This chapter is about using primary sources to study identity in the early modern period. Problematically, researchers use the word ‘identity’ to describe a range of different phenomena, which can make identity a vague concept (Brubaker and Cooper, 2000). Moreover, some of the historians featured below use words other than ‘identity’ to refer to arguably the same concept. So, studying identity always involves thinking carefully about issues of definition. Dror Wahrman provides a useful distinction between two common definitions of identity. In the first instance, historians use identity to refer to the characteristics that make an individual unique; their personality, in other words. Wahrman calls this the study of the Self. In the second, historians use the word identity to refer to the common attributes that unite individuals in the same society (Wahrman, 2004). This second definition is called social identity and it will be the focus of this chapter. What follows is a guide to analysing the ideas that early modern people believed united them together as part of one society. However, even with this relatively straightforward definition of identity, there remain a host of difficult questions left to answer.
To address some of these issues, I will focus on using primary sources to examine social identity. This chapter is a case study of a leading American patriot, John Dickinson, as he explained his social identity during the course of two major debates in the 1760s. At the time, America was still a colony of Britain and most colonists loyally identified themselves as British, but the period also saw Americans distinguishing themselves from their British counterparts. To study these emerging identities, I will examine a pamphlet and a speech to understand what Dickinson believed connected him and his compatriots together. I will also analyse Dickinson’s claims about his social identity in the context of the two major debates in order to assess how others challenged or confirmed Dickinson’s definition of social identity. Historians have to avoid accepting any one interpretation of identity uncritically as this would be unrepresentative of the broader society. The key to unravelling any conflicting interpretations is to find supporting evidence. Because social identity mainly describes the relationship between people, this chapter will focus on how Dickinson expressed his ideas to others to corroborate his definition of social identity. Two central themes emerge from this analysis: first, social identity is always a contested process; and second, social identity is comprised of both the ideas that united Americans and the way Americans expressed their similarity to each other. Studying identity could be a bewildering undertaking, but with careful and thorough analysis of the sources, it can provide valuable insights into the way societies functioned in the past.
Since the 1950s, the study of early modern American identity has mapped closely on to the major historiographical trends of American history. Each new school of historical thought has raised interesting and provocative questions about whether people felt they belonged to American society. For this initial overview, we are going to concentrate on the different source sets and interpretative methodologies historians have used to analyse social identity. The crucial transformation in the last 60 years has been the increasing attention paid to the way historical people expressed their identity. Rather than focusing simply on the ideas and attributes that Americans shared, as early historians did, contemporary historians now look at the varied ways Americans communicated their identities to each other. This has added a new layer of analysis that allows for a more sophisticated assessment of the extent to which people shared the same social identity.
A meaningful starting point for the study of social identity in America is the consensus school of history. During the 1950s and 1960s, historians studied early American literature looking for a set of fundamental ideas that united all Americans. For example, Louis Hartz focused on pamphlets and treatises to argue Americans shared a liberal tradition of social equality and market values (Hartz, 1991). Meanwhile, Perry Miller analysed jeremiads. Jeremiads are a genre of literature characterised by shrill warnings about the decline of modern society. Miller argued that the jeremiads of New England Puritans formed the foundation of the American character or the American mind, analogous terms for social identity (Miller, 1967). Consensus historians attempted to distil American social identity into a few essential ideas by emphasising the points of agreement between their sources, downplaying the conflict and disorder of broader society. Hartz and Miller rarely discussed American society at all, concentrating almost exclusively on ideas and effectively overlooking the people. While later historians largely discredit this overly harmonious view of social identity, the works of consensus historians, such as Hartz and Miller, can still have relevance for identity studies today. In fact, the approach of this chapter actually resembles the methodology of consensus history. It covers a similar set of sources by focusing on those written by elite Americans, and it interprets these sources by analysing the points of consensus between texts. The crucial distinction is that we also have to account for the fact that people repeatedly disputed social identity.
