[Note: I wrote a different piece on the same topic for the Washington Post’s Made by History section, available here]
Lately, anonymity has, oddly, become rather public. Today, the New York Times published an unusual anonymous op-ed, arousing considerable debate. President Trump has taken to tweeting about his distrust of anonymous sources in news stories. On the fringes, the conspiracy theory known as “QAnon” posits that there is a high-level pseudonymous government source named “Q” who is slowly revealing the plot of a massive conspiracy. In each of these cases, an individual has chosen to reveal information or opinions without attaching their (real) name to it—likely in order to avoid compromising their job (or in the case of “Q,” exposing the charade for what it is).
Recently, some commentators have attempted to defend, or attack, anonymity today by looking to revolutionary America. I responded to one argument about anonymity in early American newspapers with a few twitter threads. But the anonymity and pseudonymity that people such as Alexander Hamilton, Arthur Lee, John Jay, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison used often expressed something very different and specific to the moment that they were writing.
In the era of the imperial crisis and revolutionary war, Anglo-American newspaper printers published hundreds of political essays that expressed their authors’ opinions—which generally used a pseudonym. Additionally, a great deal of the news that they published was anonymously sourced. Most prominently, newspapers regularly printed extracts of letters that had arrived in town from other cities. Usually, these letters did not note the name of the author—though they might describe him (it was usually a him) as a “gentleman of veracity” or as a merchant from a very “respectable house.”
In addition to newspapers, authors of political pamphlets often chose to use pseudonyms or remain anonymous. The most famous pamphlets of the American Revolution, Tom Paine’s Common Sense and John Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (originally a series of newspaper essays), were at least initially anonymous.
For the most part, anonymous sourcing for essays and for news was uncontroversial and expected. These were longstanding practices in the eighteenth-century Anglophone Atlantic world that predated the American Revolution. But on a few occasions, an author’s anonymity rankled commentators. Tracing the example of one of these occasions helps us to understand the use and limitations of anonymity in revolutionary America.
In 1764, a Philadelphian named William Smith published an anonymous pamphlet attacking Benjamin Franklin. Even though Smith did not use his name, Franklin and his allies quickly surmised who was behind the pamphlet. This speaks to an important fact about anonymity in this era—places like Philadelphia and New York City were, effectively, small towns. In many cases, it was not difficult for a city’s elite to figure out who was behind a pseudonym. This is obviously quite different in an internet age, when anonymity can be quite effective at shielding a person’s identity.
Franklin and his allies organized a response which attacked Smith for remaining anonymous. In response, an anonymous writer explained, “the World, in general, seldom considers a Paper to be more or less true for want of a Name.” If authors were forced to use their real names, he continued, “The Cause of Liberty would often be left to suffer,” because they would be exposing themselves to the “Clamour of Party, or the Resentment of Power.” This person also, correctly, pointed out that Franklin himself had made use of the device of anonymity in the past.
In response, someone writing under the pseudonym “Poplicola” explained that some uses of anonymity were legitimate, while others were not. When an author attacked a “particular Character,” Poplicola argued, it was “proper and necessary” for that author to affix their name. Because this was a “private Cause,” or in other words not something of public concern, it “would be expected” that any responses would not be anonymous.
This logic also provided Poplicola with some justification for using a pseudonym himself. According to his view, pseudonyms and anonymity were legitimate when they were used to speak truth to power and to discuss important topics of public interest. Anonymity was not legitimate to simply attack individuals or spread gossip.
But of course, it was not unusual for a writer to disregard this rule and hide behind a pseudonym in order to to circulate scandalous rumors and assail rivals. As historian Joanne Freeman has written, “Because they enabled men of honor to behave dishonorably, anonymous print warfare had equivocal status. Many considered it a cowardly means of attacking one’s foes without fear of retribution.” Crucially, when an author’s identity could be widely inferred, anonymity allowed them to have it both ways—insulated from consequence and response, but with their identity lending their words authority.
While anonymity could be used for selfish reasons, many American commentators also recognized that it could be extremely valuable to the broader community. As scholar Michael Warner has written, pseudonyms enabled “the virtue of the citizen by the very fact that writing is not regarded as a form of personal presence. The difference between the private, interested person and the citizen of the public sphere appears both as a condition of political validity and as the expression of the character of print.” Speaking through a pseudonym allowed an individual to embody a broader public, or at least appear to. Writers reinforced this by choosing pseudonyms that suggested that they were virtuous and focused on the good of the broader public: Publius (for Publius Valerius, who helped to found the Roman Republic), Brutus (great opponent of Julius Caesar), Cato (for Cato the Younger, another enemy of Caesar), and Catullus (who opposed the conspirator Catiline).
Moreover, anonymity offered an opportunity for writers of opinion essays to speak openly without fear of retribution. By refusing to provide their names, writers protected themselves from ad hominem attacks or political persecution—an important consideration in the era of the American Revolution, when many writers were well-known elites who did could face punishment from the imperial government. Perhaps most importantly, anonymity encouraged readers to focus on arguments, rather than personalities. In these ways, contemporaries recognized that anonymity could be valuable, especially for political essays.
For news items, the relative status of anonymous news sources became somewhat controversial, and even partisan, during the 1790s. Federalist printers began to emphasize the character and status of the sources who contributed to their paper. They regularly recommended news that they knew had come from “high authority,” or from a ship captain’s “own mouth.” In contrast, Republican printers such as Philip Freneau cared less about knowing the identity or status of their sources. Freneau complained that some people wanted to know about the character or status of his correspondents: “whether he be a foreigner, or home born, or well-born… A man of property, or a no property man?” He concluded by asking “such inquisitive persons” to “mind your own business.”
These examples all suggest that anonymity was political, contested, and nuanced in revolutionary America. Much more can, and has, been said on the topic. Today, people rely on anonymity for many of the same reasons: to protect themselves from “doxxing,” to speak freely, and unfortunately to abuse others without fear of consequences. But anonymity also has different meanings and uses today as well. Most prominently, it is much easier today to speak anonymously without fear of being unmasked. In fact, it’s as simple as starting a Twitter account. But today, being anonymous carries no real responsibilities. Anonymous trolls, for example, demonstrate no recognition that their protection is an important privilege—not an inevitable condition.
There are dangers in anonymity. As we have seen, it can be used against democratic institutions, as Russian “bots” have aspired to do. But for myself, I see the ability to speak anonymously to be an essential tool in a democracy—particularly in our present moment. When power aligns against truth, truth must have a safe harbor from power.
 Pennsylvania Gazette, Dec. 27, 1764. The incident is recounted by the editors of the Benjamin Franklin Papers here: http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-11-02-0147.