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Of False Political Reports
by [?]

The same circumstance occurred on another important event in modern history, where we may observe the artifice of party writers in disguising or suppressing the real fact. This was the famous battle of the Boyne. The French catholic party long reported that Count Lauzun had won the battle, and that William the Third was killed. Bussy Rabutin in some memoirs, in which he appears to have registered public events without scrutinising their truth, says, “I chronicled this account according as the first reports gave out; when at length the real fact reached them, the party did not like to lose their pretended victory.” Pere Londel, who published a register of the times, which is favourably noticed in the “Nouvelles de la Republique des Lettres,” for 1699, has recorded the event in this deceptive manner: “The Battle of the Boyne in Ireland; Schomberg is killed there at the head of the English.” This is “an equivocator!” The writer resolved to conceal the defeat of James’s party, and cautiously suppresses any mention of a victory, but very carefully gives a real fact, by which his readers would hardly doubt of the defeat of the English! We are so accustomed to this traffic of false reports, that we are scarcely aware that many important events recorded in history were in their day strangely disguised by such mystifying accounts. This we can only discover by reading private letters written at the moment. Bayle has collected several remarkable absurdities of this kind, which were spread abroad to answer a temporary purpose, but which had never been known to us had these contemporary letters not been published. A report was prevalent in Holland in 1580, that the kings of France and Spain and the Duke of Alva were dead; a felicity which for a time sustained the exhausted spirits of the revolutionists. At the invasion of the Spanish Armada, Burleigh spread reports of the thumb-screws, and other instruments of torture, which the Spaniards had brought with them, and thus inflamed the hatred of the nation. The horrid story of the bloody Colonel Kirk is considered as one of those political forgeries to serve the purpose of blackening a zealous partisan.

False reports are sometimes stratagems of war. When the chiefs of the League had lost the battle at Ivry, with an army broken and discomfited they still kept possession of Paris merely by imposing on the inhabitants all sorts of false reports, such as the death of the king of Navarre at the fortunate moment when victory, undetermined on which side to incline, turned for the Leaguers; and they gave out false reports of a number of victories they had elsewhere obtained. Such tales, distributed in pamphlets and ballads among a people agitated by doubts and fears, are gladly believed; flattering their wishes or soothing their alarms, they contribute to their ease, and are too agreeable to allow time for reflection.

The history of a report creating a panic may be traced in the Irish insurrection, in the curious memoirs of James the Second. A forged proclamation of the Prince of Orange was set forth by one Speke, and a rumour spread that the Irish troops were killing and burning in all parts of the kingdom! A magic-like panic instantly ran through the people, so that in one quarter of the town of Drogheda they imagined that the other was filled with blood and ruin. During this panic pregnant women miscarried, aged persons died with terror, while the truth was, that the Irish themselves were disarmed and dispersed, in utter want of a meal or a lodging!

In the unhappy times of our civil wars under Charles the First, the newspapers and the private letters afford specimens of this political contrivance of false reports of every species. No extravagance of invention to spread a terror against a party was too gross, and the city of London was one day alarmed that the royalists were occupied by a plan of blowing up the river Thames, by an immense quantity of powder warehoused at the river-side; and that there existed an organised though invisible brotherhood of many thousands with consecrated knives; and those who hesitated to give credit to such rumours were branded as malignants, who took not the danger of the parliament to heart. Forged conspiracies and reports of great but distant victories were inventions to keep up the spirit of a party, but oftener prognosticated some intended change in the government. When they were desirous of augmenting the army, or introducing new garrisons, or using an extreme measure with the city, or the royalists, there was always a new conspiracy set afloat; or when any great affair was to be carried in parliament, letters of great victories were published to dishearten the opposition, and infuse additional boldness in their own party. If the report lasted only a few days, it obtained its purpose, and verified the observation of Catharine de’ Medici. Those politicians who raise such false reports obtain their end: like the architect who, in building an arch, supports it with circular props and pieces of timber, or any temporary rubbish, till he closes the arch; and when it can support itself, he throws away the props! There is no class of political lying which can want for illustration if we consult the records of our civil wars; there we may trace the whole art in all the nice management of its shades, its qualities, and its more complicated parts, from invective to puff, and from inuendo to prevarication! we may admire the scrupulous correction of a lie which they had told, by another which they are telling! and triple lying to overreach their opponents. Royalists and Parliamentarians were alike; for, to tell one great truth, “the father of lies” is of no party![1]