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

Full Title:  Porcupine’s Political Censor for March, 1797

But, you do not stop at suspicions.  You seem to have foreseen that your readers would require something more than mere surmise, and you were determined to furnish it.  When a man is once got into mischief, he does not stick at trifles.  “this suspicion,” say you, “has been greatly encreased by the manner in which Peter’s Gazette has been conducted.”  Now, who, upon reading this, would not imagine, that my Gazette had discovered a departure from the principles which I had before professed, a spirit hostile to the government of this country, or at least unfriendly to it.  Who would imagine that you, or any other man who wishes to preserve the least pretensions to candour, would have ventured to accuse another of enmity to the government upon a foundation slighter than this?  Yet you can produce no such thing.  After having turned and rummaged my poor gazette over and over again, pryed into every paragraph, and weighed each single expression, all you can collect to “increase” your suspicion, is, my “retailing abuse against la Fayette,” and my publishing whole columns, “filled with apologies for the old government of France!” as if the sentiments of a man, respecting la Fayette and the French monarchy, formed a criterion whereby to estimate his attachment to the Constitution and Independence of the United States!  Futile indeed must be the charge, that has no other support than such round-about kind of evidence as this.

I certainly might pass over with silent contempt, what, if strictly true, goes not an inch towards justifying your malignant insinuation; but, as you have been mean enough to take shelter under the popular, the “vulgar prejudice,” that prevails in favour of la Fayette and against monarchical governments, I shall take one step out of my way, in order to convince the public, that I shall never decline a combat with Noah Webster, though backed with the misplaced partiality of millions.

What you are pleased to term “retailing abuse against la Fayette,” and, in another place, “vilifying the defenders of American Independence,” all this put together, is, the publishing of a speech of Mr. Burke, on the motion brought forward in the British Parliament, for the purpose of prevailing on the king to interceded for la Fayette’s release.  This speech was published in my Gazette, of the 7th March; and so far from its being an abusive, vilifying harrangue, though it is one of those pieces of oratory, that will for ages be an ornament to the proceedings of the British Commons, it is not more remarkable for its eloquence than for its truth.

You, indeed, tell us, that la Fayette’s being “in fault, is doubtful, or not admitted:” — and in this short sentence, you have given a more complete specimen of the equivoque than is to be found in Boileau’s famous poem on the subject. In the first place, we know not whether you express the opinion of others, or your own:  next, if you are understood as expressing your own opinion, you declare the question doubtful, you do not admit the fault, and yet you do not venture to declare your friend innocent:  lastly, should some warm partizan, whether royalist or republican, call you to account for hesitating on the subject, still you have a shift left; for you do not say, or even hint, whether it be la Fayette’s crimes against the king, or those against the assembly, that you doubt of. — It was in the wars, I presume, that you learnt this precaution, of always securing a safe retreat.

To one who so carefully disguises his sentiments, it is next to impossible to make a satisfactory reply:  however, supposing you to doubt of la Fayette’s fault with respect to his sovereign, I would ask you, where you have lived for these ten years last past?  To hear you start doubts on this subject, one would imagine you had dwelt in a dormitory or a hermitage; that  you had been absorbed in heavenly mediation; that your vessel (as the puritans call it) had been a reservoir of godliness, in place of being what, alas! it is, a mere channel for news.

To enter into a minute examination of la Fayette’s conduct, during his short-lived career in the French revolution, would be giving an importance to his character which it does not deserve.  It is true that he always was an underworker, like many others; and therefore, is not to be reckoned among the miscreant Mirabeaus, Condorcets, &c. whose puppet he was; but, he nevertheless comes in for a considerable share of that censure which is due to a combination of ambitious men, determined to build their own fame and greatness on the ruins of a mighty empire, without remorse for the miseries it must produce. One fact, when the merits of la Fayette are to be tried, ought never to be forgotten:  it was his revolutionary brain that conceived the French Rights of Man, of which no more need to said, than that they are the very text from which Tom Paine has ever since been preaching the duty of holy insurrection.

I would willingly believe that gratitude for the services which la Fayette rendered America, has now called forth your compassion for his sufferings, and your resentment against my paper, or rather against me.  I would willingly trace your asperity back to this amiable source; but your past conduct tells me that I should attempt it in vain.  How could you be grateful to la Fayette alone? Has no other friend to the American revolution lain on the damp floor of a dungeon?  Never did you, (with shame be it spoken, Webster) never did you utter a word of compassion for the unfortunate friendless Louis XVI.  when this same La Fayette was leading him in triumph from prison to prison.  Never did you talk of cruel treatment, when the Queen of France was dragged in slow procession to Paris, while the myrmidons of this same la Fayette carried the ghastly heads of her murdered guards before her.  No; you rejoiced at all this; and yet, I believe, no one will have the impudence to pretend, that la Fayette’s services to this country, were a millionth part so great as those of poor Louis and his consort. — Nay, you saw the head of this fallen prince roll from the scaffold; you saw his family cut off one by one; you saw his innocent child lingering in a dungeon, robbed of sleep, terrified four times an hour with orders to prepare for death, and at last you saw his bloated and livid corpse stretched in a dungcart. — On all of this you looked with a philosophic eye.  Not a tear escaped you; not a groan, not a sign, was heard from the tender-hearted Minerva, who now tells us that “la Fayette’s sufferings call for the sympathy of all mankind.”

No, Sir, nor did you ever feel anything worthy the name of compassion for la Fayette himself, or you would have expressed your abhorrence of the cruel and savage measures adopted against him and his family by the pretended republicans of France. That was the time for your gratitude and friendship to have shown itself.  You, who “once voluntarily bore arms to defend independence, and who now with determined zeal and firmness openly declares war against the man who dares vilify the defenders of it,” among whom you count la Fayette; you, sir, should have stood forth against the then popular Convention, who had fixed a price on the head of your friend; who had, by law, authorized the citizens to shoot him, or knock his brains out, like a dog; nay, had imposed it on them as a duty.  Then was the time for the blue-eyed Maid to grasp her javelin and shelter the injured hero beneath her ample shield.  As she neglected to do this; as she shrank from the encounter with popular fury; as she tamely yielded to the vulgar prejudice that then prevailed in favour of every act of the mock legislators of France, however, cruel and infamous, she will not receive but little applause, from men of sense, for her censure of the Emperor of Germany, whose title alone, she well knows, will, with the gross of her readers, be a sufficient apology for any departure from decency and truth.

No, Sir: it is too clear, that a desire to ingratiate yourself with the deceived part of the public, together with that of injuring me, led you to bring forward the stalking horse la Fayette, and not any friendship, gratitude, or compassion that you entertained for him.  This your manner of proceeding incontestibly proves.  First, you pretend to suspect my enmity to the independence of America; then you artfully produce my publication of Mr. Burke’s censure of la Fayette, as a proof of that enmity, leaving your readers to draw the natural conclusion, that I had “retailed abuse” against him, merely for his having fought in the cause of Independence. — Never did envy and revenge suggest a baser insinuation, or one, the falsehood of which was more easy to detect.

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

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