Front Page Titles (by Subject) Number XXVIII.: Considerations upon the mischievous Tendency of Libels; chiefly public Libels. - The Independent Whig, vol. 4 (1747)
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Number XXVIII.: Considerations upon the mischievous Tendency of Libels; chiefly public Libels. - Thomas Gordon, The Independent Whig, vol. 4 (1747) 
The Independent Whig. Being a Collection of Papers All written, some of them published During the Late Rebellion (London: J. Peele, 1747). Vol. 4.
Part of: The Independent Whig, 4 vols.
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Considerations upon the mischievous Tendency of Libels; chiefly public Libels.
UPON this Subject I expect to find the more Candour and Attention, as the common Danger has calmed the Minds of Men, and almost silenced the Clamour of Party. False Zeal and Disaffection are driven into Cabals in Corners; and I hope that common Sense will be heard in the Cause of National Peace and Union.
It cannot but be a pardonable Attempt, to prevent or allay popular Heats unjustly raised, and industriously kept up, such as turn the Head and inflame the Heart, and weaken Society by dividing it: to remove pernicious Prejudices, to reconcile Men to their common Interest, to abate their Wrath and Disgusts, inspired by such as would mislead them, against those who never hurt them.
If their Passions be kindled, and their Minds racked to no Purpose, or for an ill Purpose, are not the Authors of such Pain and Disquiet to be considered by them as dangerous Seducers and Firebrands, who would gain Credit or Profit at their Expence, govern them by imposing upon them, teaze them with false Fears and Information, and disturb the Public for private Ends? It is not for the Credit of any Man, to defame King, Lords and Commons, because a Libeller bids him, and to regard his Character and Authority more than those of the Legislature.
One who lives by a Paper, or strives to serve the Views of a Faction by it, will be apt to consider, not what is true and right, but what is taking and gainful; and, under the Temptation of multiplying Lyes, to multiply Loaves and Readers. If it be popular to rail at public Men and public Measures, it cannot be expected that he will take the unpopular Side and make their Panegyric, even when they most deserve it. It is more probable, that he will rail at their best Actions, if their best Actions be ill understood, and therefore unpopular, and will study to make them so, if in doing it he can but raise the Name and Sale of his Paper.
This generally is the Policy and Temper of such Writers. They are the Swiss of Interest and Party, and with loud Pretences to Independency, are Slaves to the popular Cry, Slaves to their own Passions, Slaves to a Spirit of their own raising or fostering. What Party-writer dare, if he would, do Justice to a worthy Character obnoxious to his Party, or own that there are any such? What mercenary Writer will venture to tell any Truth, which is likely to sink the Sale of his Paper, or to smother any safe Falsification which tends to raise it? It is the great Drift, therefore the constant Practice, of both Sorts, to humour their Readers, to incense and mislead them; to magnify their own Favourites, to blacken and traduce their Opponents, to see nothing but Excellency and Merit in the former, to allow nothing but Folly or Malignity in the latter.
If we were to take the Word of the Examiner, a very witty, but very unfair and bitter Paper in the late Queen’s Time, we must believe and wonder, as doubtless the Author meant his Readers should, that Lord Cowper had started at once from an Attorney’s Clerk, to a Lord Chancellor; from transcribing Briefs, to keep the Great Seal, and to preside on the Bench; that a Page was converted into a Captain-General, and that the Duke of Marlborough had been raised from carrying his Master’s Train, to the Command of the Confederate Army. We have seen, says that lively Writer, mentioning, or rather inventing the wild Marvels of the Whig Ministry, who were to be represented as having done nothing but what was wild and marvellous; We have seen Footmen remov’d from behind the Coach into the Inside, and the Livery left off for the lac’d Coat. Princes have been made out of Pages, Chancellors out of Clerks, and the White Staff and Blue Ribbon bestow’d as Play-Things upon the Laquey and By-blow* .
Was this Author to be credited in recounting any Party-Matter, or in drawing any Party Character? He might with equal Truth and Consistency, though not with equal Policy, have informed his Readers, that they had seen Wonders still greater, “A Presbyterian retrieving the Honour of the Church; a Dissenter, from taking Notes at a Conventicle, dictating at the Council-Table, and governing, a High-Church Queen, by the Merit of his superior Zeal for the Hierarchy; that they had seen a Barrister helping the Crown to an Heir; the Issue of a Lawyer’s Daughter ruling Three Kingdoms; the Grand-daughter of Chancellor Hyde holding the Sceptre by Hereditary and Divine Right; a God’s Vicegerent upon Earth descended from a Wiltshire Justice of the Peace!”
