3202. Robert Southey to John Rickman, 10 October 1818

3202. Robert Southey to John Rickman, 10 October 1818⁠* 

My dear R.

I have been doing my best to impress upon Wilberforces mind a sense of the real dangers of the country. And I think if any feasable plan could be struck out, it is very likely that he might be induced to act a very useful part. What I propose is that Fox’s law of libel [1]  should be repealed, – he talked of the difficulty of doing this, & I told him that if some such measure were not taken & the licentiousness of the press effectually curbed, – unless he & I made haste to our graves we should both be sent to the scaffold. He will not forget this, & I shall take care to deepen the impression.

Dauncey the Counsel [2]  has been here – I had much talk with him upon these things, & found that he entirely coincided with us, both as to the evil & the means of remedy. And sure I am that if a proper law of libel were brought forward, & a proper punishment for treason in its first stages, they would be carried in spite of all clamour. Wynn would be an excellent man to come forward on such an occasion, – but tho he knows the danger, I fear he would shrink from the remedy, – not from any obloquy to which such a measure would expose him.

If there were wisdom & courage enough to take up this matter properly, I would answer for undertake to sound prepare the public by a full & forcible exposition of the danger. [3] 

Wilberforce is very well disposed to forming an Association for the preservation &c – Is it worth while to instigate him to this? I shall write to him after he has left this country, & have great reason to suppose that I can in some degree influence him. – You see I am very far from despairing: & indeed the worse things grow, the more reason is there for exerting ourselves to mend them. And you see I am not idle, – the smaller packet had better go straight to Poples without paying a visit to Streatham, [4]  – it is an interpolation made just in time.

God bless you


10 Oct. 1818.


* MS: Huntington Library, RS 356. ALS; 3p.
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), III, pp. 100–101. BACK

[1] The Libel Act of 1792, sponsored by Fox, gave juries the primary responsibility to decide whether a publication was libellous, rather than leaving the matter mainly to the judge. BACK

[2] Philip Dauncey (1759–1819), barrister, mainly practising in the Court of Exchequer. BACK

[3] Southey did not write an article for the Quarterly Review on the law of libel. BACK

[4] The home of Southey’s uncle Herbert Hill. Southey normally sent drafts of the History of Brazil (1810–1819) to Hill. BACK

People mentioned

Places mentioned

Streatham (mentioned 1 time)