The invectives of Junius

Published : Feb 25, 2005 00:00 IST

There is in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum (No. 27,776) a proof-sheet of "Letter XVI." of the "Letters of Junius", dated "29. July. 1769" in a handwriting which is not in the usual handwriting of the Junius letters, and is not distinguishable from the handwriting of Philip Francis: Francis had a habit of placing a full-stop between each item of a date. Clearly a proof-sheet of Letter XVI. had passed through the hands of Philip Francis. -

There is in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum (No. 27,776) a proof-sheet of "Letter XVI." of the "Letters of Junius", dated "29. July. 1769" in a handwriting which is not in the usual handwriting of the Junius letters, and is not distinguishable from the handwriting of Philip Francis: Francis had a habit of placing a full-stop between each item of a date. Clearly a proof-sheet of Letter XVI. had passed through the hands of Philip Francis. -

Invective has enjoyed a place in political discourse since the Greeks and the Romans. The Letters of Junius won immortal fame for elegance of style and a sure knowledge of the happenings in Britain in the 18th century.

"TO attack vices in the abstract, without touching persons may be safe fighting, indeed, but it is fighting with shadows. My greatest comfort and encouragement to proceed has been to see that those who have no shame, and no fear of anything else, have appeared touched by my satires."

The celebrated poet Alexander Pope's explanation to Dr. Arbuthnot was gleefully seized by Junius to justify the style of invective he had made his own in the Letters he wrote to Public Advertiser of London, from January 21, 1769, to January 21, 1772. That style remains unsurpassed to this day. It serves as a rebuke to any ignorant and arrogant babu who presumes to prescribe limits of political discourse during election campaigns. Invective has enjoyed a place in that discourse since the Greeks and the Romans. Junius wrote in a disguised hand and his identity remains an unsolved literary mystery.

On November 9, 63 B.C., Cicero denounced Lucius Sergius Catilina in the Senate in these terms: "In the whole of Italy, there is not one single pioneer, gladiator, robber, assassin, parricide, will-forger, cheat, glutton, wastrel, adulterer, prostitute, corrupter of youth, or youth who has been corrupted, indeed any nasty individual of any kind whatever, who would not be obliged to admit he has been Catilina's intimate."

It was not abuse for its own sake, the kind that is indulged in to vent the spleen. It was abuse that laced political argument. Grammarians called Cicero's orations the Invectives. English politics was far the richer for the use of invective in Parliament, in the press, on the public platform and - in election campaigns. Illiterates may be readily pardoned for their ignorance of the vast treasure of invective that forms part of English political literature over the centuries. They deserve no such forbearance for their arrogance in presuming to banish it from political debate. That power belongs to the people alone.

Cicero railed against the social evils and political corruption, which eventually overwhelmed the great Republic. Junius was as outraged by the conditions in Britain. Corruption was rife. The treasury was sinking under debts and expenses. Public offices and command of regiments were sold like licences and permits in India not long ago. The American colonies were alienated and subjected to repression. The judiciary was suborned. Like Cicero, Junius had one clear aim - to bring down the government headed by a man he despised; in his case, the Duke of Grafton who had deserted his patron, Lord Chatham, and become Prime Minister in 1768. He fell in January 1770.

To Junius "the original fault is in government". It was "the misconduct of Ministers" and "the pernicious hand of government which alone can make a whole people desperate". The invectives of Junius won immortal fame for elegance of style and a sure knowledge of the happenings. He knew a lot. Dr. Johnson told Boswell: "I should have believed Burke to be Junius, because I know of no man but Burke who is capable of writing these letters, but Burke spontaneously denied it to me." An author remarked that The Letters of Junius "rank among English classics as Livy or Tacitus do among Romans. There can be no doubt that they will live commensurately with the language in which they are composed." Tacitus was, indeed, Junius' favourite author.

