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Suspicious young men, then and now

By Kenneth R. Johnston

What do Edward Joseph Snowden and Samuel Taylor Coleridge have in common? Both were upset by government snooping into private communications on the pretext of national security. Snowden exposed the US National Security Agency’s vast programs of electronic surveillance to the Guardian and the Washington Post. Coleridge belittled the spy system of William Pitt the Younger in his autobiography, Biographia Literaria (1817).

Nothing new here, except the technology being used to snoop and the media being snooped into It’s all on a spectrum, that expands or contracts over time, depending on the need — the perceived national emergency. But the methods used are always state-of-the-art, whatever that state is, in the 1790s or the 2010s.

Why the 1790s? That was the time of the French Revolution, when it was “bliss to be alive,” and “very heaven to be young,” according to Coleridge’s friend Wordsworth. Yet those heady times of liberty, fraternity, and equality also saw quantum leaps in the means used to spy on individual persons or suspect groups of persons — often in the name of protecting Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality themselves. The kangaroo courts of the French Reign of Terror and the packed juries of Britain’s Reign of Alarm depended for their operation, and their self-defined successes, on new sources of information and ways of information-gathering. Indeed, the very word ‘information’ gained one of its modern meanings in those best and worst of times: information was what an informer delivered to you, if you were a spy master. And such informations were the evidence used in special courts set up to punish the enemies of the state’s reigning ideology.

There were more trials for treason and sedition in 1790s Britain than at any other time in its history, before or since. Much of the evidence produced in these trials came from violations of civil rights that few persons dared to protest. The right of habeas corpus, the very cornerstone of British civil liberties, was suspended for a total of nearly four years during the decade. Letters were openly routinely by Post Office at the beck of local magistrates (“I suspect them grievously,” said Coleridge), or hints relayed from Whitehall that someone in their neighborhood might be in cahoots or correspondence with French revolutionaries.

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‘Smelling out a Rat; — or The Atheistical-Revolutionist disturbed in his Midnight “Calculations”‘ (James Gillray, 3 December 1790) (c) National Portrait Gallery. Used with permission.

One example of such surveillance has become a long-standing joke because its target, Coleridge, presented it as one in his Biographia, published 20 years after the event. But at the time, in August of 1797, Coleridge was scared out of his wits, betraying and abandoning friends in his haste to protect himself from suspicion. A Home Office agent had been sent down from London to check on the reported suspicious doings of Coleridge and Wordsworth, and their temporary guest, the radical orator, John Thelwall, Public Enemy No. 1 since his acquittal in the great Treason Trials of 1794. The agent accurately reported that this was no group of French revolutionary sympathizers, but “a gang of disaffected Englishmen,” which they certainly were. Disaffection is not, however, treason — or only becomes so when the stakes or the threats are very high, as they must have seemed to Edward Snowden when he publicized his information about the NSA (a.k.a., jokingly, ‘No Such Agency’).

Coleridge’s joke name for his agent was ‘Spy Nozy.’ His real name was James Walsh, but Coleridge pretended that Walsh thought the poets’ conversations about Spinoza referred to him. But it was all a literary fabrication by Coleridge, safely in the clear, 20 years after the fact and, not at all coincidentally, two years after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo had ended Britain’s fears about revolution and invasion. The joke, of course, was the idea that harmless poets could have said anything of interest to a government spy. But that was no joke in 1797, especially not for Coleridge, who was desperately trying to distance himself from his very radical lectures, letters, and poems of 1793-1796.

Not that he would’ve been convicted of espionage or conspiracy. But to the extent that he could have been widely suspected of uttering unpatriotic words, his career prospects could’ve been seriously compromised, if not ruined. James Gillray’s cartoon, “Smelling out a Rat,” is a good visual representation of how this process of alarming suspicion worked. (Rev. Richard Price is the rat/victim here.)

This is what will happen, at a minimum, to the prospects of Edward Snowden, even if he manages to stay out of jail. Snowden is admittedly guilty of something; the US government calls it espionage. Like WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, Snowden’s future career choices will be drastically narrowed. For other idealistic young people, disaffected by their government spying on them for their own good, the example of Snowden will be cautionary. So too was the example of ‘Spy Nozy’ to Coleridge and Wordsworth and Thelwall: they dropped out of sight for a few years, laying low in Germany or deepest Wales.

The effects of the information supplied by ‘Spy Nozy’ and other agents like him in Pitt’s Reign of Alarm, on members of the young Romantic generation, was both immediate and long-term. They saw that their liberal words and actions would have to be soft-pedaled, destroyed, or radically (that is, conservatively) revised, once the extent of their government’s determination to squash dissent became clear.

Kenneth R. Johnston is the author of Unusual Suspects: Pitt’s Reign of Alarm and the Lost Generation of the 1790s. He received his PhD from Yale University and spent his entire academic career at Indiana University, where he was honored for distinguished teaching and scholarly achievement, while also heading its Department of English. He is also author of Wordsworth and ‘The Recluse’ and The Hidden Wordsworth: Poet, Lover, Rebel, Spy, and editor of Romantic Revolutions. The Hidden Wordsworth won the 1999 Barricelli Prize for outstanding contribution to Romantic studies, and was named to several Book of the Year lists in both UK and US.

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