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Propaganda and Peace: Robert Harley’s Press Strategies About the Peace of Utrecht

Manuel Alejandro Castellano García


Conclure sa participation à la guerre de Succession d’Espagne n’a pas été facile pour le gouvernement britannique. Frappé par des problèmes internes, il dut aussi faire face à la forte campagne contre la paix menée par l’opposition et au mécontentement de ses alliés. Parmi les mesures prises par le cabinet Harley pour parvenir à la paix, le recours à la presse et à la propagande politique était d’une importance vitale. À travers l’étude de la presse et de la propagande publiée, la documentation politique et la correspondance des personnes impliquées, cet article étudie la stratégie et les méthodes suivies et la capacité du gouvernement à s’adapter aux contre-attaques de la presse liée à l’opposition. Il analyse également les contradictions internes de cette campagne de propagande résultant de l’opposition entre les deux figures clés du gouvernement Tory, Harley et Henry St. John, et son influence sur le triomphe de l’option de la paix au Parlement britannique.

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Notes de l’auteur

This article is a contribution to the work of the projects “España y Francia : Intereses dinásticos e intereses nacionales (1701-1733)”, PGC2018-097737-B-I00 and “Grup d’estudi de les institucions i de les cultures polítiques (segles XVI-XXI)” (2017 SGR 1041).

Texte intégral

1Much progress has been made since, in the first decade of the 20th century, D. H. Stevens studied the progressive politicisation of British journalism in Party Politics and English Journalism, 1702-1742. Later, in the 1930s, Laurence Hanson analysed the relationship between the press and government in Great Britain systematically, as well as the various forms of control over print in Government and the Press (1695-1763). This path was reinforced in the fifties and sixties with publications such as Freedom of the Press in England, 1476-1776: the Rise and Decline of the Government Control, by Seaton Siebert. During those decades, scholars also began to study the use of political propaganda during the War of the Spanish Succession in such works as Douglas Coombs’s The Conduct of the Dutch: British Opinion and the Dutch Alliance during the War of Spanish Succession (1958) and María Teresa Pérez Picazo’s La publicística española en la Guerra de Sucesión (1966).

2Both lines of research were successfully carried on, and in the following decade, J. O. Richards, F. M. Harris, or J. A. Downie, in Robert Harley and the Press, demonstrated the link between propaganda and political action in the final years of Queen Anne’s reign. Downie’s work was particularly insightful as it left no room for doubt about Harley’s endeavours to dominate public discourse through propaganda and counter-propaganda although, as Knights explains (238), the first well-oiled propaganda tools of both parties were used before the 1710-1714 period.

  • 1 There is not enough space here to review in detail the abundant existing literature. The following (...)
  • 2 See Jones; Holmes and Speck, The Divided Society; Black, A System of Ambition?.

3The effort to deepen the interrelation between propaganda and politics has continued to this day. Multiple authors have shown an interest in the works of the main propagandists, their changing relationship with both political parties, their strategies, and their influence on public opinion.1 All this research is supported by the solid historiographical work that made it possible to re-evaluate British socio-political life and foreign policy during the 18th century.2

4With this paper, we intend to help expand knowledge of the relationship between British politics and political propaganda in the last years of Queen Anne’s reign. To achieve this, we will reconstruct Robert Harley’s ideas regarding the use of propaganda at the service of the government, as well as its implementation after his return to power in a context as complicated as ending the British participation in the War of the Spanish Succession. However, it would be an incomplete analysis if it were limited to studying the different strategies used to defend the end of the war. For this reason, we must take into account two other primary factors. On the one hand, it is necessary to pay attention to how the government faced the counterweight of the Whig press, which sought to neutralize their propaganda and return Britain to warmongering positions. Equally important was the open struggle within the Tories, where Harley and St. John, also fighting for the control of the party, used press and propaganda to strengthen their respective positions and impose their conceptions of how peace should be carried out. Taking all these factors into account, we will be able to better understand the development experienced by the press and political propaganda at a turning point for its consolidation.


5The French acceptance of the will of Charles II, bestowing the Spanish throne on Philip of Anjou in breach of the partition treaties and threatening to establish Bourbon hegemony in Europe, led to the outbreak of the War of the Spanish Succession. England and the United Provinces headed an alliance which supported the claims of Archduke Charles against the Bourbon side supported by the Electors of Cologne and Bavaria. This war among nations in turn connected with a civil conflict in the Iberian Peninsula, resulting in more than 1,250,000 deaths in its decade-long duration despite five attempts to negotiate a peace between 1705 and 1710 (Albareda 18-29).

6With that background and with the Dutch and the Empire in favour of continuing the war, with the support of the Whigs in Parliament, Robert Harley was well aware that achieving peace would be neither quick nor easy. He also had to deal with the lack of unity among the leading Tories, who, although they wanted the peace, differed in their strategies for arriving at it. With the Duke of Shrewsbury wishing to see Parliament and Britain’s Allies included from the outset, and Henry St. John eager to secure British interests even if that entailed making a separate peace, Harley intended to negotiate alone to obtain a first set of concessions to put before the Allies. Knowing that he would need all the resources available to him to attain his objective, he decided to use political propaganda to ensure the stability of his government and win the argument about the peace.

The rise of the British press and Harley’s first contacts with propaganda

7Pressure from the Stationers’ Company and from a House of Commons aligned with the positions of John Locke (Robertson 40; Seaton Siebert 261-62; Black, The English Press 9), combined with the fear of each party that the exercise of censorship would in due course pass to the other (Schwoerer) and the belief that the accusation of high treason would be just as effective (Hamburger 717-19), resulted in the Licensing of the Press Act not being renewed in 1695.

  • 3 This act excluded from the line of succession any person who embraced Catholicism or married a Cath (...)

