Word(s) Count: Revolutionary-Style

If you’ve been following me on Facebook or Twitter, you might know I recently spent some time in Philadelphia. My first day there, while waiting for my cousin (of October 27th fame) and her fiancé to get home from work, I stopped by The Continental for coffee.

But in Philly, nothing stands on its own. There’s always history. And on the Continental building was a Historic Sites in Journalism plaque explaining that, way back in the late 18th century, this was John Dunlap’s printing shop.

What, you don’t know John Dunlap? He’s only the printer who first stamped out distributable copies of the Declaration of Independence.

Early blogging. (Image from Wikipedia.)

And yeah, I joke that this is early blogging, but in a way it’s not that crazy. Think about it. If Thomas Jefferson had hand-written the Declaration of Independence but had no printing press to quickly get it in front of lots of people, how much of a following would the Revolution have really had?

Sure, there were probably town criers (I’m thinking of the Farmer Refuted scene in Hamilton), and as long as there’s been language there’s been word-of-mouth. But mass-distribution? Think about it.

What struck me most while standing in front of that plaque on the side of The Continental was this: If our Founding Fathers had not had their own printing presses, they never would have gained the popular support necessary to build the nation we’ve known for 240 years. Every word had to count.

IMG_1370.JPG

I took this picture of ink balls at the Benjamin Franklin Museum. He had his own press, too.

This is impossible for us to fathom in an age where everyone has their own platform for expressing their ideas to the world. But I want you to try.

Imagine for a moment that you don’t have a Facebook page or a blog to announce your political leanings, your religious affiliations, your book and movie reviews, and your funny cat memes.

Imagine the only way to tell the world that you hate the guy running for local office would be to hope a newspaper might print a letter you wrote the editor on the subject.

If you were around in the ’90s, you don’t have to imagine; you just have to remember.

Now, as a writer in an age of WORDS EVERYWHERE, I confess, it’s tempting to just fill the bottomless pit of the internet with all of my thoughts. After all, everyone else is shouting. Why shouldn’t I join in the noise? Clearly, it doesn’t even matter anymore whether it’s true.

But just because we all have our own printing presses now, it doesn’t mean words should be treated as cheap.

After all, words mean things.

And even though a cacophony of blogs and Facebook posts and memes of dubious accuracy have replaced the flurry of letters and pamphlets and treatises of the Revolutionary era … what we say still matters.

In a 60 Minutes interview I saw with Lin-Manuel Miranda (who wrote Hamilton), he said that it took him a year to write one particular song “because every couplet needed to be the best couplet I ever wrote.”

This is a show that easily beats out the Broadway word count at 20,520. It’s a show overflowing with words. And yet its writer made sure that every single word was the best one for the job.

“Foes oppose us, we take an honest stand
We roll like Moses, claimin’ our promised land”

If we had to sweat over a printing press and stain our hands with ink in order to broadcast our every thought, would we still think it was worth it? Or would we be more careful about what we say and write? Would we take the trouble to fact-check our information before passing it along?

If the musical Hamilton is anything to go by, its namesake “wrote like he was running out of time” and broadcast his opinions faster than most of us manage to like-and-share nowadays. So maybe I have the wrong perspective.

Then again, what he wrote became some of the founding documents of our nation. Like the Federalist Papers, for example. Or George Washington’s farewell address. I can’t say the same for my words. Can you?

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