Burke, while admiring his abilities, was amazed at the impunity that Junius enjoyed. "How comes this Junius to have broken through the cobwebs of the law, and to range uncontrolled, unpunished, through the land? The myrmidons of the court have been long, and are still pursuing him in vain... the mighty boar of the forest, that has broken through all their toils. But will all their efforts avail? No sooner has he wounded one than he lays down another dead at his feet. For my part, when I saw his attack upon the king, I own my blood ran cold.... Yes, Sir, there are in that composition many bold truths, by which a wise prince might profit. It was the rancour and venom with which I was struck... . King, lords, and commons are but the sport of his fury. Were he a member of this house, what might not be expected from his knowledge, his firmness, and integrity? He would be easily known by his contempt of all danger, by his penetration, by his vigour. Nothing would escape his vigilance and activity. Bad ministers could conceal nothing from his sagacity; nor could promises nor threats induce him to conceal anything from the public."

BUT who was Junius? Suspects were many, including Gibbon. Macaulay's verdict is shared by most. It was Philip Francis, one of the four Councillors, who made Governor-General Warren Hastings' life miserable.

It all began on April 28, 1767, when the proprietor and editor of Public Advertiser, Henry Sampson Woodfall, received in the mail an anonymous article under the pseudonym Mnemon. Varied were the ones he chose for later articles - Attious, Philo-Junius, Nemesis, Lucius and Brutus - before settling on the middle name of the Roman patriot, Lucius Junius Brutus. That was in 1769 after his articles had stirred the public. They were copied by dailies and evening papers.

But the fame for elegance of invective was won to the neglect of a superior claim. Junius deserves to be remembered as a champion of freedom of the press. His denunciation of the Chief Justice Lord Mansfield's ruling, that the judge, not the jury, had the right to determine whether a writing was libellous or not, led to the enactment of the Libel Act, 1793, sponsored by Charles James Fox.

He consistently denounced abuse and extension of parliamentary privilege. He knew that Parliament could transgress its power and destroy liberty. "They who would carry the privileges of Parliament farther than Junius, either do not mean well to the public, or know not what they are doing. The Government of England is a government of law. We betray ourselves, we contradict the spirit of our laws, and we shake the whole system of English jurisprudence, whenever we entrust a discretionary power over the life, liberty or fortune of the subject, to any man, or act of men, whatsoever, upon a presumption that it will not be abused." This was written in 1771.

Earlier, he had warned: "It is not an act of open violence done by the King, or any direct or palpable breach of the law attempted by his minister that can ever endanger the liberties of this country. Against such a king or minister the people would immediately take the alarm, and all the parties unite to oppose him... .We can never be really in danger, until the forms of Parliament are made use of to destroy the substance of our civil and political liberties; until Parliament itself betrays its trust, by contributing to establish new principles of government, and employing the very weapons committed to it by the collective body to stab the Constitution." Remember, this is precisely what the Indian Parliament did during the Emergency. One repressive law after another; not to forget the repressive legislation on Press enacted in Nehru's time.

In 1772 Junius published the collection Letters of Junius with a Preface and a Dedication to the English Nation. Woodfall brought out an edition in 1812. Junius wrote in the Preface: "I am no lawyer by profession." However, Lord Eldon, a distinguished Judge, remarked: "The author of the Letters of Junius, if not himself a lawyer, must certainly have written in concert with the ablest and the best of lawyers."

Junius wrote in his Dedication: "I am the sole repository of my own secret and it shall perish with me." Even Woodfall did not discover who his contributor was.

Much of what he wrote has a striking relevance to our times and especially to the Indian situation: "Let me exhort and conjure you never to suffer an invasion of your political constitution, however minute the instance may appear, to pass by without a determined, preserving resistance. One precedent creates another. They soon accumulate, and constitute law. What yesterday was fact, to-day is doctrine. Examples are supposed to justify the most dangerous measures, and where they do not suit exactly, the defect is supplied by analogy. Be assured that the laws, which protect us in our civil rights, grow out of the Constitution, and that they must fall or flourish with it... . Let it be impressed upon your minds, let it be instilled into your children, that the liberty of the press is the palladium of all the civil, political and religious rights of an Englishman."

