This is the Day on which many eminent Authors will probably Publish their Last Words. I am afraid that few of our Weekly Historians, who are Men that above all others delight in War, will be able to subsist under the Weight of a Stamp, and an approaching Peace. A Sheet of Blank Paper that must have this new Imprimatur clapt upon it, before it is qualified to Communicate any thing to the Publick, will make its way in the World but very heavily. In short, the Necessity of carrying a Stamp , and the Improbability of notifying a Bloody Battel, will, I am afraid, both concur to the sinking of those thin Folios, which have every other Day retailed to us the History of Europe for several Years last past. A Facetious Friend of mine, who loves a Punn, calls this present Mortality among Authors, The Fall of the Leaf.
I remember, upon Mr. Baxter's Death, there was Published a Sheet of very good Sayings, inscribed, The last Words of Mr. Baxter. The Title sold so great a Number of these Papers, that about a Week after there came out a second Sheet, inscrib'd, More last Words of Mr. Baxter. In the same manner, I have Reason to think, that several Ingenious Writers, who have taken their Leave of the Publick, in farewell Papers, will not give over so, but intend to appear again, tho' perhaps under another Form, and with a different Title. Be that as it will, it is my Business, in this place, to give an Account of my own Intentions, and to acquaint my Reader with the Motives by which I Act, in this great Crisis of the Republick of Letters.
I have been long debating in my own Heart, whether I should throw up my Pen, as an Author that is cashiered by the Act of Parliament, which is to Operate within these Four and Twenty Hours, or whether I should still persist in laying my Speculations, from Day to Day, before the Publick. The Argument which prevails with me most on the first side of the Question is, that I am informed by my Bookseller he must raise the Price of every single Paper to Two-Pence, or that he shall not be able to pay the Duty of it. Now as I am very desirous my Readers should have their Learning as cheap as possible, it is with great Difficulty that I comply with him in this Particular.
However, upon laying my Reasons together in the Balance, I find that those which plead for the Continuance of this Work, have much the greater Weight. For, in the first Place, in Recompence for the Expence to which this will put my Readers, it is to be hoped they may receive from every Paper so much Instruction, as will be a very good Equivalent. And, in order to this, I would not advise any one to take it in, who after the Perusal of it, does not find himself Two-pence the wiser, or the better Man for it; or who upon Examination, does not believe that he has had Two-pennyworth of Mirth or Instruction for his Money.
But I must confess there is another Motive which prevails with me more than the former. I consider that the Tax on Paper was given for the Support of the Government; and as I have Enemies, who are apt to pervert every thing I do or say, I fear they would ascribe the laying down my Paper, on such an Occasion, to a Spirit of Malecontentedness, which I am resolved none shall ever justly upbraid me with. No, I shall glory in contributing my utmost to the Weal Publick; and if my Country receives Five or Six Pounds a-day by my Labours, I shall be very well pleased to find my self so useful a Member. It is a received Maxim, that no honest Man should enrich himself by Methods that are prejudicial to the Community in which he lives; and by the same Rule I think we may pronounce the Person to deserve very well of his Countrymen, whose Labours bring more into the publick Coffers, than into his own Pocket.
Since I have mentioned the Word Enemies, I must explain my self so far as to acquaint my Reader, that I mean only the insignificant Party Zealots on both sides; Men of such poor narrow Souls, that they are not capable of thinking on any thing but with an Eye to Whig or Tory. During the Course of this Paper, I have been accused by these despicable Wretches of Trimming, Time-serving, Personal Reflection, secret Satire, and the like. Now, tho' in these my Compositions, it is visible to any Reader of Common Sense, that I consider nothing but my Subject, which is always of an indifferent Nature; how is it possible for me to write so clear of Party, as not to lie open to the Censures of those who will be applying every Sentence, and finding out Persons and Things in it, which it has no regard to?
Several Paltry Scriblers and Declaimers have done me the Honour to be dull upon me in Reflections of this Nature; but notwithstanding my Name has been sometimes traduced by this contemptible Tribe of Men, I have hitherto avoided all Animadversions upon 'em. The Truth of it is, I am afraid of making them appear considerable by taking Notice of them, for they are like those imperceptible Insects which are discover'd by the Microscope, and cannot be made the Subject of Observation without being magnified.
Having mentioned those few who have shewn themselves the Enemies of this Paper, I should be very ungrateful to the Publick, did not I at the same time testifie my Gratitude to those who are its Friends, in which Number I may reckon many of the most distinguished Persons of all Conditions, Parties and Professions in the Isle of Great-Britain. I am not so vain as to think this Approbation is so much due to the Performance as to the Design. There is, and ever will be, Justice enough in the World, to afford Patronage and Protection for those who endeavour to advance Truth and Virtue, without regard to the Passions and Prejudices of any particular Cause or Faction. If I have any other Merit in me, it is that I have new-pointed all the Batteries of Ridicule. They have been generally planted against Persons who have appeared Serious rather than Absurd; or at best, have aimed rather at what is Unfashionable than what is Vicious. For my own part, I have endeavoured to make nothing Ridiculous that is not in some measure Criminal. I have set up the Immoral Man as the Object of Derision: In short, if I have not formed a new Weapon against Vice and Irreligion, I have at least shewn how that Weapon may be put to a right Use, which has so often fought the Battels of Impiety and Profaneness.
