Publick Occurrences 2.0

January 19, 2012

“By securing the copies”

I’ve been going in circles about copyright, intellectual property, and the role of history in debating them. I started a post yesterday about the protests against SOPA and PIPA, in which major Internet sites (including Wikipedia, Google, and, among others) and countless personal sites have shut down or curtailed their operations to protest the two bills currently being considered by Congress. Each would grant new powers to the federal government to monitor and control information posted online, including the power to block domain names based on copyright infringement claims.

But before I could get very far on that post, I read of the Supreme Court’s 6-2 decision in Golan v. Holder that allows the federal government to take works that had moved into the public domain and place them back under copyright protection (Justice Kagan recused herself, presumably because the case was working its way through the courts while she was Solicitor General).  The logic of the majority, by the way, is to require the federal government to meet obligations it made to hew to international copyright treaties to which the United States is a signatory, but of course the decision’s impact goes far beyond foreign works.

If you haven’t yet read the Supreme Court’s decision in Golan v. Holder (available here in PDF), take a look. The majority opinion, authored by Justice Ginsburg, is, as Yoni Appelbaum (@Yappelbaum) noted on Twitter, a “narrowly legalistic opinion for the Court.” It used historical evidence, to be sure, going back to the original 1886 Berne international copyright convention. But it delved no further, and did not explore the deep background of copyright law in the United States. The Breyer dissent (concurred by Alito), by contrast, digs all the way back in Anglo-American jurisprudence to the earliest copyright statutes in Great Britain (in 1710). Breyer has a very good account of the development of copyright in the eighteenth century, both in Britain and America. Here’s a representative paragraph:

Yet, as the Founders recognized, monopoly is a two­ edged sword. On the one hand, it can encourage produc­tion of new works.  In the absence of copyright protection, anyone might freely copy the products of an author’s creative labor, appropriating the benefits without incur­ring the nonrepeatable costs of creation, thereby deterring authors from exerting themselves in the first place.  On the other hand, copyright tends to restrict the dissemina­tion (and use) of works once produced either because the absence of competition translates directly into higher consumer prices or because the need to secure copying permission sometimes imposes administrative costs that make it difficult for potential users of a copyrighted work to find its owner and strike a bargain.  See W. Landes & R. Posner, The Economic Structure of Intellectual Proper­ty Law 68–70, 213–214 (2003).  Consequently, the original British copyright statute, the Constitution’s Framers, and our case law all have recognized copyright’s resulting and necessary call for balance.

Copyright has always been meant to protect the rights of producers — though crucially in the eighteenth century, copyright usually resided with publishers rather than authors. The Statute of Anne, in fact, was part of a regime that protected the monopoly of the Stationers’ Company of London. As Sarah Arndt points out, the monopoly was limited to England; Ireland (and Dublin in particular) became the publishing piracy capital of the British Atlantic. The colonies also lacked firm copyright law, but almost no printers (which is to say, Benjamin Franklin and nobody else) had the capacity to publish books; they imported from Britain and Ireland (see Richard Sher’s Enlightenment and the Book and volume 1 of A History of the Book in America, The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World for full details).

As it happens, the eighteenth century history of copyright and censorship provides two good case studies for efforts to protect artistic productions and government limitations of publications.

First, there are unintended consequences even to well-meaning legislation in the realm of publications. For a moment, take the British view of the Stamp Act, what would have been the largest effective restriction on print publication ever in British colonial America. Coming out of the Seven Years’ War, Britain was saddled with unprecedented debt, a new and very young king, and an unstable domestic political environment. To pay down the debt, Parliamentary ministers explored all sorts of options; asking colonists to pay a little more in taxes seemed unproblematic to them (for obvious reasons). England’s printing trade had operated with a Stamp Act since 1712, and several of the colonies (notably New York and Massachusetts) had passed temporary stamp taxes to fund the war effort in the 1750s. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, printers (as I argue in my research) saw it as a massive threat to their businesses and many colonists saw it as a threat to free and open political communication. Printers turned their publications into forums for protest, publishing essays against the Act, following protests, and organizing to lobby for its repeal and nullification. When November 1, the planned effective date of the Act, rolled around, presses across the colonies went silent in protest. Some printers, like William Bradford, publisher of the Pennsylvania Journal, melodramatically eulogized their newspapers. Merchants organized boycotts of British goods. And in thirteen of Britain’s colonies, the law was nullified (it took effect in Canada and the West Indies). By spring, Parliament repealed the law (with an assertion of its power to boot). I’m not predicting that there will be a second American Revolution, of course, but if Congress passes a tax on china, glass, and painters’ colors in a few years, all bets are off.

