Bloggers: The Pamphleteers of Today
“The pamphlet 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 I most kinds of periodicals. At the same time, since the pamphlet is always short and unbound, it can be produced much more quickly than a book, and in principle, at any rate, can reach a bigger public. Above all, the pamphlet does not have to follow any prescribed pattern. It can be in prose or in verse, it can consist largely of maps or statistics or quotations, it can take the form of a story, a fable, a letter, an essay, a dialogue, or a piece of ‘reportage.’ All that is required of it is that it shall be topical, polemical, and short.”Substitute blog for pamphlet and the same can be said today. Far more striking is the role the pamphleteer played in the American Revolution. Bernard Bailyn, in his path-breaking book, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, explains the phenomena leading up to the Revolution (all quotes from the 1967 edition.)
“It was in this form—as pamphlets—that much of the most important and characteristic writing of the American Revolution appeared. For the Revolutionary generation … the pamphlet had peculiar virtues as a medium of communication. … The pamphlet’s greatest asset was perhaps its flexibility in size, for while it could contain only a very few pages and hence be used for publishing short squibs and sharp, quick rebuttals, it could also accommodate much longer, more serious and permanent writing as well. … It was spacious enough to allow for the full development of an argument—to investigate premises, explore logic, and consider conclusions …” [p3]Of course, even in the printed media of pamphlets, some of the personal dynamics of the Internet were evidenced early on.
“It was in this form, consequently, that ‘the best thought of the day expressed itself’; … it was in this form that ‘the basic elements of American political thought of the Revolutionary period appeared first.’ And yet pamphlets of this length were seldom ponderous; whatever the gravity of their themes or the spaciousness of their contents they were always essentially polemical, and aimed at immediate and rapidly shifting targets: at suddenly developing problems, unanticipated arguments, and swiftly rising, controversial figures. The best of the writing that appeared in this form, consequently, had a rare combination of spontaneity and solidity, of dash and detail, of casualness and care.” [p4]
"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 conflict. 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."One wonders if they had trolls who, perhaps, went from pub to pub to irritate the writers.
"Important above all else as expressions of the ideas, attitudes, and motivations that lay at the heart of the Revolution, the pamphlets published in the two decades before Independence are primarily political, not literary, documents. But form and substance are never wholly separate.” [p8]Still, despite the humble nature of the pamphlet, Bailyn notes the Revolutionary writings are part of a larger tradition “to which the greatest men of letters contributed. Milton, Halifax, Locke, Swift, Defoe, Bolingbroke, Addison were all pamphleteers at least to the extent that Bland, Otis, Dickinson, the Adamses, Wilson, and Jefferson were.” [p8]
Style also varied:
“In addition to satire there is an abundance of other devices: elusive irony and flat parody; extended allegory and direct vituperation; sarcasm, calculated and naive. All the standard tropes and a variety of unusual figurations may be found in the pamphlet literature.”The Revolutionary pamphleteers were not professional writers but common citizens engaged in the debate of ideas; they created a sense of democracy to the intellectual struggle that preceded the call to arms. In stark contrast was the French Revolution—debate was among the elites who often looked down on the general population as hopelessly retrograde. If the French Revolution started in salons, the American started in saloons … and town squares, churches, etc. One ended with a stable republic; the other with Napoleon and what was basically a world war.
With the advent of radio and television, particularly the days where networks dominated, the professional writer was separated from the man in the street. With the rise of the Internet the writer-citizen has re-established a healthy balance not seen since great days when our republic was founded. Perhaps two hundred years from now, some graduate student will be writing a dissertation on The Role of Blogs on the Restoration of the Principles of the American Revolution.