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THE HISTORY OF THE NEWSPAPER PRESS.
BY ALEXANDER ANDREWS,
AUTHOR OF THE
The Rebellion, and the Papers it called forth-Henry Fielding—The Champion
The True Patriot, and Jacobites' Journal--Fielding's Sketches of the News-writers -Unstamped Papers—Fielding and his Assailants—A Specimen of their Scurrility-William Guthrie and James Ralph—Prosecution of the National Journal
- A few Celebrities of the Press-Dr. Johnson and the Newspapers—The Doctor a Newspaper Drudge.
Whilst the reporters had been struggling to get into the House of Commons, with the pertinacity and ultimate success which we have described, the swarm of political writers were thrown into commotion by events which were crowding on and plots which were thickening. The young Pretender had raised the standard of insurrection, and thrown a plentiful supply of food to their hungry pens; but now, pushing them good-naturedly aside, there strides forward a doughty champion of the house of Hanover, who flings before the public sheet after sheet of remonstrance or argument, and over his adversaries a heap of ridicule and
The people were not overmuch attached to the German rule: the Highlanders were marching on from success to success; and, for a brief period, the second restoration of the Stuarts seemed not so unlikely an event after all. It was at this crisis that the playwright turned politician, and by turns grave and gay, laughing and moralising, but always studiously disclaiming partisanship, HENRY FIELDING takes his place in the ranks of the newspaper writers. At an earlier period (in 1739) he had been part proprietor and writer of the Champion-a thricea-week essay-paper, which he wrote conjointly with James Ralph (a poor mercenary), under the name of “ Captain Hercules Vinegar. To the Champion was attached a supplement, called an “Index to the Times,” which contained the current news of the day, and was compiled by Ralph, who assumed the name of “ Lilburne.” As the time approached when Fielding was to be called to the Bar, he gradually withdrew from the Champion, and had nothing to do with the periodical press till the Whig cause staggered under the heavy blows it was sustaining from the Jacobites, when he rushed to the rescue with the True Patriot, the first number of which came out on the 5th of November, 1745. In his opening address he gives us a picture of the newspaper press at that time, which, taken with all due allowance, is not very flattering:
“In strict obedience to the sovereign power (fashion), being informed hy my bookseller, a man of great sagacity in his business, that nobody at present reads anything but
I have determined to conform myself to the reigning taste. The number, indeed, of these writers at first a little staggered us both, but upon perusal of their works, I fancied I had discovered a little imperfection in them all, which somewhat
I cannot agree
diminished the force of this objection. , The first little imperfection in these writings is that there is scarce a syllable of Truth in
of them. If this be admitted to be a fault, it requires no other evidence than themselves and the perpetual contradictions which occur, not only on comparing one with the other, but the same author with himself on different days. Secondly, there is no sense in them. To prove this, likewise, I appeal to their works. Thirdly, there is in reality NOTHING in them at
. , all. And this also must be allowed by their readers, if paragraphs which contain neither wit nor humour, nor sense, nor the least importance, may be properly said to contain nothing. Such are the arrival of my Lord
with a great equipage; the marriage of Miss of great beauty and merit ; and the death of Mr. who was never heard of in his life, &c., &c. Nor will this appear strange if we consider who are the authors of such tracts-namely, the journeymen of booksellers, of whom, I believe, much the same may be truly predicated as of these their productions. But the encouragement with which these lucubrations are read may seem more strange and more difficult to be accounted for. And here
bookseller, that their eminent badness recommends them. The true reason is, I believe, simply the same which I once heard an economist assign for the content and satisfaction with which his family drank water-cider-viz., because they could procure no better liquor. Indeed, 'I make no doubt but that the understanding as well as the palate, though it may out of necessity swallow the worse, will in general prefer the better.”
Fielding was, we dare say, not very far out after all in his estimate; for the newspaper press, which we have seen gradually corrupted by Walpole, was recruited, as its more powerful members were bought off
, from the ranks of an irregular squad; and for the last few years the unstamped papers had been rapidly increasing, and were openly hawked about in defiance of the law, whilst the regular papers were being amalgamated or entirely discontinued. Indeed, it had been found necessary in 1743 to insert a clause into the 16th George II., cap. 26, declaring that, " whereas great numbers of newspapers, pamphlets, and other papers subject and liable to the stamp duties, but not being stamped, were daily sold, hawked, carried about, uttered, and exposed for sale by divers obscure persons who have no known or settled habitation, it is enacted that all hawkers of unstamped newspapers may be seized by any person, and taken before a justice of the peace, who may commit them to gaol for three months.” A reward of twenty shillings was also offered to the informer who might secure a conviction.
