Chapter 2

Containing Proceedings of the Town Meeting

The day following, a meeting being held, and the chief burgess in the chair, an advocate of Porcupine took the ground and spoke.

Gentlemen, said he, the press is the palladium of liberty.-- “The image that fell down from Jupiter.” The freedom of the press is essential to liberty. Shackle the press, and you restrain freedom. The constitutions of the states have provided that the press shall be free. If you muzzle this, you may as well muzzle the mouth of man.

It is not the freedom of the press, said one interrupting him, it is the abuse of it that is in question.

The chief burgess called to order, and the speaker went on.

That is the point, said he, to which I meant to come. What shall be said to the abuse of the press? In order to determine this, we must consider its use. This is,

1. The amusement of the editor. For as some men amuse themselves shooting, fishing, or chasing wild beasts, so men of literary taste, find their recreation in penning paragraphs for a paper, sometimes containing information, or observations on the state of empires and the characters of men; at other times by descending, or not rising at all, but confining themselves to the subordinate affairs of individuals, and private persons.

2. The profit of the editor: and this depends on the number of subscribers. It is not every one that has a taste for refined writing. Guts and garbage delight bears; and swine swill the trough in preference to the running stream. Scurrility is the gout of many. Nay it is the more prevailing taste;

“The world is naturally averse
To all the truth it sees or hears;
But swallows nonsense and a lie,
With greediness and gluttony.”

In Britain, or some other countries, delicacy may succeed. But the coarse stomachs of the Americans crave rather indelicacy and indecency, at least a portion of it. Rough like their own woods, and wild beasts, they digest scurrility.

Well said Porcupine! said the pole-cat man, taking the ground in his turn: well said. But this furnishes a ground to justify the introduction of the pole-cat. Your talk of the freedom of the press. Here is the freedom of the express. Nay the word expression which is common to both institutions, the artificial one of the types, and the natural one of the cat, shows the original to be similar, and the comparison to run on all fours. If the ink cast into black letter, and carrying with it pain and pungency from the ideas communicated, is tolerated; much more the volatile alkali of the animal that is now set up, is to be borne, as not more offensive to body or mind. Shall the bark of trees made into powder, and this powder into a liquid, impregnated with thought, and put upon paper, and carried to the press, be accounted harmless, notwithstanding the violence of the decoction, yet the wild cats that inhabit those trees, and are denizens of the forest, be prohibited because of a bag under their tails which contains an unsavory distillation, and may occasionally be spurted upon men?

A lawyer spoke up on the part of Porcupine. The principles of the common law embrace this case. It is unlawful to exercise trades in towns that occasion noisome smells; they are abateable as nuisances.

Grant it, said a juris consult on the pole-cat side; but when it is in retaliation, or in self-defence against an editor whose defamation is more offensive to the feelings of the mind, than the hogo of a civet to the sense of smelling; or when it is used in burlesque, and by way of analogy and symbol to explain the impropriety of encouraging personal abuse, by taking papers, it may correct by leading to reflection. The mind may be insensible to abstract lessons, but a paradigm, or object set before it may affect. As to this man exercising his trade by the smell of a cat, it is an occupation which can be carried on to advantage only in a town; for it is in towns chiefly that editors assemble; and it is by setting up under our noses, and affecting the readers, that the impression is made. For if the public will receive libels into their houses for the use of themselves and families gossip and slander, let them take a little of this hartshorn with it and if they will have the one bear the other. A ground of the common law is general reason adapted to particular cases. I grant that it even goes so far as to make the keeping hogs in a pen near my window, in towns, as to offend by the smell, a nuisance; but this is a town incorporated, and can by a bye law regulate new trade. I hold it to be a matter of vote whether this quadruped shall be tolerated or excluded.

The advocate for the press rejoined. The common law, said he, protects the press. It is the right of the tongue transferred to the hand: it ought to be as free as the air that we breathe: The privilege as unfettered as the organs of articulation. But what is there in the common law to protect from the aspersion of this animal?

The pole-cat man replied. It is on principle and by analogy, said he, that it is protected. Does not the law of water courses apply to this? If a man divert a stream from my meadow, or obstruct one running through it, so as to dam it up, and drown the grass, have I not a remedy? Shall this man at much expense and charge bring a beast from the mountains, tame it, or reduce it under his dominion, and apply it to a purpose in civilized and domestic life, and shall we say that the common law does not protect him in the enjoyment of its musk?

