Walton on Taylor, 'Misinformation Nation: Foreign News and the Politics of Truth in Revolutionary America'
Jordan E. Taylor. Misinformation Nation: Foreign News and the Politics of Truth in Revolutionary America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022. 288 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4214-4449-9.
Reviewed by Christopher Walton (Southern Methodist University) Published on H-Early-America (May, 2023) Commissioned by Patrick Luck (Florida Polytechnic University)
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58713
Accusations of “fake news” might have a contemporary ring to them, but they are as old as America, according to Jordan E. Taylor’s intriguing new book, Misinformation Nation: Foreign News and the Politics of Truth in Revolutionary America. Taylor argues that Anglo-Americans of the revolutionary era depended on an unreliable system of news reporting to form their conceptions of imperial and global politics. These conceptions of global events shaped American political action in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Taylor examines systemic “dysfunctional information exchange,” tracing it from the relationship between Great Britain and its colonies in North America in the mid-eighteenth century to the foreign diplomacy and partisan politics of the early republic (p. 221). Unreliable news from abroad shaped American poltical disputes throughout this period. By analyzing data from tens of thousands of headlines and teasing out the significance of his findings through critical textual analysis of select newspapers, Taylor lays out a compelling case that shows that the ways Americans gathered and reported foreign news both shaped and were shaped by political allegiances. News and politics inescapably went together. Sitting at the intersection of Atlantic World history and communication history, Misinformation Nation contributes a fresh perspective on how revolutionary Americans saw (or did not see) global events. And how Americans saw foreign affairs shaped their actions.
The narrative arc of Misinformation Nation is lengthy, providing useful points of contact for understanding both the Revolution and the tensions of the early national period as part of one story. Taylor begins his analysis in the later part of the seventeenth century, explaining the vicissitudes of creating and controlling foreign news sources in Britain’s North American colonies. While he puts the Revolution in the context of colonial development, Taylor clearly feels most at home speaking of the Revolution in terms of its connections to the early national period. After rushing through the colonial era in a background chapter and the revolutionary crisis in two chapters, in the six remaining chapters, Taylor describes the post-Revolution United States. But while one might suppose this allocation of space would downplay the Revolution’s significance for Taylor’s thesis, the reader quickly sees that the changes wrought by the Revolution, and the idea of revolution itself, end up playing major roles in the second half of the book as well.
To set up the revolutionary nature of the development of American foreign news, Taylor begins by sketching the rise of what he calls the “Mediation Revolution” in the colonial era (p. 21). In 1695, the British Parliament declined to renew the Licensing Act, an act that had effectively limited the number of newspapers in the empire. Over the course of the next several decades, newspapers that facilitated the commercial interests of British colonists proliferated across the British Atlantic. Often, news came through commercial networks, as sailors, ship captains, and merchants repeated bits of information or brought papers from elsewhere in the empire. As the exchange of news through informal networks increased, colonial authorities attempted to control what newspapers published. Situating the Revolution in this context, Taylor asserts that one of the primary battlegrounds of the imperial crisis of the 1760s and 1770s proved to be how information was exchanged with the broader empire. In particular, Patriot activists emphasized verifying information. But with all of the challenging limitations on communications over distance, political agreement tended to provide the stamp of legitimacy to news instead of empirical verification.
Taylor is clearly aware of scholarly interest around the importance of newspapers in forming identity in the revolutionary era, and here his story harkens back to Benedict Anderson’s classic thesis on the role of print capitalism in shaping a common identity among American creoles in Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (1983). Taylor’s analysis provides more depth to Anderson’s thesis by revealing the contested and dogmatic nature of the entire news-making project. Taylor’s story also has similarities to the one sketched by Robert Parkinson in The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (2016): in both, newspaper printers with Whig leanings actively sifted reports to fit their own political agenda. But instead of focusing on how printers inflamed racial tropes and stereotypes, like Parkinson, Taylor seeks to explain how Americans latched onto inaccurate foreign news to stoke revolutionary fervor and national sentiment.
