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THE long era of peace and commercial prosperity enjoyed by England under Sir Robert Walpole's administration is still regarded by social historians, as it was then by the Whig poets, as England's happiest age. The national min, always dominantly utilitarian, surveyed with satisfaction the concrete results of the Revolution, wrote panegyrics on its heroes, and supported Walpole, its perfect representative, in office. Yet the student of politics finds nearly the whole period of Walpole's ministry torn by bitter party and personal antagonism; to him. Walpole seems even greater as a kind of political duellist, always outwitting a pressing throng of foes, than as an enlightened national financier. Professor Laprade, in "Public Opinion and Politics in Eighteenth Century England", has shown that a study of the controversial journalism of the period throws much light on both aspects of the minister's career and -- more important for his purpose--what the nation thought of it.
His study begins at the turn of the century, surveys the political scene in which Defoe, Swift, Addison, and Steele made their contributions to what Defoe called the "Heats, Feuds, and Animosities" of their day, but becomes most absorbing in its account of the activities of the journalists who fought back and forth during Walpole's last fifteen years in office. No period can rival that one for the violence of its satire, defamation, and downright libel. There were statutes forbidding the publication of criticism of the minister's policy, but the speed laws of today could scarcely be less effective for their purpose than were they for theirs. Since they could not suppress it, ministers were obliged to enter the fight. Political scribbling, though loudly despised as a prostituted trade, became almost respectable when great men set up their own journals to solicit the popular voice. Readers in the coffee-houses in 1723 may well have marveled to find Bishop Hoadly in "The London Journal" and the Duko of Wharton in "The True Briten" abusing each other. In the end Walpole's defeat was the product of years of Bolingbroke's and Pulteney's dinning into the public ear the minister's abuses of the public interest.
The significance of all this is that journalism became a powerful political engine during the early years of the eighteenth century. It was the avenue to public opinion and, most significant of all, public opinion, even with an unreformed House of Commons, became something that had to be carefully reckoned with. Professor Laprade's narrative of these years is admirably solid and detailed. Some, perhaps, will regret his almost too scrupulous adherence to detail. Generalizations on the significance of the mass of facts he presents are largely left to the reader. Readers accustomed to more indulgence will be disappointed. But the facts are a mine of interest which no student can wish or afford to overlook.
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