Surveillance across two centuries

By Kenneth R. Johnston

There’s a striking similarity between Richard McGuire’s cover image for the 24 June 2013 issue of The New Yorker and James Gillray’s cartoon of 3 December 1790. 

In both, a gigantic face startles an ordinary human figure: the young woman in bed with her iPhone and laptop, or the Revd Richard Price, a leading non-conformist liberal intellectual in 1790s Britain. The young woman could be any one of us, following the ‘mega-data’ surveillance revelations of Pfc. Bradley Manning and data officer Edward Snowden. But Revd Price is—by way of this cartoon—about to become a politically marked man.

It was Price’s pro-Revolutionary sermon of November, 1789, ‘On the Love of Our Country,’ that provoked Edmund Burke’s anti-revolutionary manifesto, Reflections on the Revolution in France, and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London relative to that Event, published in November of 1790. Indeed, Gillray’s cartoon marks—celebrates is hardly the word—the appearance of Burke’s book. Burke’s caricatured visage bursts out of a cloud of smoke and lighting, frightening Price into dropping his pen as he works on seditious, treasonous, blasphemous texts, such as ‘On the Benefits of Anarchy, Regicide, and Atheism’—none of which he ever wrote. Burke carries the ruling symbols of church and state in either hand, and is headed not by a legitimizing crown but a propaganda bombshell, his own book, published just days before.

Neither image deals with espionage, strictly speaking. People are being suspected, but less with a view toward arrest and prosecution than a strong bias toward alarm and terror. The pictures are more about scaring than spying. The monsters’ intention is make their victims feel fearfully uneasy about what they are saying and writing, so they will stop doing anything dangerous (if they are). The humor in the cartoons is the human figures’ wide-eyed alarm. The terror is in the monsters’ eyes.

Kenneth R. Johnston is the author of Unusual Suspects: Pitt’s Reign of Alarm and the Lost Generation of the 1790s. He received his PhD from Yale University and spent his entire academic career at Indiana University, where he was honored for distinguished teaching and scholarly achievement, while also heading its Department of English. Read more in "Suspicious young men, then and now" on the OUPblog.

Image credits: (1) Richard McGuire. ‘Uncle Sam is Listening,’ The New Yorker, June 24, 2013; by permission of the artist. Do not reproduce without permission. (2) ‘Smelling out a Rat; — or The Atheistical-Revolutionist disturbed in his Midnight “Calculations”‘ (James Gillray, 3 December 1790) (c) National Portrait Gallery. Used with permission. Do not reproduce without permission.