A review of Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism, by Eric Burns

Everyone takes credit for success, even if it's only gilt by association. Eric Burns is host of Fox News Watch and a former correspondent for NBC News. So Infamous Scribblers unsurprisingly says that 18th-century journalism was the father of American independence and the first two-party system. Since most of the founders engaged in journalism themselves—Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, and Alexander Hamilton published newspapers, while nearly all their famous peers wrote for them—they would probably agree with Burns.

Or maybe journalism was the deadbeat dad of our glorious past. Burns, a puckish and intelligent celebrant, knows that much 18th-century journalism was partisan, dishonest, and vulgar. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of journalism—and it is no small irony that the former condition led directly to the latter, that the golden age of America's founding was also the gutter age of American reporting, that the most notorious of presses in our nation's history churned out its copy on the foothills of Olympus."

Burns is attentive to the mechanics of the trade. He brings zip to details that other historians would dutifully record, because he understands their importance in his contemporary day job. Burns describes young Franklin, the archetypal print-shop apprentice, readying the ink and paper for the day's work. Each sheet is dipped in water "to open the fibers so that the ink will be more readily absorbed. The paper will still be damp when the words are applied later in the morning. The news does not come hot off the presses in colonial times; it comes moist." When Franklin came to own a press himself, he pioneered an innovation in ad placement, scattering ads throughout his paper instead of clumping them all together, which, he realized, "made it easy for readers to skip all the ads at once." Information moved slowly by our standards in the days before telegraphs, steam engines, and good roads. News of the battles of Lexington and Concord (April 19, 1775) was printed in Boston the same day, but not in Savannah until May 31. Audience penetration was deep, however. John Dickinson's response to the Townshend Acts, Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer (1767-68), appeared in 21 of 25 colonial newspapers, becoming the first and greatest American political bestseller, until it was trumped by Thomas Paine's Common Sense (1776), which (Burns quotes John Ferling) "probably a quarter million colonists…roughly every other free adult living in Anglo-America" read, or heard read aloud.

But the bulk of Infamous Scribblers is devoted to stories of journalists taking on the powers that be, including, as time passed, each other. Burns tells these tales well. In 1721 Benjamin Franklin's older brother James used his paper, the New England Courant, to assail Cotton Mather for promoting inoculation for smallpox. Inoculation involved inducing an infection in controlled conditions; all patients who survived (the great majority) then had immunity for life. James Franklin thought it was nuts. "[They] pray hard against sickness," the Courant wrote of Mather and fellow divines, "yet preach up the pox!" This was one of many cases in which the crusading journalist got it wrong: inoculation was the best preventive of smallpox until Edward Jenner discovered vaccination decades later. One of Benjamin Franklin's sons, un-inoculated, died of the pox.

Mather belonged to a religious establishment that, while it retained moral authority, had lost most of its political power. In 1733, a colonial newspaper and its backers attacked political power head on. William Cosby, the new royal governor of New York, was a greedy and incompetent placeman who offended the Morrises and the Livingstons, two families of local grandees. They induced John Peter Zenger, an immigrant printer, to found The New-York Weekly Journal to attack Cosby. When Cosby jailed Zenger for criminal libel, they hired Andrew Hamilton, a celebrity Philadelphia lawyer, to defend him. Hamilton told the court that "nature and the laws of our country have given us a right—the liberty—both of exposing and opposing arbitrary power…by speaking and writing the truth." The 18th-century law of seditious libel allowed no such thing; if a printer brought the government into contempt, truth was no defense. But the jury found otherwise, acquitting Zenger after a brief deliberation. This act of jury nullification effectively forestalled sedition prosecutions for decades. "After the Zenger trial," Burns writes, "independence was in the air…. Perhaps more important, it was also on the page."

