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Political Pamphlets

Political Pamphlets

In the American colonies of Great Britain and the early United States, printing was of course the only form of mass communication available. With at least one press in every sizeable colony by 1750, the mechanism for an extensive exchange of opinions and information was ready to be tapped when the Crown began in the 1760s to bring the American colonies into "due subordination" to the mother country. The colonists responded to changes in trade regulations and revenue laws by noting the presumed harm to colonial prosperity and imperial trade; but they also argued that the changes violated the British constitution, especially the prohibition against taxing persons not represented in Parliament. In a pamphlet titled The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (Boston, 1764), the American Revolutionary statesman James Otis gave his opinion on the proper definition of the constitution and its applicability to the colonists. Later John Dickinson wrote a more extensive treatment of this topic, Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer … (Philadelphia, 1768) in which he dismissed the difference asserted by some in Britain between "internal" (the Stamp Tax, e.g.) and "external" taxes (import tariffs, e.g.), the former forbidden to the British, the latter permitted. Dickinson argued that both were equally onerous and equally forbidden; taxation without consent was "slavery." In 1774, Thomas Jefferson's A Summary View of the Rights of British America…. (Williamsburg, 1774) denied the existence of little more than a ceremonial tie with Great Britain. Its near assertion of independence was too advanced for the time, but

it served to put Jefferson's name before the general public both in the colonies and Britain. Pamphleteers, often using pen names from ancient Greek or Roman history, presented their arguments as gentlemanly dialogues, buttressing their arguments with references to classical or Enlightenment authors.

the question of independence

With the outbreak of fighting between royal forces and colonists at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, the controversy moved to a more consequential question: Did Great Britain have any power over the colonies? While a fledgling Continental Army besieged British forces in Boston and royal governors everywhere lost effective power, the Continental Congress moved toward independence. In January 1776 a recent emigrant, Thomas Paine, signing himself "Common Sense," published a violent diatribe against British control, arguing that there was no alternative to independence. Echoing popular arguments, he asked what logic there was in an island governing a continent; he derided George III as a "royal brute" and urged a simple republican government for the colonies. This pamphlet was immediately popular, selling more than 150,000 copies through 1778 when the sale of a few hundred copies was remarkable. In addition to a readership, many pamphlets reached even wider audiences when read aloud in gathering places; Paine's crude and harshly expressed language was well suited to oral proclamation. After Paine, other writers dropped their mannerly tone.

strengthening the union

After independence was declared and until it was won, the principal subjects of pamphlets and newspapers were the conduct of the war, congressional politics, and controversies over state constitutions. After the end of the war, a steady stream of pamphlets and newspaper essays argued for and against the strengthening of the Articles of Confederation. The publication of the draft constitution in the fall of 1787 opened the floodgates of conflicting opinions about ratification. Some of the most widely known essays of the controversy, especially those by the anti-Federalists, who opposed ratification, received only limited circulation. One exception was Melancton Smith's Observations … the Federal Farmer. Printed in their entirety only in the Poughkeepsie, New York, Country Journal (1788), the observations were later collected into a pamphlet printed four times, for a total of about four thousand copies. Deliberations of the state ratifying conventions were sometimes printed in pamphlet form. The best known of these essays, The Federalist, went directly from individual newspaper publication to collection in book form in 1788. Another set of Federalist arguments was in the satirical essays and verses of some of the "Connecticut Wits," a group of Yale graduates who poked fun at those opposing the new constitution in American Antiquities and The Anarchiad, appearing intermittently in 1786–88. One particular object of their scorn was the governor of New York, George Clinton, probably the most notable anti-Federalist in the North.

the new republic, 1789–1800

Following ratification of the Constitution, the new federal government began operating in March 1789. By the end of Washington's first term as president in March 1793, conflict between the Federalists and an opposition group, the Republicans, had become public. New, fiercely partisan newspapers and numerous pamphlets argued points of public policy, printed orations and sermons, and marked events such as political anniversaries. The events of the first three presidential administrations, especially those dealing with foreign policy, polarized public opinion, bringing partisan feeling to extraordinary heights. During a foreign policy crisis with France, from 1798 to 1800, at least twenty-nine pamphlets were printed on the Alien and Sedition Acts. At the height of the crisis in 1798, statements in support of President John Adams were frequently printed and widely distributed. Controversialists did not always confine themselves to political questions. In 1797, Alexander Hamilton revealed his adulterous relationship with the wife of a speculator in Observations on Certain Documents … (Philadelphia, 1797). The speculator was blackmailing Hamilton, resulting in suspicious payments of money. The payments had led to accusations by a scandalmongering journalist, James Thomson Callender (The American Annual Register … [Philadelphia, 1797]) that Hamilton had dealt illegally in government securities while secretary of the Treasury. Rather than have his public character smeared, Hamilton chose to smear his private reputation and embarrass his wife. Callender later was the first to publish assertions that Thomas Jefferson had fathered children by one of his slaves.

