On February 28, 1817, Sir William Garrow addressed the House of Commons with a lengthy speech on the pending Habeas Corpus Suspension Bill. His remarks were in stark contrast to what many remember him for today – the defender of prisoner rights. He spoke in support of temporarily suspending the rights of a prisoner accused of treason. As the last major speaker before the vote was taken in the House of Commons, he helped carry the day for the passage of this highly debated and controversial act, an act that to this day is the subject of special attention in the tide of English history.
The BBC historic drama, Garrow’s Law, created a public awareness of the earliest phase in the long legal career of William Garrow, a man until recently lost in the musty archives of English law history. This BBC drama, a mix of fact and fiction, created a public interest in Garrow’s early legal career and romance. Other parts of his long and successful legal career were not addressed
Why spend time with what Garrow had to say on this occasion? For those interested in the real life story of William Garrow, this is a moment of special drama. First, it is an interesting speech displaying his style of speaking. Second it depicts an interesting moment in his mid-career, suggesting something of the scope of his ever-changing life work. But before presenting this speech, the context of this event needs to be understood. The attempt here is to embed Garrow’s speech into the significant events at this moment of English history, and at this moment in his career.
Garrow is now 56 years old and is serving as Attorney General, a responsibility he has held for four years. . It had been 34 years after starting his career as a barrister specializing in defense of the accused at the Old Bailey and a lot has happened in his life during those intervening years. Certainly he has become a highly successful barrister in private practice, and in government causes. And in two months, on 6 May, he will cease being a barrister. He will leave his position as Attorney General. He will no longer serve as a member of the House of Commons for Eye . And he will no longer serve as a Trustee of the British Museum. Now he will become a judge in one of the highest courts in the land, one of the four Barons of the Exchequer. He will become Judge Garrow.
As Attorney General he advises the government on legal matters, prosecutes cases important to the state, and speaks in the House of Commons on the government’s legal concerns. He is not a member of the cabinet or serving as a bureaucrat managing some function of government. And he is free to take on private cases, which indeed he does.
The complexity of this moment in his legal life is illustrated by looking at ten days of his career ending in his address to the House of Commons, a look at some of his activities from February 19th to the 28th of 1817. On the 19th as Attorney General he was responsible for the prosecution of John Bean Hannay in the Old Bailey for violation of the Slave Trade Abolition Act of 1807, the first time a captain of a British vessel or anyone was prosecuted for transporting slaves, a milestone in the long process of outlawing slavery in the UK. Indeed he took personal credit for this prosecution in his speech before parliament on the 28th of February.
Then two days after the Hannay Old Bailey trial, as a private attorney he acted in defense of a person in the case, King v. John Hatchard for a Libel, brought on by government interests in the British Island of Antigua. John Hatchard was charged with Libel for actions he had taken as publisher of material for the African Institute. John Wilberforce specifically requested that Garrow lead the defense for his friend in this important case brought against the bookseller John Hatchard, a case that attacked Wilberforce’s anti-slavery movement. Garrow’s defense can be considered successful even though Hatchard was found guilty. Hatchard received a penalty at the trivial level instead of one that would have ruined him. Eight days later Garrow addresses Parliament.
Concerning English history, this was a time of unrest in English society. By 1817 the English wars with France and Napoleon were over, but the costs and social changes brought on by the many years of war had yet to be resolved. The industrial revolution was underway, beginning to transform the nature of labor. Food was expensive and the Corn Laws, limiting the import of cheap grain, were maintaining the interests of the landed aristocracy. A series of riots, starting with the Ludites, were being carried out by seditious groups threatening the stability of the country. The legislators in the House of Commons and House of Lords were debating a series of draconian bills to deal with real and imagined threats to the country. Each House had it’s own secret committee, with it’s spies embedded in seditious groups, reporting back to select members of parliament on the nature and extent of the threats.
Harriet Martineau, in her “The History of England from the Commencement of the XIXth Century to the Crimean War” is one of many to paint a vivid picture of these times. It is a somewhat lengthy summary of the much written of tensions of the times, but she presents one picture of the necessary background for understanding the debate in the Parliament at this time.