8The removal of censorship gave rise to greater freedom of the press and an increase in the number of publications, closely linked in turn to the requirement of elections every three years by the Triennial Act of 1694. In this context, the print media contributed to the political debate and especially to the 1701 discussions about the Act of Settlement,3 which influenced Whig electoral victory (Downie, Robert Harley 33-56; Downie, “The Development of Political Press” 125). By then Harley, Speaker of the House of Commons, was convinced of the importance of creating a stable system of counterpropaganda, an idea that he expounded to the Lord High Treasurer, Sidney Godolphin:

  • 4 British Library, ADD. MS 28055. fo. 3, Harley to Godolphin, 9-VIII-1702.

It will be of great service to have some discreet writer of the government’s side, if it were only to state facts right, for the generality err for want of knowledge, being imposed upon by the stories raised by ill-designing men.4

But Harley’s proposal was not taken up, and he was only able to bring it forward again after being appointed Secretary of State for the Northern Department in 1704. The one chosen to lead his project was Daniel Defoe, a talented writer with extensive background as a political pamphleteer. Harley knew that he could count on Defoe’s loyalty, having interceded to release him from the prison sentence imposed on him for his satirical pamphlet The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702), judged to be seditious (Marshall; Horsley).

9Acting on Harley’s orders, Defoe not only produced propaganda in support of government policy, The Review being his main creation, but built an efficient system to distribute it (Rogers). Although Harley’s strategy proved its usefulness in the 1705 elections, his determination to bring together the moderate sectors of the two parties led to a clash between him and Godolphin. As Harley’s alliance with Godolphin and Marlborough weakened, by the end of 1707 his situation had become untenable. The discredit occasioned by the arrest for high treason of his collaborator William Gregg was compounded by Godolphin’s conviction that Harley was manoeuvring to usurp his position (Holmes and Speck, “The Fall of Harley”). Seriously damaged politically, Harley was obliged to stand down when, in February 1708, both Godolphin and Marlborough threatened to resign if he remained in government.

10After Harley’s departure the government kept up The Review in its work of informing about the war (López Campillo 304-59) while Defoe, who on Harley’s advice continued working for the government, was employed on the Whitehall Evening Post and used his connections to soften criticism from the Tory-aligned press (Seaton Siebert 338-39). Harley also continued to defend his political positions, arguing for peace and accusing Godolphin and Marlborough of keeping the country on a war footing for their own personal profit.

11With the Marlborough-Godolphin duumvirate rapidly eroding, Harley’s return to power was near-impossible. In a context of economic decline and constant increases in taxation to finance the war, popular discontent was further spread by the government’s clumsy handling of the Sacheverell case. As Cowan stated (The State Trial; “The Spin Doctor” 28-32) the trial was mostly a political show, yet it opened a debate about how each party understood the Glorious Revolution. In that sense, it united moderate and radical Tories by convincing the former that the Church was indeed in danger. The Tories interpreted the light sentence against Sacheverell as a victory and a signal of Whig weakness. This, along with the popular support received, encouraged them to launch a campaign attacking the Whigs and assuring the Queen that a change of government would please the people (Knights 127, 144-45).

12In April 1710 the Queen, increasingly hostile to Marlborough and Godolphin, initiated a rapid reform of the main positions of political responsibility. Along with other important changes such as the removal of Godolphin and the appointment of St. John as Secretary of State for the Northern Department, she restored Harley to political primacy as Chancellor of the Exchequer, a member of the Commission of the Treasury that initially replaced Godolphin, and, in 1711, as Lord High Treasurer (Castellano García 203-6).

The new Harley propaganda system and Harley’s return to power

13Harley knew that in attempting to rally non-radical elements from both parties and give the government the stability it needed to conclude the War of the Spanish Succession he would face strong opposition from the Whigs and radical currents in his own party. We must bear in mind that the Queen was continuing to replace key members of the Cabinet to the advantage of the Tory party. Harley understood that a moderate line would limit the pressure, allowing him to calm the Allies, facilitate the governmental transition and maintain in the administration those moderate Whigs on whom he wished to count. He also knew that in the House of Lords he would need the support of the “Court Whigs” and would do well to avoid alienating their sympathies.

14Convinced of the value of a good propaganda system to achieve his objectives, he restructured and expanded his team, re-employing former Tory assets such as Charles Davenant and including new ones such as Delarivier Manley. Far more important was the return of Daniel Defoe, who in mid-July 1710 offered to place himself at Harley’s disposal once again. Despite being criticised for this change of employer, his success in maintaining some coherence on the most important issues enabled him to take The Review back to a position in line with Harley’s without greatly undermining its credibility (Backscheider 272-73). He thus sought to convey a sense of continuity and moderation by affirming that the new administration implied no more than a change of names and would pursue the war as resolutely as before (López Campillo 364-66).

15However, in the summer months of 1710, the political situation became more acute and both Whigs and radical Tories tried to shift the scenario to their advantage. To this end, the first number of The Examiner appeared on August 3. Sponsored and initially controlled by St. John, it was an uncompromisingly pro-Tory organ strenuously opposed to the Whigs. The line to be followed was set by A Letter to the Examiner, written by St. John himself, which criticised the arbitrary conduct of the Whig Junto and denounced the Duchess of Marlborough’s tyrannical hold over the Queen, as well as declaring for the first time within the Tory propaganda the intention of ending the war at the earliest opportunity.

16This aggressiveness combined with the blow of Godolphin’s dismissal and the Queen’s decision to call early elections to provoke a Whig reaction. Their main idea was to create a counterweight to The Examiner, and after the failure of the short-lived Whig Examiner they succeeded with The Medley, the flagship of their propaganda effort. Along with this, both to mount pressure against changes in the government and as an electoral strategy, they warned of bankruptcy if the government were left in the hands of the Tories, whom they also accused of Jacobitism.

17Defoe was commissioned to reply, taking the economy and the credit question as the mainstay of his output until the end of 1710. Of note here is An Essay upon Publick Credit, in which he recalled that the dissolution of Parliament had long been part of the normal functioning of politics and had never harmed the economy. In addition, following Harley’s moderate line, he stated that guaranteeing the nation’s credit was a joint responsibility that should be placed above partisan struggle, an argument he reiterated in The Review.

