RALEIGH – The Founding Fathers were bloggers.
Well, okay, let me rephrase that. Many of the Founders were the 18th-century equivalent of a certain category of modern-day bloggers – writers on political topics, typically using a pen name, who are also connected to formal journalism and simultaneously active in partisan politics.
John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, Gouveuneur Morris – these and other notables of the Founding were not just drafters and signers of America’s founding documents, wartime leaders, statesmen, diplomats, and jurists. They were also prolific media commentators capable of great works of political philosophy (such as The Federalist Papers and Cato’s Letters, both originally published as newspaper columns) as well as ribald jests, character assassination, and political rumor-mongering.
As Eric Burns described in his fascinating new book Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism, much of what you read today about blogging’s corrosive effects on public life mirrors what contemporaries thought about the aggressive, often anonymous political commentary of the Founding period. George Washington was an avid reader of newspapers who nevertheless complained vociferously about their shortcomings, sometimes describing them as “too sterile, vague & contradictory, on which to form any opinion, or to claim the smallest attention” and other times calling their critical editorials “outrages on common decency.”
To Jefferson, his Secretary of State, who unbeknownst to Washington was helping to bankroll the critical newspapers, the president confided, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”
A familiar complaint about blogs and other alternative media today is that they are not just opinioned but overly and destructively partisan (a sentiment with which I tend to agree, actually). Again, this would have come as no surprise to the Founders, who lived at a time when newspapers were blatant party organs. Alexander Hamilton helped to found two newspapers, the Gazette of the United States and the New York Post, both designed to carry out his partisan interests. Hamilton’s involvement in the Gazette included personally hiring the editor, John Fenno, and pledging that he would contribute a series of articles to what would become one of America’s first daily newspapers.
Responding to the founding of the Gazette of the United States in 1789, Jefferson recruited Philip Freneau three years later to be the founding editor of the National Gazette, a Republican (what we now call Democratic) organ. In a disturbing parallel to allegations of political payola in today’s blogosphere, both Hamilton and Jefferson used public funds and their public positions to subsidize their respective papers. As Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton steered the department’s printing business to Fenno and encouraged government contractors to place their advertising in the Gazette. As Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson actually put Freneau on the public payroll as a translator while also steering departmental printing to his shop. In this questionable enterprise, at least one could still see a revealing ideological difference between the two political rivals: Jefferson’s subsidies were worth $250 a year to Freneau, while Hamilton’s were worth 10 times that much to Fenno.
While I knew that the Founding Fathers were fond of cloaking their political commentary with pseudonyms, Infamous Scribblers filled in the detail by providing their bewildering variety. Hamilton like to employ a nom de plume that revealed what he regarded as his philosophical roots in classical Rome: Publius, Pacificus, Cattalus, Horatius, and Philo Camillus, for example. Newspaper publisher Benjamin Franklin displayed a mastery of evocative names such as Silence Dogood, Alice Addertongue, Fanny Mournful, Obadiah Plainman, and the delightful Busy Body. The champion in terms of sheer numbers appears to be John Adams, whose 25 or so pen names included Populus, An American, A Son of Liberty, and the vaguely Wrestlemaniacal “Vindex the Avenger”.
Instapundit, Atrios, and Daily Kos – eat your heart out.
So what would the earlier generation think of the current media scene? As it happens, National Review’s Richard Brookhiser also has a new book out, What Would the Founders Do?, that is the perfect companion to Burns’ Infamous Scribblers. It consists of a series of questions about modern-day concerns and Brookhiser’s use of historical events and writings to suggest how the Founders might answer. To the question of what they might make of the blogosphere, I think a passage of Brookhiser’s chapter on the media might shed some light.
“Their journalism was polemical,” Brookhiser wrote. “They specialized in op-eds.” As much as they themselves regretted some of the excesses of the period, the personal attacks and scandal-sheet distractions, the Founders seemed to believe that opinion journalism was a critical element of political debate: “I condemn those indifferent mortals,” Hamilton once said, “who either never form opinions, or never make them known.”
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.