Print, the Press, and the American Revolution
Print, the Press, and the American Revolution
- Robert G. ParkinsonRobert G. ParkinsonBinghamton University, SUNY
According to David Ramsay, one of the first historians of the American Revolution, “in establishing American independence, the pen and press had merit equal to that of the sword.” Because of the unstable and fragile notions of unity among the thirteen American colonies, print acted as a binding agent that mitigated the chances that the colonies would not support one another when war with Britain broke out in 1775.
Two major types of print dealt with the political process of the American Revolution: pamphlets and newspapers. Pamphlets were one of the most important conveyors of ideas during the imperial crisis. Often written by elites under pseudonyms and published by booksellers, they have long been held by historians as the lifeblood of the American Revolution. There were also three dozen newspaper printers in the American mainland colonies at the start of the Revolution, each producing a four-page issue every week. These weekly papers, or one-sheet broadsides that appeared in American cities even more frequently, were the most important communication avenue to keep colonists informed of events hundreds of miles away. Because of the structure of the newspaper business in the 18th century, the stories that appeared in each paper were “exchanged” from other papers in different cities, creating a uniform effect akin to a modern news wire. The exchange system allowed for the same story to appear across North America, and it provided the Revolutionaries with a method to shore up that fragile sense of unity. It is difficult to imagine American independence—as a popular idea let alone a possible policy decision—without understanding how print worked in colonial America in the mid-18th century.
- Colonial History
- Early National History
- History of Science and Technology
According to one of the first historians of the Revolution, “in establishing American independence, the pen and press had merit equal to that of the sword.”1 Print—whether the trade in books, the number of weekly newspapers, or the mass of pamphlets, broadsides, and other imprints—increased dramatically in the middle of the 18th century, with the general trend of economic prosperity and growing cultural norms about “refinement” and “improvement.” In the 1760s, print became a contested site of imperial reform with the Stamp Act, when Parliament chose texts as the locus of the constitutional debate over the colonies’ place in the empire and their responsibility in sharing tax burdens. The Stamp Act and the colonists’ resistance politicized print—and printers—in new ways. For the remainder of the imperial crisis, print remained at the center of the colonial resistance movement, connecting disparate resistance groups to one another, and providing the most reliable communications network across the Atlantic littoral. Newspapers, pamphlets, and broadsides were, indeed, the lifeblood of American resistance. Because of the unstable and fragile notions of unity among the thirteen mainland American colonies, print acted as a binding agent that mitigated the chances that the colonies would not support one another when war with Britain broke out in 1775.
Two major types of print shaped the political processes of the American Revolution: pamphlets and newspapers. Pamphlets became strategic conveyors of ideas during the imperial crisis. Often written by elites under pseudonyms, they have long been held up by historians as agents of change in and of themselves—that texts like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense or John Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, to name two of the most famous, are often seen as actors themselves, driving the resistance movement forward. There were also three dozen newspapers active on the American mainland at the start of the Revolution, each producing a four-page issue once a week. Although these papers earlier in the 18th century had focused on news from European capitals and courts, with the burgeoning imperial crisis they began to feature news from other colonies. These weekly papers were the most important communication avenue that kept colonists informed of events hundreds of miles away. It is difficult to imagine American independence—as a popular idea let alone a potential policy decision—without understanding how print worked in colonial America in the later decades of the 18th century.
As Bernard Bailyn wrote in the foreword to his 1965 book, Pamphlets of the American Revolution, there were more than four hundred pamphlets published in the colonies on the imperial controversy up through 1776, and nearly four times that number by war’s end in 1783.2 These pamphlets varied in their theme and approach, including tracts of constitutional theory or history, sermons and orations, correspondence, literary pieces, and political debate. Bailyn originally decided to print seventy-two of these in a significant project that began with fourteen dated 1750–1765. In a two-hundred-page general introduction to what promised to be a multivolume effort, Bailyn developed an interpretation about the content of what was to follow, an analysis that he would deepen a few years later in the seminal Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967).
According to Bailyn, the pamphlets—“booklets consisting of a few printer’s sheets, folded in various ways so as to make various sizes and numbers of pages and sold . . . for a few pence, at most a shilling or two”—were the “most important and characteristic writing of the American Revolution.”3 They were normally small but quite flexible in size, ranging from ten to fifty pages in length. Because of this flexibility and cheap cost, they were printed everywhere. Bailyn found them especially grouped around three moments during the controversy: the Stamp Act crisis (1765–1766), the Townshend Duties and Boston Massacre (1767–1770), and the Boston Tea Party and Parliament’s response in the Coercive Acts (1774). In them, he argued, were the most creative and powerful arguments that drove the Anglo-American controversy to war and independence. No empty vessels of propaganda or intentional deceit, the political pamphlets clarified the abstract constitutional issues and sharpened American response, according to Bailyn.
