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Harriet Martineau's Autobiography . Martineau, Harriet, 1802–1876.
page: 557


[PAGE 359.]




The undersigned respectfully represent that they are informed that Abner Kneeland, of the city of Boston, has been found guilty of the crime of Blasphemy, for having published, in a certain newspaper called the “Boston Investigator,” his disbelief in the existence of God, in the following words:

“Univesalists believe in a God, which I do not; but believe that their God, with all his moral attributes, (aside from nature itself) is nothing more than a chimera of their own imagination.”

Your petitioners have learned, by an examination of the record and documents in the case, made by one of their number, that the conviction of said Kneeland proceeded on the ground above stated. For though the indictment originally included two other publications, one of a highly irrverent, and the other of a grossly indecent character; yet it appears by the Report, that, at the trial, the prosecuting officer mainly relied on the sentence above quoted, and that the Judge who tried the case confined his charge wholly to stating the legal construction of its terms, and the law applicable to it.

In these circumstances, the undersigned respectfully pray, that your Excellency will grant to the said Kneeland an unconditional pardon, for the offence of which he has been adjudged guilty. And they ask this, not from any sympathy with the convicted individual, who is personally unknown to most or all of them; nor from any approbation of the doctrines professed by him, which are believed by your petitioners to be as pernicious and degrading as they are false; but

Because the punishment proposed to be inflicted is believed to be page: 558 at variance with the spirit of our institutions and our age, and with the soundest expositions of those civil and religious rights which are at once founded in our nature, and guarantied by the constitutions of the United States and this Commonwealth;

Because the freedom of speech and the press is the chief instrument of the progress of truth and of social improvements, and is never to be restrained by legislation, except when it invades the rights of others, or instigates to specific crimes;

Because, if opinion is to be subjected to penalties, it is impossible to determine where punishment shall stop; there being few or no opinions, in which an adverse party may not see threatenings of to the state;

Because truths essential to the existence of society must be so palpable as to need no protection from the magistrate;

Because the assumption by government of a right to prescribe or repress opinions has been the ground of the grossest depravations of religion, and of the most grinding despotisms;

Because religion needs no support from penal law, and is grossly dishonoured by interpositions for its defense, which imply that it cannot be trusted to its own strength and to the weapons of reason and persuasion in the hands of its friends;

Because, by punishing infidel opinions, we shake one of the strongest foundations of faith, namely, the evidence which arises to religion from the fact, that it stands firm and gathers strength amidst the severest and most unfettered investigations of its claims;

Because error of opinion is never so dangerous as when goaded into fanaticism by persecution, or driven by threatenings to the use of secret arts;

Because it is well known that the most licentious opinions have, by a natural reaction, sprung up in countries where the laws have imposed severest restraint on thought and discussion;

Because the influence of hurtful doctrines is often propagated by the sympathy which legal severities awaken towards their supporters;

Because we are unwilling that a man, whose unhappy course has drawn on him general disapprobation, should, by a sentence of the law, be exalted into a martyr, or become identified with the sacred cause of freedom; and lastly,

Because we regard with filial jealousy the honour of this Commonwealth, and are unwilling that it should be exposed to reproach, as clinging obstinately to illiberal principles, which the most enlightened minds have exploded.

Boston Massachusetts, 1839.