Public Political Letters

Refer to caption
15c Letters Shape Opinions stamp

One of the most effective ways for revolutionary leaders to spread their message throughout the colonies was to publish open letters addressed to the public in local newspapers. There was a well-established precedent for publishing letters in the newspaper—many early papers had consisted mostly of letters received by members of the community. It was quite common for newspaper editors to review these letters for news that would interest the public, then print whole sections of newsworthy letters in their papers so that the news could be circulated. This is, in fact, where our modern term “news correspondent” comes from—the authors of letters that were published in such a fashion could really be said to be corresponding with the whole town.

Because editors were already familiar with the idea of printing letters in their papers, prominent men with something to say began shaping their thoughts into public letters that would share their political ideas with the paper-reading public. This trend was especially useful in the years leading up to the Revolution. Public opinion was frequently swayed to the cause of the revolutionaries by the ideological letters that were printed in colonial newspapers.

One of the earliest of these public letters was John Dickinson’s Letters From a Farmer in Pennsylvania. Dickinson, a lawyer from Philadelphia, was outraged by Parliament’s suspension of the New York State legislature. The legislature had been suspended because it would not require its citizens to provide quartered British soldiers with hard to get luxury food items like salt—tasty, but absolutely nonessential. Adopting the position of an intelligent but politically inactive Pennsylvanian Farmer, Dickinson wrote a series of thirteen letters addressed to “My Dear Countrymen” and had them published in the local newspapers during 1767 and 1768. Dickinson’s letters, while by no means suggesting that the colonies fight for independence, urged colonists to act against the offensive and unjust steps taken by the British. He wrote, “I am by no means fond of inflammatory measures. I detest them. I should be sorry that anything should be done which might justly displease our sovereign or our mother country. But a firm, modest exertion of a free spirit should never be wanting on public occasions.” The letters became so popular among colonists railing against British injustices that they were bound together into a pamphlet and sold in bookshops and corner stores. The pamphlet went through at least ten editions, and Dickinson went on to become a member of the Continental Congress and an active participant in the Constitutional Convention.

Another public letter that was published in pamphlet form was Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, written in 1776. Paine, an idealistic journalist who had emigrated from England to America just two years before with the help of Benjamin Franklin, penned the series of essays in an attempt to convince phlegmatic Americans that they needed to be independent from Great Britain. Common Sense consisted of a number of thematic sections, none of which were addressed but each of which was signed by the simple pseudonym “Author.” Beginning “I have never met with a man, either in England or America, who hath not confessed his opinion, that a separation between the countries, would take place one time or another,” Paine constructed his letters so as to explain the reasons for this necessary separation and convince colonists of the need to act. As to the specific moment when America should start to move away from the British, Paine concluded that “we need not go far, the inquiry ceases at once, for, the time hath found us. The general concurrence, the glorious union of all things prove the fact.” Many historians claim that it was Common Sense more than any other publication or incendiary speech that roused the colonists and bound them to the revolutionary cause.

When the Revolutionary War was over, Americans found themselves a free people, but a people without an identity. As the Confederated States worked toward re-conceiving themselves as a unified nation, a series of public letters began to circulate that drove right to the heart of the matter. Letters From An American Farmer, published in 1782 and including a section entitled “What Is An American?”, described the new country as a place where old class distinctions didn’t apply, where persecuted Europeans could come for freedom, where everyone had a chance at a good life. These traits are now considered quintessentially American, but Letters From An American Farmer was one of the very first places where the ideals of American life were discussed. The name on the pamphlet was J. Hector St. John de Crévecoeur, the nom de plume of French transplant Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crévecoeur. Believing that Americans and foreigners would be more likely to listen to him if he appeared to be of mixed American descent instead of the naturalized citizen he was, Crévecoeur wrote, “What then is the American, this new man? . . . He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced . . . . Here individuals of all races are melted into a new race of man, whose labor and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.” Crévecoeur’s words embodied the thoughts of many Americans about the kind of people they were and the kind of nation they would form, and the letters encouraged the country to live up to the ideals that had inspired the Revolution.