The pamphlets channeled and focused colonial resistance by framing dissent via appeals to history and political experience. The pamphleteers often invoked the lessons from the fall of the Roman republic, the political strife of the English Civil War, and the libertarian warnings from those who opposed the administration of Robert Walpole in the early 1700s. They blended the political theories from republicans stretching back to the ancient world with English writers from the 17th and 18th centuries. Together, they instructed the colonial public that political and personal liberty were in jeopardy because British imperial reformers sought to strip them of their natural rights, especially the right to consent to a government that could hear and understand them. Without representation, American colonists were political dependents who lacked any form of redress. Many of the pamphlets assumed a significant amount of knowledge of recent and ancient history, as well as sophisticated understandings of constitutional and legal relationships. The most successful, however, were those who aimed their rhetoric to a larger reading public. Tom Paine’s Common Sense, is, of course, the classic example. Paine eschewed a learned style and posture and instead embraced vernacular language and forwarded arguments drawn from more readily understood sources, especially the Bible.
Pamphlets that supported the Crown appeared within a few months of one another in late 1774 and early 1775. From the Stamp Act in 1765 until this point, loyalists had dismissed the patriot movement as inconsequential and unpopular, viewing their street protests and constitutional arguments as, apparently, not worth the effort of refutation. Once the First Continental Congress met in September–October 1774 and, especially, after loyalists saw the wide popularity of the Continental Association (the extensive, general boycott that was to be binding in all colonies) passed by that body, they suddenly realized this effort was worthwhile after all. Pamphlets by Samuel Seabury, Thomas Chandler, and Daniel Leonard all appeared during this frenzied moment, trying to halt the wave of patriot support, but it was largely too late. Although the patriots took their efforts seriously—John Adams (writing as “Novanglus”) saw it to engage Leonard (writing as “Massachusettensis”) point-by-point in extended newspaper exchanges—the loyalists had waited too long to present their side to the colonial public.
The key political pamphlets that supported resistance from 1765 to 1776 are: James Otis, Rights of British Colonies Asserted and Proved (Boston, 1764); Richard Bland, Inquiry into the Rights of the British Colonies (Williamsburg, 1766); John Dickinson, Letters of a Farmer in Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, 1768); James Warren, Oration to Commemorate the Bloody Tragedy of the Fifth of March, 1770 (Boston, 1772); Thomas Jefferson, A Summary View of the Rights of British Americans (Williamsburg, 1774); Thomas Paine, Common Sense (Philadelphia, 1776); and John Adams, Thoughts on Government (Philadelphia, 1776).
The key political pamphlets that opposed colonial resistance from 1765 to 1776 are: Samuel Seabury, The Congress Canvassed (New York, 1774); Thomas B. Chandler, A Friendly Address to All Reasonable Americans (New York, 1774); Daniel Leonard, Origin of the American Contest . . . by Massachusettensis (Boston, 1775); Charles Inglis, The Deceiver Unmasked (New York, 1776); and James Chalmers, Plain Truth (Philadelphia, 1776).
Newspapers and the American Revolution
For much of the 18th century colonial newspaper printers published content that was mostly related to the affairs of government, whether proclamations, laws, orders, or money. This was by necessity; because of weak markets, tight credit, scare supplies, poor transportation, and irregular labor, printers who did not have a connection to government contracts had a near impossible time making ends meet.4 Most colonial printers lived very precarious economic lives. Their social status was low—they worked hard, and with their hands—but their information largely came from gentlemen. They depended on the circles of gentle folk, but were not welcome in them.5 The columns of their usually four-page weekly newspaper issues were filled with information from England and Europe before mid-century, usually stories taken from London papers. From their newspapers colonists knew far more about the goings-on at the courts and capitals of Europe than they did about one another. Printers depended on their colleagues in other cities for news: they sent free copies of their papers across the Atlantic for the purposes of the “exchanges”—the clipping of news items from one paper and placing it in your own issue. They also depended on local gentlemen and city officials to come into their shops bearing information of public import, whether a portion of a private letter that they volunteered to be anonymously extracted for public consumption, or documents with bearing on public concern that they ordered sent to the printer for publication. Printers were not seekers but receivers of information in the late 18th century. The “exchanges,” however, acted as a powerful tool for political mobilization. Because they acted in many ways like a modern newswire, carrying the same story almost intact from city to city, the “exchanges” provided a form of simultaneity and shared political experience. The exchange system provided the members of the colonial resistance movement with a method to shore up a very inchoate and unstable sense of intercolonial unity. Crafty patriot writers understood and used the “exchange” system to great advantage to get certain key messages or images that fostered resistance out to a wide continental public to foster support they would have otherwise had difficulty building.
Reliance on government largesse shifted in the 1760s, as political items, stories, and essays about the burgeoning “imperial crisis” appeared more frequently. Starting in the 1760s the number of newspapers rose significantly, doubling between 1763 and 1775, and then doubling again from 1775 to 1790.6 Political engagement also led to a shift away from the traditional efforts by newspaper printers earlier in the century to keep their columns open to both sides of debates. After the Stamp Act—whether because of personal political leanings or because they thought it best to suit their market niche—printers began to abandon the ideal of neutrality to embrace or reject colonial resistance of British imperial reform.7 A few printers, including William Goddard (Providence), William Bradford (Philadelphia), Peter Timothy (Charleston), John Holt (New York City), Benjamin Edes and John Gill (Boston) joined in the “cause” in various ways, either by becoming members of the Sons of Liberty, opening their print shops for political meetings, or publishing a wide array of stories, essays, and items that supported the cause. On the other hand, a few other printers, including James Rivington, Richard Draper, and Robert Wells, made their newspapers available for loyalists to submit essays that criticized patriot resistance efforts.