18Regarding the religious question, in addition to refuting Whig accusations, one of Harley’s main concerns was to “defuse” popular anger, inflamed by the prosecution of Sacheverell. He also sought to limit the entry of radical Tories to Parliament and avoid overrepresentation (Feiling 430). To that end Defoe duly warned that by voting for them “you set Fire to your own Houses, you Undermine your own Privileges, you Pull Down your Protestant Queen, you say Backward all your Laws of Liberty, you brand your Deliverer, King William for an Usurper” (A Word Against a New Election), but with the people’s passion roused by the call to defend the Church it was impossible to both calm the mood and campaign for victory. That only ten of the twenty Whigs who mounted the case against Sacheverell and just 144 of the 304 MPs who voted for his impeachment were re-elected is a measure of the strength of the religious question in an election in which the overwhelming Tory victory – 346 seats to 146 Whigs – returned to the House of Commons a large number of members of the party’s most intransigent faction.

19This was an added problem for Harley, given that the results encouraged the Tory MPs to demand a purely Tory policy and the expulsion of all Whigs from government. Dissatisfied with Harley’s moderation, a number of them came together to form the October Club, with the aim of forcing the government to act in accordance with Tory orthodoxy, posing major difficulties for the Cabinet during the parliamentary sessions of 1710 and 1711 (Szechi 71- 96; Dickinson 90-96).

20Maintaining a precarious balance that sought to satisfy the High Tories without radicalising the opposition while keeping secret the first contacts with France, care was taken not to introduce into the propaganda debate the question of peace. However, pamphlets also began to appear which, without being frontal attacks on the Allies, portrayed them in an unfavourable light. One such pamphlet, New Dialogues Upon the Present Posture of Affairs, published in December 1710, criticised the advantages that the Barrier Treaty gave the Dutch to the detriment of British trade and the enrichment of the Dutch during the conflict as they had captured French markets formerly dominated by British merchants. This was an attempt to test the public’s likely response to the country taking advantage of Louis xiv’s new embargo on Dutch trade to resume commercial contacts with France.

21But in the matter of propaganda, Harley’s most important achievement was to bring under his patronage Jonathan Swift, possibly the most talented writer and pamphleteer of the day. Swift was moving away from his former closeness to the Whig interest as a result of their refusal to grant First Fruits to the Church of Ireland (Downie, Jonathan Swift, Political Writer 118-19). On questions of religion and the war, too, he shared the Tory ideology (Speck, Swift 22-23), which brought him closer to the project of a Harley who knew how to win him over with various concessions.

22On November 2, 1710, Swift published his first columns in The Examiner, which he directed for thirty-three issues until June 14, 1711, reversing its former editorial line. Using a rhetorical and allegorical style not without authoritarianism, he went from fuelling confrontation to declaring that he would strive to be impartial in defence of the national interest, while still attacking the Whig publications and defending Harley’s cabinet.

23Thanks to these movements, Harley managed to maintain the tone of restraint that he intended and, at the same time, had a well-defined and diversified propaganda system in place when Franco-British contacts developed into true secret negotiations at the end of 1710. Leaving aside a number of short-lived periodicals created for specific topics, he controlled The London Gazette, The Review, The Examiner and The Post-Boy along with The Edinburgh Courant, The Edinburgh Gazette or Scots Postman. He also had a strong team of pamphleteers, with figures such as Simon Clement, Delarivier Manley, William King, Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift. Swift also had a highly significant role in recruiting and coordinating propagandists, in obtaining printers for pro-ministry propaganda, and in moderating the tone of Whig pamphleteers (Harrison Stevens 39-41; Downie, Robert Harley 169-70).

24Using these means to counter his opponents’ propaganda, to allay Allied concerns, and to keep an increasingly numerous radical Tory sector at bay, Harley sought to mute the voices raised against peace and address the various fronts open in 1711 from a position of strength.

The struggle to control Tory propaganda

25If 1711 saw the start of the secret peace negotiations, the propaganda effort also intensified. On the government side it was essentially run by Defoe and Swift, the initial aim being to swell the numbers of those supporting peace. However, they still avoided direct confrontation, limiting themselves to affirming that, with nothing remaining to be gained from war, it was important to secure adequate advantages. Even so, the increase in Tory propaganda was evident. That led Francis Hare to defend the actions of the late Whig government in The Barrier Treaty Vindicated and especially through his four-part epistolary treatise The Management of the War. At the same time, he denounced the plethora of writings supporting the new Tory government as nothing but a cleverly orchestrated campaign by Robert Harley to secure his position and destroy the previous executive’s reputation.

26Much more noteworthy was the start of the campaign to secure the dismissal of the Duke of Marlborough, the last bastion of the former Whig executive. This was no easy task, since the Whigs had long been claiming that the new ministry, putting personal scores before the national interest, was manoeuvring to oust their greatest soldier. This defence had been so effective that, as early as the summer of 1710, The Moderator had had to assure their readers that these were baseless rumours designed to create divisions and foment sedition (Harris 130).

27It being clear that the first step must be to undermine Marlborough’s prestige, a campaign to that effect was begun in late 1710, when the Tory majority in the Commons refused, for the first time since the start of the war, to thank him for his services during the campaign (Simms 68). Reasons why a Certain Great General has not yet Receiv’d the Thanks attributed this to the fact that Marlborough had sought to prolong the war rather than to end it and to various scandals linked to his principal subordinates. Meanwhile, The Review began to gloss over his military actions and asserted the Queen’s liberty to dismiss anyone she chose to, while The Honest Torie declared that the quality of British officers ensured that any successor would continue on the same victorious path. A similar line was taken by Defoe in A Short Narrative of the Life and Actions of His Grace, John, D. of Marlborough. Although it has been considered as generally favouring the duke by giving a closer and more human view of him (Novak 383-84), the references to his fatigue, age and physical weakness can nevertheless be read as well-meaning justifications for a change in the command of the armies.

