The Chirping War of 1776

The fourth of July is not my favorite holiday. I grew up with fireworks, I’ve been to public displays, and no one has ever talked about the ideals of the country, or read from the founding documents. The Fourth of July, as celebrated, seems pornographic: explosion for its own sake, disconnected from the idea or feeling it’s supposed to celebrate. An excuse to blow shit up.

On the positive side, your local car dealer has revolutionary deals, and has declared independence from high prices!

For all its faults, I feel lucky to live in this country, and last year, listening to the mind-dulling crack and thump of fireworks, I thought I would rebel, and read the Bill of Rights. It helped, a lot. There’s a core of genius and decency to this nation.

Another year, and the Fourth rolls around again. Sigh.

This year I decided to read the Declaration of Independence. Wow. In laying out the case for revolution, before the laundry list of complaints, Jefferson lands a solid left hook that knocks the divine right of kings on its ass. And once again, it worked—I felt grateful and inspired. Maybe next year when the fireworks start, I’ll read from the Federalist Papers. It’s my rejection of our annual loveless humping of the American sky.

Anyway, while doing some background reading on the Declaration, I discovered a fascinating but forgotten part of American and British history: Chirping. Normally, to sail from England to America could take 6 weeks or longer. Thus, the flow of information, as well as people and goods, was quite slow.

Enter Chirping, an ultrafast messaging system that could send short messages, or “chirps,” across the Atlantic in as little as 4 days. How did it work?

Pigeons.

Lord Evan Stone had the idea, and money, to set up a chain of a dozen or so relatively stationary ships across the Atlantic, and to train pigeons to fly between them. A pigeon can easily travel 400 miles a day at 50 miles per hour; with a quick transfer to a fresh pigeon, at least 800 miles a day was possible. Of course, messages were of necessity short, and expensive. And several pigeons had to carry the copies of the same message, because even a pigeon can have trouble finding a ship at sea. (The story of how Lord Stone got the birds to do that would be a fascinating article in its own right.) Adding to the expense was the constant need to resupply the stationary ships.

Arriving at port, the messages would then be posted publicly on a large board, unless additional fees were paid for a private delivery service. Of course, people would flock to see the Chirps, as Lord Stone intended: it was free advertising. The curious public clustered around the message board like feeding pigeons, which thus became to be known as Ye Feed. It was said that the Feed messages would travel by rumor just as a fast as by a private courier.

Interesting side note: the Chirps were originally called Coos, as the service was intended for the lovelorn gentry to send mash notes to their distant sweethearts. But as we shall see, the service soon became a channel for political bickering, or “Chirping.” I discovered a Log of Chirps between America and England (and some from France), recorded just after the Declaration of Independence arrived in London. (If King George III often seems to get the last word, it’s because he could afford more pigeons.)

Here is an excerpt:

@MaireAntoinette
TLDR

@rexGeorgeIII
This Declaration of Independence is the work of Indolent Wretches who can only Lose. I call them Lose-ers. Dolorous!

@EdwardGibbon
Too short, did not peruse.

@Phenry
Give me Liberty or give me Death!

@rexGeorgeIII
Pathetic @Phenry, your bold declaration is naught but the squawking of a pea hen, so I dub thee Squawking Pat.

@GWashington
Some day, following the example of the United States of America, there will be a United States of Europe.

@rexGeorgeIII
And should my distant heirs inherit my Spirit and Brain, they will surely Exit such an Execrable Union. This @GWashington once begged admittance to my Table, but I could see Foul Termites crawling about his wooden teeth. I said no!

@Gwashington
I have never met @rexGeorgeIII, nor begged admittance to any man’s table.

@rexGeorgeIII
This denial is but more Fraudulent News from the Colonial Nest of Ninnies. Dolorous!

@AbigailAdams
If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation.

@rexGeorgeIII
I’ll pay particular care and attention–to your Wherever, Crazy Abigail!

At this point, Lord Stone shut down the service in disgust.