Early American History Seminar: Eric Slauter, University of Chicago

Early American History and Culture Seminar
Thursday, February 15, 2007

5:30 pm to 7:00 pm

“Reading and Radicalization: Print, Politics, and the American Revolution”
Eric Slauter, University of Chicago
Do books make revolutions? The question has never had the same urgency in the study of the American Revolution as it has in debates about the relation of Enlightenment to Revolution in eighteenth-century France, perhaps because most historians and literary scholars agree that the printing press played a significant role in generating popular colonial opposition to British rule. Pre-revolutionary writings in British America and especially Britain itself focused on the threat posed by radical readers, but curiously few post-revolutionary commentators treated print as an agent of change; if anything, they considered reading and the growth of printing as effects rather than as causes of the Revolution. This essay invites readers to reconsider the causal relation of print and politics in the age of the American Revolution, not by endorsing post- or sometimes counter-revolutionary perspectives but by focusing on the issue of political reprinting in the period and by examining the production and consumption of one particular reprint: a cheap pamphlet version of John Locke’s Second Treatise issued by Boston printers in 1773. Rather than asking if books make revolutions (or which books), the essay argues that scholars should balance the best-selling pamphlets against the worst, should consider the role of pre-revolutionary tracts during and after Independence, and should attend more closely to the marketing of revolution.