October 13, 2005

All verbal assassins speak in the passive voice

So wrote Peter Porcupine in March of 1797, attacking Noah Webster for "grammatical inaccuracy" in a froth of phrases like "illiterate booby", "inflated self-sufficient pedant", "very great hypocrite", and even "something of a traitor".

The Oct. 8-14 issue of the Economist includes a review of recent books from the rightward end of the political spectrum. Their titles (Surrounded by Idiots, Liberalism is a Mental Disorder, 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America, The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy) support the review's first sentence: "Political debate in America seems to grow less civil by the hour." However, I happen to have been reading the 18th-century political pamphlets of Peter Porcupine (the pen name of William Cobbett), and I wonder whether even Mike Gallagher, Michael Savage, Bernard Goldberg and Byron York have yet matched the standard of invective that he set.

Cobbett's attack on Webster is one of his milder sallies, but it has special linguistic interest, both because of its target and because of its content. Below the fold, I give some background, and quote from the exchange between the two men (courtesy of the fascimile .pdfs at ProQuest's American Periodicals Series, 1741-1800).

The background:

Noah Webster: born 1758 in Hartford, Connecticut; graduate of Yale; wrote "the blue-backed speller" (A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, 1783) that was still selling a million copies a year in 1861; founded New York's first daily newspaper, American Minerva, in 1793. A dedicated member of the Federalist Party.

William Cobbett: born 1763 in Surrey, England; non-commissioned officer in the British Army 1784-1792; educated himself in barracks by "reading the contents of the circulating library of [Chatham], and getting up by heart Lowth's English Grammar"; fled to France after making charges of corruption against his former officers; moved to America in 1793 after Louis XVI was executed and Britain declared war on France; in Philadelphia, he published Porcupine's Political Censor (1796-1797), and Porcupine's Gazette (1797-1800). A leading Federalist wingnut.

During the European wars that began in 1793, the Federalist party favored Britain, while the Republicans favored France. Cobbett was passionately anti-French and pro-British. Writing as "Peter Porcupine", he excoriated the partisans of the French, and also scorned those in his own party, like Webster, who were less than totally committed to the British side.

Noah Webster in the Minerva of New York, March 21, 1797:

In a late paper, we inserted sentiments of this kind, that the putting up in the Coffee House, a card, on which was painted the English flag, was a low pitiful business, equalled only the meanness of putting up a French flag, and that it is servile to be bandied about between the flags of different foreign nations. We ought to unite under our own flag and learn to be a nation.

Peter Porcupine has copied the paragraph with disapprobation, and says it contains more of vulgar prejudice, and mistake, than of justice or good policy. [...]

No comment will be made on the insinuation of "Vulgar Prejudice," against the Editor of the Minerva. When Peter becomes acquainted with the editor's real character, he will learn, that in a combat of that kind, he himself must certainly be the loser.

But we contest Peter's principles. It was strongly suspected many months ago, that his principles are not very friendly to the independence of America, and still less to the form of our government. This suspicion has been greatly increased by the manner in which his gazette has been conducted. [...] We observe also whole columns of some of the first numbers of Peter's gazette, filled with "apologies for the old government of France," that is, for the feudal system, though in a relaxed state, and for as corrupt a system of despotism as Europe ever witnessed.

William Cobbett responded:

To Mr. Noah Webster of New-York
Porcupine's Political Censor, March 1797.

Vain, fickle, blind, from these to those he flies,
And ev'ry side of wav'ring combat tries;
Large promise makes, and breaks the promise made;
Now gives the Grecians, now the Trojans aid.
                                      Pope's Homer, Lib. V.

Some days ago I promised you an answer to your Address (or whatever else you may please to call it) of the 21st of March. It luckily matters little how this answer begins. Aware I suppose of the uncouth manners of the man you were about to assail, you kindly contrived that that the rudeness of your attack should furnish an ample apology for his want of politeness.