Emphasis on the contested nature of life in past societies was a significant feature of historiography from the late 1960s and 1970s. This school of historical thought was called ‘new social history’, and it challenged many of the precepts of consensus history. Social historians criticised the intellectual approach for neglecting social experience (Young, 2011). Gary Nash is one of the most prominent historians in this field. His aim was to look at the social environment in early America, especially the inequality and conflict that living through the American Revolution entailed. To do so, Nash turned away from the elite ideas inherent in pamphlets and jeremiads. Instead, he studied court documents, tax lists, and poor relief records. Documents such as these reveal the poverty and inequality of life and build up a picture of how people lived. Nash, and many like him, argued that understanding the common economic conditions that united ordinary people reveals an American ‘political consciousness’, another analogous term for American social identity. According to Nash, the unity of American society originated in common economic interests. He grouped American society according to their relative wealth and social position, which he discerned by looking at their ability to earn a living and their access to justice. Nash was most interested in ordinary people and he argued their American social identity was formed through a mutual commitment to defending common economic interests against both the British and the colonial elites (Nash, 1979). Nash demonstrates that early modern Americans, from all levels in society, could contest social identity. Social historians argue we should be cautious when examining any overlaps in the ideas between texts because these sources were mainly written by elites and therefore may not represent the broader society. The work of social historians continues today and shows that early American social identity emerged more from debate and disunity than from consensus on fundamental precepts.
Social history put society back into the study of social identity, but it relied upon material that rarely discussed social identity itself. Court documents, tax lists, and poor relief records reveal the material conditions of people’s lives; however, these sources do not comment explicitly on what connected people together. Moreover, looking at social conditions and inequality concentrates historical analysis on the poor rather than the powerful. Social historians have been criticised for distorting the way early modern societies functioned by focusing disproportionately on the poor and other marginalised people in order to suit twenty-first century sensibilities about social inclusion (Nobles, 2011). Nash’s approach challenges easy assumptions about the extent to which people shared in an American social identity. It highlights the elite bias inherent in early American literature and encourages historians to be critical of the social identity put forward by men like Dickinson. Yet, as will be seen below, elite men explained their political decisions in part by defining their relationship with others in society. The writings of powerful men, especially in political pamphlets or speeches, often directly discussed what connected Americans together in a way that court records or tax lists could only suggest. Moreover, the sources from elites are plentiful. Elites had better opportunities to write and to have those writings preserved for posterity. In order to address the challenges raised by social historians, researchers should use elite sources effectively, remembering to account for the contested nature of identity and the bias toward the elite perspective. Ultimately, most sources on social identity can only offer one perspective at a time, but as long as researchers use corroborating evidence judiciously then they can draw better conclusions about what early modern Americans believed united them together.
One of the most important developments in early American historiography has been increasing interest in the medium of expression, or put another way, the way in which people encountered ideas and debates about social identity. D. F. McKenzie has been a significant figure in understanding printed documents like pamphlets. He argued that the physical qualities of a pamphlet affected how people understood the ideas on the page. This meant looking beyond the words to analyse the ‘non-verbal elements’ such as the font, punctuation, or the use of space on a page. For McKenzie, these decisions reveal how authors and printers attempted to communicate with their readers, and as such, these non-verbal elements can be as useful as the words in understanding the society around the texts (McKenzie, 1999). McKenzie identifies the varied ways authors expressed themselves in the eighteenth century, and his work points toward further corroborating evidence for analysing social identity. Another important medium in the eighteenth century were speeches, and Sandra Gustafson asks whether reading and speaking had different connotations for historical societies. Gustafson argues there was a dynamic relationship between the way that orators used written scripts and improvised speeches. At times, written words seemed staid and lifeless, while speech seemed animated and authentic. At other times, audiences perceived the written word to be authoritative and speech to be duplicitous. Orators balanced these two competing perceptions of speeches in order to help make sense of their contest with Britain. While some crises required an orator to display a calm and forensic demeanour, which they did by reading from a script, other crises necessitated impassioned and extemporaneous speeches (Gustafson, 2000). Both McKenzie and Gustafson argue that the medium of expression had a significant role in reinforcing how a person expressed their social identity. As will be seen in the case studies, the way Dickinson used the medium of a pamphlet or speech helps researchers analyse how Dickinson perceived the connections between himself and those around him.
Another school interested in the mode of expression is the history of emotions. The school has roots that stretch back to the 1920s, but explicit historical research is relatively new. Historians of emotions reinterpret sources to examine fundamental transformations in how people relate to each other (Stearns, 2008). Nicole Eustace is a prominent historian of early American emotions. She argues that Americans had to express their emotions properly in order to appear credible to their audiences. Eustace is not interested in how people experienced emotions, which is very difficult to recover from pamphlets or speeches; instead, she focuses on the expression of emotion, what people say about their emotional state. The emotions people shared with others provide important clues about a phenomenon called self-fashioning. Self-fashioning refers to the way a speaker or author presented themselves to their audience. They expressed different emotions in order to convey their ideas in a more persuasive manner. For Eustace, expressing ideas cheerfully or angrily revealed key facts about the relationship between people. The most significant role of emotional expression was in negotiating social relations and establishing social identity rather than truthfully expressing one’s own emotions (Eustace, 2009). Emotions history encourages researchers to analyse the language of identity debates and consider how they help a writer communicate their ideas about social unity. They remind a researcher that writers wrote for a specific audience and changed their ideas and mode of expression to suit each situation.