The advocate of the side of Porcupine rejoined. So use your own, said he, that you trespass not upon another man's. If you keep your smell, and hogs at home to your own nose, there is no objection. But in the nature of the think it cannot be; for the air is the natural conductor; and therefore it cannot but exist a nuisance.

Surrejoinder; but after all, is it more a nuisance than the press, which it has in view to correct?

At this instant a commotion was perceivable amongst the multitude; not on account of what was said, or meaning any disturbance like debate; but the rumour was that a fresh cat had been brought from the hills above the town, and was on its way to the college-man who had offered a reward for an additional puss to increase his stock; and as it was conjectured, meant to play it off under the pretext that the prohibition contained in the armistice extended only to the individual beast that he had before in his possession.

The Captain, at this, rising, said: young man, This is not fair. It is within the reason, if not the express words of the convention, that all annoyances by steam, vapour or effluviae proceeding from a pole-cat shall be suspended during the pendency of this question; and it is an evasion to substitute another badger, and by that means attempt to elude the stipulation.

Thepole-cat man got up to explain. It is far from me, said he, to elude or evade the performance of the stipulation. The fact is, that hearing, a day or two ago, that Porcupine was about to enlarge his sheet, and for that purpose had employed a journeyman, or two more, I thought it not amiss to extend the scale of my vapour and employ two conduits instead of one. For that purpose had sent to the woods, for another cat, which is now on the way, but in a leathern bag by my directions, and not to have regress, or egress, until this assembly shall dissolve, nor for a reasonable time after, that eundo, and redeundo, or going as well as coming, you may be safe let what will be the issue of the controversy; whether I am to break up stock, or be suffered to go on.

This explanation gave satisfaction, and composed the assembly.

Another speaker had now occupied the ground. I cannot say the floor, for there was no floor. I am, said he, for supporting the press. The objection is, that it is a blackguard press. But while there are blackguards to write, must they not have a press? Is it only men of polished education that have a right to express their sentiments? Let them write in magazines, or have gazettes of their own, but not restrict the right that people of a more uncultivated understanding have to amuse themselves and others with their lucubrations. You call us the Swinish Multitude, and yet refuse us the food that is natural to us. Are there not amongst us those that have no relish for the disquisitions on the balance of power or form of governments, agricultural essays, or questions of finance; but can comprehend and relish a laugh raised at the expense of the master of a family; or a public character in high station; if for no other reason, but because it gratifies the self-love of those who cannot attain the same eminence? Take away from us this, and what have we more? What is the press to us, but as it amuses?

I think, said another rising, that the gentleman meansto be ironical. But let us take the matter seriously. I am on the same side with him, but not for the same reasons. I take it, that scurrility may be useful to those that hear it, and are the subjects of it. It may bring to a man’s knowledge and serve to correct foibles that he would not otherwise have been conscious of. Men will hear from the buffoon or jester, things they would not take from a friend, and scarcely from a confessor. It was on this principle that in the middle ages of Europe, a profession of men was indulged, in the houses of the great, called Joculators or Jesters. So late as the time of James I we had one of these of the name of Archy. The Duke of Buckingham having taken offence at something that he said, had him whipped. It was thought beneath a man of honour to have taken notice of it, and inflicted punishment. I consider the bulk of our editors as succeeding to the joculators of the early periods; and as the knights of character and dignity of those times were not bound to notice the follies, however gross of jesters; so now a gentleman is not bound to notice the defamation of gazettes: nay, as in the former instance, it was deemed uncourteous, and unbecoming to resent what the fool said, so now what a printer chooses to publish. Selden in his table talk remarks, “That a gallant man, is above ill words. We have an example of this in the old Lord of Salisbury, who was a great wise man. Stone had called some lord about the Court fool. The Lord complains and has Stone whipped. Stone cries, I might have called my Lord of Salisbury often enough, fool, before he would have had me whipped.” As in the case of the Merry Andrew, even when there was no wit, it was taken for wit; so now, when an editor means to divert, however dull his abuse, it ought to be the mode to laugh, to keep those who know no better in countenance.

The Captain rising and putting himself in the attitude of speaking, seemed to claim the attention of the audience. I would wish to know, said he, how the ancients managed these matters: in the republics of Greece and Rome especially. For since I have been abroad, and heard public speeches, I find that it is no unusual thing to draw illustrations from the sayings and doings of antiquity. In deliberative assemblies talking of governments, they tell you of the Amphytrionic Council; the Achean league, the Ionian confederacy. What was the freedom of the press at Athens, or at Rome?