28As we can see, the attacks were constant but rather subtle, a situation that is easy to explain. Harley did not yet intend to get rid of Marlborough but sought to diminish his reputation and plant the idea of ​​replacing him so that when this was done it would be more readily accepted. Furthermore, although the Tories were convinced that he would not step down of his own accord, they feared that if he were to do so at that juncture, many would blame the government. This was what made it vital to strike the right note and Swift even suggested reducing the pressure in January 1711 (Swift, Journal to Stella 145, Letter XIII)

29The Marlborough affair had to be combined with warding off attacks from the opposition. The strategy here was to counter criticism of financial instability by linking the normalisation of trade with the prosecution of peace. The focus, then, was on resuming commercial relations with France and seeking commercial privileges to provide a strong basis for future competition with the present Allies, especially the Dutch Republic.

30The manner in which the Allies were presented also began to change, with Defoe accusing the Dutch and Portuguese of enriching themselves at Britain’s expense. This depiction of the Allies began the course that Swift later turned to with his famous The Conduct of the Allies. If in his first months at Harley’s orders he softened the tone of The Examiner, after January 25, 1711 he was to take an increasingly hard line. He began to present the Whigs as a faction concerned only with increasing their own wealth and to praise the new ministry by comparison with the previous executive, a line he advanced during February in works such as The Sentiments of a Church-of-England Man.

31Swift’s new approach can be associated with the change of his relationship with St. John, who advocated attacking the Whigs more aggressively and sought to push the government towards more purely Tory positions and, ultimately, to take control of the party. To this end, he initiated a rapprochement with the October Club and bestowed financial favours on several of the leading propagandists, which ended his relationship with Harley (Hill 150). Swift was one of the propagandists whom St. John approached, and, being as sensitive to flattery as he was ready to take offence when he thought he was not being treated with due deference, he quickly went over to St. John’s side. Boasting of belonging to the innermost circle of government, his change of attitude was so rapid that by the end of January he was already plotting to remove Marlborough (Swift, Journal to Stella 165, Letter XV), and in February he attacked him in the Letter to Crassus, claiming Marlborough’s greed was prolonging the war and threatening to ruin Britain.

32Undoubtedly one of the key moments in the political situation occurred on March 8, 1711, when Harley was stabbed by Antoine de Guiscard, a Frenchman who had formerly acted as a British spy. Politically it provoked a sort of parliamentary truce during Harley’s convalescence, giving necessary respite to a government beleaguered by the opposition and obliging St. John to temporarily stand in for Harley. It was then that he learned about the peace negotiations and, despite any resentment at having been kept in the dark about these, he took charge of them and gave them a new urgency.

33The propaganda response to the attack sought to gain political advantage by claiming that the assassination attempt proved how damaging the new government was to France’s interests (Defoe, A Spectator’s Address 7-12).

  • 5 The Examiner, no.32, 15-III-1711.

34But the detail adduced by The Examiner that Harley was attacked because Guiscard had been unable to get to St. John5 deeply annoyed Harley by making him look like a mere incidental victim. And although Swift claimed that he had given those passages to St. John to revise, with the latter suggesting no changes (Downie, Jonathan Swift, Political Writer 151), Harley was profoundly displeased with the writer. This explains why Swift temporarily softened the tone in The Examiner, again in a bid to attract less radical Whig sympathisers (Oakleaf 108) and left the follow-up of the attack to Manley, who proceeded to give an openly favourable picture of Harley, in addition to writing A True Narrative of What Pass’d at the Examination of the Marquis de Guiscard. This pamphlet underscored Harley’s prominence, presenting him as serene and practical, without diverting attention onto him or calling for revenge. In contrast, she cited St. John as little as possible, portraying him as unreliable under pressure by remarking that the others present in the room had to intervene to prevent him from killing Guiscard and thus being able to interrogate him.

35Britain was still agitated by the attack when news arrived of the Emperor’s premature death. This changed the political scene and reinforced the Tory position in favour of peace, compelling both parties to rethink their propaganda strategies.

Harley’s triumph and the increase of propaganda war

36The possibility that Charles vi would reunite the Spanish monarchy and the imperial possessions, a threat to the balance of powers similar to that of the Bourbon universal monarchy, was an unbeatable opportunity to impose negotiated peace. The change in government propaganda was evident. If on April 19 The Examiner stated that the government was making all necessary efforts to carry on the war, the Post-Boy of April 26-28 suggested that France would be open to a negotiated peace if it did not entail the cession of Spain and the Indies to Charles vi. The 28th also saw the publication of The Succession of Spain Consider’d. This put forward the definitive case for ending the conflict with a proposal for the partition of the Spanish monarchy with two schemes that would adequately compensate the Allies by circumventing Charles’s European hegemony.

37But it was also necessary to strengthen the Cabinet. Accordingly, as Harley returned to political activity he focused on dispelling any doubt regarding his ability to ensure the necessary solvency, one of the fronts on which the Whigs were most capable of destabilising the ministry. Harley’s plan for combating the debt crisis centred on the creation of the South Sea Company. Holders of public debt could exchange it for shares in the company, which would not be taxed and could not be expropriated. The government would thus convert a debt of £ 9,471,325 into stock for the South Sea Company, which would be granted a monopoly on trade with the Spanish Indies, a state guarantee of a perpetual annuity of 6% of the total capitalised as a dividend and £ 8,000 for its functioning (Wennerlind 200-1; Fernández Durán 113-15). The prospect of big profits quickly attracted the expected capital, but the need to secure the concession of the trade monopoly from Spain led Harley to exclude the Allies from his preliminary negotiations and prevent them from seeking the same commercial advantages as Great Britain.

38Aware that this proposal would have to overcome considerable resistance, Harley mobilised propaganda in its defence. For this he once again employed Defoe, whom he had not used for some time because of his proximity to St. John. Seeing the possibility of regaining Harley’s favour, Defoe enthusiastically puffed the South Sea Company. From the end of June to September he expounded in The Review the importance of foreign trade as the key to economic recovery and the basis of Britain’s ability to set the terms in the peace negotiations.