Anonymity was a key feature of publication in the late 18th century. Authors of essays that either appeared in pamphlet form or were serialized across several weekly issues of newspapers often appeared under a pseudonym to protect all involved parties: the writer, the publisher, and the concept of a “free press.” But with printers taking increasingly polarized political stances—and popular understanding of the role of newspaper printers in the burgeoning “imperial crisis” shifting—the effectiveness of the shield of pseudonyms faltered.
For example, what happened at the end of 1767 between the printers of the Boston Gazette and Boston Chronicle illuminates the increasing political pressure on newspaper publishers, and the suddenness by which a confrontation could now escalate into violence. From its opening issue that year, the Boston Chronicle, published by recent Scot emigrant John Mein and his partner John Fleeming, provoked the city’s opponents of imperial reform. Mein and Fleeming started the Chronicle with an attack on two of the patriots’ favorite British leaders, the Earl of Chatham and the Marquis of Rockingham. Naturally, the Boston radicals who paid close attention to matters of print, that is, Samuel Adams and James Otis, fought back in their dedicated organ, Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette. Under the cover of a pseudonym, Otis wrote an essay slandering Mein as a Jacobite. Soon an outraged Mein burst into the Gazette office demanding the contributor’s name, but got no satisfaction. Still fuming, a few nights later he caned his Gazette colleague John Gill on a Boston street.8 Several weeks later, Samuel Adams, writing as “Populus,” described this clubbing not as a private affair between the two printers but instead a “Spaniard-like Attempt” to restrict press freedom.9
Criminal charges and severe fines did not deter Mein. Nearly two years later, Mein and Fleeming sought to embarrass the Sons of Liberty once again, this time by revealing the caprice and self-interest that they thought really actuated the non-importation boycott the Sons had organized to resist the Townshend Duties. The Chronicle featured fifty-five lists of shipping manifests revealing the names of merchants who broke the non-importation agreement, including many who had actually signed the boycott. In response it was many upset Bostonians who embraced vigilantism this time. Mein and Fleeming had published the lists to suggest the boycott was really an effort to eliminate business competition on the part of merchants sympathetic to the Sons. Now they had to stuff pistols in their pockets to walk the streets of Boston.10 In October the Boston town meeting condemned Mein as an enemy of his country, and a few days later a large crowd confronted the offending printers on King Street, producing a scuffle that left Mein bruised, Fleeming’s pistol empty, and a few dozen angry Bostonians facing British bayonets. Mein at first took shelter in the guardhouse, but, when Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson did not offer vigorous support, the truculent printer departed for England.
Evidence of a growing polarization and politicization, the clash between the Boston Gazette and Boston Chronicle was also about naming names. Mein wanted the Gazette printers to tell him who called him a Jacobite; his own paper’s revealing of the identities of importers animated the crowd and forced the Chronicle printer into exile. Anonymity was itself a transforming concept during the imperial crisis. Long a key feature of 18th-century print culture, with the republican claims of the patriots, anonymity took on a new significance in print, one that allowed for a broader inclusion of the public, and, by implication, the possibility of greater purchase by the people at large. As a rule, contributors to the newspapers shielded themselves with pseudonyms, often judiciously employed to cast themselves as public defenders (“Populus,” “Salus Populi,” “Rusticus”) or guardians of ancient liberty and virtue (“Mucius Scaevola,” “Cato,” “Nestor,” “Neoptelemus”). As one literary scholar has suggested, by adopting such identities those “guardians” were then not real, individual inhabitants of Boston or Philadelphia, with particular social interests, but universal promoters of republican liberty.11 Analysts often point to the destruction of the concept of deference—a staple of 18th-century social structure—as a sign of the Revolution’s radicalness. The shift in the understanding of anonymity in print was a key factor in decoupling social status from political authority. That shift helped undermine deference as an organizing concept of American social and political culture.
Printers, then, mediated several fluid and rapidly changing concepts of both their professions and colonial politics before the Revolution. They were the keepers of very important political secrets. They alone knew who had submitted a manuscript for publication; only they could pierce the republican fiction of anonymity. Often, this position was precarious. As political pressure increased in the 1760s and 1770s, the impulse to throw off these veils was occasionally very strong. Printers periodically found themselves or their property in harm’s way if they refused to bow to the will of angry demands that they confess.
