It’s amazing how similar the world of the late-eighteenth century pamphlet wars is to today’s social media. Both provide a more or less open space for people to express their views on any topic, join in controversies and try to influence and form that elusive power known as ‘Public Opinion’. Neither demand any literary skill — or even much in the way of literacy. Both display more or less total disregard of the truth, often resorting to the crudest lampoons and distortions to hammer home their message. If the pamphlets of the eighteenth century seem laughable now, that’s mostly because of changes in the use of language, not modern sophistication. Spend five minutes with Twitter, Facebook or even the television and you’ll witness a good deal that would put even the crudest Georgian pamphleteers to shame.
Radicals and Revolutionaries
Perhaps the period when government propaganda was most common and most successful was from 1792 onwards, when the target included attacks on the ideas and beliefs associated with the French Revolution.
Part 2 of Tom Paine’s “The Rights of Man” was deliberately made cheap to buy so that it could obtain the widest possible circulation. That was why, according to the Attorney General of the time, he had not brought a prosecution for seditious libel against Part 1, which sold for three shillings (maybe £30 today). “Reprehensible as that book was,” he explained, “it was ushered into the world under circumstances that led me to believe that it would be confined to the judicious reader.” Part 2 was sold as a sixpenny pamphlet. Paine’s style of writing was also graphic and easy to understand. When the Attorney General “found that even children’s sweetmeats were wrapped up with parts of this, and delivered into their hands, in the hope that they would read it,” he felt he had to prosecute.
The Government’s Response
The Post Office was supposed to carry any newspaper, pro or anti-government, so long as the price was paid. In the welter of pamphlets that were now being produced, the government too resorted to establishing (and subsidising) ever more pro-government newspapers and broadsheets to fight fire with fire. Naturally the opposition and the radical groups fought back, so the government, unable to forbid circulation outright, encouraged the Post Office to ‘lose’ issues sent to distant subscribers by post. Trying to use the law relating to ‘seditious libel’ as a means of suppression produced mixed results, mostly because the grounds for determining if a publication fell under that definition were unclear. Under the Libel Act of 1792, juries in libel trials were charged with deciding if material was libellous. Lengthy battles followed in the courts, juries were reluctant to convict and the government learned to tread warily.
That left matters more or less in limbo, so the government shifted their focus instead to suppressing radical groups directly, rather than concentrating on what they published. It took a while, and several failures on the government side, but eventually nearly all radical opposition was driven underground — at least for the duration of hostilities with France.
A New Concept: Public Opinion
The 1790s were the first time when the governing class in Britain thought it necessary even to consider the views of the common people. They had seen what had happened in France when ordinary folk — the sans culottes — were mobilised by the radicals to assault and overthrow an entrenched regime. What could happen there could happen in Britain.
In 1797, The Anti-Jacobin; or Weekly Examiner, perhaps the most successful pro-government publication, claimed a circulation of 50,000. For comparison, the most popular newspaper of the time, The Times, printed some 3,000 copies per day. Hannah More’s series of “Cheap Repository Tracts” reached a collective circulation of a million copies. Later she collected and republished them in book form, subdivided into sections called “Tales for the Common People” and “Stories for Persons of Middle Rank.” Others wrote Anti-Jacobin novels. Most had identical ‘plots’ in which a naïve person is mislead into following a radical philosopher. This produces various calamities until the ‘victim’ of the deception either sees the light and returns to sensible ways, or falls in destitution and often ends on the gallows.
It’s fair to say that many of the authors of these pamphlets were no more sophisticated — and no more eager to abide by the truth — than many whose words fill social media today. Propagandists on both sides were far more interested in making a point than avoiding misrepresentation or outright fiction. Even educated writers who put pen to paper to produce a pamphlet or article, often anonymously, churned out crude, often farcical rubbish. Still, as we know to our cost today, it’s sometimes the crudest caricatures that produce the most effects. The Internet trolls, purveyors of fake news and the hacks who write for scandal-sheets are part of a thoroughly dishonourable tradition that goes back 250 years or more.