The second lesson is that copyright law in the United States originated in an environment that envisioned a free market for foreign works. Congress passed a copyright law in 1790 to cover new works in the United States—and as Breyer and Alito note, it did not cover foreign works. Noah Webster pushed hard for the law because of the massive success of his speller. He had spent years  traveling through the states trying to sew up copyright in each to protect his publication from piracy. For foreign works, the standard remained that whoever got there first stood to make a profit. For the most popular author of the early republic, Walter Scott, Mathew Carey made a deal with Scott’s London publisher to get access to the text first. Was there a better solution to solving the question of works copyrighted abroad? Almost certainly.

Putting modern debates into context is important. Laws restricting the circulation of information and publications have not been warmly received. Copyright has been an instrument to limit that circulation. And lastly, it was never intended to be permanent or retroactive. (Though, like many others, I doubt I will live to see the day when Mickey Mouse (first copyrighted in 1928) enters the public domain.) Understanding the background of copyright law and censorship helps us to understand both the law and the protests against it.


December 5, 2011

The Post Office as State-Business Hybrid

Filed under: Business History,Congress,Government,Joe Adelman's Posts,Media — Joseph M. Adelman @ 1:09 pm

News about the post office is circulating rapidly (which is ironic, given that the news is about cuts that will slow service). Over the weekend, the New York Times ran an analysis of the finances of the U.S. Postal Service, concluding that it could not survive without junk mail. And then this morning, the USPS itself announced anticipated service cuts that will close more than half of the 500 processing centers around the country, slowing mail delivery and eliminating (for practical purposes) next-day delivery of first-class mail.

As I’ve argued in other spaces, and as J.L. Bell commented on my post last Friday, Congress has asked the Postal Service to do the impossible: act as a monopoly universal provider and make a profit. It’s taken a while, but postal officials are finally starting to put things in those terms:

“We are in a deep financial crisis today because we have a business model that is tied to the past,” Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe said during a speech last month. “We are expected to operate like a business, but we do not have the flexibility to do so. Our business model is fundamentally inflexible. It prevents the Postal Service from solving problems and being effective in the way a business would.”

This is an unsustainable model for the long term. I would also stipulate that a major problem for the postal service is the massive obligations it is under for its pension system, though the problem runs far deeper (and therefore I won’t discuss it). Most importantly, I think the Postmaster General is underselling the issue. The key question is whether, as I noted on Friday, the government has a vested interest (i.e., a reason to fund) in providing a means to communicate by paper and packages throughout the country. The problem is and has been that Congress hasn’t asked that question. People want to privatize it or “rescue” it, but with little examination of the underlying question of whether society’s interest in the circulation of information in this manner is worth an expenditure.

The question is deeply vexed and has a long history. The 1710 Post Office Act of Parliament established the Post Office in North America (with headquarters in New York) for the purpose of facilitating communication but also with the explicit assumption that it would produce revenue that could accrue to the Treasury. (The revenue was initially to go for the support of the royal family.) It didn’t make money until the 1760s, when Benjamin Franklin as Deputy Postmaster General for North America instituted a series of reforms that streamlined and improved service. As I noted previously, the post office was important enough that it was one of the first actions of the Second Continental Congress, and it is also one of the few government agencies that Congress is explicitly authorized to regulate in the enumerated powers clause of the Constitution. Questions of revenue generation continued into the nineteenth century, when the Post Office made an enormous profit. And of course the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970, which converted the Post Office Department into an independent government agency as the U.S. Postal Service, focused on ways to make the Post Office profitable again.

