Today in London publishing history: Parliament orders pro- (and anti-) American pamphlets burnt, 1775

“The said book is a false, malicious, and traitorous libel &c.; That one of the said printed books be burnt by the hands of the common hangman in New Palace yard, and another before the Royal Exchange…”

As the conflict grew between the British government and the colonies in North America, which would shortly erupt into the American War of Independence, one of the main vehicles was the pamphlet war. Supporters and opponents of the colonists engaged in furious debates through pamphlets and newspaper articles… both in America, and in Britain. A strong current of opinion existed on this side of the Atlantic, in support of the struggle in the New World. But the authorities here didn’t take kindly to pro-independence sentiments being aired under their noses.

“Lord Effingham complained in the House of Lords of the licentiousness of the press, and produced a pamphlet entitled, “The Present Crisis with Respect to America Considered,” published by T. Becket, which his Lordship declared to be a most daring insult on the king: and moved, that the house would come to resolutions to the following effect:
That the said pamphlet is a false, malicious, and dangerous libel…. That one of the said pamphlets be burnt by the hands of the common hangman in Old Palace-yard; and another, at the Royal Exchange.
That these resolutions be communicated to the House of Commons at a conference, and that the concurrence of that house be desired. Which resolutions being read, were unanimously agreed to…. A second conference now ensued, arising from a complaint of the Earl of Radnor in the Upper House, and of Lord Chewton in the Lower House, against a periodical paper, called The Crisis, No. 3 published for T. Shaw, &c. In the Lower House, the paper in question had been voted a false, malicious, and seditious libel; in the Upper House, the word treasonable was added; but, upon re-considering the matter, that was omitted: but it was, like the other, unanimously ordered to be burned by the hands of the common hangman…. In obedience to the above orders, these pieces were burnt, on the 6th of March following, by the common hangman, at Westminster-hall gate.”

(Annual Register, 1775)

The context in which this took place was tense: the colonies were on the brink of rebellion, after various actions and protests against taxation and trade inequalities had provoked a heavy crackdown by the British Crown. The Continental Congress had first met in September 1774, to organise opposition to the removal of self-government from Massachusetts; the first battles between rebels and crown forces were just two months away.

The pamphlet in question though, seems to have been arguing that it should be ok for the king to raise taxes without recourse to Parliament. It may be that it was burnt because it undermined the sovereignty of Parliament and the constitution established in 1689:

“I am told there has been a pamphlet published by one Becket, advancing a very extraordinary doctrine, viz. That it would be proper to impower the crown to raise taxes by its own authority, in times of necessity.  If this doctrine was approved by our parliament, our situation would be the same with that of Spain in Charles V. the emperor’s time, when the Cortez of Spain granted that power to the crown, under the pretence of necessity; which enabled the crown never to call a Cortez afterwards, for they always found out some cause of necessity for continuing that power.  I hear the house of peers have ordered that pamphlet to be burnt by the hands of the hangman — but is that sufficient punishment for an author, who durst advance a doctrine which at once destroys the British constitution, and establishes arbitrary power; which, as I have said before, I look upon as political damnation.  It appears how the Romans prized the least breathing by liberty, during the time of their emperors, by looking into Tacitus’s history of the reign of Trojan, which he calls Rara Tempora, when the Romans could speak or write what they thought, without being ruined by it:  for as the most part of those emperors were monsters of cruelty, so they persecuted every body who regarded virtue, and who did not approve of their vile actions.”

Becket seems to have been a bookseller and publisher in London’s Strand (on the corner of the Adelphi theatre), who printed various pro-American works in the 1760s and 1770s…

These included Benjamin Franklin’s, The Interest of Great Britain with regard to her Colonies, and the Acquisitions of Canada and Guadeloupe, 1760, and A Letter to the Right Honourable Wills Earl of Hillsborough, on the connection between Great Britain and her American colonies [George Canning], 1768).

Becket also published Ottobah Cugoano’s Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species in 1787.

A noted above, the same week as Becket’s pamphlet was condemned in Parliament, a newspaper called The Crisis was also ordered to be publicly burned. Published for Mr T Shaw, his was also held to be “a false, malicious and seditious libel”. But as the Annual Register noted that this publication’s views were ‘diametrically opposite’ to Becket’s, it’s likely this was more pro-independence…

It’s possible Becket was purely motivated less by any idealism than by commercial potential; he is mostly remembered today for contesting a court battle, fronting for several booksellers trying to extend copyright longer than legally agreed statutory limits. He lost.

The duty of burning pamphlets outside Westminster Hall devolved upon the public hangman, already an unpopular figure with the rowdy London crowd. When the Lord Mayor of London also ordered the condemned publications burnt at London’s Royal Exchange, some of the mob took umbrage: “Some of them were at first very riotous; they seized and threw about the faggots which were brought, and treated the City marshal and the hangman very ill: but more faggots being brought, and dipt in turpentine, they immediately took fire, and soon consumed the publications in question. But soon after the sheriffs and other officers had quitted the place of execution, a man of decent appearance burnt, at the same place, a copy of the late address upon the American affairs, and the Birmingham petition.” (Annual Register)


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online


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