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Thomas Cochrane, Earl of Dundonald



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1. /Cochrane.docThomas Cochrane, Earl of Dundonald

CHAPTER III. LORD COCHRANE'S BEARING IN THE KING'S BENCH PRISON—HIS STREET LAMPS.—HIS ESCAPE, AND THE MOTIVES FOR IT.—HIS CAPTURE IN THE HOUSE OF COMMONS, AND SUBSEQUENT TREATMENT.—HIS CONFINEMENT IN THE STRONG ROOM OF THE KING'S BENCH PRISON.—HIS RELEASE.


[1814-1815.]

During the first period of his imprisonment Lord Cochrane was not treated with more than usual severity. Two rooms in the King's Bench State House were provided for him, in which, of course, all the expenses of his maintenance devolved upon himself. He was led to understand that, if he chose to ask for it, he might have the privilege of “the rules,” which would have allowed him, on certain conditions, a range of about half-a-mile round the prison. But he did not choose to ask. Rather, he said, than seek any favour from the Government, he would lie in a dungeon all through the term of his unjust imprisonment. Throughout that period he resolutely avowed his perfect innocence, to friends and foes alike; and the consciousness of his innocence helped him to bear up under a degradation that, to a nature as sensitive and chivalrous as his, was doubly bitter. Good friends, like Sir Francis Burdett, came to cheer him in his solitude, and over-zealous, yet honest, friends, like William Cobbett, came to take counsel with him as to ways of keeping alive and quickening the popular indignation which, without any stimulants from headstrong demagogues, was strong enough on his behalf.

The tedium of his captivity was further relieved by his devotion to those scientific and mechanical pursuits which, all through life, yielded employment very solacing to himself, and very profitable to the world. While in the King's Bench Prison he was especially occupied in completing a plan for lighting the public streets by means of a lamp invented by him, in which the main principle was the introduction of a steady current of fresh air into the globes, whereby all the oil was fairly burnt, and a brilliant light was always maintained. In this way lamps much cheaper than those previously in use were found to have a far greater illuminating power. Early in October, 1814, the lamps in St. Ann's parish, Westminster, numbering eight hundred in all, were taken down and replaced by four hundred constructed on Lord Cochrane's plan; and even political opponents spoke in acknowledgment of the excellent result of the change. Had it not been for the introduction of gas, the superiority of these new lamps must soon have compelled their adoption all over London. It is curious that the discovery of the illuminating power of gas—undoubtedly due to his father—should have superseded one of Lord Cochrane's most promising inventions as soon as it had been brought to recognized perfection.

In such pursuits nine months of the unjust imprisonment were passed. “Lord Cochrane has hitherto borne all his hardships with great fortitude,” wrote one of his most intimate friends on the 10th of November, “and, if there are any more in store for him, I hope he will continue to be cheerful and courageous.” “His lordship always hopes for the best, and is never afraid of the worst,” said the same authority on the 9th of December, “and therefore he is in good spirits.”

This fearless disposition led, in March, 1815, to a bold step, which some of Lord Cochrane's best friends deprecated. Knowing that he was unjustly imprisoned, he conceived that, since his re-election as member for Westminster, the imprisonment was illegal as well as unjust, in that it was contrary to the privilege of Parliament. The law provides that “no Member of Parliament can be imprisoned either for non-payment of a fine to the King, or for any other cause than treason, felony, or refusing to give security for the peace.” It may be questioned whether, in the presence of this law, his first imprisonment, even under the sentence of the Court of King's Bench, was legal. But having been imprisoned, and having been expelled from the House of Commons, it is clear that his subsequent re-election could not interfere with the fulfilment, of the sentence passed against him, especially as he had not been able to make good his title to membership by taking the prescribed oaths and claiming a seat in the House. He, however—acting as it would seem under the advice of William Cobbett and other unsafe counsellors—thought otherwise, and considered that he was only vindicating a high constitutional principle, against the exercise of despotic power by the Government, in making his escape from the King's Bench Prison. “I did not quit these walls,” he said in a letter addressed to the electors of Westminster, on the 12th of April, “to escape from personal oppression, but, at the hazard of my life, to assert that right to liberty which, as a member of the community, I have never forfeited, and that right, which I received from you, to attack in its very den the corruption which threatens to annihilate the liberties of us all. I did not quit them to fly from the justice of my country, but to expose the wickedness, fraud, and hypocrisy of those who elude that justice by committing their enormities under the colour of its name. I did not quit them from the childish motive of impatience under suffering. I stayed long enough to evince that I could endure restraint as a pain, but not as a penalty. I stayed long enough to be certain that my persecutors were conscious of their injustice, and to feel that my submission to their unmerited inflictions was losing the dignity of resignation, and sinking into the ignominious endurance of an insult.”

