Initiates Parliamentary Reporting

Between 1736 and 1746, England’s first magazine established a new standard of parliamentary reporting, providing an unbiased—albeit thinly disguised—account of debates in the face of government sanctions.

Summary of Event

The ascendancy of English king Charles II (1660) heralded an era of restrictions on freedom of the press Freedom of the press;England in England. The Licensing Act of 1662 Licensing Act (1662) limited the number of private printers in the country to twenty, all but one in London, and required review of all political publications by the secretary of state. Press reporting of debates in Parliament Parliament;British was out of the question. What little parliamentary reporting occurred took the form of handwritten newsletters, circulated in coffeehouses. [kw]Gentleman’s Magazine Initiates Parliamentary Reporting (1736)
[kw]Reporting, Gentleman’s Magazine Initiates Parliamentary (1736)
[kw]Parliamentary Reporting, Gentleman’s Magazine Initiates (1736)
[kw]Magazine Initiates Parliamentary Reporting, Gentleman’s (1736)
Parliamentary reporting
Gentleman’s Magazine[Gentlemans Magazine]
[g]England;1736: Gentleman’s Magazine Initiates Parliamentary Reporting[0890]
[c]Communications;1736: Gentleman’s Magazine Initiates Parliamentary Reporting[0890]
[c]Government and politics;1736: Gentleman’s Magazine Initiates Parliamentary Reporting[0890]
Cave, Edward
Guthrie, William
Johnson, Samuel
Walpole, Sir Robert

The expiration of the Licensing Act in 1693 opened up the field to journalism of all types; an explosion of publications ensued. This initial explosion was followed by a winnowing process, during which conflicts between the government and printers over the scope of freedom of the press, combined with the forces of the marketplace, molded Western journalism into its modern form. One of the most influential publications of early Georgian England was Gentleman’s Magazine, founded by Edward Cave in 1731. This first “magazine,” or storehouse of information, collected material from a variety of London periodicals and presented it monthly in condensed form. Gentleman’s Magazine quickly became immensely popular, especially outside London, achieving a circulation of ten thousand by 1742. The actual readership was, of course, many times this number.

One of the many publications abstracted in Gentleman’s Magazine was The Political State of Great Britain, Political State of Great Britain, The (journal) a monthly periodical founded in 1711 that included accounts of parliamentary debates. Public access to parliamentary proceedings was far from satisfactory in 1731. A semiofficial publication, Votes and Proceedings of Parliament, provided no details. The Political State of Great Britain included more but was obliged to wait until the parliamentary session had closed before printing synopses of debates. Even then, these synopses were considered illicit and they were suppressed whenever possible. Other periodicals commented sporadically on specific issues. As a contemporary commentator observed, the clandestine nature of parliamentary reporting and occasional prosecution of printers meant that no one was willing to risk printing debates out of simple regard for the truth, and most of what appeared was partisan and inaccurate. Cave was well aware of the risks involved. In 1728, he was prosecuted and briefly imprisoned for transmitting transcripts of parliamentary debates to the Gloucester Journal.

Realizing that readers sought more detailed and timely reports of Parliament’s debates, Cave began supplementing the material from The Political State of Great Britain, employing William Guthrie, who had an excellent memory, to attend the debates and sometimes attending himself. Immediately after the debate closed, Guthrie would repair to a coffeehouse and make notes from memory. After the close of Parliament, a writer combined these notes with the accounts in The Political State of Great Britain and materials furnished by members of Parliament to produce a narrative that ran in serial form for the remainder of the year. When The Political State of Great Britain ceased publication in 1736, both the Gentleman’s Magazine and its rival, London Magazine, began generating their own accounts.

Unlike his contemporaries, Cave strove to provide an accurate and unbiased account of parliamentary proceedings. A moderate Whig himself—and therefore generally a supporter of Prime Minister Robert Walpole—he expected his publication to appeal to a broad spectrum of the educated public. He resisted accepting subsidies from partisan sources, a major source of financing for publications in early eighteenth century Britain. This meant that Gentleman’s Magazine depended on copy sales and advertising for its revenue.

In April of 1738, Walpole decided to take action against an illegal practice. Censorship;England Complaining “I have been made to speak the very reverse of what I meant” and maintaining that partisan periodicals represented a debate with “all the learning, and the argument, thrown into one side, and on the other, nothing but what was low, mean, and ridiculous,” he asked for a resolution from the House of Commons vowing to prosecute reports of debates, even when Parliament was not in session. The House complied.

