Article 9

ART. IX. Speeches of the Right Honourable John Philpot Curran, Master of the Rolls in Ireland, on the late very Interesting State Trials, pp. 475. 8vo. Dublin, J. Stockdale and Sons. London, Mawman, 1808.

[pp. 96-107] [original article in PDF format]

  1. THE title of this volume does not convey an accurate idea of its contents. There are but six speeches of Mr. Curran on trials for state crimes, the remainder of the volume being occupied with his speeches on various cases, which, though of a different description, attracted much of the public attention; and with some of his most celebrated speeches in the Irish House of Commons. It is offered to the public without the sanction of his authority; but we are disposed to consider it, with some important exceptions, as a report, on the general accuracy of which it is not unsafe to rely. The editor is probably a member of the same learned profession with Mr. Curran: if [96] we may judge from the preface, he is a man of some literary attainments; and his esteem of his hero, his admiration of his talents, and the attachment which he professes to his political opinions, all of which feelings border on the excessive, must have prompted him to every exertion in the construction of the monument he has attempted to raise to his fame.

  2. The Parliamentary speeches, though by no means deficient in passages which the admirers of Mr. Curran will delight to quote us happy instances of the peculiarities of his manner, seem to be the least correct; in preparing for the press his addresses in the Courts of Law, a greater degree of industry has evidently been exerted. We think it right to take the earliest opportunity of making our readers acquainted with a work that has obtained, as might be expected, a very extensive circulation, and acquired much celebrity, among a large portion of our fellow subjects.

  3. We entertain the greatest possible doubt of the prudence of this publication, whether regarded in its consequences to the reputation of Mr. Curran, or to that of the literature and good taste of the country which considers him as one of its most distinguished ornaments: and are very strongly inclined to think that the editor would have acted more wisely in taking a hint from the modesty of the Orator's genius (Preface iii) which, undervaluing its own productions, prevented him from revising and correcting the work, and risking his character, in the eyes of posterity, on the popularity and applause he has acquired from his contemporaries; than in submitting the justness of his claims to those honours, to the cool discussion of the closet, and to an unavoidable comparison with those rules and examples, by which the judgment of his fellow subjects in this island must necessarily be influenced. The wreath which many a melting congregation has bound round the brows of an admired pulpit orator, has often been untwined by the rude and vulgar hand of his own printer.

  4. In every great convulsion which agitates a free nation, they who espouse the cause inimical to that of the existing government, are furnished with a variety of expedients for acquiring the shouts and huzzas of the multitude; but when the fury of the moment has past away, and some enemy, or some friend more cruel than the fiercest enemy, attempts to record the verba fugacia, by which this tempest appeared to be excited, an appeal is made to a tribunal, of which the decrees are by no means so likely to be favourable to the permanency of their reputation, as the opinions of those who listened to their eloquence, or estimated [97] its merits from its temporary effects. We are anxious not to be misunderstood. Far be it from us to say, that nothing will be found in this volume to justify Mr. Curran's pretensions to the high reputation which he has earned: it contains enough to satisfy every candid and intelligent mind that his endowments are of no ordinary degree: but comparing our own impressions, after perusing it, with those we entertained when we judged of him only by the space which he fills in the eyes of his countrymen, we should deal unfairly by the public, were we not to repeat our conviction that it will not contribute to exalt his own individual character, or convey a very flattering opinion of the refinement and literary taste of his native country.

  5. Whatever defects may be found in the effusions of Mr. Curran's eloquence, nature, it is evident, is chargeable with few of them. She has liberally fulfilled her part. She has gifted him with a mind rapid, ingenious, and full of resources, ever awake, and ever active; equally capable of comprehending and exhausting the subject to which its powers may be directed: his genius enables him to enforce by argument, his memory to illustrate and adorn, and the glowing language, of which he is an eminent master, either to conceal the weakness, or to encrease the strength of the topic under his discussion.

  6. We were much pleased with the ingenuity, and tone of proud and calm indignation in his speech for Mr. Hevey, in an action for an assault and false imprisonment, against Major Sirr. His allusion to the distinction betwixt a representation of general indiscriminate sorrow, and a tale in which our sympathy is concentrated in the miseries of one individual victim, we suspect to be borrowed from the 110th paper of the Adventurer. The passage, which will be found at pp. 354, &c. is too long for our purpose; but we cannot avoid noticing a circumstance quite unintelligible to us that, aided by the eloquence of Mr. Curran, never more powerfully exerted, and exhibiting an outrage which no English heart can think of without horror, the Plaintiff obtained, from the Jury, a verdict only for £150.