There are many more schools of history using different source sets that have contributed toward the study of early American social identity, but the purpose of this short overview is to emphasise that early modern people from all levels of society contributed to debates over social identity and to argue that the mode of expression can help in analysing the conflicting interpretations that emerged.
Selecting and interpreting sources
The following section explores strategies for selecting appropriate sources. More than just being plentiful, pamphlets and speeches have specific qualities that make them useful to the study of social identity. Significantly, they were often at the centre of identity debates and so this section will help researchers reconstruct these debates by providing a few hints about where to begin looking for the pamphlets and speeches that answer each other. Analysing these sources as part of broader debates is crucial for understanding the conflicting definitions of social identity put forward by men like Dickinson and those who argued against him.
In the early modern period, pamphlets were small booklets, generally cheaper and more topical than a book. They could be eight pages or over hundred pages, and in fact, this flexibility in their form made them an ideal genre to discuss contemporary political issues. The most useful feature of a pamphlet for studying identity is that in most cases they put forward a cogent idea that responded to the prevailing issues of the day. Pamphlets were usually part of a call and response dialogue. Authors published controversial statements and others responded with rejoinder texts that dissected the original (Bailyn, 1992). Given the conflicted nature of social identity, pamphlets are a useful entry point to identity debates. While the next section will look in closer detail at the expression of identity within an individual pamphlet, it is important that a researcher should not assume that because a pamphlet exists it is representative of the whole society. By itself, a pamphlet cannot reveal to a researcher whether society agreed with the ideas within. Similarly, only looking at one pamphlet raises issues of exhaustiveness. Researchers must demonstrate to readers the efforts they have made to base their conclusions on a complete source set, and that they have exhausted all possibilities for material to analyse. A single pamphlet may not be the last word on the subject, or even the most popular. Researchers could inappropriately privilege the ideas of one pamphlet because it agreed with their argument, ignoring the much more copious arguments against it. When analysing pamphlets, researchers should consider how the texts fitted into the broader social environment in which the identity debates took place.
In order to use pamphlets effectively, it is important to see them as part of a debate. Best historical practice is to find corroborating evidence from a variety of sources. This could include letters and diaries from people who confirm the validity of the ideas within a pamphlet. Another technique is to situate pamphlets in their historical debate. Many pamphlets reference each other explicitly, helping to build up a better picture of public discussions. Discussions between pamphlets better represented public opinion than just a single pamphlet. In order to establish the exhaustiveness of a pamphlet debate, researchers can refer to the work of bibliographers. Bibliographers are scholars who collect and catalogue historical material. For early modern America, Charles Evans compiled one of the most extensive bibliographies of American literature produced between 1639 and 1820 (Evans, 1941). Most modern bibliographies and digital databases build on Evans’ research. Evans often included helpful notes about how pamphlets related to each other and so bibliographies can help researchers draw up a checklist of all the pamphlets involved in a debate. In the study of identity, a pamphlet is one of the most accessible genres. Studying pamphlet debates is a good way to gauge public support and reaction to social identity debates. Importantly, though, a researcher must remain sensitive to questions surrounding a pamphlet’s representativeness and exhaustiveness.
Speeches were a common and influential feature of eighteenth-century life. Most speeches survive only as a printed text, and many researchers analyse them in a similar fashion to pamphlets. For example, Bernard Bailyn, in his study of American pamphlets, analysed speeches in the same way as other textual material (Bailyn, 1992). Similarly, Charles Evans listed speeches alongside other pamphlets without distinction (Evans, 1941). There are no serious problems with this approach. While many early modern Americans would have initially encountered speeches as texts, researchers can glean important information by analysing speeches as part of a spoken medium and think about the effect this had on the expression of identity. Therefore, when interpreting speeches it is important to consider the performance, questioning specifically how the orator communicated their ideas, both in their words and in their actions. The performance of a speech could reinforce or undermine the argument the speaker intended to put forward. In the early modern period, people expected politicians to express their mastery over strong emotions. This demonstrated both sincerity and authority (Eustace, 2009). However, sometimes historians may only have the words of a speech to analyse. Importantly, in order to publish these pieces, orators often reconstructed their speeches either from their notes or from their memory, and sometimes they even revised the speech before publication. This means that the words on the page may not have been the words spoken at the time (Gustafson, 2000). Therefore, researchers should always look for evidence about the period between delivering the speech and publishing it as a text as well as corroborating evidence about the nature of the performance. Speeches exemplify the close connection between the definition of identity and the expression of identity.
