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November 15, 2009

Infamous Scribblers

The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism
Eric Burns - ISBN - 97815864883340

This tome is a revelatory treat; aucourant as well, with present attitudes of and about the press and its scoundrels. Doubt-cha knew the journalists of our early history put the present pack of miscreants to shame. Like today, these were people who ritually tilted the balance of truth toward their favored parties, and were proficient at prevarication when need arose. They were passionate and ferocious, even vulgar in print. They attacked each other viciously with ink and fists--even weapons on occasion. Sometimes partisans invaded shops, destroyed materials and occasionally the printing presses themselves.

The scarcity of both paper and ink added to expense; sometimes even prohibiting publication. Most were one man operations since few could employ help. Production was slow, hard work, and circulations were tiny by most any standard, but copy was read by myriad people, thus increasing their influence.

Burns is a graceful writer who delivers a narrative which is as agreeable as it is informative. He chronicles the important papers and emphasizes their serial ups and downs. He engagingly describes the era and its people--inclusive from 1710 thru the end of the Jefferson administration. The characters range from Ben Franklin's brother and grandson, to the Adamses, Jefferson, Paine, and Hamilton. Ben himself was one of the founding journalists in America, and was said to make his readers smile more than any other journalist at the time.

The early press was almost exclusively partisans, in large measure supported by politicians, parties and their myrmidons who had a message to deliver. Principals, often rendered in history as a unit of agreeable gentlemen, were in fact quite intolerant of each other. Hamilton and Jefferson were notoriously tireless adversaries, always at verbal fisticuffs.

His middle chapters give one a fulsome understanding of the times, attitudes and principals of that era. During, and particularly after the revolution the Federalists controlled 85% of the press, but by the end of the Jefferson administration the Republicans had reversed that equation, controlling over 60%, which reflected evolutionary governmental change. Following Hamilton's death there was a notable diminution in contentiousness, which attenuation persists to the present.

The era also resulted in the first use of jury nullification in a case tried, with Hamilton defending. The era promulgated the first sex scandal as well. This, too, involved Hamilton, who was humiliated and excoriated for his illicit affair. In addition it birthed the first political cartoon: a snake cut into sections to emphasize the colonies separated and dysfunctional, which threatened the ability to handle the adversary.

Over time "news" was introduced, but it was scarce and usually months late due to communications. Even within the continental area such intercourse was slow. In fact it was slower overland than by ship from either Europe or the Caribbean.

There was particular fire over the Stamp Act and other imposed taxes. Events such as the Boston Massacre and later the Tea Party were widely reported and largely misrepresented by people like Sam Adams--known as "the Grand Incendiary"-- was by far the most aggressive and vitriolic of his time. Paine's original missals were widely published, as were the Federalist Papers. Pseudonymous columns were popular, and while writers, though seldom unrecognized, tried to obfuscate their identities. Franklin often wrote to himself under a pseudonym in order to give pose situations and give answers which would increase his circulation, or permit him to comment upon an issue.

Burns elaborates upon the constitutional debates, covered in the papers only after the conferences, observing that the 1790's were passionate decades. The nation's journalism could not help but reflect that heat, and he emphasizes that when Americans ceased combat with the British they immediately started skirmishing with each other.

I sometimes comment that there are "too many notes;" that narratives are too long, or suggest that one might want to "fast forward thru the boring parts." In this book there are, at minimum, just the right number of notes, and probably too few. There are no parts one wishes to fast forward thru. It is an incandescent and lustrous tome which one hates to end. I highly recommended it!

(Footnote: As a physician I found it particularly interesting that Cotton Mather became aware of American Indians inoculating themselves for Smallpox in 1702; he published the facts and technique in 1720. Instead of being lauded he was ridiculed by contemporaries. A Boston physician inoculated his own son and 286 others, using trace amounts of fluid from the pox pustules. Of the thousands of other Bostonians who contracted smallpox during the next epidemic 14% died; of the vaccinated group only 2% did. Still, no one believed. This datum was overlooked until Jenner "discovered" vaccination almost a century later.)

Posted by Curmudgeon at November 15, 2009 1:25 PM