Today in London radical history… Richard Francklin arrested for seditious libel

On 8th January 1731, Richard Francklin was arrested, as printer of the Craftsman, a political journal dedicated to attacking the administration of Prime Minister Robert Walpole.

The Craftsman was a leading political journal of its time: Thomas Lockwood describes it as, “the most successful political journal of the first half of the eighteenth century, a must-read for ministers and placemen as well as those who longed to take away their places”. The stated purpose of the paper was to expose political “craft” (meaning graft, corruption, trickery); hence the title – but the real purpose was to unseat Robert Walpole as Chancellor, “or as the new term of abuse (given currency in The Craftsman) called him, ‘Prime Minister'”.

While it was established by figures close to the political opposition to Walpole in parliament, the paper gradually gained readership and support from a broader section of the “middle class, the tenant farmer, the small freeholder, and the merchant. These were the people who posed a threat to Walpole and his kind, not because they could cause him to lose a vote of confidence in the Commons, but because they could and gradually did, help themselves to a share of the power, and the wealth, that he and his fellow ‘plunderers’ preferred to control by themselves”.

Robert Walpole had established the supremacy of his political clique early in the reign of king George I; he and his allies maintained a plutocratic grip on as much of the reins of government, rights to appoint officials and dignitaries and award positions, as they could. As a result they had become extremely rich – and widely hated, most especially by those most immediately aggrieved at being excluded from the process, the rising middle classes; though these were often able to enlist the support of the lower orders in their campaign to unseat Walpole’s regime.

The Craftsman aroused the government’s ire by reporting debates in parliament, publishing provocative essays and pamphlets, particularly exposing the scandal of public corruption, the supposed destruction of the constitution, Britain’s declining international status, and the overall damage alleged to be the effect of Walpole’s policies and his system. “The Craftsman became a manual of vigorous opposition, a feverish attempt to unseat Walpole by discrediting him at home and abroad”.

The journal was prosecuted for seditious libel several times and its trials form an important chapter in the struggle for freedom of the press in the eighteenth century. Richard Francklin, the journal’s printer, was tried and acquitted in 1729, but he was convicted in July 1731 (for publication of the so-called Hague letter in The Craftsman no. 235 [2 Jan. 1731], concerning “Walpole’s supposedly secret negotiations toward the second Treaty of Vienna.”

Having been arrested on January 8th 1731, Francklin was sentenced on 12 Feb. 1732 to one year in jail, fined £100, and required to produce ‘sureties for good behaviour’ amounting to £2,000. Francklin continued to produce the paper while in prison. In July 1737, the Craftsman was prosecuted once again, for its satire on the new Theatre Licensing Act. The issue of 13 October 1739 was also tried for libel.

Walpole also had Richard Francklin arrested every six months; had Francklin’s shop ransacked; he got the Juries Act (1730) passed specifically so that he could pack a Westminster jury with his own sympathizers, and quickly ensured that Francklin was convicted by such a jury. The paper’s circulation was blocked by the Post Office; Walpole also bought rival papers to crush the Craftsman

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