This final section will provide practical advice about using primary sources to study social identity. I will look first at how Dickinson expressed himself in a pamphlet from 1765 and a speech from 1764. Importantly, Dickinson supported the definition of his social identity by expressing himself in ways that were specific to pamphlets and to speeches. I will then look at how these two sources fitted into wider debates, looking for corroborating evidence about Dickinson’s social identity. What emerges from this analysis are case studies that exemplify two common ways in which someone like Dickinson defined their social identity. Through pamphlets, Dickinson defined his identity against a group who attacked him and his compatriots for being disloyal to Britain. In the second case, Dickinson attempted to define two overlapping identities, explaining how he could be both British and Pennsylvanian. Together the two case studies show that while identity was sometimes defined against an ‘other’, identity could be much more complex: sometimes one individual can belong to two groups simultaneously.
John Dickinson wrote the pamphlet Address to the Committee of Correspondence during the Stamp Act crisis of 1765 and 1766. The Stamp Act was a dispute between the colonies and Britain about a tax on paper. It is commonly considered the beginning of the American Revolution. Address, the short-form title of the piece, specifically responded to a letter that appeared in the American press from Barbados to London, in which the Barbadians seemed to distance themselves from the protests carried on in the rest of America. Dickinson’s pamphlet censured the Barbadians for trying to find their own solution to the political stand-off with Britain. Dickinson defended his fellow Americans, and in so doing, he also provided a useful definition for American social identity. Dickinson identified his fellow Americans as those who protested against Britain. This stood in contrast to the Barbadians who, he claimed, acquiesced too easily to British demands. On the surface, pamphlets may seem a relatively straightforward exercise in source analysis: one could simply summarise the ideas within; however, there are a number of additional points to consider that can make analysis of eighteenth-century pamphlets still more sophisticated. Researchers should study the typography of a piece, and use bibliographies to corroborate their conclusions. These will furnish further compelling evidence about the social identity of the author.
The strength of looking at Address in particular is that it provides a useful discussion of how Dickinson believed Americans should react against Britain. Before analysing the content of a piece, a researcher should examine the ‘paratexts’ of their item. Paratexts are additional pieces of text that accompany the main body of the work, such as titles, footnotes, prefaces, or anything that an editor, publisher, or even the author has added to the main text. Paratexts can be distinguished by the use of space or font size. Titles tend to be in big letters with lots of space, while footnotes are usually smaller and at the bottom of the page. Look at this reproduction of the title page to Address to see how non-verbal elements can help distinguish the different paratexts on just one page. Crucially, paratexts often augment or clarify the author’s central argument. For example, both the title and the author’s preface focus the attention of the reader on the letter from Barbados. Dickinson argued that the Barbadian letter falsely represented the colonists on mainland America as being in ‘rebellion’ against the British Empire. This was an unconscionable idea for Americans at the time, and so Dickinson said his aim was to defend the right of colonists to protest against the Stamp Act without it being characterised as rebellion. In fact, another paratext, the quote from Shakespeare on the title page, draws the reader’s attention to this idea of rebellion. The quote implicitly censures the Barbadians for not being robust in defending British liberty for fear of being branded in ‘rebellion’. Dickinson justified protests against the Stamp Act by contrasting it against the accusation of rebellion. He argued the protests united the colonies as a society against unfair taxation. Significantly, before looking at the text in earnest, the paratexts highlighted key themes and contexts that the main argument developed. Researchers should take time to think carefully about how paratexts frame the argument of a pamphlet and then use these insights to support their subsequent conclusions.
