The Pamphleteers

Scott Porch talks with Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Gordon Wood about pamphlets, changes in the media environment, and the current state of historical writing.

By Scott PorchSeptember 24, 2015

BEFORE THE 56 signatories to the Declaration of Independence officially informed King George III that “these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States,” they made the case in their blogs — which, for lack of WordPress, Squarespace, or Tumblr, they referred to simply as “pamphlets.”

And it wasn’t just the big-Whigs or the colonists pleading their case as pamphleteers; their British counterparts offered their own explanations in the same way. The colonists and the loyalists volleyed more than a thousand of these pamphlets — bound mini-books that had more intellectual heft than newspaper editorials but were cheaper to print and distribute than books — back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean in the decade that preceded the Revolutionary War.

Gordon S. Wood, a Brown University emeritus professor of history, has just completed a collection of 39 of the more significant pamphlets for the Library of America in the two-volume The American Revolution: Writings from the Pamphlet Debate 1764‒1776. Wood is the recipient of the Bancroft Prize for Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787 (1969) and the Pulitzer Prize for History for The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992). We had a wide-ranging discussion about pamphlets, changes in the media environment, and the current state of historical writing, but we started with Wood’s cameo — or more accurately his name’s cameo — in the 1997 film Good Will Hunting.


SCOTT PORCH: Did you realize that when you Google your name, the first autocomplete is “gordon wood good will hunting”?

GORDON S. WOOD: [Laughs.] That’s my two seconds of fame! More kids know about that than any of the books I have written. 

I haven’t seen Good Will Hunting in a while. Does your name come up in the “how ’bout them apples” speech?

No, it’s when a Harvard student in a bar is sounding off on history and the Matt Damon character says he’s wrong and should read Gordon Wood and so on.

Did the producers call you, or did you find out about it when the movie came out?

I got an email from a former student of mine who had gone to the movie opening in Cambridge in, I think, 1997. That was my first knowledge of it. For the next year or two, every time I gave a talk somewhere, some student would raise his hand and ask a question about Good Will Hunting.

These two new books from Library of America are a collection of pamphlets published in the years before the American Revolution. Where did these pamphlets fit into media culture at the time?

Some of these pamphlets were originally published as a series of essays in newspapers. If you wanted to have a larger impact, you bundled the essays together and publish them as a book. The pamphlets were smaller than a major book.

Were they stitch bound like a book?

Right, the ones I’ve seen were bound. Books were much more expensive, so pamphlets were a major means of communication in those days. They were comparable, I guess, to blogging today. 

Did it fit the intellectual space of something like The Atlantic or a political magazine?

The audience for most of the pamphlets was fairly limited. If you read them, they’re at a high level of discussion. John Dickinson, for example, floods his pamphlets with all kinds of citations to Latin writers and to the culture of Western civilization. Ordinary people would not have read that. When you come to Thomas Paine, that’s very different. It’s the only one of the 39 that I included in the collection that really reaches out to a popular audience. 

That was Common Sense you’re talking about?

Right. It was a major breakthrough in the history of rhetoric. It appalled a lot of people that he wrote in what they thought was kind of a vulgar fashion. He has barnyard kinds of images, and this existed in a very elite culture. Publishing that was a major breakthrough.

Was Common Sense serialized?

It came out just as a pamphlet, but he went through a bunch of editions. I think he sold 150,000 copies in a matter of a year or two. That’s an enormous number for a population of around two-and-a-half million people. It was an unbelievable success. 

Was Paine trying to find a bigger audience?

Oh, absolutely. He was very self-conscious about that. He would be our first public intellectual. All of the other pamphlet writers were something else — lawyers like John Adams or John Dickinson or ministers or planters. 

There were a lot more than the 39 pamphlets in these two volumes, right? I think your notes said there were something like a thousand? 

At least. The criteria we used was how important they were in the progress of the debate, and I included a couple that were interesting primarily because of the author. Samuel Johnson, for example, was not terribly important for the pamphlets he wrote but was an important figure. The same was true of Edmund Burke. The pamphlet by Allan Ramsay, who was the painter to the king, wasn’t an important pamphlet to the debate, but it’s so Toryish — it’s such a representation of old-fashioned, hierarchical Tory views.

Most of the pamphlets are chosen because of their importance in the progress of the debate, and the debate moves progressively through a series of arguments as the conflict becomes more and more serious.

Some of the pamphlets are written on the British side and some on the American side. Were these essentially open letters — people talking directly to each other?

They are. Many of them definitely are. Thomas Whately, who was the under-secretary for George Grenville [the British prime minister from 1763 to 1765] and actually wrote the Stamp Act, wrote a very important pamphlet defending the concept of virtual representation. The Americans said, “How can you tax us if we’re not represented in the House of Commons,” and he gives a rather elaborate and coherent answer to that in his pamphlet. 

