chapter  2
‘The Tribunal of the Public’: Eighteenth-Century Letters and the Politics of Vindication
ByClare Brant
Pages 14

The law and the press have been described as the two central generators of ideology in early eighteenth-century England. 1 Letters were among the principal genres through which they intersected and the phrase ‘the tribunal of the public’ was commonly invoked to describe this place of intersection. Although, as Ian Bell has observed, in the eighteenth century the scratching of pens often coincided with the grinding of axes, 2 one should not assume letter-writers were always motivated by self-centred or party-based concerns. True, many letter-writers appealing to the tribunal of the public were fighting battles on their own behalf, especially on employment issues, many of which had serious consequences for themselves. But frequently cases brought to the tribunal of the public were more widely symbolic, a means of trying to make people with power accountable to those over whom they exerted that power. Publication restored a sense of agency taken away by heartless employers, indifferent institutions and corrupt domains of government. This paralegal culture shows letter-writing in the service of innocence and civic indignation.