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Pamphleteers and Web Sites
There is a similarity between the pamphlets of the American Revolution and today's personal web sites.
A few years ago, while doing thinking about personal web sites and personal publishing, my friend Chris Daly pointed out the similarity to pamphlets during the American Revolution. (Chris spent years as a reporter, including being a New England correspondent for the Washington Post. He's now a professor of journalism at Boston University. He was a major contributor to the start of my Good Documents web site.) He lent me his well-worn copy of Bernard Bailyn's "The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution". I've quoted from it a few times in speeches. This is an essay that ties it to personal web sites. (All quotes are from Bailyn's book, Chapter I, "The Literature of Revolution", unless otherwise noted.)

To help learn about what was going on in people's minds back in the 1700's for his book "The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution" (published in 1967, and still available), Bernard Bailyn turned to hundreds of pamphlets from the time. While written public discussions about issues appeared in all mediums, including newspapers, broadsides (single sheets of paper with any amount of writing, often posted or shared), and almanacs, he writes:

Above all, there were pamphlets: booklets consisting of a few printer's sheets, folded in various ways so as to make various sizes and numbers of pages, and sold -- the pages stitched together loosely, unbound and uncovered -- usually for a shilling or two.

To me, the pamphlet is analogous to the personal web site. It can vary in size and is controlled by the author. (It is interesting to note that they could charge, albeit a small amount, for their work. Perhaps this is akin to today the reader paying for ISP access. Maybe it bodes well for future business models.)

I think reading some of what Bailyn had to say back in 1967 about the 1700's can help us better understand the role and peculiarities of today's writers who use web sites (web logs or essays).

Bailyn goes on to say:

It was in this form -- as pamphlets -- that much of the most important and characteristics writing of the American Revolution appeared. For the Revolutionary generation, as for its predecessors back to the early sixteenth century, the pamphlet had peculiar virtues as a medium of communication. Then, as now, it was seen that the pamphlet allowed one to do things that were not possible in any other form.

He quotes from George Orwell, ("Introduction", in George Orwell and Reginald Reynolds, eds., British Pamphleteers):

The pamphlet [George Orwell, a modern pamphleteer, has written] is a one-man show. One has complete freedom of expression, including, if one chooses, the freedom to be scurrilous, abusive, and seditious; or, on the other hand, to be more detailed, serious and "high-brow" than is ever possible in a newspaper or in most kinds of periodicals...

In his book's Foreward, Bailyn writes:

The pamphlets [he looked at to write the book] include all sorts of writings -- treatises on political theory, essays on history, political arguments, sermons, correspondence, poems -- and they display all sorts of literary devices. But for all their variety they have in common one distinctive characteristic: they are, to an unusual degree, explanatory. They reveal not merely positions taken but the reasons why positions were taken...

Back in his Chapter I, he groups the pamphlets into three categories:

The largest number were direct responses to the great events of the time...

They resulted, also, and to a considerable extent, from what might be called chain-reacting personal polemics: strings of individual exchanges -- arguments, replies, rebuttals, and counter-rebuttals -- in which may be found heated personifications of the larger conflicts. A bold statement on a sensitive issue was often sufficient to start such a series, which characteristically proceeded with increasing shrillness until it ended in bitter personal vituperation. Thus East Apthorp's tract of 1763 on the Church of England's Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, inflaming as it did New Englanders' fears of an American bishopric, was answered at once by Jonathan Mayhew in a 176-page blast, and then, in the course of the next two years, by no less than nine other pamphleteers writing in a melee of thrusts and counterthrusts...

A third type...was distinguished by the ritualistic character of its themes and language. In the course of the Revolutionary controversy, the regular, usually annual, publication in pamphlet form of commemorative orations came to constitute a significant addition to the body of Revolutionary literature.

I found this mention of "inflaming" writing, predating the Internet "flame-wars", intriguing given that he was writing this well before the term was used on-line.

It's also interesting to look at the style of writing that emerged:

One of the surprising aspects of the American writings is the extent to which they include the stylistic modes associated with the great age of English pamphleteering. Of satire...irony...parody...sarcasm.

The most commonly attempted was the satire associated with pseudonymous authorship.

SlashDot, Wired, etc.: the style is timeless...

The purpose of the pamphlet writing at that time was not for literature. It was to struggle with ideas that led to the Revolution. (The rest of his book sets forth those ideas and their development.) He writes:

And yet, for all this...the pamphlets of the American Revolution that seek artistic effects are not great documents.

First and foremost, the American pamphleteers, though participants in a great tradition, were amateurs next to such polemicists as Swift and Defoe. Nowhere [were there writers who were]... capable, that is, of earning their living by their pens... [The closest were some of the printers, but other than Franklin they weren't principles in what was going on.]

The American pamphleteers were almost to a man lawyers, ministers, merchants, or planters heavily engaged in their regular occupations.

...it is this amateurism, this lack of practiced technique, that explains much of the crudeness of the Revolutionary pamphlets considered simply as literature.

But there is more than amateurism behind the relative crudeness of the artistic efforts in the American pamphlets. For if writers like Adams and Jefferson were amateur pamphleteers, their writings in other ways display formidable literary talents...The more deliberately artful writings were in a significant way -- for reasons that reach into the heart of the Revolutionary movement -- peripheral to the main lines of intellectual force developing through the period.

The American writers were profoundly reasonable people. Their pamphlets convey scorn, anger, and indignation; but rarely blind hate, rarely public fear. They sought to convince their opponents, not like the English pamphleteers of the eighteenth century, to annihilate them.

Reading something like this, as a person whose main job is to create software and help run a business while expressing himself on a public web site, gives me a wonderful sense of fitting into the flow of history. Hopefully our give and take, about liberty, empowerment, the role of government and big business, the joys and dangers of technology, etc., will lead to as meaningful result as theirs.

- April 23, 2001

Here are some of the comments I've received:

From Professor Chris Daly:

One other feature of 18th C. pamphleteering deserves mention, one that may have a lot of relevance in other countries today where the Web is used for purposes of political insurrection. That is, the pamphlet was preferred by the rebels because it did not provide any target for retaliation by the crown. It was a guerilla form of publishing in which an individual or small revolutionary group could make a point, then disappear. This was in contrast to the more established printers. Typically, the printer owned his shop, his press, his tools and all his stock. If he antagonized the Crown, they knew just where to find him, and the king's agents could easily shut him down. The hit-and-run, anonymous pamphleteer, on the other hand, was almost impossible to find and, thus, to stop.

From my co-worker Ed Blachman:

I know you've made this point elsewhere, but it's acutely important in this context: we have a much better chance of being able to read some of those pamphlets 200 years from now than we have of being able to read any of today's personal websites at that point:

Pamphlets had large printings (compare even 1000 paper copies of a pamphlet to a personal website that exists on only one server)
Paper is a durable, autonomous material (compared to a website that depends on the existence of an organization to support its server, to say nothing of the possibility of datawipe (accidental or intentional))
Paper and ink are and were a stable, autonomous technology (compared to a website that is inaccessible to roughly everyone in the absence of a particular technological base)

- April 25, 2001

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