The True Patriot, coming at such a time, among such competitors, from a vigorous writer who threw himself heart and soul into the cause --not hastily taken up,
but one to which he had all along been warmly attached—we say the True Patriot, written by such a man, and in such a manner, could not fail of concentrating the distracted attention of the nation. The affrighted citizens read it for comfort and reassurance, and had more confidence in its arguments than in the camp at Finchley. The hesitating Jacobites were dismayed by the tone of ridicule with which it spoke of their cause ; and when the final blow crushed them to the ground, and drove the young Pretender a fugitive from the field of Culloden, its merciless satire did more to extinguish all feelings of sym
pathy with the broken party than the savage butcheries of the Duke of Cumberland, or the cold-blooded atrocities of the law-which, in fact, but for Fielding's more destructive sarcasm, might have had just the opposite effect.
The paper continued until April 15th, 1746; and in the following year, “ to discredit the shattered remnant of an unsuccessful party,” as Sir Walter Scott says in his “Life of Fielding,” by covering it with ridicule, and holding it up to national contempt, he conceived and brought out, with the encouragement, as it is thought, of the government, the Jacobite Journal, which was commenced in December, 1747, as the production of “ John Trottplaid, Esq.,” and bore the representation of Mr. and Mrs. Trottplaid ; the former wearing a plaid waistcoat, and the latter a plaid petticoat, and both lustily huzzaing, whilst a Jesuit is assiduously calling their attention to a copy of the London Evening Post. The first number presents us with another unfavourable view of the contemporary press :
“ If ever there was a time when a weekly writer might venture to apo pear, it is the present; for few readers will imagine it presumption to enter the lists against those works of his contemporaries which are now known by the name of newspapers, since his talents must be very
indifferent if he is not capable of shining among a set of such dark planets."
And the affectation of printing so many words in italics, without any rule or reason, and expressing only the first and last letters of others, of which we have already given examples in another place* from the Political Register and the London Evening Post, were not lost upon the watchful satirist, who thus whimsically imitates it: “ In this dress I intend to abuse the *** and the * * *
; I intend to lash not only the m-stry, but every man who hath any pace or P-ns
-n from the g-vernm-t, or who is entrusted with any degree of power or trust under it, let his r-nk be ever so high, or his ch-s-cter never so good. For this purpose I have provided myself with a vast quantity of Italian letter, and asterisks of all sorts. And as for all the words which I embowel or rather envowel, I will never so mangle them but they shall be as well known as if they retained every vowel in them. This I promise myself, that when I have any meaning they shall understand it."
The unscrupulous tribe of writers whom he attacked and ridiculed in these papers caught up the only weapons they could wield-scurrility and abuse, -- and attacked him with the fury of the intellectual pigmies that they were. Old England, or the Constitutional Journal-a weekly paper in opposition, principally written by Guthrie, but to which Lord Chesterfield was an occasional contributor-gives us on the 3rd of March an average sample of the language in which they replied, describing Fielding as "a needy vagrant who long hunted after fortunes, scored deep at taverns, abused his benefactors in the administration of public affairs, from the state to the stage; hackneyed for booksellers and newspapers ; lampooned the virtuous; ridiculed all the inferior clergy in the dry, unnatural character of Parson Adams; related the adventures of footmen, and wrote the lives of thief-catchers ; bilked every lodging for
“ Eighteenth Century," pp. 107, 108, and 113; and New Monthly Magazine
ten years together, and every alehouse and every chandler's shop in every neighbourhood; defrauded and reviled all his acquaintance, and meeting and possessing universal infamy and contempt."
Fielding might indeed be well content with this character from men who thought Parson Adams “ dry and unnatural;" well might he smile at being called a bookseller's and newspaper hack by such writers as Guthrie and his fellows.