It’s also important to consider that the communication that flows through the postal system has changed dramatically. At its inception, the Post Office was a means to circulate political information (through newspapers and other publications), official mail, and commercial information, and rates were set accordingly. Alexis de Tocqueville, on his tour of the United States in 1831, noted with wonder how thorough information circulated in the nation:

I travelled along a portion of the frontier of the United States in a sort of cart, which was termed the mail. We passed, day and night, with great rapidity, along the roads, which were scarcely marked out through immense forests. When the gloom of the woods became impenetrable, the driver lighted branches of pine, and we journeyed along the light they cast. From time to time, we came to a hut in the midst of the forest; this was a post-office. The mail dropped an enormous bundle of letters at the door of this isolated dwelling, and we pursued our way at full gallop, leaving the inhabitants of the neighboring log-houses to send for their share of the treasure.

The post office was, as Richard John has demonstrated, the branch of the federal government most present in the lives of Americans, and served as an outlet for encouraging informed political debate (or at least that was the ideal). Not until the 1840s and 1850s did Congress lower the price of sending a letter to a level that encouraged mass use of the genre, which led to the development of new forms of mail, including the valentine and advertising circulars. Now, as the New York Times piece cites, junk mail–that is, unsolicited advertising–constitutes a major component of the Post Office’s revenue stream. We no longer get our newspapers, as Tocqueville once noted, through the post office. We no longer send personal letters.

At some point, therefore, the ideal of government-sponsored communications channels fell by the wayside. What I hope Congress and the media will pick up on is the question of whether society and government have an interest in guaranteeing this sort of service, and if so, how. Whether that leads to the demise of the Post Office is up to Congress.

UPDATE (12/6, 9:31am): Just found that Richard R. John did a study for the Postal Regulatory Commission in 2008 entitled, History of Universal Service and the Postal Monopoly. Provides a good background with quite a bit more detail than I’ve provided here.


December 2, 2011

The Decline and Fall of the U.S. Postal Service

Filed under: Business History,Joe Adelman's Posts,Journalism history,Media — Joseph M. Adelman @ 12:09 pm

This will likely be the first of several posts (heh!) I write on the post office; anyone who knows me knows that it’s a bit of an obsession of mine.

Tenured Radical, writing at The Chronicle, has inspired me to finally offer something in this space. After a recent visit to her local post office, she speculates that it “may … simply disappear as an institution in my lifetime.” She found a business both antiquated and in tatters: the post office could not accept credit cards, and had a diagram up for children about how to properly address and stamp an envelope that seems silly to most adults. I love the post office, but I’m guessing she’s probably right about its impending demise, at least as far as a public (or really quasi-public) postal service is concerned.

What’s striking me at the moment about that likelihood is the implication of a potential closure of the post office. It will mean that, for the first time in its history (one that predates independence), the state will have left the public information business. The Post Office was one of the first institutions established by the Continental Congress in July 1775. The only institutions that predated it as representatives of the united colonies were Congress itself and the Continental Army—that’s it. The Post Office is older than the Navy, older than the Marine Corps, older than the Presidency and the Supreme Court. The first Federal Postmaster General, Samuel Osgood, was a member of Washington’s Cabinet.

Why? Information is (or was) important to the state. Keeping the channels through which information flowed open was a vital state matter, and made the post office a central player in creating an informed citizenry to participate in American democracy. (Especially prior to the Revolution, it was also a tool of state surveillance and censorship, lest I appear too Whiggish.)

Since the eighteenth century, the United States has had a more ambiguous relationship to new information technologies. As Richard John recently showed, Congress declined to take ownership of Morse’s telegraph lines, and likewise stayed out of the telephone industry. In the 1960s, DARPA, an agency within the Department of Defense, created the Internet (possibly with the assistance of an earnest Harvard government concentrator). That too, however, is now primarily in private hands.

The post office is all that’s left, and even that is really not quite public. The United States Postal Service operates independently, though it maintains universal service and meets other mandates set by Congress. But if and when it goes the government will no longer play any role in guaranteeing for its citizens the ability to transmit information. Some in the Senate seem more concerned that we should be sending more love letters, but I find the larger question far more troubling, even taking into account the real and dire financial situation in which the USPS finds itself.


November 15, 2011

The Flight from Downtown Manhattan

Filed under: Ben Carp's Posts,Historians,Media,Military,Revolution — Benjamin Carp @ 3:40 pm

From the US Army's American Military History, volume 1


Noreen Malone of New York magazine had the interesting idea to interview Early American historians to see if George Washington’s flight from the southern tip of Manhattan in 1776 might hold any lessons for the Occupy Wall Street movement, which was evicted from Zuccotti Park this morning.