John Gill would not be the only one to suffer from this increasing imperative; throughout the Revolution several printers on both sides of the imperial question found themselves or their property at risk. In 1776, when New York Packet printer Samuel Loudon dared to advertise the publication of a pamphlet that answered Tom Paine’s Common Sense and called the “scheme of Independence ruinous and delusive,” the Mechanics Committee, a radical patriot group created in 1774 out of the Sons of Liberty, summoned the printer to explain his behavior and reveal the author’s identity.12 Loudon refused to tell the committee the Anglican rector of Trinity Church, Charles Inglis, had written the pamphlet, so six members of the committee went to his shop and, in Loudon’s words, “nailed and sealed up the printed sheets in boxes, except a few which were drying in an empty house, which they locked, and took the key with them.”13 They warned Loudon to stop publishing the pamphlet, or else his “personal safety might be endangered.” Although he “promised to comply,” this pledge “availed nothing for my security.” Late the next night, forty men returned, broke into his office, grabbed all fifteen hundred copies of Inglis’s pamphlet, “carried them into the commons, and there burned them.”14
The highly charged content of those publications, whether the weekly newspapers or pamphlets like The Deceiver Unmasked, also fueled partisanship. The imperial crisis witnessed what one scholar has called the advent of the “exposé” in America.15 As printers increasingly gave space to contributors who claimed they were unmasking corruption or conspiracy, they aided in the disintegration of established concepts of what kept a press “free.” The most impassioned publications of the 1760s–1770s—Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, the chronicle of soldiers’ abuses known as the “Journal of Occurrences,” Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre, and Thomas Hutchinson’s private letters—all centered on revealing or dramatizing the government’s true aims of stripping American colonists of their liberties. There were not two sides to “truth.” Either behind pseudonyms or not, the patriot writers or artists who brought these plots to light claimed they were heroic servants of the people, informants seeking to protect an unwitting public from tyranny’s stealthy advance. This was not a debate. So framed, it was also a difficult position to counter. At the same time, the appearance of each of these “exposés” also represented a choice by the printers themselves. By giving space to the “truth”—and, by extension, to the protection of the people’s rights—they took a side that changed the older values of press freedom forever. A free or open press, they decided, did not have to allow equal space for opposing viewpoints that they characterized as endorsing lies and tyranny.
Print was an essential factor in pushing the colonists toward revolution even if it was not sufficient to cause the Revolution. Benjamin Franklin, it should not surprise, grasped perfectly the power of newspapers. “By the press we can speak to nations,” the printer-turned-politician wrote a friend in 1782. Thanks to newspapers, Franklin concluded, political leaders could not only “strike while the iron is hot” but also stoke fires by “continually striking.”16 Those bundles of newspapers—dropped off at crossroad inns and subscribers’ rural estates in the countryside, distributed among urban taverns and gathering places in the cities, imported into the army camps—had the potential to be potent tools of revolutionary mobilization. Patriot leaders from the mid-1760s through the Treaty of Paris spent a great deal of time and, more illuminating, moneysupporting all kinds of print: subsidizing printers, aiding in paper supplies, contributing private correspondence to newspapers, ordering the publication of certain documents, treating printing presses as military contraband, sending pamphlets in diplomatic packets, arranging for illustrations for a child’s book of British atrocities. The journals of the proceedings of patriot political authorities at all levels, from local committees of safety, to state legislatures, to the Continental Congress, give evidence that they saw their actions as intertwined with printers. The working men and women attached to American print shops—the riders carrying papers to the countryside, the apprentices and slaves working the press, the journeymen assembling types, for example—were essential to the Revolution too.
A Guide to Newspapers during the American Revolution
On April 19, 1775, there were thirty-seven active newspapers in the colonies. When Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, 1781, there were thirty-five. Of those original thirty-seven papers that printed the news of Lexington and Concord, only twenty made it through the war and very few of those were able to continue publishing a paper each week. This number would ebb and flow. War exacerbated printers’ capacity to secure ready supplies of materials, especially paper. Seventeen prewar prints would expire during the fighting while eighteen new ventures were started but were also discontinued at some point. The mean number for active newspapers between 1775 and 1783 is thirty-five; the approximate number of thirty-five holds up throughout the war’s duration.
In Boston, the engagements at Lexington and Concord instantly upended the city’s newspaper production. Three prints that defended the Ministry closed that month. Patriot papers, including Benjamin Edes and John Gill’s radical Boston Gazette and Isaiah Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy had to suspend publication as they fled to the countryside. On May 3, Thomas continued to print from Worcester, where he would stay throughout the remainder of the war. Edes also brought out the Boston Gazette again from Watertown on June 5. When the British evacuated Boston in March 1776, the Boston Gazette again took up residence in the city, but the important Edes and Gill partnership had not survived the move out of Boston. John Gill started his own pro-American organ, the Continental Journal, in May. A fifth paper, Powers and Willis’s New England Chronicle became the Independent Chronicle in 1776. In 1778 Edward Draper and John Folsom started another Boston paper, the Independent Ledger. For much of the war Boston boasted six prints. When one closed, another, like James White and Thomas Adams’s Boston Evening Post (which ran from October 1778 to March 1780) opened. Outside Boston, John Mycall published the Essex Journal in Newburyport from 1775 to early 1777. In all, Massachusetts boasted of six long-lasting and important papers that supported the Revolution, with the Massachusetts Spy, Boston Gazette, and Continental Journal being the most significant.
Newspapers in Connecticut enjoyed the most stability during the war. The same four papers that contained the news of Lexington also reprinted the Treaty of Paris. Since the mid-18th century the powerful Green family dominated the colony’s print business. During the Revolution they operated the Connecticut Gazette in New London (Timothy Green) and the Connecticut Journal in New Haven (Thomas and Samuel Green). Ebenezer Watson and later George Goodwin and Barzillai Hudson ran the Green-founded Connecticut Courant in Hartford. None suffered suspensions or dislocations. The fourth, the Norwich Packet, had begun in 1773 by John Trumbull and two brothers, Alexander and James Robertson. In May 1776, the Robertsons, who were loyalists from Scotland, went to New York, leaving Trumbull to operate the paper alone, which he did until 1802.