The fact is, said an academician, there was no press at these places, or in these times. The invention of printing is of a later date. But they had , what they called the style, and they impressed their thoughts upon wax. They made use of ink in copying upon vellum and parchment. But notwithstanding the want of a press, they were not without satyric salt in their writings. Nor are we to suppose that they were altogether free from what we denominate scurrility. They could call a spade a spade. Aristophanes was a blackguard. His Comedy of the clouds is a sufficient specimen. Lucilius, amongst the Romans was a rough man. Cum lutulentus flueret, &c. Do we suppose that nature was not then the same as it is now? On board the Roman gallies was there no low humour? In the Roman camps none? In the Forum no occasional ribaldry? Would not this naturally get up into higher walks? Would not this creep into corporations? sometimes in verse; sometimes in prose: versis famosis. The poet speaks of Fesscenine verses. Amongst the Romans the Saturnalia, or days of Saturn, became a festival, in which it was allowable to exercise their faculties in all intemperance of language.

This is all wide of the question, said an unlearned man, It is, shall we tolerate the pole-cat in this village?-- For, maugre all the pains that may have been taken to restrain the pett, and confine it by a matting, I feel a portion of the fetor this very moment, come across my nose, by a puff of wind from that quarter, where it is. I move that the question be taken, whether, whatever becomes of the press, the nuisance of this beast, be suffered in the vicinity. For what can a newspaper do, compared with this? It is sent us and we read the publication. But this is involuntary, on our part, and there is no saving ourselves from the exhalation.

I move the previous question said a friend to the baboon; I move that the press be put down.

There is hardship both ways, said an elderly inhabitant. In a community different interests will exist. Family interests; family attachments; party conceptions; and party interests. To have a printer all on one side, is an inequality. What if we prevail upon the owner, or as he would call himself the publisher of the pole-cat, to give up or sell out his establishment, dismiss the wild beast, or return it to the mountains, and institute in its place, a counter press of types and black-ball that may be a match for Porcupine.

The Captain, rising hastily; a thing unusual with him; for he was naturally grave and sedate; but suddenly feeling the impulse of the congruity, he started from his seat, and seconded the proposition of another press; for said he, the very kind of editor qualified for such a press is at hand; a waiter of mine. A bog-trotter, taken, not on the Balagate, but, on the Irish mountains: an aboriginal of the island; not your Scotch-Irish, so called, a colony planted in Ulster, by king James the first of England, when he subdued the natives; but a real Paddy, with the brogue on his tongue, and none on his feet; brought up to sheep-stealing from his youth; for his ancestors inhabiting the hills, were a kind of freebooters, time immemorial, coming down to the low grounds, and plundering the more industrious inhabitants. Captured by traps set upon the hills, or surrounded in the bogs, attempting his escape, he had been tamed and employed, many years, digging turf, before he came to my hands. I bought him from an Irish vessel, just as a curiosity, not that I expected much service from him; but to see what could be made of a rude man by care and patience. The rogue has a low humour, and a sharp tongue; unbounded impudence. And what may be a restraint upon the licentiousness of his press, should he set up one, he is a most abominable coward; the idea of cudgelling will keep him in bounds; should he over-match Porcupine, and turn upon his employers. He has all the low phrases, cant expressions, illiberal reflections, that could be collected from the company he has kept since he has had the care of my horse, and run after my heels in town and country for several years past. What is more, he has been in France, and has a spice of the language, and a tang of Jacobinism in his principles, and conversation, that will match the contrary learning carried to an exorbitant excess in Peter Porcupine. I do not know that you can do better than contribute to a paper of his setting up. He may call it the Mully-Grub, or give it some such title as will bespeak the nature of the matter it will usually contain.

The academician at this came forward. I am far, said he, from a disposition to spoil sport; but when the useful is mixed with the jest, I count every point gained.

Omne tulit punctum,

I had never intended more, said the pole-cat man, than to reach the sensations of the multitude, and bring them to their senses.It is only by an appeal to the sense of feeling that the mind sometimes can be awakened. The public have now some idea that the licentiousness of the press, is not more a nuisance in the moral, than offensive smells are in the physical world. I agree that the cat be removed, and as a substitute, shall subscribe to the Mully-Grub.