Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882). The Complete Works. 1904. Vol. V. English Traits
XV. The Times
THE POWER of the newspaper is familiar in America and in accordance with our political system. In England, it stands in antagonism with the feudal institutions, and it is all the more beneficent succor against the secretive tendencies of a monarchy. The celebrated Lord Somers1 knew of no good law proposed and passed in his time, to which the public papers had not directed his attention. There is no corner and no night. A relentless inquisition drags every secret to the day, turns the glare of this solar microscope on every malfaisance, so as to make the public a more terrible spy than any foreigner; and no weakness can be taken advantage of by an enemy, since the whole people are already forewarned. Thus England rids herself of those incrustations which have been the ruin of old states. Of course, this inspection is feared. No antique privilege, no comfortable monopoly, but sees surely that its days are counted; the people are familiarized with the reason of reform, and, one by one, take away every argument of the obstructives. So your grace likes the comfort of reading the newspapers, said Lord Mansfield to the Duke of Northumberland; mark my words; you and I shall not live to see it, but this young gentleman (Lord Eldon) may, or it may be a little later; but a little sooner or later, these newspapers will most assuredly write the dukes of Northumberland out of their titles and possessions, and the country out of its king. The tendency in England towards social and political institutions like those of America, is inevitable, and the ability of its journals is the driving force.
England is full of manly, clever, well-bred men who possess the talent of writing off-hand pungent paragraphs, expressing with clearness and courage their opinion on any person or performance. Valuable or not, it is a skill that is rarely found, out of the English journals. The English do this, as they write poetry, as they ride and box, by being educated to it. Hundreds of clever Praeds and Freres and Froudes and Hoods and Hooks and Maginns and Mills and Macaulays, make poems, or short essays for a journal, as they make speeches in Parliament and on the hustings, or as they shoot and ride.2 It is a quite accidental and arbitrary direction of their general ability. Rude health and spirits, an Oxford education and the habits of society are implied, but not a ray of genius. It comes of the crowded state of the professions, the violent interest which all men take in politics, the facility of experimenting in the journals, and high pay.
The most conspicuous result of this talent is the Times newspaper. No power in England is more felt, more feared, or more obeyed. What you read in the morning in that journal, you shall hear in the evening in all society. It has ears everywhere, and its information is earliest, completest and surest. It has risen, year by year, and victory by victory, to its present authority. I asked one of its old contributors whether it had once been abler than it is now? Never, he said; these are its palmiest days. It has shown those qualities which are dear to Englishmen, unflinching adherence to its objects, prodigal intellectual ability and a towering assurance, backed by the perfect organization in its printing-house and its world-wide network of correspondence and reports. It has its own history and famous trophies. In 1820, it adopted the cause of Queen Caroline, and carried it against the king. It adopted a poor-law system, and almost alone lifted it through. When Lord Brougham was in power, it decided against him, and pulled him down. It declared war against Ireland, and conquered it. It adopted the League against the Corn Laws, and, when Cobden had begun to despair, it announced his triumph. It denounced and discredited the French Republic of 1848, and checked every sympathy with it in England, until it had enrolled 200,000 special constables to watch the Chartists and make them ridiculous on the 10th April. It first denounced and then adopted the new French Empire, and urged the French Alliance and its results.3 It has entered into each municipal, literary and social question, almost with a controlling voice. It has done bold and seasonable service in exposing frauds which threatened the commercial community. Meantime, it attacks its rivals by perfecting its printing machinery, and will drive them out of circulation: for the only limit to the circulation of The Times is the impossibility of printing copies fast enough; since a daily paper can only be new and seasonable for a few hours. It will kill all but that paper which is diametrically in opposition; since many papers, first and last, have lived by their attacks on the leading journal.
The late Mr. Walter was printer of The Times, and had gradually arranged the whole matériel of it in perfect system. It is told that when he demanded a small share in the proprietary and was refused, he said, As you please, gentlemen; and you may take away The Times from this office when you will; I shall publish The New Times next Monday morning. The proprietors, who had already complained that his charges for printing were excessive, found that they were in his power, and gave him whatever he wished.
I went one day with a good friend to The Times office, which was entered through a pretty garden-yard in Printing-House Square. We walked with some circumspection, as if we were entering a powder-mill; but the door was opened by a mild old woman, and, by dint of some transmission of cards, we were at last conducted into the parlor of Mr. Morris, a very gentle person, with no hostile appearances. The statistics are now quite out of date, but I remember he told us that the daily printing was then 35,000 copies; that on the 1st March, 1848, the greatest number ever printed54,000were issued; that, since February, the daily circulation had increased by 8000 copies. The old press they were then using printed five or six thousand sheets per hour; the new machine, for which they were then building an engine, would print twelve thousand per hour. Our entertainer confided us to a courteous assistant to show us the establishment, in which, I think, they employed a hundred and twenty men. I remember I saw the reporters room, in which they redact their hasty stenographs, but the editors room, and who is in it, I did not see, though I shared the curiosity of mankind respecting it.
