Liberty Matters

Revolutionary Moments and the Expansion of Production of Pamphlets

In periods of political and ideological turmoil, an explosion in the production of ideas -- through books, pamphlets, newspapers, and other kinds of propaganda -- often takes place. This has both a demand and a supply side to it. On the supply side, people everywhere, including ordinary working people, suddenly feel the need to say something about the current problems they are facing. Often there is also a breakdown in censorship as the established political authority begins to lose its legitimacy or ability to use force, thus allowing more producers, such as printers and book sellers, to publish and distribute pamphlets and tracts. On the demand side, more people wish to read the things that these other people are saying, many of whom are "new voices" who were repressed under the old regime. On both the supply side and the demand side classical liberals and libertarians have played a part in these "ideological explosions," sometimes even an important part. More often than not, the liberal voices get drowned out by the greater number of their opponents or are silenced by the political repression which typically follows these revolutionary moments. I offer the following three examples :
  • 1640s and 1650s in England -- the publication of thousands of Leveller tracts and pamphlets during the English Civil Wars, revolution, and Republic.
  • 1750-60s and 1780s in America -- the pamphlet literature in the period leading up to and during the American revolutionary period and the debate about the Constitution in the late 1780s (Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists).
  • 1848-49 in France -- the creation of hundreds of political clubs and revolutionary newspapers, pamphlets, and wall posters.
All three examples show the much larger pool of people who had opinions about liberty than are normally visible in non revolutionary times. They seem to exist below the surface and only emerge in revolutionary moments when new opportunities arise for the  expression of political views.
The most libertarian and the best-known of these three examples is the American one, so I will not say much about it other than to note two important collections of pamphlet literature by Bernard Bailyn and Herbert Storing.[71]
My first example are the proto-libertarians of the 1640s who were named by their ideological opponents as "The Levellers" because they wished to "level," or abolish, many kinds of political privilege which favo red the established Church, the king, the aristocratic land owners, and the merchant class. The Levellers became active in the early 1640s with the publication of a series of pamphlets which often led to their arrest and imprisonment (from which they often wrote additional pamphlets they had  smuggled out to be printed). Their ideas became influential in the New Model Army and formed the basis for the Army's political demands for reform made to Parliament and King Charles in several "Petitions of the People" in 1647 and 1648. The sheer number of pamphlets produced by the Levellers, their critics, and the numerous fellow travel ers who joined in the debates is striking. An English book seller by the name of George Thomason, who lived in London , collected as many of these tracts as he could lay his hands on between 1640 and 1663. Thomason collected 22,255 pamphlets, manuscripts, and newspapers, with the peak period being 1642 -1649. In 1642 and 1648 the number of titles published exceed 2,000. They all form the core of the British Museum's collection of political tracts from the period.[72]
The influence of the Levellers waned after the coming to power of the dictator Oliver Cromwell and the political repression which he imposed in the 1650s. The three key Leveller figures were Richard Overton, John Lilburne, and William Walwyn, whose ideas about individual liberty, property rights, religious toleration, the rule of law, and free trade are remarkably modern- sounding and thus justify us classifying them as the intellectual founding fathers of modern classical liberalism. Annabel Patterson has gone so far as to call them and their generation "early modern liberals," which I think is apt. [73] For too long, the Levellers have been appropriated by the Marxists and the left as their intellectual forefathers. See for example the voluminous work by the English Marxist Christopher Hill on the Levellers and the English Revolution[74] and it is true that there was a communitarian fringe to the Leveller movement ( exemplified by Gerrard Winstanley), which modern Marxists might find attractive. However, the center of the movement was solidly individualist and in favo r of private property. Only a handful of modern libertarians have given them due recognition, such as Walter Grinder, Carl Watner[75], James Otteson, and Michael Zuckert.[76] Otteson especially has edited an important five-volume collection of their writings for a mainstream publisher.[77]
However, even Otteson has neglected to show the true range of individuals who were influenced by Leveller (or rather liberal) ideas and who wrote their own pamphlets, or the range of topics they discussed and the style which they used to discuss them. I believe the 1640s was a true flowering of classical-liberal political expression, which involved many new types of authors and commentators such as artisans, informed workers, and even some women. These new voices discussed less well- known topics (not just Magna Carta, the sovereignty of Parliament, or religious toleration), such as the ban on selling food and drink on Sundays, taxes on soap, and who could or could not use "common land" or preach to congregations. They also used a much greater variety of formats for discussing liberal ideas which went far beyond the traditional prose pamphlet form, such as songs, satirical poems, and mini-plays, which appealed to a less scholarly audience of readers. The typesetters who prepared many of Lilburne's or Overton's pamphlets also used their creative skills to devise elaborate title pages with lines of type making interesting shapes such as pyramids, hour glasses, or bowls to add additional meaning to the words on the pages. No doubt many of the men engaged in the printing trade were politically aware and possibly active as well in the events which were going on around them. In many cases, the author or the printer used fictitious names and places of publication in order to taunt and mock the censors whom they knew would be after them. The following by Richard Overton is a good example of this:
By Yongue Martin Mar-Priest, Son to old Martin the Metrapolitane. This is Licenced, and printed according to Holy Order, but not Entered into the Stationers Monopole. Europe. Printed by Martin Claw Clergie, Printer to the Reverend Assembly of Divines and are to be should (sold) at his Shop in Toleration Street, at the Signe of the Subjects Liberty, right opposite to Persecuting Court. 1645.
