Edmund Bohun (1645-1699)

On the restoration of Charles II in 1660, printing and publishing came under strict control. Sir Roger L'Estrange was appointed Licenser of the Press in 1662, and held that office until the Revolution. He was succeeded by a Scots gentleman called Fraser, who was as zealous a Whig as L'Estrange was a Tory. In 1692, however, he gave great offence by licensing a book showing that the famous Icon Basilike was not the work of Charles I, but of Dr. John Gauden. Fraser was forced to resign his office, and was replaced by Edmund Bohun. The subsequent misfortunes of Bohun are here related by Macaulay

This change of men produced an immediate and total change of system: for Bohun was as strong a Tory as a conscientious man who had taken the oaths could possibly be. He had been conspicuous as a persecutor of Nonconformists and a champion of the doctrine of passive obedience. He had edited Filmer's absurd treatise on the origin of government, and had written an answer to the paper which Algernon Sydney had delivered to the Sheriffs on Tower Hill. Nor did Bohun admit that, in swearing allegiance to William and Mary, he had done anything inconsistent with his old creed. For he had succeeded in convincing himself that they reigned by right of conquest, and that it was the duty of an Englishman to serve them as faithfully as Daniel had served Darius, or as Nehemiah had served Artaxerxes. This doctrine, whatever peace it might bring to his own conscience, found little favour with any party. The Whigs loathed it as servile: the Jacobites loathed it as revolutionary. Great numbers of Tories had doubtless submitted to William on the ground that he was, rightfully or wrongfully, King in possession; but very few of them were disposed to allow that his possession had originated in conquest. Indeed the plea which had satisfied the weak and narrow mind of Bohun was a mere fiction, and, had it been a truth, would have been a truth not to be uttered by Englishmen without agonies of shame and mortification. He however clung to his favourite whimsy with a tenacity which the general disapprobation only made more intense. His old friends, the steadfast adherents of indefeasible hereditary right, grew cold and reserved. He asked Sancroft's blessing, and got only a sharp word and a black look. He asked Ken's blessing; and Ken, though not much in the habit of transgressing the rules of Christian charity and courtesy, murmured something about a little scribbler. Thus cast out by one faction, Bohun was not received by any other. . . .

As to the rest, Bohun was a man of some acuteness and learning, contracted understanding, and unpopular manners. He had no sooner entered on his functions than all Paternoster Row and Little Britain were in a ferment. The Whigs had, under Fraser's administration, enjoyed almost as entire a liberty as if there had been no censorship. They were now as severely treated as in the days of L'Estrange. A history of the Bloody Assizes was about to be published, and was expected to have as great a run as the Pilgrim's Progress. But the new licenser refused his Imprimatur. The book, he said, represented rebels and schismatics as heroes and martyrs; and he would not sanction it for its weight in gold....

There was then about town a man of good family, of some reading, and of some small literary talent, named Charles Blount. In politics he belonged to the extreme section of the Whig party.... He was an infidel, and the head of a small school of infidels who were troubled with a morbid desire to make converts. He translated from the Latin translation part of the Life of Apollonius of Tyana, and appended to it notes of which the flippant profaneness called for the severe censure of an unbeliever of a very different order, the illustrious Bayle. Blount also attacked Christianity in several original treatises, or rather in several treatises purporting to be original; for he was the most audacious of literary thieves, and transcribed, without acknowledgement, whole pages from authors who had preceded him. His delight was to worry the priests by asking them how light existed before the sun was made, how Paradise could be bounded by Pison, Gihon, Hiddekel, and Euphrates, how serpents moved before they were condemned to crawl, and where Eve found the thread to stitch her figleaves.. . .

