Monday, March 12, 2012

John Miller: Anonymous Activist

It seems these days everyone has a forum or two to make their opinions known on every subject possible.  We can post to Facebook or Twitter.  

We can have our own blog or self-publish our own books.   We can text, we can make regular comments online at various sites, and we can call in to various television and radio shows.

Over the last few years we’ve seen how social media can help to accelerate revolutions and impact protests in foreign countries, we can see how fast ideas travel and take on momentum via videos and Internet links that go viral.

I often wonder if we aren’t literally drowning in TOO much information….
I often wonder if the present quagmire of partisan politics isn’t caused by TOO much information….

Just imagine for a few minutes how events could have been shaped during the 1700s leading up to the American Revolution if people in England and the Colonies had access to some of the technology we do today along with the resulting partisanship, finger pointing and spin….not to mention the “gotchas”.

Thankfully….I think….the best bet someone had back then to get their point of view out for others to see involved paper and ink in the form of letters and newspapers.

As early as 1722 Ben Franklin was penning his Silence Dogood letters in the colonies, but from 1769 to 1772 folks in London England were reading the Letters of Junius…..letters that some historians claim sparked the concept of freedom of the press and influenced our own American Revolution.

If you haven’t heard of the Letters of Junius I’m not surprised.  I was never taught about them either….even though I’ve sat in numerous World history and British history courses where it would be appropriate to mention their impact.

The Letters of Junius were anonymous letters written in England attacking members of government including the King of England regarding all sorts of matters including immorality.  All total there were 69 letters….29 were sent directly to the publisher of the Public Advertiser, a London newspaper, while 40 letters were sent to individuals…mainly government officials, but they were later made public.

The government brought charges against several people for publishing the letters including Henry Sampson Woodall, owner and editor of the Public Advertiser.  Many historians credit Sir Philip Francis, an English politician with writing the letters.  However, there are others who name at least 40 other people who might be Junius including Benjamin Franklin since he was in London at the time the letters were published.  Franklin was known to send open letters to the paper using his own name including his letter addressed to Lord North in 1774.

Today, McGill University in Canada maintains a large collection of the Junius Letters.  Their website state, “The letters themselves after more than two hundred years are a most startling example of political polemic (when someone provides their views) and invective (expressing blame or censure).”

The objective of the letters was simple.   They were written to inform the public of their historical and constitutional rights and liberties as Englishmen, and to highlight where and how the government infringed upon these rights.

All total Junius used three other pseudonyms including the name Philo-Junius…a character who appeared to rescue Junius when it appeared he was being misunderstood by the public at some point.

Junius had a real impact on the British government.   Many people were influenced by the letters and real concepts of liberty were sparked.  The letters even provoked some rioting.
The letters are important because of their political significance, their style and the fact a mystery surrounds who wrote them.   Many critics state the author of the letters no matter who he was ahead of his time.

Some views of Janius include:

*We owe it our ancestors to preserve entire those rights, which they have delivered to our care; we owe it to our posterity, not to suffer their dearest inheritance to be destroyed…1769

*When the constitution is openly invaded, when the first original right of the people, from which all laws derive their authority, is directly attacked, inferior grievances naturally lose their force, and are suffered to pass by without punishment or observation….October 17, 1769

*They [the Americans] equally detest the pageantry of a king, and the supercilious hypocrisy of a bishop….December 19, 1769

*The injustice done to an individual is sometimes of service to the public.  Facts are apt to alarm us more than the most dangerous principles…..November 14, 1770

*The government of England is a government of law.   We betray ourselves, we contradict the spirit of our laws, and we shake the whole system of English jurisprudence, whenever we entrust a discretionary power of the life, liberty, or fortune of the subject to any man or set of men, whatsoever, upon a presumption that it will not be abused……May 25, 1771

You can view the entire contents of one of the letters here.

Of all of the possible authors regarding the Junius Letters the most interesting man to me is John Miller….mainly because he is the great-grandfather of a man who is prominent in the history of my hometown.

John Miller was an English printer who immigrated to South Carolina in 1783.  Prior to arriving in the colonies John Miller had created quite a reputation London as being a bit outspoken regarding many topics including the government, and of course, he supported a free press. He was brought to trial several times regarding items he printed and served time in prison. 
John Miller eventually settled in Pendleton County, South Carolina where he has his own historical marker.

Hurley E. Badders who wrote Remembering South Carolina’s Old Pendleton District said, “The stories he, as well as other newspapermen told, likely led to freedom of the press being written into our Bill of Rights.”

Badders also stated, “Miller had been classed as a radical in England, but in America he showed conservative tendencies often refusing to print political contributions.   For this and his foreign birth he was frequently denounced.”    Even so, Miller was a member of the Pendleton Franklin Society – an anti-federalist group concerned with the new nation’s policies.      Miller was very fond of saying, “Laziness in politics is like laziness in agriculture; it exposes the soil to noxious weeds.”

Following 1783 Miller devoted time to agriculture and politics helping to choose a site for the Pendleton County Courthouse, and he served as the first clerk of court.  I find it an interesting coincidence that his grandson, Richard M. Wilson would also serve as the first clerk of court in Douglas County, Georgia. 

Prior to his death Miller did return to journalism.

John Miller’s Weekly Messenger was established on January 16, 1807.   The name was later changed to the Pendleton Messenger following Miller’s death at the end of the year.   It was sold to an Anderson paper in 1858.

Other than the few historical markers in Pendleton John Miller slipped into obscurity upon his death…..just one more person who fought for what he believed in and made his mark by avoiding the sidelines.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere, and I’m not just referring to historical content either.

I’ve written about John Miller’s grandson and his role in our American story here.

1 comment:

Donny Gamble said...

This is a great journey of a historical activist that tried to make a change in peoples lives.