- Politics in the Age of the American Revolution
The period surrounding the American Revolution has long illuminated the varying scales and tempos of political activity, as well as the roles of ideas and deliberation in shaping political change. In their respective accounts of networked communication in the American colonies and the intellectual development of Edmund Burke in the years culminating with the American crisis, William Warner and David Bromwich present fresh optics on these questions that also illuminate patterns of information sharing and political debate in our own moment. Drawing upon deep engagement with generations of scholarship and careful scrutiny of [End Page 359] familiar documents and ephemeral texts, these landmark studies present distinct but intersecting revisions to how we might view politics, then and now.
Protocols of Liberty approaches the American Revolution as “an event in the history of communication” (1), developing questions about mediation—familiar from Warner’s work on the Re: Enlightenment Project—into a fully-fledged study of the colonial crisis. Accounts of key episodes and pivotal developments weave from detailed overviews (at day-by-day and page-by-page or even minute-by-minute and sentence-by-sentence levels) into schematic breakdowns of their constituent communicative “protocols” (with diagrams and panels presenting further clarification, of different network “topographies,” for example). Alongside enhanced accounts of such events as the Boston Massacre and the protests against the Tea Act, the first chapters address the development of committees of correspondence and the subsequent issuing of declarations—by way of a “distributed network” (78)—across Massachusetts towns. Following a chapter addressing the interplay between newspapers and the post, chapters four and five reveal how, “scaled up” to the intercolonial level, these interlocking practices and nonhierarchical networks came under pressure but also acquired political weight at the First Continental Congress. Following attention throughout to the interweaving of language and practice—metaphors of blood in the streets and trees of liberty, the etymologies of “congress,” “crisis,” and “protocol”—the concluding chapter revises “literary” approaches to the Declaration of Independence. As the “zenith of nearly four years of American Whig networking,” the Declaration appears not as an end in itself—a view disparaged as “a modern symptom of the failure of the sort of collective identification and collaborative politics that made the Revolution possible” (234n.2)—but a communicative event that galvanized new modes and temporalities of political agency (whose afterlives are sketched in a brief conclusion on “The American Revolution as a Gift”).
Although Benjamin Franklin, Samuel and John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson maintain pivotal roles in this story, the focus falls less on the Founders—or American “Whigs” more widely—and still less on a putative body of “ordinary people.” As “active mediators of the political crisis” (152), the communicative protocols by which appeals to liberty were made, connected, and swiftly implemented take on central roles here. Drawing “single-channel” studies of print, speech, and manuscript culture into a united media “ecology,” Protocols of Liberty also draws upon a formidable array of scholarship and original research, including a painstaking reconstruction of newspaper reprinting, to reveal how these “new practices of association, communication, and generic innovation” converged to produce “an entirely new mode of political action” (3).
Warner’s declaration that “nothing was more pivotal” (3) to American success in declaring independence from Britain will be for historians, as well as scholars of enlightenment and print culture more widely, to debate. Protocols of Liberty makes a forceful case for its reintegrated approach to revolution and mediation. The study undercuts its more radical claims with choices over framing. Although Warner challenges studies “beginning with liberty,” the emphasis on liberty in his own study—which “begins with the action of American Whigs” (24)—can lead to a mismatch with his attention to decentralized and self-organizing practices. Neo-Roman theories of liberty would seem to belong to...