Tyrants always want to silence the critics

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

Two hundred and fifty years ago the pamphleteers were the bloggers of the day. The Finkelstein plan in Australia is a modern version of the License of the Press under George III. Another excuse to tell people what they are allowed to read.

One John Wilkes was elected MP for Aylesbury in 1757.  George III soon-to-be-crowned King, arranged for his friend the Earl of Bute to get the job of PM. Wilkes wasn’t too happy with that. He thought Bute was incompetent, and so when one supporter of Bute started a newsletter called The Briton, it was only eight days later that Wilkes started his own newsletter, called the North Briton in response. Wilkes wrote anonymously each week, but his 45th edition was too much for George III and Wilkes was charged with Libel for accusing the George of lying, and he was tossed in the Tower. He challenged the arrest and won (eventually). His speeches during the trial became famous and had people chanting “liberty and Wilkes” in the streets. Sadly troops fired on the protesters, killing seven, in the Massacre of St George’s Field. The cry of “45″ (from the 45th edition) became synonymous with freedom of speech. Wilkes fled at one point to France, but was imprisoned again. The North Briton was then published by William Bingley, who also ended up in goal, and spent two years there without trial. Risky practice, what, speaking your mind.

Britain has a proud history of democracy, but true democracy is such a fragile construct. Wilkes was initially protected by his position in Parliament, but it didn’t last. Apparently he was also challenged to a duel which left him wounded, expelled from the House of Commons, and though he was re-elected three times, the result was overturned repeatedly by Parliament. So much for the choice of the people. Sheer persistence, and masses of protestors meant eventually Wilkes took his place, and went on to create legislation to stop the government from punishing people who wrote political commentary.

Partly thanks to Wilkes, I can write without fear of being tossed in the Tower. But lest we forgot how fragile that freedom is, we ought revisit the struggle. Andrew Bolt may not face gaol, but he is not free to write his considered opinion either. The Irish voted against the EU so the referendum was rerun, but the British haven’t even had the chance to vote once yet, as apparently it’s beyond the United Kingdom’s elected reps to arrange one. The Australians voted against a Carbon Tax, and got one anyway. And just as it was 250 years ago, the tool of pillory keeps many people from speaking their mind. Political correctness being just another form of bullying opponents.

Recently I was lucky enough to handle an original bound volume of these newsletters. The quote below comes from page 1 of the first. I’ve transcribed the first page here (errors are all mine). Click on the image to read the original.

Thanks to Mark

THE NORTH BRITON

Numb. I. Saturday, June 5, 1762

The Liberty of the press is the birth-right of a BRITON, and is justly esteemed the firmest bulwark of the liberties of this country. It has been the terror of all bad ministers; for their dark and dangerous designs, or their weakness, inability, and duplicity, have thus been detected and shewn to the public, generally in too strong and just colours for them long to bear up against the odium of mankind. Can we then be surprized that so various and infinite arts have been employed, at one time entirely to set aside, at another to take off the force, and blunt the edge, of this most sacred weapon, given for the defence of truth and liberty? A wicked and corrupt administration must naturally dread this appeal to the world; and will be for keeping all the means of information equally from the prince, parliament, and people. Every method will then be tried, and all arts put in practice, to check the spirit of knowledge and enquiry. Even the court of justice have in the most dangerous way, because under the sanction of law, been drawn in to second the dark views of an arbitrary ministry, and to stifle in the birth all infant virtue. From this motive, in former times, the King’s-bench has inflicted the most grievous punishments of fine, pillory, or imprisonment, or perhaps all three, on some who have stood forth the champions of their country, and whose writings have been the honour of their age and nation.

Under the government of a STUART, which has been so fatal to ENGLAND, the most daring encroachments have been made on the favorite liberties of the people, and the freedom of the press has been openly violated. Even a License of the press has been appointed. Nothing but the vilest ministerial trash, and falsehoods fabricated by a wicked party, had then the sanction of this tool of power; nor of consequence could any production, breathing the spirit of liberty, have a chance of being ushered to the light. The imprimatur of the minister was scarcely ever given, but to compositions equally disgraceful to letters and humanity. I do not however recollect that any of these hirelings have ventured, as the BRITON of last Saturday has done, magnificently to display the royal arms at the head of their papers. Does this author mean to intimidate? Or is it to insinuate that this new paper comes forth, like the GAZETTE, by authority, and that he is fighting under the ministerial banner? All opposition therefore to him, according to this idea, is to be considered as an indignity offered to the administration and an affront to the higher powers, who may be supposed to protect, perhaps to pay him. This is surely too stale a trick now to pass. I rather think the royal arms are prostituted by a mercenary scribbler….

Spartacus: John Wilkes.

Wikipaedia: John Wilkes.

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