And that’s immediately answered by other pamphlets, so they’re reading each other and often citing each other. It wasn’t instant the way it is today with blogs. It would take six weeks sometimes for a pamphlet to cross the Atlantic. 

One volume covers pamphlets from 1764 to 1772, and the other covers 1773 to 1776. Are these in the nature of the British and the Americans explaining themselves to each other, or are they drawing battle lines? 

They’re doing both. They’re certainly rhetorical — trying to convince their audience of their case that would be no different than the debates we have today. They’re making a case for their position; when opponents bring up a point, they’re trying to answer that point. Nobody is standing above examining these things from a disinterested point of view; everybody involved in the debate has a point of view. It would be similar to people arguing today about the Iranian deal — some people arguing for it and other people arguing against it. 

The issues began with representation — whether the colonists were represented in the House of Commons — and then got into the issue of sovereignty. The colonists have to move and try to explain themselves because they had been accepting parliamentary regulation of their trade going back to the 17th century, and yet they weren’t willing to accept taxation. The English were saying you can’t divide those two things. It came down to sovereignty, which was the most important doctrine of 18th-century political thinking, which said that there has to be in every state one final, supreme, indivisible, law-making authority. 

In 1774, all of the leading intellectuals — John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson — all decide that Americans are no longer under Parliament at all and were tied solely to the king. Historians would call this the commonwealth theory of the empire from the Statute of Westminster of 1931 that established the modern English commonwealth where Canada and Australia and New Zealand have independent parliaments. That’s what the colonists were arguing by 1774.

The Declaration of Independence is quite curious. They charge George III — you’ve done this, you’ve done that — but they never mention Parliament even though it had passed the Stamp Act and the Townshend Acts. These guys are lawyers, and they want to establish their position that, by 1776, they have no ties to England except through the crown. It’s interesting to follow.

By the time of the Declaration of Independence, was it less about independence for the colonists than about having their own parliament? 

No, by this point, they’re cutting the final ties. They had already decided that Parliament had no right to legislate for them in any way but that they had a common executive. When they come to the Declaration, they’re breaking that final tie — to the king, to George III. 

Is there a point in the chronology of these pamphlets or in a particular pamphlet where you can see the purpose change from rhetorical persuasion to “We’re done here”?

I think the crucial turning point came with William Knox, another of these under-secretaries who did a lot of the pamphleteering — the aides to the ministers, comparable to people would word work for someone like senators today. Knox was very familiar with the colonies. He wrote a pamphlet in 1769 where he invokes sovereignty. He says that you can’t divide Parliament’s authority — that if you accept one part of Parliament, you accept all of it. The colonists submit to that logic and say, “Okay, we’re totally out.” 

Thomas Hutchinson, who was the last civilian royal governor in Massachusetts and really one of the most powerful intellectual figures in the 18th-century American world, tries to give the colonists the same argument in 1773. It’s hard for us to appreciate this today, but in the 18th-century British world, Parliament is the guardian of people’s liberties. It’s the institution that has protected them against the crown’s tyranny. Parliament had this kind of awe and respect — in British eyes — that the Americans can’t quite appreciate. The English Bill of Rights was an act of Parliament. They saw the Americans as cutting themselves off from the institution that had been the source of liberty. 

John Adams wrote the response to Hutchinson and said we were out of Parliament’s authority entirely. They were defending the English constitution — not defying it. Americans were not anti-English at the outset. It’s only at the last moment that they cut their ties.

They’re English.

Right, and they’re appealing to English rights and English liberties. One of the paradoxes of this break is that Americans are not oppressed in a modern sense of the term. It’s not like the Algerians breaking away from France in the 1960s. These are Englishmen who are appealing to the English constitution and English rights through the entire debate until the very end when they’re confronted with this logic of sovereignty.

The English officials really didn’t understand the colonists. A lot of them had written the colonists off as a mongrel people — an intermingling of Indians and black Africans — and not very sophisticated. When General Howe’s army arrived in New York in 1776, they were stunned to find white people in New York City. The popular image of America had been savage and barbaric. The level of sophistication on the American side of these pamphlets was a bit of a surprise to the British officials.

You’re also editing a collection now of John Adams’s writings?

I did the first two and we postponed the third volume because the Library of America wanted to get these two books on the pamphlets out. This is the 250th anniversary of the Stamp Act — not that Americans have noticed that very much — that was enacted in 1765. The third volume of John Adams is coming out next year and will take him from 1784 to his death in 1826.

Is the electronic media today more like the media environment before the Revolutionary War than any other period?

