Afterword: Plain Speaking

Past Project 2014

Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, published anonymously in 1776 was one of the most successful pamphlets ever written, selling over 100,000 copies in 3 months (including many pirated editions).

Paine argued in eloquent and straightforward terms for America’s complete independence from Britain, and his words were read and argued over by Loyalists and Revolutionaries alike. By publishing anonymously, Paine argued for “the doctrine not the man”; he understood the subversive power of invisibility when paired with direct and concise writing.

This potent work was one of millions of short, cheap publications that, even before the emergence of print, fed an insatiable public appetite for ideas and argument. Initially appearing as handwritten religious tracts, the pamphlet form matured during the Reformation and the English Civil War, reaching its zenith during the English Enlightenment. Milton, Locke, Defoe and Wollstonecraft – some of the greatest male and female radicals and ‘free thinkers’ of their day were prolific essayists and pamphleteers. Through this convenient and often anonymous medium many were emboldened to express ideas of ‘the self’ and helped shape political thought on anti-slavery laws, the women’s movement and human rights.

Pamphlets from this period might be viewed today as part of an underground movement, but they existed very much above ground, forming part of an emergent new culture of critics, thinkers and opinion-makers who were able to respond rapidly to the anxieties of the day and speak directly to their public. For the consumer a short, powerful and cheap polemic could have an incendiary and galvanising effect, and was often a key component in stirring revolutionary fervour.

So, does the pamphlet have a place in twenty-first century debate? Just as the printing press engendered concerns about ‘information overload’ and mass appeal, today’s digital technologies contribute to our anxieties about intellectual degradation and feed our appetite for instant opinion. Aspects of the polemical tradition are upheld in the Blogosphere, where there is the added value of a potentially infinite readership, limitless free publishing space, and the right to respond. Blogging, with its unmediated content, is perhaps the wayward child of the pamphlet.

What is clear is that a well-honed argument is as powerful a tool for debate and change as it ever was. Our pamphleteers have risen to this challenge; each one has grappled thoughtfully with their chosen subject and delivered a rallying cry to the reader. They invite you to read their essays, debate the content and consider your next move.