- The Reign of ErrorNorth American Information Politics and the French Revolution, 1789–1795
"It was as if the French Revolution took place in Canada," remembered the Canadian radical Henri-Antoine Mézière. After the eruption of what would become the French Revolution in 1789, Mézière described how Canadians would assemble "in the towns in small groups, tell each other about the latest news received, rejoice with each other when the news is favorable to the French and grieve (but not desperately) when it is unfavorable." Most Canadians held deep ties to France, and their participation in the French empire remained in living memory. Likewise, the inhabitants of the United States felt a kinship for their recent allies in the American war for independence and enthusiastically celebrated the early French Revolution. One U.S. commentator remarked on the "eagerness with which the information [about France] is sought for, and the joy expressed" by the "very considerable majority" of Americans at the revolution's developments. In these early years, almost all North Americans shared a hope that the French people would remake their nation, and perhaps the world, in the image of liberty.1
But only a few years later, beginning in late 1792, North Americans' [End Page 437] pro-revolutionary consensus began to dissipate. Considering the course of events in France—the overthrow of the monarchy, the outbreak of war, the onset of violence, and the attacks on religion—this might appear to be a natural response to events. But Canadian observers responded to these troubling events very differently than Americans. In the United States, controversy raged. Many Americans, especially radicals and those aligned with the Republican party, continued to celebrate France's revolutionary politics until nearly the end of the decade. But others, especially Federalists and their allies, turned firmly against it early on. In contrast, few Canadians dared to publicly support revolutionary France by 1793.
One reason for this wide spectrum of opinion was that North Americans did not all hear the same accounts or read the same reports about revolutionary France. They had no transparent window onto the revolution. Instead, they relied on unstable and unreliable Atlantic information networks to learn about events in France. A range of contingent external forces, many of them unleashed by the French revolutionary wars, transformed these information networks and produced an uneven distribution of news across the continent. By the middle of the decade, Canadians accessed and curated a relentlessly anti-revolutionary stream of news, while Americans could pick and choose from a wider variety of news sources.
By shaping how North Americans observed the French Revolution, these divergent information networks transformed the political cultures of the United States and Canada during the 1790s. Over the past two decades, scholars of early North American politics have drawn on Jürgen Habermas's insights about the "public sphere" to produce a rich understanding of the complex interplay between political ideologies and social and cultural practices. Yet while this scholarship approaches political culture from the inside out, there is also much to be gained by understanding how external forces constrained early North American politics and discourse. From this perspective, we might see politics taking place not only in inward-facing spheres, but also in outward-facing nodes within Atlantic networks.2 [End Page 438]
Scholars often employ the word "network" to describe the exchange or mobility of persons, ideas, and commodities across space. Many kinds of networks existed in the early Atlantic world. Some were pre-arranged, formal, and relatively robust, such as national postal systems or diplomatic networks. Others were more informal and ad hoc, such as the movement of refugees or the so-called "republic of letters." Atlantic information networks tended more toward the latter. Like many networks in the early modern Atlantic, their existence depended on commercial exchange. With the exception of some regularly scheduled packet boats, Atlantic information networks had no independent existence. Rather, the movement of information across oceanic space was largely a byproduct of the movement of commercial vessels. These ships sailed at times and to destinations that might maximize their profit, not when and where they might ensure the...