Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
A Political Microcosm
By Henry Fielding (17071754)
From Jonathan Wild
THERE resided in the castle at the same time with Mr. Wild one Roger Johnson, a very great man, who had long been at the head of all the prigs in Newgate, and had raised contributions on them. He examined into the nature of their defence, procured and instructed their evidence, and made himself, at least in their opinion, so necessary to them, that the whole fate of Newgate seemed entirely to depend upon him.
Wild had not been long in confinement before he began to oppose this man. He represented him to the prigs as a fellow who, under the plausible pretence of assisting their causes, was in reality undermining the liberties of Newgate. He at first threw out certain sly hints and insinuations; but, having by degrees formed a party against Roger, he one day assembled them together, and spoke to them in the following florid manner:
Friends and fellow-citizensThe cause which I am to mention to you this day is of such mighty importance, that when I consider my own small abilities, I tremble with an apprehension lest your safety may be rendered precarious by the weakness of him who hath undertaken to represent to you your danger. Gentlemen, the liberty of Newgate is at stake; your privileges have been long undermined, and are now openly violated by one man; by one who hath engrossed to himself the whole conduct of your trials, under colour of which he exacts what contributions on you he pleases; but are those sums appropriated to the uses for which they are raised? Your frequent convictions at the Old Bailey, those degradations of justice, must too sensibly and sorely demonstrate the contrary. What evidence doth he ever produce for the prisoner which the prisoner himself could not have provided, and often better instructed? How many noble youths have there been lost when a single alibi would have saved them. Should I be silent, nay, could your own injuries want a tongue to remonstrate, the very breath which by his neglect hath been stopped at the cheat would cry out loudly against him. Nor is the exorbitancy of his plunders visible only in the dreadful consequences it hath produced to the prigs, nor glares it only in the miseries brought on them: it blazes forth in the more desirable effects it hath wrought for himself, in the rich perquisites acquired by it; witness that silk night-gown, that robe of shame, which, to his eternal dishonour, he publicly wears; that gown which I will not scruple to call the winding-sheet of the liberties of Newgate. Is there a prig who hath the interest and honour of Newgate so little at heart that he can refrain from blushing when he beholds that trophy, purchased with the breath of so many prigs? Nor is this all. His waistcoat embroidered with silk, and his velvet cap, bought with the same price, are ensigns of the same disgrace. Some would think the rags which covered his nakedness when first he was committed hither well exchanged for these gaudy trappings; but in my eye no exchange can be profitable when dishonour is the condition. If, therefore, Newgate Here the only copy which we could procure of this speech breaks off abruptly; however, we can assure the reader, from very authentic information, that he concluded with advising the prigs to put their affairs into other hands. After which one of his party, as had been before concerted, in a very long speech recommended him (Wild himself) to their choice.
Newgate was divided into parties on this occasion, the prigs on each side representing their chief or great man to be the only person by whom the affairs of Newgate could be managed with safety and advantage. The prigs had indeed very incompatible interests; for whereas the supporters of Johnson, who was in the possession of the plunder of Newgate, were admitted to some share under their leader, so the abettors of Wild had, on his promotion, the same views of dividing some part of the spoil among themselves. It is no wonder, therefore, they were both so warm on each side. What may seem more remarkable was, that the debtors, who were entirely unconcerned in the dispute, and who were the destined plunder of both parties, should interest themselves with the utmost violence, some on behalf of Wild, and others in favour of Johnson. So that all Newgate resounded with Wild for ever, Johnson for ever. And the poor debtors re-echoed the liberties of Newgate, which, in the cant language, signifies plunder, as loudly as the thieves themselves. In short such quarrels and animosities happened between them, that they seemed rather the people of two countries long at war with each other than the inhabitants of the same castle.
Wilds party at length prevailed, and he succeeded to the place and power of Johnson, whom he presently stripped of all his finery; but when it was proposed that he should sell it and divide the money for the good of the whole, he waived that motion, saying it was not yet time, that he should find a better opportunity, that the clothes wanted cleaning, with many other pretences, and within two days, to the surprise of many, he appeared in them himself; for which he vouchsafed no other apology than that they fitted him much better than they did Johnson, and that they became him in a much more elegant manner.