Newspapers and Politics in the 18th century
‘Have the authors of a two-penny weekly journal, a right to make a national inquiry'? 18th-century governments thought not and neither did the newspapers’ readers of the time.
Between 1690 and 1780 the number of newspapers printed annually in England rose from less than a million to fourteen million, a growth far in excess of that of the population. The period was the most dramatic in the history of the English press, with the creation of new forms - daily Sunday and provincial papers - and a greatly increased freedom of the press, after the lapsing of the Licensing Act in 1695. The relationship between the growth of the press and the political system of the period is crucial to our understanding of English society in the eighteenth century. This article considers this problem and aims to encourage people to read the papers of the period, which are often easily accessible.
The great attraction of reading the newspapers is that they are interesting and present no problems of dating or legibility. They provide a mass of information on British society in the eighteenth century. Readers are often surprised by the dominance of national political and in particular, international news, and this was commented on by contemporaries, the Grub Street Journal of December 12th, 1734 noting 'In the Daily Advertiser... there are but eleven lines of domestic news; in the Courant and Daily Post Boy not one'. Local news took a long time to develop. On April 13th, 1723 the only items of Newcastlenews in the Newcastle Weekly Mercury were the price of butter and the departure of ships. Fifty years later an average of one-eighth of the space in the Newcastle Journal was devoted to items of news under the Newcastle by line. In Sheffield the process was slower. William Ward's Sheffield Public Advertiser of May 17th, 1770 devoted one third of a column of the sixteen column paper to local news, including deaths, an accident and a crime. The issue of September 22nd, 1770 contained no Sheffieldnews, that of February 15th, 1772 only three items: a suicide, the death of a woman as a result of bruises inflicted by a relation, and the coming of age of the Marquis of Carmarthen, a local aristocrat. Local news did not become a significant item until the 1780s in Sheffield.
However, if local news is lacking, local advertisements can be of great value for throwing light on eighteenth-century life. The number of advertisements increased dramatically during the century and most of them were local in origin. The Birmingham Journal of May 21st, 1733 carried only five advertisements: for the products of a Stourbridge glazier and two Birmingham cloth warehouses, for the sale of an ass at Lichfield and for horses for covering in Warwickshire, the last a form of advertisement that became increasingly common. Those bored by a leading essay on tithes in the York Courant of March 17th, 1747 could turn to no less than thirty-eight advertisements occupying 46 per cent of the paper. By July 7th, 1761 the larger paper carried 416 occupying 74 per cent.
Fascinating for people working on local history, the press also provides an important topic for those considering the nature of the eighteenth-century political system. The extraordinary growth in the size of the press has led many to see them as politically influential, both cause and effect of an increasingly 'open' society. The total annual circulation of the press in 1713 was calculated as 2.4 million. 7.3 million newspaper stamps were issued in 1750, 12.6 in 1775 and 16 in 1801. Twelve London papers were published in 1712, fifty-two in 1811. Contemporaries were very impressed with this growth, which followed the lapsing of the Licensing Act in 1695. The first number of the Old Post Master, a tri-weekly that appeared in 1696, noted, 'So many newspapers (or so called) are daily published, that it would seem needless to trouble the world with more'. The Wednesday's Journal commented in 1717, 'We see so many Pretenders to Journals setting up every day'. The British Observator, which first appeared in 1733, admitted that 'it is grown a general complaint that there are already such a glut of newspapers and of weekly newspapers.’
It was not only newspaper writers who saw the press as influential. After the fall of Minorca to the French in 1756, the London lawyer Nathaniel Cole, wrote, 'The newspapers and pamphlets tend to raise an uneasiness among the people and to point out a Militia law upon which much stress is laid as the only thing to save the nation and from this disposition I think such a bill must pass in the same session'. The attacks on George III and the government of Lord North by the anonymous 'Junius', published in the Public Advertiser, led Viscount Harcourt to warn in 1770, 'The lengths he has ventured to go are really amazing, and may in the end occasion the greatest disorder, if the means taken by Government to stop the career of that treasonable libel should prove unsuccessful'. In 1784 Philip Yorke claimed, 'The publication of the debates and opposition speeches have lost America'.