We have shown how the exhaustion of British capital, the unavoidable consequent weitht of taxation, the depression of agricultural stock, the want of markets for native and colonial produce, had produced that paralysis of industry which marked the latter months of 1815 and the beginning of 1816. That these circumstances were most felt by those whose voices of complaint were least heard, by the working population, was soon made perfectly manifest. There was a surplus of labor in every department of human exertion. Br. Brand declared in parliament at the end of March, speaking especially of the agricultural population, that “the poor, in many cases, abandoned their own residences. Whole parishes had been deserted; and the crowd of paupers, increasing in numbers as they went from parish to parish, spread wider and wider this awful desolation.” Discharged sailors and disbanded militia-men swelled the ranks of indigence. If the unhappy wanders crowded to the cities, they encountered bodies of workmen equally wretched, wholly deprived of work, or working at short time upon insufficient wages…
While the land-owners were demanding more protection, and passing new laws for limiting the supply of food, the heavens lowered intense frosts prevailed in February, the spring was inclement, the temperatures of the advancing summer was unusually low and in July incessant rains and cold stormy winds completed the most uncongenial season that had occurred in the country since 1799. …… The result of the harvest showed that these apprehensions were not idle. The prices of grain in England rapidly rose after July; and at the end of the year, rye, barley, and beans had more than doubled the average market-price of the beginning; …..”
The matter of seditions is of two kinds, “say Lord Bacon, “much poverty and much discontentment.” Both causes were fully operating in Great Britain in 1816. The seditions of absolute poverty “the rebellions of the belly, “ as the same great thinker writes were the first to manifest themselves. Early in May, symptoms of insubordination and desperate violence were displayed amongst the agricultural population of the eastern counties. Legislators had been accustomed to look with alarm at the organized outbreaks of large bodies of workmen in the manufacturing districts, as in 1812; but insurrectionary movements of the peasantry, ignorant, scattered, accustomed to the dole of forced benevolence, and therefore broken in spirit, were scarcely to be heeded. And yet these “poor dumb mouths” made themselves audible. They combined in the destruction of property with a fierce recklessness that startled those who saw no danger but in the violence of dense populations, and who were constantly proclaiming that the nation which builds on manufactures sleeps upon gunpowder.”
On the 28th of January, The Prince Regent acting for the incapacitated King George III, opened parliament with a speech in which he made the following comment;
“In considering our internal situation you will, I doubt not, feel a just indignation at the attempts which have been made to take advantage of the distresses of the country, for the purpose of exciting a spirit of sedition and violence. I am too well convinced of the loyalty and good sense of the great body of His Majesty’s subjects, to believe them capable of being perverted by the arts which are employed to seduce them; but I am determined to omit no precautions for preserving the public peace, and for counteracting the designs of the disaffected.”
Later that day while the parliament was in session, the Lower House speakers were interrupted with a message from the Lords that the Prince Regent on his return from opening the parliament had been attacked. The windows of his carriage had been broken by some missile. It was assumed that this was an attempt upon his life, and it triggered a sense of need for urgent actions in Parliament.
On February 19, 1817, The Committee of Secrecy presented a report to the House of Commons. The lengthy report documented the state of the nation. With the information provided by their spies embedded in the various seditious groups, it was received by many as an authentic statement of the situation. One printed statement being circulated at the Spa-Fields riot contained these words: “Britons to Arms! The whole country waits the signal from London to fly to arms! haste, break open gunsmiths and other likely places to find arms! run all constables who touch a man of us; no rise of bread; no Regent; no Castlereagh, off with their heads; no placemen, tythes, or enclosures; no taxes; no bishops, only useless lumber! Stand true, or be slaves forever.” Another statement exposed by the Committee of Secrecy maintained: “the landholder was a monster to be hunted down; but that they should not suffer themselves to be amused; that there was a greater evil, namely, the fundholder; that these were the rapacious wretches, that took fifteen pence out of every quartern loaf.”
