Today’s Columnists Find Their Roots in Revolutionary War Era Pamphleteers

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On the afternoon of June 9, while chasing the fugitive sloop Hannah, the unthinkable happened. The HMS Gaspee ran aground in low waters off the Rhode Island shore on what was then called Namquit Point. Unnamed Sons of Liberty, once alerted, sprang into action. In the early morning hours of June 10, before high tide could rescue the British man-of-war, the rebels boarded it, shot its commander, and burned the ill-fated vessel to its waterline.

The year was 1772 and the newspaper industry was dying. Of the thirty-seven weekly broadsheets published in the thirteen colonies, only eleven reported on what came to be known as “The Gaspee Affair.” By 1783, primarily due to lack of revenue and the logistical problems caused by the Revolutionary War, the Colonies would be down to only about twenty newspapers.

Still, the story of the Gaspee Affair stirred the American patriots. Why? Because an itinerant Baptist minister by the name of John Allen offered a rousing Thanksgiving sermon on the goings-on in Narragansett Bay. But it wasn’t the sermon that caused such a stir. It was the ensuing pamphlet of that sermon that so impassioned the patriots.

Allen’s inflammatory An Oration, Upon the Beauties of Liberty, Or the Essential Rights of the Americans soon became the second most read pamphlet in the colonies (surpassing Benjamin Franklin’s Examination). Printed in no less than seven editions in four different cities, John Adams attests to its popularity. In his May 25, 1773, diary entry, Adams wrote “Coll. Otis reads to large Circles of the common People, Allens Oration on the Beauties of Liberty and recommends it as an excellent Production.”

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967), Bernard Bailyn writes that Allen was one of only three (the others being James Otis and Thomas Paine) pamphleteers to exhibit the “peculiar emotional intensity” of Jonathan Swift.

And yet, today, few people recall the Gaspee Affair and fewer still know of John Allen. How would you feel if your seminal work lacked the recognition it deserved?

I suppose that’s exactly how a fellow columnist felt when reading a rejection notice from an esteemed journalism school. The rejection itself didn’t hurt. The reason did. As it would (and should) hurt all lovers of the free press and transparent journalism.

What was this reason and why should we be alarmed? The award-winning writer was told the selectors questioned whether an op-ed columnist could make the transition to “straight-forward journalism.”

If a well-known journalism program can’t recognize the journalistic roots of op-ed columns, do free press advocates have far greater worries than they imagine?

Today’s op-ed columnists represent the descendants of our Revolutionary War era pamphleteers. While the war took its toll on newspapers, pamphlets proliferated. Bailyn catalogued more than 400 separate pamphlets through 1776. By war’s end in 1783, that number had grown nearly fourfold. At that time, according to Moses Coit Tyler, Literary History of the American Revolution (26. edition, New York, 1898), “the subordinate place [was] then occupied by the newspaper, the supreme place then occupied by the pamphlet.”

Pamphlets represented the guerrilla tactic of Revolutionary War communication (on both sides of the Atlantic). They helped frame the logic of our rebellion. They inspired the third of the population that remained independent to take the side of the Patriots rather than the Tories. They form the basis of our unique American origin story. Bailyn writes: “It was in this form – as pamphlets – that much of the most important and characteristic writing of the American Revolution appeared.”

Many pamphleteers wrote under pseudonyms – and justly so. In a celebrated case, British authorities imprisoned Boston printer Daniel Fowle merely for being suspected of printing a pamphlet critical of the government. Indeed, this, along with the Gaspee Affair, may have prompted John Adams to allude to Britain’s infamous Star Chamber courts in his diary.

There was no free press in colonial America. In the same tongue-in-cheek style of his subjects, James A. Oliver writes in The Pamphleteers: The Birth of Journalism, Emergence of the Press & the Fourth Estate: “There was freedom of speech in this era, so long as you were prepared to pay for it at the end of a rope.”

No doubt the Founding Fathers recalled these horrors when they adopted the First Amendment and the concept of a free press. Journalism in the new America thrived in the realm of the pamphleteer – the op-ed columnist of the day. We can thank them for the free press we take for granted today.

If you disrespect an op-ed columnist as not being a “journalist,” you disrespect the American pamphleteer most responsible for the freedom of the press you (think) you know so much about.

Journalism schools must not forget that.

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