Our panel explores the connections between “fake news” in the Early American Republic and in the political climate today. Focusing on an interpretation of political engagement in which truth was central, each paper evaluates a facet of the indictment of fake news, both when the information was in fact true and accused of falsehood, and when it was fictionalized for a precise political reason. Katlyn Carter’s paper looks at the intersection of newspaper publishing, public opinion, and political decision-making. If public opinion was viewed as the litmus test of political legitimacy, was it the federal government’s role to ensure that the public received unbiased and reasoned information by which to make their decisions and, if so, how would it go about it? Nora Slonimsky’s paper addresses a similar concern by studying the relationship between seditious libel and cartographic copyright. In two copyright disputes of the late eighteenth century – one at the start of independence and the other in the throws of the Alien and Sedition controversies of the late 1790s – piracy was seen as more than an erosion of commercial rights but also an attack on the authenticity of geographic publications. Pirated books were tantamount to a lie, and geographers and their political allies grappled with how to protect truth without interfering in content. Ben Wright’s paper explores the opposite problem: when a made up “fact” was designed to serve an essential egalitarian anti-slavery principle. Designed to stimulate a reform minded public, abolitionist activists circulated two fabricated stories of slave ship captains and their brutality. While the core issues at stake – the violence and viciousness of the slave trade – were true, the detailed “factual” accounts were fictionalized in pursuit of garnering public opinion.
Fact and fiction were used to powerful ends. Yet, there was a dangerous risk involved in presenting one as the other, a risk that has become heightened amidst the rapidly shifting space of digital information access and new media. Taken together, our papers seek to link the struggles and efforts involving factual texts in the development of a more inclusive and egalitarian federal system with assaults on that sovereignty today.