Look carefully, and it is really the birth of the modern West that we see taking place here: snippets of news and sensation helped define a shared experience of the past and present, as political debates laid the foundations of democratic culture. If the Reformation is often credited with having turned the West toward the Enlightenment, another such force must be the growing taste for news and its multiple retellings. While other cultures were arguing over the interpretations of sacred texts, England’s was arguing over the nature of government in print. We are the beneficiaries.
The exhibition itself could have been much more clear in its chronological and thematic organization, particularly because the knotty politics of 17th-century England — centering on its civil wars — are treated as if they were far more familiar than is the case, but these documents repay the patience of careful reading.
When Sir Walter Raleigh was convicted of treason and executed in 1618, his eloquent speech on the scaffold was reported not by newspapers — which had not yet evolved — but in private written accounts. The real revolution came in the 1620s under the influence of “corantos” imported from Amsterdam, which provided the main news of the week. The corantos (which are still recalled in the names of newspapers, like The Hartford Courant) also inspired opposition from the government over their reports of troop movements during the Thirty Years’ War, leading to censorship and even imprisonment.
But the demand for news — and opinion — increased. Press censorship collapsed with the beginning of the civil wars of the 1640s, but the debates of this era were so intense and so much a part of public consciousness that news publications became instruments in the political battles between monarchists and parliamentarians. Newspapers were counterfeited, imitated, mocked and attacked. Parliament tried to reimpose censorship in 1643, and the poet John Milton wrote his famous speech demanding “Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing.” But newspapers, complained Sir Roger L’Estrange, an ardent monarchist, make “the multitude too familiar with the actions and counsels of their superiors.” He created The Observator, shown at the Folger — the “pre-eminent Tory journal of its day.”