The escape was effected on the 6th of March, and by the same means which had proved successful in Lord Cochrane's retreat from the gaol at Malta, just four years before. His rooms in the King's Bench Prison, being on the upper storey of the building known as the State House, were nearly as high as the wall which formed the prison boundary, and the windows were only a few feet distant from it. The possibility of escape by this way, however, had never been contemplated, and therefore the windows were unprotected by bars. Accordingly Lord Cochrane, having been supplied, from time to time, by the same servant who had aided him at Malta, with a quantity of small strong rope, managed, soon after midnight, and while the watchman going his rounds was in a distant part of the prison, to get out of window and climb on to the roof of the building. Thence he threw a running noose over the iron spikes placed on the wall, and, exercising the agility that he had acquired during his seaman's occupations, easily gained the summit—to be somewhat discomfited by having to sit upon the iron spikes while he fastened his rope to one of them and prepared, with its help, to slip down to the pavement on the outer side of the wall. The rope was not strong enough, however, to bear his weight; it snapped when he was some twenty-five feet from the ground, and caused him to fall with his back upon the stone pavement. There he lay, in an almost unconscious state, for a considerable time. But no passer-by observed him; and before daylight he was able to crawl to the house of an old nurse of his eldest son's, who gladly afforded him concealment.

Long concealment was not intended by him. “If it had not been,” he said, “for the commotion excited by that obnoxious, injurious, and arbitrary measure, the Corn Bill, which began to evince itself on the day of my departure from prison, I should have lost no time in proceeding to the House of Commons; but, conjecturing that the spirit of disturbance might derive some encouragement from my unexpected appearance at that time, and having no inclination to promote tumult, I resolved to defer my appearance at the House, and, if possible, to conceal my departure from the prison, until the order of the metropolis should be restored.”

To the same effect was a letter addressed by Lord Cochrane to the Speaker of the House of Commons on the 9th of March. “I respectfully request,” he said therein, “that you will state to the honourable the House of Commons, that I should immediately and personally have communicated to them my departure from the custody of Lord Ellenborough, by whom I have been long most unjustly detained; but I judged it better to endeavour to conceal my absence, and to defer my appearance in the House until the public agitation excited by the Corn Bill should subside. And I have further to request that you will also communicate to the House that it is my intention, on an early day, to present myself for the purpose of taking my seat and moving an inquiry into the conduct of Lord Ellenborough.”

On the day of that letter's delivery, the 10th of March—also famous as the day on which Buonaparte's escape from Elba was published in England—Lord Cochrane's gaolers discovered that he was no longer in his prison. Immediately a hue and cry was raised. This notice was issued: “Escaped from the King's Bench Prison, on Monday the 6th day of March, instant, Lord Cochrane. He is about five feet eleven inches in height,[A] thin and narrow-chested, with sandy hair and full eyes, red whiskers and eyebrows. Whoever will apprehend and secure Lord Cochrane in any of His Majesty's gaols in the kingdom shall have a reward of three hundred guineas from William Jones, Marshal of the King's Bench.”

[Footnote A: He was really about six feet two inches in height, and broad in proportion.]

Great search was made in consequence of that notice, and Lord Cochrane's disappearance was an eleven days' wonder. Every newspaper had each day a new statement as to his whereabouts. Some declared that he had gone mad, and, as a madman's freak, was hiding himself in some corner of the prison; others that he was lodging at an apothecary's shop in London. According to one report, he had been seen at Hastings, according to another, at Farnham, and according to another, in Jersey; while others declared that he had been discovered in France and elsewhere on the Continent.

None of the thousands whom political spite or the hope of reward set in search of him thought of looking for him in his real resting-place. “As soon as I had written to the Speaker,” he said, “I went into Hampshire, where I remained eleven days, and till within one day of my appearance in the House of Commons. During that period I was occupied in regulating my affairs in that county, and in riding about the county, as was well known to the people of the neighbourhood, none of whom were base enough to be seduced by a bribe to deliver an injured man into the hands of his oppressors.”