Your Address treats of your important self, of me, and of the proposed alliance between the United States and Great Britain. This alliance is a subject of two [sic] much consequence to be blended with an enquiry into your and my character, principles, and conduct, I shall therefore reserve it for a separate letter; not losing, however, the present opportunity of declaring, that your reasoning, instead of convincing me that I was mistaken, has strengthened, as far as any thing in itself contradictory can strengthen, the opinion which gave so much offence to your wisdom.


Had the same stupid admiration of the French, that prevailed, and that you participated in, for several years; had this admiration and its concomitant partiality still existed, you would never have dared (with all your heroism) to call the hoisting of their flag "a low pitiful business:" you would prudently have left that to a writer of less caution and more sincerity, reserving to yourself the agreeable task of endeavoring to disfigure his motives and blast his fame.

And, was it then such a heinous offence to quote a writer of your stamp "with disapprobation," or apply to him the charge of vulgar prejudice? It would be curious to hear, on what it is that you ground your right of exemption from all censure and criticism. Besides, to say that a man has adopted a vulgar prejudice, is calculated to give offence to no one but an illiterate booby, who does not know the meaning of the words, or a captious, inflated self-sufficient pedant. Yet it is this phrase, and this alone, that has provoked your to seek retaliation, and retaliation, too, of the most base and malicious species. —"We contest (say you, after declaring that I am unable to cope with you) "We contest Peter's principles. It was strongly suspected many months ago, that his principles are not very friendly to the independence of America, and still less to the form of our government."

The grammatical inaccuracy of this last sentence, though fallen from the pen of a language-maker, it would be foreign to my purpose to remark on: it is the slander it conveys, that it is my duty to expose. —"It was strongly suspected." This is the true gossiping, calumniating style. All verbal assassins speak in the passive voice, that, what they cannot prove, they may at last throw on public report. If you had said, "I suspected many months ago," though it would have led to a detection, you would have acted more like a man; and this might have been expected too, in a volunteer of your "determined zeal and firmness."

However, as you are very fond of the pompous plural number and passive voice, perhaps it is but fair to suppose, that you mean to intimate, that you suspected my principles many months ago; and and, if this was really the case, pray how came you to recommend my pamphlets to the perusal of your readers, as the best antedote to the anarchical principles of the enemies of the government. How many months ago was it that your penetration made the grand discovery? When I proposed publishing a paper, which was no more than about six weeks anterior to the date of your Address, you told the public in an exulting manner, that I should "prove a terrible scourge to the patriots," meaning Bache, Greenleaf, and all the antifederal crew. Six weeks, 'Squire Webster, is not many months. If you really suspected my enmity to the government, and to the independence of America, you were a very great hypocrite, if not something of a traitor, to applaud my undertaking; and, if on the other hand, you had no such suspicion, and have now feigned it merely for the purpose of revenging what your haughtiness has construed into an affront, I leave the public to determine what name you are worthy of.

These are merely brief samples: Webster's remarks occupy five printed pages, while Cobbett's "letter" takes up 26.

As a sample of Cobbett's less restrained invective, I reproduce some bits of his "last will and testament", written "in the name of fun", and published in the same 1797 issue of his periodical as his response to Webster. In addition to the sneers at Noah Webster (not a RINO, but a "centaur") and William Thornton, there is a casually racist item for Thomas Jefferson (referring to Haitian generals and to the mathematician Benjamin Banneker), and violent animosity towards Republicans Franklin Bache, James Monroe, and Tom Paine.

SINCE I took up the calling that I now follow, I have received about forty threatening letters; some talk of fisticuff, others of kicks, but far the greater part menace me with out-right murder. Several friends (whom by the bye I sincerely thank) have called to caution me against the lurking cut-throats; and it seems to be the persuasion of everyone, that my brains are to be knocked out the first time I venture home in the dark.

Under these terrific circumstances, it is impossible that Death should not stare me in the face: I have therefore got myself into as good a state of preparation as my sinful profession will, I am afraid, admit of; and as to my worldly affairs, I have settled them in the following Will, which I publish, in order that my dear friends, the Legatees, may, if they think themselves injured or neglected, have an opportunity of complaining before it be too late.