  7. The following passage in his speech for Mr. Hamilton Rowan, who was tried and convicted for a libel, is no unfavourable specimen of Mr. Curran's impressive stile of eloquence. The sentiment, we premise, is from Cowper, as is also some part of the language; and, indeed, it strikes us that the ground work of Mr. Curran's most impassioned passages is frequently laid by other writers, though he certainly has the merit of amplifying and adorning what he condescends to adopt. [98]

    'Do you think it wise or humane at this moment to insult them, by sticking up in a pillory the man who dared to stand forth as 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, giving "Universal Emancipation!" I speak in the spirit of the British law, which makes liberty commensurate with and inseparable from 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 burnt 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 her own 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.'

  8. We think that the application of the image in the concluding sentence of the same speech has been borrowed, though we cannot say from whom: it has considerable merit.

    'I will not relinquish the confidence that this day will be the period of his sufferings; and, however mercilessly he has been hitherto 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 hath 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.'

    This tribute we willingly pay to the genius of Mr. Curran; and here our praises must terminate: the effects of all these gifts are in our opinion clearly lessened, and many of their most striking beauties debased, by deformities nearly as prominent as his talents themselves. [99]

  9. We must, in the first place, profess our inability to imagine that he ever should have attained the rank of an impressive speaker in Parliament; in our House of Commons we are certain he never could. We have already said that his Parliamentary speeches have been published with less care than his addresses and arguments in Courts of Law; but the reports of them to be found in this compilation, imperfect though they be, bear out the opinion we have expressed. The English Whig, and Irish Patriot (preface x) never rises in his place without the wig and band of the pleader. He does not, with the eagle eye of a statesman, take in the whole bearing of a difficult problem of legislation, and pursue it through its remotest ramifications; but contemplating it as a mere party man, and confining his views to the ambition of triumphing in that individual debate, he considers it as a text on which he may display his own dexterity, or gall, and vex, and harrass his political opponents; with little success we should imagine, unless their nerves were composed of materials of the most inconvenient irritability. This is not the portion of his public life on which this ingenious orator can be disposed to look back with peculiar complacency. He is always anxious to be either indignant or witty; but his resentment is nothing more than the peevish irritation of disappointed ambition, and his wit evaporates, or is lost, in the mass of hyperbolical language with which it is encumbered. The following passage, it is likely, is not set down as it was delivered by Mr. Curran; but no beauty of diction or manner could have made the idea it contains tolerable in the mouth of a leading Member of the English House of Commons. Our readers will observe that he is treating of the well known Commercial Resolutions between this country and Ireland, proposed during Mr. Pitt's long administration.

    'I will suppose then, sir, that an old friend that you loved, just recovering from a disease in which he had been wasted almost to death, should prevail upon you to take the trouble of buying him a horse for the establishment of his health; and I the more freely presume to represent you for a moment in an office so little corresponding with the dignity of your station, from a consciousness that my fancy cannot put you in any place to which you will not be followed by my utmost respect. I will, therefore, suppose that you send for an horse-jockey, who does not come himself, but sends his foreman:

    'Says the foreman, "sir, I know what you want; my master has an horse that will exactly match your friend; he has descended from Rabelais' famous Johannes Caballus, that got a doctor of physic's degree from the college of Rheims; but your friend must pay his [100] price. My master knows he has no money at present, and will therefore accept his note for the amount of what he shall be able to earn while he lives, allowing him, however, such moderate subsistence as may prevent him from perishing. If you are satisfied I will step for the horse and bring him instantly, with the bridle and saddle, which you shall have into the bargain." But, friend, say you, are you sure that you are authorised to make this bargain? "What, sir," cries the foreman," would you doubt my honour? Sir, I can find three hundred gentlemen who never saw me before, and yet have gone bail for me at the first view of my face. Besides, sir, you have a greater pledge; my honour, sir, my renown is at stake." Well, sir, you agree, the note is passed; the foreman leaves you, and returns without the horse. What, sir! where is the horse? "Why, in truth, sir," answers he, "I am sorry for this little disappointment, but my mistress has taken a fancy to the horse, so your friend cannot have him. But we have a nice little mare that will match him better; as to the saddle he must do without that, for little master insists on keeping it; however, your friend has been so poor a fellow that he must have too thick a skin to be much fretted by riding bare-backed; besides the mare is so low that his feet will reach the ground when he rides her; and still further to accommodate him, my master insists on having a chain locked to her feet, of which lock my master is to have a key to lock or unlock as he pleases, and your friend shall also have a key so formed that he cannot unlock the chain, but with which he may double-lock it if he thinks fit."