These attitudes and the role of particular opposition writers and newspapers, such as Bolingbroke and the Craftsman, or Wilkes and the North Briton in prominent political controversies led many historians to stress the significance of the press. 'Freedom of the Press' was a cause approved of by Victorian historians, and the legal struggles by which it was established were regarded as of great political significance. If liberal lawyers were heroic figures for nineteenth-century historians, printer-entrepreneurs have enjoyed great favour of late. For much of the late 1960s and 1970s eighteenth-century scholarship, in reaction to the preceding years of ascendancy by the great historian Namier, who had concentrated on detailed political studies, and in response to contemporary intellectual and political fashions, stressed aspects of the period that were readily conducive to interpretations emphasizing the role of the press. The century was presented in a progressive and secular light and considerable emphasis was placed on signs of radicalism. The openness of the political system to pressure was stressed and particular attention devoted to crises, such as the Sacheverell affair of 1710, the Excise Crisis of 1733, the Jewish Naturalization Act furore in 1753 and the Wilkite troubles of the 1760s, when events 'out of doors' - outside the world of Westminster and Whitehall - could be argued to have had considerable political influence.
Valuable work with this emphasis continues. However, in recent years scholarship based on a different analysis has been produced. Attention has been directed towards the strength of religious sentiment, the continued predominance of the aristocracy and the conservative nature of political and social ideology. Furthermore, it is possible to argue that the stress on urban activities has led to an undervaluation of rural conservatism, and that historians have neglected the interests of the bulk of the population. Most current work on provincial culture is devoted to regional capitals, but the 1801 census of England and Wales revealed that 70 per cent of the population lived in settlements of 2,500 people or less. Newspapers circulated widely in rural areas, carried by men on horseback who also sold a range of products, particularly patent medicines, such as Daffey's Elixir, but it is difficult to believe that these areas were not still in 1800 securely located in the realm of oral culture. In such a world newspapers perforce remained marginal, not so much because of their cost or of limited literacy, though both were important, as because the impact of literacy on the mental world of early modern people was neither immediate nor total.
A shift in our understanding of eighteenth-century society has implications for the study of public opinion and for the consideration of the political impact of the press. In recent decades the importance of these factors has been stressed, as historians have searched for an alternative structure of politics to challenge that of Namier. They have been helped by the nature of the sources. The surviving sources tend to stress government intervention in and concern about the press. There are memoranda suggesting courses of action, evidence of subsidies paid to particular newspapers, records of legal action. There was no systematic reporting by a range of officials giving the press a clean bill of health. A Warwickshire correspondent could urge Granville to take action against the press in 1756 and provide quotable passages about sounding 'the trumpet of rebellion.’ There was no impetus for a report from the same county saying that nothing much was happening. By their very nature it was the most strident complaints that survive and have been quoted. In a similar fashion the opposition press stressed their suspicions of governmental subsidizing of newspapers that took a pro-ministerial line and criticised prosecutions. When subsidies of the pro-government papers and prosecutions of opposition papers lapsed or lessened, as in the late 1740s, this was not commented upon by contemporaries and has not attracted the attention of historians. As the political role of the press has been most fully discussed for periods of acute political tension, such as the 1700s, it is not surprising that government concern and intervention has been stressed. Historical coverage of the press is very uneven, being known about the 1700s, 1730s and 1760s than 1714-25 or 1742- 56.
The degree of contemporary scepticism about the impact of the press is impossible to assess, as the sceptical were usually silent, but informed commentators were willing to question the effectiveness of press political attacks, just as many queried the accuracy of newspaper accounts. Reports that Queen Anne was ill and the ministry split led George Tilson, one of the Under Secretaries, to claim in 1712 'we are lye proof here now, and scarce find them'. In 1722 Lord Perceval wrote, 'Never was a dead Parliament so abused in pamphlets and newspapers; but this is all that party have for it'. The same year Tilson doubted the effectiveness of Jacobite propaganda and denied that 'because the mob is poisoned, women and parsons rail, and the grumblers put about libels and ballads, that therefore the whole nation will join and take up arms in favour of the Pretender'. The Saxon envoy De Loss, enclosing a translation of the Craftsman with dispatch in 1734, wrote that it was worthy of attention as it indicated opposition attitudes, but added that the Walpole ministry was not greatly disturbed by these criticisms, as it was accustomed to them and certain of parliamentary support. The French Ambassador Cambis similarly argued in 1738 that the ministry would not deviate at all from their policies despite the criticisms of the Common Sense he was forwarding. Faced with French complaints about British publications in 1772 Harcourt assured the French foreign minister 'that people were so injured to abuse, that it had almost lost its string’, whilst the Earl of Rochford noted 'how impossible it is for Government to prevent them and how little consequence they are in this country'. Newspapers sometimes questioned the effectiveness of the press, though usually that of newspapers of a different viewpoint. The Daily Courant claimed in 1737 that Walpole was as little moved by the Craftsman 'as the winds with the cry of mariners', whilst in 1769 Berrow's Worcester Journal informed its readers, 'It will in general exhaust whole Rivers of Ink, and wear out a thousand Paper-Mills, to write out a bad Minister, unless other circumstances concur to accelerate his Downfall'.
