3387. Robert Southey to [John Wilson Croker], 12 November 1819

3387. Robert Southey to [John Wilson Croker], 12 November 1819⁠* 

Keswick. 12 Nov. 1819.

My dear Sir

I trust you will not consider me as acting improperly in addressing myself to you upon a subject on which an official application to the Admiralty has been made twice to no purport.

My brother is required to act as Collector of the Taxes in his parish, or to pay a fine of £20. [1]  He applies to know whether he is not privileged by his commission from serving in any such office; – the first reply which he receives is that their Lordships do not think it necessary to interfere; – the second, that they do not think it their province to advise him upon a point of law.

Now, my dear Sir, this point of law concerns the service. A naval officer may be summoned at upon his duty at any time, – how then can he an office be thrust upon him which requires residence while it lasts, & renders him responsible to the Exchequer if it be not performed? – Is not this a question which implicates the privileges of the navy? & where should those privileges be understood if not at the Admiralty? The common sense of the case is plain. If the point of law be doubtful, how easy is it for the Admiralty to obtain an opinion! And is it not fitting that a point which should be settled, which so long as it remains undetermined exposes their officers to vexation, & places them in a situation wherein they know not how to act, – having on the one hand to compromise the privileges of the service, – or on the other to incur the expences of a law suit?


You are likely to have a warm campaign when Parliament meets. [2]  The Opposition will endeavour to make up in violence, what they will lose in numbers. But Government has great advantages at this moment. I should think it prudent not to press the suspension of the H. Corpus, [3]  – the same security may be obtained by other means, & the credit that would be gained by this forbearance would be worth something. The main objects are to prevent seditious meetings, & to curb a licentious press: & the evils of both are so generally acknowledged, that there never was a better <time> for xxxx proposing some effectual remedy. I have reason to believe that one of the most effectual would be supported by some persons not in the habit of acting with Government, – that of making banishment for life the punishment for sedition & blasphemy. [4]  Such a law a few years ago would have rid us of Cobbett & the Examiner. [5]  I believe too that the inconvenience of suffering persons to put off their trial from one Sessions to another, for these offences, (which allows them to go on during the interim in the same course,) is so palpable, & so absurd, that an act for remedying it would be generally approved.

Some good would be done by prohibiting all Sunday newspapers, by means of which the Sabbath is now set apart as a day for administering seditious instruction to the people of London. [6]  Still more would result from repeated prosecutions of the seditious papers. Long impunity has made them incautious. In the month of August I saw a Scotch newspaper containing a paragraph (copied no doubt from some London paper,) in which Ferdinand was accused of having poisoned the late Queen of Spain. [7]  – If I could have procured the paper I would certainly have sent it to the Spanish Embassador. [8]  The original might easily have been traced, & it would have been doing good service to that part of Scotland to have prosecuted the copyer also, who is doing great mischief in that quarter (Montrose.) The M Chronicle of Sept. 21. says speaking of the approbation signified to the Magistrates at Manchester, “The Kings Government has by this approbation declared that it will, whenever it pleases so to do, plunge those arms entrusted to it for the public safety, in the bowels of a peaceful & unoffending people.” – “The Executive have thereby declared that the people of this country hold their lives & properties at the point of the bayonet.” [9]  – Surely such language as this is within reach of the Law. At least that question should be tried, – & if it is not, laws should then be made to reach it.

It is far more agreable just now <in these times> to employ myself in investigating the manners & superstitions of savages, & the history of sectarians, than in busying myself with the politics of the txxxxx day. [10]  And yet I have much to say upon the Prospects of Society [11]  which seems to me worth saying, – thoughts & reflections which if they were sent abroad might produce good hereafter. That this is one of the critical periods of civilized society is beyond all doubt; – & there is great danger of its dissolution. But I am not despondent, & see our way thro the danger, as I did thro the war, if resolution & wisdom are not wanting.

But I ought to apologize as much for the length of this letter, as for the occasion of it. – Excuse both, I pray you, & thereby add to the obligations you have conferred upon x one who is

Yrs very truly

Robert Southey.


* Endorsement: Ansd/ Nov 16
MS: Morgan Library, MA 1005. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Kenneth Curry (ed.), New Letters of Robert Southey, 2 vols (London and New York, 1965), II, pp. 206–207. BACK

[1] Tom Southey’s local parish vestry had appointed him for the forthcoming year to one of the administrative offices that local ratepayers were liable to hold. In this case the office was Collector of the Taxes, which probably mainly involved dealing with the parish’s Land Tax assessment. BACK

[2] Parliament reassembled on 23 November 1819, primarily to debate the ‘Six Acts’ that the government proposed to suppress radical agitation. These included a new Seditious Meetings Prevention Bill and a Criminal Libel Bill. BACK

[3] Habeas corpus was the legal principle that prevented detention without trial. It was suspended in 1817–1818. BACK

[4] The Criminal Libel Act (1819) made banishment the punishment for a second offence and anyone breaching the sentence was to be transported for 14 years. The original version of the Bill had made transportation for seven years the punishment for a second offence and death the punishment of last resort. Southey may be hinting here that Wynn and his followers supported the idea of banishment. BACK

[5] Cobbett had been imprisoned in 1810–1812 for criticising the flogging of some militiamen at Ely, and Hunt was imprisoned in 1813–1815 for libelling the Prince Regent; but both men continued to edit their newspapers from prison. BACK

[6] A somewhat unfortunate suggestion, as Croker was planning a new, pro-government, Sunday newspaper, the Guardian (1819–1824). Southey became a subscriber. BACK

[7] During his tour of Scotland, Southey saw, on 26 August 1819, a copy of the Montrose, Arbroath and Brechin Review, established in 1811 by James Watt (d. 1825); see Journal of a Tour in Scotland, ed. Charles Henry Herford (London, 1929), p. 61. It accused Ferdinand VII (1784–1833; King of Spain 1808, 1813–1833) of poisoning one of his two former wives: either Princess Maria Antonia of Naples (1784–1806); or Princess Maria Isabel of Portugal (1797–1818). At this time the Review was ‘a violent anti-ministerial paper, and abounded with scurrilous matter’, ‘History of the Scottish Press’, Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country, 18 (August 1838), 207. BACK

[8] Jose-Miguel de Carvajal-Vargas, 2nd Duke of San Carlos (1771–1828), Prime Minister May–November 1814, Ambassador to Austria 1815–1817, the United Kingdom 1817–1820 and France 1820–1828. BACK

[9] Morning Chronicle, 21 September 1819, referring to the events at Manchester on 16 August 1819, when local magistrates dispersed a radical meeting, leading to at least eleven deaths. BACK

[10] Southey’s History of Brazil (1810–1819) and The Life of Wesley; and the Rise and Progress of Methodism (1820). BACK

[11] A thought that developed into Sir Thomas More: or, Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society (1829). BACK

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