Great Sock Puppets in History

Filed under:Blogging,History — posted by Anwyn on July 28, 2006 @ 12:36 am

Okay, I have only one. And it actually wasn’t a sock puppet.

But in honor of Patterico’s definitive history of Greenwald’s sock puppets and the hard work of Ace of Spades and others in bringing it to light, I will unfold the tale, garnered from the pages of David McCullough’s John Adams.

In the spring of 1791, John Adams was Vice President and Thomas Jefferson Secretary of State. There was a blog war–okay, okay, a book and pamphlet war–between Edmund Burke, author of Reflections on the French Revolution, and Thomas Paine, who countered with The Rights of Man. John Adams was being savaged in the press as a “monarchist” because he favored a strong executive branch–gosh, where have I heard that before?–and Jefferson was going with the flow. Receiving an advance copy of The Rights of Man, Jefferson sent it to a printer with a note endorsing it as an antidote to “the political heresies that have sprung up among us.” The “heresies” he meant were Adams’s supposed endorsement of an American monarchy. (Adams endorsed nothing of the kind.) Stung and hurt by his friend’s public betrayal, Adams took a vacation to his home in Massachusetts.

Letters began appearing in a Boston paper, published under the name “Publicola,” that attacked The Rights of Man and took Jefferson strictly to task for referring to opposing political opinions as “heresies.” Gosh, where have I heard that before?

I have always understood, sir, that the citizens of these States were possessed of a full and entire freedom of opinion upon all subjects civil as well as religious … and the only political tenet which they could stigmatize with the name of heresy would be that which should attempt to impose an opinion upon their understandings, upon the single principle of authority.

The letter writer was not John Adams, as was at first widely assumed. Instead it was his son, John Quincy Adams. And when I say “his son,” I don’t mean “boyfriend who lived in the house with him and would probably take dictation.” John Quincy was a grown man with his own law practice by this time. But the fur was in the fire after that. Jefferson wrote to Adams implying that it never would have been a public fight if not for “Publicola” and implying that Adams was the letter writer (“Never in his life, Jefferson added,” writes McCullough, “had he written anything for newspapers anonymously or under a pseudonym, and he never intended to.”) McCullough adds that Jefferson knew, at the time of writing the letter, that “Publicola” was John Quincy.

Adams answered with a restrained and, all things considered, gracious missive that sought to air out the troubles, but did not “out” (to use the modern parlance) his son as “Publicola.” Jefferson, however, unwilling to accept any responsibility for sparking the problem, wrote back insisting again that the trouble was all due to “Publicola” and denied, dishonestly, that he had meant Adams when he pinned??Adams’s views with the label of “heresies.”

Adams, as McCullough says, “let the matter drop.”

So we see that it was a serious matter to be accused of sock-puppetry as far back as the founding days of our nation. Though Jefferson behaved like a boob, I have to say that John Quincy’s actions, though??well intended??and deftly executed, probably hurt Adams’s??credibility more than they helped, not to mention John Quincy’s own. Writing hoping to affect people’s opinions of the incident, the fact that he was Adams’s son would have been an important disclosure, and it would have been far more honorable to write under his own name, especially as it became known almost immediately who “Publicola” really was. But the pseudonym was enough for Jefferson to hide behind when he??leveled his disgustingly dishonest,??though veiled, accusation at John Adams.

Some commenters on this Greenwald flap have been quick to moan about “moving on” and stop making accusations, etc. “Can’t we all get along” schtick. But I’ve learned in my relatively short time roaming the blogosphere that the impact of what you say depends in great measure on who you are. Commenters and minnow-bloggers, like yours truly, get known at the??whale-blogs they comment on. I’ve learned what kinds of opinions to expect from many of my fellow commenters; I know whom I can count on for agreement, who will bait, who will disagree civilly, and who will go off-topic and off-the-deep-end crazy. It’s important in instant communication to have a symbol in your mind for the person you’re dealing with, even though you wouldn’t recognize them if they walked down the street in front of you, and that’s why sock puppets are so serious that whale-bloggers will take a week to sort out the hows, whys and wherefores. And rightly so. This should all be a part of a blogger’s record.

I started reading Patterico??more or less regularly at about the time he broke the Hiltzik??story. People who are hoping to shape the debate cannot be allowed to do so unfairly by going on somebody’s blog and lashing them under a fake name, then going back to their own blog and exclaiming, “Hey! So-and-so’s getting their ass handed to them by a commenter!” meaning themselves. By the same token, using fake names to inflate the number of your admirers shakes human nature into wondering, “Is this a crowd I should line up with? After all this guy seems to have a lot of supporters.” It’s dishonest. It’s a disservice to readers on any side of any issue, who form their opinions in part based on the past record of the person giving the analysis. It’s sad and pathetic, too. It should stop.


  1. Did you read Safire’s Scandalmonger? You might like that, too.

    Comment by Dan Collins — July 28, 2006 @ 8:22 am

  2. Dan, thanks for reading and for being my first commenter. I have not read Scandalmonger. I’ll check it out. I know that James Callender figures somewhat prominently in the latter parts of the McCullough’s book, which I’m going through a second time at the moment.

    Comment by Anwyn — July 28, 2006 @ 9:08 am

  3. Hi Anwyn,

    I tried posting a comment a few times and ran into something odd which may be a technical issue to look into.

    If I am in the middle of editing a comment here, switch to another browser window (for instance to quote something), and then click in this window anywhere but the comment box to come back – my comment gets erased and I am redirected back to your homepage!

    I just tried it (after copying my comments so I could paste them back) and it happened again!

    Anyway, loved your Tolkien essays back in the day. Looking forward to more of your insights.

    Comment by LagunaDave — July 31, 2006 @ 7:08 am

  4. Dave, thanks for the kind words; I’m tickled you found your way here having previously read TORn.

    Thanks for bringing my attention to that tech problem. I will look into it; that’s an unfortunate issue. It didn’t reproduce itself in Firefox, but only in I.E. Turns out you don’t even have to switch windows; if you click somewhere in the whitespace around the comment window it directs back to the homepage. Gaah.

    Comment by Anwyn — July 31, 2006 @ 8:03 am

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