    'What, sirrah, do you think I'll betray my old friend to such a fraud? "Why really, sir, you are impertinent, and your friend is too peevish; 'twas only the other day that he charged my master with having stolen his cloak, and grew angry, and got a ferrule and spike to his staff. Why, sir, you see how good-humouredly my master gave back the cloak. Sir, my master scorns to break his word, and so do I; sir, my character is your security. Now, as to the mare, you are too hasty in objecting to her, for I am not sure that you can get her; all I ask of you now is to wait a few hours here in the street, that I may try if something may not be done; but let me say one word to you in confidence:

    "I am to get two guineas if I can bring your friend to be satisfied with what we can do for him; now if you assist me in this, you shall have half the money; for to tell you the truth, if I fail in my undertaking, I shall either be discharged entirely, or degraded to my former place of helper in the stable.'"

  10. Throughout the whole work we were struck with the prodigious inferiority of Mr. Curran's judgment and good sense, when contrasted with the brilliancy of his fancy: the disappointments we experienced in the most splendid passages of his legal pleadings, are all to be traced to his taste, which is vitiated and false to an excess, of which the cold blooded critics, [101] in this part of the empire, will find it difficult to form a conception. The prevailing passion of his mind is a love of the ambitious and extravagant in sentiment, and imagery, and language. His is not the prowess of a serious combatant, but the venality of a prize fighter. Forgetting the precept of Quinctilian, sententiarum in senatu, et conciorum, et privatorum conciliorum servabit discrimina; vitam ex diffentia personarum, locorum temporumque mutabit; alias ad docendum, alias ad movendum adhibebit artes; his oratory is invariably the same: whether analysing the provisions of an Act of Parliament, or defending his Client against a prosecution for High Treason; whether addressing himself to a court composed of a small number of well educated men, or to a Jury of Irish rustics in the hearing of an Irish auditory, Mr. Curran is still a declaimer. What would be thought, for example, of the sanity of an English Counsel, who should commence an argument in our Court of Exchequer, on a mere question, as to the interpretation of a clause in a statute in the following words? He remarks 'the dead silence into which the public is frowned, by authority, on this sad occasion;'—that is, of inquiring whether a certain warrant was sanctioned by the enactment of the statute! and he then proceeds thus:

    'I am glad of this factitious dumbness; for if murmurs dared to become audible, my voice would be too feeble to drown them; but when all is hushed —when nature sleeps—

               Cum quies mortalibus ægris,

    the weakest voice is heard—the shepherd's whistle shoots across the listening darkness of the interminable heath, and gives notice that the wolf is upon his walk, and the same gloom and stillness that tempt the monster to come abroad, facilitate the communication of the warning to beware. Yes, through that silence the voice shall be heard; yes, through that silence the shepherd shall be put upon his guard: yes, through that silence shall the felon savage be chaced into the toil. Yes, my lords, I feel myself cheered and impressed by the composed and dignified attention with which I see you are disposed to hear me on the most important question that has ever been subjected to your consideration; the most important to the dearest rights of the human being; the most deeply interesting and animating that can beat in his heart, or burn upon his tongue—Oh ! how recreating is it to feel that occasions may arise in which the soul of man may reassume her pretensions; in which she hears the voice of nature whisper to her, os homini sublime dedi cœlumque tueri; in which even I can look up with calm security to the court, and down with the most profound contempt upon the reptile I mean to tread upon! I say, reptile; because, when the proudest man in society becomes [102] so the dupe of his childish malice, as to wish to inflict on the object of his vengeance the poison of his sting, to do a reptile's work he must shrink into a reptile's dimension; and so shrunk, the only way to assail him is to tread upon him.'

  11. The following ebullition, when it is remembered that it forms part of what professes to be a legal argument to the Court, in arrest of Judgement, founded on certain supposed nullities in the verdict, is equally out of place.

