Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Monster of Monsters and the Emergence of Political Satire in New England

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Monster of Monsters and the Emergence of Political Satire in New England

Article excerpt

In 1754, an anonymous political satire called Monster of Monsters appeared on bookstands in Massachusetts. The pamphlet was written in opposition to proposed legislation levying an excise on alcohol and requiring householders in the colony to report annually the amount of liquor consumed in their homes. Monster was not particularly well written. Its theme, equating the tax with a monster, was neither very original nor very arresting, and it did not appear to affect the ultimate passage of the tax. Nevertheless, the pamphlet attracted a great deal of attention, was read by large numbers of people and made its publisher briefly "the chief topic of conversation in town." In so doing, it marked a rather surprising turning point in New England's literary history.

Heretofore political satire had attracted relatively little attention in New England. Despite the fact that in the first half of the eighteenth century Massachusetts had more printers who published more titles than any other American colony, and despite the fact that the same half century was a golden age for the English political satire that Massachusetts writers admired, the colony had produced very little satire of its own before 1750. The satire that was produced was scarcely read.

Monster of Monsters changed all that. So well did it show how effective and how marketable satire could be in New England that in the two decades after the pamphlet appeared a dozen or so new pieces of political satire came out in New England. They showed up in various forms: poetry, plays, parodied speeches and mock news items. One of the items, "The Squabble of the Sea Nymphs," was by Mercy Otis Warren and a couple of others were by one or another of the "Connecticut Wits," especially Jonathan Trumbull. Trumbull, possibly collaborating with Timothy Dwight, contributed a series of satirical essays to the Boston Chronicle in 1769 under the title "The Meddler," more essays to the Connecticut Journal and New Haven Post Boy and later wrote The Progress of Dulness and his best known M'Fingal.1 Most of the pieces, however, appeared anonymously, like the farcical and truly forgettable The Blockheads, or the Affected Officers, the satirical dream allegories that appeared in the Rhode Island Gazette in Providence, or the parodied speeches that appeared from time to time in the Connecticut Gazette.2 Except for Trumbull's poems, none of them was particularly good, but the fact that they appeared at all showed that, in part at least, thanks to Monster of Monsters, New England satire was coming of age.

In Monster, the satirist found an issue on which he could draw on English satire for the first time, an issue on which, again for the first time, a political underdog could use humor to attract a wide popular audience, and an issue on which the government misguidedly enhanced the audience by arresting the printer and bringing him notoriety.

The attention that Monster of Monsters attracted, and the fact that numbers of people actually read it, revealed a new kind of public market place in New England for the exchange of ideas, information -- and now, humor -- about politics. Like all markets, this one relied on both its consumers -- an informed readership now aware of what government was up to and how it ran -- and its producers: political writers seeking a public forum for their views on government controversies. Such writers were learning that satire could ridicule politicians, positions, even institutions, and presume that the audience knew enough to get the joke. Political satire, in other words, could be audacious, marketable, and in the long run, relatively safe.3 How did Monster manage this? It is worth investigating.

Monster of Monsters appeared during the Massachusetts Excise Crisis of 1754, when the General Court voted a tax of four pence a gallon on rum and six pence a gallon on wine consumed anywhere in the colony. The bill was designed to plug significant loopholes in an earlier law taxing spirits. …

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