meaning and origin of ‘the fourth estate’



the fourth estate: the press; the profession of journalism




The first known user of the expression, designating the ordinary people, was the English author and magistrate Henry Fielding (1707-54) writing, under the pseudonym of Sir Alexander Drawcansir, Knt. Censor of Great Britain, in The Covent-Garden Journal of Saturday 13th June 1752:

It may seem strange that none of our poli[ti]cal¹ Writers, in their learned Treatises on the English Constitution, should take Notice of any more than three Estates, namely, King, Lords, and Commons, all entirely passing by in Silence that very large and powerful Body which form the fourth Estate in this Community, and have long been dignified and distinguished by the name of THE MOB.

(¹ misprinted polical in the original)

In Lecture V. The hero as man of letters. Johnson, Rousseau, Burns (Tuesday 19th May 1840), published in On Heroes, Hero-worship, and the Heroic in History, the Scottish author, biographer and historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) attributed the origin of the term, as applied to the press, to the Anglo-Irish politician and author Edmund Burke (1729-97), who supposedly used it in 1787 to refer to the parliamentary reporters:

Does not, though the name Parliament subsists, the parliamentary debate go on now, everywhere and at all times, in a far more comprehensive way, out of Parliament altogether? Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all. It is not a figure of speech, or a witty saying; it is a literal fact,—very momentous to us in these times. Literature is our Parliament too. Printing, which comes necessarily out of Writing, I say often, is equivalent to Democracy: invent Writing, Democracy is inevitable. Writing brings Printing; brings universal every-day extempore Printing, as we see at present. Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority. It matters not what rank he has, what revenues or garnitures: the requisite thing is, that he have a tongue which others will listen to; this and nothing more is requisite. The nation is governed by all that has tongue in the nation: Democracy is virtually there.

However, no confirmation of Carlyle’s statement has been discovered. In Notes and Queries of 9th June 1855, Charles Ross, chief parliamentary reporter of The Times, attributed the origin of the term to the British statesman Henry Brougham (1778-1868):

I believe Lord Brougham to be the author of the phrase; I heard him use it in the House of Commons several years ago—perhaps in 1823 or 1824. It attracted immediate attention, and was at that time treated as original.

The first verified usage, however, seems to occur in an 1828 essay on Constitutional History of England (1827) by Henry Hallam, written by the British historian and politician Thomas Macaulay (1800-59):

The gallery in which the reporters sit has become a fourth estate of the realm. The publication of the debates, a practice which seemed to the most liberal statesmen of the old school full of danger to the great safeguards of public liberty, is now regarded by many persons as a safeguard tantamount, and more than tantamount, to all the rest together.

Since in the next sentence Macaulay refers to Edmund Burke’s speech on parliamentary reform, Carlyle, who probably cursorily read Macaulay’s essay, may have mistakenly ascribed Macaulay’s own ideas to Burke.

However, in Table-Talk; or, Original Essays (1821), the English writer and painter William Hazlitt (1778-1830) had applied the term to an individual journalist, William Cobbett (1763-1835):

Character of Cobbett

People have about as substantial an idea of Cobbett as they have of Cribb². His blows are as hard, and he himself is as impenetrable. One has no notion of him as making use of a fine pen, but a great mutton-fist; his style stuns his readers, and he “fillips the ear of the public with a three-man beetle.” He is too much for any single newspaper antagonist; “lays waste” a city orator or Member of Parliament, and bears hard upon the Government itself. He is a kind of fourth estate in the politics of the country.

(² Tom Cribb (1781-1848) was an English bare-knuckle boxer.)

In Once upon a Time (1854), the English publisher and author Charles Knight (1791-1873) wrote, about the hackney-chairmen:

They, and the whole race of bullying and fighting ministers of transit, belonged to what Fielding termed “The Fourth Estate.” That dignity is now assigned to the Press. Civilization has been too strong for Barbarism.

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