A History of Nova Scotia Page


Book #3: TOC
The Road To Being Canada
(1815-1867)
Chapter 30, The English Press And Public Opinion

John Richard Green:

"The first great journals date from this time [1776-1789]. With the Morning Chronicle, the Morning Post, the Morning Herald, and the Times, all of which appeared in the interval between the opening years of the American war and the beginning of the French Revolution, journalism took a new tone of responsibility and intelligence ..."1
Public opinion from this point was to be moulded by what was written in the public press.

In the thirty year period between 1790 and 1821, the number of newspapers circulating in Great Britain was almost doubled. "In the same period there was a notable increase in periodical literature, circulating libraries, and book clubs. The influence of this dissemination and self-consciousness to the unrepresented classes which had been lacking hitherto. It accounts for an intensity of public feeling over the issue of reform which otherwise would be inexplicable."2

The aristocratic institutions in England had been thoroughly shaken by the American and French revolutions: these were politically charged times, filled with dreamers and egocentrics. These were times of high literary achievement. These were the times of the English romantic writers; such as the poets: Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, and Byron; such as the essayists: DeQuincey, Lamb and Hazlitt; and of the romantic "history" writers, such as Scott.

It was during this time that two famous literary periodicals came into being: the Edinburgh Review and its rival the Quarterly. The Edinburgh Review was founded in 1802 by a group of radicals -- mostly lawyers and university men from the Scottish capital, such as: Brougham, Sydney Smith, Francis Jeffrey3 -- these men, who, at first, many considered to be seditious, were intent to bring to the public's attention the economic misery and social plight of certain groups such as the rural population of England and the blacks of the world; they were advocates of popular education. On the other hand there were those of the Quarterly, such as Sir Walter Scott and the other Tories who were keen on preserving English traditions.

"The differences and animosities were fully reflected in the radical press, which included Henry White's Independent Whig, T.J. Wooler's Black Dwarf, the Hunt Brothers' (Leigh and John) Examiner, Cobbett's Political Register, and the many scurrilous sheets with names like Cap of Liberty and Medusa. Such publications abused each other as often as they did the government. The government and its friends studied them nervously, from time to time, and occasionally prosecuted, though doing so had become much more difficult since Charles James Fox's 1792 amendment to the law of libel, which allowed the jury (as opposed to the judge) to decide whether the words complained of were libelous. Juries, especially those in the London area, were usually unpredictable, notably in cases involving freedom of the press. In the years 1808-21 the authorities embarked on 101 prosecutions for seditious liable, and as often as not failed to get a conviction."4
But the authorities did get convictions some very famous ones, ones which must have come to the notice of the press writers in Halifax. William Cobbett went to Newgate for two years after he, in 1810, was successfully prosecuted for seditious libel. Leigh Hunt was also sentenced for two years.

People like Cobbett and Hunt likely wrote critically of the government because of their convictions that things were not right and there was a need for change. However, as literacy spread and the population grew, reading material on any number of subjects, was becoming an increasingly popular pastime; publishing was becoming a big business.

"Throughout the period of the Peninsular War, which he noisily and ignorantly opposed, Cobbett had been carrying on a Reform campaign in his Political Register, partly from prison where he lay two years to expiate his protest against the flogging of English militiaman at Ely by German soldiers. He invested a catchword -- 'The Thing' -- for the union of Ministers, boroughmongers, pensioners, squires, clergy and manufacturers, by which he conceived England to be bound, bullied and bled; giving thus to all those in power one head that he might break it. But the Register cost more than a shilling, and most of those who could afford a shilling a week dreaded Cobbett, or dreaded being seen to read him. The working-men clubbed to buy copies and read them aloud, a method particularly useful in those days of illiteracy, but gatherings held for this purpose were broken up and penalised. It was in 1816 when he boldly reduced the price to twopence, that he became the real leader of the masses ..."5
Circulating libraries & subscription libraries came into vogue6. Novels were becoming respectable and a major literary art form, as Scott and Austen will bear witness. A war of ideas was being conducted by the writers of the time. There was a "fissure which ran right across the literary scene, tending to divide writers into two huge camps ... the acceptance or rejection of absolute morality." (If one is to understand the society of Nova Scotia as it existed in the early 1800s and the political intrigues in respect to its government, it will be important for the reader to understand the position of these two schools of thought.) Austen was an example of an traditionalist who thought that "natural or absolute morality came before the needs, real or supposed, of society." William Godwin was an example of those who rejected absolute morality. Godwin, feeding on the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote Enquiry Concerning Political Justice in 1793. Godwin's work influenced the English romantics, including Shelley and Byron. (Shelley married Godwin's daughter, Mary.) "Godwin believed it is impossible to be rationally persuaded and not act accordingly, and that therefore, man could live in harmony without law and institutions; he believed in the perfectibility of man."7

NEXT: [Chapter 31, Newspapers In Nova Scotia]

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Peter Landry