    'You,' meaning my Lords the Judges, 'are standing on the scanty isthmus that divides the great ocean of duration; on one side of the past, on the other of the future: a ground, that while you yet hear me, is washed from beneath our feet. Let me remind you, my lords, while your determination is yet in your power, dum versatur adhuc intra penetralia Vestœ, that on that ocean of future you must set your judgment afloat. And future ages will assume the same authority, which you have assumed; posterity feel the same emotions which you have felt, when your little hearts have beaten, and your infant eyes have overflowed, at reading the sad history of the sufferings of a Russel or a Sidney.'

    [The conclusion of Mr. Curran's speech was marked by another burst of applause, similar to those which accompanied his former exertions in this cause.]

  12. Had such a tirade been delivered in Westminster Hall, we think it more than probable that the learned Counsel would have been recommended to the care of his prochein ami, and his admirers to the parental charge of the Marshal.

  13. If it be one of the first praises of an orator that the figures he uses are never sought after, but always rise from the subject, it cannot be bestowed on Mr. Curran, nor will it probably be claimed by him. He does not consider an image as an auxiliary or ornament to the subject he is examining; in his estimation his argument, whatever it be, is only a niche in which the picture may conveniently be placed. He never resists the temptation of a glaring figure however remote and fantastic the resemblance to the subject with which it is destined to be assimilated, and however it may disturb the current of the sentiments naturally suggested to the mind of his auditors or his own. As soon as it appears, he is ready to begin the pursuit, and is evidently more delighted with the boisterous applauses of the grooms and jockies who witness the dexterity of his chace after this bewitching phantom which leads him from himself, than by the sober approbation of the knight* who remains at the goal. The evils of [103] this are incalculable both to the cause and the pleader. Our attention is irresistibly withdrawn from the cause we are called upon to decide, and fixed on an object foreign to its merits. From the same unhappy propensity, his images, even when they chance to be natural and suitable, are almost always pushed to extremes. Mr. Curran never states an argument in its great and leading points, or sketches a picture by its characteristic features, leaving the mind of his auditor to supply the deficiencies, if he thinks it worth his while to supply them. Following the example of the painter at Antwerp, so much admired by Pallet, who in depicting a beggar thought it necessary faithfully to represent one of his most disgusting insignia Mr. Curran without mercy brings directly to the eye every circumstance however minute, and disgusting.

    'The concluding years of the last of the Stewarts he describes as that memorable period 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 putrefaction, 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.'

    On this image, from which every eye recoils with disgust and abhorrence, Mr. Curran has a distempered pleasure to dwell. He again therefore presents it to us in a passage, evidently meant to be eloquent and irresistible, but which to us appears the perfection of fustian and extravagance.

    'I speak of what your own eyes have seen day after day during the course of this commission from the box where you are now sitting; the number of horrid miscreants who avowed upon their oaths that they had come from the very seat of government—from the castle, where they had been worked upon by the fear of death and the hopes of compensation, to give evidence against their fellows, that the mild and wholesome councils of this government are holden over these catacombs of living death, where the wretch that is buried a man, lies till his heart has time to fester and dissolve, and is then dug up a witness.

    'Is this fancy, or is it fact? Have you not seen him, after his resurrection from that tomb, after having been dug out of the region of death and corruption, make his appearance upon the table, the living image of life and of death, and the supreme arbiter of both? Have you not marked when he entered, how the stormy wave of the multitude retired at his approach? Have you not marked how the [104] human heart bowed to the supremacy of his power, in the undissembled homage of deferential horror? How his glance, like the lightning of heaven, seemed to rive the body of the accused, and mark it for the grass, while his voice warned the devoted wretch of woe and death; a death which no innocence can escape, no art elude, no force resist, no antidote prevent;—there was an antidote—a juror's oath—but even that adamantine chain, that bound the integrity of man to the throne of eternal justice, is solved and melted in the breath that issues from the informer's mouth; conscience swings from her mooring, and the appalled and affrighted juror consults his own safety in the surrender of the victim.'