[Footnote 1: The Stamp Act was to take effect from the first of August. Censorship of the press began in the Church soon after the invention of printing. The ecclesiastical superintendence introduced in 1479 and 1496 was more completely established by a bull of Leo X. in 1515, which required Bishops and Inquisitors to examine all books before printing, and suppress heretical opinions. The Church of Rome still adheres to the 'Index Librorum Prohibitorum' begun by the Council of Trent in 1546; and there is an Index Expurgatorius for works partly prohibited, or to be read after expurgation. In accordance with this principle, the licensing of English books had been in the power of the Archbishop of Canterbury and his delegates before the decree of the Star Chamber in 1637, which ordered that all books of Divinity, Physic, Philosophy, and Poetry should be licensed either by the Archbishop of Canterbury or by the Bishop of London personally or through their appointed substitutes. The object of this decree was to limit the reprint of old books of divinity, &c. Thus Foxe's Book of Martyrs was denied a license. In 1640 Sir Edward Dering complained to Parliament that 'the most learned labours of our ancient and best divines must now be corrected and defaced with a 'deleatur' by the supercilious pen of my Lord's young chaplain, fit, perhaps, for the technical arts, but unfit to hold the chair of Divinity.' (Rushworth's Hist. Coll. iv. 55.) Historical works seem to have been submitted to the Secretary of State for his sanction. To May's poem of the 'Victorious Reign of King Edward the Third' is prefixed, 'I have perused this Book, and conceive it very worthy to be published. Io. Coke, Knight, Principal Secretary of State, Whitehall, 17 of November, 1634.' But Aleyn's metrical 'History of Henry VII.' (1638) is licensed by the Bishop of London's domestic chaplain, who writes: 'Perlegi historicum hoc poema, dignumque judico quod Typis mandetur. Tho. Wykes R. P. Episc. Lond. Chapell. Domest.' The first newspaper had been 'the Weekly Newes', first published May 23, 1622, at a time when, says Sir Erskine May (in his 'Constitutional History of England', 1760-1860), 'political discussion was silenced by the licenser, the Star Chamber, the dungeon, the pillory, mutilation, and branding.' The contest between King and Commons afterwards developed the free controversial use of tracts and newspapers, but the Parliament was not more tolerant than the king, and against the narrow spirit of his time Milton rose to his utmost height, fashioning after the masterpiece of an old Greek orator who sought to stir the blood of the Athenians, his Areopagitica, or Defence of the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing. In the reign of Charles II. the Licensing Act (13 and 14 Charles II. cap. 33) placed the control of printing in the Government, confined exercise of the printer's art to London, York, and the Universities, and limited the number of the master printers to twenty. Government established a monopoly of news in the London Gazette. 'Authors and printers of obnoxious works,' says Sir E. May, citing cases in notes, were hung, 'quartered, and mutilated, exposed in the pillory and flogged, or fined and imprisoned, according to the temper of their judges: their productions were burned by the common hangman. Freedom of opinion was under interdict: even news could not be published without license... James II. and his infamous judges carried the Licensing Act into effect with barbarous severity. But the Revolution brought indulgence even to the Jacobite Press; and when the Commons, in 1695, refused to renew the Licensing Act, a censorship of the press was for ever renounced by the law of England.' There remained, however, a rigorous interpretation of the libel laws; Westminster Hall accepting the traditions of the Star Chamber. Still there was enough removal of restriction to ensure the multiplication of newspapers and the blending of intelligence with free political discussion. In Queen Anne's reign the virulence of party spirit produced bitter personal attacks and willingness on either side to bring an antagonist under the libel laws. At the date of this 'Spectator' paper Henry St. John, who had been made Secretary of State at the age of 32, was 34 years old, and the greatest commoner in England, as Swift said, turning the whole Parliament, who can do nothing without him. This great position and the future it might bring him he was throwing away for a title, and becoming Viscount Bolingbroke. His last political act as a commoner was to impose the halfpenny stamp upon newspapers and sheets like those of the 'Spectator.' Intolerant of criticism, he had in the preceding session brought to the bar of the House of Commons, under his warrant as Secretary of State, fourteen printers and publishers. In the beginning of 1712, the Queen's message had complained that by seditious papers and factious rumours designing men had been able to sink credit, and the innocent had suffered. On the 12th of February a committee of the whole house was appointed to consider how to stop the abuse of the liberty of the press. Some were for a renewal of the Licensing Act, some for requiring writers' names after their articles. The Government carried its own design of a half-penny stamp by an Act (10 Anne, cap. 19) passed on the 10th of June, which was to come in force on the 1st of August, 1712, and be in force for 32 years.
'Do you know,' wrote Swift to Stella five days after the date of this 'Spectator' paper, 'Do you know that all Grub street is dead and gone last week? No more ghosts or murders now for love or money... Every single half sheet pays a halfpenny to the Queen. The 'Observator' is fallen; the 'Medleys' are jumbled together with the 'Flying Post;' the 'Examiner' is deadly sick; the 'Spectator' keeps up and doubles its price; I know not how long it will last.'
It so happened that the mortality was greatest among Government papers. The Act presently fell into abeyance, was revived in 1725, and thenceforth maintained the taxation of newspapers until the abolition of the Stamp in 1859. One of its immediate effects was a fall in the circulation of the 'Spectator.' The paper remained unchanged, and some of its subscribers seem to have resented the doubling of the tax upon them, by charging readers an extra penny for each halfpenny with which it had been taxed. (See No. 488.)]Translation of motto: