The Reading Room
The “Pamphlet Wars” Climax in the American Revolution and Ratification Debate
You cannot read many biographies of men who engaged the American separation from Britain, declaration of an independent nation, and shaping and winning ratification of the Constitution without encountering—repeatedly—references to pamphlets.
Brilliant, fiery, bitterly controversial, famously influential pamphlets: In years around birth of the nation, this brand of journalism climaxed in Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” and “Rights of Man” (the latter pamphlet a reply to a pamphlet by Edmund Burke). In advocacy of resistance to British measures by men like John Dickenson. And, yes, in The Federalist Papers by master pamphleteers like Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison who won ratification.
These pamphlets both continued two centuries of European and American “pamphlet wars” and tolled the end of the era of political pamphleteering. Newspapers were taking the jobs of pamphleteers. The first daily newspaper in the nation, the Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser, did not begin publishing until 1784, but there had been independent newspapers since the New England Courant in 1721. By 1775, there were 37 newspapers in America.
In the 1780s and 1790s, newspapers began to keep citizens of the new nation informed (just in time for the debate over the first amendments to the new U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights). Pamphleteering did continue with vigor in the 1900s in America, but by then the debates were religious.
We must not bid farewell to the first “journalism”—and its “wars”—without a tribute to pamphleteering’s great causes, champions, and accomplishments. Here, we must keep to highlights. After all, if you search the OLL for the term “pamphleteers” you get 65 pages of results.
The Gutenberg Press (1440, Mainz, Germany, by a political exile) and the pamphlet may be viewed as twins at birth. Short, unbound or loosely bound booklets, called pamphlets (today defined as 5 to 48 pages), were the first printed materials. Books had existed, but the entire concept of pamphleteering was to promulgate polemics on current topics. That worked only because with the invention of the printing press a pamphlet could be duplicated at will again and again. It has been characterized as the “first journalism”—current commentary circulated to the literate populace and reaching others when read from the pulpit.
Some say the pamphlet today is the blog, and that seems true. The pamphleteer’s goal was to write eloquent, fiery prose on controversial ideas that would “go viral,” reprinted without end by people who today might share blog—to spread views they endorsed. This new and potent dissemination of ideas outside “official channels” became so threatening that governments kept banning pamphleteering.
A useful list of 16 historic “pamphlet wars” begins in 1517, some half-century after Gutenberg, with the Protestant Reformation--the most fertile imaginable field for the new weapon of controversy. (Pamphlets about religion are called “tracts.”) Martin’s Luther’s “95 Theses” ranks among the famous salvos in the clash of pamphlets that propelled much of Europe out of the Church of Rome—and led to the church’s reform. “Why does not the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?” This had not been the first concerted effort to achieve reformation—but the first with the printing press to support it.
In Germany, the fighting words and vulgar personal attacks of pamphleteers on both sides became associated with public disorder, leading to an imperial edict in 1589 banning them. The sheer volume of French pamphlets issued in the slugging match over reformed religion led to prohibitions in 1523, 1553, and 1556. Later, French pamphlets of Blaise Pascal, called collectively Les Provinciales, elevated pamphleteering to the status of literature. (They defended the leader of the Jansenists then on trial before the Sorbonne faculty for attacking the Jesuits.)
Elizabethan England (1558-1603) turned pamphleteering to romantic fiction, autobiography, personal attacks, and social commentary. Practitioners were men such as Thomas Dekker, Thomas Nashe, and Robert Greene.
Few stars in the literary firmament are absent from the roster of combatants in the pamphlet wars. Almost certainly, men like John Milton, Thomas Hobbes, Daniel Defoe, and Jonathan Swift helped to make their reputations by pamphleteering, and then, when renowned figures, wrote pamphlets to cash-in on their influence. In other words, the pamphlet was a recognized literary form that individuals could aspire to raise to the level of high art and so build celebrity.
Milton entered the lists with “antiprelatical” pamphlets, singling out the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. Laud was a fearsome man to cross. The risks run by pamphleteers are thrown in relief by the career of William Prynne (1600-1669). A lawyer, he began writing Puritan tracts attacking the Anglican church and the frivolity, including all stage plays, of his age. “Dancing serves no necessary use, no profitable, laudable, or pious end at all. It is only from the inbred pravity, vanity, wantonness, incontinency, pride, profaneness, or madness of man's depraved nature.”
The Archbishop sent him to prison, where his ears were partially clipped. From his cell, he fired off anonymous attacks on Laud and lost, also, the stumps of his ears. His cheeks were branded with S.L. for “seditious libeler.” When the Long Parliament freed him in 1640, he devoted himself to convicting Laud. He achieved that in 1645; Laud was executed. When King Charles I was overthrown and Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth began, Prynne disapproved, wrote more pamphlets, and refused to pay his taxes. Back in prison, he campaigned from his cell for restoration of King Charles II. Charles rewarded him with appointment as Keeper of Records. He spent his last nine years writing valuable compilations of official documents.
The pamphlet wars continued with the English Civil War, the great debate about free will (Thomas Hobbes and John Bramhall), the resettlement of the Jews in England, the Popish Plot, Nonconformity (which landed Daniel Defoe, author of The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe and also many pamphlets, in prison), and other “wars” less momentous at least in retrospect.
In 1764, the battlefield shifts to America with the Paxton Boys controversy over failure to protect a Pennsylvania frontier village from supposed aggression by Indians. This provoked massacre of innocent Conestoga Indians and brought Ben Franklin into the fray and also shifted the conflict to pamphleteering—hailed by some as the new non-violent alternative.
The Stamp Act, a tax laid on the colonies to help England recoup costs of the Seven Years War, launched a pamphlet war with notables like John Dickinson in the forefront, introducing terminology and arguments not forgotten 10 years with the advent of the Revolutionary War. "No free people ever existed or can ever exist, without keeping the purse strings in their own hands.”
Debates in pamphlets fueled America’s secession from the British Empire and revolution. John Dickinson again appears as prime mover with his pamphleteering about the Boston Massacre. But the tectonic shift in sentiment from demands for British reform to the Declaration of Independence (secession) is credited to one of history’s great pamphlets, “Common Sense,” by Thomas Paine. (Relative to the population at that time, it had the largest sale and circulation of any book published in American history.)
The long war won, the new nation-in-the-making became the battlefield of history’s most famous pamphlet war: debate over ratification of the proposed U.S. Constitution, which mandated a “federal” government. The debate between The Federalist Papers (85 essays, many published first in newspapers, between October 1787 and August 1788) and the Anti-Federalist Papers resolved the question in favor of the Constitution when New Hampshire’s became the ninth and deciding vote for ratification on June 22, 1778.
It was not the last pamphlet war. Not even the last political pamphlet war. A debate in England in 1789 about how to view the French Revolution drew in pamphleteers Thomas Paine, William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Edmund Burke, and Richard Price.
But the “first journalism,” merely outlined here, had yielded the floor to the newspaper. Newspapers, however, did not entertain extended debates over religion and that became the burden of the pamphlet in nineteenth-century America.
“From the 20th century,” as one source puts it, “the pamphlet has more often been used for information than for controversy, chiefly by government departments and learned societies.”
“Many ingenious lovely things are gone
That seemed sheer miracle to the multitude…”--“Nineteen Hundred Nineteen,” W. B Yeats