The Republic in Print

About ten years ago, during my stint as a fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, I met Trish Loughran. Though we both spent the 1998-1999 academic year together in residence at Penn, I did not get to know her that well. (We did occasionally chat about our New Jersey roots). I was, however, very impressed with her research project–a study of print culture and nationalism in the years between the American Revolution and the Civil War. I was thus pleased to see that her book, The Republic in Print: Print Culture in the Age of U.S. Nation Building, 1770-1870, appeared a couple of years ago with Columbia University Press. It is due out in paperback later this month.

Well, I have finally gotten around to reading it. In this forcefully argued book, Loughran concludes that print culture is overrated as a way of explaining the emergence of American nationalism. In doing so, she challenges scholars such as Michael Warner and Benedict Anderson who have argued that print culture was the key to the development of national identity. Instead, Loughran focuses on the weaknesses of the print/communication infrastructure in early 19th century America. Without this strong infrastructure, print culture could not play a prominent role in Americans’ understanding of their national identity until, ironically, just before the Civil War.

My favorite section of the book deals with Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Loughran concludes that Paine’s influence on the American Revolution was not as strong as historians make it out to be. In fact, there is no way possible, she argues, that Common Sense sold as many copies (over 100,ooo) as Paine claimed that it did. The communication networks throughout the British colonies were far too weak and fragile for this to happen. (Loughran’s argument here has been challenged by Robert G. Parkinson in his review of the book in the recent Common-Place, but I would encourage you to read the book and decide for yourself. In my opinion, Loughran seems pretty convincing. I actually made a similar argument about print and the spread of the First Great Awakening here).

I wish Loughran would have explored religious print culture a bit more. Nathan Hatch, for example, has argued that religious print played a powerful role in what he calls The Democratization of American Christianity. What role did religious print play in the construction of American nationalism and, particularly, the sense of providential or Christian nationalism that permeated early 19th life. I also wonder how the appearance of Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, with its focus on the development of a communication infrastructure, may have influenced Loughran’s interpretation? I suspect it may have confirmed many of her conclusions.

Read this book.