An Inky Wretch

December 1, 2002 Topic: Society

An Inky Wretch

Mini Teaser: The world's first political journalist, Marchamont Nedham, was deeply partisan, but also pragmatic, principled and competent. A rare combination indeed.

by Author(s): Paul A. Rahe

Marvell's satire was exceedingly apt. A decade before, at the time of the Restoration, the Royalist penman Roger L'Estrange had in all seriousness made precisely the same point, observing, "it has been made a Question long agoe, whether more mischief than advantage were not occasion'd to the Christian world by the Invention of Typography."

The Ur Editorialist

L'Estrange made these remarks in passing in a pamphlet arguing for the execution of a particularly influential journalist named Marchamont Nedham. Born in August 1620 at Burford in Gloucestershire into a genteel family of modest means, Nedham had studied at All Souls College and had taken his B.A. from the University of Oxford in 1637. He then worked briefly as an usher at Merchant Taylor's School in London and as an underclerk at Gray's Inn before discovering his true métier. When he first took up his pen to write for the public prints less than two years after John Thomas had introduced the newsbook, he was barely 23 years in age.

Nedham was an entertainer of sorts and a time-server-"a jack of all sides", as one contemporary critic put it, "transcendently gifted in opprobrious and treasonable Droll." In the course of a long and checkered career-stretching from early in the English Civil War in 1643 to a time shortly before his death in 1678, when the Exclusion Crisis was just getting underway-he displayed a political and moral flexibility and a lust for lucre exceeded only by his talent. He began as a fierce defender of the parliamentary cause, switched in 1647 to the side of the king-and then, some nine months after his royal patron's demise and while on the lam from Newgate Jail, he wrote to offer his services to the presiding officer of the regicide court.

Nedham's was not a costive muse. In the course of his career, he published more than 34 pamphlets and books. In addition, he composed most of the copy that appeared in the Roundhead newsbook Mercurius Britanicus, then edited the Cavalier newsbook Mercurius Pragmaticus; and then (for a brief time under license from his friend John Milton) he edited the newsbook Mercurius Politicus-in turn for the Rump, for the Nominated Parliament, for the Protectorate, and for the Rump twice again, celebrating the coups d'état that overthrew each, and in the end, even hailing the return of the king. On the eve of the Restoration, after publishing a brief but bitter satire warning the Roundheads of Royalist vengeance to come, he prudently withdrew into exile. But soon he managed to purchase for himself a personal pardon. And while many of his erstwhile associates suffered execution, imprisonment or exile, he ended his days writing pamphlets for Charles II, the Earl of Danby, and their Tory allies. Nedham wrote such pamphlets against the Exclusion Whigs and their leader, the first Earl of Shaftesbury, whom Nedham had the effrontery to denounce not just as "a man of . . . dapper Conscience, and dexterity, that can dance through a Hoop; or that can be a Tambler through Parties, or a small Teazer of Religions, and Tonzer of Factions", but also as "a Pettifogger of Politiciks" ever ready "to shift Principles like Shirts"; and "quit an unlucky Side in a fright at the noise of a New Prevailing Party", and even as "a Will-with-a-Wisp, that uses to lead Men out of the way; then leaves them at last in a Ditch and Darkness, and nimbly retreats for Self-security."

No darker pot ever insulted a kettle. As should by now be clear, Nedham himself was a man of dapper conscience and dexterity extraordinaire; he had a well-earned reputation for shifting principles like shirts; and he was certainly a Will-with-a-Wisp, possessed of what one contemporary described as "a dextrous faculty of creeping into the breech of every Rising Power."What he lacked in constancy to other men, this inky wretch made up for in audacity. The vigor of the language that he deployed in his denunciation of Shaftesbury, his light touch therein, and the vividness of the metaphors he found apt suggest on his part a certain grudging admiration for the man-the appreciation of one virtuoso for a bravura performance of another.

