an unborn posterity—it must live in that heart-attaching bond by which millions of men have united the destinies of themselves and their children with his, and call him by the endearing appellation of king and father of his people.

But I ask you, particularly at this momentous period, what guilt can you find? My client saw the scene of horror and blood which covers almost the face of Europe. He feared that causes which he thought similar might produce similar effects; and he sought to avert those dangers by calling the united virtue and tried moderation of the country into a state of strength and vigilance. Yet this is the conduct which the prosecution of this day seeks to stigmatize; and this is the language for which this paper is reprobated today as tending to turn the hearts of the people against their sovereign and inviting them to overturn the Constitution.

Let us now, gentlemen, consider the concluding part of this publication. It recommends a meeting of the people to deliberate on constitutional methods of redressing grievances. Upon this subject I am inclined to suspect that I have in my youth taken up crude ideas, not founded, perhaps in law; but I did imagine that when the Bill of Rights restored the right of petitioning for the redress of grievances it was understood that the people might boldly state among themselves that grievances did exist; that they might lawfully assemble themselves in such a manner as they might deem most orderly and decorous. I thought I had collected it from the greatest luminaries of the law. The power of petitioning seemed to me to imply the right of assembling for the purpose of deliberation. The law requiring a petition to be presented by a limitednumber seemed to me to admit that the petition might be prepared by any number whatever; provided, in doing so, they did not commit any breach or violation of the public peace.

It is a melancholy story that the lower orders of the people here have less means of being enlightened than the same class of people in any other country. If there be no means left by which public measures can be canvassed, what will be the consequence? Where the Press is free, and discussion unrestrained, the mind, by the collision of intercourse, gets rid of its own asperities; a sort of insensible perspiration takes place in the body politic by which those acrimonies which would otherwise fester and inflame are quietly dissolved and dissipated.

But now, if any aggregate assembly shall meet, they are censured; if a printer publishes their resolutions he is punished: rightly, to be sure, in both cases, for it has been lately done. If the people say, Let us not create tumult, but meet in delegation, they can not do it; if they are anxious to promote parliamentary reform in that way they can not do it; the law of the last session has for the first time declared such meetings to be a crime.

What then remains? The liberty of the Press only—that sacred palladium which no influence, no power, no minister, no government, which nothing but the depravity or folly or corruption of a jury can ever destroy.

And what calamities are the people saved fromby having public communication left open to them? I will tell you, gentlemen, what they are saved from, and what the government is saved from; I will tell you, also, to what both are exposed by shutting up that communication. In one case sedition speaks aloud and walks abroad; the demagog goes forth; the public eye is upon him; he frets his busy hour upon the stage; but soon either weariness, or bribe, or punishment, or disappointment bears him down or drives him off, and he appears no more.

In the other ease, how does the work of sedition go forward? Night after night the muffled rebel steals forth in the dark and casts another and another brand upon the pile, to which, when the hour of fatal maturity shall arrive, he will apply the torch. If you doubt of the horrid consequence of suppressing the effusion even of individual discontent, look to those enslaved countries where the protection of despotism is supposed to be secured by such restraints. Even the person of the despot there is never in safety. Neither the fears of the despot nor the machinations of the slave have any slumber—the one anticipating the moment of peril, the other watching the opportunity of aggression.

The fatal crisis is equally a surprise upon both; the decisive instant is precipitated without warning—by folly on the one side, or by frenzy on the other; and there is no notice of the treason till the traitor acts. In those unfortunate countries—one can not read it withouthorror—there are officers whose province it is to have the water which is to be drunk by their rulers sealed up in bottles lest some wretched miscreant should throw poison into the draught.

But, gentlemen, if you wish for a nearer and more interesting example, you have it in the history of your own revolution. You have it at that memorable period when the monarch1 found a servile acquiescence in the ministers of his folly—when the liberty of the Press was trodden under foot—when venal sheriffs returned packed juries, to carry into effect those fatal conspiracies of the few against the many—when the devoted benches of public justice were filled by some of those foundlings of fortune who, overwhelmed in the torrent of corruption at an early period, lay at the bottom like drowned bodies while soundness or sanity remained in them; but at length, becoming buoyant by putrifaction, they rose as they rotted, and floated to the surface of the polluted stream, where they were drifted along, the objects of terror, and contagion, and abomination.