On February 26, 1817, the first reading of the Habeas Corpus Suspension Bill took place in the House of Commons, and the lengthy debate started. Finely on the 28th, the bill was nearing the time for a final vote. By this time the amended bill made it legal to commit a person to prison for treason or suspicion of treason upon a warrant signed by six Privy Counsellors, or one of the principal Secretaries of state – not by any subordinate magistrate as in the original bill. However it made it legal to hold the person in prison for some months with taking further legal action. Garrow was one of the last to speak that day before the vote was taken. As always, debate in the House of Commons is heated, with different points of view vigorously defended..
The purpose here is not to present the differing points of view in this debate, – this is well covered elsewhere – but merely to present Garrow’s words. The goal here is to demonstrate Garrow’s style of speaking in the House of Commons, and to provide some insight into what it was like for him, in his own words, to be serving as Attorney General in this situation. From our point of view it also gives us hints to some of the issues that were motivating him in making a major career change at that point in his life. No mention of pending career change appears in the speech, although he uses the occasion to report on his efforts to serve the people as Attorney General.
Hansard’s “The Parliamentary Debates” reports Garrow’s speech with these words:.
Having been many hours engaged in the discharge of his public duty, in which it might be satisfactory for the House to hear, as it was for him to say it, he had been the humble instrument of procuring the first conviction for an infraction of the law against the slave trade, having been already occupied sixteen hours in the service of the public, he was sure the House would readily believe when he had stated this, that nothing but a sense of the importance of the present question could induce him to rise, and that having risen, it would be his object to trespass on their time as shortly as possible.
If on a former night he had abstained from offering his opinions, it was because at that time but a part of that subject was under discussion, the whole of which was now before the House. He begged to say that among the gentlemen opposed to the measure now under consideration, there could not be one who felt more veneration for the constitution of England than himself, nor one more sensible of the importance of the Habeas Corpus act to that constitution. But when gentlemen went so far as to say that at no time, and under no circumstances of danger would they confide to any ministers those powers now called for under the law which it was proposed they should pass, he could not but feel surprised at hearing such language. Our ancestors, jealous as they were of the constitutional rights of the people, did not feel thus. They did not refuse to suspend the Habeas Corpus act in times of extraordinary peril. Though not less anxious to preserve the liberties of the country than the hon. gentleman opposite, they had consented, if his memory failed him not, to the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act, not fewer than nine times. If a doubt were entertained whether the Habeas Corpus act ought under any circumstances to be suspended, he thought a reference to the cases he had alluded to would put an end to it; and the question which it remained for the House to decide upon was this, whether such a course would now be justifiable—whether the government ought to be entrusted at a time like the present with the power of imprisoning suspected persons for a certain limited time without bringing them to trial? This was the question; and in his opinion, such was the awful state of things at present, that the House was imperiously called upon to grant the powers required. A more awful case had never occurred to demand the application of such a measure.
He was relieved from the necessity of going over those topics at length which were started in the early part of the debate by the sort of manner in which some gentlemen had been pleased to treat the dangers of the present day. He understood, that they professed to regard the whole of that plot which had been alleged to exist as a contrivance on the part of the government. They had maintained, that if there were any conspiracy—if there were any plot—if there were any combination, it was all the doing of ministers. He begged that it might be recollected, that if the conspiracy was a trick—a mere humbug— as it had been called on the part of government; in order to give effect to it, they had had the address to deprive honorable, intelligent, and acute gentlemen who were opposed to them in politics of their intellects, and to make them the dupes of the humbug plot and conspiracy, which they were supposed to have formed. This extravagant idea had been already so ably refuted, that nothing remained for him but to admire the ability with which it had been put down.
He saw in his place a right hon. gentleman (Mr. Ponsonby), whom he always heard with great satisfaction, though he had frequently the misfortune to differ from him, who had been a member of the committee, and who had come out of it with his powers and understanding unimpaired. That right hon. gentleman had gone into the committee with a mind open to conviction, but not more likely to be imposed upon than that of any other member of that House; and certainly he had entered the committee with a mind not unfairly disposed to second the views of ministers. He (the attorney-general) had seen the right hon. gentleman regularly attending in the committee day after day, giving the matters before it all the attention that was due to their great importance, and the result was, he had come out of it a party to the report; on which, indeed, there had been no difference of opinion in the committee, but on the mere wording of some parts of it, and respecting which there had been but one feeling arising from a wish to keep it down as much as possible, that unnecessary alarm should not be excited. Had any thing been wanting to satisfy the House and the country that such was the course pursued, abundant proof had been afforded in the recent debates.