August 17, 2010

The American individualist’s old clothes

Filed under: Government,Internet — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:37 am

I need to read it on the computer that’s actually large enough to see properly, but this site “Government is Good” seems to collect some very necessary information. The stable middle- class suburban world most Americans live in was made possible by government. Full stop. Where would any of it be without land laws, highways, schools, sewers, police and fire protection, etc.? ( I know I’m forgetting a bunch of others.) The actual rugged individualists of the American past understood that you wanted the government around. In places like Missouri and Kansas, they murdered each other over who got to have the county seat.

The problem is that Americans insist on thinking of government as something separate from themselves, even though, corrupt and annoying as it may be some,times, it is still a democratic government by for and of themselves


September 21, 2009

Who Could Possibly Organize American Historians?

Filed under: American History,Ben Carp's Posts,Education,Historians,Internet — Benjamin Carp @ 9:40 pm

Larry Cebula over at Northwest History has an interesting post with some suggestions for reforming the OAH.

Read the whole thing, but I’ll boil his suggestions down to the nuggets:

  1. Make the JAH into an exclusively electronic publication
  2. Shake up the conference (he prefers discussions and e-discussions to roundtables and traditional panels)
  3. Establish an open, moderated blog (sort of like a Metafilter for historians)
  4. Reach out to people interested in American history in various local venues
  5. Provide database access to historians outside the academy
  6. Take a firm hand in wrangling grants.

I agree with point 1, I’m in sympathy with point 2, I’d skeptically welcome 3, I’d be all for 4 if it could be proved feasible, and I agree with 5 and 6 in principle, at least.

I shared Professor Cebula’s post on Facebook, and got various responses.  I’ll let Jeff weigh in himself, but my favorite comment was from another senior scholar: “The rot set in when they changed the name of the journal.  What was wrong with The Mississippi Valley Historical Review?”  (Date of name change: 1964.)

I’m an OAH member, and I feel lucky every time the annual conference is held at a nearby town (I like seeing American historians outside my subfield and hearing a few interesting papers, although they always seem to schedule all the early American history panels to run concurrently), or every time the JAH has articles that interest me.

I’m not so selfish as to demand that the organization feature more early history at the expense of, say, the twentieth century (although the twentieth century would probably win a contest for Most Depressing Century Ever), but I admit that I sometimes regard the organization with something of a shrug.  As long as early American history has its own journals and conferences, I’m prone to feel a bit complacent about what the OAH puts out.  On the other hand, not everyone has the luxury of such specialization (and I myself teach at least through 1877), and it’s good to have an organization that can take a broader view.

Anyway, I’d be intrigued to see the OAH put some of Cebula’s ideas into play.


July 15, 2009

Putting the Hitler Channel in Perspective

Filed under: Education,Historians,Television — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 9:09 am

In the past week or so, Alexander Street Press has sent me several emails touting my free one-month “Scholar’s Pass” to an online resource called American History in Video, which they evidently want to sell to universities. Looking into this, I see that the product is chiefly old newsreels and History Channel videos, definitely more in the mild general interest category than anything with much academic educational value. For my favorite period, the Early Republic, AHIV seems to consist entirely of History Channel material and episodes of A&E’s Biography, almost all of it concerned with refighting the Revolutionary War or celebrating the Founders, basic cable-style. There are only three titles listed under “Early National Era,” and one of those is really a Revolution title (about Paul “The Midnight Rider” Revere).*

Now, I must admit at the outset that I have never been a huge fan of the History Channel. The somewhat higher-brow PBS stuff works just fine for college students and usually shaves off fewer IQ points. How much do costumed guys running across a field and the substitution of breathless Basic-Cable-Narrator Guy for the stentorian vocal stylings of Edward Herrmann or David McCullough really add? Anyway, the newer PBS documentaries have got the costumed guys now too, but at least the public TV docs have gone through grant processes that force the producers to seriously consult historians.

