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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Tuesday, June 07, 2016

The Privilege of Printing Parliamentary Debates

Every so often I’ve mentioned how in the 1760s the British press was wary of reporting the exact language of Parliament’s debates.

There’s no official record of the debate over the Stamp Act, for instance, or the debate to repeal it. Instead, we have to rely on private letters and memoirs, which often disagree. (Of course, official records can also disagree with letters and memoirs, and with what legislators actually said.)

In 1767 the bookseller John Almon offered a Political Register which reported on the Earl of Camden’s speech against the Declaratory Act the year before. But Almon protected himself by referring only to how “L— C——” spoke to the “B—— p———” on the issue of taxing the “A——— c——.” And he never published a second volume because of government pressure.

This portrait of London alderman Richard Oliver is another document of that debate over open government. As the website of Britain’s ArtFund explains:
In 1771 a messenger of the House arrested [John] Miller, the printer of the London Evening Post, for a breach of privilege for publishing Parliamentary debates. Richard Oliver, an Alderman of Billingsgate Ward and MP for the City[,] was a magistrate on the case together with Brass Crosby, the Lord Mayor, and Alderman John Wilkes.

The Court released Miller[,] but Crosby and Oliver were ordered to attend the House of Commons, where their actions were declared a breach of privilege. Both were committed to the Tower of London in March and not released until the end of the Parliamentary session in May.

While in the Tower both Crosby and Oliver had their portraits painted by Robert Edge Pine, a portrait and history painter who was a supporter of Wilkes and a man of strong radical sympathies. In consequence of Crosby and Oliver’s stand against the House, no attempt has since been made to prevent publication of parliamentary speeches.
The transcripts that Miller printed came from Almon. Around that same time, the government also prosecuted those two men for reprinting the Letters of Junius, winning convictions but losing the political battle. In 1774, Almon established the Parliamentary Register as a regular publication, and soon the British public felt entitled to know what Members of Parliament were saying.

This fight for press freedom was closely tied to the debate over Britain’s policy toward America. Almon supported American autonomy. Oliver was one of the few M.P.’s to vote against the Boston Port Bill in 1774 (as well as a distant cousin of Massachusetts lieutenant governor Thomas Oliver). The artist Pine, who briefly tutored Prince Demah, and the printer Miller both moved to America around the end of the war.

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