Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Gordon Wood on the American Revolution Pamphlet War

Historian Gordon Wood has edited one of the most recent volumes of the Library of America. The two-volume boxed set is entitled The American Revolution: Writings From the Pamphlet Debate, 1764-1776.

Over at the blog of the Library of America, Wood discusses some of his editorial choices. Here is a taste of that interview:

LOA: The new Library of America set collects thirty-nine of the more than one thousand pamphlets that appeared between 1764 and 1776. What were your main criteria for the selections you finally settled on? 

GW: The key criterion was the importance of the pamphlet in advancing the debate. The goal in assembling this collection was to provide readers with a clear sense of how the polemical contest over the relationship between the British government and the colonies emerged and escalated until the final rupture in 1776. To do this, it was essential to include pamphlets published in England as well as in America, because they often spoke directly to one another.

It is one of the ironies of the American Revolution that the colonies had closer ties to the mother country in this period than they had ever had before, and this is nowhere more evident than in the pamphlet debate. These texts were part of a lively transatlantic discourse in which pamphlets published in Boston or Philadelphia soon appeared in London and were quickly reprinted, and vice versa. Distinguishing these writers as “British” and “American” can be tricky, too. Englishman Thomas Paine had been resident in the colonies for only fourteen months when he wrote Common Sense, the most influential expression of the “American” position, while Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson, who in two pamphlets gathered here presents the “British” position as forcefully as any writer, had deep ancestral roots in the Bay Colony. Finally, I took into account the historical significance of the authors. For some writers, like Thomas Jefferson, the pamphlet debate marked their emergence on the scene; for others like Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke, it afforded an opportunity to display their unique rhetorical gifts.

LOA: For a general reader, one of the discoveries here is a nuanced debate about “virtual” versus “actual” representation that sows the seeds for what became the American Revolution. What made that debate so important for later events in our history—and did it have consequences for Great Britain’s political development as well?

GW: The pamphlet debate revealed the extent to which American ideas about representation had diverged from British. Because of the manifest impracticality of the colonies sending representatives to Parliament, defenders of parliamentary authority over the colonies were forced to clarify as never before the idea of virtual representation, which held that Parliament represents the interests of the empire regardless of how or from where its members were selected. This became the primary philosophical difference that animated the controversy. Americans going back to the colonial period have always thought of the electoral process as the principal criterion of representation, and we have generally believed that representation has to be in proportion to population. That is why we have usually placed great importance on expanding suffrage and on bringing electoral districts into some kind of rational relationship to population. To underscore the link between the representative and the represented, we have also required that elected officials be residents of their specific districts. Conversely, even today, such a residency requirement does not exist for British MPs.