Conference: Fighting Words: Polemical Literature in the Age of Democratic Revolutions

Poster for Fighting Words conference
Event date: 
April 15, 2016 (All day) to April 16, 2016 (All day)
David Bell
Seminar Series: 
Eighteenth Century Seminar
Co-Sponsored by: 
The Department of History, Princeton University & the School of Historical Studies, Institute for Advanced Study

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Orgnanized by David A. Bell, Sean Wilentz, Dirk Hartog, and Stanley Katz, this two-day conference is in honor of Sidney Lapidus '59.

This conference seeks to bring together perspectives from political history, the history of the book and political philosophy to illuminate the role of printed polemical literature – everything from treatises to pamphlets to broadsheets to newspapers – in driving political change during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. What was the importance of these different printed media in seizing the attention of the literate publics of the day, pushing them towards collective action, and mobilizing them to achieve particular political goals? The conference will also consider the questions of how the role of polemical literature varied in different geographical settings (North America, France, Britain, the Caribbean), and how the flow of news and opinion from country to country influenced events. The conference will have four consecutive panels, each of which will be centered both around a set of questions, and around a representative text from the period. There will also be a keynote address by Robert Darnton.

The conference is sponsored by the History Department, and its Eighteenth-Century Seminar (directed by David Bell, Linda Colley and Yair Mintzker), with additional support from Princeton’s Council of the Humanities, and its Center for Human Values.

Conference Schedule and Participants:

Friday, April 15

Location: 300 Wallace Hall

1:30 p.m. - 3:30 p.m.
Panel Discussion: “Getting the Word Out.” Centerpiece: The Trial of John Peter Zenger
The panel will deal with how publications actually reached the public. Themes may include the technology and economics of publishing and distribution, intellectual property, censorship and ideas of freedom of speech, and the history of reading and correspondence.
3:30 p.m. - 4:00 p.m. - Break
4:00 p.m. - 5:30 p.m.
Keynote Address. Robert Darnton, Princeton University and Harvard University (emeritus)
5:30 p.m. - 6:30 p.m.
Reception (hosted by Firestone Library)
Location TBD

Saturday, April 16

Location: 300 Wallace Hall

9:00 a.m. - 11:00 a.m.

Panel Discussion: “Words of Conscience.” Centerpiece: Thomas Clarkson, An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, particularly the African.


The panel will consider the way publications sought to prick the conscience of their readers, to transform particular issues into issues of conscience, and to prompt action on them. Particular issues will include slavery, imperialism, and religious intolerance.

11:00 a.m. - 11:15 a.m.: Break

11:15 a.m. - 1:15 p.m.
Panel Discussion: “Scandalous Words.” Centerpiece: The North Briton, number 45.
The panel will discuss the way publications, whether deliberately or inadvertently, caused scandals. What constituted a “scandal” in the age of revolutions? Why did certain transgressions of accepted norms trigger scandals while others did not? How did particular figures (e.g. Wilkes, Mirabeau) make use of scandals to advance their political careers?
1:15 p.m. - 2:15 p.m. - Break
2:15 p.m. - 4:15 p.m.
Panel Discussion: “Revolutionary Words.” Centerpieces: Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, Qu’est-ce que le tiers état?
The panel will examine the way publications sought to drive revolutionary action—and succeeded in doing so. What rhetorical strategies did the authors adopt? How did they build on older registers and genres? How did they manage to convince readers to look at venerable institutions (monarchy, aristocracy) in radical new ways?

Travel and Lodging Information:

Princeton University is equidistant from both the Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) and Newark International Airport (EWR). The university is also conveniently located near the New Jersey Transit northeast corridor train line, and close to I-95, Route 1, and the New Jersey Turnpike. There are public and private parking lots available in the town of Princeton, metered street parking surrounding the campus, and a large visitor parking lot (Lot 21) at the end of campus.

While there is no hotel room block reserved for this conference, there are a number of lovely hotels conveniently located near campus. We recommend Hyatt Place, Marriot Residence Inn Princeton at Carnegie Center, and Hyatt Regency.

Area of Interest: 
Intellectual History
Political History
War & Society
17th & 18th Centuries