Alexander Street’s attempt to package History Channel material for libraries made me want to check if I had missed out on some increase in the channel’s educational ambitions. Back in the early days of cable, the History Channel seemed to be nothing but reruns of old World War II documentaries, and I have heard even non-historians laugh about it being the “Hitler Channel.” (Indeed, Urban Dictionary agrees that “Hitler Channel” is now official street argot.) But maybe things had changed? I do remember Newt Gingrich or someone touting the History Channel as one of the key reasons for the coming obsolescence of academic history books and courses and faculty, so perhaps one should check.

Things have indeed changed, as my screenshot from Monday’s History Channel home page attests. (Click it if you want to be able to read it.) There seems to be only one WWII series running now, “Patton 360,” which I can only hope places a CGI George C. Scott in some immersive 3-D environments where he can smack down Nazi vampires or his own loafing troops.

However, “Patton 360″ is pretty much it for history most nights on The History Channel and “” (they own us, friends) these days.  The rest of the offerings seem to indicate that the network’s programming niche is not infotainment about the past, but instead manly workplace-based reality shows for guys who like their basic cable as Big As All Outdoors. We noticed from the promos during the Cardinals broadcasts that the History Channel seemed to be very engrossed in the oh-so-historical doings of the Ice Road Truckers, from which we learn that it seems to take a big man to provide the friction that the big rigs need to stay on those ice roads. Then there was Ax Men, a competitive logging show, followed by Deep Sea Salvage and Tougher in Alaska. Clearly Sarah Palin should set up her forthcoming helicopter hunting and moose dressing show right here on THC. I hope that is an appellation THC will soon adopt, following in the focus-losing, initializing tradition of other basic cable outlets like AMC, TLC,  and TNN, none of which involve many classic movies, learning, or Nashville music anymore, respectively. For the pasty indoor but still manly set, I see they are premiering a new show set in a pawn shop, just in time for the recession.

Go deeper into the schedule and website, and you get to the pseudoscience shows, like a Bigfoot-hunting program called MonsterQuest. In fairness, I am sure they are hot on the trail of other cryptids as well.  MonsterQuest fans include bulletin board poster “Maldar34,” contributor of the following panegyric to the intelligence of History Channel viewers:

Dudewe know this already. Were not some dumb southern hicks that are drunk 98% of the time. We also can tell when somthing is fake or not. Look at the bigfoot reports thread both me and dontwatch have agreed on the fact that most of them are fake. There was one involving a bioligist biking through a forest in washington that seemed very credible if yuu want me to i can find it. But seriously were not some dumb rubes that have a meeting every night on how bigfoot impregnated my wife while i was being probed by aliens. Were just not idiots. We are people of science who belive the exsistence of somthing ou think doe not exsist. You dont have to be rude about it.

I wish that were a satire, but I’m fairly sure that it isn’t, because there were a lot more guys like that where he came from. They were arranging to go on hunts through the site.

It all kind of makes you long for the old Hitler Channel just a little bit. People were learning some history there, even if it was somewhat limited and possibly led to a few viewers getting just a little too interested in the Nazis, if you know what I mean.

It would be easy to dismiss the present pseudo-History Channel as popular nonsense that does not concern us “real” historians. Yet some academic commenting on Stan Katz’s recent Chronicle piece, which answered an alarmist NYT story about the decline of traditional history courses, seemed to regard the History Channel as a kind of saving grace for the world of boring academic knowledge, if not the whole culture. This seems to be what a frightening number of educated people think our discipline should be about:

As for history – it is the only interesting field I have found now that every other discipline is mired in identity politics, and entertainment is nothing but explosions and chick flicks. Hooray for the History Channel with its 360 degree battles! and other excellent programming. Kids do need to learn what history has to offer, and I tell you, when the kids get into the personalities that accompany world events, they like it.

Get the kids into personalities, that’s how we will get them to understand their world. Why didn’t we think of that?

*In fairness, one of the Early Republic shows that was available concerned Andrew Jackson’s conquest of Florida and seems to heavily feature incoming SHEAR president-elect Harry Watson. That one I may have to watch all the way through (even though it was part of a series called The Conquerors that seems to date back to early Iraq times and perhaps celebrates conquering stuff just a little bit).
Now playing: Nick Lowe – Little Hitler
via FoxyTunes


July 10, 2009

Things I learned from the Internet this week

Filed under: Colonial Period,Conservatives,GOP,Humor,Media,Popular culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 1:21 am

. . . when I probably should have been doing something else.

