Digital Paxton: Digital Collection, Critical Edition, and Teaching Platform


Before studying the relationship between text and reader, it is important to acknowledge the potential for miscommunication. Audiences might misunderstand the author's message, ignore sections of the text or read them out of order. The presentation of a text through paratexts often sought to mitigate miscommunication.

Perhaps the most straightforward way in which a paratext conveyed the preferred meaning of the author was through errata. Errata redressed printing errors. This could entail asking the reader to insert missing sections or correct mistakes. The most common mistakes occurred when the compositor set the wrong type and no one noticed until after the printer had produced the printed pages. It was significantly cheaper to add a section at the back of the text than compose and re-print whole sections. Printers usually labelled these sections as errata, though other names could include addendum or corrigendum depending on what needed to be corrected.

Errata is interesting because it is a product of the printing process. It exists because it would be too costly to reprint the whole text, so instead the paratext amended mistakes as cheaply as possible. Errata highlights the fallibility of the printing process and reminds us that readers encountered the author's words through a medium that had to be commercially viable.

Digital Paxton includes several examples of errata, including Address to the Rev. Dr Alison published in 1765. Address comprised the reproduction of a letter published in the London Chronicle, a British newspaper,and a refutation of that letter. The London Chronicle letter was an appeal from religious ministers in Pennsylvania that solicited donations to help white colonists in western Pennsylvania who had been displaced and distressed by conflict with Native Americans. The author repeated the common accusation that there had been no help from within Pennsylvania because the province was politically divided. They explained that the people of the three easternmost counties were mostly Quakers and the five western counties were mostly 'People of other Denominations.' The letter continued that the Quakers maintained their political control over Pennsylvania because the easternmost counites were overrepresented in the provincial legislative assembly. The letter situated the Paxton Boys massacres in a series of skirmishes throughout western Pennsylvania in which Native Americans had been engaged in violence and the destruction of crops.

In the rejoinder, Address names and shames the aforementioned letter writers as Francis Alison and John Ewing, two prominent Presbyterian ministers. The author of Address, ironically anonymous, challenged Alison and Ewing to produce evidence for their claims or else admit their error. The author then made a series of other allegations about the malfeasance of Alison, Ewing, and their political allies. Address is representative of the Paxton Boys debate generally. Like many of the other Paxton Boys texts, Address responded directly to another text and couched its argument in scurrilous insinuations. More substantively, Address also debated the two major Paxton Boys themes: how to respond to violence between white and Indian communities and the ability of Quakers to govern effectively. As in most other texts, Address identified the outbreak of the Seven Years' War in the mid-1750s as a starting point for most of the troubles. The urgency to write in 1765 indicates that the political disruption unleashed in 1764 continued into the 1760s and 1770s.

On the last page of Address, there were errata for three minor mistakes. The errata asked the reader to replace "they" for "the" on page 10, line 9; on page 11, line 5 from the bottom, the reader was to replace "Counties" or "Cities;" and on page 13, line 28, the reader was to read 22 instead of 29. The first two corrections make only minor clarifications. For example, the second erratum changed "the Quakers are chiefly in the three interior Cities" to "the Quakers are chiefly in the three interior Counties." The author consistently referenced the interior (i.e. eastern) Quaker counties, as did most other authors in the Paxton Boys debate, so the mistake was not egregiously misleading.

The most substantive change in the piece was reading 22 instead of 29 on page 13. The erratum reported the accurate number of subscribers to a petition protesting a 1755 militia supply bill. Anthony Morris, a Quaker representative in the legislative house, had submitted the petition to the Assembly on 7 November 1755 to preserve the Quaker peace testimony and oppose spending public money on the military. 21 other prominent Quakers had added their names in support. Despite supporting Quakers in government, Address referred to the leader of this petition as a "mischievous and wrongheaded Man" who "basely imposed it on the World as an Act of the whole Society [of Quakers]." This reference was to Israel Pemberton, the influential clerk of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Pemberton had formed the Friendly Association to work with Native Americans to negotiate peace in the province. Correcting the number of subscribers would help the reader identify the appropriate petition, but specifying 22, rather than 29, petitioners was not critical for the reader's understanding.

More than just correcting errors in the printing, errata encouraged readers to go back to the text and re-engage with ideas. Although errata allowed the printer to correct mistakes without incurring huge expenses, thereby presenting the author's word accurately to the reader, I would argue that errata were as much about encouraging the reader to revisit the text after reading as it was about ensuring the exactness of the author's words.

There were also a series of minor errata in An Answer to the Pamphlet Entituled The Conduct of the Paxton Men, a rejoinder to Thomas Barton's Conduct of the Paxton Men. Where Barton had attempted to justify the Paxton Boys massacre as the regrettable outcome of eastern authorities ignoring western communities, Answer emphatically rejected any mitigation of the Paxton Boys' actions. The author of Answer insisted that the Paxton Boys were murderers and should stand trial as murderers. At the end of the pamphlet, errata corrected minor issues with printing and asked readers to return to specific points in the text and replace "cram'd" for "examined," "Consciences" for "Countenances," or else add in small phrases. Again, these amendments did not substantively change the argument, but a diligent reader interested in understanding the intentions of the author would revisit the text and, crucially, engage again with the author's argument in a relatively small number of pages between 17 and 24. Notably, these pages defended the authenticity of the Quaker peace testimony, decried the lies told to the German community about the Quakers, and alleged that the Paxton Boys massacred the Indians for economic gain, a brief precis of the overarching argument.

I do not argue that errata were purposeful mistakes to re-engage readers with the core argument, but I do argue that errata had a meaningful effect on the reading experience. Errata are a useful reminder that book printing was a business and sometimes mistakes happened, but as a form of backmatter, errata also prompted readers to revisit the text to corroborate the author's meaning. Individually, the effect of errata could be minimal or ignored, but the significance of paratexts as a mode of communication is that they collectively presented the text in a manner that shaped the way audiences read. The materiality of the text preserves some of the ways that readers were guided to read.

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