In his discussion of the Revolution, Taylor centers the (mis)communication between Patriot interests and the British ministry. Patriots believed that colonial officials were misrepresenting them to Britain, and this provoked them to take control of news sources and to clamp down on what they considered to be false portrayals of their actions. Taylor analyzes the debate over “virtual representation” in Parliament in this context of (mis)information in the representation of colonial interests. His approach is original, but he fails to distinguish the ambiguities of the term “representation”; he would have benefited from a more careful distinction between representation of facts (knowledge) and representation of interests/persons (voice). Analyzing influential pamphlets, like James Otis’s Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (1764) or Daniel Dulany’s Considerations on the Propriety of Imposing Taxes in the British Colonies (1765), would have given more nuance to this section. Notwithstanding, he makes a well-documented argument that the revolutionary crisis fed off divergent versions of “truth” about the motives and actions of either side, a situation rendered possible through “transatlantic information bubbles” that used political content to verify accuracy (p. 68).
As he transitions to the post-Revolution era, Taylor continues to trace the challenges of verification. Independent of Britain, Taylor argues, Americans were able to imbibe a wider range of foreign news sources. But verifying information was still difficult, and political beliefs still shaped how people viewed competing news sources. For instance, access to various European sources on the French Revolution fed contrary assessments of the situation by Federalists and Republicans, as people from different parties stubbornly trusted different sources. Taylor’s use of comparative history is strong, particularly when he delves into Canadian sources. By contrasting the unified way Canadians tended to view the French Revolution (mediated through British sources) with the tense differences among Americans, Taylor is able to highlight the latter’s disagreement on the validity of French and British sources.
But even as Americans trusted different sources, they still accessed information through the same means—commerce. Since the importance of transatlantic information exchange lies at the heart of Taylor’s thesis, he traces the close connection between information networks and commerce in the Atlantic World throughout the work. This emphasis helps him explain the depth of the divide between Federalist and Republican perspectives on relating to Britain and France. It also enables him to explain the ebbs and flows of information and interest about Black-led revolutions in the Caribbean during the 1790s. Not only did white Americans willfully ignore the political ideals of Black revolutionaries, but they also tended to focus merely on the effects of these revolutions on their own commercial interests.
Taylor traces how foreign news was received and legitimized and how it was used during the early national period. Showing how purveyors of information created an “information script” for propagating revolution, Taylor chronicles efforts to bring revolution to Louisiana and Canada by disseminating news, not just theories (p. 106). Pragmatic possibility was necessary to promote revolution, not just ideology. This emphasis on revolution as a practical possibility continues another theme that Taylor stresses in the early chapters of the book: namely, that would-be revolutionaries, whether British colonists or French Canadians, needed to envision the practicality of revolution before pursuing it with action.
The impressive scope of Misinformation Nation proves to be simultaneously one of its strengths and weaknesses. Without a doubt, this book covers a vast geography and chronology. Using sources from Canada, the Caribbean, the United States, and Britain, while throwing in sources from France and the Netherlands for good measure, Taylor crafts a truly Atlantic narrative. Chronologically, Taylor takes his readers from the rise of the newspaper’s significance post-1695 to the end of the eighteenth century. Misinformation Nation uses the phrase “revolutionary America” in its subtitle, but readers should understand that Taylor takes this phrase quite broadly chronologically, since most of the book concerns post-Revolution information exchange, and it ends only with the “revolution” of 1800 and the demise of the Federalists. Unfortunately, this ambitious chronology is hard to handle when connecting so many points around the Atlantic; the second half of the work does not have the same chronological crispness of the earlier chapters. As Taylor tries to jump all over the Atlantic World in his post-Revolution chapters, readers would do well to zoom out periodically and remember that not only do many of the themes in these chapters intersect, but their chronologies do as well.
His geography and chronology are massive, and Taylor deals with a huge amount of source material—too much to have read thoroughly. His openness about his methodological approach makes for an insightful appendix. In it, he lays out his process for using Readex’s metadata to compile over forty thousand citations indicating when newspapers quoted another source. He then interrogated his statistics and closely analyzed select examples. Taylor’s dexterity in shifting from “big picture” to individual cases and back again, while keeping a crisp analysis, is quite impressive.
As an author, Taylor clearly understands his own positionality and the current relevance of his topic to contemporary political debates. Occasionally, his comments can come through as presentist or colloquial, but the value of understanding the similarities between past and contemporary debates outshines these minor distractions. Misinformation Nation makes us grapple with an entirely new dimension of the Revolution and early republic, while providing an engaging narrative with clear similarities to present struggles.
Citation: Christopher Walton. Review of Taylor, Jordan E., Misinformation Nation: Foreign News and the Politics of Truth in Revolutionary America. H-Early-America, H-Net Reviews. May, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58713This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.