Such ugly, or such ludicrous Lights, can much Spite and a little Wit, throw upon the highest and the noblest Characters; and so easy it is to make an ill Draught of the best, yet one more pleasing to Ill-nature and Ignorance than if it were just! This is a Work fitting every mean, every licentious, Genius; ’tis not strange that it draws many Adventurers, who, to succeed, need only invent and rail, crack Jests without Wit, argue without Sense, and assert without Truth.
This was literally the Undertaking, these literally the Talents of Dyer and Roper, Co-temporaries with the Examiner, and, without a Grain of his Wit, as much read as he. Their Ribaldry, their blunt Abuse and wooden Satire, had many Admirers: They diverted Ale-houses, and kept alive the Rage of Party, which is too easily kept alive, when such Wretches can serve the Turn. Their Reviling was called Smartness; their personal Rancour was Love for their Country; their stupid Guesses, shewed their Sagacity; their Forgery of Facts, good Intelligence: Even their Contradictions and Impossibilities were swallowed as Facts and Signs of deep Foresight. All who had so nobly and for so many Years supported the Throne, were Enemies to Monarchy: The Bishops were pulling down the Church: The Dissenters governed all Things, though none of them were employed: The Whigs were bringing in the Pretender, as the Prelates were Presbytery. There were no Jacobites in the Three Kingdoms; or the Jacobites were the Queen’s best Friends, even when they thought themselves strong enough to place him upon her Throne, and had actually attempted it. The Dutch were our worst Enemies; the French our truest Friends: Popery was better than Presbytery. The Duke of Marlborough was neither a General nor a Soldier, but certainly a Coward; Lord Somers was a Sharer with Kid the Pirate; and a Lunatic from Oxford was the Saviour of the Church.
These were the then prevailing Doctrines and Positions; this the popular System of political Belief, and these miserable Authors the popular Directors in Politics. Ought not such Extravagances, boldly published, greedily credited, and producing so much Heat and Delusion and ill Blood, to serve as a Warning to all People that can but read and remember, how rash and dangerous it is to trust, and how much they ought to despise, false, hot, and abusive Writers, who scatter Calumny, Imposture and Ribaldry, only to serve the Interest of a Party, or their own Interest; who for this End stick at no Abuse, no Falshood, and even torture Facts into Falsehood, and Merit into Dispraise; who advance not what is true and healing, but what is mischievous and pleasing. The poor People are always their Bubbles and Property, and they live and prosper by deceiving them.
Nothing is more to the Disgrace of such Libels and Libellers, than that they are most loud and current during public Distraction and Distress; that they thrive best when the Public suffers most, and when public Distraction prevails. Popular Discontents are their Nourishment, and they the Fuel of public Discontents, which sometimes have no other.
A french Quack in London, when the Plague raged at Marseilles, and was terribly apprehended here, swore, “that if the Plague did but come hither, he should surely make his Fortune.” Had the same narrow, unfeeling Genius been a Penman in pursuit of Fortune, or a Firebrand of Party, he would have rejoiced in popular Commotions and the Prospect of a Civil War; a Season when Pamphlets swarm most, and Invectives fly faster; when Fury and Uproar prevail, Law is despised, the still Voice of Reason not heard, and all Enormities are encouraged by Impunity.
It would surely spoil the Pleasure of a good Citizen, when he is reading any lying and angry Libel, to consider, that it is written purposely to deceive him, to make him a bad Neighbour and a bad Subject; that it robs him of two valuable Things, his Time and Tranquillity, and supposes him to be a Dupe and in Leading-strings.
What can be a greater Crime, what can argue a worse Spirit, than, for Vengeance, for a Peny, or a Place, to propagate Discord and Falshood? Not to care who is hurt, or what Mischief be done, so the Author be gratified, and the Paper sell? This is a Proceeding too heinous to be aggravated, scarce credible, yet too common.
A Public Libel admits but of one Alleviation; I mean, when, with all its mischievous Tendency, it is produced without Malice. It was natural to pity the poor offending Author, who excusing himself to a Secretary of State, for abusing the Government, said, “He did it from no Ill-will, but only for Bread.” When the Secretary asked him, Why he did not then chuse to write for the Government? “Alas, my Lord, said the scared Calumniator, I shall then want Bread, for then nobody will buy what I write.”
It was not Ambition, it was not Ill-nature, that guided his Pen; and if he did any Harm, he meant none. But when Rancour and Rage, or a greedy Spirit, arms the Hand of an Author; when he openly defies Authority, belyes and blackens those who bear it, and vilifies all their Measures, not because they are wrong, though he may say so, but because they are theirs; they only who are influenced and misled by him, are intitled to Pity, but he himself to none.
