February 13, 2008


by Carolyn C. Holland

It’s “a one-man show. One has complete freedom of expression, including, if one chooses, the freedom to be scurrilous, abusive and seditious; or, on the other hand, to be more detailed, serious and ‘high-brow’ than is ever possible in a newspaper or most kinds of periodicals. At the same time, since (it’s) always short and unbound, it can be produced much more quickly than a book, and in principle, at any rate, can reach a bigger public. Above all, (it) does not have to follow any prescribed pattern. It can be in prose or in verse, it can consist largely of maps or statistics or quotations, it can take the form of a story, a fable, a letter, an essay, a dialogue, or a piece of ‘reportage.’ All that is required of it is that it shall be topical, polemical, and short.”

This quote aptly describes a communication know as a blog, but it was written in The British Pamphleteer by George Orwell, and refers to pamphleteering in the 1700s. He believed that “in Twentieth-century society the press does not adequately represent all shades of opinion.”

While researching material for my historic romance novel, I came across several articles that compared the 1700s explosion of communication by the common person who used pamphlets to the explosion of communication by blogs in today’s world. Snippits from these articles follow.

According to an article from the CanWest News Service, a University of Guelph professor said “Today’s popular blogs began more than 200 years ago, when blotchy and exuberant periodicals circulated in the coffee houses and homes of England.”

“They were sure no man alive ever writ such damned stuff as this,” said an early critic in the Tatler, one of a rush of self-published sheets that emerged on and off throughout the 18th century.

It was breezy, energetic stuff. (Blogs a hit in the cafes of the 1700s )

Before 1620 the high cost of publishing and purchasing printed tracts prevented the printing press from serving as a public instrument. Although pamphlets were the cheapest publications available, they were generally only produced and consumed among a “small and intimate” selection of literati. Then a new, less expensive type-face technology reduced the cost of production….The most prolific—not to mention, democratic—form of expression on an individual level was undoubtedly the pamphlet. Once it was printed (in London), it would be sold on street corners or in print shops or carried to more rural locations and sold for next-to-nothing. Once it reached a village or town it would be posted for greater consumption. A new pamphlet—whether it contained news, prophesy, or trivia—was sure to be a crowd pleaser, especially considering the potent rhetoric to which the majority of pamphlets were disposed.

We do well to remember that printed material was an innovation among the British masses; naturally, pamphlets and broadsides were the talk of the town. Most pamphlets combined text and images from sometimes pretty alarming woodcut prints, which made them accessible to the illiterate. (Trends of Anarchy and Hierarchy: Comparing the Cultural Repercussions of Print and Digital Media by A. Griscom

In America, Revolutionary era pamphleteers were not professional writers. They were common citizens engaged in the debate of ideas. They created a sense of democracy to the intellectual struggle that preceded the call to arms. In stark contrast was the French Revolution—debate was among the elites who often looked down on the general population as hopelessly retrograde. If the French Revolution started in salons, the American started in saloons…and town squares, churches, etc. One ended with a stable republic; the other with Napoleon and what was basically a world war. (Liberty and Culture: Bloggers: the Pamphleteers of today.

Although this last is a rare mention of pamphleteering in France, I contend that the populace in Paris in the late 1780s and early 1790s had an effect on American communities in the Scioto area of Ohio, in Lamoine, Maine and others throughout America. Since a major section of my research for my historic romance novel occurs in France at the time of the Fall of the Bastille, I will provide the background setting for the novel, then give examples of pamphleteering in France.

Most articles I’ve uncovered, that compare blogging and pamphleteering, relate situations in America and England. However, my research has turned up examples in France. One in particular presents a glowing report of the American Eden: the Scioto area of Ohio.

In October 1787 Arthur St. Clair signed two land grants. One concerned the Northwest Territory. The second was the Ohio Land Grant. Buried within this grant was the Scioto Land Grant. Its land was preempted to top military and government persons who hoped to sell it to others and make a profit. Briefly, they were land speculators, and many kept their identity secret. However, there were several key persons: Manasseh Cutler, Rufus Putnam and Benjamin Tupper and William Duer.

A good portion of the land was to be sold in the Netherlands or France.

Once the contracts were signed Joel Barlow, a law student and poet, was sent to France to sell the land. There he met up with an unscrupulous Englishman whose name was William Playfair.

In the early months of 1789 Barlow and Playfair issued the “Prospectus for an Establishment on the Rivers Ohio and Scioto—“ pamphleteer style.

Its description of the Ohio country embellished material in an American pamphlet prepared by Cutler and Capt. Hutchins. An annexed extract reads (remember, this is OHIO!): A climate wholesome and delightful, frost even in winter almost entirely unknown, and a river called, by way of eminence, the beautiful, and abounding in excellent fish of a vast size. Noble forests, consisting of trees that spontaneously produce sugar (the sugar maple) and a plant that yields ready-made candles (myrica cerifera). Venison in plenty, the pursuit of which is uninterrupted by wolves, foxes, lions or tigers. A couple of swine will multiply themselves a hundredfold in two or three years, without taking any care of them. No taxes to pay, no military services to be performed.