39The propaganda strategy around the South Sea Company can be understood as a coup orchestrated by Harley to reaffirm his leadership of the party and carry out his peace plan. But it also connected with the Tory economic ideal that the colonies should be kept as mere suppliers of raw materials subservient to Britain, an idea supported by an increasingly larger number of merchants who saw it as more beneficial to their business than territorial expansion (Gauci 183). As Pincus stated (102-4), this turned the United Provinces into Britain’s great commercial enemy, making their prospect of an early peace with France even more desirable. And convincing the people of this was crucial; since not only did most merchants avoid partisan affiliation and the resulting fluctuating support but the development of the fiscal-military state had also made it essential to rely on public debt – a volatile element subject to external pressure and personal decisions.

  • 6 The Examiner, no. 33, 22-III-1711.

40As for Swift, he continued to try and appease the Whigs, stating in The Examiner that there was no reason for the Whigs to fight against the government since it was acting like “old Whigs,” maintaining the Whig spirit better than those who, heading that party, betrayed and forgot its values, caring only about recovering power.6

41Also, on realising that the relationship between Harley and St. John had turned to enmity, he sought in vain to mediate between them (Speck, “The Examiner Examined” 152). This situation was a matter of concern to him since if it was not resolved, in producing his propaganda he would find it impossible to please one without displeasing the other. However, if he had to choose, although he regarded Harley as the ablest politician he had ever met (Glendinning 102), he was drawn more attracted to St. John, whom he openly admired.

42During the summer of 1711 his relationship with St. John became even closer, which perhaps explains why no. 44 of The Examiner, on June 7, was the last he edited. Although he explained this as occasioned by having completed his task of showing to the nation the advantages it enjoyed under the current government, his departure has given rise to much debate. Swift himself maintained the greatest discretion, but Downie argues that he probably went unwillingly, taking advantage of the fact that the cessation of parliamentary activity made his services less necessary (Robert Harley 137-38). On the other hand, Speck hints at a more consensual exit, in that Swift also wished to extricate himself from a position in which he must antagonise one or another of his protectors (“The Examiner Examined” 152).

43Delarivier Manley edited numbers 45 to 52, and in addition to moderating its tone she tried to reassure the October Club. For Harley this was an essential goal, since the Club’s members were now lending occasional support to the Whigs in Parliament to persuade the government that it needed them and should take up their proposals. Manley sought to persuade them to ensure the stability needed to ensure a peace that they themselves demanded (Herman 138-44).

44The time was especially unpropitious for Harley, as rumours of the Franco-British negotiation behind the backs of the Allies were confirmed when a customs officer stopped diplomat Matthew Prior, who was returning from Versailles under a false name with François Gaultier and the envoy of the French government, Nicolas Mesnager.

45This renewed Whig attacks, a notable example being Mainwaring’s An Excellent New Song, Called Mat’s Peace, which in addition to setting out all that was known about the negotiations insisted that leaving Spain and the Indies in Bourbon hands would ruin the economy, and that those responsible would be held to account by Parliament.

46In this context, Harley also resumed his professional relationship with Swift, commissioning a reply. With A New Journey to Paris Swift sought to show that British honour and interests had been safeguarded, while his slightly comical register defused the situation, with a hint of mystery and adventure to win the reader’s sympathy. That it quickly outsold An Excellent New Song proves its effectiveness (Kenneth Eves 247), but it is clear that neither Swift in writing it nor Prior in reading it felt comfortable with their role:

The printer sent me an account of Prior’s Journey. […] ‘tis a formal grave lie, from the beginning to the end. […] when I came in Prior showed me the pamphlet, seemed to be angry, and said, here is our English liberty. (Swift, Journal to Stella 355-56, Letter XXX)

47For all this, the Whig attack gained impetus with Marlborough’s capture of Bouchain on September 1711, which left Cambrai as the last French stronghold between the Allies and Paris and reinforced the warmongers’ thesis of total victory, in addition to boosting the propaganda portraying Marlborough as a hero. Meanwhile, the leak to the Daily Courant of the preliminary agreement between France and Britain sparked a series of fierce attacks on the government. Pamphlets such as Remarks upon the Present Negotiations of Peace or Seven Preliminary Articles were joined by newspaper articles and even sermons attacking the preliminaries, defending the Allies and casting doubt on the intentions of Louis xiv in presenting them.

  • 7 Bristol Post-Boy, no. 2563, 13/16-X-1711.

48The Tories sought to defend themselves by publishing the accords in the pro-government press and listing some of the particular benefits, leading the Post-Boy to affirm that only the promised commercial privileges justified peace and guaranteed Britain’s future.7

49Defoe, under precise instructions from Harley, redoubled his efforts to counter the Whig claims and argued that in the new European context the only reasonable solution was a peace derived from the partition of the Spanish monarchy. Thus in Reasons for a Peace he reiterated that an honourable peace was essential to the reconstruction of the nation’s trade and in An Essay at a Plain Exposition recalled that while a satisfactory settlement had to honour Britain’s commitments to the Allies, handing the Spanish Crown to the Emperor had never been one of the initial objectives. But undoubtedly his most important pamphlet was Reasons why this Nation Ought to Put a Speedy End to this Expensive War, in which the possibility of Philip of Anjou retaining the Peninsular and Indian territories appeared for the first time.

50Although Manley also replicated the Whig arguments, there is a general sense of a lack of coordination in Tory propaganda at this time. Defoe was often acting almost alone, so that the Tory effort lagged behind that of the Whigs, who, better organised around Mainwaring, had a system capable of refuting Tory arguments, creating new fronts and challenging the credibility of Defoe, whom they had identified as their main opponent. Indeed, the danger of them overrunning the Tories’ capacity to respond was so great that Swift even suggested to St. John – now Viscount Bolingbroke – to attack the opposition pamphleteers: “The pamphleteers begin to be very busy against the ministry: I have begged Mr. Secretary to make examples of one or two of them; and he assures me he will. They are very bold and abusive” (Swift, Journal to Stella 364-65, Letter XXX).

