Infamous Scribblers by Eric Burns

Infamous Scribblers: 10 Things I Learned

I finished reading Eric Burns’ Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism [Amazon] several months ago. It was a fun, comparatively fast read; I guarantee it will change your opinion of American history’s biggest names: Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, even George Washington.

What has always frustrated me is the sheer amount of information that I consume, and then promptly forget. So I’ve decided to write down at least 10 “learnings” from each book that I finish. I mean, who wants to forget that Alexander Hamilton had a notorious affair with a 23-year old married woman? :)

  1. Lewinsky-gate? Try Jefferson-gate. Or Hamilton-gate (Alexander)
  2. American journalism was intended as a tool to serve selfish causes. It was personal, it was passionate. Objective reporting for the public good arose much later. For a well-informed citizenry, it’s helpful to have both (neutral and biased/selfish opinions). Yet, with the exception of Fox News, U.S. media has become almost too neutral and even-handed
  3. Nature likes the number two – 2 political parties, 2-person relationships, 2 genders, etc. Systems of 3 are unstable and thus rare. Book does a great job describing this tension (eg, the Federalists vs the Republicans, Hamilton vs Jefferson, Britain vs the U.S.)
  4. “The press can not only strike while the iron is hot…it can heat it by continually striking.” – Benjamin Franklin. Perfect example? Sam Adams through the Boston Gazette. Wonderful quote
  5. Even old hickory George was not immune to the emotional power (and flammability) of the press. Some believe he gave up the presidency as a result of especially harsh and unabated attacks led by the Aurora newspaper
  6. Success requires timing and luck (however you define luck). Example? Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. It came out at a personal and professional low point in his life; no rational person would have predicted its immense popularity and enduring historic impact (page 205)
  7. “Success breeds a thousand fathers, and failure is an orphan.” Throughout history, influential men have taken morally gray shortcuts to achieve their goals (eg, Sam Adams)
  8. Interesting how norms change over time. In the founding days of American journalism, it was normal for powerful men to passionately debate through public channels (eg, newspapers). It was also acceptable for famous men to use pen names
  9. Interesting how norms change over time, part 2: in the 1700s children began working at the age of 6 to become experts at a useful craft. Ben Franklin did this. Why don’t we teach children commercially valuable skills today? Computer science in middle school? Medicine in high school?
  10. Really admire Ben Franklin’s diligent, systematic study of successful writers and their works (eg, Joseph Addison), in order to improve his own. My interest in, and respect for, Franklin continues to increase: he married a woman who most would say was below his level, but he remained devoted to her as a husband…while (rumor has it) he frequently cheated. (page 87)

Extra credit:

  1. Science itself is a remarkable demonstration of punctuated evolution, full of significant leaps (eg, small pox inoculation) and emotional backpedaling (eg, people ruining Cotton Mather’s reputation and livelihood for his support of it). Side note: Washington’s death was hastened by a “bleeding” process, back then believed to be a kind of last-resort for unknown maladies
  2. The Federal Convention of 1787, which authored the Declaration of Independence, was not a gathering of like-minded citizens beyond reproach, but a group of controversial, passionate men who fought tooth-and-nail and only authored the document through heated negotiation & compromise
  3. Many early newspapers were endowed by great men with personal bones to pick. (eg, Jefferson and The National Gazette as a Republican mouthpiece)

Click here to read about the daily habits that I track and why.