At his own house, known as Holly Hill, in the south of Hampshire, Lord Cochrane remained quietly, though with no attempt to hide himself, until the 20th of March. He then, in fulfilment of his original purpose, returned to London, and on the following day entered the House of Commons at about two o'clock in the afternoon. Very great was the astonishment among the officials in attendance caused by his appearance, “dressed,” according to one of the newspaper reports, “in his usual costume, grey pantaloons, frogged great-coat, &c.;” and by some of them the intelligence of his arrival was promptly communicated to the Marshal of the King's Bench. In the meanwhile, considering himself safe within the precincts of the House at any rate, he proceeded to occupy his customary seat. To that it was objected that, until he had taken the oaths and complied with the prescribed forms consequent on his re-election, he had no right within the building. He answered that he was willing to do this, and, to see that all was according to rule, went at once to the clerks' office. There it was pretended that the writ of his re-election had not yet been received, and that it must first be procured from the Crown Office, in Chancery Lane. Awaiting the return of the messenger, ostensibly despatched for this purpose, he again entered the House, and there he was found, at a few minutes before four, by Mr. Jones, the marshal, who, on receiving the information sent to him, had hurried up, with a Bow Street runner and some tipstaves. The runner, walking up to Lord Cochrane and touching him on the shoulder, bluntly claimed him as his prisoner. Lord Cochrane asked by what authority he dared to arrest a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons. “My lord,” answered the man, “my authority is the public proclamation of the Marshal of the King's Bench Prison, offering a reward for your apprehension.” Lord Cochrane declared that he neither acknowledged, nor would yield to, any such authority, that he was there to resume his seat as one of the representatives of the City of Westminster, and that any who dared to touch him would do so at their peril. Two tipstaves thereupon rudely seized him by the arms. He again cautioned them that the Marshal of the King's Bench had no authority within those walls, and that their conduct was altogether illegal. The answer was that he had better go quietly; his reply that he would not go at all. Other officers, however, came up. After a short struggle, he was overpowered, and, on his refusing to walk, he was carried out of the House on the shoulders of the tipstaves and constables.

There was a halt, however, in this disgraceful march. The Bow Street runner expressed a fear that Lord Cochrane had firearms concealed under his clothes, and he was accordingly taken into one of the committee-rooms to be searched. Nothing more dangerous was found about him than a packet of snuff. “If I had thought of that before,” said Lord Cochrane, not quite wisely, “you should have had it in your eyes!” On this incident was founded a foolish story, to be told next day, amid a score of exaggerations and falsehoods, in the Government newspapers. “Being asked why he had provided himself with such a quantity of snuff,” we there read, “he said he had bought a canister for the purpose of throwing it in the eyes of those who might attempt to secure him, unless the opposing force should be too strong for resistance, observing that he had found the use of a similar weapon when he was in the Bay of Rosas, as he had thrown a mixture of lime, sand, &c., upon the Frenchmen who attempted to board his ship, and found it effectual.” Another zealous organ of the Government added that he had also provided himself with a bottle of vitriol, to be used in the same way.

Had a penknife been found in his pocket, perhaps the Marshal of the King's Bench, the Bow Street runner, the tipstaves, and the constables would all have fled, deeming that the possession of so deadly an instrument made the retention of their captive too dangerous a thing to be attempted. The snuff having been seized, however, he was again lodged on the officers' shoulders and so conveyed into the courtyard. He then said that, being now beyond the privilege of the House, he was willing to proceed quietly. A coach was called, and he was taken back to the King's Bench Prison.

The indignity thus offered to him was small indeed in comparison with the indignity offered to the Parliament of England. In former times the slightest encroachment by the Crown, by the Government, or by any humbler part of the executive, was fiercely resented; and to this resentment some of the greatest and most memorable crises in the long fight for English liberty are due. But rarely had there been a more flagrant, never a more wanton, infringement of the hardly-won privileges of the House of Commons. Had Lord Cochrane been detected and seized violently in some out-of-the-way hiding-place, the over-zealous servants of the Crown would have had some excuse for their conduct. But in appearing publicly in the House, he showed to all the world that he was no runaway from justice, that he was willing to submit to its honest administration by honest hands, that all he sought was a fair hearing and a fair judgment upon his case, and that, believing it impossible to obtain that through the elaborate machinery of oppression which then went by the name of administration of justice, he now only asserted his right, the right of every Englishman, and especially the right of a Member of Parliament, to appeal from the agents of the law to the makers of the law, to call upon the legislators of his country to see whether he had not been wrongfully used by the men who, though practically too much their masters, were in theory only their servants.

