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William B. Warner, Protocols of Liberty: Communication, Innovation and the American Revolution.

William B. Warner, Protocols of Liberty: Communication, Innovation and the American Revolution, University of Chicago Press, 2013, pp. x + 303, $45.00.

'The concept of "emerging media" offers an alternative to ... the stadial theory of media technology, which models successive cultural stages from the oral and performed to writing and manuscript and from thence to print', Sandra Gustafson has recently argued. (1) Itself an emergent methodology, this interdisciplinary approach to the cultural politics of eighteenth-century America can be said to have reached a new maturity with William B. Warner's deeply researched and richly theorised attempt to 'study the American Revolution as an event in the history of communication' (p. 1). The study of print culture, whose recent ascendance can also be attributed to the transformative effect of the digital revolution on our historical perspective, has often dominated accounts of early American culture and society since the appearance of Michael Warner's seminal The Letters of the Republic in 1990. But alongside this general emphasis on print, a counter-argument that stresses the continuing importance of scribal culture, speech and non-textual objects to early American communicative practice has increasingly been visible. For prominent examples of work in these areas we need look no further than David S. Shields's Polite Tongues and Civil Letters in British America (1997), Gustafson's Eloquence is Power: Oratory and Performance in Early America (2000) and Matt Cohen's The Networked Wilderness: Communicating in Early New England (2010), respectively. Still, their important contributions notwithstanding, in contesting the pervasiveness of print such studies have sometimes fallen into the trap of paying too little attention to print culture and to each other. It is only in the past few years that essay collections such as Gustafson and Caroline F. Sloat's Cultural Narratives: Textuality and Performance in American Culture before 1900 (2010) and Cohen and Jeffrey Glover's Colonial Mediascapes: Sensory Worlds of the Early Americas (2014) have begun trying to assemble a more integrated and more nuanced account of the interaction between different media in the eighteenth century. Within this framework, Protocols of Liberty stands as the most systematic, most sustained and most chronologically focused analysis of the period's 'emerging media' to appear to date. 'While print, speech, and manuscript studies have enhanced our understanding of the conceptual logic and rhetorical resources of ... the American founding era, they do so by obscuring the place of each medium in the more complex ecology of communication', Warner remarks in the introduction to his book, whereas '[my] approach understands the American Revolution as part of a capacious, inclusive, and hybrid history, the history of mediation' (p. 26).

More precisely, Warner is concerned with investigating 'three related communications innovations: the invention of a new political agency, the committees of correspondence; the development of a new genre for political expression, the popular declaration; and the emergence of networks for collective political action, first within Massachusetts, and then across all the colonies' (p. 2). These developments, which were vital to the success of anti-British resistance between 1772 and 1776, can only be understood, he argues, through an apprehension of the material structures underpinning them. 'How networks function,' he writes, 'depends upon a mix of physical factors (e.g. the architecture of channels of communication) and protocols (the enabling constraints that determine level of access, who can initiate communication, who reports to whom, and all the nuanced relations of any organizational structure)' (p. 20). It is this reciprocal relationship between network and protocol and medium and message that Warner painstakingly unpicks in the six chapters that follow. His early chapters, for example, trace the emergence of the Boston Committee of Correspondence in late 1772, how it came to formulate the 'new genre of popular declaration' as a means of contesting royal interference in judicial appointments (p. 41) and how it eventually 'achieved institutional continuity' (p. 35). The paradigmatic influence of the Boston Committee, Warner suggests, 'derived not so much from its political ideas, which were conventional by design, as from the five communication protocols it observed: correct legal procedure, corporate action, public access, and a general and systematic address to the people that shows virtuous initiative' (p. 34). Adopting these protocols as their own, the other committees of correspondence that sprang up in 1773 then 'produced ... a distributed network of political actors', which 'enabled the towns to assume new roles and postures, and to enter into new political relations' (p. 78). The challenge that the newly aligning regional nodes of this period faced was how to build a 'Whig network of committees so that it [had] the robust, broadly participatory and egalitarian character of a distributed network and the cohesion and ability to decide and act most characteristic of a network organized by a star topology' (p. 164)--a challenge eventually met through the establishment of the First Continental Congress and the publication of the Declaration of Independence.

Warner's superb reading in his final chapter of the multi-media morphology of the Declaration--from oral resolution to manuscript to broadside to performed text--shows the benefits of his approach in its clearest form. Indeed, throughout the book he moves adeptly between microscopic and macroscopic perspectives, illuminatingly combining forensic close readings of texts such as The Votes and Proceedings of the Town of Boston (1772) with cogent overviews of the broader institutions that allowed them to be disseminated and redeployed. This 'canny alignment of message and media, content and form' (p. 240)--to borrow a phrase from Warner, which he applies to the Declaration itself--allows Protocols of Liberty to repeatedly fulfil its intention to 'explore how words can do what they describe, and reshape the political context within which they are inserted' (p. 51). Thanks to its intelligent negotiation between--and complication of--the familiar narratives of the Revolution, which tend to stress ideas at the expense of actors or vice versa (pp. 20-7), the book offers a genuinely fresh take on how colonial unrest managed to coalesce into full-blown and effective rebellion.

If the book has one notable limitation it is that Warner could have done more to back up his recurring assertions about the non-teleological nature of the narrative he is presenting. There are some fascinating sections in which we glimpse first-hand the effort of the royal authorities to sustain their imperial network (e.g. the account of Governor Hutchinson's response to the Massachusetts committees in Chapter Two) but by the end of the book we are left with the rather cursory verdict that 'the turning of [the] vortex had become so strong that the British power to rule had disappeared into this political revolution and every effort to counteract Whig political initiatives merely contributed to them' (p. 204). And similarly, if alternative political networks get too little airtime in the book, Warner also skirts too quickly over the colonists' initial military mobilisation in 1775 (pp. 222-3), which would have provided a potentially valuable example of how a different set of Whig networks and protocols contributed to the Revolution. It is another testament to the virtues of this indispensable study, however, that it provides us with plenty of tools to develop our own understanding of these other networks. Indeed, Protocols of Liberty is worth urging not only upon students of the American Revolution and those concerned with the 'emergent media' of the eighteenth century but--as Warner himself indicates in his Conclusion (p. 266-72) upon anyone interested in the formation of political movements, from abolitionism in the nineteenth century to Occupy today.


Matthew Pethers

University of Nottingham

(1) Sandra Gustafson, 'The Emerging Media of Early America', in Sandra Gustafson and Caroline F. Sloat (eds), Cultural Narratives: Textuality and Performance in American Culture before 1900 (Notre Dame, 2010), p. 349.
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Author:Pethers, Matthew
Publication:Literature & History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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