J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, October 06, 2012

A Flame War over Bundling in 1793

In the spring of 1793 Nathaniel Phillips’s Herald of the United States introduced the readers of Warren, Rhode Island, to an anti-bundling essay by “The Reformed Bundler” and an angry riposte signed “Modestia.”

Phillips’s next issue, dated 8 June 1793, offered a latter signed “Reformed Bundler’s Vindicator” responding to the essay from “Modestia”:

The writer appears to be either a hireling influenced by the root of evil by some rake or libertine, or one of those female-men (for I can scarcely believe it to be a woman) mentioned by him, who, under the specious pretence of advocating the cause of decency and modesty, would overthrow modesty itself, than which, there are no characters more pernicious either in the moral or religious world.
And so on.

Which prompted a reply from “Modestia” on 15 June:
The vindicator having assumed a task far beyond his abilities to complete, flies from the post he attemps to maintain, and like a certain reptile, hisses a few dirty sarcasms on his opponent, leaving the stench of a foul effluvia, his only cover for the shameful retreat, and then, transforming himself into a pretended advocate for the female sex, brandishes his only weapon and secures himself in such an asylum as he supposes suited to the safety of his person and faculties, where I shall leave him to the derision of every virtuous female character.
That’s the second time “Modestia” deployed an extended animal metaphor.

A week later “Reformed Bundler’s Vindicator” was back:
He plays the same game with the Defender, as he did with the Reformer, instead of truth and argument; and making more than ordinary pretensions to decency and flattering the pride of human nature, has recourse to filth and calumny; which evinces the weakness of his cause, and verifies the ancient adage, that out of the abundance of his heart, the mouth speaketh! . . .

I am now confirmed that the terms Rake and Libertine were rightly applied, as the person suspected has publicly patronized the piece (tho’ indebted to his Amanuensis for the performance): I would therefore give him this friendly hint, Me non esto facientis sandalii [I would not be a shoemaker?], and not attempt again to soar out of his sphere, in which he will make a much better figure than that of a public writer.
The “Vindicator” thus hinted that he could reveal “Modestia’s” identity. I sense he thought the proponent of bundling was a young man, not from the genteel class, possibly working with a young woman.

“Modestia” replied on 29 June:
The Vindicator in the HERALD of the 22d. inst. having again thrown up his works of annoyance, composed of inflamable air interspersed with some borrowed sentences from the sacred volumes, supposed his position altogether tenable, opens his batteries on Modestia, and having discharged his artillery of invectives against his opponent, calling him Rake, Libertine, &c. he struggles under the venom which corrodes in his stomach, and vomits a scrap of Latin to complete the insult! The dignity of immaculate virtue stands unmoved, while calm indifference smiles at the pastime, and interested characters view the performance with the contempt it deserves.
“Modestia” answered the snobbish argument by stating that “every citizen has a priviledge (if he pleases) to step out of his common sphere and write in his own or his friend’s defence.”

But that wasn’t the only response in the Herald of the United States that day. “A Countryman” addressed Phillips with this note:
Who is this Modestia and Vindicator, and what not, that fills up your paper with so much nonsense? Pray Mr. Printer don’t let the public be trifled with any longer, as I am sure our affairs at home and abroad are somewhat critical, and we want to hear the news from foreign parts, and to know how we go on at home, that we may be able to pay our debts, and otherways defend ourselves against our enemies and keep off a land tax.—From the publick prints we expect to be informed of things as they happen, that we may be able to guard against danger, and not be tormented with any further disputes about Bundling.
Two weeks went by before the next letter appeared, signed “Vindicator”:
Waving any further reply to my opponent, who is evidently ashamed of the cause he has undertaken to defend and therefore retreats—would just observe to the COUNTRYMAN who appeared in the Herald of the 29th ult. that though I think with him ’tis time to quit the subject; yet must beg leave to observe, that the cause of MORALITY (that I undertook to defend) ought not to be put upon a par with that of LIBERTINISM, and therefore merits neither the appellation of TRIFLING or NONSENSE.
That provoked at least one reply, but in the 20 July issue printer Phillips called a halt to the debate:
Modestia, Vindicator and Countryman having displayed their abilities sufficiently—it is best to leave their performances to a discerning Public to judge who has merited the Palm:—The Editor therefore requests the Countryman to let this suffice for the non-appearance of his piece this week;—and at the same time to observe, that it will always give him real pleasure to receive original pieces, or extracts on Agriculture, Manufactures, Commerce, &c. &c.
It’s frightening how much the exchanges in eighteenth-century newspapers read like online “debates.”

1 comment:

Keri@AWH said...

Funny how so many people think technology brings about behavior like this, but people have been acting like people for a very long time, regardless of the tools they use... :)