  • The Tea Party protesters do not even like the Republicans any more, if they ever did. They are also the number one source of “comment spam” on this blog, or at least of the stuff that gets through the filters. That is just how revolutionary they are. Teabaggers go where online slot machine and Canadian payday loan purveyors fear to tread. [Actually, I think the spammers must think the teabaggers are a little bit confused and thus a good target market for people who sell things by getting other people to click on links accidentally.]
  • Sarah Palin is in it for the money. Some conservative pundits do not approve, but Rush is all for it. Making money is the highest social good in their philosophy, right? So I guess they have to take the greedy with the bad.
  • People who comment on the American political scene for national publications should be forced to read a pile of several hundred student papers. Then they would not find Palin’s habit of speaking/writing “in half-expressed thoughts and internal contradictions” so singular. It’s more or less the norm as far as I can tell, here in the mid-ranges of higher education that Sarah could not quite hack. It’s also pretty common to just disappear from classes or change schools in mid-semester, with or without explanation. Of course, it takes a truly special person to take that approach to being governor of a state. That said, making fun of a populist leader’s syntax, as the MSM and liberal blogs like to do with Palin, just plays into their hands. Ask the Federalists how well the supercilious grammar criticism tactic worked against various upstart northern Democratic-Republicans.
  • Racist humor (and, one might add, racism) is fairly common, and often tolerated, in some conservative circles. Actually, I already knew that from personal experience, but it is quite revealing that some young white conservatives thought nothing of slapping that kind of thing up on Facebook.
  • You can learn colonial history on Hulu. I learned that  Captain John Smith worked out a lot and liked to hang around in Jamestown with his shirt off. It was surprisingly hot, dry, and dusty there in the Virginia Tidewater hills. Also, John Rolfe was his sidekick. And Pocahontas looked good in her miniskirt. Ahead of the curve fashion-wise, as well. To be honest, there’s something to be said for the 50s he-man version of John Smith over Colin Farrell’s big-eyed nature lover in Terence Malick’s The New World. Smith is a rather sensitive fellow for a globe-trotting mercenary in both versions, which probably says something about how Americans like to remember their conquering forebears: a little sentimental, with just a hint of tears as they regretfully wipe off the blood.

Now playing:
Beulah – Queen of the Populists
via FoxyTunes


July 6, 2009

Chopping Down Old Hickory

Filed under: Civil War Era,Conspiracy theory,Jacksonian Era,Television — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 3:16 pm

I imagine a lot of readers here already subscribe to H-SHEAR, the Early Republic historians’ email list, but for those who don’t, here is a notice for a bit of worthwhile historical television that is airing tonight, from Dan Feller, director of the Andrew Jackson Papers project:

This coming Monday, July 6, the PBS show “History Detectives” will air a segment featuring the work of the Andrew Jackson Papers project at the University of Tennessee Department of History.  The episode concerns a letter threatening Jackson’s assassination, signed with the name Junius Brutus Booth (a famous actor and father of Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth) and sent to Jackson on July 4, 1835.  Housed in the Library of Congress and long known to scholars, the letter has been presumed by Jackson biographers and political historians (following the lead of John Spencer Bassett, who printed it in his Correspondence of Andrew Jackson with Booth’s name in quotation marks) to be the work of a pseudonymous writer, while some Booth biographers and theater historians have accepted its authenticity but considered it a gag among friends. As “History Detectives” will show, the Jackson Papers staff were instrumental in proving that neither is correct.  Booth really wrote the letter, apparently in one of his legendary choleric rages.  He later apologized.  Killing presidents, or threatening to, seems to have run in the family.

I will be interested to see how the show handles the Booths. One of the cardinal points in my History of Conspiracy Theories course is that Lincoln’s was perhaps the only truly political assassination of all the presidential assassinations. I was not aware of the elder Booth’s threat against Jackson, but I would not have put the letter’s attribution in quotation marks. A guy named Brutus who named his son John Wilkes obviously had some extravagant, self-dramatizing ideas about fighting for freedom.

