The groundbreaking political ideas thrown up in the english civil war – including the Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, fifth monarchism, and all the varied dissenting religious views – found expression most notably in print. Hundreds upon thousands of pamphlets were printed, tracts, often circulated very widely, and finding echoes among large sections of the population; partly because of the upheaval caused by economic and social crises…
In many ways, some of these pamphlets were collective representations as well as individual works… Some of them had mass circulation, and were being used at the forefront of the exchange of ideas; as one way of developing social policy, though debate, counterblast, agitation…
In the later years of the civil war, there was an explosion not only in pamphlet production, but also this kind of papers of ‘newsbooks’, of which large numbers appeared, some lasting one edition only, some being published for a few weeks or months, some for a year or more. Newsbooks had begun to appear from late 1641, as the county slipped into civil war, and the demand for regular news became important. In this period the state censorship partially lapsed, (as its powerful proponent, Archbishop Laud, fell from power) allowing an increase in free expression, though the war years would see several measures to tighten it again. Newsbooks were intimately bound up with the politics of the civil war and the political, religious and economic conflict that the wars were both born from and helped themselves to create and expand. Royalists, radicals, pro-and anti-parliamentary activists were involved in producing these newsbooks, some representing collective movements and voicing ideas being discussed by wide social movements; others the viewpoint of one, often eccentric writer.
While there was a powerful appetite in some quarters for the ideas expressed, there were also powerful forces mounted to repress this fermenting print culture. Censorship of radical social or religious opinions was exercised through licensing, controlled by the Stationers’ Office, and backed by Parliament. Royalist opinion also came to be banned and closed down as Parliament gradually emerged victorious from the civil wars. Underground presses operated in secret, moving to avoid detection, and being replaced when they were seized. Among the authorities and their supporters many were suggesting that access to print media should be severely restricted, to prevent the spread of dangerous ideas: ideas could only open up the potential for dangerous acts. Allowing ideas into print and allowing people to discuss them was in itself a threat to the established social order. This view had pre-dated the civil war – in fact the eruption of the war and the social movements that had come out of it was held as evidence that you couldn’t let just anyone think, speak, read or act – where would it end?
As well as being consummate pamphleteers, civil war radicals the Levellers also found voice, for a while, through the pages of their own newspaper, the Moderate, which appeared for a few months of 1648-49.
The Moderate launched in June 1648, with a format of twelve pages, much of it content being foreign news. After three issues, in July 1648, it shrank to eight pages, beginning a new series; in the sixth issue of which a regular feature was introduced, an editorial, which coincided with the paper’s becoming the mouthpiece of Leveller arguments, advocating a wider franchise and religious toleration. These arguments gained the Moderate widespread enmity; the Earl of Leicester asserted that the paper “endeavours to invite the people to overthrow all propriety, as the original cause of sin; and by that to destroy all government, magistracy, honesty, civility and humanity.” It consisted of a sheet of eight pages, small quarto size, the chief contents being the news of the day. It lasted for over a year, from July 1648 to the end of September 1649. No complete series of its numbers is extant; they are found, singly and scattered, among the collections of pamphlets of the so-called King’s or Thomason Library in the British Museum.
There is some uncertainty over who edited and wrote for the Moderate. Gilbert Mabbott, official licenser of the press from 1647 to 1649, was certainly associate with the paper’s creation. As licenser, Mabbot theoretically had the power to withhold a license to publish from any newsbooks he thought were subversive; however, he was progressively less successful. His name frequently appears on newsbooks of the period but was often used without his permission. He had attempted to suppress a newsbook called the Moderate Intelligencer in June 1648 after it expressed royalist views, and helped start the Moderate with a view to supplanting it. Mabbott was however, possibly an ally or sympathiser with the Levellers, and either gave over control of the paper of allowed the radicals a free hand in writing articles.
The Moderate was thought to have been edited later by Richard Overton, one of the most articulate theorists and pamphleteers of what was loosely identifiable as the Leveller party.
Despite widespread censorship of the press in 1648-9, including banning of Leveller publications and coinciding with the arrests of Leveller leaders and other radicals, the Moderate managed to keep is licence to publish. It remained openly critical of the government, arousing some ire in Parliament. In July 1649, Sir Henry Mildmay spoke up in the House of Commons, asking whether or not Gilbert Mabbott’s licence should be removed, specifically naming the Moderate as a dangerous publication. Although the Moderate continued to appear, the Council of State began drawing up further restrictions on licensing of publishers; meanwhile Mabbott himself resigned his position as licenser, seemingly because he was both narked at the notoriety he was attracting, as many publishers simply stamped his name in their issues without obtaining licences, but also in protest at the whole licensing system, which he denounced as a plot to enslave free people by keeping them in ignorance, as well as being a monopoly, and a measure which prevented expression by punishing licensees in advance, pre-emptively, rather than after something actionable was said.
