Master of the rhetorical flourish, Hunt was imprisoned in February 1813 after years of assailing repressive British governments in inventively colourful terms from the pages of his political newspaper, The Examiner. Recurring themes in Hunt’s articles – signed with his deictic symbol, the pointed index finger – were government secrecy, cronyism, financial mismanagement, military abuse, widening surveillance and lack of accountability. In Hunt’s own words, his quarrel was with the “servile, the corrupt, the grasping, the wasters of human and natural life”.
History shows that what Hunt called System tends to be ill-disposed towards those who feel promoted within themselves to lay bare examples of egregious abuse inside it. Certainly, recent events confirm that whistleblowers are more likely to be pursued, and with a vengeance, than those responsible for the misdeeds themselves. In so far as the Hunt who emerged from his fairy-tale cell in 1815 was a quieter man, who dared less, the temptation must be great for those with the means to do so to use prisons to remove inconvenient voices from the debate.
On his release on 3 February 1815, Hunt was more or less left to get on with things. Today’s journalistic prisoners, including Bradley Manning – who on Monday will have served his 1000th day in prison without trial – and Julian Assange, whose jailhouse room in the Ecuadorean embassy perhaps most closely resembles Hunt’s fairy-tale cell, are facing more uncertain futures. It behooves us as enthusiasts of Romanticism this weekend to reflect on the principled underpinnings of the Romantic movement. We remember Hunt, who began his prison sentence 200 years ago this month, and we also call to mind his political inheritors.