Thus began the rage for American land as Sciotomanie set in: land shares sold like hotcakes.

Poorer citizens lined up for positions as indentured workers.

“I would be charmed to go to another hemisphere to try my fortune,” commented an architect from Rouen. “I dream only of Scioto… Paris has no more charm. France is nothing next to Scioto.”

This American acreage speedily became a hot topic of discussion, satire, and debate in revolutionary press and pamphlet literature. The phrase Sciotomanie refers not only to the sale of lands but even more so to a sudden popular fascination with a dreamlike space on the border between “le Kentucki et l’Ohio.”

Participants in Sciotomanie spoke from different angles, published in pamphlets. Salesmen promoted the financial, agricultural, and political advantages of Scioto while a noisy chorus of public commentators set about either satirizing or debunking Scioto.

“One speaks only of Scioto,” reported the Bulletin général des journaux de Madame Beaumont.

One set of these critical authors had no intention of voyaging to America as a real physical destination, but they took delight in playing with the political and cultural possibilities of Scioto as an imaginary space, occupied by aristocrats fleeing the Revolution. For the most part, these writers were left-wing, political satirists, although a few right-wing journalists also contributed.

A second set of serious debunkers attempted to assess the claims of the Scioto Company from an allegedly objective stance: this group – some of whom had actually gone to America – sought to unmask the fraudulent or exaggerated claims of the Scioto Company. In the public arena, Scioto’s defenders squared off against attacks both fanciful and sober.
For readers, these multiple layers of commentary became intertwined and played off one another constantly.

Is this not one service today’s blogs serve? Are they, too, more often than not, one man shows? Written by common citizens, engaged in the debate of ideas?

Perhaps blogging is not new—perhaps it is simply pamphleteering millennium style.

NOTE: Material for this piece comes from the Henry Knox papers, and The French Revolution, Sciotomanie, and American Land Speculation by Suzanne Desan, University of Madison. Wisconsin



  1. Amazing post., bro

    Comment by Geraldzw — March 19, 2008 @ 9:19 pm | Reply

  2. “From pamphlets may be learned the genius of the age, the debates of the learned, the (blunders) of government and mistakes of the courtiers. Pamphlets furnish beaus with their airs; couquettes with their charms. Pamphlets are as modish ornaments to gentlewoman’s toilets as to gentlemen’s pockets: they carry reputation of wit and learning to all that make them their companions”. Myles Davies “ICON LIBELLORUM” 1715

    Comment by carolyncholland — May 7, 2008 @ 10:45 am | Reply

  3. “A newspaper (pamphlet, blog) makes the multitude too familiar with the actions and councils of their superiors and gives them not only on an itch but a kind of colorable right and license to be meddling with their government.” Roger L’Estrange

    Comment by carolyncholland — May 7, 2008 @ 10:48 am | Reply

  4. interesting, however i would like to know more about the effect of pampleteering on the 1789 french revolutionfor a prensentation i,m doing

    Comment by dave — November 29, 2008 @ 2:42 pm | Reply

  5. I was looking for information on pamphlets circulated by French art critics. The subject of pamphlets and pamphleteering is new to me. I was looking for historical information which would ‘dignify’ journalistic art criticism, which Thai high art academia seems to regard as mere ‘reporting’….hence, they don’t seem to take the magazine articles of their own contemporary critics such as Pishnu Supanimitr, Manit Sriwanichphoom and Paisarn Plienbangchang seriously.

    Comment by janice m wongsurawat — November 30, 2008 @ 3:59 am | Reply

  6. Can anyone out there help Dave and Janice?

    Dave and Janice, did you check out the links within this article? Were they helpful?


    Comment by carolyncholland — December 3, 2008 @ 4:00 am | Reply

  7. […] Even though the appearance of “web logs” on the Internet seemed spontaneous, in truth it was not.  No, blogging actually began over 200 years ago (sans the Internet) in the form of “exuberant periodicals circulated in the coffee houses and homes of England.”  SOURCE: […]

    Pingback by The Quill And The Keyboard … J. D. Longstreet « Omega Dispatch — February 1, 2013 @ 4:32 am | Reply

  8. […] Even though the appearance of “web logs” on the Internet seemed spontaneous, in truth it was not.  No, blogging actually began over 200 years ago (sans the Internet) in the form of “exuberant periodicals circulated in the coffee houses and homes of England.”  SOURCE: […]

    Pingback by The Quill And The Keyboard … J. D. Longstreet « Flash Point 2016 — February 1, 2013 @ 4:34 am | Reply

  9. […] Even though the appearance of “web logs” on the Internet seemed spontaneous, in truth it was not.  No, blogging actually began over 200 years ago (sans the Internet) in the form of “exuberant periodicals circulated in the coffee houses and homes of England.”  SOURCE: […]

    Pingback by From the Quill To The Keyboard … J. D. Longstreet « The Constitution Club — July 10, 2013 @ 12:29 pm | Reply

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