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Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism

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A lively, witty, and fascinating account of the surprisingly rowdy and raucous journalism of the Revolutionary era--and how it helped to build a ... Show synopsis

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Reviews of Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism

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  • well worth reading, with a caveat or two... Mar 28, 2008
    by scribbler

    I expected to be mildly interested in this book, but was pleasantly surprised to find it quite engaging. I definitely would recommend it.
    However, the book does contain a few factual errors, and an unfortunate usage of a historical term which is at odds with accepted usage (both currently, and the way it was used at the time).
    For further details, see the letter I wrote to the author, which is reproduced below ( I have not yet received a response):
    Dear Mr. Burns:
    I recently finished reading your book Infamous Scribblers, and I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed it more than I expected to! I just didn?t really expect that any author could make early American journalism nearly as interesting as you did.
    Instead, I found myself laughing out loud, calling my wife over to hear me read passages to her, and looking forward to each new page. Thank you for writing this fine book.
    Having written a few newspaper and magazine articles, and a small book, I have great admiration for anyone who writes a significant work, such as yours.
    I suppose my overall enjoyment of the book is what made it extra painful to me to find an occasional error in it. I suppose the more we appreciate something, the higher our level of expectation rises.
    Anyway, if you should find yourself revising the book for future editions, I would urge you to devote attention to the following items:
    On page 8, your book states that ?Franklin dabbled with the ? harmonica, or, as it was known at the time, the armonica.? Today?s harmonica and Franklin?s armonica are completely unrelated instruments. One is a wind instrument and the other consists of a series of glass bowls revolving in a tank of water. Franklin?s instrument was also called a ?glass armonica,? and on rare occasions I have seen it referred to as a ?glass harmonica,? but again, it bears no relation to a harmonica.
    Also on page 8, colonial dancing is discussed (mentioning Washington and Jefferson) identifying the minuet as ?a particular favorite.? It is a minor point, but the popularity of various dances changed periodically in colonial times, just as it does today, and the minuet was on the way out by Washington and Jefferson?s time. They would have spent most of their time on the dance floor doing what was referred to as English country dancing.
    On page 27, early American printing presses are referred to as being ?essentially what they had been in Gutenberg?s time, which is to say cumbersome apparatuses that were as likely to break down as to grind out a story?? Break down? Really? They were made of strong, hardwood timbers and only had a handful of moving parts. A friend of mine, who works at the International Printing Museum in Carson, CA, operates Gutenberg and Franklin presses there without being plagued with a lot of mechanical problems.
    On page 49, lampblack is described as having a smell like ?the last stages of urban or vegetable decay.? Lampblack is soot from a chimney (such as the glass chimney of a lamp). Soot is dirty, but doesn?t have much smell at all. Linseed oil (which was commonly used as the vehicle in printer?s ink) though, does have an aroma. I suppose some people would consider it unpleasant, but I kind of like it.
    On pages 70 and 72, the term ?ink beaters? is used to describe the inking devices for early printing presses. Perhaps that term was used, but I believe ?ink balls? was the more customary name. My friend at the printing museum tells me that cow urine was used to soften the leather on the ink balls. I imagine that it was obtained when the cows were slaughtered.
    On page 182, Gouverneur Morris is referred to as the ?primary drafter of the Constitution.? This is a misconception that seems to have popped up since Richard Brookhiser wrote his book, Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris: The Rake Who Wrote the Constitution. Unfortunately, too many people seem to have read the title, but nothing else. Yes, Morris served on the Committee of Style at the Constitutional Convention, and yes he was selected to write the final draft, but I?m sure that even Morris himself would not claim to be the primary author or brains behind the work. That title rightfully belongs to James Madison (the ?Father of the Constitution?). It was Madison who wrote the Virginia Plan (which was the basis of the Constitution). It was Madison who was the guiding light throughout the many months of the convention. It was Madison who was always the best informed delegate ?on every point of debate.? The second most influential person at the Convention was James Wilson. Morris was not unimportant, but let?s not compound the confusion created by the unfortunate title to Richard Brookhiser?s book. Madison gets overlooked enough as it is! The Constitution is Mr. Madison?s masterpiece. He deserves full credit as the chief architect of the most important political experiment in human history.
    On page 183, the Battle of Lexington & Concord is described as having taken place on April 15, 1775. I guess you don?t live in Massachusetts! There they still celebrate April 19th every year as ?Patriots? Day? ? the day the ?shot heard ?round the world? was fired.
    On page 189, Isaiah Thomas is described sitting in the belfry of the Old North Church as the lantern signals are displayed. Thomas may have made this claim, but I highly doubt if it is true. The best book on the subject is Paul Revere?s Ride, by David Hackett Fischer. Fischer mentions Thomas and his journalism at various places in the book. However, Fischer offers a detailed description of the Old North Church episode, naming the particular individuals involved and giving their precise movements to the church and into the belfry. Thomas is not included at all in this.
    On page 220, the Revolutionary War is described as lasting ?seven years from first shot to signed treaty.? Nope. The first shot (Lexington Green) was April 19, 1775. Congress approved the peace treaty with England on April 15, 1783 and it was signed on September 3, 1783.
    On page 263, the Gazette of the United States is described as having been born on ?April 15, 1789, a month before the Constitutional Convention.? The Constitutional Convention took place in 1787.
    On page 387, DNA testing is described as revealing ?that our nation?s third president had almost certainly fathered several children with a Hemings, and that Sally was the only likely candidate.? This is backwards. There is DNA evidence indicating that one or more of Sally Hemings? children may have been fathered by one of the Jefferson males (and some point to Thomas as the likely candidate), not the other way around. However, even this interpretation is not as much of a sure thing as it might seem. There are some scholars who argue that there were plenty of other Jefferson males who came to Monticello for extended visits, had a habit of spending time in the slave quarters, etc., etc., and that it is far from certain that Thomas was the father.
    My biggest concern, though, is your use of the term ?federalist? and ?anti-federalist.? I sympathize with your desire to simplify matters for the reader. However, those terms already have accepted meanings by historians. As you know, originally the federalists were those who supported ratifying the Constitution and the anti-federalists were those opposed to it. Some years later, the Hamiltonians started a political party, the Federalist Party.
    Some historians use the term ?federalist? with a small ?f? to refer to the Constitution ratification period and ?Federalist? with a capital ?F? to refer to the political party in the later period.
    So, for example, James Madison was an ardent federalist (he led the ratification effort), but opposed with all his might the Federalists a few years later in their efforts to interpret the Constitution in ways not intended.
    I understand your wish to come up with a term that could be used throughout the colonial and early republic time periods to describe those who wanted a powerful central government (as...

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