Of all the forums for public political debate that exist in the twenty-first century—the internet, television, radio, the press—that last, the press, is the only one, along with public speeches, that existed in eighteenth-century America. Thus, in the Revolutionary era, when enormously important decisions were being made about declaring independence and forming a new government, vibrant debates took place at every step of the way in the form of political speeches and broadsides published in newspapers and pamphlets. Political oratory was a high art, and the leaders of this time, on all sides, were some of its finest practitioners.
Before the Revolution, the question in the British colonies was whether to declare independence or continue to seek reconciliation with Great Britain. The hardliners on each side, Patriot and Loyalist, were skilled in what is today called “spin.” In the Boston Massacre of 1770, a group of protesters were fired on and five killed by British troops after the protesters pelted them with—depending on which side told the story—either snowballs or chunks of ice and rock. Less than three weeks after the event, Paul Revere created and published an electrifying engraving declaring the event a “Bloody Massacre” and showing a line of troops methodically gunning down hapless protesters. It was a propaganda coup that spread across the colonies and greatly strengthened the momentum for independence.
Great Britain, which appears in the simplified historical narrative as a monolithic oppressor, in fact had its share of spirited public debate about colonial relations. While the Crown ultimately took a hard line on its right to tax the colonists despite their having no voice in Parliament, a number of highly articulate British writers, from historian Catherine Macaulay to parliamentarian and philosopher Edmund Burke, advocated accommodation rather than confrontation with the Americans, and their views were widely published and read.
After independence, another set of heated debates began in the infant United States, about exactly how the new government should be structured. An enormous amount of political and intellectual labor was brought to bear on the crafting of the United States Constitution, which detailed a government in which federal power was distributed across three separate branches, and was also divided between the federal government and the states. Where the debate over independence was between people identified as Patriots and Loyalists, the debate over the ratification of the Constitution was between Federalists and Anti-Federalists, who were divided over how much power the central government should have relative to the states. Among the most influential publications in this debate were the Federalist Papers. Their authors, the formidable James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, had the task of persuading the many doubters that a strong central government would not bring a return to the kind of tyranny Americans had just fought a war to escape. The resulting essays remain among the most important examples of American political thought. Although the Constitution was ultimately ratified, debates in the press continued—as they continue today across the many forms of mass media—about the proper role and extent of federal government in the United States.