The Laughter of Triumph

William Hone

The Laughter of Triumph: William Hone and the Fight for the Free Press, Ben Wilson I affix the above cartoon of mine from 2009 not out of any exaggerated idea of its merit, but as evidence that I knew who William Hone was before reading Ben Wilson’s 2005 biography. The mathematician Augustus De Morgan’s strange anthology of circle-squarers, the Budget of Paradoxes, which I read when I was a student, includes a chapter on Hone: De Morgan was an adolescent in the 1810s, when Hone was put on trial for his satirical pamphlets, so reading Wilson’s account of a once-famous figure who is now all but forgotten was like re-encountering a friend from childhood.

Hone was a Fleet Street publisher and reformist who collaborated with the cartoonist George Cruikshank and was a friend of Hazlitt’s: he was put on trial in 1817 for his pamphlets, which satirised the corruption of the Government by parodying church liturgy. The Sinecurist’s Creed; The Political Litany; The Late John Wilkes’s Catechism of a Ministerial Member: the actual satires are as leaden to modern ears as their titles. The prosecution, led by the notoriously severe Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough, made the error of depending on charges of blasphemy, rather than sedition. Hone defended himself over three days, largely by reading out previous parodies of religious texts, several of which had been written by Tories and none of which attracted a similar charge. Hone had already fought a battle to have a fair jury – the chapter on how juries were rigged by governments is remarkable in itself – and the case was literally laughed out of court, and was an important step on the way of bringing the previously theoretical freedom of the English press into existence.

Wilson’s biography is enviably well-written and researched. It tells the story not just of the trials but of Hone’s life, which gives an interesting angle on the history of Regency Britain and the popular movement which led to the great Reform Act of 1832, which eliminated the rotten boroughs which had ensured that parliament was controlled by the wealthy. There is a great deal of backslapping wank written about “eighteenth century classical liberalism” these days, and it is good to be reminded that in England in the actually-existing eighteenth century, parliamentary democracy was a sick joke, most people on a public income were benefiting from sinecures doled out by relatives and mates (Tim Wilson is an authentically eighteenth-century figure in this regard) and parliamentary privilege was interpreted to mean that any journalist who criticised a Minister could be prosecuted for criminal libel. Hone’s trials ensured that English freedom of the press was more than just an empty slogan, although it didn’t result in its being actually enshrined in a law: I suspect that its establishment of the legitimacy of parody and satire survives to this day in common law jurisdictions.

Incidentally, Wilson claims that in the UK, political satire all but died out after the 1820s and didn’t revive until the 1960s – the long intermission is one of the reasons why Hone was forgotten. (The edition of De Morgan’s work I found at a second-hand bookstall in 1989 was from the 60s, gussied up with an awful psychedelic cover.) The near-constant complaint that “satire is dead” may be because the 60s wave, which certainly influenced Australian satire, has retreated into the senility of Leunig. We may have an exaggerated idea of how common good satire is, and of how long it lasts.

PS – if you’re interested in more about Hone, the William Hone BioText is an excellent web archive. The remarkable Bank Note, designed by Cruikshank and Hone as a protest against the first paper currency introduced in England, is worth looking up if you’re interested in the history of capital punishment, convict transportation and fiscal policy.

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