German Marxist historian gives an account of the Moderate: “For a comparatively short time, viz., from the middle of the year 1648 to the autumn of the year 1649, information about the movement is forthcoming from a journal, which was described as the organ of the Levellers, and which within certain limits may be so regarded, as it reproduces most of the proclamations and pamphlets of the Levellers published during that time, and so far as it exhibits any tendency at all, represents that of the Levellers. Strange to say, this paper, though the organ of the most extreme political party of the period, bears the singular title of the Moderate. But this name was neither meant in an ironical sense nor was it chosen in a hypocritical spirit. It indicates the calm and impartial style in which the paper was written. Far from smacking of sans-culottism, as the elder Disraeli asserts in his Curiosities of Literature , we have nowhere met with a single phrase that could be remotely compared to the vulgar and obscene passages commonly found in the contemporary Royalist press, the Man in the Moon, Mercurius Elencticus, etc.
The Moderate was one of the first papers to publish explanatory leading articles, or at least the embryo of such. Several of its numbers open with disquisitions on political and even economical problems, and I venture to reproduce these articles so that the reader may judge whether we are justified in describing the Moderate as the pioneer of the Labour Press of our days. The issue of September 4 to 11, 1649 (No.61), commences as follows:
Wars are not only ever clothed with the most specious of all pretences, viz., Reformation of Religion, The Laws of the Land, Liberty of the Subject, etc., though the effects thereof have proved most destructive to them, and ruinous to every Nation; making the Sword (and not the people) the original of all Authorities, for many hundred years together; taking away each man’s Birth-right, and settling upon a few, a cursed propriety (the ground of all Civil Offences between party and party) and the greatest cause of most Sins against the Heavenly Deity. Thus Tyranny and Oppression running through the Veins of many of our Predecessors, and being too long maintained by the Sword, upon a Royal Foundation, at last became so customary, as to the vulgar it seemed so natural (the onely reason why the people at this time are so ignorant of their equal Birth-right, their onely Freedom). At last Divine Providence crowned the slavish people’s attempt with good success against this potent Enemy, which made them Free (as they fancied) from their former Oppressions, Burdens and Slaveries; and happy in what they could imagine, the greatest good, both for their Soul and Body. But Pride, Covetousness, and Self-Interest (taking the advantage of so unvaluable a benefit). And many being tempted to Swim in this Golden Ocean, the Burthens and Oppressions of the people, are thereby not onely continued, but increased, and no end thereof to be imagined. At this the people (who cannot now be deluded, will be eased, and not onely stiled, but really be the original of all Lawful Authority) begin to rage, and cry out for a lawful Representative, and such other wholesome Laws as will make them truly happy. These not granted, and some old Sparks being blown up with the Gales of new Dissentions, the fire breaks out, the wind rises, and if the fewel be dry and some speedy remedy be not taken for prevention, the damage thereby may be great to some, but the benefit conceived greater to all others.
This line of argument sounds very modern. The world moves but slowly, and it gives a feeling of humility to realize how old political wisdom is.
Mr. Isaac Disraeli is annoyed because the Moderate, in its issue of July 31st to August 7, 1649, when some robbers were executed for cattle-stealing, blames the institution of property for the death of these people, arguing that if no private property existed, there would have been no need for them to steal for their living. The article states: “We find some of these Fellons to be very civil men, and say, That if they could have had any reasonable subsistence by friends, or otherwise, they should never have taken such necessitous courses, for support of their Wives and Families. From whence many honest people do endevor to argue, that there is nothing but propriety that is the loss of all men’s lives in this condition, they being necessitated to offend the Law for a livelihood, and being; and not onely so, but they argue it with much confidence, that propriety is the original cause of any sin between party and party, as to civil transactions. And that since the Tyrant is taken off, and that Government altered in nomine, so ought it really to redound to the good of the people in specie; which though they cannot expect it in few yeers, by reason of the multiplicity of the Gentry in Authority, command, etc., who drive on all designes for support of the old Government, and consequently their own interest and the people’s slavery; yet they doubt not, but in time, the people will herein discern their own blindness, and folly.”
