July 1, 2022

The American Pamphlet: Twitter for The Founding Fathers

By: Brittany Hunter

For better or for worse, social media has allowed us to share any political thought or opinion with the entire world instantaneously.

Disagree with a senator’s vote? Tweet at him. Hate an old friend’s opinion on a controversial issue? Express your disdain in a reply and wait for the outrage to ensue.

This virtual, often uncivil, discourse has been viewed as a relatively new phenomenon that has changed “business as usual” for political commentary. 

Many have opined that, removed from face to face interaction and nestled safely behind one’s keyboard, people are now free to say whatever comes to their mind, however incendiary it may be.

If we’re talking about the speed in which information is shared, there is no denying that Twitter is a modern wonder. But perhaps we give ourselves too much credit when it comes to lauding social media as a revolutionary medium of public dialogue. 

Long before the first tweet was sent, American colonists had their own methods of not just sharing their political opinions, but also engaging in heated, uninhibited philosophical arguments … nestled safely behind one’s own pen. 

The American Pamphleteers 

Before the internet could have ever been imagined, the early Americans spread political news and opinions in small booklets that were reprinted and distributed throughout the colonies. 

These pamphlets, which often sparked controversy and debate among readers, played an integral role in the founding and framing of our country. 

We forget that there wasn’t a general consensus among the colonists when it came to supporting  American independence from Britain.

There were loyalists, colonists who feared what a war may mean for them and their loved ones, and countless others who did not support a break from King George. Convincing the skeptics meant winning over the hearts and minds and steering them towards liberty.

Thomas Paine, a pamphlet legend, is credited for turning the tide in colonial sentiment towards independence with his 1775  booklet, The American Crisis, which drove home the dire need for separation.

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” wrote Paine.

“The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like Hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph,”

These powerful words, now immortalized, helped turn the tides in colonial sentiment and rallied the people towards revolution. 

This pamphlet was then followed up with his equally genius Common Sense.

Even without the speed of information we enjoy today, pamphlets were quickly printed and spread like wildfire, stoking the flames of liberty when it seemed the spark might go out. One might say that Paine’s pamphlets were the first viral “tweets.” 

But the pamphlet’s influence on American politics would not end with the victory in the Revolutionary War.

The Federalists vs. The Anti Federalists

Passionate debates and disagreements filled the air as America’s framers met to determine the fate of America’s new government. 

While there were varying opinions across the political spectrum, the two loudest voices were those of the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. The former believed in a strong central government while the latter believed that this would give the government far too much power, threatening individual liberty. 

As the debate raged on, dueling pamphlet series began to spread. 

Under the pen name, “Publius,” James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton wrote 85 essays rallying support for the Federalists in their pamphlets aptly named The Federalist Papers.

For those who weren’t in the room where these political discussions were taking place, these essays gave them insight into what was going on and what types of government were being considered. You might say it was a form of  “live tweeting” of the Constitutional Convention. 

The Federalist’s views did not go unchallenged. 

In what may be the most heated vintage “Twitter battle” of all time, the “Anti-Feds” hit back with their pamphlet series the Anti-Federalist Papers.

Under the pseudonyms, “Cato”, “Brutus,” “Centinel”, and “Federalist Farmer,” the authors, who were speculated to be George Clinton, Melancton Smith, Robert Yates, John WIlliams, Samuel Bryan, Richard Henry Lee, and Mercy Otis Warren, challenged the Federalists and offered their own alternative opinions favoring a limited and decentralized federal government. 

This back and forth was widely read by Americans as each tried to form their own opinions on the future of our government. And both helped shape what would become our Constitutional Republic. 

The First Canceled Man 

Twitter has become ground zero of cancel culture, and the American pamphlet wasn’t devoid of its own juicy cancellation story. 

Alexander Hamilton had ambitious presidential aspirations. But after he was extorted by a woman with whom he had been having a torrid affair, he authored a pamphlet that, for all intents and purposes, resulted in his cancellation and spoiled any hopes of a presidential run. 

In what would be known as The Reynolds Pamphlet, Hamilton sought to set the story straight. In the pamphlet, he admitted wrongdoing while also explaining that the Reynolds—the woman he was having an affair with and her husband—had been blackmailing him in exchange for keeping the story private. 

Fearing the truth would soon come out, he outed himself in the booklet. 

Everyone, including his own wife, found out about his infidelity by reading the document, which resulted in his widespread “cancellation,” destroying any hope of holding political office. 

The Legacy of the Pamphlet

Whether it be a tweet or a pamphlet, Americans have always craved debate and discourse when it comes to matters of a political nature. They want their views known, shared, and supported by the masses, and the written–or typed–word is their medium of choice. 

But nothing about this is exclusive to the modern world. And when it comes to social media, all we really did was reinvent the wheel. 

Today, the art of the American pamphlet may be lost to history. But its remnants are so clearly seen in the  “modern town square,” we call Twitter.