This collection contains over 4000 pamphlets published in England in the years from 1600 to 1776, that is, from the reign of Elizabeth I to that of George III. The subject matter includes the Union between England and Scotland, the Civil War, the Commonwealth, the Restoration (including descriptions of the executions of King Charles 1st in 1649 and those who signed his death warrant 12 years later) up to the eve of the American Revolution. Other wars, plots, mutinies and impeachments and conspiracies are also covered.
Many of the pamphlets are by Defoe and Swift, and many were published under pseudonyms such as “Your friend from the country”, or anonymously by levellers, quakers, free thinkers, free-traders, Jacobites and Whigs. This was because, like A new voyage to the island of fools, they were critical of the British government of the day or, like The life of a Norfolk dumpling, of prominent and powerful people such as Robert Walpole, the British Prime Minister. Publication details were often spurious too, claiming to be from such places as Amsterdam and Stockholm when they were actually published in London. The reason for this subterfuge is obvious from the vindictive and defamatory tone of some of the works.
It was often a criminal offence to be in possession of many of the works in the collection. Thousands were printed but very few have survived because they were thrown away almost immediately after being read. The Lansdowne Tracts is one of the few collections to contain so many. It is named after William Petty, 1st Marquis of Lansdowne, the major contributor, but tracts formerly owned by George Montague Dunk, 2nd Earl of Halifax, Walter Yonge, Fabian Philipps and Gilbert Affleck are also included.