IN the name of Fun, Amen. I PETER PORCUPINE, Pamphleteer and News-Monger, being (as yet) sound both in body and in mind, do, this fifteenth day of April, in the Year of our Lord, one thousand seven hundred and ninety seven, make, declare, and publish, this my LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT, in manner, form, and substance following; to wit:

In primis, I LEAVE my body to Doctor Michael Lieb, a member of the Legislature of Pennsylvania, to be by him dissected (if he knows how to do it) in presence of the Rump of the Democratic Society. In it they will find a heart that held them in abhorrence, that never palpitated at their threats, and that, to its last beat, bade them defiance. But my chief motive for making this bequest is, that my spirit may look down with contempt on the their cannibal-like triumph over a breathless corps.

Item, To T_____ J_____son, Philosopher, I leave a curious Norway Spider, with a hundred legs and nine pair of eyes; likewise the first black cut-throat general he can catch hold of, to be flead alive, in order to determine with more certainty the real cause of the dark colour of his skin: and should the said T_____ J_____son survive Banneker the Almanack-Maker; I request he will get the brains of said Philomath carefully dissected, to satisfy the world in what respects they differ from those of a white man.

Item, To the Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, I will and bequeath a correct copy of Thornton's plan for abolishing the use of the English Language, and for introducing in its stead a republican one, the representative characters of which bear a strong resemblance to pot-hooks and hangers; and for the discovery of which plan, the said society did, in the year 1793, grant to the said language maker 500 dollars premium. —It is my earnest desire, that the copy of this valuable performance, which I hereby present, may be shown to all the travelling literati, as a proof of the ingenuity of the author and of the wisdom of the society.

Item, To my dear fellow labourer Noah Webster, "gentleman-citizen," Esq. and News-man, I will and bequeath a prognosticating barometer of curious construction and great utility, by which, at a single glance, the said Noah will be able to discern the exact state that the public mind will be in the ensuing year, and will thereby be enabled to trim by degrees and not expose himself to detection, as he now does by his sudden lee-shore tacks. I likewise bequeath to the said "gentleman citizen," six Spanish milled dollars, to be expended on a new plate of his portrait at the head of his spelling-book, that which graces it at present being so ugly that it scares the children from their lessons; but this legacy is to be paid him only upon condition that he leave out the title of 'Squire, at the bottom of said picture, which is extremely odious in an American school-book, and must inevitably tend to corrupt the political principles of the republican babies that behold it. And I do most earnestly desire, exhort and conjure the said 'Squire-news-man, to change the tittle of his paper, The Minerva, for that of The Political Centaur.

Item, To Tom the Tinker, I leave a liberty cap, a tri-colored cockade, a wheel-barrow full of oysters, and a hogshead of grog: I also leave him three blank checks on the Bank of Pennsylvania, leaving to him the task of filling them up; requesting him, however, to be rather more merciful than he has shown himself heretofore.

Item, To the editors of the Boston Chronicle, the New York Argus, and the Philadelphia Merchants' Advertiser, I will and bequeath one ounce of modesty and love of truth, to be equally divided between them. I should have been more liberal in this bequest, were I not well assured, that one ounce is more than they will ever make use of.

Item, To Franklin Bache, editor of the Aurora of Philadelphia, I will and bequeath a small bundle of French assignats, which I brought with me from the country of equality. If these should be too light in value for his pressing exigencies, I desire my executors, or any one of them, to bestow on him a second part to what he has lately received in Southwark; and as a further proof of my good will and affection, I request him to accept of a gag and a brand new pair of fetters, which if he should refuse, I will and bequeath him in lieu thereof—my malediction.

Item, To citizen M___oe, I will and bequeath my chamber looking-glass. It is a plain but exceeding true mirror: in it he will see the exact likeness of a traitor, who has bartered the honour and interest of his country to a perfidious and savage enemy.

Item, To the republican Britons, who have fled from the hands of justice in their own country, and who are a scandal, a nuisance and a disgrace to this, I bequeath hunger and nakedness, scorn and reproach; and I do hereby positively enjoin on my executors to contribute five hundred dollars towards the erection of gallowses and gibbets, for the accommodation of the said imported patriots, when the legislators of this unhappy state shall have the wisdom to countenance such useful establishments.