The British Parliament's power is not fettered by a written Constitution. Yet, Junius wrote: "When we say that the legislature is supreme, we mean that it is the highest power known to the Constitution: - that it is the highest in comparison with the other subordinate powers established by the laws. In this sense, the word supreme is relative, not absolute. The power of the legislature is limited, not only by the general rules of natural justice, and the welfare of the community, but by the forms and principles of our particular Constitution."

He had a contempt for the Members of Parliament. "I am persuaded you will not leave it to the choice of seven hundred persons, notoriously corrupted by the crown, whether seven millions of their equals shall be freemen or slaves. The certainty of forfeiting their own rights, when they sacrifice those of the nation, is no check to a brutal, degenerate mind. Without insisting upon the extravagant concession made to harry the English, there are instances, in the history of other countries, of a formal, deliberate surrender of the public liberty into the hands of the sovereign. If England does not share the same fate, it is because we have better resources, than in the virtue of either House of Parliament."

From Jawaharlal Nehru to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, every Prime Minister has lectured to the press on the need for restraint, most presumptuously. This passage provides a corrective: "A considerable latitude must be allowed in the discussion of public affairs, or the liberty of the press will be of no benefit to society. As the indulgence of private malice and personal slander should be checked and resisted by every legal means, so a constant examination into the characters and conduct of ministers and magistrates should be equally promoted and encouraged. They who conceive that our newspapers are no restraint upon bad men, or impediment to the execution of bad measures, know nothing of this country. In that state of abandoned servility and prostitution, to which the influence of the crown has reduced the other branches of the legislature, our ministers and magistrates have in reality little punishment to fear, and few difficulties to contend with, beyond the censure of the press, and the spirit of resistance which it excites among the people."

With the letter on January 21, 1769, Junius came into his own. Extracts from that letter and the ones that followed reflect the clime of the times and provide no small instruction; especially his portrait of the "committed" Judge as we know from our experience from 1973 to this very day. "The pure and impartial administration of justice is, perhaps, the firmest bond to secure a cheerful submission of the people, and to engage their affections to government. It is not sufficient that questions of private right or wrong are justly decided, nor that Judges are superior to the vileness of pecuniary corruption. Jefferies himself, when the court had no interest, was an upright Judge. A court of justice may be subject to another sort of bias, most important and pernicious, as it reaches beyond the interest of individuals, and affects the whole community. A Judge under the influence of government, may be honest enough in the decision of private causes, yet a traitor to the pubic. When a victim is marked out by the ministry, this Judge will offer himself to perform the sacrifice. He will not scruple to prostitute his dignity, and betray the sanctity of his office, whenever an arbitrary point is to be carried for government, or the resentment of a court to be gratified."

The first letter concluded: "If by the immediate interposition of Providence, it were possible for us to escape a crisis so full of terror and despair, posterity will not believe the history of the present times. They will either conclude that our distresses were imaginary, or that we had the good fortune to be governed by men of acknowledged integrity and wisdom. They will not believe it possible that their ancestors cold have survived or recovered from so desperate a condition, while a Duke of Grafton was Prime Minister, and a Lord North Chancellor of the Exchequer; a Weymouth and Hillisborough Secretaries of State; a Granby Commander-in-Chief; and a Mansfield Chief Criminal Judge of the Kingdom."

Public Advertiser

Unfortunately for Lord Granby and for the government, Sir William Draper rushed to their defence. He attacked Junius for his anonymity and for the intemperance of the language, but slipped badly while doing so. He defended the Commander-in-Chief's favours as having been extracted from him by persons who "would pervert the open, unsuspecting, moments of convivial mirth, into sly insidious applications for preferment of party-systems, and would endeavour to surprise a good man, who cannot bear to see any one leave him dissatisfied, into unguarded promises." Sir William defended breaches of promise in such cases as well as Granby's "attention to his own family and relations".

