- - Sunday, September 13, 2015



Edited by Gordon S. Wood

The Library of America, $75, 1,889 pages (2 vol. set)

Social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, have become indispensable tools for the 21st century. The roots of “instant media” appear to go back much further, however.

Pamphlets from the American Revolutionary period could arguably be interpreted as an early social media experiment (of sorts). These documents were written by scholars, politicians and, in certain cases, anonymous citizens with a gripe or two. Some contained original ideas, while others served as rebuttals to existing pamphlets.

Gordon S. Wood has assembled 39 of these historical treasures in an impressive two-volume set, “The American Revolution: Writing from the Pamphlet Debate 1764-1776.” He’s a professor of history emeritus at Brown University who has won a Pulitzer Prize and the Bancroft Prize. In 2011, he was awarded the prestigious National Humanities Medal. These volumes prove that this unique experiment was 18th-century citizen journalism at its finest.

Mr. Wood’s preference was to include “pamphlets directly in dialogue with one another.” By the time this debate had died down, he writes, “the first British Empire was in tatters” and Americans had “clarified their understanding of the limits of public power” and “prepared the way for their grand experiment in republican self-government and constitution-making.”

The first volume examines 19 booklets from the Pamphlet Debate written between 1764-1772. It was a time when the Whigs, who “stood for liberty and the rights of the people, embodied in Parliament,” opposed the Tories, “traditional defenders of crown authority … and regarded as traitors by many Whigs.” The battle for/against British authority, and for/against American liberty, was regularly played out.

For instance, the anonymous English author “Cato,” noticeably concerned about Britain’s relationship with the colonies, felt there should be a “visible Disproportion between our Colonies and our Ability to trade with them, upon just and equal Terms, the more they are enlarged, the sooner shall we be destroyed.” Meanwhile, Benjamin Franklin, assessing the Stamp Act’s repeal, argued “there is not gold and silver enough in the Colonies to pay the stamp duty for one year,” and Americans would “never” submit to it “unless compelled by force of arms.”

John Dickinson’s stunning “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania” (1767-68) is also reprinted in its entirety. This includes his famous observation that the “cause of liberty is a cause of too much dignity, to be sullied by turbulence and tumult … Those who engage in it, should breathe a sedate, yet fervent spirit, animating them to actions of prudence, justice, modesty, bravery, humanity and magnanimity.”

The second volume examines 20 booklets from the Pamphlet Debate written between 1773-1776. Mr. Wood points out that “[n]ewspapers and pamphlets, the number and like of which had never appeared in America before, exploded in anger” over the Stamp Act. This disenchantment could be found in various states, including Massachusetts, home of the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Some states like Virginia were initially “stunned” by the Tea Party’s “destruction of private property.” However, the realization that if the British “could do what it did in Massachusetts, Americans everywhere concluded, it could do the same to any of the colonies.” It was clear that the “time for coordinated action had come.”

Thomas Jefferson’s 1774 pamphlet is powerful, noting that “Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental option of a day; but a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period, and pursued unalterably through every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate and systematical plan of reducing us to slavery.” William Henry Drayton wrote, “Americans, equally with the people of England, entitled to those liberties which are emphatically terms the unalienable liberties of an Englishman. — And from such a title, does America derive her Freedom.” As well, Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” (1776), the powerful battle cry of Revolutionary supporters, notes that “In England a king hath little more to do than to make war and give away places; which in plain terms, is to impoverish the nation and set it together by the ears … Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.”

The Pamphlet Debate clearly reflected the nature of a growing and spirited warehouse of ideas during the American Revolution. It helped give birth to democracy, liberty and freedom for all citizens. It laid the groundwork for free speech, and the extensive amount of tweets, texts and Facebook posts we see today. These are all good things, indeed.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.



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