Controlled Revelation #11: The Humourist’s Reputation Preceded Him to Colonial South Carolina

“It is the office of justice to injure no man; of propriety, to offend none.”  —Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC), De Officiis, Book I:20

As  noted elsewhere, The Humourist was a man of considerable distinction in his own country, and, for that matter, he was well known throughout much of Europe.  So extensive was his reputation that he received rather frequent front-page coverage in numerous eighteenth century newspapers.  Obviously, when The Humourist arrived in Colonial South Carolina, his reputation preceded him.

He was a known authority—expert, if you will—in at least one area of study, and he was a master in several other areas.  Generally well respected, it seems, nonetheless, that he came to learn first hand (and, perhaps, the harsh way) the bitter reality behind Benjamin Franklin’s pithy saying, Glass, china, and reputation are easily cracked, and never mended well.”

In the “Old World,” many people saw him as someone whose ambitions often exceeded his grasp; as someone who took on many projects without seeing them all to successful completion; as someone who dabbled in many occupations so that he could earn enough money to keep creditors at bay; and as someone who was not always honest. Others saw him as fickle, mercurial, anti-Catholic, and overly zealous of his nationality.

These “cracks” in his reputation were not known to the public at large and, to be certain, they were never of such alarm or magnitude that they made it to the press.  Still, the cracks were there—in journals, diaries, and letters:  the sorts of documents to which The Humourist would not have been privy.  Generally, they were comments make by others about him, behind his back.  In that sense, I am reminded of what American novelist and newspaper/magazine editor would say many years later, What people say behind your back is your standing in the community.”

In the “New World,” it appears that The Humourist fared better.  Occupationally, he seems to have settled down to one or two positions, and he seems to have prospered.  He acquired land in Charleston, erected homes quite profitably, and participated in small groups focused on belles lettres. When he died, the inventory of his extensive estate suggests that he had enjoyed full success as a transplanted European.  Of his reputation, one word from his obituary is notable:  ingenious. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word thusly, “Having high intellectual capacity; able, talented, possessed of genius.”  If The Humourist had not quite managed to repair his reputation in the New World—and it is possible that it may have never been sullied on these shores to begin with—he, at least, established and maintained his reputation as a man of keen intellecual abilities.

It is clear, however, as we examine The Humourist’s essay of February 19, 1754—the focus of this week’s Controlled Revelation—that he knew all about gaining and losing a reputation.  It is clear that The Humourist knew the various types of people who “whisper away their Neighbour’s Reputation.”  It is equally clear that he held in contempt  those who eat away at and sully the reputation of others.  He held in contempt those “unsocial brutes” who undermine the influence of others.   

In one part of the essay, I suspect that he is reflecting on his younger years in the “Old World” when his own reputation was attacked by “mean and sordid” detractors, intent on “dissect[ing] characters, and devour[ing] good Names: 

There are a Kind of Detractors, tho’ last mentioned, not least in the Cause of Evil, who being mean and sordid, will condescend to collect a Catalogue of Stories, to humour a Patron and tickle a Friend.  Such Men as these, do almost come up to a literal Sense of what the Psalmist spoke in a figurative, (and eat up People for Bread;3) dissect characters, and devour good Names, for the monstrous Entertainment of a servile Master.

How shocking is it, to think, that such unwarrantable Favour should be shewn these People, who make no Allowances for Actions which frequently arise from sudden Passions, or are the unhappy Attendants of some Constitutions, or are the Errors of a hasty Judgment, and now are form’d into Crimes, and charged as the highest , when Good-Nature and good Sense must certainly have overlook’d them.

Of all The Humourist’s essays, his essay of February 19, 1754, is one of my favorites.  It contains truths which, if followed, help make us honorable and noble human beings and, of equal importance, help us to be cautious and circumspect before we speak (or write) words that harm someone’s reputation.

Of all The Humourist essays, his essay of February 19, 1754, provides the fewest clues in terms of his identity  At the same time, this week’s Controlled Revelation is itself riddled with clues aplenty!