Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Lord Macaulay and the News

One way to pursue the technological history of modernity is to try to understand how news and ideas got around at any given time. For instance, I wrote a short piece last year about Baron von Grimm, who created, helped to write, and distributed a newsletter that kept wealthy and literate citizens of 18th-century France informed about what was really happening in their country — as opposed to what the strictly-censored official sources of news wanted them to believe.

But Grimm did not invent this sort of thing. There’s a fascinating account of an early stage in the history of the newsletter in one of the most famous of all works of narrative history, Lord Macaulay’s History of England from the Accession of James the Second. Macaulay, in classic Victorian fashion, takes a few hundred pages to get around to the official starting point of his book, because how can you understand the rise to the throne of James II if you don't understand the career of his older brother, Charles II, whose coming to the throne makes no sense if you don't grasp the essential narrative of the English Civil War, which has its roots in ... You get the idea.

But somewhere in that opening 500 pages Macaulay takes a (very long) chapter to do a kind of social and economic history of Restoration England, covering everything from population estimates to leading industries to the social place of clergymen. It’s a fascinating narrative, and anticipates models of social history that didn’t come to their full flower for another century or so. One of his interests here is technological change, and that leads him to describe the rise of the postal service. “A rude and imperfect establishment of posts for the conveyance of letters had been set up by Charles the First, and had been swept away by the civil war. Under the Commonwealth the design was resumed. At the Restoration the proceeds of the Post Office, after all expenses had been paid, were settled on the Duke of York [later to be King James II]. On most lines of road the mails went out and came in only on the alternate days. In Cornwall, in the fens of Lincolnshire, and among the hills and lakes of Cumberland, letters were received only once a week.”

It was a start. But then things started to change in London specifically, though not as a result of a governmental program. Rather, “in the reign of Charles the Second, an enterprising citizen of London, William Dockwray, set up, at great expense, a penny post, which delivered letters and parcels six or eight times a day in the busy and crowded streets near the Exchange, and four times a day in the outskirts of the capital.” Exciting! (By the way, I wish we would retire the term "entrepreneur" and replace it with "enterprising citizen.") But, Macaulay immediately notes, “this improvement was, as usual, strenuously resisted,” and in a turn of events that’s hard to understand today, people began to insist that the penny post was somehow connected with the so-called (and ultimately shown to be fictional) Popish plot against King Charles — perhaps a way for conspirators to share plans. It is characteristic of that age of political intrigue that when people heard about a new medium of communication they immediately speculated on its usefulness to the perfidious.

But the penny post worked; a wide range of Londoners found it useful. And as the various postal services, public and private, became more strongly established, people became more eager for and expectant of news. Macaulay explains, in a passage I will quote at some length, that there was one particular form of news that became something of a rage in the latter years of the Stuarts:

No part of the load which the old mails carried out was more important than the newsletters. In 1685 nothing like the London daily paper of our time existed, or could exist. Neither the necessary capital nor the necessary skill was to be found. Freedom too was wanting, a want as fatal as that of either capital or skill.

So for Macaulay there were political, technological, and socio-economic reasons — all interacting with one another — why newspapers did not yet exist, even though

the press was not indeed at that moment under a general censorship. The licensing act, which had been passed soon after the Restoration, had expired in 1679. Any person might therefore print, at his own risk, a history, a sermon, or a poem, without the previous approbation of any officer; but the Judges were unanimously of opinion that this liberty did not extend to Gazettes, and that, by the common law of England, no man, not authorised by the crown, had a right to publish political news. While the Whig party was still formidable, the government thought it expedient occasionally to connive at the violation of this rule. During the great battle of the Exclusion Bill, many newspapers were suffered to appear, the Protestant Intelligence, the Current Intelligence, the Domestic Intelligence, the True News, the London Mercury. None of these was published oftener than twice a week. None exceeded in size a single small leaf. The quantity of matter which one of them contained in a year was not more than is often found in two numbers of the Times.

Yet despite the limits of the medium, the Royal party felt that they needed to keep such newsletters under direct control:

After the defeat of the Whigs it was no longer necessary for the King to be sparing in the use of that which all his Judges had pronounced to be his undoubted prerogative. At the close of his reign no newspaper was suffered to appear without his allowance: and his allowance was given exclusively to the London Gazette. The London Gazette came out only on Mondays and Thursdays. The contents generally were a royal proclamation, two or three Tory addresses, notices of two or three promotions, an account of a skirmish between the imperial troops and the Janissaries on the Danube, a description of a highwayman, an announcement of a grand cockfight between two persons of honour, and an advertisement offering a reward for a strayed dog. The whole made up two pages of moderate size.

Such was journalism. As in France a hundred years later, the people of Restoration England knew that they were being deprived of a thorough and accurate account of events — a troublesome thing in a time of such frequent political upheavals. These chaotic political conditions, in company with the rudiments of a news-sharing infrastructure, gave impetus to entrepreneurs to develop the technological skills and distribution networks necessarily to create something like the modern newspaper — which started to happen early in the next century.

Macaulay, writing in a time when Britain was awash in newspapers and journals of all varieties that covered a wide range of political and cultural subjects — he himself, in addition to his political career, wrote regularly for the Edinburgh Review — understood that the last years of the Stuarts had laid the foundation for his own informational environment. Moreover, he was one of the first historians to recognize the value of those early experiments in news-gathering and news-distributing: he learned most of what he knew about public opinion in the Restoration era by reading those old newsletters.

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