“I did not go to the House of Commons,” he said, “to complain about losses or sufferings, about fine or imprisonment; or of property, to the amount of ten times the fine, of which I had been cheated by this malicious prosecution. I did not go to the House to complain of the mockery of having been heard in my defence, and answered by a reference to the decision from which that defence was an appeal. I did not go there to complain of those who expelled me from my profession. I did not go to the House to complain generally of the advisers of the Crown. But I went there to complain of the conduct of him who has indeed the right of recommending to mercy, but whose privilege, as a Privy Councillor, of advising the confirmation of his own condemnations, and of interposing between the victims of legal vengeance and the justice of the throne, is spurious and unconstitutional. When it is considered that my intention of going to the House of Commons was announced on the day on which my absence from the prison was discovered; I say, when it is considered that, as soon as it was known that I had left the prison, it was also known that I had left it for the express purpose of going to the House of Commons to move for an inquiry into the conduct of Lord Ellenborough; when it is considered that every engine was set to work to tempt or intimidate me from that purpose, to frighten me out of the country or allure me back to the custody of the marshal, that assurances were given that the doors should be kept open for my admission at any hour of the night, and that I should be received with secresy, courtesy, and indemnity; and when it is considered that I was afterwards seized in the House of Commons, in defiance of the privileges of the House—can there be a doubt that the object of that apprehension was less the accomplishment of the sentence of the court than the prevention of the exposure which I was prepared to make of the injustice of that sentence? That recourse should have been had to violence to stifle the accusations which I was prepared to bring forward, that terror of the truth should have so superseded a wonted reverence for parliamentary privileges as to have admitted the intrusion of tipstaves and thief-takers into the House of Commons, to seize the person of an individual elected to serve as a member of that House, and avowedly attendant for that purpose, is extraordinary, though not unnatural.”

It must be admitted that the question of breach of privilege was somewhat more complicated than Lord Cochrane considered. His opponents did not think with him that he was still a member of the House of Commons. That membership had been taken from him, formally, though wrongfully, by his expulsion on the 5th of July, and he had himself recognized the expulsion by accepting re-election from the constituents of Westminster on the 16th of the same month. According to precedent, however, that re-election could not be perfected until the customary oaths had been taken; and, through a trick contrived in the clerks' office, he was hindered from taking them before the arrival of the marshal and his consequent arrest. Yet there can be no doubt that, in the special circumstances of the case, this arrest was especially indecorous, and, in the method of effecting it, altogether illegal. If he had no right in the House of Commons, he was a common trespasser, and ought to have been at once removed by the servants of the House, who alone could have power to touch him within the walls. To allow him a seat therein, without molestation, until the arrival of the servants of the King's Bench Prison, and then to allow those servants to enter the House and act upon an authority that could there be no authority, was wholly unwarrantable, a gross insult to Lord Cochrane, and, to the customs of the House of Commons, an insult yet more gross. But to the hardship and the insult alike the House of Commons, servile in its devotion to the Government of the day, was blind.

A miserable farce ensued. While the House was sitting, a few hours after Lord Cochrane's capture, a letter from the Marshal of the King's Bench was read by the Speaker, in which his bold act was formally reported and apologized for. “I humbly hope,” he there said, “that I have not committed any breach of privilege by the steps I have taken; and that, if I have done wrong, it will be attributed to error in judgment, and not to any intention of doing anything that might give offence.”

The short debate that followed the reading of that letter is very noteworthy. Lord Castlereagh spoke first, and dictated the view to be taken by all loyal members of the House. “From the nature of the arrest and the circumstances attending it, I do not think, sir,” he said, “that the House is called upon to interfere. I am not aware, as the House was not actually sitting, with the mace on the table and the Speaker in the chair, when the arrest took place, that any breach of privilege has been committed. It must be quite obvious to every man that the marshal has not acted wilfully in violation of the privileges of the House. No blame can attach to him, since he has submitted himself to the judgment of the House of Commons after having done that which he considered his duty as a civil officer. Having had Lord Cochrane in his custody, from which he escaped, the marshal was bound not to pass over any justifiable means of putting him under arrest whenever a fair opportunity occurred.”

Most of the members thought, with Lord Castlereagh, that this was a “fair opportunity.” Only one, Mr. Tierney—and he very feebly—ventured to express an opposite opinion. “I consider this,” he said, “to be the case of a member regularly elected to serve in Parliament, and coming down to take his seat. Now, sir, the House is regularly adjourned until ten o'clock in the morning; and I recollect occasions when the Speaker did take the chair at that hour. Suppose, then, a member, about to take his seat, came down here at an early hour, with the proper documents in his hand, and desired to be instructed in the mode of proceeding, and, while waiting, an officer entered, arrested him, and took his person away, would not this be a case to call for the interference of the House?” Mr. Tierney admitted that he approved of Lord Cochrane's arrest, but feared it might become a precedent and be put to the “improper purpose” of sanctioning the arrest of members more deserving of consideration.

To please him, and to satisfy the formalities, therefore, the question was referred to a committee of privileges. This committee reported, on the 23rd of March, “that, under the particular circumstances, it did not appear that the privileges of Parliament had been violated, so as to call for the interposition of the House;” and the House of Commons being satisfied with that opinion, no further attention was paid to the subject.

In the meanwhile Lord Cochrane was being punished, with inexcusable severity, for his contempt of the authority of Lord Ellenborough and Mr. Jones. A member of the House, during the discussion of the 21st of March, had said that he had just come from the King's Bench Prison. “I found Lord Cochrane,” he had averred, “confined there in a strong room, fourteen feet square, without windows, fireplace, table, or bed. I do not think it can be necessary for the purpose of security to confine him in this manner. According to my own feelings, it is a place unfit for the noble lord, or for any other person whatsoever.”

In this Strong Room, however, Lord Cochrane was detained for more than three weeks. It was partly underground, devoid of ventilation or necessary warmth, and, according to the testimony of Dr. Buchan, one of the physicians who visited him in it, “rendered extremely damp and unpleasant by the exudations coming through the wall.”

On being taken to this den immediately after his capture, Lord Cochrane was informed by Mr. Jones that he would be detained in it for a short time only, until the apartments over the lobby of the prison were prepared for his reception. That was done in a few days; but no intimation of a change was made until the 1st of April, when a message to that effect was sent to the prisoner. On the following day he received a letter from Mr. Jones informing him that, if he would anticipate the payment of the fine of 1000_l. levied against him, and would also pledge himself, and give security for the keeping of the promise, to make no further effort to escape, he might be allowed to occupy the more comfortable quarters. “It is no new thing,” said Lord Cochrane, “for a prisoner to escape or to be retaken; but to require of any prisoner a bond and securities not to repeat such escape was, I think, a proposition without precedent, and such as the marshal knew could not be complied with by me without humiliation, and therefore could not be proposed by him without insult. Besides, he had my assurance that if I were again to quit his custody (which I gave him no reason to believe I should attempt, and which, as I observed and believe, it was as easy for me to effect from that room as from any other part of the prison), I should proceed no further than to the House of Commons, and that where he found me before he might find me again; I having had no other object in view than that of expressing, by some peculiar act, the keen sense which I entertained of peculiar injustice, and of endeavouring to bring such additional proofs of that injustice before the House as were not in my possession when I was heard in my defence.” Mr. Jones, however, resolved to keep his captive in the Strong Room, unless he would promise to resign himself to captivity in a less obnoxious part of the prison.

Even for that negative favour the marshal took great credit to himself in a document which he issued at the time. “If a humane and kind concern for this unfortunate nobleman,” he there averred, “had not softened the solicitude which I naturally felt for my own security, I could have committed him, on my own warrant for the escape, to the new gaol in Horsemonger Lane, for the space of a month; and that power is still within my jurisdiction. Had I thought proper to exercise it, Lord Cochrane would then have been confined in a solitary cell with a stone floor, with windows impenetrably barred and without glass; nor would it have proved half the size of the Strong Room in the King's Bench, which has a boarded floor and glazed lights.” That statement reasonably stirred the anger of Lord Cochrane. “Though the solitary cell in Horsemonger Lane,” he answered, “may be half the size of the Strong Room, it could not, I apprehend, have been more gloomy, damp, filthy, or injurious to health than the last-mentioned dungeon. And since Mr. Jones could only have confined me in the former place for a month, and did confine me in the latter for twenty-six days, I can scarcely see that degree of difference which should entitle him to those 'grateful sentiments for his mode of acting on the occasion' which, he submits to the public, it is my duty to entertain. The 'glazed lights' mentioned by Mr. Jones were not put up till I had been thirty hours in the place, and I have always understood that I was indebted for them to the good offices of Mr. Bennet and Mr. Lambton, who happened [as part of a Parliamentary Committee] to be prosecuting their inquiry into the state of the prison at the time of my return. For these and all other mercies of the said marshal, my gratitude is due to their friendship and sense of duty, and to his dread of their discoveries and proceedings.”

It is clear that nothing but fear of the consequences induced Mr. Jones to remove Lord Cochrane from the Strong Room, after twenty-six days of confinement therein. On the 12th of April the prisoner issued an address to the electors of Westminster, detailing some of the hardships to which he was being subjected; and its publication immediately roused so much popular interest that the authorities of King's Bench Prison deemed it necessary to make at any rate a show of amelioration in his treatment. On the 13th, his physician, Dr. Buchan, was allowed to visit him, and his report was such that another medical man of eminence, Mr. Saumarez, was sent to examine into the state of the prisoner's health. Part of Dr. Buchan's certificate has already been quoted. The rest was as follows: “This is to certify that I have this day visited Lord Cochrane, who is affected with severe pain of the breast. His pulse is low, his hands cold, and he has many symptoms of a person about to have typhus or putrid fever. These symptoms are, in my opinion, produced by the stagnant air of the Strong Room in which he is now confined.” “I hereby certify,” wrote Mr. Saumarez, “that I have visited Lord Cochrane, and am of opinion, from the state of his health at this time, that it is essentially necessary that he should be removed from the room which he now inhabits to one which is better ventilated, and in which there is a fireplace. His lordship complains of pain in the chest, with difficulty of respiration, accompanied with great coldness of the hands; and, from the general state of his health, there is great reason to fear that a low typhus may come on.”

The only result of those medical opinions was a renewal of the offer to remove Lord Cochrane to the rooms prepared for him, on the conditions previously specified by Mr. Jones. Lord Cochrane answered that he would rather die than submit to such an insulting arrangement. He published the doctors' certificates, however, on the 15th of April, and their effect upon the public was so great that the authorities were forced on the following day to take him out of his dungeon. Mr. Jones's account of this step is worth quoting. “I again tried,” he reported, “to induce Lord Cochrane's friends and relations to give me any kind of undertaking against another escape. On their refusal, I determined myself to become his friend, and, at my own risk, to remove him to the rooms which have been already mentioned, and where, I am confident, he can have no cause of complaint. These rooms not being altogether safe against such a person as Lord Cochrane, should he determine to risk another escape, I must look to the laws of my country as a safeguard, in the hope that the terrors of them will discourage him from attempting a repetition of his offence, and prevent him from incurring the penalties of another indictment.”

Lord Cochrane never really intended to attempt a second escape. Had it been otherwise, the illness induced by his confinement in the Strong Room would have restrained him. Being placed in healthier apartments on the 16th of April, he quietly remained there for the remainder of his term of imprisonment. On the 20th of June he was informed that, the term being now at an end, he was at liberty to depart on payment of the fine of 1000_l. levied against him. This he at first refused to do, and accordingly he was detained in prison for a fortnight more; but at length the entreaties of his friends prevailed. On the 3rd of July he tendered to the Marshal of the King's Bench a 1000_l. note, with this memorable endorsement: “My health having suffered by long and close confinement, and my oppressors being resolved to deprive me of property or life, I submit to robbery to protect myself from murder, in the hope that I shall live to bring the delinquents to justice.” Upon that the prison doors were opened for him, and he was able once more to fight for the justice so cruelly withheld from him, and to make his innocence entirely clear to all whose selfish interests did not force them to be blind to the truth.
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