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

Chameleon-like Nedham certainly was, as was he shameless. Some would have called him reptilian, and many thought him louche. But servile and fawning he was never. He may have been pliant, accommodating and all too ready to please; he earned the obloquy to which he was exposed. But if he was often bent, Nedham never once bowed. On two occasions, he was imprisoned for what he had written, and he repeatedly tested the limits of what his employers could tolerate. In 1660, when he joined John Milton in futile resistance to the rising Royalist tide, he consciously courted the noose. Think of him what you will: Marchamont Nedham was anything but risk-averse.

Moreover, when he stuck out his neck, this gifted scrivener was not just chasing cheap thrills. He seems invariably to have been pursuing a political agenda all his own. There need be no doubt that he preferred republican government to hereditary monarchy, and religious toleration (within an exceedingly loose Erastian establishment organized along congregationalist lines) to the species of enforced uniformity and discipline sought variously by Anglican Royalists and Presbyterian divines. But Nedham's preferences, serious for him though they clearly were, never led him to excess. He was first and foremost a practical man-always willing to settle for the best that he thought he could get, never disposed to a bootless sacrifice of self, and perfectly ready to argue that, in adversity, it is one's God-given duty to turn one's coat, which, of course, more than once he dutifully did.

A Friend to Liberty

Nedham was a man of what, with some hesitation, we might call the libertarian Left. Above all else, he hated priestcraft. In 1650, when he published a pamphlet in defense of the English republic entitled The Case of the Commonwealth of England Stated, he directed his invective against what he called "our modern Pharisee, the conscientious pretender and principal disturber of the public peace", who was intent on propagating what Nedham denounced as "an opinionated humour." In the process, he made it clear that he preferred what he dubbed "the worldling . . . the greater part of the world being led more by appetites of convenience, and commodity than the dictates of conscience."

His real purpose in this tract was to rally the Royalists to the new order and isolate the Presbyterians, to whom he attributed all of the vices that Machiavelli had ascribed to the species of Christianity predominant in his own time. Presbyterianism, Nedham observed, has "contracted so many adulterations of worldly interest that it hath lost the beauty which it once appeared to have and serves every sophister as a cloak to cover his ambitious design." Nedham lamented that "so many knowing men and of able parts should prove so degenerous as to prostitute themselves and the majesty of the nation to serve the ambitious ends of a few priests."

In his judgment, the proposed Presbyterian course was "destructive to every man's interest of conscience and liberty" and would eventuate in "an intolerable tyranny over magistrates and people." This "mad discipline" would not only eliminate the bishops and clip "the wings of regality", but also "intrench also upon the lawyers, curb the gentry in their own lordships by a strange way of parochial tyranny, and bring all people into the condition of mere galley slaves while the blind priests sit at the stern and their hackney dependants, the elders, hold an oar in every boat."

Nedham saw at the heart of Presbyterianism "the popish trick taken up by the presbyterian priests in drawing all secular affairs 'within the compass of their spiritual jurisdiction.'" In claiming the right to judge "scandalous sins", they extended their reach to "every action of human life. So that all the people besides their favorites, from the counselor to the beggar, must at every turn stoop like asses to be ridden by them and their arbitrary assemblies."

Presbyterian discipline is, Nedham firmly insisted, indistinguishable from that of "the Church of Rome." Wherever there is "a jurisdiction in the church . . . distinct from the civil", it will prove impossible to keep "church discipline within its limits."

Even in his early days at Mercurius Britanicus as a scrivener writing in support of the parliamentary cause, Nedham had been a radical-working in cooperation with the war party in Parliament, intent on polarizing the political situation, eager to subvert all deference to the monarchy, and devoted from early on to securing the deposition of Charles I. It is not, then, surprising that as editor of Mercurius Politicus he sought to bolster the partisans of the regicide republic in their audacity by celebrating the execution of his erstwhile royal patron, by insisting that a repudiation of monarchy be the cornerstone of the new regime, and by advancing on the Commonwealth's part an ambitious foreign policy aimed not just at promoting Protestantism but at spreading the revolution to a continent that seemed-in the wake of the Reformation, the Wars of Religion in France, and the Thirty Years' War in Germany-to be poised on the edge of a republican transformation comparable to the one that England had itself undergone.

What such a revolution required he intimated in the pages of his newsbook, denouncing, as he did in the very first issue, the Royalists and their Presbyterian allies as "Priest ridden", and charging that "for the carrying on" of their "traiterous Designe" the latter "have farr out-stript the Jesuit, both in Practise and Project." For all of their sophistication, he contended, his contemporaries "may be still at the same pass" as their "Fore-Fathers" since the "new Clergie are still the same Idol, only a little disguised with a new dress of Mummery." It is perfectly consistent with his critique of priestcraft that Nedham should similarly depict "the vanity of admiring Kings, [of] placing Them in a lofty seat of Impunity, like Gods", as a species of "Idolatry" grounded in a "Superstition" inculcated by the "antiquated Cheats of the Clergy." By eliminating ecclesiastical jurisdiction altogether and by rigorously subordinating the church to a republican state, Nedham hoped to strip from "the mystery of Tyranny" all the "gaudy Robes, and gay Appearances" conferred upon it by "ancient Christian Policie."

To grasp fully what Nedham had in mind, one must attend carefully to the third issue of the English Commonwealth's semi-official gazette, wherein its editor makes a passing, but highly revealing observation to the effect that "Churchmen of all Religions and Nations are of the same humor, to imbroile the world up to the ears in Blood rather than part with one Tittle of that Power and Profit, which may serve to satisfie the avarice and Ambition of their Interest and order."

In the 1640s and 1650s, when Marchamont Nedham and his allies in Parliament threw their weight behind the Independents, insisting on a radical interpretation of the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers and contending that "with God there is no respect of Persons", they harbored intentions regarding the Christian religion far more subversive than their godly republican allies ever imagined.

Nedham and his friends did not achieve the radical transformation at which they aimed. They did, however, set a precedent from which their successors profited at the time of the American and French revolutions. The Excellencie of a Free State was reprinted in London in 1767 and dispatched to the American colonists; it was translated into French in 1790 and widely read. John Adams excerpted it in his Defense of the Constitutions of the United States of America in the 1780s, and the Marquis de Condorcet cited the work in his influential discussion of the progress of the human mind. If we live in secular republics distinguished by a separation of church and state, if we are no longer in thrall to a condominium of princes and priests, it is in part because of the challenge laid down in the 1640s and 1650s by a disreputable journalist who shifted his political loyalties almost as often as he changed his shirts.

Marchamont Nedham was willing to engage in chicanery on a scale that few journalists today would have the wit to imagine. But if he was ready to turn coat in a trice, that is what his tumultuous times required of a hired hand intent on surreptitiously nudging the nascent British "public" in a secular, republican direction. If the world's first great journalist was promiscuous in his partisanship, it was in part because he was true to his principles. Nedham always knew what he was about and was unsurpassedly clever in concealing it as he moved from patron to benefactor to protector and back again.

Of course, it was never Nedham's privilege to edit a newspaper that had earned the ring of independent authority. Thanks to the efforts of the Rump and of Oliver Cromwell, Mercurius Politicus was in command of something approaching a monopoly of opinion-making much of the time. There was never any doubt that it spoke for the ruling order, however ephemeral that order might be-for the Rump, for the Nominated Parliament, for Oliver Cromwell, for his ill-fated son, for the Rump twice more: for whomever currently paid the bills. No one reading the gazettes with which Nedham was associated ever expected an impartial representation of events. But they did expect to be engaged seriously at an intellectual level appropriate to the subject, and they were.

Essay Types: Essay