- Communicating Liberty:The Newspapers of the British Empire as a Matrix for the American Revolution
I beg your lordship's permission to observe, and I do it with great concern, that this spirit of opposition to taxation and its consequences is so violent and so universal throughout America that I am apprehensive it will not be soon or easily appeased. The general voice speaks discontent . . . determined to stop all exports to and imports from Great Britain and even to silence the courts of law . . . foreseeing but regardless of the ruin that must attend themselves in that case, content to change a comfortable, for a parsimonious life.—Lieutenant-Governor of South Carolina William Bull to the Earl of Dartmouth, 31 July 17741
Momentous historical events often issue from a nexus of violence and communication. While American independence from Britain ultimately depended upon the spilling of blood on the battlefields of Bunker Hill, Saratoga, and Yorktown, the successful challenge to the legitimacy of British rule in America was the culmination of an earlier communications war waged by American Whigs between the Stamp Act agitation of 1764–1765 and the Coercive Acts of 1774. In response to the first of the Coercive Acts—the Boston Port Bill—Boston Whigs secured a tidal wave of political and material support from throughout the colonies of British America. By the end of 1774, the American Secretary at Whitehall, Lord Dartmouth, was receiving reports from colonial Governors of North America, like the passage quoted above from the Lieutenant-Governor of South Carolina, William Bull. These official private letters to Whitehall confirmed a catastrophic unraveling of British authority in America: colonial legislatures were meeting without the permission, or the presiding presence, of the governor; royal courts were prevented from convening; and local militia were openly preparing for war. Remarkably similar acts of resistance to British authority, justified by very similar words, were happening thousands of miles apart at virtually the same time. What may have [End Page 339] looked to the ministry like a well-concerted conspiracy were in fact self-organizing and decentralized acts of resistance. How did American Whigs fashion this victory over British legitimacy before the war that began on 19 April 1775 at Lexington and Concord? How did they promote and prevail in what John Adams would later call "the real revolution," the revolution which occurred "in the minds and hearts of the people?"2
In this essay, I will argue that the newspapers of the British Empire had certain features—diffuseness, belatedness, openness, and availability for copying—that allowed them to enter into a complex symbiosis with the new techniques of public communication and political agency adopted by American Whigs in the decade before the Revolution. Developed in response to the Stamp Act (1765), the Townshend Duties (1768), the Tea Act (1773), and the Coercive Acts (1774), these techniques include: the circular letter sent among colonial legislatures of North America, the organization of conventions and congresses, and finally, and most importantly, the committees of correspondence.3 First developed by the town of Boston in the fall of 1772, the standing committee of correspondence was designed to enable the towns of Massachusetts to expand political participation by sharing political opinions with each other. To counter new administrative policies, like the Crown's direct payment of colonial governors and judges, policies which the Boston Whigs condemn as threats to their traditional rights and liberties, the Boston Committee of Correspondence publishes The Votes and Proceedings of the Town of Boston as an address to the towns of Massachusetts. The Votes and Proceedings outlines the basic rights and liberties of English subjects, lists their grievances with British policy, and concludes with an elegantly phrased invitation for further correspondence: "A free Communication of your Sentiments, to this Town, of our common Danger, is earnestly solicited and will be gratefully received."4 When The Votes and Proceedings wins supportive replies from the major towns of Massachusetts, Governor Thomas Hutchinson publicly condemns the activities of the Boston committee as "unwarrantable" and, using the code words for sedition, declares these committees to be "of a dangerous nature and tendency."5 When the Governor's speeches draw spirited...