51Even though this change in the propaganda initiative was due to several factors, most notably the Whig sense of urgency, it is impossible not to note that it also coincided with Swift, who had previous coordinated Tory actions, taking a back seat. But this situation, Whig dominance in the propaganda war and the Tory strategy itself, took a very different turn with the publication, on November 27, 1711, of the most influential pamphlet of the whole conflict: The Conduct of the Allies.

A turning point: The Conduct of the Allies

52There seems to be a clear reason for Swift’s relative inactivity: since September he had devoted himself almost exclusively to writing The Conduct of the Allies and “opening the eyes of a nation that is half bewitched against peace” (Swift, Journal to Stella 402, Letter XXXIII).

53Without considering at length such a well-known pamphlet, it is worth noting here how its aggressiveness has at times led to it being seen as part of Bolingbroke’s strategy and crucial to the defeat of the moderate Tory option by forcing Harley to adapt to the new context it created (MacLachlan 201-11; Coombs 279). But Swift clearly had insider information to provide the right tone and arguments; this was given him by both Bolingbroke and Harley, who even suggested changes to the text (McKenzie 254; McMinn 57; Oakleaf 117; Lock, “Swift and English Politics” 136-37; Hill 169). This being so, the essay was shaped by the intention of the government as a whole, which was to shore up the political direction and ensure parliamentary approval of the preliminaries for peace.

54With his work Swift created a new front, that of a Britain ill-used by its partners, with Whig complicity, on the basis of three errors: not having taken an auxiliary role in the conflict; centring the war effort on secondary objectives on land; and tolerating and compensating the Allies’ systematic breaches of the agreement. This marked a definitive turn away from the path of moderation: from now on the aim was not to attract Whigs but to unite the Tories in support of the government’s cause for peace (Downie, “Public Opinion” 551).

55Nor was the date of publication accidental. Foreseeing a hard-fought battle over the preliminaries in Parliament, they waited until just a few days before it reconvened, so allowing time for its ideas to be widely read and discussed before the debates but leaving the Whigs little time to react. The great and undoubtedly expected controversy began the day after the book came out. Despite the fact that historians such as Jeremy Black caution against magnifying its influence or that of any printed matter in a context in which peace negotiations had already been decided on by the government (A System of Ambition? 105), the fact is that its extraordinary dissemination points to the extent of its repercussions. On December 1, the second impression sold out in just five hours and by the end of January 1712 some 11,000 copies had been bought (McMinn 58). Furthermore, it provoked such a wave of replies and counter-replies that by early 1713, sixty-five books and pamphlets had been published about it or the themes it addressed, thirty-three in favour of peace, two apparently neutral, written by Defoe, and thirty defending the previous government, the Allies or the continuation of the war (Bély 267).

56The immediate Whig response was to bring before the Lord Chief Justice the book’s printer, John Morphew, who refused to disclose the author’s name (McMinn 59). In addition, the Whigs set all their media to countering it, with the Flying Post defining it as a declaration of war on the alliance by the French faction in Britain, the Protestant Post-Boy accusing its author of being a Jacobite and The Observator warning that meddling with the accords would jeopardise Dutch support for the Protestant succession (Coombs 282-83). Along with them appeared pamphlets such as Remarks on a False, Scandalous and Seditious Libel or A Defence of the Allies and the Late Ministry, a volume of production that bears witness to the powerful impact of The Conduct of the Allies.

Harley’s final peace offensive

57The opening of Parliament brought new surprises as Daniel Finch, Earl of Nottingham, a high-ranking Tory, reached an agreement with the Whigs to defend the “No peace without Spain” scheme in exchange for the passing of an act against occasional conformity. In addition, knowing that the session would shape Britain’s destiny in the war, two days before the opening the Daily Courant published a memorial by the Elector of Hanover that was very critical of the preliminary accords. When Nottingham’s motion was not rejected by both Houses, a political earthquake cast the government into a profound crisis that was not resolved until the Queen created twelve new peers to allow Harley to regain control of the House of Lords. Between those two moments, Tory propaganda tried to reverse the situation, and pamphlets such as A Search After Dutch Honesty intensified the attack on the Allies while The Review defended the preliminaries throughout December.

58But undoubtedly the best news for Harley was the removal of Marlborough. The ministry took advantage of the fact that at the end of December the Commissioner of Public Accounts confirmed the accusation of corruption in the management of the funds for the war in Flanders. The votes in the House of Commons on the conclusions of his report were published on December 22, and, as Harris claims, were enough to persuade public opinion of his guilt (294-95). With Marlborough’s reputation badly damaged and the deliberations on the reports postponed to January 24, the Queen removed him on December 31 on the grounds that this was necessary to ensure a proper investigation.

59Marlborough’s fall had a huge effect on both Britain and the Allies, and although the Whigs tried to defend him, the Tory response was much more forceful. They launched into a propaganda war to destroy his reputation once and for all, with The Examiner depicting him in January and February as greedy and unscrupulous while pamphlets such as The Truth’s come out at last and No Queen; Or, no General harped at length on his greed. In addition, parables such as The Fable of the Widow and Her Cat or The Fable of Midas took the opportunity to ridicule him. As Adam Morton stated (110, 123), provoking irreverence towards someone could help to reduce his status with the same effectiveness as a well-structured argument, and stripping him of his aura of greatness was important in order to minimize his influence. This conjunction of materials so far exceeded the capacity of the Whigs that they failed even to counterattack effectively when the House of Commons voted not to impeach Marlborough, the tone of their responses betraying a sense of defeat.

