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Of False Political Reports
by [?]

“A false report, if believed during three days, may be of great service to a government.” This political maxim has been ascribed to Catharine de’ Medici, an adept in coups d’etat, the arcana imperii! Between solid lying and disguised truth there is a difference known to writers skilled in “the art of governing mankind by deceiving them;” as politics, ill-understood, have been defined, and as, indeed, all party-politics are. These forgers prefer to use the truth disguised to the gross fiction. When the real truth can no longer be concealed, then they can confidently refer to it; for they can still explain and obscure, while they secure on their side the party whose cause they have advocated. A curious reader of history may discover the temporary and sometimes the lasting advantages of spreading rumours designed to disguise, or to counteract the real state of things. Such reports, set a going, serve to break down the sharp and fatal point of a panic, which might instantly occur; in this way the public is saved from the horrors of consternation, and the stupefaction of despair. These rumours give a breathing time to prepare for the disaster, which is doled out cautiously; and, as might be shown, in some cases these first reports have left an event in so ambiguous a state, that a doubt may still arise whether these reports were really destitute of truth! Such reports, once printed, enter into history, and sadly perplex the honest historian. Of a battle fought in a remote situation, both parties for a long time, at home, may dispute the victory after the event, and the pen may prolong what the sword had long decided. This has been no unusual circumstance; of several of the most important battles on which the fate of Europe has hung, were we to rely on some reports of the time, we might still doubt of the manner of the transaction. A skirmish has been often raised into an arranged battle, and a defeat concealed in an account of the killed and wounded, while victory has been claimed by both parties! Villeroy, in all his encounters with Marlborough, always sent home despatches by which no one could suspect that he was discomfited. Pompey, after his fatal battle with Caesar, sent letters to all the provinces and cities of the Romans, describing with greater courage than he had fought, so that a report generally prevailed that Caesar had lost the battle: Plutarch informs us, that three hundred writers had described the battle of Marathon. Many doubtless had copied their predecessors; but it would perhaps have surprised us to have observed how materially some differed in their narratives.

In looking over a collection of manuscript letters of the times of James the First, I was struck by the contradictory reports of the result of the famous battle of Lutzen, so glorious and so fatal to Gustavus Adolphus; the victory was sometimes reported to have been obtained by the Swedes; but a general uncertainty, a sort of mystery, agitated the majority of the nation, who were staunch to the protestant cause. This state of anxious suspense lasted a considerable time. The fatal truth gradually came out in reports changing in their progress; if the victory was allowed, the death of the Protestant Hero closed all hope! The historian of Gustavus Adolphus observes on this occasion, that “Few couriers were better received than those who conveyed the accounts of the king’s death to declared enemies or concealed ill-wishers; nor did the report greatly displease the court of Whitehall, where the ministry, as it usually happens in cases of timidity, had its degree of apprehensions for fear the event should not be true; and, as I have learnt from good authority, imposed silence on the news-writers, and intimated the same to the pulpit in case any funeral encomium might proceed from that quarter.” Although the motive assigned by the writer, that of the secret indisposition of the cabinet of James the First towards the fortunes of Gustavus, is to me by no means certain, unquestionably the knowledge of this disastrous event was long kept back by “a timid ministry,” and the fluctuating reports probably regulated by their designs.