When pamphlets were media of choice

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When pamphlets were media of choice

2017-01-30 14:09

President Trump is not the first politician to enthusiastically embrace new communication technologies. Lincoln (telegraphy), FDR (radio), and JFK (television) precede the 45th president on that list.

In the 18th century, however, it was another medium that allowed partisans to (relatively) quickly and cheaply reach their supporters: the pamphlet. A grisly example of this is the 1763 Conestoga Massacre and ensuing "Paxton Pamphlet War."

Much is rightly made of William Penn's overtures to Native Americans. Unlike many of his colonial counterparts, Penn negotiated in good faith to create a "peaceable kingdom."

The Quaker's sentiments were far from universally shared. Settling on Native American lands in violation of established agreements, the deluge of Europeans soon sundered whatever goodwill remained. The French and Indian War and Pontiac's Rebellion didn't exactly improve relations, either.

On paper, the governor's writ extended throughout the colony. In reality, for those living along the Susquehanna Valley frontier, the Philadelphia-based government might as well have been on the moon.

Chiding the pacifist city-dwelling Quakers as weak, effete, and unsympathetic to their problems, a militia of Scotch-Irish Presbyterians of the Paxtang settlement (today's Harrisburg suburbs) took matters into its own hands in 1763.

The "Paxton Boys," as the band of brigands came to be known, marched to the nearby settlement of the Conestoga tribe and murdered every man, woman, and child they encountered. The mob then broke into the Lancaster jailhouse - where many Conestoga had sought safety - to continue their brutal campaign. A vow to march on Philadelphia soon followed.

Massacre of the Indians of Lancaster by the Paxton Boys in 1763, lithograph (ca. 1764). From the David McNeely Stauffer collection on Westcott's History of Philadelphia [1095]

The 250-plus strong banditti were halted in Germantown by none other than Benjamin Franklin. With a promise to read the Paxton Boys' pamphlet of concerns in Philadelphia's legislative chamber, the "demonstrators" disbanded.

The incident, however, was far from over.

A heated debate between Paxton supporters and detractors kicked off in the era's media of choice: pamphlets, broadsides, and political cartoons. By the end of 1764, the "Paxton Pamphlet War" made up more than a fifth of all material printed in Pennsylvania.

"At its crux, the Paxton revolt presented a crisis of representation through which backcountry settlers rebelled against an authority that they held to be unfit, unresponsive, or simply indifferent to their needs," said Will Fenton, the Albert Greenfield fellow at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

The fault lines were manifold: European vs. Native American, settler vs. city-dweller, "Presbyterian militancy" vs. "Quaker passivity."

Paxton supporters called attention to the greed and hypocrisy of "crooked" Quaker merchants and politicians, taking up arms to defend themselves against the Paxton Boys but opposing military aid for those on the frontier.

In one popular cartoon, prominent Quaker Abel James hands out tomahawks to the Conestoga while another member of the Society of Friends embraces a bare-chested Native American woman.

The Quakers and Benjamin Franklin, political cartoon ca. 1764. From the Historical Society of Pennsylvania large graphics collection [V65]

Anti-Paxton politicians, for their part, ridiculed the Scotch-Irish settlers for their vulgarity and lack of education. Racialized as "more savage than the Indians themselves," the frontiersmen are depicted as ignorant with a "backward" manner of speaking.

The Conestoga "would even have been safer among the Negroes of Africa, where at least one manly soul would have been found, with sense, spirit, and humanity enough, to stand in their defense," Franklin wrote, employing racist stereotypes in order to elevate the peaceful Conestoga and scold those sympathetic to the Paxton Boys.

In the end, none of the murderers was tried or convicted.

A Ph.D. candidate in English, Fenton worked over the past year to create the Digital Paxton project, a free resource featuring dozens of the pamphlets and cartoons, as well as accompanying essays and transcriptions.

For him, the contemporary parallels are clear.

"The term elite, weaponized in the 2016 election, figured heavily in the Paxton debate," said Fenton, while "many pamphleteers stoked debate anonymously, in much the same way that provocateurs hide behind Twitter handles."

"In the context of the Brexit vote and the rise of right-wing nationalist movements across the West, [we] would do well to study this incident and to critically engage pamphleteers' zero-sum views of race, class, and cosmopolitanism," he said.


This article originally appeared in the January 29, 2017 Philadelphia Inquirer as part of HSP's weekly series, Memory Stream.

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