The staff of The Times has always been made up of able men. Old Walter, Sterling, Bacon, Barnes, Alsiger, Horace Twiss, Jones Lloyd, John Oxenford, Mr. Mosely, Mr. Bailey, have contributed to its renown in their special departments.4 But it has never wanted the first pens for occasional assistance. Its private information is inexplicable, and recalls the stories of Fouchés police, whose omniscience made it believed that the Empress Josephine must be in his pay. It has mercantile and political correspondents in every foreign city, and its expresses outrun the despatches of the government. One hears anecdotes of the rise of its servants, as of the functionaries of the India House. I was told of the dexterity of one of its reporters, who, finding himself, on one occasion, where the magistrates had strictly forbidden reporters, put his hands into his coat-pocket, and with pencil in one hand and tablet in the other, did his work.
The influence of this journal is a recognized power in Europe, and, of course, none is more conscious of it than its conductors. The tone of its articles has often been the occasion of comment from the official organs of the continental courts, and sometimes the ground of diplomatic complaint. What would The Times say? is a terror in Paris, in Berlin, in Vienna, in Copenhagen and in Nepaul. Its consummate discretion and success exhibit the English skill of combination. The daily paper is the work of many hands, chiefly, it is said, of young men recently from the University, and perhaps reading law in chambers in London. Hence the academic elegance and classic allusion which adorns its columns. Hence, too, the heat and gallantry of its onset. But the steadiness of the aim suggests the belief that this fire is directed and fed by older engineers; as if persons of exact information, and with settled views of policy, supplied the writers with the basis of fact and the object to be attained, and availed themselves of their younger energy and eloquence to plead the cause. Both the council and the executive departments gain by this division. Of two men of equal ability, the one who does not write but keeps his eye on the course of public affairs, will have the higher judicial wisdom. But the parts are kept in concert, all the articles appear to proceed from a single will. The Times never disapproves of what itself has said, or cripples itself by apology for the absence of the editor, or the indiscretion of him who held the pen. It speaks out bluff and bold, and sticks to what it says. It draws from any number of learned and skilful contributors; but a more learned and skilful person supervises, corrects, and co-ordinates. Of this closet, the secret does not transpire. No writer is suffered to claim the authorship of any paper; everything good, from whatever quarter, comes out editorially; and thus, by making the paper everything and those who write it nothing, the character and the awe of the journal gain.
The English like it for its complete information. A statement of fact in The Times is as reliable as a citation from Hansard.5 Then they like its independence; they do not know, when they take it up, what their paper is going to say: but, above all, for the nationality and confidence of its tone. It thinks for them all; it is their understanding and days ideal daguerreotyped. When I see them reading its columns, they seem to me becoming every moment more British. It has the national courage, not rash and petulant, but considerate and determined. No dignity or wealth is a shield from its assault. It attacks a duke as readily as a policeman, and with the most provoking airs of condescension. It makes rude work with the Board of Admiralty. The Bench of Bishops is still less safe. One bishop fares badly for his rapacity, and another for his bigotry, and a third for his courtliness. It addresses occasionally a hint to Majesty itself, and sometimes a hint which is taken. There is an air of freedom even in their advertising columns, which speaks well for England to a foreigner. On the days when I arrived in London in 1847, I read, among the daily announcements, one offering a reward of fifty pounds to any person who would put a nobleman, described by name and title, late a member of Parliament, into any county jail in England, he having been convicted of obtaining money under false pretences.
Was never such arrogancy as the tone of this paper. Every slip of an Oxonian or Cantabrigian who writes his first leader assumes that we subdued the earth before we sat down to write this particular Times. One would think the world was on its knees to The Times office for its daily breakfast. But this arrogance is calculated. Who would care for it, if it surmised, or dared to confess, or ventured to predict, etc.? No; it is so, and so it shall be.
The morality and patriotism of The Times claim only to be representative, and by no means ideal. It gives the argument, not of the majority, but of the commanding class. Its editors know better than to defend Russia, or Austria, or English vested rights, on abstract grounds. But they give a voice to the class who at the moment take the lead; and they have an instinct for finding where the power now lies, which is eternally shifting its banks. Sympathizing with, and speaking for the class that rules the hour, yet being apprised of every ground-swell, every Chartist resolution, every Church squabble, every strike in the mills, they detect the first tremblings of change. They watch the hard and bitter struggles of the authors of each liberal movement, year by year; watching them only to taunt and obstruct them,until, at last, when they see that these have established their fact, that power is on the point of passing to them, they strike in with the voice of a monarch, astonish those whom they succor as much as those whom they desert, and make victory sure. Of course the aspirants see that The Times is one of the goods of fortune, not to be won but by winning their cause.