  14. The following exhortation to the jury in the case of Finny approaches so nearly to mere raving, that it would be idle to attempt to increase its absurdity by reminding our readers that Mr. Curran is commenting on the truth of the evidence emitted by the tremendous witness, whom, by the force of such conjurations, he wishes to prevent being examined,

    'I have heard of assassination by sword, by pistol, and by dagger, but here is a wretch who would dip the evangelists in blood—if he thinks he has not sworn his victim to death, he is ready to swear, without mercy and without end; but oh! do not, I conjure you, suffer him to take an oath; the arm of the murderer should not pollute the purity of the Gospel; if he will swear, let it be on the knife, the proper symbol of his profession.'

    In support of our opinion we shall only cite an additional passage in his speech on Catholic Emancipation, distinguished we think by the intemperate love of metaphor, and intolerable grossness and vulgarity. Speaking of the ascendancy of an English school over an Irish university, he says—

    'An ascendancy of that form raises to my mind a little greasy emblem of stall-fed theology, imported from some foreign land, with the graces of a lady's maid, the dignity of a side-table, the temperance of a larder, its sobriety the dregs of a patron's bottle, and its wisdom the dregs of a patron's understanding, brought hither to devour, to degrade, and to defame.'

  15. One deficiency in the pleadings upon the cases of treason, we cannot but record with mingled feelings of deep regret and indignation. It is well known how deservedly high Mr. Curran's legal abilities stand in the eyes of his countrymen. Even the deluded banditti, who in the year 1796 formed the Society of United Irishmen in Belfast, had heard of his fame, and commissioned [105] their agent 'to get a license for Counsellor Curran to be concerned for the prisoners charged as United Irishmen'- 'to get Curran down on as cheap terms as possible, but to get him down at all events.'- And accordingly the said agent in his accounts to the respectable persons by whom he was employed, takes credit at the Lent Assizes for 50/. paid to Mr. Curran as a retaining fee, and about 200/. paid for licenses to the same gentleman*. Far be it from us to impute this predilection as a crime to Mr. Curran. But we will say that the standing counsel of the United Irishmen had a double duly to discharge. He owed much to his clients, but he owed yet more to the law of the country by which he lived. We expected therefore to have found some disavowal, however general, of the principles under which these misguided men were associated; some expression of attachment to those laws which afford a fair trial even to the blackest traitors; some distinction laid down between the exculpation of the individual and the vindication of the crime charged; something in short which might have served as a beacon and warning to the crouds who were hanging upon the periods of the orator, and sympathising with every sentiment which he uttered. For this we have sought in vain through these pleadings. The eloquence of the council is levelled, in all its fervour, against the informers by whose evidence the hopeful revolution was blighted in embryo; but not a word to express horror at a plan of civil war to be waged against his fellow subjects with all the treachery and cruelty of a second Irish Massacre. Who could have painted more forcibly than Mr. Curran the terrors of the impending scene, which the wounded conscience or the avarice of Reynolds the approver, was the providential means of averting? Did the industrious collector of these pleadings omit such an interesting passage? Or was Mr. Curran, like certain worthy patriots of England, satisfied that the objects of Messrs. Oliver, Bond, O'Connor, &c. were as harmless and constitutional as his own? Or must we be reduced to suppose that the learned counsel in his description of an approver, remembered the saying of Guy Fawkes, 'that God would have concealed the plot, but the devil discovered it?' Certain it is, that he could not have been more tender of the credit of the conspiracy, had he thought it, like the editor of the Dublin Press, 'a conspiracy of truth against falsehood—a conspiracy of peace and liberty against war and slavery—a conspiracy [106] of love and national wisdom against hatred and civil destruction—a conspiracy of reason, justice and virtue against cruel oppression, inhumanity and vice. We trust that Mr. Curran did not think so, but we find no evidence to the contrary, though honour, loyalty, and regard for the ignorant and misguided populace who were present, alike demanded a testimony of the faith that was in him.

  16. Upon the whole, we are persuaded that the reception which this publication is likely to experience in England, must disappoint the hopes of Mr. Curran's numerous admirers in his own country. His eloquence is not of that chastened and temperate description to which alone in the advanced state of our national taste we can reconcile ourselves: its beauties are too frequently debased by vulgarity, and its sublimity too prone to descend into the kindred regions of turgidity and rant. The whole of his speeches are framed on the model of the German school, where nature is pushed beyond herself. His sentences, though often striking, are seldom natural. They have always a propensity to find their termination in a clinch, a point, or antithesis; in something calculated to excite that species of wonder which has no manner of alliance with pleasure.