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  The Letter-Writers The Letters of Junius proper  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XVII. Political Literature.

§ 20. Junius: His literary personality and antecedents.


It was in the autumn of 1768 that the political letters of the unknown writer who, later, took the pseudonym of Junius, gained the public ear. But we know from his own statement  15  that, for two years before that date, he had been busy in furtive, assassinating polemic; and it is possible that a careful search of newspaper files would result in the discovery of some of his earlier performances of 1766 and 1767. The time when he appears to have begun letter-writing tallies well with the objects pursued by him during the period of his known writings. He was an old-fashioned whig, and a warm, almost an impassioned, adherent of the former prime minister, George Grenville. Thus, the accession to power, in July, 1766, of the elder Pitt, now Lord Chatham, with his satellite, the duke of Grafton, after a breach with Lord Temple, Grenville’s brother, and their adherents, most likely, gave the impulse to Junius’s activity. It was not, however, till October, 1768 that he became clearly distinguishable from other writers in The Public Advertiser. By that time, Chatham’s nervous prostration had rendered him incapable of transacting business, and the duke of Grafton was acting as prime minister in an administration which had become mainly tory. For some reason or other, Junius nursed a vindictive and unassuageable hatred against the duke, which it seems difficult to attribute only to the rancour of a partisan. The weakness of the loosely constructed ministry, too, would tempt their adversary to complete their rout by a storm of journalistic shot and shell. So, Junius, sometimes under his most constant and, perhaps, original signature “C.,” sometimes under other disguises, continued to add to the fury and cruel dexterity of his attacks. “The Grand Council” ridiculed the ministers’ Irish policy and their methods of business. A legal job which was attempted at the duke of Portland’s expense furnished another opportunity. Nor was Junius content with these public efforts to discredit his foes. In January, 1768, he sent Chatham an unsigned letter, full of flatteries for the sick man and of suggestions of disloyalty on the part of his colleagues. For the time being, however, Chatham continued to lend his name to the distracted ministry, which staggered on from one mistake to another. Those on which Junius, under his various aliases, seized for animadversion were small matters; but they were damaging, and his full knowledge of them, secret as they sometimes were, gave weight to his arguments. His ability seemed to rise with the occasion: the ’prentice hand which may have penned “Poplicola’s” attacks on Chatham in 1767 had become a master of cutting irony and merciless insinuation, when, as “Lucius,” he, in 1768, flayed Lord Hillsborough. The time was ripe for his appearance as something better than a skirmisher under fleeting pseudonyms, and the series of the letters of Junius proper began in January, 1769. They never, however, lost the stamp of their origin. To the last, Junius is a light-armed auxiliary, first of the Grenville connection, then, on George Grenville’s death in 1770, of the opponents of the king’s tory-minded ministry under Lord North. He darts from one point of vantage to another. Now one, now another, minister is his victim, either when guilty or when unable to defend himself efficiently. Ringing invective, a deadly catalogue of innuendoes, barbed epigrams closing a scornful period, a mastery of verbal fencing and, here and there, a fund of political good sense, all were used by the libeller, and contributed to make him the terror of his victims. The choice and the succession of the subjects of his letters were by no means haphazard. His first letter was an indictment of the more prominent members of the administration. It created a diversion which made the letter-writer’s fortune, for Sir William Draper, conqueror of Manilla, rushed into print to defend an old friend, Lord Granby. Thoroughly trounced, ridiculed, humiliated and slandered, he drew general attention to his adversary, who then proceeded to the execution of his main design. In six letters, under his customary signature or the obvious alternative Philo-Junius, he assailed the duke of Grafton’s career as man and minister. Meanwhile, the agitation provoked by Wilkes’s repeated expulsion from the commons, and his repeated election for Middlesex, was growing furious; and, in July, 1769, Junius, following the lead of George Grenville, took up the demagogue’s cause. For two months, in some of his most skilful compositions, he urged the constituency’s right to elect Wilkes. Then, as the theme wore out, he chose a new victim. Grafton’s administration depended on his alliance with the duke of Bedford, one of the most unpopular men in England. Junius turned on his foe’s ally with a malignity only second to that which he displayed against Grafton himself. A triumphant tone begins to characterise the letters, for it was obvious that the Grafton ministry was tottering to its fall; and Junius decided on a bolder step. His information was of the best, and he was convinced that the king had no intention of changing his ministerial policy, even if Grafton resigned. The king, then, must be terrorised into submitting to a new consolidated whig administration. The “capital and, I hope, final piece,” as it was called by Junius, who was conscious of his own influence with the public though he much overrated it, was an address to the king which contained a fierce indictment of George III’s public action since his accession. It was an attempt to raise popular excitement to a pitch which would compel George to yield. But the libeller placed too much trust in his power over the ruling oligarchy and gave too little credit to the dauntless courage and resolution of the king. Lord North took up the vacant post of prime minister; and his talent and winning personality, assisted by the all-prevailing corruption and by the very violence of the opposition in which Junius took part, carried the day. It was the House of Commons which kept Lord North in power, and to its conquest the angry opposition turned. Junius now appears as one of the foremost controversialists on Wilkes’s election, and as champion of the nascent radical party forming under Wilkes’s leadership in the city of London. Other matters, also, were subjects of his letters, such as the dispute with Spain concerning the Falkland islands, and the judicial decisions of Lord Mansfield; but they are all subordinate to his main end. Ever and anon, too, he returns, now with little public justification, to the wreaking of his inexplicable hatred on the duke of Grafton, “the pillow upon which I am determined to rest all my resentments.” But the game was up. Clearly, neither king nor commons could be coerced by an outside agitation, which, after all, was of no great extent. The quarrel of Wilkes and Horne wrecked the opposition in the city. Junius saw his scale kick the beam, and it was only the too true report conveyed by Garrick to the court, in November, 1771, that he would write no more, which induced him to pen his final attack on Lord Mansfield, with which the collected letters close.   29

Note 15Grenville Correspondence, vol. IV, p. 380. [ back ]

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  The Letter-Writers The Letters of Junius proper  
 
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