On October 30 1814, Samuel Taylor Coleridge writes to Daniel Stuart a long letter where he lays out some of his views on political philosophy. The letter contains many suggestive comments as to legal philosophy, that would benefit from further elucidation.
Dear Stuart, — After I had finished the third letter, I thought it the best I had ever written ; but, on reperusal, I perfectly agree with you. It is misty, and like most misty compositions, laborious, — what the Italians call faticoso. I except the two last paragraphs (” In this guise my Lord,” to — ” aversabitur “). These I still like. Yet what I wanted to say is very important, because it strikes at the ROOT of all legislative Jacobinism. The view which our laws take of robbery, and even murder, not as guilt of which God alone is presumed to be the Judge, but as CRIMES depriving the King of one of his subjects, rendering dangerous and abating the value of the King’s Highways, etc., may suggest some notion of my meaning. Jack, Tom, and Harry have no existence in the eye of the law, except as included in some form or other of the permanent property of the realm. Just as, on the other hand. Religion has nothing to do with Ranks, Estates, or Offices; but exerts itself wholly on what is PERSONAL, viz., our souls, consciences, and the morality of our actions, as opposed to mere legality. Ranks, Estates, Offices, etc., were made for persons I exclaims Major Cartwright and his partisans.
Yes, I reply, as far as the divine administration is concerned, but human jurisprudence, wisely aware of its own weakness, and sensible how incommensurate its powers are with so vast an object as the well-being of individuals, as individuals, reverses the position, and knows nothing of persons, other than as properties, officiaries, subjects. The preambles of our old statutes concerning aliens (as foreign merchants) and Jews, are all so many illustrations of my principle; the strongest instance of opposition to which, and therefore characteristic of the present age, was the attempt to legislate for animals by Lord Erskine; that is, not merely interfering with persons as persons; or with what are called by moralists the imperfect duties (a very obscure phrase for obligations of conscience, not capable of being realized imperfecta) by legal penalties), but extending personality to things.
[Lord Erskine’s Bill for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was brought forward in the House of Lords on May 15 1809, and was passed without division, but did not pass in the House of Commons.]
In saying this, I mean only to designate the general spirit of human law. Every principle, on its application to practice, must be limited and modified by circumstances; our reason by our common sense. Still, however, the PRINCIPLE is most important, as aim, rule, and guide. Guided by this spirit, our ancestors repealed the Puritan Law, by which adultery was to be punished with death, and brought it back to a civil damage. So, too, actions for seduction. Not that the Judge or Legislator did not feel the guilt of such crimes, but that the Law knows nothing about guilt. So, in the Exchequer, common debts are sued for on the plea that the creditor is less able to pay our Lord the King, etc., etc. Now, contrast with this, the preamble to the first French Constitution, and I think my meaning will become more intelligible; that the pretenceof considering persons not states, happiness not property, always has ended, and always will end, in making a new state, or corporation, infinitely more oppressive than the former ; and in which the real freedom of persons is as much less, as the things interfered with are more numerous, and more minute. Com- pare the duties, exacted from a United Irishman by the Confederacy, with those required of him by the law of the land. This, I think, not ill expressed, in the two last periods of the fourth paragraph.” Thus in order to sacrifice . . . confederation.”
Of course I immediately recognized your hand in the Article concerning the “Edinburgh Review,” and much pleased I was with it ; and equally so in finding, from your letter, that we had so completely coincided in our feelings, concerning that wicked Lord Nelson Article.
If there be one thing on earth that can outrage an honest man’s feelings, it is the assumption of austere morality for the purposes of personal slander. And the gross ingratitude of the attack! In the name of God what have we to do with Lord Nelson’s mistresses, or domestic quarrels ? Sir A. Ball, himself exemplary in this respect, told me of his own personal knowledge Lady Nelson was enough to drive any man wild. . . . She had no sympathy with his acute sensibilities, and his alienation was effected, though not shown, before he knew Lady Hamilton, by being heart starved still more than by being teased and tormented by her sullenness. Observe that Sir A. Ball detested Lady Hamilton. To the same enthusiastic sensibilities which made a fool of him with regard to his Emma, his country owed the victories of the Nile, Copenhagen, and Trafalgar, and the heroic spirit of all the officers reared under him.
When I was at Bowood there was a plan suggested between Bowles and myself, to engage among the cleverest literary characters of our knowledge, six or eight, each of whom was to engage to take some one subject of those into which the ” Edinburgh Review ” might be aptly divided ; as Science, Classical Knowledge, Style, Taste, Philosophy, Political Economy, Morals, Religion, and Patriotism ; to state the number of Essays he could write and the time at which he would deliver each ; and so go through the whole of the ” Review ” : — to be published in the first instance in the ” Courier ” during the Recess of Parliament. We thought of Southey, Wordsworth, Crowe, Crabbe, Wollston ; and Bowles thought he could answer for several single Articles from persons of the highest rank in the Church and our two Universities. Such a plan, adequately executed, seven or eight years ago, would have gone near to blow up this Magazine of Mischief.
As to Ridgeway and the Essays, I have not only no objection to my name being given, but I should prefer it. I have just as much right to call myself dramatically an Irish Protestant, when writing in the character of one, as Swift had to call himself a draper. I have waded through as mischievous a Work, as two huge quartos, very dull, can be, by a Mr. Edward Wakefield, called an Account of Ireland. Of all scribblers these agricultural quarto-mongers are the vilest. I thought of making the affairs of Ireland, in toto, chiefly however with reference to the Catholic Question, a new series, and of republishing in the Appendix to the eight letters to Mr. Justice Fletcher, Lord Clare’s (then Chancellor Fitzgibbon’s) admirable speech, worthy of Demosthenes, of which a copy was brought me over from Dublin by Rickman, and given to Lamb. It was never printed in England, nor is it to be procured. I never met with a person who had heard of it. Except that one main point is omitted (and it is remarkable that the poet Edmund Spenser in his Dialogue on Ireland ^ is the only writer who has urged this point), viz., the forcing upon savages the laws of a comparatively civilized people, instead of adopting measures gradually to render them susceptible of those laws, this speech might be deservedly called the philosophy of the past and present history of Ireland. It makes me smile to observe, how all the mediocre men exult in a Ministry that have been so successful without any overpowering talent of eloquence, etc. It is true that a series of gigantic events like those of the last eighteen months, will lift up any cock-boat to the skies upon their billows; but no less true that, sooner or later, parliamentary talent will be found absolutely requisite for an English Ministry.
With sincere regard and esteem, your obliged
S. T. Coleridge.