Before There Was Fox News

Helen Rittelmeyer looks back to the origins of lowbrow conservatism, surveying the “pamphleteers, satirists, and hacks” who took up Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution and its defenders, like Thomas Paine, in the 1790s:

[A]nother lawyer thought that it would be better to answer Paine than to muzzle him. This was John Reeves, an ultra-monarchist barrister andjournalist who in 1792 founded the Association for dish_johnreevesPreserving Liberty and Property Against Republicans and Levellers. (If only the modern Tea Party had resurrected that name.) Later, when Reeves was charged with seditious libel for having written a pamphlet so fulsomely pro-monarchy that it appeared to reduce parliament to a mere appendage, Burke wrote eloquently in his defense, claiming that while the pamphlet had probably gone beyond what was strictly orthodox, its author was guilty of nothing more than a few ill-chosen metaphors.

Within a year of the Association’s first meeting—in a tavern, the Crown and Anchor—there were more than 1,000 clubs spread throughout the kingdom, their mission to halt the spread of Jacobinical ideas among the British public. Modern historians have focused on the Association’s more rambunctious pastimes, like burning Tom Paine in effigy and throwing the occasional radical in the local river, but far more of their effort was spent distributing loyalist literature. Reeves loved the excitement of publishing more than the practice of law, and he took great relish in reprinting suitable tracts—such as the Rev. William Paley’s unselfconsciously titled Reasons for Contentment, Addressed to the Labouring Part of the British Public—and, later, in accepting unsolicited submissions from amateur scribblers eager to help the cause. Prices were kept low partly to entice poorer buyers and partly to allow rich sympathizers to buy literature in bulk and hand it out for free. One pamphlet was listed at “Price only ONE HALFPENNY, or 3s. per Hundred to such as give them away.”

(Image of John Reeves by Thomas Hardy, 1792, via Wikimedia Commons)