Now playing: Mott The Hoople – Violence
via FoxyTunes


July 1, 2009

Department of Not Giving John Adams Too Much Credit

Filed under: Journalism history,Newspapers — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 9:18 am

I followed a link from TPM to a Vanity Fair article on Sarah Palin that did not turn out to be quite as awesome as promised. To me, everything one needs to know about the reasons that woman should be kept out of high office is conveyed by any given 10-minute film clip of her, including the convention speech that set off her initial media stardom. The particulars may be more Alaskan and trashier than your typical right-wing suburban beauty queen, but Sarah Barracuda’s basic approach seems pretty familiar if you come from the sort of background that breeds lots of Republicans. I do! But more Palin-tology was not my reason for writing tonight.

In a passing remark at the end of the piece, VF reporter Todd Purdum tosses off a bit of faux-erudition in the course of trashing the mental powers of Palin’s GOP fanbase. I bolded the key sentence:

Palin has disappointed many of those who once had the highest hopes for her. She has stumbled over innumerable details. But as she said to Andrew Halcro years ago, “Does any of this really matter?” Palin has shown herself to have remarkable gut instincts about raw politics, and she has seen openings where others did not. And she has the good fortune to have traction within a political party that is bereft of strong leadership, and whose rank and file often demands qualities other than knowledge, experience, and an understanding that facts are, as John Adams said, stubborn things. It is, at the moment, a party in which the loudest and most singular voices, not burdened by responsibility, wield disproportionate power.

John Adams did use that proverb, apparently, and perhaps David McCullough or the HBO series put it in his mouth, but he did not originate it. [See Ben's explanation in the comments.] The fact is, “facts are stubborn things” was one of the most common catch-phrases in the newspapers of the Early Republic. Readex/Newsbank’s “America’s Historical Newspapers” database reports 1,403 occurrences, and that is probably low. I feel as though I have seen about 1,000 instances of it personally in the course of my research. The phrase was often used as a headline or recurring motif in essays exposing official malfeasance or contradicting another writer’s position based on everyday experience and the “common understanding of mankind.” The quoted line comes from, you guessed it, “Facts are Stubborn Things,” Number VII of Boston politician and merchant Benjamin Austin, Jr.’s 1786 essay series condemning the legal profession, written over the pen name “Honestus” in the Boston Independent Chronicle and published in book form as Observations on the Pernicious Practice of the Law.  Austin’s book probably popularized the phrase among early American printers, quite a few of whom harbored the feeling that the facts were probably against the existence of lawyers.

For me, “facts are stubborn things” encapsulates a certain Enlightenment attitude that was especially common on the political left of that time (and possibly all times), assuming that incontrovertible empirical data could be found on any question and that such facts would irresistibly lead public opinion in an enlightened direction by dispelling the mystifications and superstitions of earlier, barbarous ages. What’s interesting to me is that the phrase seemed to resonate just as much on the right of the Early Republic, where it would be directed against the allegedly dangerous speculations and innovations of Jacobin-Jeffersonian “philosophy.”  Hence around 1803 you could find itinerant Democratic-Republican editor John B. Colvin singing the Jefferson administration’s praises with the stubborn facts and Connecticut Federalist satirist David Daggett campaigning against Jefferson’s local supporters under the same title.

According to Bartlett’s Quotations and other sources on Google Books, supplemented by my actually looking up the originals (or trying), the proverb’s earliest publications occurred in the late 1740s, separately and in rather opposite meanings. The “liberal” usage of the phrase as an appeal to reason and information began with Connecticut clergyman and agricultural reformer Jared Eliot‘s 1749 Continuation of the essay upon field-husbandry, as it is or may be ordered in New England. “Facts are stubborn Things, which will not bow nor break,” the Rev. Mr. Eliot writes, appropriately enough in a footnote:

Right around the same time, English poet and translator Tobias Smollett satirized the phrase by giving it as dialogue to a character called Dr. Sangrado, a benighted Spanish physician who decries new-fangled medical theories such as the idea that blood was necessary for life. (Possibly he was one of those global warming skeptics we hear about, as well.) In Smollett’s formulation, the stubborn “facts” were the ones that the ignorant and inflexible refused to give up despite counterevidence. Here comes a Google Books science experiment, presenting the actual passage that Bartlett and the others seem to be referencing:

Ah, the “dangerous allurements of chemistry”! So we come back to to the modern conservative political mind after all, which may be breaking a little bit but certainly won’t bow. And the very stones also may have a few things to cry aloud about Sarah if her political career goes any further.
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