Protocols of LibertyCommunication Innovation and the American Revolution

Protocols of LibertyCommunication Innovation and the American Revolution

William B. Warner

Print publication date: 2014

ISBN: 9780226061375

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


This book offers an account of how, in the midst of a chronic political crisis, American Whigs seized the political initiative through a set of interrelated innovations in communication. To understand the power of these innovations, this book zooms into moments of political crisis in British America where events could have gone either way: the day after the Boston Massacre; the late December days that culminated in the destruction of the tea in Boston harbour; and the days of late May 1774 when the Virginia committee of correspondence responded to Parliament’s punitive bill closing Boston harbour. In the last of these crises, American Whigs gained leverage from their earlier invention of the standing committee of correspondence and the popular declaration, and their deployment of both to develop an intercolonial network of American Whigs. This Whig network could only emerge because of the character of two media institutions that had developed over the previous century: the postal system and the weekly newspaper. By being open, public, and free (of government control), the newspapers and the postal system served as robust supports for political communication. At the heart of revolutionary communication were certain generally observed protocols—of legal procedure, corporate action, public access, general address, and virtuous initiative—which this book traces through the full arc of the political crisis: from the Boston town meeting’s appointment of a Boston committee of correspondence to compose a pamphlet stating their rights and grievances to the Continental Congress’ drafting and publication of the Declaration of 1776.