Little as either the intellectual or the moral character of Blount may seem to deserve respect, it is in a great measure to him that we must attribute the emancipation of the English press. Between him and the licensers there was a feud of long standing. Before the Revolution one of his heterodox treatises had been grievously mutilated by L'Estrange, and at last suppressed by orders from L'Estrange's superior the Bishop of London. Bohun was a scarcely less severe critic than L'Estrange. Blount therefore began to make war on the censorship and the censor. The hostilities were commenced by a tract which came forth without any licence, and which was entitled A Just Vindication of Learning and of the Liberty of the Press, by Philopatris. Whoever reads this piece, and is not aware that Blount was one of the most unscrupulous plagiaries that ever lived, will be surprised to find, mingled with the poor thoughts and poor words of a third-rate pamphleteer, passages so elevated in sentiment and style that they would be worthy of the greatest name in letters. The truth is that the Just Vindication consists chiefly of garbled extracts from the Areopagitica of Milton. . . . The Just Vindication was well received. The blow was speedily followed up. There still remained in the Areopagitica many fine passages which Blount had not used in his first pamphlet. Out of these passages he constructed a second pamphlet entitled Reasons for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing. To these Reasons he appended a postscript entitled `A Just and True Character of Edmund Bohun'. This Character was written with extreme bitterness. Passages were quoted from the licenser's writings to prove that he held the doctrines of passive obedience and non-resistance. He was accused of using his power systematically for the purpose of favouring the enemies and silencing the friends of the Sovereigns whose bread he ate; and it was asserted that he was the friend and the pupil of his predecessor Sir Roger.

The `Just and True Character of Bohun' could not be publicly sold; but it was widely circulated. While it was passing from hand to hand, and while the Whigs were everywhere exclaiming against the new censor as a second L'Estrange, he was requested to authorize the publication of an anonymous work entitled King William and Queen Mary Conquerors. He readily and eagerly complied. For there was between the doctrines which he had long professed and the doctrines which were propounded in this treatise a coincidence so exact that many suspected him of being the author; nor was this suspicion weakened by a passage in which a compliment was paid to his political writings. But the real author was that very Blount who was, at that time, labouring to inflame the public both against the Licensing Act and the licenser. Blount's motives may be easily divined. His own opinions were diametrically opposed to those which, on this occasion, he put forward in the most offensive manner. It is therefore impossible to doubt that his object was to ensnare and to ruin Bohun. It was a base and wicked scheme. But it cannot be denied that the trap was laid and baited with much skill. The republican succeeded in personating a high Tory. The atheist succeeded in personating a High Churchman. The pamphlet concluded with a devout prayer that the God of light and love would open the understanding and govern the will of Englishmen, so that they might see the things which belonged to their peace. The censor was in raptures. In every page he found his own thoughts expressed more plainly than he had ever expressed them. Never before, in his opinion, had the true claim of their Majesties to obedience been so clearly stated. Every Jacobite who read this admirable tract must inevitably be converted. The non-jurors would flock to take the oaths. The nation, so long divided, would at length be united. From these pleasing dreams Bohun was awakened by learning, a few hours after the appearance of the discourse which had charmed him, that the title-page had set all London in a flame, and that the odious words, `King William and Queen Mary Conquerors', had moved the indignation of multitudes who had never read further. Only four days after the publication he heard that the House of Commons had taken the matter up, that the book had been called by some members a rascally book, and that, as the author was unknown, the Serjeant at Arms was in search of the licenser. Bohun's mind had never been strong; and he was entirely unnerved and bewildered by the fury and suddenness of the storm which had burst upon him. He went to the House. Most of the members whom he met in the passages and lobbies frowned on him. When he was put to the bar, and, after three profound obeisances, ventured to lift his head and look round him, he could read his doom in the angry and contemptuous looks which were cast on him from every side. He hesitated, blundered, contradicted himself, called the Speaker My Lord, and, by his confused way of speaking, raised a tempest of rude laughter which confused him still more. As soon as he had withdrawn, it was unanimously resolved that the obnoxious treatise should be burned in Palace Yard by the common hangman. It was also resolved, without a division, that the King should be requested to remove Bohun from the office of licenser. The poor man, ready to faint with grief and fear, was conducted by the officers of the House to a place of confinement.

As a result of Bohun's foolish mistake the Licensing Act, when it was due for renewal, was extended for only two years. When it came up for consideration again in 1695, it was allowed to lapse, and the press was henceforth free.

From Lord Macaulay,The History of England from the Accession of James the Second (1899 edn.), ii. 410-13.

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