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Protocols of Liberty: Communication, Innovation, and teh American Revolution [Book Banner from Title Page Image] Betsy Ross Flag - Network Design
William Warner [Author Name]
The University of Chicago Press [Publisher Name]
Overview [Link]
Introduction [Link]
Chapter 1 [Link]
Chapter 2 [Link]
Chapter 3 [Link]
Chapter 4 [Link]
Chapter 5 [Link]
Chapter 6 [Link]
Conclusion [Link]

Winner of the 2013-2014 Gottschalk Prize Competition

At the American Society of Eighteenth Century Society (ASECS) annual meeting in Williamsburg Virginia, the Society awarded the Gottschalk Prize to Protocols of Liberty. The award of $1,000 was presented to Professor Warner by President Joseph Roach. Below is the commendation written by the Gottschalk Prize Committee.

William B. Warner’s Protocols of Liberty offers a compelling new account of the origins of the American Revolution through a series of analyses centering on the methods, practices, and genres of communication that American Whigs appropriated and invented over the prerevolutionary period. He explores how these Whigs articulated resistance by exploiting existing elements of the communications systems of the British Atlantic, and he identifies three kinds of political innovation—committees of correspondence, the popular declaration, and the creation of decentralized networks—by means of which Americans created the freedom that they sought to establish.

Many, especially intellectual historians and scholars in literary studies, have sought the origins of the American Revolution in ideas such as liberty. Others, mainly social historians, have sought the Revolution’s origins in material-social history, for example, in the burdens of under-employed, frequently intemperate laborers of the Atlantic port cities who had little to lose and much to gain in a fight for high-minded ideas. Warner, a scholar of communication and communication theory, shows how the pamphlets, newspapers, broadsides, and declarations drafted, issued, and read by committees of correspondence and larger public groups were the means by which people, the concern of social historians, shared the ideas that are the concern of intellectual historians. Warner sees the central action of the Revolution not in the ideas or in the people, but in the communication networks that joined them. Communication, argues Warner, was not merely connective; it was productive. Exchanges between the Boston Committee of Correspondence and its counterparts in scattered Massachusetts towns, for example, did not merely perform ideas or function to convey information; they “produced something quite new.” As Warner explains, “communication changed those brought into communication.” The means and procedures of expression, conveyance, and reception of ideas, what Warner calls communication protocols, made the Revolution by making some ideas revolutionary and some people into revolutionaries.

To produce his challenging synthetic perspectives, Warner relies on the development of a nuanced "thick description," plunging readers directly into the print culture of the prerevolutionary years through fine close readings, impressive archival research, and insights from contemporary theoretical work on media. Focusing on what he describes as “the complex ecology of communication” (26), Warner’s wide-ranging interdisciplinary study brings the eighteenth century into conversation with both the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries, particularly in his treatments of the liberty-power dialectic.

This is an important book for many reasons, not the least of which is its successful bridging--perhaps transcending is a better word--of the gap between the social and ideological origins of the Revolution. Warner’s analyses of both the power of language and its limits suggest new ways of thinking about discursive genres in the eighteenth century that will resonate within other scholarly projects that seek to link the so-called “core” and “peripheral” Enlightenments. At a time when media forms have played crucial roles in a series of contemporary revolutions, Warner’s readings of the communications media of the American Revolution as what he terms “a political tool kit for those who set out to challenge instituted authority” (266) powerfully demonstrate why the study of the eighteenth century continues to matter today.
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