Item of the Day: Peter Porcupine’s Letter to Noah Webster — Conclusion (1797)


 Here I should close, but there are two or three passages more in your Address, which so strongly invite attention, that your vanity might, perhaps, take the alarm again, were they to pass totally unnoticed; and, after having tasted so severely of the effects of your wrath, it is not to be wondered at, if I feel no inclination to brave it a second time.

You are so good as to inform me, “that you once voluntarily bore arms to defend Independence; that, in pursuance of the same principles, you first proposed publickly the plan of a National Constitution; that, persevering in the same principles, you assailed the monster faction, the moment it appeared in the insidious form of popular clubs; and that, from that moment to this present writing, you have never ceased to expose the artifices of the French agents to lay this country at the feet of France.”

How all this got into a letter written about an English flag, I can’t for my soul conceive.  However, ’tis news, and as such I am, in common with the rest of the trade, obliged to you for it.

I have read the history of the American war over and over again, but I do not recollect ever having seen the name of Noah Webster in it.   That you were not very famous is therefore certain, and it is more than probable that you were looked upon as mere food for powder, a situation that, whatever might be the cause you were made use of in, is nothing at all to boast of.

Your being the “first who publickly proposed a National Constitution,” is a curious anecdote enough; and I cannot say but I am glad it is come to light, as it will tend to quash, or at least to moderate, the exhorbitant pretensions of that unconscionable dog Tom Paine, who puts in an absolute claim to the whole credit of the invention.  Tom does, indeed, confess, that he was anticipated by one writer on the subject, who insisted, that thirteens staves, without a hoop, would never make a barrel; and if you can make it out, as I have not the least doubt you can, that you were the real legitimate author of this shrewd and learned observation, Tom must give way to you, or, at least, you must be permitted to come in with him for a share of the honour.

Thus you see I do not dispute your pretension to military or constitution making fame, but as to your boldness in “assailing the monster FACTION; as to your perseverance and success in exposing the artifices of the French;” these I do dispute, and not openly dispute, but positively deny.  You have, indeed, as far as you have found it prudent to go, latterly espoused the cause of order, and consequently that of the government; but, to do this with effect, you should have begun long enough before you did, and should have assumed a tone that never has been heard from the Minerva.  At first you were a warm partizan of insurrection; you were among the abusers, the calumniators, of Burke, and the eulogists of Paine.  At this epocha you were bold, because you acted with the crowd.  When Genet’s insolence awakened the suspicions of the people here, then you began to veer, to shuffle and to trim; and, from that time to the present moment you have been playing that double handed game, which, however profitable you may contrive to make it, entitles you to the character of a Vicar of Bray.  If my worthy patron, Bradford, is to be believed, your old friend, and partner in the language trade, Doctor Franklin, was six weeks in Congress, before any one could divine whether he was a Whig or Tory; and I have frequently been at a loss to guess, such a compound is your politics, whether I ought to class you among the Federalists or Democrats. If these words have any meaning, as applied to you, you are a Democrat in principle, and a Federalist for convenience.

 Not content with a malignant misrepresentation of my motives and the meaning of my words, you must insult me with your advice.  You tell me that I do not proceed in the right way to preserve my popularity, and caution me against publishing what is “disrespectful to the opinions of Americans;” and thus you discover a servility of mind, that would be disgraceful even in a mendicant.  when you form a jugment (sic) of me, Master Webster, and of what is likely to produce a change in my conduct, be so good as not to consult your own heart, for it will assuredly deceive you.  Popularity may be your God, as indeed, it evidently is: so is it not mine.  Small is the sacrifice that I would make at its shrine.  A volume of the best of praise is not, with me, worth its weight in bread and cheese; and as to the stupid plaudits of a partial and prejudiced throng, I should think that they covered me with infamy instead of honour.

 According to your notions of the liberty of the press, a man must not publish a word against la Fayette, though it be extracted from some other writer; because, forsooth, “it is extremely disrespectful to the opinions of Americans!”  In other words, nothing must appear in a news-paper that does not perfectly chime in with the prevalent prejudice, however preposterous that prejudice may be, or however dangerous its tendency; and thus the press, in place of a censor, is to be a parasite, to the public; instead of being a terror to evil doers, it is to be the pander of folly and of vice.

That this has, for a long time, been the character of the American Press, as far as relates to news-papers, is but too true.  Every one seems to have been upon the watch to find out the humour of the public, and to accommodate his sentiments and even his news accordingly: hence it is that we have seen hundreds of eulogiums upon Robespierre and Marat, and have been seriously told that the French gained a victory over Lord Howe on the 1st of June, 1794.  The motto of the Philadelphia Gazette, “THE PUBLIC WILL OUR GUIDE,”  would suit the whole of you, with a very few exceptions. The people are not told what is their interest, but what it is their wish, or rather the wish of the multitude to hear.  If any one dares to speak what he thinks, to publish what he conceives to be useful, if it happens to be contrary to the vulgar prejudice, he is told that he is disrespectful to the opinions of Americans.

According to the cant of the day, the people of a state, not governed by a monarch, is called the sovereign.  For my part, I never hear talk of a sovereign people, of a society every individual of which is liable to the grasp of a catch-pole; I never do or can hear talk of such a sovereign without laughing.  But, as such you look upon the people.  Well then, to have an idea of your own servility, tell me what you would say of a news-printer in England, who should censure another for publishing sentiments extremely disrespectful to the opinions of the king?  Would you not call him a slave, a poor rampant spaniel-like sycophant?  and, where is the difference, I would be glad to know, between crawling to a sovereign with one head and a sovereign with many? — No, Webster, your insinuations that I treat the people of America, or rather their opinions, with disrespect, will never deter me from following the bent of my own inclination.  In my publications, I hope, I shall always be guided by truth: how few I may please, or how many I may displease, is to me a matter of very little moment.  I entertain, I trust, a due respect for the real people of this country, and a grateful sense of the liberal encouragement I have received from them; but neither this respect nor this gratitude will ever lead me so far as to flatter, what I look upon as a foible or a prejudice.   I have no pretensions to patriotism, and as to disinterestedness, it is nonsense to talk of it; but, though gain be one principle object of my labors, I scorn to pursue it buy the base means of trimming and truckling.  No, Webster, the public will is not my guide:  when my readers become so unreasonable as to require a suppression of every sentiment that does not account with their own, I will quite the trade of a news-monger, hire a garret, write Carmagnole ballads for the diversion of the sovereign people, and elegies on the departed liberty of the press.

You conclude by declaring your resolution to annoy me “by all those decent and legal means that distinguish the gentleman and the citizen.” This I highly approve of, and on my part, I solemnly promise to oppose your annoyance by all those decent and legal means that distinguish the Porcupine; that is by pricking you every where and in every way that I can come at you. — After this candid declaration, you will undoubtedly look upon me as

Your most humble

and obedient servant,



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

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