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Protocols of Liberty

Communication Innovation and the American Revolution

The fledgling United States fought a war to achieve independence from Britain, but as John Adams said, the real revolution occurred “in the minds and hearts of the people” before the armed conflict ever began. Putting the practices of communication at the center of this intellectual revolution, Protocols of Liberty shows how American patriots—the Whigs—used new forms of communication to challenge British authority before any shots were fired at Lexington and Concord.
To understand the triumph of the Whigs over the Brit-friendly Tories, William B. Warner argues that it is essential to understand the communication systems that shaped pre-Revolution events in the background. He explains the shift in power by tracing the invention of a new political agency, the Committee of Correspondence; the development of a new genre for political expression, the popular declaration; and the emergence of networks for collective political action, with the Continental Congress at its center. From the establishment of town meetings to the creation of a new postal system and, finally, the Declaration of Independence, Protocols of Liberty reveals that communication innovations contributed decisively to nation-building and continued to be key tools in later American political movements, like abolition and women’s suffrage, to oppose local custom and state law.

320 pages | 13 halftones, 14 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2013

History: American History

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature, British and Irish Literature

Political Science: American Government and Politics

Rhetoric and Communication


“A meticulously written book. . . . Warner has offered an important and useful study of the communication innovations that made the American Revolution possible.”

Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

 “William B. Warner’s profoundly learned and well-timed Protocols of Liberty provides readers with a distant mirror for our own moment, returning us to the conditions of communication that determined the course of ‘Whig’ politics in the 1760s and 1770s and made the American Revolution possible. Built upon the close scrutiny of printed sources and making excellent use of generations of scholarship, Warner’s book patiently reconstructs the political networks and nodes of revolutionary America. In doing so, he provides a pointed and much-needed synthesis, bringing together what we know about the various communicative practices of the period to tell a new story about the modernity of eighteenth-century politics.”

Eric Slauter, University of Chicago

 “Protocols of Liberty is an immensely interesting and edifying account of the role of communications in British America during the political crisis of the 1770s. William B. Warner has done prodigious research and produced insightful and creative close readings of an impressive range of texts, and his emphasis on ‘protocols’ intervenes usefully in debates about American nation-building. Readers from a range of disciplines, political persuasions, and new media orientations will take notice of this book.”

David Henkin, University of California, Berkeley

 “Protocols of Liberty gives us an American Revolution for the age of social media. In a fresh and lucid reading of the movement toward independence, William B. Warner calls attention to the remarkable innovations of political communications that were the secret of its success. Centuries before the name, Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, and their compatriots appreciated the potential power of social networks and artfully constructed and sustained them to dismantle British authority and erect a republic in its stead. Relying on the media of their day—speech, manuscript, and print—they conducted an open, public, and reciprocal conversation with the people designed to mobilize support and secure consensus. With a keen grasp of eighteenth-century political ideas and rhetorical techniques, Warner brilliantly shows us just how they did so and how much we owe to their achievements. Communications media, he reminds us, do more than transmit messages or win followers; they model the very community they aim to bring into being. The leaders of the American Revolution knew and acted on that insight. Let the revolutionaries of our time, armed with Twitter and YouTube, heed that example.”

Robert A. Gross, University of Connecticut

 “This beautifully written work, which explores the role sociotechnical communication networks in the founding of the United States, deserves the widest audience. William B. Warner offers a vivid decentering of events leading to the Declaration of Independence from accounts of the actions and thoughts of solitary individuals. We are today fundamentally reworking our political processes in response to new network technologies; this book provides a wonderful, urgently needed tool for rethinking our present. Liberty—then and now—has its protocols.”

Geoffrey C. Bowker, University of California, Irvine

Table of Contents

Introduction: Communication and the American Crisis

1 1 The Invention of the Boston Committee of Correspondence and the Popular Declaration
2 1 Th e Protocols of the Declarations and the Eclipse of Royal Power in Massachusetts in 1773
3 1 The Post and Newspaper in British America: A Communication System in Crisis
4 1 Th e Whig Network Scales Up: Inflecting the Crisis from Williamsburg
5 1 “A Chain of Freedom Has Been Formed”: The First Continental Congress Develops into the Hub of an Intercolonial Network
6 1 The Panorama of the Declaration

Conclusion: Th e American Revolution as a Gift


American Society for 18th Century Studies: Louis Gottschalk Prize

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