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It is now upwards of a century since the reading world began to experience the benefits of periodical literature. Under this term we do not include newspapers, the origin of which is dated more than two centuries back, during that memorable period of Elizabeth's reign, when the immense preparations of Spain to invade England, induced the government to communicate to the people, frequent intelligence of what was going forward. The avidity with which these fleeting records of public transactions were received, rendered them an object of profit to publishers; and, except at certain times, when the despotic mandates of the Stuart government prohibited their circulation, they have continued ever since to carry political information to the fire-sides of the British people. It is but just, therefore, to consider them one of the chief causes of the great superiority of political intelligence manifested by the English, during the period under consideration, over the other nations of Europe. In every other species of intellectual improvement, they were, at least, equalled by the French. In the fine arts, in classical taste, and in general philology, the latter were indisputably their superiors; and, if we except that inspired species of literature given to us by Shakespeare and Milton, the ability to produce which depends less on the cultivation, than on the original structure of the mind, in political science alone, did the people of Britain surpass their neighbours, and they did so chiefly beVOL. I.-No. I.
cause they surpassed them in the number and excellence of their newspapers.
It was not till after the revolution of 1688, which was accomplished by a manifestation of popular feeling, that demonstrates the science of civil government to have been attentively studied, and accurately understood by all classes of the community, that the nation possessed any periodical establishment of a purely literary character. To the celebrated Dean Swift, and Sir Richard Steele, the honour of originating such a convenient mode of disseminating a taste for literary enjoyment throughout society belongs. The Tatler, which was the first regular production of the kind, was established in Queen Anne's reign; and it is a circumstance which may be noticed as creditable to the softer sex, that under the government of females, the two most effectual methods of enlightening mankind were first attempted, and found successful.
After the Tatler, appeared the Spectator, the Guardian, the Examiner, and several other works of a similar character, which served to polish and enlighten the age, and, at this day, form a body of elegant literature, to which the mind delights to recur as a reservoir, from which, not only the purest lessons of morality and taste, but the most satisfactory information of the manners and customs of our ancestors can be obtained.
Those works, however, were all of a light structure, each number consisting of no more than one small sheet; and it was only their superior literary excellence that preserved them from the oblivion into which the political periodicals of the day have irretrievably fallen.
There were several disadvantages attending the diminutive size of those works, the principal of which was, the impossibility of introducing into any one number more than one subject, and, at the same time, doing that subject justice. It is true that this was partially atoned for, by the frequency with which the numbers were issued; yet, there was still wanting that combination of compactness with variety, which the invention of the Magazine afterwards afforded.
For this improvement in the mode of disseminating knowledge, the republic of letters is indebted to Edward Cave, a
printer, whose memory deserves the attention and gratitude of posterity much more than that of many who have been more successful in obtaining both. He was, for several years, aware of the advantages that the world would derive from a miscellaneous collection of literature, published monthly, before he ventured to make the experiment. This, it is believed, was owing to his straitened circumstances, which rendered it imprudent for him to embark in any expensive undertaking, of which the success was in the least doubtful. He, however, fairly communicated his ideas to others; but could meet with none willing to advance money on a project, the novelty of which caused it to appear hazardous. At length, in the year 1731, he found means to establish the Gentleman's Magazine on his own account; and, was so successful, that in little more than a year afterwards, a number of booksellers and printers, combined to follow his example, and established the London Magazine. Both of these were sufficiently encouraged, and were followed by the establishment of others, which met with different degrees of success, according to the influence and capital of their proprietors, and the merit with which they were conducted.
In spite of all opposition, however, the Gentleman's Magazine flourished most, and Cave soon became rich. His successors seem to have conducted it with equal good fortune; for, it has been continued, we believe, without any interruption to the present day, and is still a highly respectable journal. Since its first appearance, upwards of eleven hundred numbers of it have been circulated; which, probably, contain as vast and varied an assortment of intellectual riches as any work in existence.
The benefits which Cave anticipated would result to society from publications of the description he projected, have been amply realized, not only in Great Britain, but throughout the whole civilized world: for there are no countries, at the present time, that have any pretensions to civilization, according to the common application of the word, to which their influence has not more or less extended. In some countries, it is true, despotism, which trembles at enlightening mankind, has taken care to limit their circulation; but, in proportion to the free ad
mission permitted to knowledge, is the encouragement given to miscellaneous periodicals, and their enemies are only those who are benefitted by human ignorance. Such characters, when compared with the millions of mankind, are, indeed, few in number; but, unfortunately their station is exalted, and their power great. They are those whom fortune and not merit, has made lords of their fellow men; and, who, from a consciousness of possessing no rational and just title to their supremacy, naturally wish to prevent the subjugated multitude from learning to reason, lest their eyes become opened, and they remain no longer in quiet subjection to a state of things, the evils and injustice of which they can both feel and comprehend. And well may the usurpers of the world dread the power of the press, when it sends forth, in periodical streams, those principles of truth, which enlighten, enlarge, and elevate the minds of the meanest to whom they have access. Before the light which periodical literature constantly sheds, the darkness of superstition is dispelled; the erroneousness of feudal pretensions are revealed, and the respect due to the natural dignity of man, although he should be clothed in rags, is insisted upon, and in a greater or less degree extorted even from tyrants.
The facility with which magazines, if not prevented by authority, can make their way to the closets of all classes, is an advantage of the highest consequence. The more dignified species of literature contained in the books of individual authors, cannot be expected, to any great extent, to be within the reach of the majority of mankind. Their time is either too limited to read them, or their means too small to purchase them. But magazines which are composed of various articles, on various subjects, and written by various men, require but a few hours once a month to peruse them, and in proportion to the quantity and variety of their matter, are, generally, cheaper than other new publications that are not periodical. Readers, at a distance, can also procure them with infinitely less trouble; for, after being once ordered, in such countries as Britain and America, where regular stage conveyances are both certain and rapid, they will continue to arrive at their places of destination without difficulty or delay. At any distance, a stated supply of mental food can be fur
nished by those who undertake to provide it for the public; and there is scarcely any neighbourhood so poor, but can afford its club of country readers to pay for it.
Such clubs as those to which we allude, abound in Great Britain, and have had the effect of bringing, especially of late years, not only political, but literary intelligence to the most obscure corners; and have, in consequence, imparted to the lower orders of that island, a habit of reasoning, and a dignity of manner, which would be in vain sought for among the same class in any other part of Europe. A Glasgow weaver, a Liverpool shopkeeper, or a Norfolk farmer, to speak generally of them, at the present day, can investigate the soundness of an opinion, whether political or philosophical, with an evidently clearer comprehension of the subject, than many an Hungarian count or Russian duke. He is also more aware of the superiority of real merit over adventitious exaltation, and, therefore, yields it more sincere deference.
As to the wealthier and more active classes of the British population, those who constitute the sinews of her strength, her manufacturers and merchants, whose intelligence and enterprise have elevated their country to the height at which she has arrived among the nations, can we have any doubt but that the abundant streams of literature and philosophy, which are constantly flowing in every direction around them, has been the great means of supplying them with the extensive and correct information they display on every question and measure, connected with the prosperity and welfare of the community in which they live? The multitude of periodical works at present issued from the British press, if we credit the estimates that are so frequently published of their numbers, and there exists no reason why we should not, is, indeed, truly astonishing, and among the history of nations altogether unparalleled. When we reflect on the immense number of other works which are also daily appearing, it appears almost wonderful how they can all find readers, and it is truly so, how they can find supporters; and yet they are supported, many of them even to fortunemaking. But literature, like good wine, has the quality of whetting the appetite without satiating it; and, like a beautiful