Protocols of Liberty: Communication Innovation and the American Revolution by William B. Warner (review)
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Protocols of Liberty: Communication Innovation and the American Revolution. By William B. Warner. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. Pp. 303. $45.00 cloth)

Rather than contributing another study of the American Revolugovernment [End Page 105] that focuses on Whig ideology, the founding fathers, or ordinary people, William B. Warner’s Protocols of Liberty: Communication Innovation and the American Revolution offers an alternative interpretation that sees the Revolution as “an event in the history of communication” (p. 1). The book analyzes three major innovations in communication—Whig leaders’ founding of committees of correspondence; the invention of the popular declaration; and the emergence of Whig political networks, first in Massachusetts, then spreading to other colonies and resulting in the Continental Congress. Warner shows how innovations in communications and the specific protocols they employed created unified networks, built trust and consensus, and empowered American Whigs with both the ability and the authority to wage a revolution.

The first half of the book centers on the innovations of committees of correspondence and popular declarations. Warner sees the Boston Committee of Correspondence as the “decisive development” that began the Revolution (p. 32). The committee was responsible for several actions that advanced the Whig cause, including publishing the Hutchinson letters and coordinating resistance against the Tea Act. More than this, however, the committee became a model for other committees that sprang up throughout Massachusetts, fostering widespread communication and mobilization.

Warner also argues that the Boston Committee of Correspondence developed a “new genre for political expression,” the popular declaration (p. 2). Through careful analysis of the committee’s 1772 pamphlet, The Votes and Proceedings of the Town of Boston, Warner shows how Whig leaders twisted the form of the petition by replacing the traditional supplication to royal authority with an address to a different authority—the people. Warner identifies five specific protocols observed in the declaration: 1) the legal procedure protocol, to justify the declaration; 2) the corporate action protocol, to develop consensus; 3) the public access protocol, to appeal to the public; 4) the protocol of a systematic and general address to the people, to represent the whole; and 5) the virtuous initiative protocol, to portray [End Page 106] the moral imperative of the cause. Warner argues that together these protocols established the rules for correspondence between towns and, more importantly, fostered trusted communication whereby a larger, unified Whig network could emerge.

The second half of the book shows how the Massachusetts network served as a model for an intercolonial network that would link Whig leaders throughout the colonies. The Continental Congress soon became the center of this network and issued the Declaration of Independence, which derived its authority from “the proven success and quasi-legal precedent of hundreds of Whig popular declarations” put forth by towns and counties since 1772 and, like them, observed the five protocols originally set forth by the Boston Committee of Correspondence (p. 235). It was the declaration’s timing, form, physical accessibility but especially what Warner calls its “verbal panorama”—or its use of particular language that enabled Whigs to experience the declaration as an event, rather than just an action—that made it so effective.

What is missing from this account are the many human agents that mediated the crisis. In emphasizing forms of communication, Warner often loses sight of the communicators themselves. Readers may find the book dry at times with so much emphasis on protocols instead of people. Nevertheless, Protocols of Liberty is a meticulously written book that adds an important piece to the puzzle by closing in on those important, but minute, details that historians looking at the larger picture often miss. Warner refuses to give “liberty” and “freedom” the “determining role” other studies do, arguing that those works “[simplify] the actual actions that enabled revolution” (p. 23). In rejecting this teleological approach, and instead homing in on the actions themselves and how they mediate history, Warner has offered an important and useful study of the communication innovations that made the American Revolution possible. [End Page 107]

Amy Noel Ellison

AMY NOEL ELLISON is a PhD candidate at Boston University. Her research interests include the American Revolution and military...