In the summer of 1765, anti-tax riots roiled Great Britain’s North American colonies from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to Charleston, South Carolina, the first stirrings of what became the American Revolution. This month, for the 250th anniversary of the Stamp Act Crisis, The Library of America is publishing The American Revolution: Writings from the Pamphlet Debate 1764–1776, a two-volume collection that captures the extraordinary political debate which led, in just twelve years, to the Declaration of Independence and the end of the first British empire.
We recently interviewed acclaimed historian Gordon S. Wood, who edited the collection. Wood is Alva O. Way Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University and his books include the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Radicalism of the American Revolution and the Bancroft Prize–winning The Creation of the American Republic 1776–1787. In 2011 Wood was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama.
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?
Wood: 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?
Wood: 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.
LOA: Much of the debate turns on the history of the founding of the American colonies and of the long period during which the mother country’s imperial policy, as Edmund Burke famously characterized it in a pamphlet included in this collection, seemed to amount to “salutary neglect.” What did American writers who were arguing against parliamentary authority hope to gain by this resort to history? How did their opponents counter their claims?
Wood: History was always important to Englishmen in establishing rights. The common law is very much a history-based legal structure, so it was natural for the colonists to appeal to history, Magna Charta, the English Bill of Rights, and other important legal precedents to support their claims. Several American writers, particularly Edward Bancroft, the future British spy, turned to the seventeenth century, and the reign of the Stuarts, to make fascinating arguments about the nature of the relationship between the king and the parliament, and the underlying rationale for colonization in the first place. Their opponents likewise appealed to history, but their source material was much more recent, really only including the decades of the eighteenth century when parliamentary sovereignty developed. Because of the importance of historical references in the debate, the Library of America collection includes a 32-page chronology charting the history of the English and later British empire from its founding to 1776, when its greatest jewel was lost.
LOA: Contemporary readers may be surprised to find, among the British writers represented here, that Samuel Johnson is one of the most vociferous critics of the American position while Edmund Burke is one of the most conciliatory. What do we know about the motivations behind their respective positions?
Wood: Johnson, the older of the two, was always Toryish in his outlook and he never liked America. When he toured the Hebrides with Boswell he was stunned by the vacant villages in Scotland. He thought that Britain was becoming depopulated by the massive emigration of Brits to America in the middle decades of the eighteenth century. One gets the sense that when the British government came to him to enlist his pen in their defense in the pamphlet debate, he didn’t need much coaxing. Burke on the other hand was a fervent Whig, and as such opposed to Crown power. Since the empire had traditionally been viewed as under the king’s control, he and his party of Rockingham Whigs were suspicious of what George III was up to in the 1760s. At the same time the Rockingham Whigs were devoted to parliamentary sovereignty and thus could never be outright advocates of the American position. This left Burke in the position of urging the British government to, in effect, let sleeping dogs lie. He foresaw that by exposing certain fundamental differences in political theory between the British and the Americans, the government’s policies could only end in disaster.
LOA: Johnson’s pamphlet contains the unforgettable line “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” Did anyone writing for the American side have a rejoinder to that—and does slavery figure anywhere else in the pamphlet debate?
Wood: Slavery was always a latent issue for many in the debate, but by today’s standards what is amazing is how little it was raised, especially since the colonists talked constantly of being “enslaved” by the British policies. Many took African slavery for granted as the lowest form of dependency in a hierarchy of dependencies, and used the imagery without any sense of the inherent hypocrisy. But others like James Otis did see the inconsistency and spoke out against slavery, as when he memorably wrote: “The colonists are by the law of nature freeborn, as indeed all men are, white or black. . . . Does it follow that ’tis right to enslave a man because he is black?”
LOA: It’s interesting that two of the most prominent “patriot” writers in the first volume of this collection, Daniel Dulany and John Dickinson, later had qualms about independence—Dulany becoming a Loyalist and Dickinson leading the opposition to the Declaration in Congress in 1776. What accounts for this apparent change of heart?
Wood: In the 1760s many colonists were opposed to the new British policies, but certainly did not anticipate breaking up the empire. All of them had a respect for English traditions of law and rights. In the end most of them revolted not against the English constitution but on behalf of it, in what they often characterized as a conservative attempt to retain their traditional rights. Dulany was a member of the council in Maryland and had a vested interest in the empire. Dickinson sincerely believed that America’s breaking free of England would lead to America’s bleeding from every vein. England after all was the bastion of liberty in a hostile world.
LOA: How would you describe the role that Thomas Paine’s Common Sense plays in the debate? Does his famous pamphlet seem more or less revolutionary when viewed in this context?
Wood: Paine’s pamphlet really was different, and its extraordinary character only becomes clearer when seen in the context of this collection. Most of the other writers in the pamphlet debate were elites, with positions of authority in society. Paine was different. He was our first public intellectual, and unlike the other pamphleteers, he lived solely by his pen. As such, he aimed at a much broader audience than did the others, one encompassing the middling class of artisans, tradesmen, and tavern-goers. Unlike the elite writers who bolstered their arguments with legal citations and references to the whole of Western culture going back to the ancients, Paine did not expect his readers to know more than the Bible and the English Book of Common Prayer. Everyone knew that Paine was violating the conventional rules of rhetoric and were awed by his pamphlet. More substantively, Paine’s aggressive anti-royalism marked a major turn in the debate. Recognizing the need to shock his readers out of their reflexive loyalty to the Crown, Paine employed a pungent style unlike any other, referring to George III as “the Royal Brute.”
LOA: New histories of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers appear with ever greater frequency. Why do you feel it is important for readers to return to the original writings of the era?
Wood: The Revolution is the most important event in our history. It not only legally created the United States but it infused into our culture our noblest ideals and highest aspirations, our beliefs in liberty, equality, and the happiness of ordinary people. Since there is no American ethnicity, these ideals and values are the only thing holding us together as a nation. As valuable as secondary works about the period are, or can be, it’s essential that we continually go back to the original writings of the Founders for nourishment and renewal of what it means to be an American.
LOA: These are the third and fourth volumes you’ve edited for The Library of America, joining your two-volume edition John Adams: Revolutionary Writings 1755–1783, published in 2011. And a third and final volume of Adams’s writings is forthcoming in the spring. What is it about The Library of America that keeps you coming back?
Wood: The Library of America is a non-profit cultural institution that is dedicated to preserving America’s literary heritage. It makes the great works of American writings available to the general reader in modestly priced editions; at the same time, Library of America editions provide enough editorial apparatus to be useful to students and scholars. One certainly doesn’t engage in these editorial projects for the money, but rather for the opportunity to make some great writings available to future generations. For the editors, they have to be projects of love, as this one was for me.