Had the committee been among those who wished to create a sensation in the nation not warranted by the occasion, that infamous, dangerous and blasphemous oath, which a learned lord (the lord advocate of Scotland) had produced to the House, would certainly have formed a part of the report; for what could be better calculated to produce feelings of alarm than the publication of such a document? An hon. member had asked of the learned lord, why he had communicated that oath to the House, seeing the committee had not thought it right to include it in their report? He believed that hon. member had been satisfied with the explanation given in answer to his question. He (the attorney-general) however wished it to be known (for this would go a great way towards showing what were the feelings of the committee), that originally it had made a part of the report and had only been prevented from coming in that shape before the House, by the House not happening to sit on the day when the report was to have been brought up. It occurred to the committee in the interval which followed before the House next met, that if the oath were thus made public, these consequences must in all probability have followed: some of the individuals whose testimony was nesessary to prove the delinquency of the parties now in custody, would have lost their lives; and those persons who had been secured at Glasgow, would not have been arrested: for when they had seen that government were in possession of information which could only be obtained from certain quarters, they would have withdrawn themselves from the danger of apprehension and most likely have sacrificed the informers [Cries of No, no! and coughing].
He was never more ready in his life to take a hint to sit down, as he was most painfully to himself discharging what he conceived to be a public duty. But there were some further remarks which he felt himself called upon to offer before he could resume his seat;
If any thing could, in his opinion, add to the value which the report derived from the unanimity of the committee, it was, the admission of the hon. gentlemen opposed to it, that they held the country to be in great and imminent danger. If then it was agreed, that the country was in danger, was it to be contended that the ordinary laws were sufficient, and that the government could do without new ones? In common times, the ordinary laws against high treason were deemed to be sufficient. Now it was admitted that a new law was necessary for the protection of the person of the Prince Regent, not against acts that could only be comprehended by laws framed to punish constructive treason; not against secret plots to levy war against his government,—but against direct attempts at assassination [Cries of No, no!] He would ask if there was not such a bill on the table.
[Here the learned gentleman read the title of the bill for the extension of the provisions of the law, for the protection of the king’s person to the Prince Regent].
It was agreed that such a bill was necessary; and was it in ordinary times that such an admission would be made? Were such the characteristics of the people of this country, that acts like those which this law was intended to meet, were necessary thus to be guarded against when men’s minds were not disturbed by agitators who sought to destroy every thing that was valuable in the morals, the government, and the constitution of the nation.
It was thought necessary to revive a law which had expired in August 1816, to prevent soldiers and sailors from being seduced from their duty. And why was this thought to be necessary?—because those soldiers and sailors who might be induced to unite with the disaffected, had it in their power to carry to them a most important addition of physical strength. The House considering this had entertained a bill for making that felony, against which there had been no such law since August 1816?
Were these he would ask, ordinary times, when it was universally acknowledged to be necessary, that laws should be enacted to suppress seditious meetings; to prevent the defenders of their country from being seduced from their duty, and to guard against attempts upon the life of the Prince Regent?
Some gentlemen had spoken of the bill now before the House, as if it went to subject any person taken up to be imprisoned at pleasure for any period, not exceeding the first of July. If they looked at the provisions of the bill they would find this was not the fact:—they would find that all persons detained, unless such representations were made of their being engaged in treasonable practices, as should obtain credit with six privy counsellors, or with one of his majesty’s principal secretaries of state, would not be exposed to the operation of the act, and might claim to be brought to trial or discharged. Such was the character of that law which some gentlemen went so far as to say, ought at no time and in no case to be granted to any government [Cries of “No,” “No!”]. He thought it would not be denied that such language bad been used [Cries of No, no! repeated]. Since it was thus denied, he must suppose that he was mistaken: but he was sure he had understood this to have been, stated in some of their debates.