They’re very different as far as the time delay and written materials being for a limited audience, though I’m not sure that very many people actually participate in reading these kinds of blogs today as a percentage of the population. But they are comparable in the sense that people respond to each other now in blogs and have a dialogue, and that’s what was going on with these pamphlets in a much more delayed process.

The 1980s, when most major American cities were down to one or two major newspapers and there were only three major broadcast networks — and before the internet — is looking more like an anomaly than the periods of more wide-open media that came before and after.

I think that’s true. There were many more newspapers in the 19th century and a bigger diversity of publications than we had in the last quarter of the 20th century, and we only had the three networks. That’s all been transformed, and the media now is closer to the 18th century in that sense. The audience, though, was very limited. Literacy was high in America — maybe the highest in the world — but still only maybe 70 percent of people could read and write, and most of them weren’t reading things like these pamphlets. 

The pamphlets are hard to read. There are too many citations to Cicero and Tacitus, and there’s a very limited audience for that. To some extent, that’s true today. People who read The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and Atlantic Monthly are the same people. I think that is changing with the internet, and it’s a very interesting issue who’s reading what on the internet. 

This will sound like an invitation to an elitist answer, but do you think it makes much difference today to move the needle of people who have a broad understanding of American history from, say, 20 percent to 25 percent?

I don’t know. You want people to understand their path, but history has become more sophisticated and more refined and it tends to undermine what you might call basic patriotism. People who read history tend to get a negative view of their past. There’s a Frenchman, Pierre Nora, who in the 1980s became so alarmed at the way critical historians were undermining France’s past that he began collecting what he called “sites of memory” — commissioning books of Joan of Arc and the Eiffel Tower and things that represented French history. 

He felt like French historians were undermining France’s sense of itself. To some extent, that’s the same as the fight we’re having here about what should be on the AP History test. Many people feel that the whole heritage of the United States is at stake — that if kids learn only that we killed Indians and enslaved Africans, what kind of sense will they have of their own culture? That’s an issue that has become increasingly important, and it’s not easy to answer. You want an honest history, but you don’t want to undermine the support for the country. 

Academic and trade publishers are always looking for new ideas. With a period like the revolutionary era that doesn’t necessarily generate a lot of new archival material, do you see ideas getting attention just because they’re different that maybe shouldn’t be getting attention? 

Academics have become so specialized and are writing mostly for each other that much of the history writing now is being done by non-academics. David McCullough and Ron Chernow are prime examples — journalists or former journalists who have become pretty good historians. These people are filling a gap that academic historians have allowed by being so absorbed in their own arguments with each other.

When I came of age in the 1950s, people like Richard Hofstadter and Daniel Boorstin and C. Vann Woodward were writing for two readerships simultaneously — they were writing for their fellow historians and for the general public. That’s no longer true. Most academic historians are writing for each other and are not trying to meet this other need. It’s partly because of the increasing specialization within the discipline. It is a problem. 

Maybe it’s not a problem, though. Maybe the result of the specialization is that academics who are skilled and versed in digging up new ideas and new research are producing the core material for people like Ron Chernow — trained as a journalist — who may be better at taking those things and translating them to a popular audience.

And that’s a good point. I think that’s true. I think in many cases, though, the popularizers don’t pay much attention to the articles and monographs that have been published. The monograph writers complain that popular historians are not paying attention to what they do, but I think you raise a good point. We have far better knowledge of slavery now than we had prior to 1960; the studies of slavery that began in the 1960s coincided with the civil rights movement. It’s the same of the women’s movement, which has produced an enormous number of books on the history of women. 

That’s all good — undeniably — but historiography has become so sophisticated that it’s not designed to reach and not reaching the general, interested reading public. Historians should stop every once in a while and bring that stuff together. A young professor doesn’t want to endanger his or her career by writing something for a popular audience. You have to get established before you can do that and get away with it.

Is that how you see your Empire of Liberty?

Yeah. That Oxford series was designed by Richard Hofstadter and C. Vann Woodward in the 1950s. It took a long time to commission and write all of the books, and they’re not all finished yet. Empire of Liberty was commissioned to Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, and they came out with a big volume on the federalist period [The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788–1800, published by Oxford University Press in 1993]. They were supposed to cover 25 years but did just 12 years, so that was published outside the series.

[Wood’s Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815, published by Oxford University Press in 2009, is part of the Oxford History of the United States series and was a Pulitzer Prize nominee.] 

When the District of Columbia v. Heller case was going through the courts and there was a lot of discussion about the Second Amendment, what did you think about how the parties and the courts talked about the history of the Second Amendment?

