The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

VII. Colonial Newspapers and Magazines, 1704–1775

§ 9. The Vogue of French Radicalism

This expression “natural rights,” occurring so early as 1755 in Livingston’s paper, is probably accidental or vague, but the full political theory of Rousseau, with all its abstractions regarding mankind in general, was soon added to the definite and always cherished belief in the constitutional privileges of Englishmen. The ideas of the French philosophers were in the air, and there is plenty of evidence in the colonial newspapers for fifteen or twenty years before the Revolution that the French influence was increasing. Even during the French and Indian war, booksellers advertised French texts, grammars, and dictionaries in the papers, while courses in French were often announced. Before the close of the war, we find The Boston Gazette printing extracts from Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws, with an apology and the expressed hope that it may not be “political Heresey” to suppose that “a Frenchman may have juster Notions of Civil Liberty than some among ourselves.” This was in the days when “Gallic perfidy” was the popular note.

After 1760 all the important works of Rousseau, Montesquieu, and the Encyclopedists as well as many other French books were advertised for sale in the colonial press. Such advertisements indicate the taste of the reading public more accurately than do catalogues of private libraries, which represent individual preferences. Voltaire had long been known in the colonies. Rousseau’s Social Contract was advertised as a Treatise on the Social Compact, or The Principles of Political Law. He himself is referred to again and again as “the ingenious Rousseau,” or “the celebrated Rousseau.” And Èmile and La Nouvelle Hèloïse were evidently in demand. The famous Letters of a Farmer in Pennysylvania by John Dickinson belong to the colonial press in a very special way, since not only did they first appear in The Pennysylvania Chronicle, The Pennysylvania Journal, and The Pennsylvania Gazette almost simultaneously in the winter of 1767–1768, but they were reprinted in nearly every newspaper on the continent, from NovaScotia to Georgia.The Letters were soon known in France, where they were translated by Jacques Barbeu Dubourg, with a preface of glowing compliment.

Reports of French interest in America inclined the colonists still more to the French philosophy of government. As a matter of fact, from the time of the Stamp Act, political essays of every description filled the newspapers, and what one paper published was soon reprinted in others. Thus the influence of the press in this critical period can hardly be overrated. If the “pumpkin Gentry” of New England (to use a tory phrase) took offence at some encroachment, gentlemen planters of the South were sure to read the whole case in a few weeks and, in spite of their differing civilization, to sympathize with the Northern firebrands. When Dr. Arthur Lee sent home to The Virginia Gazette his Monitor, a series of essays describing hostile conditions in London, and urging his countrymen to non-importation, it was not by any means his countrymen of Virginia alone who heard the call. The Monitor has something of the distinguished style of the Farmer, and it is natural that the two should have been published together in a Williamsburg edition. Revolutionary Virginia burgesses always toasted the Farmer’s and Monitor’s letters together. But essays of an entirely different type also appeared constantly. Republicans and Loyalists fought violent battles under assumed classical names. Constitutionalis, Massachusettensis, Senex, Novanglus, Pacificus, Caesariensis, Amicus Publico, Cunctator, Virginius, Mucius Scaevola, Cato, Scipio, Leonidas, Brutus, and many more argued hotly and often powerfully the whole question of allegiance, on abstract grounds.