election of 1800

The first strongly contested presidential election was that of 1800. A flood of campaign literature issued from both sides—the Federalists, in support of John Adams, and the Republicans, in support of Thomas Jefferson. The Republicans were particularly vocal, criticizing the administration's measures restricting freedom of press, speech, and assembly. The Federalists decried Jefferson's presumed atheism and his intellectual predilections, particularly his "unhealthy" interest in foreign philosophies. This was illustrated by a satirical pamphlet by David Daggett, Sun Beams May Be Extracted from Cucumbers … (New Haven, 1799). Alexander Hamilton made a curious contribution by writing a pamphlet highly critical of Adams, Letter from Alexander Hamilton Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams … (New York, 1800). Somewhat illogically, he concluded by strongly advising that readers vote for Adams. After Jefferson and the Republicans won the White House and control of Congress, Republicans focused on organizing the party to ensure future power, printing the proceedings of county and state committees as much to inform voters about Republican leaders as to put forward party policies and achievements, such as the Louisiana Purchase (1803).

During the War of 1812, the Federalists became identified with antiwar, pro-British policies. When the war ended in 1815 with apparent American success, the Federalist Party began to collapse as a national party. Republican propaganda efforts slackened and so did political publishing of all kinds. However, other topics surfaced, and pamphlets presented discussions on slavery and religious questions.

the no-party period, 1816–1828

After Monroe's election in 1816, with only nominal Federalist opposition, the Republicans were able to put forward the notion of a no-party state. Monroe toured New England in the summer of 1817 and later saw to the publication of A Narrative of a Tour … by James Monroe (Philadelphia, 1818). Implicitly, the Yankees' acclaim showed the death of Federalism. Monroe's reelection in 1820 with no formal opposition and only one negative electoral vote seemed to confirm it. However the disputed election of 1824 started new political divisions.

Although Andrew Jackson of Tennessee received the highest number of electoral and popular votes, he did not have the necessary majority. The House of Representatives elected the runner-up, John Quincy Adams. Immediately Jackson's supporters protested what they saw as a stolen election. During the four years of his presidency, Adams was subjected to negative propaganda, stressing the supposed corruption and undemocratic character of his election. His presumed aristocratic background was emphasized in pamphlets such as Who Shall Be President? The Hero of New Orleans [Jackson], or John the Second, of the House of Braintree…? (Boston, 1828). Jackson supporters also penned many pamphlets in common language and illustrated with crude woodcuts calling for direct election by the popular vote. In the months leading up to the election of 1828, when Jackson challenged Adams, pamphlets (and broadsides) accused both candidates of the grossest personal acts in addition to their supposed public crimes. Pamphlets helped bring forth a voter turnout estimated at near 80 percent, electing Jackson. In the succeeding years, the role of pamphlets would wax and wane depending on the needs of the parties.

See alsoAdams, John Quincy; Anti-Federalists; Constitutional Convention; Democratic Republicans; Election of 1800; Election of 1824; Election of 1828; Federalist Papers; Federalist Party; Federalists; Jackson, Andrew; Paine, Thomas; Press, The .


Bailyn, Bernard, ed. Pamphlets of the American Revolution, 1750–1776. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965.

Cornell, Saul. The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism and the Dissenting Tradition in America, 1788–1828. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Davidson, Philip. Propaganda and the American Revolution, 1763–1783. New York: Norton, 1973.

Ferling, John E. Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Jensen, Merrill, ed. The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution. Vols. 1–10, 13–20. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1976–2004.

Kerber, Linda K. Federalist in Dissent: Imagery and Ideology in Jeffersonian America. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1970.

Remini, Robert F. The Election of Andrew Jackson. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1963; Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980.

Storing, Herbert J., ed. The Complete Anti-Federalist. 7 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Waldstreicher, David. In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776–1820. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Robert F. Jones

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