If Connecticut was the land of steady print habits, the other New England provinces, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, were the opposite. Robert Fowle had published the New Hampshire Gazette in Portsmouth since his uncle had begun the business in 1756. In 1776, however, New Hampshire authorities suspected Fowle of counterfeiting and printing items against the “cause.” The Gazette ceased publication on January 9. A few months later Benjamin Dearborn picked up printing in Portsmouth with the Freeman’s Journal which operated until 1778 when Robert’s uncle Daniel took over and changed the name of the print back to the New Hampshire Gazette. The war’s intrusion also hampered the press in Rhode Island. John Carter, one of Franklin’s apprentices, was able to maintain his Whiggish Providence Gazette throughout the war. Solomon Southwick and the Newport Mercury were less lucky. In November 1775, fearing an impending invasion, Southwick moved his materials out of his Newport office. A year later, when the British did occupy the city, he was forced to bury his press and types for four years. A patriot, Southwick tried to keep active by printing on a borrowed press in Attleborough and Providence in the interim, but the Newport Mercury lay dormant until January 1780 when Henry Barber carried on.
Southwick’s problems were minor compared to the experiences of New York’s printers. At the outbreak of war there were three papers in New York City: John Holt’s New York Journal, Hugh Gaine’s New York Gazette & Weekly Mercury, and James Rivington’s New York Gazetteer. Holt supported the Revolutionaries, Gaine equivocated, and Rivington was popularly known as the leading Tory printer in the colonies. In August 1775, James Anderson began a second patriot press, the New York Constitutional Gazette, which brought out a paper three times a week. Another pro-American print began in January 1776 with Samuel Loudon beginning production of the New York Packet. These last two papers had little time to get settled because the British invasion in September 1776 changed everything. Anderson closed permanently, Loudon went to Fishkill, New York, Holt took his types to Kingston, New York (also known as Esopus), and Gaine fled for a few weeks to Newark, New Jersey. While Gaine was in New Jersey, the British army, lacking a paper, commissioned Ambrose Serle to start his own “engine.” Gaine, who had been printing a paper in New York since 1752, decided after a few weeks that the British market would better serve his financial interests, and he returned to the city on November 11, 1776, to displace Serle’s nascent operation. Gaine’s decision to turn his coat infuriated the Revolutionaries, and his name would be synonymous with deceit and greed for the remainder of the war. Philip Freneau’s stinging poem, “Hugh Gaine’s Life,” which some patriot printers happily published in 1783, typified this anger.
In occupied New York, papers flourished. In addition to Gaine, Rivington, the well-educated son of a prominent London book-seller, returned in 1777 and reestablished his print tri-weekly, the Robertson brothers from Norwich also began a bi-weekly Royal American Gazette that year, and when William Lewis started the New York Mercury in September 1779, New York had a combination daily newspaper. Meanwhile, the dispersed patriot papers had a more difficult time outside the city. Outside the main avenues of communication, Loudon still managed to maintain publication of the Packet from Fishkill throughout the war. Holt published from Kingston from July to October 1777 when disaster struck again as the British sacked the town. In May 1778 he resurfaced in even more remote Poughkeepsie, New York, where he struggled to maintain his connections with Governor George Clinton and keep the New York Journal in circulation.
The presence of the British army in New York also meant that New Jersey would be an active theater of violence from 1776 onward. In December 1777, Isaac Collins, a Quaker who was sponsored by Governor William Livingston and partly financed by the state, founded the New Jersey Gazette in Burlington. A few months later he relocated to Trenton, where he would maintain publication until July 1783. Sheppard Kollock, a former Continental Army lieutenant, started a second newspaper (New Jersey Journal) in Chatham, New Jersey in February 1779 because Washington wanted his troops to have a newspaper while they were in winter quarters in nearby Morristown. Since a large number of Kollock’s subscribers were soldiers, this paper contained a high quotient of war news until the end of hostilities. The sponsorship of newspapers in New Jersey by patriot authorities suggests how they thought about the centrality of print to the war effort. The New Jersey state legislature and governor, the Continental Army, and Continental Congress all expended valuable time and money to put sheets of newsprint in the hands of soldiers and civilians in the zone between Philadelphia and occupied Manhattan.
Since the mid-18th century, Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia had been the center of colonial print culture. At the war’s outset, there were six English language newspapers being published in Philadelphia. The two oldest prints were the Pennsylvania Gazette and Pennsylvania Journal. David Hall and William Sellers now operated Franklin’s organ, the nearly fifty-year-old Pennsylvania Gazette, while William Bradford—who had branched into coffee houses, marine insurance—still operated the Pennsylvania Journal more than thirty years after its founding. Irish printer John Dunlap had joined them in 1771 with the Pennsylvania Packet, while three more papers, Benjamin Towne’s tri-weekly Pennsylvania Evening Post, Story and David Humphrey’s Pennsylvania Mercury, and John Humphreys Jr.’s Pennsylvania Ledger, began in early 1775. Bradford and Dunlap were the most active Whigs among their colleagues, Hall and Sellers took a moderate course, John Humphreys tended toward the king, and Towne—like Gaine in New York—fended for himself. Congress spread their printing business around: for example John Dunlap was the first to produce a broadside text of the Declaration of Independence, while Towne had the honor of being the first to insert it in his July 6 issue. Delegates to the Continental Congress who wrote articles and essays sent them to Bradford and Dunlap.