To show this more popular, radical, and creative side to Leveller (liberal) ideas in this period, I have been editing and putting online a larger and more comprehensive collection of Leveller tracts. Two volumes have so far appeared, and five more are in the works.[78] Two typical title pages are shown below:
The title page below comes from an anonymous pamplet published in 1641 entitled "The lamentable complaints of Nick Froth the tapster, and Rulerost the cooke. Concerning the restraint lately set forth, against drinking, potting, and piping on the Sabbath day, and against selling meate." Note the crude woodcut illustration which accompanies this plea for liberalised trading hours.
A couple of questions naturally come to mind: where did the Levellers get their liberal ideas , and why did so many English people take action at this time in the name of these ideas? Concerning the first question, three obvious sources are the Bible (their pamphlets are peppered with selected pro-liberty and anti-royalist quotes from the Bible), Magna Carta and English Parliamentarism, and the long tradition of popular thinking about the traditional "rights of Englishmen." Concerning the second, historians are still debating the causes of the systemic "crisis of the seventeenth century," but war and taxes played their inevitable role in provoking popular opposition.[79]
One wonders when the next explosion of liberal "pamphleteering" will take place, what forms it will take, and what impact it will have . Perhaps we are living through it right now with the blogging phenomenon and the part being played by classical liberals and free-market economists?
In a future post I will discuss my third example, liberal pamphleteering during the 1848 Revolution in France, in which Frédéric Bastiat and Gustave de Molinari played a key role .
[71.] Pamphlets of the American Revolution, 1750-1776, edited by Bernard Bailyn, with the assistance of Jane N. Garrett. (Cambridge, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1965-). Four volumes were proposed, but only one appeared; the introduction was published separately as Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967). On the Anti-Federalists see The Complete Anti-Federalist, edited, with commentary and notes, by Herbert J. Storing with the assistance of Murray Dry. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981). 7 vols.; the introduction was also published separately as What the Anti-Federalists Were For, Herbert J. Storing with the editorial assistance of Murray Dry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).
[72.] Catalogue of the Pamphlets, Books, Newspapers, and Manuscripts relating to the Civil War, the Commonwealth, and Restoration, collected by George Thomason, 1640-1661. 2 vols. (London: William Cowper and Sons, 1908).
[73.] Annabel M. Patterson, Early Modern Liberalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
[74.] Christopher Hill, The World turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972).
[75.] Carl Watner, “‘Come What, Come Will!’ Richard Overton, Libertarian Leveller,” The Journal of Libertarian Studies, vol. IV, no. 4 (Fall 1980), pp. 405- 32.
[76.] Michael P. Zuckert, Natural Rights and the New Republicanism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994).
[77.] The Levellers: Overton, Walwyn and Lilburne. Edited and introduced by James R. Otteson (Thoemmes Press, 2003). 5 vols.
[78.] Tracts on Liberty by the Levellers and their Critics (1638-1660), 7 vols. Edited by David M. Hart and Ross Kenyon (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2014-15). </titles/2595>. Volumes 1 and 3 are online. See the Combined Table of Contents of the Tracts on Liberty by the Levellers and their Critics (1638-1660), 7 vols. </pages/leveller-tracts-table-of-contents>; and a "Bibliography and Other Resources on the Levellers" </pages/leveller-tracts-bibliography>.
[79.] The expression "crisis of the seventeenth century" was coined by Eric Hobsbawm in 1954 in a series of articles which appeared in the journal Past and Present. This was followed by a similar work by Hugh Trevor-Roper in a 1959 article entitled "The General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century," Past and Present, vol. 16 (1959). This has been republished by Liberty Fund in Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century: Religion, the Reformation and Social Change (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2001). </titles/719>.