Junius could hardly fail to exploit so fine an opening. His rejoinder began gently. It complimented Sir William "for the goodness of your heart", but rejected his charge that writings like his were the cause of the public evils of the time. "A little calm reflection might have shown you that national calamities do not arise from the description, but from the real character and conduct of Ministers.

"And, pray, who had defamed Granby; Sir William or Junius? It is you, Sir William Draper, who have taken pain to represent your friend in the character of a drunken landlord, who deals out his promises as liberally as his liquor, and will suffer no man to leave his table either sorrowful or sober. None but an intimate friend, who must frequently have seen him in these unhappy, disgraceful moments, could have described him so well."

He then turned the light and the heat on Sir William's conduct - "You are by no means undeserving of notice" - and accused him of selling his regiment for reward. Draper's reply, well constructed in parts, did not meet the points Junius had made. He attacked him, once again, for not revealing his name.

Ignoring Granby for the moment, Junius concentrated on Draper mentioning more details in support of his charges. No matter what Draper wrote it only provided grist to Junius' mill, which had begun to work in full steam by now. Draper had criticised Junius' use of interrogations: "I could, by malicious interrogation, disturb the peace of the most virtuous man in the kingdom... . Let Junius ask no more questions. You bite against a file: Cease, viper!"

It brought forth a reply, which showed Junius at his deadliest best: "An academical education has given you an unlimited command over the most beautiful figures of speech. Muskets, hatchets, racks, and vipers, dance through your letters in all the mazes of metaphorical confusion. These are the gloomy compassions of a disturbed imagination; the melancholy madness of poetry without the inspiration. I will not contend with you in point of composition; you are a scholar, Sir William, and, if I am truly informed, you write Latin with almost as much purity as English. Suffer me, then, (for I am a plain unlettered man) to continue that style of interrogation which suits my capacity, and to which, considering the readiness of your answers, you ought to have no objection. Do you really think, that, if I were to ask a most virtuous man, whether he ever committed theft, or murder, it would disturb his peace of mind? Such a question might, perhaps, discompose the gravity of his muscles, but I believe it would little affect the tranquillity of his conscience. Examine your own breast, Sir William and you will discover, that reproaches and inquiries have no power to affect either the man of unblemished integrity, or the abandoned profligate. It is the middle compound character which alone is vulnerable; the man, who, without firmness enough to avoid a dishonourable action, has feeling enough to be ashamed of it."

JUNIUS turned his attention to his favourite target, the Prime Minister, the Duke of Grafton, in successive letters. He did not care to separate his quarry's private life from his public conduct. He wrote: "Return, my Lord, before it be too late, to that easy insipid system which you first set out with. Take back your mistress; the name of friend may be fatal to her, for it leads to treachery and persecution. Indulge the people... . To be weak and inactive is safer than to be daring and criminal; and wide is the distance between a riot of the populace and a convulsion of the whole kingdom. You may live to make the experiment, but no honest man can wish you should survive it."

Another letter read: "If not the abilities of a great minister, if not the integrity of a patriot, or the fidelity of a friend, show us, at least, the firmness of a man. For the sake of your mistress, the lover shall be spared. I will not lead her into public as you have done, nor will I insult the memory of departed beauty. Her sex, which alone made her amiable in your eyes, makes her respectable in mine.

"The character of the reputed ancestors of some men has made it possible for their descendants to be vicious in the extreme without being degenerate. Those of your Grace, for instance, left no distressing examples of virtue ever to their legitimate posterity, and you may look back with pleasure to an illustrious pedigree in which heraldry has not left a single good quality upon record to insult or upbraid you. You have better proofs of your descent, my Lord, than the register of a marriage, or any troublesome inheritance of reputation. There are some hereditary strokes of character by which a family may be as clearly distinguished as by the blackest features of the human face. Charles the First lived and died a hypocrite. Charles the Second was a hypocrite of another sort and should have died upon the same scaffold. At the distance of a century we see their different characters happily revived and blended in your Grace. Sullen and severe without religion, profligate without gaiety, you live like Charles II, without being an amiable companion, and, for aught I know, may die as his father did without the reputation of a martyr."