Like most debates, each side tried to muster as much evidence as they could toward their cause, and each side was trying to appeal to history. The proponents of gun control tried to draw a distinction — because the Second Amendment is so awkwardly worded — between individual ownership and militias. They tried to say that the ownership of guns applied only to militias. People in the 18th century would not have understood that distinction. There were distortions by both sides trying to make their case. 

People use whatever arguments they can. That’s rhetoric. That’s why intellectual life is so exciting. You use as many arguments as you can, and sometimes it leads to distortions. History becomes very important in that as it did for the colonists who tried to use history to bolster their case.

Do you think liberal and conservative academics in a case like Heller function more as resources for the left and the right than as honest brokers? 

Depends on the people. Historians have political passions too, and they sometimes let that affect their views of history. I have friends who make very strong statements on the Second Amendment and on the Heller case. I don’t usually get involved in that kind of thing because I just don’t think it’s my role. Other people see themselves as citizens as well as historians who feel like they should take a stand on that sort of thing. 

In the last several years, I have seen more trade titles on both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War putting more of an emphasis on international forces and economic forces. Is that something that has been around for a while in the academic world?

The economic analysis has been around since the beginning of the Progressive Era with Charles Beard — showing that the motives for some of these people were not as idealistic and not as intellectual and that they had economic motives. So that’s old; that’s a century old at least. But the notion of seeing the Revolution in a larger Atlantic context is newer. Our Revolution inaugurated a series of revolutions that went on through 1848 with efforts by Europeans to become republics, or we would say to become democracies.

All of them failed — the French being the most dramatic failure. By 1815, the Bourbons were back on the throne. In 1848, there were desperate efforts to establish democracy in Germany, in France, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire that all failed, and that sets the stage for Lincoln. In 1860, there are no democracies anywhere. When he says, “we’re the last best hope,” he’s talking in the context of the failure of these republican revolutions in 1848. Lincoln wants to show the world that democracy is viable — that it can survive.

There was an Atlantic Spring, if you will, that started in 1776. We inaugurated it. The French Revolution was so overwhelming in its consequences that it tended to smother reports of the American Revolution, but at the time people thought the French were just trying to copy us. That’s why Lafayette sends the key to the Bastille — the prison that fell in 1789 — to George Washington, and it still hangs today at Mt. Vernon. Lafayette was saying, “You started this ball rolling, and our revolution is a consequence of your revolution,” and that’s how Americans saw it. 

Can you look even wider than Atlantic history? If you put the American Revolution as a chapter in the global history of colonialism with the Dutch and the Portuguese and the French and the English, how different does the American Revolution look in that perspective?

If you want to think of it in terms of colonial rebellions, which is how it is often interpreted, our revolution wasn’t like the Indonesians breaking away from Holland or the Algerians breaking away from France. Our revolution was not a typical colonial rebellion. It wasn’t just against colonialism; it was against monarchy. We were establishing democracy. I was on a tour of Indonesia in 1976, and they were celebrating the 30th anniversary of their revolution and we were celebrating the 200th of ours. The Indonesians tended to see our revolution as just like theirs — breaking away from a hostile mother country — but I think our revolution was bigger than that.

Do you see the next generation of historians — academics in their 30s and 40s writing their third books, your former PhD students — shifting from the prevailing view of the American Revolution?

We had a conference of the Massachusetts Historical Society in April, and one of the big complaints was that there’s no originality left — that nobody’s being original. I think that’s probably true. There are a lot of monographs focusing on Indians and on violence, but nobody is making big, new reinterpretations. And fewer universities are teaching it. There are other issues that seem more pressing to Americans. 

Is the important thing happening the wider electronic availability of historical materials? 

Certainly. There are so many things available now electronically that George Bancroft in the 19th century would have had to go from city to city to go to archives. When I wrote my first book, I was reading a lot of materials on microcards, which was terrible. Now I can call up all of that stuff on my computer. Every book or published material in the United States from 1640 when books started to be published until about 1840 is now available. It’s incredible.


Scott Porch (@scottporch) is a journalist and book critic who writes frequently about American history, literary history, and digital media.

LARB Contributor

Scott Porch (@scottporch) is a journalist and book critic who writes frequently about American history, literary history, and digital media. He wrote a profile of Robert Caro for The Daily Beast (“The Power Broker Turns 40: How Robert Caro Wrote a Masterpiece”) and a profile of Teddy White for Politico Magazine (“The Book That Changed Campaigns Forever”). He has interviewed Lincoln biographer Harold Holzer, playwright Tony Kushner, psychologist Steven Pinker, Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd, and legal scholar Cass R. Sunstein. He is writing a book about the fracturing of the civil rights movement and the rise of the feminist movement in the 1960s and early 1970s.


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