He would drop this then, and appeal to the House if it were not proper now, when danger was confessed to be at the door, to suspend that law which in times of peril had been suspended by our ancestors, as he had already stated, not fewer than nine times? Ought he to be told when he re-commended the measure now before the House to their adoption, that if he were to be locked up for a fortnight, and taught to know from his own feelings what imprisonment was, it was probable he would take a different view of the subject? There needed not such practical lessons on the subject, to teach him or those with whom he acted, that imprisonment was at all times painful, and that he must be a bad man, who would wilfully and without just cause, confine any fellow-creature even for a single hour.
But, for the purposes of justice, imprisonment was sometimes absolutely necessary, and he wished it to be observed how far the measure now proposed went beyond the law as it was enforced in ordinary times. It went to detain a suspected person without bringing him immediately to trial. This was certainly an evil, but it was one that could not always be avoided in ordinary cases. When a person was charged with felony or murder, he was detained to take his deliverance at the next sessions; but it often happened that from a witness being out of the way, or from some other circumstance, the trial was put off, and the accused kept in custody, as long as those persons could be detained, who might be taken up under this bill.
The law of treason, as a safeguard for the subject, interposed various delays, which in other cases did not occur. It required two witnessess to an overt act; it also required the prosecutor to collect the names of all his witnesses, and to furnish the prisoner with a list of them a certain number of days before the trial. These were wise and proper regulations; he had nothing to say against them, but the observance of them usually interposed more delay in such cases than in any other. He did not say that this depended upon this or that government; he did not say that one administration differed from another in its conduct on such occasions; but he had a right to assume, that the present ministers were as anxious to avoid committing an act of injustice as any other set of men could be. He did not claim for the present law officers of the Crown greater credit for a desire to act fairly by the king’s subjects, than was due to those who had preceded them. It was enough for them if they could successfully tread in the steps of those who had gone before them: correctly to follow the bright examples which had been set them, was the utmost to which their ambition could aspire.
For the act now under the consideration of the House, all that it went to do was, to detain suspected persons in safe custody for a limited time, whom it might not be convenient to bring to trial. But it had been supposed that after the arrests that had taken place at Glasgow, nothing more could be necessary. “Why,” it had been said in some of the speeches made, not in the debates, but on the petitions which had been presented,—(what passed on the subject of these petitions was some times forgotten when gentlemen were speaking of what had, or had not occurred in the discussions of that House) “why,” it had been said, “what more can be wanting, since the lord advocate has already got all his traitors? How, he could wish to inquire, was it known that the lord advocate had got all his traitors? Were those who spoke thus, sure, that at this moment the lord advocate, though he had had the good fortune to secure those persons in their conclave who had been arrested;—were they quite certain that no arch traitor had escaped, who, if these persons were forthwith brought to trial, might learn from the evidence given against them, what information government had that would affect him, and take his measures accordingly? He knew from what had passed at Glasgow, that it might be necessary to delay for a season the proceedings against the persons there arrested. He was however satisfied, that if inquiry were made, it would be found that he had not been the least anxious of the twenty-one persons who had formed the committee of secrecy, to guard against one word being suffered to escape, that might operate to the prejudice of those persons before they were put on their trial. In the particular cases of those individuals who were confined in London, he did not think it would be found necessary to interpose any long or indeed any unusual delay, before bringing them to trial. He begged to add with respect to those arrested at Glasgow, his most solemn pledge that not a single half hour should unnecessarily intervene between them and their deliverance.
He had now to address the House on another subject, on which he had had no opportunity of speaking before. It had been said, at least he thought it had been said, by some hon. gentleman, that the law officers of the Crown were afraid to do their duty. This charge had been already treated with proper scorn and disdain; he should only answer it by saying there were circumstances frequently attending the discharge of his official duties, which made him afraid. He feared lest he might not take that course which in particular cases might turn out to be the best that could be taken;—he feared lest he should prove unable to do his duty as he ought but he knew no other fears while acting in his official capacity.