Item, To Tom Paine, the author of Common Sense, Rights of Man, Age of Reason, and a letter to General Washington, I bequeath a strong hempen collar, as the only legacy I can think of that is worthy of him, as well as best adapted to render his death in some measure as infamous as his life: and I do hereby direct and order my Executors to send it to him by first safe conveyance, with my compliments, and request that he woud make use of it without delay, that the national razor may not be disgraced by the head of such a monster.

An interesting picture of the period is available in Richard Rosenfeld's history/novel American Aurora, the first chapter of which is available on line here, and includes this passage about Cobbett:

William Cobbett, publisher of the Porcupine's Gazette, has, in one short and vitriolic year, made his radically conservative paper more popular and influential than any Federalist journal in the country except perhaps John Fenno's Gazette of the United States. William Cobbett started Porcupine's Gazette on the day John Adams took the presidential oath, and, from that day to this, "Peter Porcupine" (as Cobbett often signs his articles) has defended Mr. Adams with a knifelike quill his opponents are loath to match.

William Cobbett is a powerful man, six feet in height, of heavy build, fair-complected, gray-eyed, and possessing, as he says, "a plump and red and smiling face." Perhaps because he endured seven years as a British corporal in the backwoods of Canada, William Cobbett is dogged in his pursuits and intense in his anger. He is also British, very royalist, and possibly crazy.

Crazy! How else can one explain an Englishman--and he is an Englishman--who, eight months before starting an American newspaper, opened a bookstore opposite Philadelphia's Christ Church (the "English" church) on Second-street to sell loyalist, royalist, and Federalist propaganda, removed the building's shutters, painted its facade a bright blue, and decorated its front windows with portraits of royalty like Britain's King George III (from whom Americans won their independence) and France's King Louis XVI (whom the French Revolution had overthrown)?

In the first issue of Porcupine's Gazette, William Cobbett declared Benjamin Bache and the Philadelphia Aurora his enemies. Calling the Aurora a "vehicle of lies and sedition," the first Porcupine's Gazette opened with a letter to Benjamin Bache:

I assert that you are a liar and an infamous scoundrel ... Do you dread the effects of my paper? ... We are, to be sure, both of us news-mongers by profession, but then the articles you have for sale are very different from mine ... I tell you what, Mr. Bache, you will get nothing by me in a war of words, and so you may as well abandon the contest while you can do it with good grace ... I am getting up in the world, and you are going down. [F]or this reason it is that you hate me and that I despise you; and that you will preserve your hatred and I my contempt till fortune gives her wheel another turn or till death snatches one or the other of us from the scene. It is therefore useless, my dear Bache, to say any more about the matter...

Cobbett's NNDB page is here. Apparently he returned to England in 1800, fleeing from a libel judgment "for saying that Dr. Benjamin Rush, who was much addicted to blood-letting, killed nearly all the patients he attended". He agitated in England first as a Tory, then as a Radical. In 1802, he began publishing Parliamentary Debates, a series that he sold to Hansard in 1809. To escape his debts, in 1817 he fled back to the United States, where he wrote and published an English Grammar. He returned again to England, where he disinterred Tom Paine and tried to sell his bones as relics. He served in Parliament, was unsuccessfully prosecuted in 1830 for inciting to rebellion, and died in 1835.

[Update 11/6/2005: recent email from peterporcupine1776@yahoo.com informs me that/p>

I am pleased to announce that the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.

I very much enjoyed your piece on my will, and my deserved excoriation of that scoundrel, Noah Webster. I have a blog now, sir, and find that blogging is indeed the modern equivalent of my pamphlets and newspaper writings. While centered in Massachusetts rather than Philadelphia, I am still able to speak upon a wider stage as ever I did.

I invite you to visit http://capecodporcupine.blogspot.com and I hope you will enjoy my offerings there. Many are pieces about my contemporaries which may be of interest to you.


Posted by Mark Liberman at October 13, 2005 09:34 AM