Rumors of Martial Law Sweep South Wales

From the Cambrian (which in turn credits the Times, I assume of London):

Martial Law — South Wales.

Our Swansea reporter informs us, that the “opinion hourly gains strength that it is intended to place Carmarthenshire and Cardiganshire under martial law.” He adds, “that nothing can exceed the exasperation of all classes of people as this idea gains ground.” The news, if correct, is important, and somewhat embarrassing to those who are called upon to pronounce an opinion upon public events as they arise. It is embarrassing, because if such an invidious measure is eventually shown to be necessary for the preservation of the public peace — if it really becomes the only practicable course by which the outrages which are disgracing the county of Carmarthen can be effectually suppressed — it must doubtless be embraced; and it would ill-become those who exercise any influence over the public mind to impede by complaint or invective the effect of this bitter but unavoidable (if indeed it be unavoidable) remedy. But, on the other hand, even supposing this necessity established, it is not very easy to look with silent complacency upon the proceedings of a Ministry or a magistracy who, having first, through their own ignorance, or neglect, or helplessness, allowed an evil to become irrepressible by ordinary means, proceed to make that consequence of their own delinquency a reason why they, the delinquents, should be trusted with extraordinary, unconstitutional, and most dangerous powers for its cure.

That the mischief is one which must be put down admits of little doubt. That organised hands should proceed nightly through the country, pulling down toll bars, was itself an evil wholly intolerable in a civilised country, or, if this phrase is not applicable to Carmarthenshire, under a civilised Government. That it was tolerated week after week, month after month, without the adoption of such measures of police or of conciliation as should even check the disorder, is the very crime for which we hold Ministers originally responsible — the very head and front of their offending. The evil is now far more virulent, the demand for effectual interposition more urgent; incendiarism — must we not add, murder — a cruel cold-blooded murder? — has been added to rebellion. Outrage has issued in atrocity; and then a sworn jury, in one of the most astonishing verdicts we remember to have seen, has virtually told us, as far as twelve farmers can, that there is no use in looking to the ordinary administrators of the law for assistance — that they will not, or dare not, do their duty. All this must surely be stopped. Unnecessary severity — unnecessary extension of power — unnecessary interference with the liberty of the subject — are without question among the greatest evils to which the body politic can well be subject. But measures which will terminate, or will check, or will show some symptoms of checking, this state of things are necessary, and must be determined upon, at whatever immediate inconvenience.

Thus much in general. But when we come to particulars, we are obliged to ask, what prospect is there that martial law will answer this purpose? That the ordinary powers given by the Constitution to Government and magistracy, as at present wielded by that Government and that magistracy, are unequal to the emergency, is indeed obvious. The continuance of the evil shows it. But where is the fault — in the power, or in those who exercise it? If the radical disease is in the head, we may chance to get little good and much harm by strengthening the hands. It is common for power, when opposed and foiled, to call out fresh supplies of brute force, and fresh facilities for using it. It is the ordinary rough resource of despotic times, as it must be also the ultima ratio of constitutional authority. In the former case it is tolerably easy and safe; but in the latter it is delicate and precarious. In a free country these overbearing tactics are always odious, and are far from insuring success. And, therefore, before we trust Home Secretary or Justice of the Peace with the direction of such an edge-tool as martial-law, we should be glad to have some guarantee that they know how to use it. Does their past conduct furnish such? What is the picture presented to us by the history of the Welsh disturbances? The authorities, armed with such powers as they have, have met with as ill success as can well be imagined. Have they deserved any better? Does their conduct bear the appearance of a manly contest with overpowering difficulties, carriried on with vigour and discretion — with intelligence, consideration, and activity — with a proper estimate of the strength, the grievances, and the character of their adversary — and with a readiness to seize all the opportunities of successful action which that knowledge gave them? or does it not rather resemble the vague, bustling, indeterminate, aimless struggles of a man who is embarrassed, not by the want of available force, but by not knowing what to do with what he has?

We fear these questions are soon answered. As to the magistrates, they have been pitted against the rioters, and have been found wholly inefficient for good. The fruitless gallopings of the military, the absence of any apparent plan for conciliating, for dividing, for discovering, or for anticipating the followers of “Rebecca,” and the ease, the unimpeded ease, with which that leader has been able to accomplish all his plans, furnish sufficient evidence of their inefficiency and the account which we to-day publish of an important and unhappy mistake in point of law, committed last month by three of them (the Vice-Lieutenant of the county being among the number) — a mistake which issued in the wrongful imprisonment of fourteen days of a Welsh farmer — is certainly little calculated to weaken this impression. Nor does the Secretary of State appear to have been more able to help the local authorities than they were to help themselves. If he saw, as he might have seen, the hopelessness of conciliation while the magistracy continue sole mediators between themselves and the discontented poor — if he saw, as he might have seen, that there was much to be amended which the magistrates would not amend, much to be investigated which the magistrates would not exhibit, much to be said, done, and thought of, which the magistrates would neither originate nor execute — if he, understood, as he must have understood, that the continuance in such a country as England, and for months together, of a successful and wholesale resistance to law, baffling through a whole district the utmost efforts of police and military, was “no light matter,” but a grave shock to the very foundations of law and order — if he felt that the time for punctilio was gone by, and that whether the magistrates liked it or not Carmarthenshire was to be tranquillised — and if he had himself any idea how to deal with popular disaffection, he would most assuredly, during the last three or four months, have excogitated some happier expedient than a fortnight’s visit from a respectable police magistrate.

On the whole, then, we see too much reason to apprehend that the disturbances will not be terminated without, but very little to hope that they will be terminated with, martial law. And if so severe a remedy is to be administered, we have a right to demand conclusive proof that less stringent remedies are no longer practicable, and some better guarantee than the personal character of Sir James Graham and Colonel Trevor for the effectual application of this. And, after every proof and every guarantee, we still shall not cease to feel with some bitterness that this assumption of extraordinary power on the part of the Ministry derives its sole justification from their own past neglect or unskilfulness.

Since the above was written we have been informed by a correspondent “that a special commission is about to issue for the trial of the prisoners concerned in the recent disturbances in South Wales. The presiding judges have not yet been named, but the most active exertions are in progress on the part of Government to get together evidence against the prisoners already committed.”