In proceeding against seditious societies, there were certain forms to be observed, before the law officers of the Crown could act. They could not carry a case into court without evidence. He never acted but on such evidence as a grand jury would receive, given on oath. He would file no information on a whisper,—a conjecture,—a suspicion: till the facts charged seemed to be made out by evidence, he dared not to proceed against any of his majesty’s subjects.
That he had been unable to proceed against such societies, proved the necessity of making some alteration in the law, as the plans of the disaffected had been varied to evade the law as it stood at present. Their proceedings were no longer the same as formerly. They no longer openly appeared to stand in their relations with each other, as parents and affiliated societies. A more dangerous character now belonged to them, and their connexion was not easily to be proved, being sustained by means of delegates and missionaries. To meet the evil it was necessary that new laws should be resorted to. These tried for a time, should they prove ineffectual it might become necessary again to have recourse to new ones.
He had now to notice the complaints made that other prosecutions of a different nature had not taken place. He could not be surprised that gentlemen should view with abhorrence and disgust the publications which for some weeks past had been industriously circulated in every part of the country, and which were unquestionably of a tendency that must prove most destructive to the best interests of the country. Nothing had pressed more on the anxious attention of the government than these publications, and nothing could have been more zealously pursued than they had been by the humble instruments for punishing such offences, the law officers of the crown. It had been said, that he had not prosecuted these tracts, because they were so numerous. Ultimately it would be found it was not their numbers that could prevent him from proceeding against them. He had then in his pocket a most shocking and blasphemous parody on the Creed, which he had that day received in a letter from a gentleman at Norwich [Cries of Read, read!] He owed to the dignity of that House to resist the call made upon him to read so infamous a production from whatever quarter such call might come; and he would assure the House, that when it became his duty to expose it in a court of justice, it should be read but once (and then only for the purpose of comparing it with the record), that he might not be the means of publishing it more than was absolutely necessary in order to punish those who had sent it forth to the world. If, however, any hon. member wished to read it, he would leave it sealed on the table of that House, that he might indulge his curiosity.
Though the publications which had lately issued from the press might be sufficiently numerous to fill Westminster-hall, he had to observe, that many of them were but the growth of a few weeks. Many, he begged to add, were already in a course of prosecution, and many more should be proceeded against with the least possible delay. No time had been negligently lost, for it would have been impossible for him to have brought one case to judgment up to that moment.
This stated, he would ask, could he have prevented, or ought he to be blamed for any of the events which had recently occurred? No efforts that it was in his power to make, could have prevented the meetings in Spa-fields, or the transactions connected with them. All that he could be required to do, had been done. Those cases in which he thought it right to prosecute were as forward as they could have been in the time for trial; and when he had performed his duty, he doubted not the juries of the country would do theirs, as well in cases of sedition as in those of blasphemy.
Much ridicule had been thrown on the preparations which had been made for an insurrection in the city. While speaking on this subject, he was most anxious to abstain from saying any thing that could in the remotest degree prejudge the cases of those persons now in custody, who had not yet been brought to trial, but he thought (it) might be allowed to contend (though he should say nothing of the report of the committee), that the state into which the country was thrown on the occasion of the Spa-fields meeting was that which, consistently with public security, could not be permitted frequently to occur. If meetings of a tumultuary nature continued to take place,—if on such occasions it was necessary to call out extra constables under the superintendance of the police,—and to have the military in readiness to put down any effort at rebellion; this was surely a state of things which ought not to be suffered to exist, and which demanded new laws to prevent its continuance.
But it had been said, what was to be apprehended from a set of wretched conspirators with one waggon in their train, and but an old stocking-full of ammunition? How, it had been asked, were such persons to possess themselves of the Tower of London, and how blow up the Waterloo bridge, unprovided as they were with arms and combustibles and unaccompanied by sappers and miners? Who had pretended that these things could really be done by the persons who had attended the Spa-fields meeting? Nobody, that he was at all aware. He, however, wished it to be recollected, that some of the party had been found with ammunition sufficient to arm the leaders in the riot. Loaded pistols and other arms were prepared for the commencement of the enterprise, and orders had been given that on leaving Spa-fields, the conspirators should proceed by physical strength to possess themselves of greater means for the accomplishment of their designs, by breaking into gunsmiths shops, warehouses, and pawn-brokers shops, where they had reason to suppose arms had been deposited. From these places they had hoped to procure such a supply as would suffice to arm the multitude, and enable them to go on with the work of rebellion. It was true, he did not think they had ever had any chance of accomplishing their design. Nobody but themselves believed that by such means this mighty empire could be overturned.