Punch is equally an expression of English good sense, as the London Times. It is the comic version of the same sense. Many of its caricatures are equal to the best pamphlets, and will convey to the eye in an instant the popular view which was taken of each turn of public affairs. Its sketches are usually made by masterly hands, and sometimes with genius; the delight of every class, because uniformly guided by that taste which is tyrannical in England. It is a new trait of the nineteenth century, that the wit and humor of Englandas in Punch, so in the humorists, Jerrold, Dickens, Thackeray, Hoodhave taken the direction of humanity and freedom.6
The Times, like every important institution, shows the way to a better. It is a living index of the colossal British power. Its existence honors the people who dare to print all they know, dare to know all the facts and do not wish to be flattered by hiding the extent of the public disaster.7 There is always safety in valor. I wish I could add that this journal aspired to deserve the power it wields, by guidance of the public sentiment to the right. It is usually pretended, in Parliament and elsewhere, that the English press has a high tone,which it has not. It has an imperial tone, as of a powerful and independent nation. But, as with other empires, its tone is prone to be official, and even officinal. The Times shares all the limitations of the governing classes, and wishes never to be in a minority. If only it dared to cleave to the right, to show the right to be the only expedient, and feed its batteries from the central heart of humanity, it might not have so many men of rank among its contributors, but genius would be its cordial and invincible ally; it might now and then bear the brunt of formidable combinations, but no journal is ruined by wise courage. It would be the natural leader of British reform; its proud function, that of being the voice of Europe, the defender of the exile and patriot against despots, would be more effectually discharged; it would have the authority which is claimed for that dream of good men not yet come to pass, an International Congress; and the least of its victories would be to give to England a new millennium of beneficent power.8
Note 1. John Baron Somers of Evesham, the eminent lawyer and Whig statesman, Lord Chancellor of England under William and Mary. [back]
Note 2. Winthrop Mackworth Praed, the Greek scholar and poet, who was also in Parliament. John Hookham Frere, the diplomat and scholar, one of the founders of the Quarterly Review. William Maginn, the versatile Irish contributor to Blackwood, the Quarterly Review, Frasers Magazine, etc. Theodore Edward Hook, a brilliant writer and society wit, noted for his successful conduct of John Bull, a newspaper established in the interest of the King as against that of Queen Caroline. Thomas Hood, the poet, was editor of the Comic Annual, the New Monthly and Hoods magazines. His Song of the Shirt appeared first in Punch. [back]
Note 3. Fragment of lecture on English Civilization: England never stands for the cause of freedom on the Continent, but only for English trade. She did not stand for the freedom of Schleswig-Holstein, but for the King of Denmark. She did not stand for the Hungarians, but for Austria. It was accordant that Lord Palmerston, reputed liberal, should favor Louis Napoleons usurpation. England meantime is liberal, but the power of England is with the aristocracy who never go for liberty unless England itself is threatened. [back]
Note 4. The Times was founded by John Walter, who had purchased the patent method of logography, a great improvement in printing. Issued at first as the London Daily Universal Register, in 1785, three years later the title became The Times, or Daily Universal Register. Walters son, bearing his fathers name, succeeded to the management, under which the journal prospered. The second John Walter died in 1847, and his son John conducted the paper for many years. Of the staff mentioned in the text it may be said that Edward Sterling, the father of John Sterling, was an able man. Thomas Barnes was a vigorous writer on English politics in The Times, and was editor for a quarter of a century. Mr. Emerson notes that Horace Twiss makes the parliamentary digest for £700 a year. John Oxenford was the translator of Eckermanns Conversations with Goethe, and was a dramatic critic. Journal, 1849. The Times newspaper attracts the American in London more and more, until at last he wonders that it does not more pique the curiosity of the English themselves . He never sees any person capable of writing these powerful paragraphs; and, though he hears up and down in society now and then some anecdote of a Mr. Bailey or Mr. Mosely who sent his paper to The Times, and received in return twenty guineas, with a request that he would write again, and so that he did, in due time, become one of the Staff of the Journal,yet one never hears among well-informed men as Milnes, Carlyle, Helps, Gregg, Forster, any accounts of this potentate at all adequate to the fact. They may well affect not to know or care who wrote it, at the moment when I observe that all they know or say, they read in it. [back]
Note 5. Hansards Journal of the House of Commons from 1774. [back]
Note 6. The recantation in Punch of its ridicule of Lincoln, after his assassination, in the fine poem by Taylor, was valued by Mr. Emerson. He included it in his Parnassus. [back]
Note 7. The Times dared tell the British public in the war of 1812 the astounding news that within the year two of their frigates had been obliged to strike their flags in duels with vessels of the almost ignored American Navy. Captain Mahan quotes this leader in one of his magazine articles. It is one of the few recognitions, in English writings, of the actions at sea in that war. [back]
Note 8. In 1863, while our country was struggling for life with foes at home, and the armed intervention of England on behalf of her trade was threatening, Mr. Emerson wrote, and probably spoke, thus: We are coming (thanks to the war) to a nationality. Put down your foot and say to England, I know your merits and have paid them in the past the homage of ignoring your faults. I see them still. But it is time to say the whole truth,that you have failed in an Olympian hour, that when the occasion of magnanimity arrived, you had it not,that you have lost character. Besides; your insularity, your inches are conspicuous, and they are to count against miles. When it comes to divide an estate, the politest men quarrel. Justice is above your aim. You are self-condemned. [back]