The ability of ministers, such as Sir Robert Walpole and Lord North, to survive vicious and extensive opposition newspaper campaigns, supported by other devices for expressing or manipulating public opinion such as petitions, Addresses and Instructions to MPs, place in perspective the claims that have been made on behalf of the press and public opinion. Instances where concessions were made, such as the Excise Crisis and the War of Jenkins' Ear, can be explained with reference to ministerial struggles. It is increasingly apparent from studies of the political history of the century that the role of the monarchy was crucial. The constitutional prerogatives of the crown had been weakened seriously in the later Stuart period but the monarchs retained considerable constitutional power. Furthermore the role of the court as a major centre of political life, combined with the weak structure of political parties and the personal determination of the Georges to rule as well as reign, helped to ensure that Britainwas a monarchy in fact as well as name. The monarch's scope for political manoeuvre was vastly increased by the nature of the party system with leading politicians eager to gain royal support in their struggle for primacy, no clear system of party leadership and politicians willing to split their party in order to become the king's ministers.
There were of course episodes during the century in which the monarchs did not get their way. George I1 was forced to part with Walpole in 1742 and could not sustain Carteret in office in 1744 and 1746. However, these defeats were due in part to the impact of wartime fiscal exigencies and the consequent reduced scope for political manoeuvre indicative of royal power before. George III's ability to dump the elder Pitt, a charismatic and successful war minister who sought to resist George's drive for peace in 1761, and his success in discarding the Fox-North coalition and replacing them with the younger Pitt.
A stress on the central significance of royal power and regal initiatives in the political system necessarily leads to a diminution in the role of public opinion and the press. One of the principal theoretical problems facing opposition writers, who urged the importance of public opinion, was the difficulty of explaining the mechanism through which the voice of the public was to be heeded, particularly if Parliament was hostile. It was easy for foreign commentators to present Britain as a state ruled by a fickle public opinion. In 1738 the Spanish envoy Geraldino claimed that it was difficult to negotiate in Britain, as 'reason and justice could not prevail, unless accommodated to the opinion of the public'.
However, it was less clear how this opinion was to prevail. In February 1732, in the Commons debate over a government proposal for a revival of the salt duty Edward Vernon claimed, 'Ninety-nine in a hundred of the people would not bear the tax, and that he should expect if he voted for it, to be treated like a polecat and knocked on the head'. Such a method of enforcing the popular will had no influential supporters, and opposition publicists were careful about advocating extra-parliamentary agitation. The conservative nature of political thought is revealed in the frequency with which opposition newspapers anticipated improvement as a result of royal intervention, by the king, or his heir or the Jacobite claimant to the throne. In one of its frequent allegories of British development, made more interesting and legally safer by being located in the exotic Orient, the Craftsman presented in 1728 the fictional Persian Kingdom of Timbutan, where the rule of an evil chief minister lasted 'till the complaints and cries of the people (which were now grown almost universal) reached the Court and pierced the ears of a most indulgent Prince'. In 1769 Junius caused a sensation with a bold letter to George III claiming that the King had never 'been acquainted with the language of truth, until you heard it in the complaints of your people'.
The press appeal to the monarch was in one respect realistic. The two biggest shifts in political fortune in the century, the ushering in of one-party Whig rule in 1714 and its destruction in the early 1760s were due largely to the personal opinions of Georges I and III. However the Georges did not appreciate attempts to dictate their policies and ministerial choices by their ministers, let alone by the opposition press. There was little reason for them to listen to the 'cries of the people', however defined or communicated, and for most of the century the political system displayed a striking stability in the face of opposition agitation. Lord Beauchamp informed William Eden in 1770 that he could not see 'that the threats of your Yorkshire patriots over a bottle need disturb the sleep of any past or present minister'.
