Item of the Day: Peter Porcupine’s Reply to Noah Webster (1797)

Full Title:  Porcupine’s Political Censor for March 1797


To Mr. Noah Webster of New-York.


Some days ago I promised you an answer to your Address (or whatever else you may please to call it) of the 21st of March.  It luckily matters little how this answer begins.  Aware I suppose of the uncouth manners of the man you were about to assail,  you kindly contrived that the rudeness of your attack should furnish an ample apology for his want of politeness.

Your Address treats of your important self, of me, and of the proposed alliance between the United States and Great Britain.  This alliance is a subject of two (sic) much consequence to be blended with an enquiry into your and my character, principles, and conduct, I shall therefore reserve it for a separate letter; not losing, however, the present opportunity of declaring, that your reasoning, instead of convincing me that I was mistaken, has strengthened, as far as anything in itself contradictory can strengthen, the opinion which gave so much offence to your wisdom.

You set out with telling the public, that, “in a late paper, we inserted sentiment of this kind, that the putting up in the Coffee House, a card, on which was painted the English flag, was  low pitiful business, equalled only by the meanness of putting up a French flag, and that it is servile to be bandied about between the flags of different foreign nations.  We ought to united under our own flag and learn to be a nation.”

You then complain of my having quoted the passage “with disapprobation,” which was the application of the words vulgar prejudice, was, it seems a stretch of presumption which your pride could not forgive.

 I must confess, that, to venture to quote “with disapprobation” the oracular precepts flowing from the lips of the high priest of Minerva, was rather bold; but (and with due submission be it spoken) it was not so much your advice as your partiality, your versatility, that I disapproved of.   You have uttered such cartloads of sentiments, that it is absolutely impossible you should recollect one half of them; and as, in politics particularly, you are led by no fixed, no polar-star principle, it is as impossible that you should ever be consistent long together.  Your saying that the putting up of an English flag “was a low pitiful business,” sounds well; but did you say this when the French Flag was put up?  No; you called that neither low nor pitiful; it was even honoured with your applause, as far as a man, who looks upon himself as the exclusive possessor of all that is praise-worthy, can applaud the actions of others.  The hoisting of the French flag was attended with feasting and noise, little inferior to what we have witnessed at the celebration of the murder of the Swiss Guards: yet it escaped your censure:  it was suffered to hang very peaceably , and to receive the adoration of the devout sans-culottes of New-York:  folly was permitted to revel at the foot, as it were, of the shrine of wisdom, for the space of three whole years, without receiving either chastisement or rebuke.   But, behold the difference!  The moment a representation of the British flag appears, though painted on a bit of paper only, and intended merely to produce a little sport, you cast off your lethargic forbearance.  Your patriotism, that patriotism which slept like a dormouse, while the French flag was not only hanging up in the Coffee-Room, but was borne about your streets to elections and town-meetings; that drowsy patriotism, which seemed scarcely to perceive a banner of two yards square, though it brushed it its very nose, became all alive, took fire in a moment, upon sight of a British flag in miniature.

You do, indeed, now talk about the “meanness of putting up a French flag;” but when do you find courage to do this?  At the moment the people around you are got tired and ashamed of their bauble.  Far were you from calling it a meanness, and so far from it that your voice was one of the most sonorous in the ridiculous and disgraceful hue-and-cry, raised against those who pulled it down, in the month of May, 1795. — On that occasion you very patrioticly (sic) observed that “it was hoped that the flags of the sister republics would have remained undisturbed by the enemies of our peace;” and then, on you go to express your abhorrence of the conduct of the sacrilegious wretches whose impious hands had removed them.  And, recollect, that you took special care not to utter a syllable against the savages, who attempted to murder a British Officer, to avenge “the mighty wrong.”  To intrude your precepts, therefore, at this time; to strut and hector over the poor fallen Tricolor, and to call on your readers to “unite under their own flag, and learn to be a nation,” entitles you to but very little praise.  Your advice comes too late. The patient was a state of convalescence, before you ventured to prescribe:  French privateers, jails, whips, and irons, had effectually removed the malady of the public, while you stood stumbling its pulse.  Had the same stupid admiration of the French, that prevailed, and that you participated in, for several years; had this admiration and its concomitant partiality still existed, you would never have dared (with all your heroism) to call the hoisting of their flag “a low pitiful business:” you would prudently have left that to a writer of less caution and more sincerity, reserving to yourself the agreeable task of endeavouring to disfigure his motives and blast his fame.

And, was it then such a heinous offence to quote a writer of your stamp “with disapprobation,” or apply to him the charge of vulgar prejudice?  It would be curious to hear, on what it is that you ground your right of exemption from all censure and criticism.  Besides, to say that a man has adopted a vulgar prejudice, is calculated to give offence to no one but an illiterate booby, who does not know the meaning of the words, or a captious, inflated self-0sufficient pedant.  Yet it is this phrase, and this alone, that has provoked you to seek retaliation, and retaliation, too, of the most base and malicious species. –“We contest (say you, after declaring that I am unable to cope with you) “We contest Peter’s principles.  It was strongly suspected many months ago, that his principles are not very friendly to the independence of America, and still less so to the form of our government.”

The grammatical inaccuracy of this last sentence, though fallen from the pen of a language-maker, it would be foreign to my purpose to remark on:  it is the slander it conveys, that it is my duty to expose.–“It was strongly suspected.”  this is the true gossiping, calumniating style.  All verbal assassins speak in the passive voice, that, what they cannot prove, they may at last throw on public report.  If you had said, “I suspected many months ago,” though it would have led to a detection, you would have acted more like a man; and this might have been expected too, in a volunteer of your “determined zeal and firmness.”

However, as you are very fond of the pompous plural number and passive voice, perhaps, it is but fair to suppose, that you mean to intimate, that you suspected my principles many months ago; and, if this was really the case, pray how came you to recommend my pamphlets to the perusal of your readers, as the best antedote to the anarchical principles of the enemies of the government?  How many months ago was it that your penetration made the grand discovery?  When I proposed publishing a paper, which was no more than about six weeks anterior to the date of your Address, you told the public in an exulting manner, that I should “prove a terrible scourge to the patriots,” meaning Bache, Greenleaf, and all the antifederal crew.  Six weeks ‘Squire Webster, is not many months.  If you suspected my enmity to the government, and to the independence of America, you were a very great hypocrite, if not something of a traitor, to applaud my undertaking; and, if on the other hand, you had no such suspicion, and have now feigned it merely for the purpose of revenging what your haughtiness has construed into an affront, I leave the public to determine what name you are worthy of.


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Filed under 1790's, France, Great Britain, Political Pamphlets, Posted by Rebecca Dresser

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