He should be unfit for the office he had the honour to hold, and indeed unfit for every thing, could he believe that such an attempt was likely to succeed. But was there nothing short of the complete success of such a conspiracy, against which it was the duty of parliament to guard? What mischief might not have occurred had not rashness precipitated that attempt at noon, which it was intended to make later in the day of the 2nd of December? What might not have been the consequences had the attack been deferred till it was dark, and then made when the good citizens of London were retiring to rest from the fatigues of the day? It could not be denied that in such a case much mischief, much bloodshed might have ensued, and it was not easy to define the extent of the calamity which the country might have had to mourn.
With these feelings, and for the reasons he had assigned, he should vote for the passing of this bill. When the law should be passed, he was satisfied that no honest man would be more afraid of being forced out of his bed in consequence of the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act, than he was of being so dealt with, under the present laws. The bill would only inspire fear in those who entertained traitorous designs: on these he trusted it would be beneficially operative, and tend effectually to put down the spirit of disaffection.
Within a few minutes the vote was taken and passed with 265 for and 103 against. The bill was immediately sent to the House of Lords where it was quickly approved and become law.
Some additional observations from English history may be helpful in understanding the probable impact on Garrow’s life of his decision at this time to leave the job of Attorney General to become Judge Garrow.
The riots and rebellions in England at this time continued. They have been much discussed in the literature. Information is available on the following disturbances: Liddites (1811-16), Spa Fields Riots (December 1816), March of the Blanketeers (March 1817), Pentrich Rising: (June 1817), Peterloo Massacre (16 August 1819), and Cato Street Conspiracy (February 1817). Additional draconian laws, sometimes referred to as the “Gag Acts” were enacted or extended during the next two years to deal with threats real and imagined…Included were:
Treason Act 1817 added the Prince Regent to a previous law making it illegal to imagine, invent, devise or intend death or destruction, or any bodily harm tending to death or destruction, maim or wounding, imprisonment or restraint, of the person of the King.
The Training Prevention Act, made it illigal for any person to attend a meeting for the purpose of receiving training or drill in weapons. Such a person became liable to arrest and transportation. Military training of any sort was to be conducted only by approved government agencies..
The Seizure of Arms Act gave local magistrates the powers to search any private property for weapons and seize them and arrest the owners.
The Misdemeanours Act attempted to increase the speed of the administration of justice by reducing the opportunities for bail and allowing for speedier court processing.
The Seditious Meetings Prevention Act required the permission of a sheriff or magistrate in order to convene any public meeting of more than 50 people if the subject of that meeting was concerned with “church or state” matters.
The Blasphemous and Seditious Libels Act toughened the existing laws against authors of such writings. The maximum sentence was increased to fourteen years transportation.
The Newspaper and Stamp Duties Act extended and increased taxes to cover those publications which had escaped duty by publishing opinion and not news.
William Garrow, in leaving the position of Attorney General, left office just before the state started prosecuting those arrested during the series of riots and infractions to these new laws against treason and insurrection that were being enacted. He avoided personal responsibility for directing these state prosecutions, which have not been celebrated as a high points in the history of English law.
His motovations for leaving the Attorney General office when he did remain unknown. No personal diary or memos to the effect have been found. His concern for the constitution and the rights of those accused, however, were restated in his speech on the Habeas Corpus Suspension Bill, his farewell speech in the the House of Commons. In addition, one historian, Edward Foss in his work “The Judges of England” published in 1864 had this to say about Garrow’s work as Attorney General.
“After performing the duties of attorney-general for four years with exemplary forbearance and general commendation, he relieved himself from its responsibility…..”