PAMPHLETEERING was a means of propagating new or controversial ideas through the distribution of inexpensive and easily produced tracts or pamphlets. Because the pamphlets were brief and written in a popular style, they enjoyed tremendous circulation. Read aloud in taverns, churches, and town meetings, pamphlets became a significant means of mass communication and an essential vehicle for carrying on political debates in colonial America.
Pamphleteering had its roots in English practice, particularly during the religious controversies and political contests of the commonwealth period. Sermons, often with a political tinge, were distributed as pamphlets in colonial America. During the revolutionary period, figures such as James Otis, Stephen Hopkins, and John Dickinson debated the issue of taxation by Parliament through pamphlets. When military conflict broke out, patriots and loyalists alike engaged in pamphlet wars to justify their political choices. The most renowned pamphleteer of the American Revolution was Thomas Paine. His Common Sense was one of the strongest and most effective arguments for independence, and The Crisis papers were a powerful buttress to the morale of the patriot cause.
Americans continued to engage in pamphlet debates over issues that confronted the new government, especially the question of adopting the Constitution of the United States. Although newspapers were the forum for some of these debates—as was the case with the Federalist Papers—political opponents also used pamphlets to promote their points of view. Federalist pamphleteers included John Jay, Noah Webster, Pelatiah Webster, Tench Coxe, and David Ramsay. Representing the Antifederalists, Elbridge Gerry, George Mason, Melancthon Smith, Richard Henry Lee, Luther Martin, and James Iredell produced pamphlets in opposition.
The proliferation of newspapers in the early national period made pamphlet warfare less common, but some writers still used pamphlets to express their positions. Religious enthusiasts, reform groups, and propagators of utopian societies or economic panaceas often found the pamphlet an effective tool. Campaigns flooded the country with pamphlets to augment the circulation of newspapers or to make political attacks. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, socialists and populists used pamphlets to gain converts, and a free silver advocate produced the notorious Coin's Financial School. Propagandists during World War I, especially pacifists, utilized the pamphlet to sustain morale or refute criticism. After World War I pamphlet use declined. Increasingly, government organizations, religious groups, and learned societies continued to use pamphlets more often for informational purposes than for the propagation of controversial positions.
Adams, Thomas R. The British Pamphlet Press and the American Controversy, 1764–1783. Worcester, Mass.: American Antiquarian Society, 1979.
Bailyn, Bernard, and John B. Hench, eds. The Press and the American Revolution. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1981.
Wakelyn, Jon L. Southern Pamphlets on Secession, November 1860– April 1861. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
Milton W.Hamilton/s. b.