MonsieurPatin, an eminent and witty Physician at Paris, who had long seen the Falsities and Calumnies spread by the Writers of News and Politics, gives them a Character suitable to his Indignation; Genus hominum audatissimum, mendacissimum, avidissimum ut Rem faciant, “A most shameless, a most lying Tribe; most abandoned in Pursuit of the Peny.” They indeed rarely consider what is Right or Wrong, but what will take. Is any good Man unpopular, or to be made so? They cry him down; and then let him be ever so able, ever so virtuous, he is guilty and foolish. Is a worthless Man popular, or is it worth while to make him so? They cry him up; and he has at once all Merit, and every fine Quality. The same Pens which libelled a Tennison deified a Sacheverell.
Is the popular Humour for War? Or does a Cry for War answer any End of Sedition or Gain? Does it hurt a Man or a Party they hate? Or does it gratify the Men and Party they espouse? Or does it quicken the Sale of a Libel? They are presently loud for War, be it ever so unseasonable, ever so ruinous, and inveigh against all pacific Men and Counsels. Is the Sound of Peace in fashion, or serves any of the narrow and passionate Purposes abovementioned? They are vehement Advocates for Peace, let it be ever so premature, and the Terms ever so scandalous: They then vilify all the Managers and all the Advantages of the War, and extol all who would make a ruinous Peace. Is the Peace solid and honourable, and they displeased and disappointed? It must be shewn in hideous Colours, and the People taught to hate it, and all that had any Hand in it.
For, as all their Strength and Hopes lie in the Credulity and Mutability of the People, they always appeal to them, because they are always sure to deceive them. They have two short Maxims: Whatever those whom they dislike attempt, is bad; though it were to save the Nation: Whatever promotes their Party or their Paper, is good; though it threaten National Destruction. The same Pens which had inculcated Passive Obedience to a weak Prince, barbarously trampling upon all Law, excited Rebellion against an able Prince ruling benevolently by Law. Could there be more daring Impiety, or more shocking Assurance? And ought such memorable Assurance and Impiety ever to be forgot?
What could the People think of such miserable Guides, or of themselves, for not detesting them? They indeed reap their chief Security from Oblivion. They bounce and rail for a Day: Their Productions are read and thrown aside: It is forgot that every next Production of theirs contradicts their last. They praise and revile, they revile and praise, the same Man in the short Revolution of a Moon, as if they changed with it; yet their Inconsistency is not minded, because their past Labours are not remembered. Such Labours survive not their Date, and like the Insects of a Day, as they were formed for the Day, they die with it.
Unhappily for one of these transient Writers, who trusted to his Talent in well timing a Thing, as the Phrase is, a Reader of his caught him cruelly mangling in one Paper, a Character upon which he had lately bestowed much Incense in another. This the Gentleman happened to remember, though it was several Days before, and knowing him, asked him, how could so much late Merit deserve so much present Satire. How! says the Author; have you not heard the News? He has (naming a very honourable Person and cursing him) “He has taken a Place, and We are all just where we were.” He meant, besides himself, many other Candidates for Places, who had long inveighed at all Placemen, in hopes to remove and succeed them.
This is another shameless Practice of such unfair and passionate Writers, to represent all Places as odious and even criminal, whilst they themselves are thirsting after them, and only rail at them because they cannot get them. This is always a proper Answer to such maglignant Railers, and ought to be a constant Antidote against their Malignity: Nor can there be a greater Disgrace to their Readers, than to be at all influenced by such ridiculous Prejudice and Railing. Without the Establishment of Employments, of Places and Distinction, no human Society can be established, no more than without Magistracy and Laws. Both these imply Places as well as Priority: And none but a mere Mob, nor even a Mob without Intoxication, can dream of subsisting without the Degrees of Higher and Lower, without Places and Inequality, and without Government, or dream of preserving Government without Governors, without Men in Place and Office: For the chief Governor does but hold the chief Place. Where there are Laws, they must be executed; where there is Authority, it must be administered; nor can either be done without Hands, without Ministers and Officers, nor are these to be had without Support, without Places and Recompences.
All this is so plain, that it is almost a Shame to prove it; but it is a greater Shame to those who make it necessary, and no small one to such as want such Proof.
Human Passions are too powerful for the human Understanding: Where Disgusts are strong, Reason is weak. When we are brought to dislike the Persons of Men we dislike their good Fortune. When we come to envy their Fortune, we dislike their Persons; and whatever they have, whatever they do, we are apt to hate, when we hate them. In this unhappy Turn and Imbecillity in human Nature, lies the great Encouragement and Strength of Libellers. They perceive how easy it is to make Men think ill of one another; how natural it is to wish ill where we think ill, and to fall into the strongest Prejudices for the silliest Reasons.
An ancient Baronet in Lincolnshire, who was fond of Nottingham Ale beyond all other Liquors, though no Enemy to any, yet would never taste a Drop of it, nor bear to hear it proposed, after the Lord Chancellor Finch, who had made a very just Decree in his Disfavour, was created Earl of Nottingham. From that Moment and for ever, he conceived an inveterate Aversion to that Ale and that Place, and, whenever he mentioned it, he called it in spite Snottingham; therefore often mentioned it.
