Poetry Wars: Verse and Politics in the American Revolution and Early Republic

Poetry Wars: Verse and Politics in the American Revolution and Early Republic

Poetry Wars: Verse and Politics in the American Revolution and Early Republic

Poetry Wars: Verse and Politics in the American Revolution and Early Republic

Synopsis

During America's founding period, poets and balladeers engaged in a series of literary "wars" against political leaders, journalists, and each other, all in the name of determining the political course of the new nation. Political poems and songs appeared regularly in newspapers (and as pamphlets and broadsides), commenting on political issues and controversies and satirizing leaders like Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Drawing on hundreds of individual poems--including many that are frequently overlooked-- Poetry Wars reconstructs the world of literary-political struggle as it unfolded between the Stamp Act crisis and the War of 1812.

Colin Wells argues that political verse from this period was a unique literary form that derived its cultural importance from its capacity to respond to, and contest the meaning of, other printed texts--from official documents and political speeches to newspaper articles and rival political poems. First arising during the Revolution as a strategy for subverting the authority of royal proclamations and congressional declarations, poetic warfare became a ubiquitous part of early national print culture. Poets representing the emerging Federalist and Republican parties sought to wrest control of political narratives unfolding in the press by engaging in literary battles.

Tracing the parallel histories of the first party system and the rise and eventual decline of political verse, Poetry Wars shows how poetic warfare lent urgency to policy debates and contributed to a dynamic in which partisans came to regard each other as threats to the republic's survival. Breathing new life into this episode of literary-political history, Wells offers detailed interpretations of scores of individual poems, references hundreds of others, and identifies numerous terms and tactics of the period's verse warfare.

Excerpt

During the period of the American Revolution and the first decades of the early republic, dozens of poets—from the era’s most celebrated writers to its most obscure amateur versifiers and balladeers—engaged in a series of literary wars against political leaders, newspaper editors and journalists, and each other, all in the name of determining the political course of the new nation. For those in our own time who are accustomed to thinking of poetry as an elevated form, antithetical to the vulgar world of political attack and counterattack, the idea of poetry as a weapon of political or ideological warfare may seem counterintuitive. Yet poems and songs on political affairs were a ubiquitous part of eighteenth-century political culture, appearing as broadsides and pamphlets and in the pages of newspapers, whose numbers grew exponentially during the period. Poems commemorated and satirized the most momentous and the most trivial of political controversies, from the debate over the Constitution to the outcome of a fistfight between rival members of Congress. From the time of the Stamp Act crisis to the end of the first party system, poems resisted the directives of King George’s vice-regents in America; eulogized and demonized Washington and Adams, Hamilton and Jefferson; satirized the emerging political parties as dangerous factions that threatened the republic from within; and called for war or peace with Britain and France. My purpose in the following pages is to reconstruct this atmosphere of literary-political warfare as it unfolded against the backdrop of America’s early national formation.

The poetry wars of the Revolution and early republic arose out of a unique intersection of poetic form and political discourse that developed in the print . . .

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