The attack on a monarch misled by evil ministers could serve to excuse assaults on the royal prerogative, but a monarch and ministry supported by a loyal Parliament, however corrupt, was difficult to condemn without rejecting the political system. This was not an acceptable option for most opposition publications linked closely as they were to politicians who wished to gain the king's confidence, not to overthrow the system.
If the direct influence of the press in specific political conjunctures was limited it could be suggested that the press played a more important role by creating and sustaining a climate of opinion within which decisions were taken. This suggestion is harder to refute than the claim of direct political influence, but it rests on some questionable assumptions about the character of the press.
The eighteenth-century British press was a medium not a message. Most historians who have considered it have seen it as part of the political world, the alternative structure of politics, and have studied or quoted papers with a marked partisan viewpoint, particularly those that adopted opposition, let alone radical, papers did not enjoy a monopoly of political opinion. Aside from those papers that were subsidized to take ministerial stance, there were others who independently adopted the same attitude. For example, the Leeds Intelligencer lambasted those who criticised the war with America. Far fewer London papers were subsidized by Walpole than the opposition press claimed.
In addition, the majority of papers, both London and provincial, adopted no obvious political stance at all. Historians have tended to neglect the economics of the press and to exaggerate its interest in politics. Most papers were owned and produced by printers or consortia of booksellers and published for profit, not in order to advocate a particular political line. Adopting such a line could indeed lead to extensive sales. The Craftsman enjoyed sales of over 10,000 copies weekly for some of its run, while Henry Sampson Woodfall, the owner-printer of the Public Advertiser saw his sales rise substantially thanks to Junius. However, a partisan stance could limit the range of possible readership and of sources of advertising, and the latter was particularly significant as advertising became an increasingly important source of profit. Information on what readers wanted is limited, and it is not clear how newspaper owners discovered these preferences, other than by trial and error, but one noticeable shift in the contents of the eighteenth-century press is towards non-political matters. Items devoted to social questions, habits and fashions became increasingly important. Literary particularly theatrical, news became a regular feature, as did economic news, though nothing approaching the percentage of non-advertising space devoted to it in modern ‘quality’ British newspapers. The activities of criminals had always been a popular topic, but sporting news, virtually absent in the 1720s, was regularly carried by the 1780s, with much news of horse racing, boxing, cock fighting and cricket. There was no sharp division in content between the newspapers, many of them weeklies, and the magazines; and the press increasingly carried magazine-type material.
To appreciate the press and the problems of editorial selection in the period it is necessary to dispense with the idea that closely argued, reasoned discussions of political theory or sophisticated examples of literary analysis represent the goal that newspapers pursued, or should have pursued. This was not apparently what most readers wanted, at least insofar as is suggested by the relatively low circulation figures of most essay papers, such as the Monitor, when compared to the advertisers, papers that carried news, but concentrated on their advertising. In 1769 Berrow's Weekly Journal printed an essay commenting on the transformation of newspapers from being 'dry Registers of common intelligence' to a situation on which nearly every paper was 'now a Magazine'.
lf readers were interested in non-political news and owners were greatly concerned about advertising, the political role of the press was further limited by the scale of its readership. There was no massive growth in popular readership particularly outside London. An examination of the literary or theatrical news or the bilk of the advertisements in the London and provincial press does not suggest much of an effort to cater for and thus create a mass readership, and the bulk of the claims made for its existence related to London. The cut-price London papers of the second quarter of the century came to an end and were neither succeeded by newspapers, nor matched in the provinces. Successful early eighteenth-century papers, such as the Craftsman and Mist's Weekly Journal could hope to sell about 10,000 copies per issue, figures rarely exceeded in the period 1760-90. The price of newspapers rose faster than the rate of inflation. Successive Stamp Acts helped to keep newspapers an expensive product. The newspaper stamp, which had stood at ½d for half a sheet in 1712 was 3 ½d per paper by late 1797. Duty was the principal cost of the press, the financial margins of newspapers being too tight to permit them to absorb increases, and successive rises in duty led to higher prices for newspapers. The Ipswich Gazette sold for 2d in 1725, the price rising to 2½d in 1757, 3d in 1776, 3½d in 1789, 4d in 1792 and 6d in 1797. Other papers ranging from the Hull Advertiser to the London Evening Post displayed similar changes. In comparison in the mid 1780s the normal daily rate of pay for unskilled workers was 12d in Lancashire and 24d in London.
