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  • "The Would-be-Author and the Real Bookseller":Thomas Paine and Eighteenth-Century Printing Ethics
  • Michael Everton (bio)

Lecturing British colonials on the motives for revolution and registering the immediacy of insurgency, Thomas Paine's remarkable 1776 pamphlet, Common Sense, focused on political change through the conventional lens of communal morality. "Society is produced by our wants," Paine preaches, "and government by out wickedness" (Writings 1:69).1 The pamphlet's effect, however, was anything but conventional. Anonymously authored, expertly printed, advertised, and disseminated, Common Sense was one of the most successful publications in American history. And in the social landscape made possible by Enlightenment ethics-which posited the validity of a subjective epistemology and the supremacy of reason-it made revolution right and made printers all but giddy with profit. But its production was not without controversy.

The circumstances surrounding the publication of Paine's blockbuster erupted into a public fracas in the early months of 1776. Paine contracted with printer Robert Bell to print his pamphlet but then, fearing he was being cheated out of profits, demanded that Bell cease printing the work after one edition. Bell refused. As a result, Paine published complaints about the printer's business practices in the Pennsylvania Evening Post, which in turn became the venue for a tabloid war of words between author and printer.

The contest and its language were timely. British colonialism had made the business of print a messy affair, particularly with regard to the rights of authors. In the absence of colonial copyright, authors had only abstract ethical rights to which to cling, rights given credence by classical republicanism and its concomitant emphasis on communal morality and reason.2 [End Page 79] Authors had to rely on the variable social mores of printers and booksellers at a time when morality was a term of some public debate, especially where profit was involved. Too often, as a young Benjamin Franklin lamented, tradespeople deemed morality incompatible with business. As printer of the Pennsylvania Gazette, Franklin was fond of reciting trade slogans he overheard in the Philadelphia streets, slogans like "'tis a Pity Lying is a Sin, it is so useful in Trade" (Writings 159). Despite eighteenth-century commerce's ostensible investment in individual and communal morality, authors found themselves largely at the mercy of the unpredictable and largely uncodified business ethics of printers and booksellers, whose notions of right and wrong were often, by necessity, economically narcissistic.

My broad interest here is in discovering how the conduct of authors and printers reflected attitudes toward cultural agency in late colonial and early America.3 Following historians such as Malcolm Crowley and Daniel Vickers, whose work investigates the contemporary beliefs and attitudes shaping social practice, I too wonder if "our knowledge of economic behavior and social structure in early America has far outdistanced our understanding of the values that infused them" (Vickers 4). In this essay I assess values that influenced trade behaviors that, in turn, influenced colonial authorship and printing. Though not exhaustively representative, of course, the Bell-Paine dispute nevertheless suggests that early writers controlled little in their vocational lives, a point literary historians and critics would do well to foreground more emphatically, as we tend to under-appreciate what has been called the "monstrous contingency" of authors in commercial societies (Saunders and Hunter 485). Some principal printers quite consciously and controversially managed public print culture, and in so doing relegated authors, even those as popular as Paine, not simply to a contingent state within their print culture but to a dependent state in the political and cultural revolution of the nation.

I approach this argument in three parts. I begin by introducing the transatlantic world of late colonial printing and its vocational ethics.4 Second, I recount the controversy over the printing of Common Sense, focusing particularly on the resulting debate over cultural agency both within and without the public print sphere. Finally, I suggest that Paine's political discourse of the 1770s, '80s, and '90s informs readings of his own authorial agency. In sum, the Bell-Paine controversy reveals the presence of a power [End Page 80] structure within late colonial and early American print culture different from...


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