From the reports of the Moderate, as well as from other contemporary newspapers, it appears that the Leveller movement was not confined to London and its immediate neighbourhood and the Army, but also had followers in the country. Very interesting in this respect is a correspondence from Derby, in the issue for the last week of August 1649, particularly because we find mentioned in it a class of workers who are nowhere else mentioned in connection with this movement, viz., the miners, who had appealed to Parliament for redress in connection with a dispute with the Earl of Rutland, and the correspondence states that they were determined, if Parliament did not do them justice, to have recourse to “Natural Law”. Their number, including friends and sympathizers, was said to be twelve thousand, and they threatened, in default of a hearing, to form a resolute army. “The party of the Levellers in Town”, the article continues “promises them assistance in the prosecution of their just demands.” But a few days later, a letter from the “Freeholders and Mineowners, etc.”, of the Derbyshire mining district, published in a Cromwellian paper, states that the miners numbered at most four thousand, and that the Levellers did not have a dozen followers in Derby.
Moreover, the miners were accused of having repeatedly sided with the King, while the far more numerous freehold-farmers and mine-owners supported Parliament. This provoked a reply, in No.61 of the Moderate, which asserted that the above-mentioned letter was a fabrication of the Earl of Rutland and his agents; that the farmers and small owners had nothing to do with it. As to siding with the King, it had been stated in the original petition of the miners that the Earl of Rutland, then Mr. Manners, had repeatedly driven miners from their work, with the aid of Cavaliers, and when they complained, had sought to throw suspicion on them by false charges.
No.63 is the last issue of the Moderate. On September 20, 1649, Parliament enacted a press law, which re-established the system of licences, and prescribed severe penalties for the publication of abusive and libellous paragraphs. This undermined the position of the paper. On the other hand, negotiations had just been resumed between the Levellers and representatives of the Army and Parliament, with a view to reaching a compromise, so that it is by no means unlikely that the Moderate ceased to appear because the need for a special organ of the Levellers no longer existed. As a matter of fact, the Moderate reported on September 1st (and its report is confirmed by the Perfect Weekly Account, a paper which was more sympathetic with the Parliamentary party) that four representatives each, of Parliament, the Army, and “those called Levellers”, had held prearranged conferences in order to arrive at a mutual understanding, and if possible a settlement of all differences. “Time will soon show what will be the outcome of all this.” No compromise was effected, but it seems that, after Lilburne’s acquittal in October, a kind of truce followed, as during the subsequent years the Levellers adopted an expectant attitude.”
(Eduard Bernstein, Cromwell and Communism)
As Bernstein mentions, the Moderate and other publications were effectively closed down by parliamentary legislation in September 1649. There is no doubt that the regular publication of the Moderate, as with the flood of Leveller pamphlets over the previous 2-3 years, has been a powerful irritant to Parliament and the army leadership, linked as they had been to army agitation and mutiny, social movements and petitioning in London, as well as voicing protest over enclosures, religious intolerance, poverty, war privations, austerity, the continuing exclusion of the vast majority from political power… Through 1649, Leveller leaders had spent many months in prison, while mutinies against the army leadership, against being forced to continue fighting and being sent to continue the war/genocide then raging in Ireland, had shattered the on-off alliance that had sometimes operated between activists and agitators associated with the Levellers, and the emerging leadership of the New Model Army and its puritan allies in Parliament. The Moderate may have been allowed to continue while this shaky détente existed, but was eventually repressed when it became clear the interests of the ‘Grandees’ and the grassroots had diverged.
The passing of the parliamentary Act in September 1649 outlawed all newsbooks, binding over printers, booksellers, publishers and binders with large sureties to prevent them publishing such items. It also authorised the Stationers Company Master and Wardens to search shops for newsbooks as well as subversive pamphlets, giving them powers to break into premises, locks and chests, and search people. The Act was intended to last for two years. There’s little doubt that the two main targets were John Lilburne (and other Levellers), and the royalist press, which had been spreading virulent anti-government propaganda and wild rumours to inflame people against the new republican regime. The ideas was also to replace the bubbling undercurrents, irregular opinions and political ferment, with consistent propaganda to reconcile public opinion to the Commonwealth, and gradually exclude both radical ideas and pro-monarchist sentiment. After the newsbooks were repressed, two official organs appeared, covering news and parliamentary affairs, in an attempt to restrict the spread of wild rumour, but also with an aim of shaping public opinion in the direction the Commonwealth approved – towards a middle course, away from royalist revivals but also keeping a lid on agitations by the lower orders for wider freedoms and a greater say in public policy.
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.