Censorship in 1703

Posted by Helen Wednesday, July 31, 2013 , ,

With all the various court cases going on and complaints about nasty things being said on twitter, it might be worth looking at certain aspects of censorship as practised in 1703. On July 31 of that year Daniel Defoe, the writer, journalist, merchant, probable royal spy and political muckraker was placed in the stocks as punishment for writing a curious pamphlet entitled The Shortest Way With Dissenters.

It is written in the style of existing attacks on Dissenters, attacks that became more frequent and more hostile as Queen Anne succeeded to the throne in 1702. Defoe took those attacks further and ended his pamphlet:

Alas, the Church of England! What with Popery on one hand, and Schismatics on the other, how has She been crucified between two thieves. NOW, LET US CRUCIFY THE THIEVES!

Let her foundations be established upon the destruction of her enemies! The doors of Mercy being always open to the returning part of the deluded people, let the obstinate be ruled with the rod of iron!

Let all true sons of so holy and oppressed a Mother, exasperated by her afflictions, harden their hearts against those who have oppressed her!

And may God Almighty put it into the hearts of all the friends of Truth, to lift up a Standard against Pride and ANTICHRIST! that the Posterity of the Sons of Error may be rooted out from the face of this land, for ever!
The pamphlet caused a great deal of excitement and was eventually decided to be ironic and generally seditious.
This resulted in the issuing of a warrant by the High Tory Secretary of State, the Earl of Nottingham, for the arrest of Defoe on the charge of seditious libel, the order being given to "… make Strict and diligent Search for Daniel Fooe and him having found you are to apprehend and seize together with his Papers for high Crime and misdemeanours and to bring him before me …"

Defoe was finally imprisoned on 21 May 1703 after avoiding his summons and evading capture. He was fined, made to stand in the pillory on three occasions and remained in prison till November; in the meantime, his business affairs sank into ruin. The whole affair left a lasting impression on him, which can be felt in his subsequent writings.

In the years following his arrest and release, Defoe made several attempts to explain The Shortest Way and his own viewpoint. Amongst the series of explanatory pamphlets doing this are An Explanation of a Late Pamphlet, Entituled, The Shortest Way… (1703) and A Dialogue Between a Dissenter and the Observator (1703). In addition, the suspected involvement of the Tory Speaker of the House, Robert Harley, in obtaining the release of Defoe is credited as the beginning of their professional relationship, in which Defoe worked as a propagandist for Harley after he succeeded Nottingham as Secretary of State in 1704.
The pillorying of July 31 did not have the desired effect as the populace threw flowers at him rather than the conventional rotten vegetables and dead cats.

In addition there was a broadsheet published by Thomas Brown in Edinburgh in 1706, entitled A Dialogue Between the Pillory and Daniel Defoe.


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