The most significant clue that the paratexts in Address provide for researchers relates explicitly to social identity. Dickinson stated in the preface that he aimed to ‘vindicate the honour of [his] country’, but he did not name that country. However, Dickinson’s country would have been obvious to a reader from the outset because he signed the pamphlet with a pseudonym. Pseudonyms are another form of paratext and are the alternative name an author uses instead of their own name. In the eighteenth century, this helped some authors avoid official prosecution or popular harassment, but pseudonyms were also important rhetorical devices. Using a specific pseudonym allowed the author to align their work with an intended audience (Shields, 1997). They could speak purely as an artisan, a farmer, or a woman, irrespective of the author themselves. In Address, Dickinson identified himself as ‘A NORTH-AMERICAN’. The pseudonym appeared prominently on the front cover with lines above and below and lots of space around. It was also the signature at the end of the pamphlet; therefore, each time Dickinson expressed pride in his compatriots for opposing unfair taxation, the reader would associate this with a shared American identity. Paratexts can help focus attention on critical elements of a debate. In this instance, they emphasise Dickinson’s connection to North America.
Dickinson also used the typography of his pamphlet to convey his ideas. Typography is another non-verbal element of printed works. It is the way that individual letters appear on the page. These could include size, kerning, and alignment. One of the most important was typefaces. The different fonts a printer used in a publication carried clues for eighteenth-century readers about how to read the text as the author intended (Rath, 2008). Dickinson noted at the end of his preface that he used italics to draw his reader’s attention to specific words. On the first page of Address, Dickinson wrote ‘I am a North-American’, highlighting again the theme of American social identity. Throughout the remainder of the text, Dickinson italicised the word ‘American’, for example in extract [A]. These provide visual clues to pay special attention to the ideas that follow. In this instance, Dickinson praised the virtue of the Americans in resisting British taxation. Significantly, Dickinson never contrasted American identity against a British identity. Instead, he believed that the colonial protest protected British liberties. The italics underline the moments Dickinson elaborated on this critical distinction.
Typography had a powerful influence on the message that an author wished to convey. Address was reprinted in 1768 in a Pennsylvania newspaper [B]. Significantly, different typography was used in these identical passages. The words strongly denounce the British Stamp Tax and call Americans to resist the ‘badges of shame’ that the tax stamps represented. Yet the newspaper extracts contained many more instances of italics, small capitals, and capitals. In fact, accompanying the newspaper extract, a contributor called A Countryman asked ‘What then must we think of a writer, who without producing the least proof to the contrary, can without shame or remorse not only repeat his groundless and injurious accusations, but blazon them forth with Italics, small capitals, and CAPITALS without number, that they might make the greater impression on his readers?’ A Countryman challenged the authenticity of Dickinson’s social identity by condemning the way he expressed those ideas. The words remained the same, but their expression had changed. Ultimately, authors manipulated typography for rhetorical purposes, both in support of their argument, like Dickinson, and to attack an opponent, as in the newspaper extract.
These examples demonstrate that Dickinson defined Americans as those who protested against Britain and both his words and their expression reinforced this idea, but it is also important to put Dickinson’s definition into its broader social context. To do so, a researcher could examine more of Dickinson’s pamphlets to assess whether he sustained similar ideas throughout time. Like many of the prominent founding fathers, Dickinson’s writings have been collected together by an editor, in this case by Paul Leicester Ford (1895). For some topics, viewing the development of an idea over the lifetime of an author is an important approach, but because debate and discussion is integral to understanding social identity then it is important to compare Dickinson’s definitions with others writing on the same subject. A researcher could include pamphlets published in Philadelphia around the same time to see if other authors reiterated Dickinson’s ideas. Evans’ bibliography is organised chronologically, which makes finding other relevant pamphlets straightforward. However, perhaps the easiest starting point is to find pamphlets that responded directly to each other. This information could be contained in the pamphlets or its paratexts. Footnotes and titles commonly indicated whether they were replying to an earlier pamphlet, and Charles Evans sometimes included notes in his bibliography about pamphlets that were related to each other. Fortunately in this instance, Ford, Dickinson’s editor, identified three pamphlets that reacted to Address. Together these works provide suggestive insights into contested and consensual definitions of American social identity.
