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Book Chapter

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The seditious libel trials of the eighteenth century constitute an important chapter in the history of freedom of the press and the growth of democratic government. While much has been written about the trials and about the administration of the criminal law in eighteenth-century England, little has been said about the relationship between the libel prosecutions and the more pervasive and long-standing problems of the criminal law. We have perhaps gone too far in positing-or simply assuming-a separation between political high misdemeanors and common-run felony cases such as homicide and theft. For there were points of contact between the two: most notably, the trial jury was employed in both. It may be that the use of the jury in the one kind of case influenced thinking about how it ought to be used in the other. I shall explore this subject in the light of the tract literature of the seditious libel crisis. I hope to elucidate the oft-repeated arguments concerning the jury's right to decide law as well as fact, an alleged "right" that meant different things to different writers, and to say something about the kinds of knowledge that these projury writers thought jurors were to bring to their task. Finally, I shall set forth some tentative conclusions concerning the place that the seditious libel episode and its resolution had in the history of the jury and the administration of criminal law.