We ought to be the more upon our Guard against hasty Censure and unreasonable Piques, as we are prone to them. We ought to judge of Men and their Conduct with the more Caution, because we are apt to do it with Prejudice. This is the Voice of Humanity; this is but Christian Charity. We should read all Writers with Caution, but cannot arm ourselves with too much, when we read Party-Writers, or too scrupulously consider their Drift and Motives.
Every Reader of those warm Orators, should ask himself, whether they do not speak from the Passions as well as to the Passions; whether Men in a Flame can reason candidly, or see clearly; whether an angry Man can represent fairly; whether what gives most Offence, would give any, if it came from a different Quarter and different Men: Whether public Complaints be not often breathed from Griefs which the Public does not feel, and might not be removed by a Remedy which would not make the Public easier: Whether one who gets a Peny, by censuring the Ministry, or hopes for a Place by a Change of Ministers, knows State Affairs better, or would conduct them better, than they, or would lose a Peny by praising them, though they ever so manifestly deserved his Praise: Whether one who collects News knows more of the Condition of Christendom, than the Secretary of State; whether either the Dealer in News or in Politicks, would hurt his Paper by generous Truth and Observation, or would not rather promote it by Misrepresentations, and by ill-natured and random Censure?
Whoever is the Author of Slander and Invective, usurps the Place of Justice, awards Judgment, and inflicts personal Punishment; a most unnatural Judge, governed by his own Evidence, decreeing in Wrath, and condemning without hearing! Cicero observing and censuring the scandalous, personal Invectives allowed at Athens, even upon the Stage, says, it was perhaps “excusable thus to lash popular Incendiaries, and the Sons of Sedition* ; though it had been still better to have left them to the Judgment of the Tribunal, than that of a Satirist. But to suffer such Invectives against Men in Authority, was unpardonable.” He mentions Pericles, who held the chief. The same great Author says, that to vilify and depreciate such as were intrusted with the Administration of the Roman State, was an Attack upon the State itself, and consequently liable to the same Construction and Punishment* .
These scandalous Scurrilities upon the Persons of Men, intolerable in any State, could not be always borne even in that of Athens. Even the Athenians, fond of Licentiousness beyond any civilized Nation, were forced to restrain it by a Law. Horace, no Enemy to just Satire, observes, that its Excesses upon the Stage were so violent, as to require such Restraint, as the natural Effect and Cure of Liberty abused‡ . If this Law, then and therefore made by the Areopagus, cramped the Spirit of the Comic and other Writers, whom had they to thank but themselves?
It was high Time to have recourse to such a Check, when Alcibiades, for want of a Redress from Law, for an Attack upon his Character in the Poems of Eupolis, redressed himself by drowning the Poet: Terrible Vengeance, as unjustifiable as what provoked it, but not surprising from a Man of his great Spirit, great Quality, and public Dignity, exposed to public Scorn in a wanton Lampoon! Both acted arbitrarily: Eupolis setting himself up for a Judge and a Doer of Justice, assaulted the Reputation of Alcibiades: Just so reasoned Alcibiades* , and took away the Life of Eupolis.
Thus ended the invective Strains of the Greek Poets; and ended in Disgrace, as they had been exerted without Mercy or Bounds§ . As their Licentiousness had been extreme and shocking, the Law was awful, and its Penalties dreadful: By it the Offenders were to be cudgelled; nay, cudgelled to Death† .
machiavel’s Distinction between public Calumny and public Accusation, will always be just. Accusation infers Facts and Proofs, and proceeds by them. Calumny supposes every Thing, and proves nothing: The less it demonstrates, the more it can invent, and charge the highest Guilt upon the greatest Innocence. It is generally addressed to the Vulgar, and conceived in vulgar Strains, such as none but the Vulgar can approve or answer.
As the Poor are apt to envy the Rich, Men of Ambition to emulate Men in Power, the Unfortunate such as flourish, ’tis natural for mean Souls to bear Spite to such as do not resemble them, and for bad Characters to traduce good. This Trade they easily monopolize. Such as they rival cannot rival them, and therefore they are unanswerable. Language like their own, which is the only proper Language for them, is what no Gentleman can return them. No well-bred Man is a Match for a Scold, nor will envy him the Credit of excelling in his Profession.
[* ]Vide Examiner, Monday, January 12. 1712.
[* ]Populares homines, improbos, in Repub. seditiosos.
[* ]Majestatem minuere, est de dignitate, aut amplitudine, aut potestate populi, aut eorum quibus populus potestatem dedit, aliquid derogare. Cic. de Invent. L. 2.
[§ ]Turpiter obtieuit, sublato jure nocendi.