In that awful moment of a nation’s travail, of the last gasp of tyranny and the first breath of freedom, how pregnant is the example! The Press extinguished, the people enslaved, and the prince undone. As the advocate of society, therefore—of peace of domestic liberty—and the lasting union of the two countries—I conjure you to guard the liberty of the Press, that greatsentinel of the State, that grand detector of public imposture; guard it because, when it sinks there sinks with it in one common grave the liberty of the subject and the security of the Crown.

Gentlemen, I am glad that this question has not been brought forward earlier; I rejoice for the sake of the court, of the jury, and of the public repose, that this question has not been brought forward till now. In Great Britain analogous circumstances have taken place. At the commencement of that unfortunate war which has deluged Europe with blood, the spirit of the English people was tremblingly alive to the terror of French principles; at that moment of general paroxysm, to accuse was to convict. The danger looked larger to the public eye from the misty region through which it was surveyed. We measure inaccessible heights by the shadows which they project, where the lowness and the distance of the light form the length of the shade.

There is a sort of aspiring and adventurous credulity which disdains assenting to obvious truths and delights in catching at the improbability of circumstances as its best ground of faith. To what other cause, gentlemen, can you ascribe that, in the wise, the reflecting, and the philosophic nation of Great Britain, a printer has been found guilty of a libel for publishing those resolutions to which the present minister of that kingdom had actually subscribed his name?

To what other cause can you ascribe, what in my mind is still more astonishing, in such a country as Scotland, a nation cast in the happy medium between the spiritless acquiescence of submissive poverty and the sturdy credulity of pampered wealth; cool and ardent, adventurous and persevering; winging her eagle flight against the blaze of every science, with an eye that never winks, and a wing that never tires; crowned as she is with the spoils of every art, and decked with the wreath of every muse; from the deep and scrutinizing researches of her Hume, to the sweet and simple, but not the less sublime and pathetic morality of her Burns1—how, from the bosom of a country like that, genius and character and talents should be banished to a distant, barbarous soil; condemned to pine under the horrid communion of vulgar vice and base-born profligacy for twice the period that ordinary calculation gives to the continuance of human life?

But I will not further press any idea that is painful to me and I am sure must be painful to you. I will only say you have now an example of which neither England nor Scotland had the advantage. You have the example of the panic, the infatuation, and the contrition of both. It is now for you to decide whether you will profit by their experience of idle panic and idle regret,or whether you merely prefer to palliate a servile imitation of their frailty by a paltry affectation of their repentance. It is now for you to show that you are not carried away by the same hectic delusions to acts of which no tears can wash away the consequences or the indelible reproach.

I agree most implicitly with Mr. Attorney-General that nothing can be more criminal than an attempt to work a change in the government by armed force, and I entreat that the court will not suffer any expression of mine to be considered as giving encouragement or defense to any design to excite disaffection, to overawe or to overturn the government. But I put my client’s case upon another ground. If he was led into an opinion of grievances where there were none; if he thought there ought to be a reform where none was necessary, he is answerable only for his intention. He can be answerable to you in the same way only that he is answerable to that God before whom the accuser, the accused, and the judge must appear together; that is, not for the clearness of his understanding, but for the purity of his heart.

Gentlemen, Mr. Attorney-General has said that Mr. Rowan did by this publication (supposing it to be his) recommend, under the name of equality, a general, indiscriminate assumption of public rule by every meanest person in the State. Low as we are in point of public information, there is not, I believe, any man, who thinksfor a moment, that does not know that all which the great body of the people of any country can have from any government is a fair encouragement to their industry and protection for the fruits of their labor. And there is scarcely any man, I believe, who does not know that if a people could become so silly as to abandon their stations in society under pretense of governing themselves, they would become the dupes and the victims of their own folly. But does this publication recommend any such infatuated abandonment or any such desperate assumption?

Gentlemen, let me suggest another observation or two. If still you have any doubt as to the guilt or innocence of the defendant, give me leave to suggest to you what circumstances you ought to consider in order to found your verdict. You should consider the character of the person accused, and in this your task is easy. I will venture to say there is not a man in this nation more known than the gentleman who is the subject of this prosecution, not only by the part he has taken in public concerns, and which he has taken in common with many, but still more so by that extraordinary sympathy for human affliction which, I am sorry to think, he shares with so small a number.

There is not a day that you hear the cries of your starving manufacturers in your streets, that you do not also see the advocate of their sufferings; that you do not see his honest and manly figure, with uncovered head soliciting fortheir relief, searching the frozen heart of charity for every string that can be touched by compassion, and urging the force of every argument and every motive save that which his modesty suppress—the authority of his own generous example. Or, if you see him not there, you may trace his steps to the private abode of disease and famine and despair; the messenger of Heaven, bearing with him food, and medicine, and consolation.