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Samuel Adams's newspaper campaigns in Boston, and Thomas Paine's blazing defenses of the American cause once the Revolution had begun, are more familiar ground. Adams's accounts in the Boston Gazette of the real and alleged misdeeds of the British soldiers who occupied Boston after 1768 made an incident like the Boston Massacre (which Adams also covered in gory detail) all but inevitable. Adams's publication, in 1773, of the private correspondence of royal office-holder Thomas Hutchinson confirmed for Bostonians, and other Americans, what they had long feared—that Britain's imperial policies aimed at "an abridgment," as Hutchinson put it, "of what is called English liberty" in America. Adams got the Hutchinson letters because they had been sent to Massachusetts by Benjamin Franklin—no longer a colonial printer, but a pillar of the Anglo-American establishment, comfortably ensconced in London. In the ensuing uproar, Franklin was cross-examined by a hostile Privy Council, which helped make a revolutionary of him. Paine's series of essays, called The American Crisis, were published as pamphlets. The lede of the first one—"These are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country, but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman"—should be as familiar as Shakespeare. It is as good.

Burns leads us back into less familiar territory with his accounts of the newspaper wars that followed the birth of the modern constitutional system in the 1790s. The scribblers of that decade were a diverse lot. Philip Freneau was a Princeton classmate of James Madison, with aspirations to be a poet. Benjamin Franklin Bache was the grandson of the great patriot. William Cobbett was a soldier and pamphleteer who had been forced to flee his native England on account of his radicalism, though he changed his tune here. James Callender was a radical Scottish refugee who did not change his tune. These men, and many others, attacked each other and their patrons, the leaders of the emergent Federalist and Republican parties. Callender performed the neat trick of defaming Federalists at the behest of Thomas Jefferson, then turning round to defame Jefferson. (It was he who introduced Sally Hemings to the world.) Cobbett spoke for them all when he delivered this credo on the nature of journalism in his newspaper, the aptly named Porcupine's Gazette: "My politics, such as they are, are known to every one; and few, I believe, doubt of their continuing the same. Professions of impartiality I shall make none. They are always useless, and are besides perfect nonsense, when used by a newsmonger…." We decide, then we report.

Infamous Scribblers moves along like a newspaper—a tabloid, not a broadsheet. Look at this; and this; and this! But, like even the punchiest tabs, it raises serious questions. Burns speculates that the rancorous tone of 18th-century journalism was due to the political uncertainty of the times. When the British empire was unraveling, and before the American republic became stable, it was easy to make men frantic. But in the early 19th century, "[a]s the United States was becoming a larger and more powerful nation, the importance of its newspapers [began] to shrink"—and their shrillness, consequently, began to abate. This is dubious. Charles Dickens wrote a wonderful description of a horrible American newspaper in Martin Chuzzlewit, decades after the period Burns describes. Journalism, it would seem, follows its own internal dynamics.

Burns invites us to ask how far back the paranoid style in American politics goes. Richard Hofstadter, whose famous essay identified the syndrome, traced it back to populism and the free silver money cranks of the 1890s (and traced it forward, good liberal that he was, to Joe McCarthy and the John Birch Society). Infamous Scribblers is but one more reminder that the paranoid style is older than America. If that is true, then Samuel Adams becomes a crucial and problematic figure. Hutchinson did call for "an abridgment" of liberties in Massachusetts. But other phrases in his published letters, says Burns, were added by Adams. British troops in Boston were a vexing presence. But Adams invented many of their misdeeds. If paranoia and lies helped midwife the Revolution, does that change our opinion of it? Or can paranoids, in politics as in personal life, have real enemies?

Burns believes that modern American journalism has cleaned up its act. "We do not, in most of our print and broadcast news sources, impugn character as they did. We do not, except in extraordinary cases, use the kind of language they did. We do not, except on well-publicized and well-punished occasions, make up the news to suit our ideology. It is a rare example of our turning our backs on the Founding Fathers, finding them unworthy, rejecting their legacy. We are to be commended." No doubt. But we also do not write as well as Thomas Paine, or think as well as Publius (Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay), whose essays on the proposed Constitution ran in the New York newspapers before they appeared in every curriculum and Barnes & Noble. By losing James Callender, have we gained only Thomas Friedman?

The world of journalism has grown far beyond print, and some of the wildness of its early days has returned (though no Paines or Publiuses yet). Infamous Scribblers is an entertaining account of where we came from. Read all about it.