Early on there was some turbulence in the Philadelphia print community. In December 1775 a fire ended the Mercury. The following November, Towne, an Englishman, attacked James Humphreys for being a Tory, a campaign that subsequently drove him out of town. Just as Humphreys fled, it appeared that the British might sweep into Philadelphia and all papers suspended publication except Towne’s Evening Post. Bradford joined the Continental Army as a colonel and fought in New Jersey. After the invasion scare dissipated with Washington’s victories at Trenton and Princeton, Philadelphia papers resumed operations. The following fall, though, Howe’s successful expedition against Philadelphia scattered printers and delegates alike across Pennsylvania. With the occupation, Bradford suspended his Journal, Hall and Sellers followed Congress to York and published there, while Dunlap took the Packet to nearby Lancaster for a period of months. Towne, on the other hand, stayed put, deciding to turn his coat and print a loyalist paper. Humphreys returned to Philadelphia and restarted the Ledger during the nine-month occupation. James Robertson came down from New York to produce a Royal Pennsylvania Gazette from March to May 1778. When the British left Philadelphia in May, Humphreys closed the Ledger and went along. Apparently attached to the city no matter the political climate, Towne turned his coat back again toward the Revolution and kept his paper alive. Towne’s navigation of choppy political waters earned him disdain among Whigs but not permanent banishment. The Evening Post would soon have the distinction of becoming America’s first daily newspaper. The Gazette and Journal returned from the countryside after the British evacuated, although Thomas Bradford took over production from his aging father who had reprised his role as printer-turned-officer when the British occupied Philadelphia. Later in the war, two volatile prints appeared in Philadelphia, Francis Bailey’s Freeman’s Journal and Eleazer Oswald’s Independent Gazette, which were each attached to political factions surrounding the Pennsylvania constitution. Bailey had previously published the United States Magazine in Philadelphia, which was edited by Hugh Henry Brackenridge and featured the poetry of Philip Freneau.
In Baltimore, the Goddards’ Maryland Journal was constant. Founded by William Goddard but operated by his sister Mary, the Maryland Journal maintained active publishing throughout the war, although it declined in importance after William Goddard backed Charles Lee in his dispute with Washington over the conduct of the war. In 1779, Mary took on Eleazer Oswald as a partner, which lasted for two years before he left for Philadelphia to begin the Independent Gazetteer. A second paper in Baltimore ran from May 1775 to September 1778, called Dunlap’s Maryland Gazette. James Hayes subsequently took over for Dunlap and continued it in Baltimore for a year. Another of the Connecticut Green printers, Jonas Green, had established a Maryland Gazette in Annapolis in 1745. During the war it was an important paper operated by his son Frederick (after his wife Anne Catherine had kept it active for five years in the 1760s–1770s). It too suffered a sixteen-month suspension from December 1777 to April 1779.
Confusion reigns about Revolutionary newspapers in 18th-century Virginia because they all shared the same name. In April 1775 there were four Virginia Gazettes, three in Williamsburg and one in Norfolk. John Pinkney had inherited a press from Clementina Rind in 1774, which he operated in Williamsburg until February 3, 1776. Alexander Purdie, a Scot, had a paper that he ran from early 1775 until his death in April 1779, when his nephew John Clarkson and one of Purdie’s printers, Augustine Davis, continued the press until December 1780. John Dixon and William Hunter operated one Virginia Gazette that had been established in 1751. When Hunter decided to throw his lot in with the British in December 1778, Dixon (who would eventually become mayor of Williamsburg) took on a new partner, Thomas Nicholson, and continued until April 1780. British invasions that year wreaked havoc on the press. Clarkson and Davis’s Gazette folded and Dixon and Nicholson transferred their operation to the safety of Richmond, where they would print until May 1781. The surrender of Cornwallis allowed the submerged press to resurface, and two new versions of the Virginia Gazette appeared in Richmond at the end of 1781: one by Nicholson and William Prentis, and a second by James Hayes.
In the Deep South, newspaper coverage was sparse. North Carolina boasted two papers in 1775, the Cape Fear Mercury and North Carolina Gazette. Since copies of neither have been well preserved, the best estimate is that the Wilmington Cape Fear Mercury ceased publication in September 1775. Shortly afterwards, its printer, Adam Boyd, joined the Continental Army. A second paper, the North Carolina Gazette, was printed sporadically by James Davis in New Bern until November 1778. James Johnston operated the only paper in Georgia, Savannah’s Georgia Gazette, beginning in 1763. Apparently disaffected to the Revolution, Johnston discontinued the paper in February 1776, only to revive it as the Royal Georgia Gazette in January 1779 after the British occupied the city. He maintained that paper until the British evacuated in 1782 but was able to stay in Savannah when his name was placed on a list of those loyalists who were allowed to remain if they paid a fine. In January 1783, he established the Gazette of the State of Georgia.
