The Anonymous Writer Who Brought Down A Prime Minister

By Jane Alexander Last edited 50 months ago
The Anonymous Writer Who Brought Down A Prime Minister
Well they do say the pen is mightier than the sword. Image: Shutterstock

London, 1770: Prime Minster Augustus Henry FitzRoy, also known as the Duke of Grafton, resigns from his position after less than two years in power. What led to such a dramatic turnaround? The answer, partly at least, is a mysterious letter writer who made a huge impact in the press during Grafton's brief period at the top — the author known as 'Junius', whose real identity remains unclear to this day.

An ancient Roman name, hiding behind a cloak of anonymity

Augustus Henry FitzRoy, the prime minister made to resign through anonymous letters. Image: Public domain

The anonymous writer began making his mark in private, two years before his public criticisms influenced such a major turn of events. In 1768, not long after Grafton first took office, rival politicians including George Grenville and William Pitt began receiving letters imploring them to take a stand against the prime minister. The letters were signed using the pseudonym 'Junius', an ancient Roman name, and the author gave no hints as to their true identity. But the efforts didn't work, forcing Junius to choose a different course of action for his anti-Grafton campaign.

At the beginning of 1769, Junius sent a letter to London's Public Advertiser, a now-defunct newspaper, which published it in late January. It was the first of many from the determined scribe, who maintained a cloak of anonymity to prevent retribution from the targets of his wrath. While Junius was able to keep his identity under wraps, the paper's editor and owner, Henry Sampson Woodfall, was later prosecuted for publishing one of the soon-to-be infamous letters. Junius operated under a great deal of secrecy, and Woodfall claimed that they never met in person.

Not even the king is safe

A copy of the Public Advertiser - this one from 16 August 1776, shortly after the Declaration of Independence was announced

The first letter set the tone for Junius's work, launching a fierce critique of Grafton and implying the highest office in the land was being held by a gambler. In later letters, the writer accused the prime minister of many other things: interfering in court cases; abandoning the city during nights of rioting; betraying his friends and mentors; and behaving dishonourably in his love life by abandoning one woman to marry another.

Grafton was not the only subject of Junius's anger: he went on to make one of his most severe attacks in December 1769, writing a letter criticising the King, George III. This was regarded as a criminal act back then, and after the publication of this letter, Woodfall was arrested and charged with seditious libel, although he was not convicted of this charge when the case eventually came to trial.

The PM goes

King George III was also on the end of Junius's damaging letters

While Junius was treading on thin ice with his critique of the monarch, his letters on the subject of Grafton achieved the outcome he wanted the following month. The prime minister announced his resignation in January 1770, with the Junius letters cited as one of the most significant reasons. The politician Archibald Macdonald, who served as attorney general under the later government of William Pitt the Younger, stated that, "Junius unquestionably wrote the Duke of Grafton's administration out of office. No anonymous letters ever have produced, or ever will produce, an equally striking result".

For Junius, the departure of Grafton was good news. The bad news was that the next administration was to be headed by Frederick North, another politician who Junius also disliked, and so the anonymous letters to the Advertiser continued for some time.

However, after three years of ferocious letter writing, Junius eventually brought his public career to a conclusion. The last letter appeared on 21 January 1772,  followed later that same year by a book collecting many of his most famous messages. After that, Junius retired from the public realm, but speculation about the man behind the letters continued.

Over 40 possible candidates for Junius

Was Thomas Paint 'Junius'? Quite possibly not. Image: Public domain

So who was the person who launched such a notable press campaign against many of the most powerful men of his day? One of the most popular guesses was that Junius was Philip Francis, a politician who had also expressed criticisms of the actions of the British government in the late 18th century, and who, some have argued, had a similar writing style to the one displayed by Junius. However, Francis himself rebuffed any suggestions he was the anonymous writer, declaring: "I have denied distinctly my being the author, and after that they who believe I am must believe me to be a liar or a scoundrel or both".

While Francis remains the most popular guess for Junius, as many as 42 alternative candidates have been suggested over the years. From the late 19th to the early 20th centuries there was even a school of thought devoted to arguing that the philosopher Thomas Paine had penned these anonymous letters.

Ultimately, whoever Junius really was, it was the effect of his actions on the role of journalism in politics which really mattered. One of the consequences of the Junius saga was that newspapers began reporting more frequently and with greater scrutiny on the business of parliament, a place which had once been an extremely secretive institution, illustrating that the power of journalism to influence political change goes back a long way.

Last Updated 01 February 2020

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