Political opposition and publishing – the trial of bookseller and journalist John Almon in 1770

One of the best-known British trials for seditious libel in the second half of the 18th century was the case of bookseller and journalist John Almon (1737–1805).

In 1770, he was summoned to the King’s Bench after selling a copy of “Junius’s letter to the king”, a highly controversial oppositional pamphlet. The details of his trial are preserved in the State Papers, record TS 11 / 177.

The pseudonym of “Junius” had first appeared in 1768 and was to be used for several articles in the Public Advertiser between 1769 and 1772. Referring to the ancient Roman republican and Consul Lucius Junius Brutus, the 18th century author especially criticized corruption in the royal ministry and the personal immorality of leading politicians.

The popularity of Junius’s writings is said to have contributed to the resignation of Augustus Henry FitzRoy, 3rd Duke of Grafton, in January 1770, and many generations have discussed his views on constitutional rights and individual liberties.

Royal Coat of Arms England 18th century after Act of Union

Even though John Almon was sentenced to prison for his dissemination of Junius’s considerations, he nevertheless published another edition of the “letter to the king” in the same year and wittily disguised this edition as a report on his own trial, supposedly “filed ex officio by William De Grey”.

In 1772, a more extensive collection of Junius’s famous letters was offered for sale, and even as late as 1806, they saw another successful reprint.

The 1794 edition (“The letters of Junius. Complete in one volume. A new edition”), also published in London, appears to have been directly inspired by constitutional debates following the French Revolution.

The quest for Junius’s identity widely engaged the 18th century public, and several politicians and journalists were suspected to have used this pseudonym for their writings. Apart from Sir Philip Francis, John Wilkes and even John Almon himself were alleged to be the true author of Junius’s criticism.

Up to this day, an overall assessment of Junius’s influence and legacy remains challenging. Some have viewed Junius as a political radical and anti-monarchist, whereas others have stressed that he simply wished to hinder abuses of royal power.

In any case, Junius has not only fuelled political debate in Great Britain, but also contributed to the Enlightenment discourse abroad. The first German translation entitled “Briefe über den jetzigen Zustand von Großbritannien” was published in 1776 and made contemporary British concepts of patriotism and common interest known to continental readers.

In his introduction, the German translator remarked:

“Die Briefe des Junius sind von den Engländern selbst für eines der besten Produkte dieser Zeiten, die ihr Land mit politischen Schriften überschwemmt haben, gehalten worden. Sie wurden zuerst in dem Public Advertiser bekannt gemacht. Ehe sie aber einmal alle erschienen waren, wurden die schon daseyenden zusammen gedruckt, und nachher vollständiger, und oftmals wieder aufgelegt. So viel ich weiß, kennet man ihren Verfasser nicht. Die mehreren rathen jetzt, auf Herrn Burke, jetzigem Mitglied des Unterhauses, und einem der größten Redner desselben. Unstreitig machen sie dem berühmtesten Gelehrten keine Schande, in Rücksicht seines Verstandes, – ob aber nicht in Rücksicht seines Herzens, das müssen diejenigen von seinen Landesleuten entscheiden, die die Personen genau kennen, gegen die er seine Geissel aufgehoben. (…)

Falls diese Sammlung Briefe den Beyfall des Publicums findet, so ist der Übersetzer gewillet, ihr noch einen oder mehrere Bändchen gleiches Inhalts folgen zu lassen. Er wird dieselben aus den öffentlichen englischen Blättern, besonders aber aus dem Public Ledger und St. James Chronicle nehmen, und bey der Auswahl auf die Wichtigkeit des Inhalts sowohl, aus auf die Schönheit des Styls sehen.“

For further reading:

Biography of John Almon in the Diactionary of National Biography (1885-1900), Volume 1, by Edward Smith

Die Briefe des Junius nach der zwoten ächten und vermehrten Ausgabe, aus dem Englischen übersetzet, Mietau und Leipzig, 1776

 


Monika Barget

Since September 2013, I have been a member of the international research group "Revolts as Communicative Events" based at the University of Konstanz, Germany. My research interests include early modern constitutional history and political iconography.

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1 Response

  1. T. Jones says:

    Hi. Many thanks for your post. Looking forward to more. 🙂 Best regards!

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