60However, Marlborough was not the only subject with which propaganda had to address in the hectic first months of 1712, when the Congress of Utrecht initially made less progress than expected. For one thing, it was necessary to placate the more radical Tories, whom Swift exhorted in Some Advice Humbly Offer’d to the Members of the October Club to remain loyal to Harley and temper their ambitions to oust all Whigs from office now that they had removed their preeminent figure. But the most important issue was still the peace and the conditions in which it could be achieved. On this matter, while a progressive decline in Whig propaganda can be perceived, Tory propaganda continued to demonstrate its ability to exploit political circumstances. Taking advantage of the fact that the Committee of the Whole House passed a resolution detailing the Allies’ defaults in their quotas, An Explanation of the Eleven Resolves of the 5th of February Last used the Committee documents to deplore Dutch revenues in excess of twelve million pounds at Britain’s expense. Likewise, after the publication in early March of Representation of the Commons to the Queen on the conduct and expenses of the war with Spain, and on the Barrier Treaty, they coordinated the almost simultaneous publication of The Miserable Case of Poor Old England and the far more prominent Law is a Bottomless-Pit. The latter explained the conflict from the Tory perspective in an allegorical story featuring John Bull, who became one of the most iconic characterisations of Britishness. In addition, in the wake of the Emperor’s refusal to negotiate peace, Defoe produced a series of works drawing attention to his abuses and ascribing the continuation of the war solely to the Allies’ selfishness, together with a concerted campaign in The Review (Downie, Robert Harley 146-47).

61The Whig propagandists, who were overwhelmed, confirmed their withdrawal by starting to accept the peace, their main demand now being that the terms should not betray the provisions of the Alliance. They could not even react strongly when the Flying Post published the “restraining orders” on May 26. These required the Duke of Ormonde, Marlborough’s replacement as commander-in-chief of the Allied forces, to take no part in any military action until further notice, amounting in effect to Britain deserting its allies on the battlefield. The defeat in both Houses of Whig motions against the restraining orders was reflected in their propaganda, which adopted a low profile on this highly controversial issue. While the Tories justified the orders, in Reasons Against Fighting, by the need to avoid a repetition of past victories won at the cost of huge losses and to engage only if the occasion was right, no Whig pamphlets addressed the question in depth. Even the references in The Observator and the Flying Post were more concerned with reviewing historical relations with the Dutch than with engaging in any real polemic about what they meant for the development of the war and the peace negotiations.

62Added to this was the failure attending publication of a letter sent by the States General in early June with the aim of backing the Whigs politically, but which was criticised by the Queen for breaching protocol in being addressed to the people and not to the sovereign. The Commons, too, expressed their indignation, with a resolution requesting the Queen not to respond in future to any public communication which sought to turn the populace against the decisions of Queen and government.

63In addition, the British possession of Dunkirk on July 19 did a great deal to justify the negotiations with France (McLaverty 121), the importance of which was proclaimed by the Harley Cabinet in works such as Peace and Dunkirk and a number of poems extolling its achievement and attacking “the enemies of peace”: “To the Joy of all those that wish well to our Nation, / And to her Whigg Foes eternal Vexation/ Whose good will to Britain, in plain Terms, is such / They’d rather that Dunkirk was giv’n to the Dutch” (qtd. Coombs 341-42).

64All in all, by the summer of 1712 there was a more or less tacit acceptance of the negotiations, with the adoption of a less belligerent tone and a general decrease in the number of publications indicating that the debate over the peace was all but settled. A good example of this is the more relaxed stance of The Review, which carried not one essay on the war between August 2, 1712 and March 14, 1713.

65This does not mean that Whig propaganda disappeared, and indeed on October 7 Robert Harley’s son Edward commented that the Whigs were still determined to block the peace and topple the government (Downie, Robert Harley 175). Although in December the Dutch accepted a revision of the Barrier Treaty and participation in the peace plan proposed by the Queen, thereby seemingly ending all opposition to peace except that of the Emperor, the end of 1712 saw a resurgence of Whig propaganda. The first salvo was the publication in the Flying Post of January 13-15, 1713, of various passages from a letter to the Queen from the States General voicing concern about aspects of the second Barrier Treaty. Along with the reissue a few weeks earlier of The Barrier Treaty Vindicated, this marked a progressive stepping up of Whig propaganda, although the knowledge that the Dutch would sign the peace resulted in moderate opposition, which Müllenbrock has aptly described as “respectful dissent” (81).

  • 8 Review, 24-I-1713.

66But the Whig reaction came too late to overturn the majority support for peace, the sense of which was so strong that Defoe declared “it is not so much the Subject of our present debate as it used to be, the Matter is as good as over.”8 The polemic over the peace was not rekindled, and although political confrontations persisted, the Dutch accepted the second Barrier Treaty at the end of January and, together with Britain, signed the peace with France on April 11, 1713. As we have said, in the long run Whig propaganda efforts succeeded in quashing those of the Tories, contributing to the fall of the government and the subsequent impeachments of Harley and Bolingbroke. However, this was a different propaganda battle from the one in which, from August 1710, the machinery created by Harley engaged to win over public opinion in support of peace and pave the way for the necessary political and diplomatic work to end the War of the Spanish Succession.


67In achieving the peace propaganda was of great assistance to the government. It allowed the public debate to be broadened and sustained, intensifying the struggle on the major political issues. It is obvious that it supplied its politicians with arguments for use in parliamentary debate and influenced the opposition, in some instances even changing how MPs voted. And while it is difficult to measure precisely its direct influence on public opinion, the efforts of both parties to produce and disseminate it and the fact that almost all literary genres were used prove that it was taken into account. All this propagandistic effort shows the value given to public opinion, which gained importance as an element capable of influencing and legitimising political decisions. However, as Knights has shown, it was also susceptible to deception and led towards unwanted positions through the partisan press. Paradoxically, the readers’ predictable inability to process the information they received caused propagandists to redouble efforts to sway their minds, so that major political events were followed – and in many cases also preceded – by strong partisan campaigns.

68We can also consider the British government’s propaganda to have been more properly “Harleyist” than Tory. It was created largely at Harley’s prompting, who for a long time had been convinced of the advantages of being able to expound an official version of the most relevant political events to public opinion. In this sense, his idea of ​​“state facts right” should be understood more as a way of modelling the political message to make it agreeable to the government’s intentions than as a legitimate interest in ensuring the veracity of the information issued.

