J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Censor’s Search for a Motto

The first issues of The Censor, the political magazine printed by Ezekiel Russell of Boston in late 1771, carried the motto “Vexat censura columbas.” That’s the last part of a line from the Roman satirist Juvenal, which literally means, “The censor forgives the crows and harasses the doves.” So The Censor was telling readers, “The censor harasses the nice birds,” which hardly puts The Censor in a good light.

I suspect that the gentlemen behind the magazine meant that motto as a dig at their political opponents, implying that the Boston Whigs’ sanctimonious activism was misdirected at the best of public servants. But as a political slogan it had two big problems:

  • Its sarcastic meaning was too smart for the room.
  • It was in Latin, so most people in Boston couldn’t understand it, anyway.
With the 21 March 1772 issue, The Censor’s epigraph shifted to a couplet from Alexander Pope (shown above):
Know while I live, no rich or noble Knave,
Shall walk the World in credit to his Grave.
That had the chance of communicating to all the readers in Boston since it was in English. And it promised to speak truth to power. But it was an odd choice for a magazine funded by the upper-class elite with a message that it was best to defer to royal authority.

Finally, for what turned out to be its last issues, The Censor landed on a motto from Cicero:
Ne quid falsi dicere audeat, ne quid veil non audeat.
“Let him not presume to utter any falsehood, but be bold in promulgating every truth.” Finally the magazine led with a straightforward statement of its principles. Once again in Latin.

As I described yesterday, The Censor wasn’t cut out to appeal to the common people.

TOMORROW: The Censor goes on the attack.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

this is very interesting, i am glad i found this, i wondered what that cicero quote meant. Thanks!!