Writing the History of Business Communication: The Example of Defoe

By Lund, Roger D. | The Journal of Business Communication, October 1998 | Go to article overview

Writing the History of Business Communication: The Example of Defoe


Lund, Roger D., The Journal of Business Communication


In "The Spurious Paternity of Business Communication Principles," John Hagge suggests that modern historians of business communication have devoted disproportionate attention to the development of those principles now commonly known as the "Seven (or Five) C's" (Hagge, 1989a, pp. 36-38). He provides a convincing rebuttal of the oft-repeated assertions that the principles of business communication are largely of modern invention, dating from approximately 1906-1911 (Hagge 1989a, 1989b). Hagge locates a number of the familiar business communications principles in the work of J. Willis Westlake (1876), arguing that such principles

most emphatically are not creations of early 20th-century business communication textbook writers.... Instead, they belong to the long tradition of what George Kennedy (1980) calls 'technical rhetoric' - the rhetoric of the handbooks as opposed to 'philosophical' and 'literary' rhetorics - that began in Athens in the fourth century B.C. and that is still not exhausted in our time. (1989a, pp. 47-48)

In the process Hagge raises serious questions about how far back we go in our search for the origins of business communication and about the kinds of texts we might include in this study.

More recently, scholars have called for an expanded study of the history of business communication, arguing that we need to understand "documents in their social, political, economic, and historical context" (Locker, Miller, Richardson, Tebeaux, & Yates, 1996, p. 118). As Scott L. Miller points out, it is particularly important to study "the culture, the means available for production and distribution of goods, and the communication theories then current. Then you can begin to imagine the kinds of communicative needs historical business organizations might have had" (Locker et al., 1996, p. 119). This is a rather large order, and if we are to rise to Miller's challenge we will need to consult a wider range of texts and disciplinary assumptions than has been the case with previous histories of business communication. As I argue here, one of the texts that we ought to consult is Daniel Defoe's The Complete English Tradesman (1727-1728), a work designed both to prepare young tradesmen for success in the world of eighteenth-century business and to provide practical guidelines for business writing. Because the writing instructions in chapters entitled "Of the Trading Style" and "Of a Tradesman's Writing Letters" also emerge from a book outlining the principles of early eighteenth-century business, a review of this work provides an opportunity to study the development of business communications within a wider "social, political, economic, and historical context" (Locker et al., p. 118).

Previous Research in the History of Business Communication

Recent scholars have located the origins of business communication in a variety of sources. Mary T. Carbone, for example, traces the principles of business communication to a series of nineteenth-century writing texts as well as to the late-eighteenth-century British rhetoricians George Campbell, Hugh Blair, and Richard Whately; "Continuing a 2000-year-old tradition of rhetoric," these rhetoricians, "although deviating in some respects from the ancients - provided the fundamentals of writing for generations of authors" (Carbone, 1994, p. 173). John Hagge (1989b) locates several of the general principles of modern business writing - for example, adaptation to the audience, and conversational tone - in the epistolographic, or letter-writing, tradition of early Greece and Rome. While the ancient Greeks and Romans may have suggested the general outlines of business style, as Hagge argues, such outlines were only general and were not based on the development of Greek or Roman business.

Other scholars have examined the kinds of letters actually produced by businessmen before the nineteenth century. Donald R. Dickson (1985) points out the influence of classical models on Renaissance letter-writers like Fulwood's Enemy of Idleness (1568), a collection of model letters which reveal their roots in Ciceronian and Humanist traditions of rhetoric and oratory. …

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