It is unclear how far circulation would have risen without duty. It would presumably had led to fewer newspaper failures, such as those that followed the 1712 Stamp Act. Partly because of price, newspapers were closer in their appeal to the largely prosperous readership of books and magazines than to the larger but less exalted readership of chapbooks and ballad sheets. If the distinction between polite and popular culture is to be adopted then the press was clearly a facet of the former. The limited readership of the press places a new perspective upon the claims that have been made for the creation of a national political culture.
Only a small portion of those papers that were printed survive, but they are scattered all over the country, largely because of the large number of provincial papers, 43 in 1748, twice that number by the end of the century. Aside from the major collections in national libraries, particularly the British and Bodleian Libraries, these papers are generally available in borough and county central libraries. In some, such as Leeds, readers are encouraged to use microfilms, in others, such as Bristol, Derby, Newcastle, Sheffield and York, the originals are made freely available. The development of newspapers was very varied. Some major towns, such as Bristol, Exeter, Newcastle and Norwich, were significant centres of newspaper production by the 1720s, several producing more than one newspaper. Other major towns, such as Birmingham, Cambridge, Hull, Liverpool and Oxford, took longer to develop a successful paper. However, by the mid-eighteenth century a large number of towns either possessed papers or had had quite long-lasting ones, and this included fairly small towns such as Cirencester and Kendal. Tracking down these papers is not always easy. A lengthy appendix in R.M. Wiles' Freshest Advices. Early Provincial Newspapers in England (Columbus, Ohio, 1965) provides a fairly good guide to the location of original copies of papers published up to 1760, but there is no comparable work for the rest of the century. The Bibliography of British Newspapers project has only produced three guides, for Kent, Nortumbria and Wiltshire, though they are very good. For the rest of the country the best advice is to ask at the reference and local studies department of the major county library, though in some counties the best collections are held elsewhere, in Somerset for example in the County Record Office.
The value of the press as a political weapon was therefore less than might be assumed from its growth. Despite the spate of new titles and the development of such news forms as daily Sunday and provincial papers it was largely a matter of more of the same. Opposition papers might set out to 'check the insolence and restrain the tyranny of ministerial influence', as the Westminster Gazette hoped to do in 1777, but their influence in the circles where decisions were taken was a limited one. The Daily Gazetteer, the leading ministerial paper in 1740, stressed the royal prerogative and the position of Parliament as the questioner of policy, adding 'To suppose that a point of this importance ought to be explained in public prints to every little fellow that asks it is supposing our government dissolved, and the mob ready to sit in judgement on the legislature'. A pamphlet of 1731 asked, ‘Have the authors of a two-penny weekly journal, a right to make a national inquiry'?
This was the language of eighteenth-century government, the stance of power, and it was not fertile ground for the development of a politically influential press. Through considering the limited impact of the press it is possible to appreciate better the nature of the eighteenth-century political system. It was neither an age of mass politics nor of mass culture, and developments that hinted in those directions were limited. The growth of the press was once such, but in the eighteenth-century newspapers existed within a political system that largely ignored them, a political system based on landed power.
- Jeremy Black, The English Press in the Eighteenth Century (Croom Helm, 1986)
- John Brewer, Party Ideology and Popular Politics at the Accession of George III (Cambridge University Press, 1976)
- Ian Christie, Myth and Reality in Late-Eighteenth-century British Politics and other papers (1972)
- Geoffrey Cornfield, The Development of the Provincial Newspaper, 1700-1760 (Oxford University Press, 1962)
- Michael Harris, 'Print and Politics in the Age of Walpole', in Britain in the Age of Walpole, ed. Jeremy Black (Macmillan, 1984)
- Marie Peters, Pitt and Popularity (Oxford University Press, 1980)
- Robert Rea, The English Press in Politics 1760-1774 (Lincoln, Nebraska, 1962)
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