As the Independence Day celebration rolls out across our land -- from the redwood forests, to the Gulf Stream waters, to the bytes and pixels on Huffington Post -- one marvel of our early history that we might recall is that the American Revolution had its own bloggers.
They were called pamphleteers back then, and were a little slower about posting than are the bloggers we know today. But the opinions were just as pointed, the language just as colorful, and the sense of urgency just as compelling in the era of the hand-cranked printing press -- as you can see if your path takes you to Princeton University, where the Firestone Library is now showing an exhibition of these blogs from the ink-and-paper period under the title "Liberty and the American Revolution."
Full disclosure: The materials in the exhibition have been donated to Princeton by Sidney Lapidus, who happens to be a trustee of the New-York Historical Society. Sid is the one who pointed out to me the connection between Revolutionary War pamphleteers and today's bloggers. But skim through this astonishing array of books, prints and pamphlets -- in the exhibition itself, or in the catalogue that Princeton has published -- and you'll hear for yourself a clamoring of radical voices that makes today's pundits and editorializers sound tame.
As Princeton professor Sean Wilentz notes in his introduction to the catalogue, "fathers lost authority over their children" in the wake of the Revolution, "clergy lost sway over their congregations, masters over their servants, and officials over the citizenry." To some of the revolutionary pamphleteers, this was a good thing. But the country's new order -- or disorder, in the eyes of some -- was not universally accepted. Professor Wilentz cites the words of one young conservative of the Federalist era, who wrote of his parents' generation: "The measure of their folly was never completely filled till they gave tarts and tailors a civic feast and taught the rabble that they were all viceroys."
This is another lesson we can learn by listening to the early American bloggers: that some of our forbears were thrilled to have introduced equality of opportunity into a world that for the most part had been ruled by inherited rank, while others were deeply concerned about how a society that was suddenly so unsettled could hope to prosper, given the prevalence of conflict within and threats without. After the Revolution, some pamphleteers asserted that "the foundations of national wealth are so firmly laid in the United States that no foreign power can undermine or destroy them." Others feared that "the enjoyment of these substantial blessings is rendered precarious by domestic circumstances." While some railed against the foreign debt amassed by the new nation as "the immense balance against us," others accepted the early American exercise in deficit spending as "the price of liberty."
I think there are at least two lessons we could draw from this visit to our ancestral bloggers. We can learn that the kind of push-and-pull we experience in today's political life -- between ideals of liberty and equality, between demands for mobility and stability -- have been a feature of our democracy since the original Independence Day, 233 years ago. And we can learn that however much some critics may want today's bloggers to moderate their voices or pare down their posts, American culture has never been comfortable with less opinion. It thrives on more.
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