Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Speech, Law, & Power in the American Revolution

         In my first blog post discussing my recent publication, The Dreadful Word, I described how the criminal law in eighteenth-century Massachusetts became attuned not only to ungodly speech but also to language deemed vulgar and impolite. I also discussed how the criminalization and punishment of impolite speech helped construct new hierarchies of social and political power more strongly oriented to empire. In this post I'll address the last few chapters of the book, where I explore what happened when resistance to imperial policies made those hierarchies unsustainable.

    The regime of polite speech that had been established through the prosecution and punishment of vulgar language began to falter under the repeated hammer blows of loud public protest in the 1760s and 1770s. Popular resistance to British imperial policies leveraged traditional politics out-of-doors to a hitherto unprecedented extent. As previous hierarchies of speech premised upon gentility began to disintegrate, new distinctions based upon loyalty to country began to emerge. 

    Even in this fluid and contested environment, however, language retained its power to announce identity and negotiate relationships. Amid the disruptions and dislocations of the Revolutionary War, Massachusetts legislators found occasion to either renew or reconsider some of their previous statutes defining the criminal import of speech--and to craft new legislation about the significance of oaths. Meanwhile, county courts (when circumstances permitted their sitting) cocked their ears towards words from different mouths, even gentlemanly ones--a marked departure from their practices of previous decades.

    None of this is meant to suggest a radical democratization of the speech ethos in Revolutionary-era Massachusetts. Rather, the changes in how authorities defined and punished criminal speech, I would suggest, reflected and promoted contemporary feelings about the associations between language, power, politics, and law. These changes, of course, were occurring in the context of Enlightenment-era conversations about race, gender, reason, and the very construction of identity--and speech was at the center of many of these conversations. Other historians have written brilliantly on some of these ideas, and others remain to be explored. I only hope that The Dreadful Word can provide a useful starting point for future research and conversations about speech, power, and law.

--Kristin A. Olbertson