The government formed a better estimate, and one which was not disappointed by the way in which he fulfilled his duties as a magistrate for Middlesex and Westminster,--an office which they conferred upon him at the earnest solicitation of his old schoolfellow and faithful friend George Lyttleton, now a lord of the treasury. Of course this appointment, which, if it had been given in reward for his services (which it undoubtedly was not), would have been a very inadequate one, gave an opportunity for the ungenerous remarks of his enemies of Grub-street; but the manner in which he performed his duties, driving corruption from the bench and putting justice in its place, remains recorded as a noble reply to their calumnies. The appointment took place at the close of the year 1748, the Jacobite Journal having ceased in November of that year, from a conviction of its conductors that the Jacobite cause was entirely disarmed by the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle. Old England exulted over the decease of Mr. Trottplaid in a scurrilous epitaph, which thus opens with a spiteful and personal attack:
Beneath this stone
Lies Trottplaid John,
His crazy brain,
.* William Guthrie, the principal writer of Old England, is the same man who afterwards, as we have already seen, made up the “Parliamentary Debates” for Cave. A needy Scotchman, sent forth from Aberdeen to seek a living from the world of letters, he fell into the hands of the booksellers, who plucked him and sold his feathers. A publisher's drudge, besides having to do with many of the newspapers, he wrote several works to order, amongst others, a history of England, which nobody ever reads, and a geographical grammar, which was at the time thought a work of merit, but is of course now obsolete. He died in 1769, in the sixty-eighth year of his age. Sir John Willes, Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, was suspected to have written the attack on Murray (afterwards Lord Mansfield) in Old England of December 27th, 1746.
A hireling confederate of Fielding's--certainly in the Champion, and probably in his other papers--was James Ralph, formerly a schoolmaster at Philadelphia, but who came to London about 1729, and embarked as a party writer with a capital of considerable talent. Unfortunately, it was about the only capital he possessed; of money he had little, and of principle less ; and he tossed about on the troubled sea of politics, as all have done who have ventured upon it with only talent for their ballast, and got cast here and there with every change of the political current. Ralph, who aspired to the title of historian, and wrote a forgotten his
* Old England, or the Broad-Bottom Journal, November 20th, 1748.
tory of England, also tried, with the versatility to which hard necessity occasionally drove him, what he could make out of the stage, and wrote some plays and a poem, which elevated him to a place in the “Dunciad,” in a note to which he is described as a low and illiterate writer. This was not true ; for he was certainly a Latin, French, and Italian scholar. His connexion with the stage brought him into the acquaintance of Fielding, and they went to work together at the Champion. Poor Ralph (who wrote the pitiful “ Case of Authors") was like most of his contemporary labourers, well acquainted with poverty and want, and Mr. Nichols has preserved some of his cries for bread in the ninth volume of the “ Literary Anecdotes.” “I am now really at my
last resource till
my play is finished,” he writes at last, in the accents of despair, “and, unless you can relieve me, both that and I shall die together.' Bubb Dod. ington took him up, and in his service he brought out the Remembrancer -an organ of the Dodington section of the Leicester House party, which received a gentle check from the government in 1749 :
“ November 24th.-Earl of Middlesex and Mr. Ralph were with me to acquaint me that the printer and publisher of the Remembrancer was taken
of last Saturday, the 18th instant, but that the messenger used them with uncommon civility, touched none of their papers, presses, or effects, and took their words for their surrendering themselves the next morning."*
We are afterwards told that the Prince of Wales agrees to indemnify them against all loss or damage.
Dodington, though he speaks of him as “honest Mr. Ralph," admits that he was ready to be hired to any cause.
Poor fellow ! life was sweet and bread was dear, and the highest bidder had him ; but in 1762 the politicians and the booksellers lost their drudge, for death outbid them all.
Notwithstanding the violence of the papers and the character of their writers, we only find them in one instance brought into collision with the government by the events of 1745-6, and that was in the case of the National Journal, or Country Gazette, an evening paper started on March 22nd, 1746, and attacking the government so intemperately that on the 12th of June the printer was committed to prison, and not released until February, 1747, on the expiration of the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act.
Of the next ten years of newspaper history we have but little to record. Among the writers of the various periodical papers which flourished in that interval were Mrs. Heywood, who wrote the Parrot in 1746; Lords Chesterfield and Lyttleton, contributors to Common Sense, the former writing occasionally in Old England; Sir John Hill, who wrote “The Inspector" for two years in the Daily Advertiser, commencing in March, 1751; Arthur Murphy, the writer of the Gray's Inn Journal, under the name of “Charles Ranger, Esq.," October 21st, 1752 ; Edward Moore, the author of the 66 Gamester," who commenced the World January 4th, 1753, and was assisted by the Earl of Chesterfield, and some thirty contributors of eminence ; Bonnell Th on, who wrote the Drury Lane Journal (in opposition to Fielding's Covent Garden
* Diary of Bubb Dodington.