Are these the materials of which anarchy and public rapine are to be formed? Is this the man on whom to fasten the abominable charge of goading on a frantic populace to mutiny and bloodshed? Is this the man likely to apostatize from every principle that can bind him to the State, his birth, his property, his education, his character, and his children?

Let me tell you, gentlemen of the jury, if you agree with his prosecutors in thinking that there ought to be a sacrifice of such a man, on such an occasion, and upon the credit of such evidence, you are to convict him—never did you, never can you give a sentence, consigning any man to public punishment with less danger to his person or to his fame;for where could the hireling be found to fling contumely or ingratitude at his head, whose private distress he had not labored to alleviate, or whose public condition he had not labored to improve.

The man will be weighed against the charge, the witness, and the sentence; and impartialjustice will demand, why has an Irish jury done this deed? The moment he ceases to be regarded as a criminal; he becomes of necessity an accuser. And, let me ask you, what can your most zealous defenders be prepared to answer to such a charge? When your sentence shall have sent him forth to that stage which guilt alone can render infamous, let me tell you he will not be like a little statue upon a mighty pedestal, diminishing by elevation, but he will stand a striking and imposing object upon a monument which, if it does not, and it can not, record the atrocity of his crime, must record the atrocity of his conviction. And upon this subject credit me when I say that I am still more anxious for you than I can possibly be for him. I can not but feel the peculiarity of your situation—not the jury of his own choice, which the law of England allows, but which ours refuses, collected in that box by a person certainly no friend to Mr. Rowan, certainly not very deeply interested in giving him a very impartial jury.

Feeling this, as I am persuaded you do, you can not be surprised, however you may be distressed, at the mournful presage with which an anxious public is led to fear the worst from your possible determination. But I will not, for the justice and honor of our common country, suffer my mind to be borne away by such melancholy anticipations. I will not relinquish the confidence that this day will be the period of his sufferings; and, however mercilessly he has beenhitherto pursued, that your verdict will send him home to the arms of his family and the wishes of his country. But if—which Heaven forbid—it has still been unfortunately determined that, because he has not bent to power and authority, because he would not bow down before the golden calf and worship it, he is to be bound and cast into the furnace, I do trust in God that there is a redeeming spirit in the Constitution which will be seen to walk with the sufferer through the flames and to preserve him unhurt by the conflagration.

* Archibald Hamilton Rowan was secretary of the Dublin Society Of United Irishmen. In August, 1792, in reply to a proclamation against "the Volunteers of Ireland," Rowan had published an address inviting them to resume their arms. The government having decided to prosecute him, Curran in 1794 was engaged to defend him. It was in this case that Curran began a series of defenses in state trials which form the chief basis of his fame as an orator. The full report of his speech in defense of Rowan fills twenty-five large pages in small type. It was delivered "from a dozen catchwords on the back of his brief." Soldiers in the court-room frequently interrupted him with threats. On leaving the court-room, Curran’s horses were taken from his carriage and the carriage dragged to his home by his admirers. Rowan, convicted and sentenced to imprisonment, escaped to France.

1 It is recorded that at this point Curran was interrupted by a sudden burst of applause. Silence was finally restored by Lord Clonmel, who acknowledged the pleasure he had himself felt at the brilliant display of professional talent, but disapproved of intemperate expressions of applause in courts of justice.

1 James II.

1 Hume at this time had been dead twenty years, but Burns was still living, a third edition of his poems having appeared the year before Curran’s speech was made.


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Chicago: John Philpot Curran, "I in Behalf of Rowan and Free Speech*(1794)," The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 6 in The World’s Famous Orations, ed. William Jennings Bryan (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, December, 1906), 102–127. Original Sources, accessed July 5, 2022,

MLA: Curran, John Philpot. "I in Behalf of Rowan and Free Speech*(1794)." The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 6, in The World’s Famous Orations, edited by William Jennings Bryan, Vol. The World#8217;s Famous Orations, New York, Funk and Wagnalls, December, 1906, pp. 102–127. Original Sources. 5 Jul. 2022.

Harvard: Curran, JP, 'I in Behalf of Rowan and Free Speech*(1794)' in The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 6. cited in December, 1906, The World’s Famous Orations, ed. , Funk and Wagnalls, New York, pp.102–127. Original Sources, retrieved 5 July 2022, from