Nedham's own virtuosity as a flack invited on the part of his critics similar flights of fancy. On the eve of the Restoration, an opponent described him as "a Mercury with a winged conscience, the Skip-Jack of all fortunes, that like a Shittle-cock drive him which way you will, falls still with the Cork end forwards." In a satirical pamphlet published early in 1660, the editor of Mercurius Politicus is represented as taking leave of his regicide associates with the following words: "for now [that] the scæne's alter'd, I must go change my habit; if ever the times turn, you shall find me as faithful as I was before." Another critic predicted at that time that Nedham would soon be writing for the Cavaliers. "He is like a Catt", he wrote, "that (throw him which way you will) still light[s] on his feet."

If this particular journalist did land right-side up and light on his feet at every toss and turn, if he was almost always in someone's pay, it was because, at every stage in the set of struggles that defined his age, his was the indispensable pen. No one in his generation knew how to sway English public opinion more effectively than he. Marchamont Nedham could not only sow the whirlwind; he could ride the storm as well.

Of Interests and Ideas

That L' Estrange should have articulated his attack on the press in a pamphlet demanding that none other than Marchamont Nedham be indicted for treason stands to reason. Nedham was a true pioneer. He was the first intellectual journalist, the very model of a modern sophist, the harbinger of much that we now take for granted; by 1660 his name had come to be synonymous with the press. This man of many masks, who had passed himself off as Mercurius Britanicus, then as Mercurius Pragmaticus, and finally as Mercurius Politicus, was, as L'Estrange readily conceded, "the Golia[t]h of the Philistines", and his "pen was in comparison of others like a Weavers beam." It is, L'Estrange added, "incredible what influence" his weekly newsbooks "had upon numbers of inconsidering persons." Nedham had "with so much malice calumniated his Sovereign, so scurrilously abused the Nobility, so impudently blasphemed the Church, and so industriously poysoned the people with dangerous principles" that, had "the Devil himself (the Father of Lies)" held this particular journalist's office, "he could not have exceeded him."

As seems only fitting, it was this self-same diabolical colossus who first deployed in the public prints Niccolò Machiavelli's reflections on the rise and fall of republics, doing so in a systematic effort to sort out the practical exigencies of England's republican experiment. Nedham had never been averse to the Florentine, and from early on he had brazenly championed raison d'état as preached by the Duc de Rohan, arguing that it is material interest-not justice, honor or religion-that makes the world go round. In The Case of the Kingdom Stated, According to the Proper Interests of the Severall Parties Ingaged, the first tract that Nedham wrote in any way sympathetic to the Royalist cause, he first cited this renowned Huguenot grandee, then analyzed in cold-blooded terms the interests of England's various contending parties, and ultimately advised patience on the part of the king. He argued that Charles could profit from the quarrel then emerging between the Presbyterians and Independents if he tarried until the moment when "his onely Interest will be, to close with that Party which gives most hope of Indulgence to his Prerogative, & greatest probability of favor to his Friends." The policy of divide and rule is, he explained, "what Machiavell sets downe as a sure Principle towards the purchase of Empire."

Of course, when the rhetorical situation required it, Nedham could pass himself off as a believing Christian and frequently did so, and he was perfectly capable of speaking in the familiar accents of moral rectitude, denouncing one side or the other for an addiction to hypocrisy, blasphemy and vice. But nearly as often, especially when the opportunity for candor presented itself, he displayed an outright contempt for highmindedness of virtually every kind. "Interest", he insisted, "is the true Zenith of every State and Person, according to which they may certainly be understood, though cloathed never so much with the most specious disguise of Religion, Justice and Necessity: And Actions are the effects of Interests, from whom they proceed, and to whom they tend naturally as the stone doth downward."

Nedham's skepticism in matters religious and moral, his propensity for scoffing and his fascination with Machiavelli may, indeed, be the key to understanding his astonishing trajectory. He was venal and mercenary but not lacking in courage. In that unstable age, he accommodated every twist and turn in the course of events without betraying the slightest sign of any discomfort or shame, and he served each and every one of his masters with vigor and panache, displaying a gift for invective and a literary virtuosity that made him one of the minor wonders of the age. It was almost as if moral and political dexterity was for Nedham itself a matter of principle. He seems to have taken to heart his friend Henry Oxinden's contention that, to survive in the world, one must practice "the art of dissimulation" and not be "startled" or "troubled chameleon-like, as the necessity of occasion serves, to turn into all shapes" since even "the most constant men must be content to change their resolutions according to the alterations of time."

Essay Types: Essay