A useful starting point for analysing rejoinder pamphlets is to look at the ways the texts mirrored each other. For example, on the title of page of An Essay Towards the Vindication of the Committee of Correspondence in Barbados, the author included a quote from Shakespeare, as Dickinson had. The Essay author signalled their difference by using a quote about foolish loyalty to an unworthy cause. The author argued that by defending the Americans who protested against the Stamp Act, Dickinson demonstrated more loyalty to his American compatriots than to his British brethren. However, the Essay author also implicitly agreed with Dickinson that the protests against Britain united the Americans together. Both authors believed the protests connected Americans together, but they disagreed about whether that protest was foolish or brave. Similarly, in another of the rejoinder pamphlets, A Letter to a North American, the author repeatedly italicised the word North American to draw attention to it. The author stressed the differences in conditions between North America and the island of Barbados. The author argued that North Americans could protest, but Barbadians could not because of the large number of slaves on the island. He worried that Barbadian slaves would join the protests and then eventually start their own insurrection. By italicising the word American, the second author agreed with Dickinson that protest united Americans together, but he emphasised that Barbados could not unite with the Americans in the same way. In fact, each of the three pamphlets used pseudonyms that contrasted against Dickinson’s use of the name ‘North American’. They called themselves ‘A Barbadian’, ‘A Native of the Island’, and ‘A Native of Barbados’. These names confirm that the issue of where someone lived was paramount to the discussion. Dickinson’s American identity is understood better in contrast against the Barbadians. The debate surrounding Address suggests that both sides saw protesting as a defining element of an American social identity. Paratexts can be a quick way to find overlap between pamphlets that seem to disagree with each other fundamentally. These points of consensus can help a researcher corroborate their working definition of social identity.
Ultimately, this brief examination of Address is a small case study intended to recommend some useful ways of using pamphlets to analyse social identity. A researcher should think about how paratexts frame the main argument and analyse how the pamphlet compares with others on the same subject. By taking these relatively small steps, the researcher acknowledges the importance of the expression of the ideas and the contested nature of social identity.
Many of the same techniques used to analyse Address would be helpful in looking at Dickinson’s 1764 speech to the Pennsylvania House of Assembly. The speech came during a time of heightened tensions both within Pennsylvania and between Pennsylvania and Britain. After decades of disputes, Pennsylvania had come to a political impasse in 1764 with neither the legislative nor the executive branch able to work together. Some members of the legislative branch argued the solution was closer union with Britain. However, during the Seven Years War (1757–1763), Pennsylvania had upset Britain by provisioning war supplies too slowly and, therefore, Dickinson argued closer union with Britain would hurt the legislative house and the people of Pennsylvania. Dickinson claimed that the closer union with Britain was prompted by anger at the executive branch, but he did not want to rush carelessly into a detrimental relationship with Britain: he believed that the provincial legislature protected special privileges for Pennsylvanians. Therefore, the speech is a helpful case study for understanding how identities can overlap, and to understand how social identity was an important consideration for Dickinson.
Dickinson aimed to persuade his audience by personally exhibiting the proper emotional response during the course of his speech. In the first paragraph, Dickinson described the appropriate emotional response to the political crisis. He said that ‘nothing is more natural than to resent and complain’; however, when it came time to consider a solution to the crisis, then ‘the same virtue that gave the alarm, may sometimes, by causing too great a transport of zeal, defeat its own purpose’. Dickinson wanted to assert that the anger inspired by Pennsylvania’s political crisis was natural and laudable, but the same zeal that energised people to confront the crisis should not be used to draw up the solution. This was especially the case with politicians because of it ‘being expedient for those who deliberate of public affairs, that their minds should be free from violent passions’. Dickinson argued that in order to reach a viable conclusion, politicians needed a clear head. He continued that feelings of resentment ‘blind the understanding; they weaken the judgement’. Dickinson began his speech by extolling the virtue and power of emotions, but insisted that cooler heads had to prevail. Rather than asserting himself as a dispassionate politician, he represented himself as someone who overcame strong emotions to reach a clear decision. He properly sympathised with the issues at hand, but had mastery over himself to reach a solid conclusion (Eustace, 2009).
Accounts of the performance of speeches are very rare. Fortunately, this particular speech became part of a broader controversy. In the preface to another speech arguing against Dickinson, Benjamin Franklin commented on Dickinson’s performance. Franklin alleged that Dickinson had initially attempted to protest against closer union with Britain ‘ore tenus’, meaning as part of an oral testimony. Franklin insinuated that Dickinson improvised his remarks, but failed to convince other members of the House. Following this failure, Dickinson was, in the words of Franklin, ‘obliged to retreat to his Speech in writing’ in order to make his protest against closer union with Britain. Franklin reported that in reading out his script, Dickinson was ‘not the most deliberate’, by which Franklin meant that Dickinson delivered the speech without the fluidity that would be expected when reading aloud. Finally, Franklin characterised Dickinson’s speech as ‘long’ and ‘elaborate’. Together these criticisms accused Dickinson of being incapable of delivering a persuasive speech either extemporaneously or by reading aloud. Dickinson later rejected all of Franklin’s claims. Dickinson said he never attempted to give the speech ore tenus and that the written script was the only attempt he made to give the speech.