The presence of the British Army in South Carolina interfered with newspaper production more than anywhere else. Whereas printers in New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island adjusted their production to the upheaval of war, Charleston printers did not. After 1780, no pro-American newspaper was published south of Williamsburg. The impact of this print vacuum is seldom appreciated (because difficult to quantify) in scholars’ interpretations for why the war in the south turned into a brutal civil war in the early 1780s. If print was essential to organizing and garnering support for the war in the 1770s in the northern and middle colonies, then it stands to reason that the lack of it in the south—or the robust appearance of British papers—also contributed to the fraying of patriot support in the Deep South. Three papers reported the news of Lexington, Peter Timothy’s South Carolina Gazette, the South Carolina & American General Gazette printed by Robert Wells and his son John, and Charles Crouch’s South Carolina Gazette & Country Journal. Soon after word of war in Massachusetts reached South Carolina, the conflict’s effects began to take their toll. Robert Wells left for England right away, never to return. In August 1775, Crouch discontinued the Country Journal and subsequently died en route to New York. Timothy, Crouch’s brother-in-law, the most ardently Whig of the South Carolina printers, and the son of another Franklin apprentice, also folded his shop in December 1775. John Wells Jr. alone carried on publication, invasion scares in 1776 and 1779 notwithstanding. Timothy returned with a new name, the Gazette of the State of South Carolina, in April 1777, giving the Revolutionaries two organs in the South—until the British siege disrupted everything in early 1780. When the city fell in March Timothy was taken prisoner and sent to St. Augustine. The following year he would perish in a sea accident. Despite the fact that he had purposely added “Jr.” to his name in order to distance himself from his loyalist family and had fought at Savannah in 1779, John Wells Jr. decided to protect his property by remaining in Charleston and his paper became the Royal Gazette. After the war this decision forced him to take his press to Nassau and found the Bahama Gazette. New York printer James Robertson arrived with Cornwallis and, along with two partners, established the Royal South Carolina Gazette in June 1780. Both Wells and Robertson’s papers ran as long as the British occupation.
By 1783, the travails of war (especially in the South) had diminished the number of newspapers to thirty, with twelve in New England and thirteen in the middle states. Several printers had managed to weather the storm and kept turning out papers for subscribers. New titles also emerged by war’s end, most notably Eleazer Oswald’s radical Independent Gazetteer, one of the only Philadelphia newspapers to publish criticisms of the Constitution in 1788. In the first years of the “more perfect union,” however, the appearance of new newspapers exploded, with an average of twenty separate papers being founded in each year of the early republic, a massive efflorescence aided in part by their being subsidized by the federal government in the form of low postal rates. Print in the 1790s would be far more specialized, with printers becoming even more embedded in professional politics.17
Discussion of the Literature
Ever since the early historian of the Revolution David Ramsay made his 1789 pronouncement about the “pen and press” having “merit equal to that of the sword,” print has enjoyed a central place in interpretations of the Revolution’s causes and consequences. Whiggish nationalist historians in the 19th century celebrated print as a carrier of the Revolution’s noble ideas and high-minded principles. Skeptical, Progressive historians in the early decades of the 1900s argued that newspapers and pamphlets were rather simply mechanisms of self-interested politicians. They were not carriers of ideals but rather tools of propaganda to dupe an unsuspecting public into ratifying policies that lined the pockets of political and economic elites. Samuel Adams, according to John C. Miller’s 1936 book Sam Adams: Pioneer in Propaganda, manipulated print to get the Boston crowds to do his bidding. In his 1940 study Propaganda and the American Revolution, Philip Davidson contended that because the Revolution was “at best but the work of an aggressive minority,” patriot leaders needed a “conscious, systemic effort” (xiv)—to convince the public to follow their lead. One Progressive historian, Arthur Meier Schlesinger, published a central text about the role of print in the Revolution in 1957. His Prelude to Independence moved past the instrumental Progressive interpretation that saw the patriots as false prophets. For Schlesinger, the printers were essential to moving the Revolution forward, and they also believed in the broader deals articulated in the newspaper essays and pamphlets that they sent forth from their print shops each week.
In the 1960s, Bernard Bailyn, himself reacting against the Progressive interpretation of self-interest and conflict, planned a major study of the ideology that underpinned the prodigious number of political pamphlets that appeared during the imperial crisis, the first volume of which, Pamphlets of the American Revolution, 1750–1765 appeared in 1965. Two years later, Bailyn extended this interpretation in a celebrated, prize-winning volume titled Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, which not only took ideas seriously (and not merely dismissing the pamphlets as empty expressions of propaganda), but also by implication the medium in which they appeared as well. A few years later, the American Antiquarian Society—the central repository for early American print since its founding in 1812—invited Bailyn to coedit a volume of essays on print and press freedom in commemoration of the bicentennial, which was soon published with the title The Press and the American Revolution. One of the essayists in that volume, Stephen Botein, had recently published an extended, seminal essay in the journal Perspectives in American History, entitled “‘Meer Mechanics’ and an Open Press: The Business and Political Practices of Colonial American Printers.”
In 2001, Jeffrey Pasley, a former news reporter turned historian, published “The Tyranny of Printers,” a study that took the efforts of newspaper publishers very seriously and at their word. Pasley sought not to explain the role of press in the Revolution but used the 1770s as his starting point to explore the central role of newspaper printers in the political life of the early American republic, especially in the creation of political parties. For Pasley, the Revolution did not lead to the politicization of newspapers or their printers as previous historians suggested, instead pointing to the 1790s as the turning point rather than the 1760s. For him, it was the preferences of the public at large that encouraged precarious printers to choose sides in the Revolution rather than the printers’ own political principles.