He continued with yet greater force: "Marriage is the point on which every rake is stationary at last; and truly, my Lord, you may well be weary of the circuit you have taken, for you have now fairly travelled through every sign in the political zodiac, from the Scorpion, in which you stung Lord Chatham, to the hopes of a Virgin in the house of Bloomsbury. One would think that you had had sufficient experience of the frailty of nuptial engagements, or, at least, that such a friendship as the Duke of Bedford's might have been secured to you by the auspicious marriage of your late Duchess with his nephew. But ties of this tender nature cannot be drawn too close; and it may, possibly, be a part of the Duke of Bedford's ambition, after making her an honest woman, to work a miracle of the same sort upon your Grace." And, so he went after the Prime Minister, in letter after letter.

OTHERS were not neglected. His attack on William Blackstone, author of the awesome Commentaries on the Laws of England, can fittingly be applied to law officers who sell their souls to please the regime of the day. "Doctor Blackstone is solicitor to the queen. The Doctor recollected that he had a place to preserve, though he forgot that he had a reputation to lose. We have now the good fortune to understand the Doctor's principles as well as his writings. For the defence of truth, of law, and reason, the Doctor's book may be safely consulted; but whoever wishes to cheat a neighbour of his estate, or to rob a country of its rights, need make no scruple of consulting the Doctor himself."

But he always returned to the Duke of Grafton. "In the regular course of things, the period of the Duke of Grafton's ministerial manhood should now be approaching. The imbecility of his infant state was committed to Lord Chatham. Charles Townshend took some care of his education at that ambiguous age which lies between the follies of political childhood and the vices of puberty. The empire of the passions soon succeeded. His earliest principles and connections were of course forgotten or despised. The company he has lately kept has been of no service to his morals; and, in the conduct of public affairs, we see the character of his time of life strongly distinguished. An obstinate ungovernable self-sufficiency plainly points out to us that state of imperfect maturity at which the graceful levity of youth is lost, and the solidity of experience not yet acquired. It is possible the young man may in time grow wiser and reform; but, if I understand his disposition, it is not of such corrigible stuff that we should hope for any amendment in him before he has accomplished the destruction of this country. Like other rules, he may perhaps live to see his error, but not until he has ruined his estate."

On July 8, 1769, he wrote: "If nature had given you an understanding qualified to keep pace with the wishes and principles of your heart, she would have made you, perhaps, the most formidable minister that ever was employed under a limited monarch to accomplish the ruin of a free people. When neither the feelings of shame, the reproaches of conscience, nor the dread of punishment form any bar to the designs of a minister, the people would have too much reason to lament their condition, if they did not find some resource in the weakness of his understanding. We owe it to the bounty of Providence, that the completest depravity of the heart is sometimes strangely united with a confusion of the mind which counteracts the most favourite principles, and makes the same man treacherous without art, and a hypocrite without deceiving... With what force, my Lord, with what protection, are you prepared to meet the united detestation of the people of England?"

Not to the chancellorship of Cambridge, which he held. "The venerable tutors of the university will no longer distress your modesty by proposing you for a pattern to their pupils. The learned dullness of declamation will be silent; and even the venal muse, though happiest in fiction, will forget your virtues. Yet, for the benefit of the succeeding age, I could wish that your retreat might be deferred until your morals shall happily be ripened to their maturity of corruption at which the worst examples cease to be contagious."

Grafton's ally, the Duke of Bedford, received similar treatment. "You are so little accustomed to receive any marks of respect or esteem from the public, that if in the following lines a compliment or expression of applause should escape me, I fear you would consider it as a mockery of your established character, and perhaps an insult to your understanding... .