69Beside this, we have seen how, except at very specific moments, the tone of this propaganda was fitted to Harley’s own interests and plans even if that brought him into conflict with large sectors of the Tory base or temporarily inconvenienced some of the leading propagandists. In the same vein, the change in his political strategy and the increase in the aggressiveness of government propaganda was not caused by the pressure he exerted but by his understanding that it would not be possible to achieve the desired objectives of peace and trade without winning over the Whigs and allies. In this way, the control of Tory propaganda not only served to direct government policy toward Harley’s goals but also reinforced his dominant position within the party. It is no coincidence that when Bolingbroke wanted to challenge his leadership, his main concern alongside forging political alliances was to attract top government propagandists and to take over the control of propaganda from Harley.

70Compared to the short campaigns that had previously been the rule, the other major innovation was a far greater volume of production in a protracted campaign directed towards a specific objective, branching out into a large number of topics, all collectively oriented towards the same ultimate goal. Thus, although the attack on Marlborough, criticism of the Allies or the partition of the Spanish monarchy were not without importance in themselves, the choice of issue and the way it was processed were dependent on the contribution of this issue to the final objective of facilitating peace.

71The War of the Spanish Succession was the final test that proved the efficacy of the apparatus of political propaganda. Thus, although many politicians still showed a negative attitude towards everything related to the press, they were aware of the advantages it could provide them, and from that moment on it became a permanent feature of British political life.

Annex: Chronological Table


Main Socio-Political Events


Propaganda event



Failure of Gertruydenberg peace negotiations

Mid July 1710

Defoe under Harley’s orders



Dismissal of Godolphin

Harley returns to power

August 1710

1stThe Examiner (Tory)

1stMedley (Whig)

September 1710

St. John, new Secretary of State

Call for General Election

First Franco-British secret meeting

September to

December 1710

Defoe’s writings defending Harley’s economic policy

November 1710

Tory election victory

November 1710

Swift, under Harley’s orders, takes control of The Examiner

December 1710

October Club unites the radical Tories

December 1710

First pamphlets criticising the Allies

Campaign to diminish Marlborough’s reputation



St. John-Harley clash

St. John approaches the October Club and Swift



The Examiner vituperates against the Allies

March 8, 1711

Harley stabbed by Guiscard



The Examiner depicts Harley as an incidental victim while Manley presents him as the true protagonist

April 17, 1711

Emperor Joseph I dies

April 28,


The Succession of Spain Consider’d

May 17,


The bill to create the South Sea Company is passed in the House of Commons


September 1711

Defoe defends the South Sea Company scheme and the Tory economic vision

Summer 1711

The relationship between Swift and St. John is strengthened

June 7,


Swift’s last contribution to The Examiner, Manley replaces him as editor



Discovery of the Franco-British secret negotiations



Mainwaring attacks the negotiation in An excellent New Song, called Mat’s Peace

Swift defends it with A New Journey to Paris

September 1711

British capture of Bouchain

Signing of peace preliminaries between France and Britain





Whig offensive supporting Marlborough and against the peace. The Daily Courant leaks the preliminaries

Tory reaction publishing the preliminaries in Post Boy and through Defoe’s pamphlets

November 27, 1711

The Conduct of the Allies published

December 1711

The motion “No peace without Spain” passes in the Lords

Removal of Marlborough

Creation of twelve new peers





Review keeps defending the peace preliminaries.

Strong attacks against Marlborough (No Queen; Or, no General; The Fable of Midas)




Utrecht Peace Conference begins but does not seem to make adequate progress




Representation of the Commons to the Queen to the War of Spain

The Miserable Case of Poor Old England

Law is a Bottomless-Pit



“Restraining orders”

Motions against the orders are defeated in both Houses




Reasons Against Fighting

July, 19


Britain takes possession of Dunkirk



Peace and Dunkirk

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1 There is not enough space here to review in detail the abundant existing literature. The following are given as examples: Ellis; Herman; Müllenbrock; Novak; Rawson; Lock, Swift’s Tory Politics; J. Black, The English Press in the Eighteen Century; Furbanks and Owens, A Political Biography of Daniel Defoe.

2 See Jones; Holmes and Speck, The Divided Society; Black, A System of Ambition?.

3 This act excluded from the line of succession any person who embraced Catholicism or married a Catholic.

4 British Library, ADD. MS 28055. fo. 3, Harley to Godolphin, 9-VIII-1702.

5 The Examiner, no.32, 15-III-1711.

6 The Examiner, no. 33, 22-III-1711.

7 Bristol Post-Boy, no. 2563, 13/16-X-1711.

8 Review, 24-I-1713.

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Manuel Alejandro Castellano García, « Propaganda and Peace: Robert Harley’s Press Strategies About the Peace of Utrecht »XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 79 | 2022, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2022, consulté le 25 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Manuel Alejandro Castellano García

Manuel Alejandro Castellano García holds a PhD in History from Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona (2018). He is currently a researcher for “España y Francia: Intereses dinásticos e intereses nacionales (1701-1733)” (PGC2018-097737-B-I00, Agencia Estatal de Investigación and European Regional Development Fund) and the “Grup d’estudi de les institucions i de les cultures polítiques (segles XVI-XXI)” (2017 SGR 1041, Generalitat de Catalunya). His two main lines of research are international diplomatic relations in the 17th and 18th centuries and the influence of the press and public opinion on European policy during the 18th century. His recent publications include “Concluding the war of the Spanish succession: the embassy of the marquis of Monteleón (1713)”, in Monarquías en conflicto: linajes y noblezas en la articulación de la Monarquía Hispánica, J. I Fortea and J. E. Gelabert (eds.), Madrid, 2018, 133-44; “Gran Bretaña y la cuestión catalana: la negociación hispano-británica durante el final de la guerra de Sucesión española”, in Studia Historica: Historia Moderna (2020): 329-63 and “La prensa británica ante la política exterior de Felipe V”, in La reconstrucción de la política internacional española. El reinado de Felipe V, J. Albareda and N. Sallés (eds.), Madrid, 2021.

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