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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Friday, June 12, 2009

What Kind of Name for a Magazine was The Censor?

A while back I discussed whether Penelope Russell took over The Censor from her husband Ezekiel, or was simply his indispensable partner in the business. But I didn’t address the obvious question: What kind of name for a magazine was The Censor?

We associate the word “censor” with not allowing stuff to be published. So issuing a magazine with that name looks like calling a street “Roadblock Road,” or an airline “Grounded Air.”

But in the eighteenth century the word “censor” still had a more general meaning of an official in charge of upholding public morals. The Roman republic had censors, and if it was good enough for the Roman republic, then it was good enough for eighteenth-century British gentlemen.

When supporters of the royal government in Massachusetts sponsored The Censor, they chose the name because they saw themselves as responding to public immorality: riots, intimidation, law-breaking, and lack of respect for royal officials. Since many of the men funding and writing for the magazine were royal officials, they felt this keenly. Among the contributors were Lt. Gov. Andrew Oliver (shown here, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery), his brother Judge Peter Oliver, and (anonymously, at least according to later rumors) Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr.

The magazine’s first issue was devoted to answering an attack on Gov. Thomas Hutchinson written by Joseph Greenleaf and printed in the Massachusetts Spy. Eventually the royal party chose a different strategy and tried to have Greenleaf, Spy printer Isaiah Thomas, and others indicted for libel, but the local grand jury refused to return an indictment against any of those Whigs.

One big challenge for the men writing The Censor was that the Whigs also presented themselves as fighting public immorality. They spoke of “liberty,” but they didn’t condone any excesses of personal liberty of the sort that censors guarded against. Samuel Adams was the last of the New England Puritans, and no one could outflank him in scolding the world about public immorality. The Whigs meant political and economic liberty. Their newspaper essays assured the people of Massachusetts that they already had fine morals, but had to guard their way of life from corrupt officials enforcing unconstitutional laws.

TOMORROW: Why The Censor was doomed from the start.

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