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A painting depicting the signing of the original United States Constitution

Twitter and the Enlightenment in early America

A New Yorker once declared that “Twitter” had “struck Terror into a whole Hierarchy.” He had no computer, no cellphone, and no online social media following. He was not a presidential candidate, but he would go on to sign the Constitution of the United States. So who was he? And what did he mean by “Twitter”?

William Livingston was an eighteenth-century lawyer, a colonial intellectual, and a co-founder of the first magazine published in New York. Born in Albany in 1723, he had graduated from Yale University at the age of eighteen and embarked on a legal career in New York City. Simultaneously, he had put himself at the forefront of the provincial literary community by publishing poetry in the 1740s, joining a Manhattan society of learned gentlemen, and planning a colonial magazine modeled on celebrated early-eighteenth-century metropolitan journals such as The Tatler, The Spectator, and The Independent Whig. The first issue of Livingston’s periodical, which took the name of The Independent Reflector, appeared in New York in late 1752. A further 51 issues were printed before the magazine ceased in November 1753. From its outset, The Independent Reflector pledged to expose and denounce all “public Abuses” in New York. Livingston made true on that promise by using his magazine to launch fierce and controversial attacks on the local Anglican establishment.

Inclusion of the phrase “a single Twitter” in the September 1753 issue of The Independent Reflector very likely marked the first usage of the word “twitter” in American political writing. The phrase occurred in an anticlerical piece that defended ridicule as a weapon against the vice and corruption of oppressive rulers and priests. With reference to a London predecessor to The Independent Reflector, Livingston bragged that:

“The Independent Whig has gone farther towards shaming Tyranny and Priestcraft (two dismal Fantoms not over-apt to blush) with downright Banter, than could have been effected by austere Dogmas, or formal Deductions. He has often displayed their Deformity with a Sarcasm, and struck Terror into a whole Hierarchy, by raising a single Twitter.”

Truth, Livingston explained, was immune to ridicule. But falsehoods were not. A simple joke could therefore expose and undermine the lies and ignorance propagated by iron-fisted authorities. Yet, it posed no threat to veracity.

William Livingston
William Livingston. Public Domain from The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library.

What did “twitter” mean in this context? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “twitter” entered the English language as a verb around 1374 when Geoffrey Chancer wrote that a “Iangelynge” or chattering bird “twiterith.” The twenty-first-century social media company that takes Twitter as its name recalls this original definition with its logo of a blue bird in flight and in song. However, “twitter” assumed several other meanings after the fourteenth century and Livingston had one of these in mind when he deployed the word as a noun in 1753. Twitter, as the colonial New Yorker used it, meant a stifled laugh or a giggle.

The word “twitter” entered the lexicon of American politics during the Enlightenment. Eighteenth-century writers commonly considered their times to be a uniquely “enlightened age.” They broadly agreed that ignorance, dogma, irrationality, and tyranny had become vulnerable after centuries of dominance, and that humankind now had the potential to achieve great intellectual and societal improvement. Some protagonists of the Enlightenment equated the eighteenth century with an age of reason, but others did not. Livingston stood in the latter camp. His 1753 essay on ridicule aligned enlightenment with polite wit rather than scientific logic. It stated that dull rational discourse inevitably falls flat. By contrast, mockery and satire provide effective weaponry against tyranny and public untruths. Livingston observed that, “Mankind are willing to be facetiously taught” and “they care not to be dogmatically tutor’d.” In other words, sharp-tongued quips often have more popular influence than dry arguments.

More than 260 years have passed since Livingston identified twitter as a tool of enlightenment. The word now refers overwhelmingly to a platform for online social networking. Presidential candidates vie for office by rapid-firing tweets to their several million online followers. Digital technology impacts our politics and reshapes our public discourse. Even so, Livingston’s essay remains relevant. It reminds us that short, sharp messages often speak loudest and that sometimes the most effective political act is not to reason against but to make fun of the lies of public officials.

Featured image credit: “Washington at Constitutional Convention” by Junius Brutus Stearns, 1856. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (Livingston is depicted standing to the left of the door and behind George Washington.)

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