The two men argued about the manner of Dickinson’s speech because performance mattered. The substance of Dickinson’s argument relied on demonstrating both sincerity and authority to his audience through the performance of his speech. Extemporaneous speech demonstrated sincerity, whereas reading aloud was associated with authority and command of the facts (Gustafson, 2000). Franklin’s criticisms undermined both of these qualities. While most of what Franklin alleged is unverifiable from the evidence that still exists today, both accounts agree that Dickinson delivered the speech by reading from a script. Of course, an orator could express their ideas credibly by using the appropriate emotional tone. We can look to the emotional language that Dickinson employed to provide insights into his self-fashioning, or how he wanted to present himself to his audience. Self-fashioning tells historians more about the rhetorical intentions of the speaker rather than their actual emotional experience, but these intentions can still help interpret any evidence we have of the performance.
Franklin’s accusation that Dickinson did not deliver his speech in a ‘Manner most deliberate’ suggests that Dickinson did not win over all his audience with these emotional appeals. This is a useful reminder that Dickinson’s speech was only one interpretation of the crisis in Pennsylvania. Already, I have suggested that Dickinson’s speech was part of a broader controversy. Returning to Ford’s edited collection, we can see that Dickinson’s speech prompted many rejoinders, especially from Joseph Galloway, for whom Franklin wrote the preface describing Dickinson’s performance. In his speech, Galloway disagreed with Dickinson about almost everything, including basic facts like whether the speech Dickinson published resembled the one he delivered. Yet, there are interesting moments of overlap that support Dickinson’s argument that being Pennsylvanian entailed special privileges and being British meant supporting liberty generally. Dickinson argued that closer union with Britain threatened Pennsylvanian privileges, while Galloway argued that Britain could actually best protect special liberties. So, perhaps the dispute between the two men highlighted some of the assumptions that formed the basis of Pennsylvanian and British identities. If there were attempts to protect both special Pennsylvanian privileges and British liberty, then we might view social identities as overlapping, and the differences between them subtle and contested. Both Dickinson and Galloway professed ardent attachment to both Pennsylvanians and Britons, but they clearly disagreed with each other about how to achieve that aim.
In this section, we have seen how it is possible to learn a great deal about Pennsylvanian social identity through close reading of the Address pamphlet. Clues about the performance of speeches can also offer insight into the way politicians like John Dickinson negotiated or articulated overlapping identities.
Early modern social identity was always a contested phenomenon and understanding it requires working with many conflicting definitions. Historians may disagree among themselves about how best to describe identity. Identity is the most common word used in contemporary scholarship, but the literature may not use the phrase ‘social identity’ explicitly. Using Wahrman’s definition of social identity as the study of what connects people together in society is a good starting point and researchers should look for discussions about this topic rather than the word ‘identity’ explicitly.
Furthermore, primary sources on social identity will rarely agree with each other. Dickinson and the Barbadians defined the social identity of Americans by their protest against Britain and compared this identity against the inaction of the islanders. Sometimes the conflict in the sources will be more about reconciling overlapping identities as in the case study of the speech. Dickinson and Galloway took opposing views on what would happen if Pennsylvania joined a closer union with Britain, but they both agreed their special privileges made them Pennsylvanians and their liberty made them British.
A researcher’s role in early modern identity studies often involves making sense of conflicting definitions. Using paratexts can focus analysis on key elements of identity debates. A researcher should pay attention to the non-verbal elements of a text, like space and font, to guide their study. It is also important to consider the medium of expression and think about what special conventions their particular source may have had in the early modern period. The visual presentation of an eighteenth-century pamphlet conveyed a lot of information about how an author intended to express their ideas. Meanwhile, the balance between reading aloud and speaking spontaneously had important implications to the audiences of speeches. Overall, the most important issue is that the researcher analyses what connected people together in society. They should neither overlook the social struggles that surround identity nor take a source at face value, and though social identity was always contested, disagreements can lead to important points of overlap.
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