In the face of all these studies that took Ramsay’s aphorism as a starting point, in 2007 Trish Loughran published The Republic in Print. Loughran argued that the ability of print to carry ideas as previous historians asserted was impossible in the 1700s. Lacking industrialized, steam-powered presses, there was simply no way hundreds of thousands of people read Common Sense in 1776, she argued. The capacity to produce and deliver the number of texts that would be required for print to do what historians suggested it did (i.e., cause and sustain the Revolution) was not viable in the 1770s. An iconoclastic study, The Republic in Print offers the first major dissent in more than two centuries about whether print was indeed central (for good or ill) in the coming and consequences of the American Revolution. Loughran’s emphasis on materiality is refreshing, but it suffers from postindustrial expectations. Although it is certainly wise to doubt Tom Paine’s boasts of hundreds of thousands of copies of Common Sense flooding every household in America, that should not translate into interpretations that print—in its preindustrial, hand-pressed, horse-carried form—was therefore scarce and ineffective. Print’s influence was hardly limited to the initial purchaser or reader, but was often shared in taverns, coffeehouses, and other public spaces, where it also crossed into oral cultures. A final word on Loughran’s iconoclasm should come from Ambrose Serle, a member of Lord Howe’s staff when the British occupied New York City in 1776. In a letter back to the British secretary of state, Serle opined “among other engines, which have raised the present commotions none has had a more extensive or stronger influence than the Newspapers of the respective colonies. One is astonished to see with what Avidity they are sought after, and how implicitly they are believed by the great Bulk of the People.”18 Serle believed the biggest mistake the British had made was not taking print seriously. He soon started a royalist newspaper in New York City to rectify this blunder. Serle, for one, would be quite surprised to read Loughran’s book.
Literary scholar Russ Castronovo’s book Propaganda 1776 embraces the old problem of propaganda once again, but instead of seeing the patriots in 20th-century guises (Sam Adams as America’s Joseph Goebbels), he sees them as propagators—a useful term that 18th-century farmers would have recognized. They used print to grow more patriots. According to Castronovo, the particular nature of print, with its inherent ability to carry emotion over wide spaces, pushed the Revolution faster than it might have gone otherwise. Here, it seems, the interpretation of print as a genuine motivator of hearts and minds at the heart of the Revolutionary movement has returned to a position in the historiography that David Ramsay would appreciate.
Relevant primary sources include: Clarence Brigham, History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690–1820 (2 vols., Worcester, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 1947); Charles Lathem, ed., Chronological Tables of American Newspapers, 1690–1850 (Barre, MA: American Antiquarian Society and Barre Publishers, 1972); Frank Moore, The Diary of the American Revolution, 1775–1781 (New York: Washington Square Press, 1967 ); and Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America, With a Biography of Printers & An Account of Newspapers (New York: Weathervane Press, 1970 ).
Links to Digital Materials
American Archives: documents from 1774 to 1776, including many letters that would become newspaper “reports,” compiled by Peter Force in the 1830s–1840s.
American Historical Newspapers (Readex; by subscription)
Rag Linen: collector Todd Andrlik’s blog on Revolutionary era newspapers, including many images.
Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans, 1639-1800 (Readex; by subscription)
Historical Periodicals Collection, 1691-1820 (EBSCO; by subscription)
The Sid Lapidus '59 Collection on Liberty and the American Revolution: collection of 150 pamphlets of the American Revolution, of which 74 are scanned and available at Princeton University Digital Library.
“The Coming of the Revolution, 1764-1776”: an online exhibit by the Massachusetts Historical Society, containing many printed images.
- Amory, Hugh, and David D. Hall, eds. A History of the Book in America: Volume 1: The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
- Bailyn, Bernard. Pamphlets of the American Revolution, 1750–1765. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.
- Bailyn, Bernard, and John B. Hench, eds. The Press and the American Revolution. Worcester, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 1980.
- Botein, Stephen. “‘Meer Mechanics’ and an Open Press: The Business and Political Strategies of Colonial American Printers.” Perspectives in American History 9 (1975): 127–225.
- Castronovo, Russ. Propaganda 1776: Secrets, Leaks, and Revolutionary Communication in Early America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
- Clark, Charles E. The Public Prints: The Newspaper in Anglo-American Culture, 1665–1740. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
- Davidson, Philip. Propaganda and the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1940.
- Loughran, Trish. The Republic in Print: Print Culture in the Age of U.S. Nation Building, 1770–1870. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.
- Monaghan, E. Jennifer. Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005.
- Pasley, Jeffrey L. “The Tyranny of Printers”: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001.
- Schlesinger, Arthur Meier, Sr. Prelude to Independence: The Newspaper War on Britain, 1764–1776. New York: Vintage, 1957.
- Warner, Michael. The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.
1. David Ramsay, The History of the American Revolution, ed. Lester H. Cohen, 2 vols. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1990), vol. 2, 633–634. Originally published in 1789.
2. Bernard Bailyn, Pamphlets of the American Revolution, 1750–1776 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965), vii, 8.
4. David D. Hall, “The Atlantic Economy in the Eighteenth Century,” in A History of the Book in America: Volume 1: The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World, ed. Hugh Amory and David D. Hall (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 155, 163.
5. Stephen Botein, “‘Meer Mechanics’ and an Open Press: The Business and Political Strategies of Colonial American Printers,” Perspectives in American History 9 (1975): 150–151.
6. Charles E. