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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Thursday, October 24, 2013

Communication Protocols in the Revolution

Protocols of Liberty: Communication Innovation and the American Revolution is an unusual study of America’s break from Britain. Author William B. Warner is a professor of English, not history, at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His previous books have covered such topics as the rise of the novel in British culture. A book he co-edited, This Is Enlightenment, was an attempt to break away from the “cultural studies” approach to that era in favor of a “history of mediation.”

Protocols of Liberty likewise emphasizes the Whigs’ networks of communication, focusing on:

  • standing committees of correspondence started by the Boston town meeting in 1772;
  • the “popular declaration” as a new form of political literature culminating in the Declaration of Independence; and
  • the newspaper and postal system that spread those messages.
Eventually, the book argues, the American Whigs enjoyed an unprecedented non-hierarchical widespread communications network centered at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

In taking this approach, Warner emphasizes the act and forms of communication as much as or more than the content or context of those communications. The book often pauses to analyze the definitions and roots of words or to “translate” period statements into the language of modern communication. There are charts and tables to show the development or spread of particular messages.

Though Warner sets his book apart from “founders’ histories” and “intellectual histories,” it’s almost entirely focused on public messages from governmental and quasi-governmental bodies—i.e., elite men discussing events in the most cerebral terms. Thus, we read more about the royal commission that investigated the Gaspee attack and Whig responses to it than about the attack itself. The book mentions from afar the inflammatory rumors that spread west during the “Powder Alarm,” but that type of informal, in-person (and inaccurate) communication doesn’t get nearly as much space as the deliberations of Virginia gentlemen in Williamsburg in the summer of 1774.

Protocols of Liberty focuses on communication by the American Whigs, casting their political opponents as reactive and ineffectual. Warner paints a fine portrait of Gov. Thomas Hutchinson orating on the British constitution in early 1773, confident that his speech to the Massachusetts General Court would settle matters. I wish the book had also discussed whether Hutchinson felt he merely had to win over those legislators and their elite circles or whether he, too, expected his words to be effective through newspapers and other publications.

The royal Customs office supported the Boston Post-Boy, and the provincial administration favored the Boston News-Letter, guaranteeing friendly coverage. The book doesn’t mention the anti-Whig Boston Chronicle (forced out of business in 1770), and The Censor, the magazine that friends of government commissioned, appears only in a footnote. Why weren’t these pro-government publications as successful as those that leaned toward resistance?

By highlighting the Whigs’ successes, the book makes their triumph seem inevitable and their innovations significant. But the Whigs also stumbled. The book opens with Samuel Adams and the people of Boston responding to the Massacre in March 1770. That spring a captain offered to carry the town’s version of the event to London on a special ship, and the town meeting declined to pay the expense. As a result, the town got scooped by royal officials. In 1775 the Massachusetts Provincial Congress remembered that lesson and sent the Quero racing to England with the first accounts of Lexington and Concord. What were the limits on the Whigs’ approach to communications?

Even within the topic of messaging, Protocols of Liberty often feels bloodless. Paul Revere shows up as one of the Boston activists, an engraver and courier who brought the Suffolk Resolves to Philadelphia in September 1774—but not as the rider who raced to warn the New Hampshire Whigs about a navy ship headed to Fort William and Mary in December 1774 and who alerted Lexington in April 1775. While discussing the post-rider system, the book doesn’t discuss the news of war spread by Isaac Bissell and colleagues in April 1775. The fighting itself takes place off stage as the action moves to Philadelphia and ends with the Declaration’s dissemination across thirteen colonies free of British soldiers.

Protocols of Liberty updates Bicentennial-era studies like Richard D. Brown’s Revolutionary Politics in Massachusetts and David Ammerman’s In a Common Cause with today’s emphasis on information and social networks. Warner highlights some neglected events, like how the Massachusetts legislature responded to Hutchinson in 1773 with what ministers in London judged a “Declaration of Independence.” But this approach necessarily neglects other aspects of the American Revolution. As a result, I think Protocols of Liberty will end up classified among intellectual histories of the era, albeit not focused on ideology but on forms of political argument.

To explore the book further, visit its website.

1 comment:

Chaucerian said...

Interesting approach, and it doesn't surprise me that a professor of English would focus on written texts. But, as you indicate, this is only one form of political argument, and maybe not even the most effective or influential form. Me, I get most of my political information at the lunch counter, from Stuart (who knows all the policies and voting histories) or Brian (who knows who is related to whom and why each acted as he did). There must have been lunch counters, and Stuarts and Brians, in 1775.