"I fear you have listened too long to the advice of those pernicious friends with whose interests you have sordidly united your own, and for whom you have sacrificed everything that ought to be dear to a man of honour. They are still base enough to encourage the follies of your age, as they once did the vices of your youth. As little acquainted with the rules of decorum, as with the laws of morality, they will not suffer you to profit by experience, nor even to consult the propriety of a bad character. Even now they tell you, that life is no more than a dramatic scene, in which the hero should preserve his consistency to the last; and that, as you lived without virtue, you should die without repentance."

Eventually, on December 10, 1769, Junius trained his quill on the King himself. "It is the misfortune of your life, and originally the cause of every reproach and distress which has attended your government, that you should never have been acquainted with the language of truth until you heard it in the complaints of your people. It is not, however, too late to correct the error of your education. We are still inclined to make an indulgent allowance for the pernicious lessons you received in your youth, and to form the most sanguine hopes from the natural benevolence of your disposition.

"Hitherto, Sir, you had been sacrificed to the prejudices and passions of others. With what firmness will you bear the mention of your own?"

He concluded with this warning: "The people of England are loyal to the House of Hanover, not from a vain preference of one family to another, but from a conviction that the establishment of that family was necessary to the support of their civil and religious liberties. This, Sir, is a principle of allegiance equally solid and rational; fit for Englishmen to adopt, and well worthy of your majesty's encouragement. We cannot long be deluded by nominal distinctions. The name of Stuart, of itself, is only contemptible; armed with the sovereign authority, their principles are formidable. The prince who imitates their conduct should be warned by example; and, while he plumes himself upon the security of his title to the crown, should remember that, as it was acquired by one revolution, it may be lost by another."

In January 1770, Grafton quit as Prime Minister. Junius returned to the charge, nonetheless, on February 14, 1770, with one of his most vicious attacks: "I believe, my Lord, I may now take my leave of you for ever. You are no longer that resolute minister who had spirit to support, the most violent measures - who compensated for the want of great and good qualities by a brave determination (which some people admired and relied on) to maintain himself without them. The reputation of obstinacy and perseverance might have supplied the place of all the absent virtues. You have now added the last negative to your character, and meanly confessed that you are destitute of the common spirit of a man. Retire then, my Lord, and hide your blushes from the world; for, with such a load of shame, even BLACK may change its colour. A mind such as yours, in the solitary hours of domestic enjoyment, may still find topics of consolation. You may find it in the memory of violated friendship; in the afflictions of an accomplished prince whom you have disgraced and deserted, and in the agitations of a great country driven by your counsels to the brink of destruction."

Junius was wont to exaggerate. He charged Mansfield with bias when he granted bail to a felon who was a Scotsman. This, in an erudite letter on the law of bail. But Mansfield was also adviser to the Crown. "In public affairs, my Lord, cunning, let it be ever so well wrought, will not conduct a man honourably through life; like bad money, it may be current for a time, but it will soon be cried down; it cannot consist with a liberal spirit, though it be sometimes united with extraordinary qualifications. When I acknowledge your abilities you may believe I am sincere. I feel for human nature, when I see a man so gifted as you are descend to such vile practice; yet do not suffer your vanity to console you too soon. Believe me, my good Lord, you are not admired in the same degree in which you are detested. It is only the partiality of your friends that balances the defects of your heart with the superiority of your understanding. No learned man, even among your own tribe, thinks you qualified to preside in a court of common law; yet it is confessed that, under Justinian, you might have made an incomparable Praetor. It is remarkable enough, but I hope not ominous, that the laws you understand best, and the judges you affect to admire most, flourished in the decline of a great empire, and are supposed to have contributed to its fall."

As one reads the Letters one is reminded of the famous French publicist of the 19th century, Armand Carrel, whose approach and outlook were described in words which every publicist should bear in mind: "He who has a passion stronger than the love of literary reputation and who writes only to inspire others with the same passion; such a man proceeding upon the simple idea that the pen should be a mere instrument, will write well from the commencement; and if he has instinct, which only means a turn of mind comfortable to the genius of his nation, he may become a writer of the first rank without even considering himself to be a writer."

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