The resolution left Cave in a quandary, as the debates of the 1738 session were already prepared for publication. Fortunately, he had recently engaged a youthful Samuel Johnson, later to become one of England’s leading literary figures, to write up the debates. Johnson quickly penned an introduction stating that Lemuel Gulliver’s grandson had returned to Lilliput and discovered that the Senate there bore a remarkable resemblance to Britain’s Parliament (a reference to Jonathan Swift’s 1726 satire Gulliver’s Travels). The debates appeared, under disguised names, and Walpole was unwilling to invite ridicule by admitting that he was the original of Johnson’s clever satire.

“Debates in the Senate of Lilliput” “Debates in the Senate of Lilliput” (Johnson)[Debates in the Senate of Lilliput] appeared from 1738 until 1746. It appeared during a time when public interest in proceedings of Parliament was at an unprecedented high because of controversies about Walpole’s fiscal policies and the international crisis that had culminated in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748). By 1746, interest had waned, and Cave decided that the costs and risks associated with detailed parliamentary reporting were no longer worth their benefits.

After “Debates in the Senate of Lilliput” ceased to appear in Gentleman’s Magazine, London Magazine
London Magazine continued its similar but less reliable feature “Proceedings of a Political Club” “Proceedings of a Political Club” (anonymous)[Proceedings of a Political Club] for several years more, ending it in 1757. In general, however, detailed accounts of parliamentary debates were unavailable to the general public between 1746 and 1771, when a series of confrontations between newspaper owners, the House of Commons, and the radical politician John Wilkes Wilkes, John led to free reporting of debates as they occurred, although the law against such reporting was technically still in effect. Reporters were not allowed to take notes within the houses of Parliament until the end of the eighteenth century, and prosecutions for libel Libel occurred sporadically for several more decades. The law prohibiting publication of parliamentary proceedings was finally officially rescinded in 1973.


Considerable controversy exists both among historians and among literary scholars about the “Debates in the Senate of Lilliput.” Based on a well-known anecdote about Samuel Johnson, in which one man at a dinner party praised the oratory of William Pitt the Elder and Johnson remarked that he had written the speech in question in a garret in Exeter Street, many historians doubt that the material published in Gentleman’s Magazine bore much resemblance to the actual debates. William Cobbett, compiling his Parliamentary History of England (1806-1820), was able to compare Johnson’s version of debates in the House of Lords with shorthand notes taken by a member and concluded that the speakers and their arguments were faithfully represented and that some attempt had been made to reproduce each speaker’s style. Johnson’s accounts, however, contain a great deal of Johnson’s style as well. He could not help but turn the outline he received into beautiful English according to the literary standards of the day; indeed, he was expected to do so.

By contrast, accounts of debates in the Morning Chronicle after 1771 and the London Times after 1786 are close to being actual transcripts. They are lengthy, difficult to read, and possess literary quality only in those instances when a member of Parliament composed a speech beforehand and then memorized it. No longer constrained to wait until the close of the session to publish debates, newspapers Newspapers;England employed relays of reporters shuttling between Parliament and the newspaper office, working directly with the compositors in an effort to get the entire text of a debate into the hands of the reading public the following morning. The news had gained in immediacy, but it had lost some of its elegance.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, English newspapers and journals published very little domestic political news—much of it was censored at the source, and the threat of prosecution was too high. It required considerable courage and initiative to publish parliamentary debates in the 1730’s. Their publication in the widely circulated Gentleman’s Magazine was a landmark in the evolution of freedom of the press and of the right of the general public to enjoy timely access to the inner workings of government.

Further Reading

  • Cobbett, William, ed. The Parliamentary History of England: From the Norman Conquest in 1066 to the Year 1803. Vol. 10. London: T. C. Hansard, 1811. The introduction states that most of the material for 1736-1745 came from Gentleman’s Magazine and assesses the accuracy of the magazine’s reporting; the text includes a transcript of the 1738 debate on preventing reporting of Commons debates.
  • Hoover, Benjamin Beard. Samuel Johnson’s Parliamentary Reporting: “Debates in the Senate of Lilliput.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953. Includes a thorough review of parliamentary reporting from 1688 to 1750 and extensive information on Cave as editor.
  • Kaminski, Thomas. The Early Career of Samuel Johnson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. One chapter deals with parliamentary reports and the question of their literary versus news value.
  • Mathew, H. C. G., and Brian Harrison, eds. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: From the Earliest Times to the Year 2000. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Good entry on Edward Cave. An invaluable source for biographies of obscure British historical personages.
  • Raymond, Joad, ed. News, Newspapers, and Society in Early Modern England. Portland, Oreg.: Frank Cass, 1999. Main emphasis is on the seventeenth century; provides background on parliamentary reporting and the economics of periodical publication.

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