Propaganda 1776: Secrets, Leaks, and Revolutionary Communications in Early America by Russ Castronovo (review)
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Keywords

Propaganda, Political communication, Discourse, Falsehood

Propaganda 1776: Secrets, Leaks, and Revolutionary Communications in Early America. By Russ Castronovo. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. 235. Cloth, $25.00.)

What would change if we viewed all political communication as propaganda? Would it release us from a normative liberal ideology, which assumes that political discourse should resemble a high-minded debating society, privilege rationality over affect, and trust that truth will prevail in [End Page 175] the marketplace of ideas? Could recognizing the ubiquity of propaganda overcome the commonplace that while our own fighting faiths appear to be grounded in political ideas, those of opponents appear part of a propagandistic effort to deceive, manipulate, and control? Could such a revaluation of propaganda allow new attention to the mechanics of how ideas are actually propagated and spread? This is the wager made by Russ Castronovo in his new book, Propaganda 1776.

In this ambitious and lively book, Castronovo revisits episodes in the American Revolution and developments in recent media history (like Wikileaks and the ‘‘meme’’) and propaganda theory (from Edward Bernays and Walter Lippmann to Noam Chomsky) so as to develop a more inclusive conception of propaganda. Rather than use propaganda as an epithet to puncture the disinterested aura often attributed to the founders of the republic, as had Charles Beard, Arthur Schlesinger Sr., and other Progressive Era historians, Castronovo defines the reach of propaganda more broadly. While it is still essentially instrumental means of inducing a particular response, propaganda is not by this account under the exclusive control of a few at the top (from the Catholic church of Gregor XV to Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels). Instead propaganda can spread its messages through wider, popular, distributed means consistent with democracy, like the town meetings of Massachusetts (18-20). Propaganda is still anti-rhetorical for the way it influences rather than persuades, favors emotion over intellection, and often features ‘‘the vilification of opponents’’ (22). But Castronovo’s study emphasizes that propaganda is a process of ‘‘propagation’’ that exceeds the content of a message with its ways and means: It is kinetic, mobile, and often quite chaotic. Its effects overwhelm intention.

To make his case for this expanded concept of propaganda, and to contest the idealistic pull of the ‘‘nationalist narrative’’ of the Revolution, Castronovo offers a fresh perspective on more or less familiar episodes in revolutionary communication. What comes into view is a not-so-pleasant underbelly of these communications. In 1773, Benjamin Franklin’s leaking of old letters of Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson helped to bring down the Hutchinson administration. (Castronovo compares this episode to the Wikileaks of Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange.) Mercy Otis Warren’s scurrilous attack upon Hutchinson in a closet drama titled The Adulateur, published in The Massachusetts Spy of March 26, 1773, features the Governor as ‘‘Rapatio.’’ Castronovo demonstrates, through database word searches, that over the next five years [End Page 176] there is a five-fold increase in the application of the words ‘‘rapacity’’ and ‘‘rapacious’’ to Royal officials in the colonial press (63). This is compellingly interpreted as a Revolutionary era ‘‘meme.’’ Less convincing for this reader is Castronovo’s effort to read the colonial resistance to the Tea Act not in local provincial terms, nor in terms of intra-imperial policy struggles, but in terms of a ‘‘view from below’’ (99) that opens, for the first time, a truly global perspective on the Revolution by framing the common predicament of East India and North America within the Empire, a perspective first developed most explicitly in the writings of Thomas Paine. But rather than seeing the tea resistance as the first glimmerings of the global perspective only actively assumed, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, by the Communist International, I would contextualize resistance to the tea by referring to the global imperial thinking evident in British writers in the wake of the Seven Years’ War such as Thomas Pownall Jr., Edmund Burke, and Benjamin Franklin.

One of the most suggestive parts of Castronovo’s book deals with the forged letters of George Washington, just before the British invasion of New York in 1776...


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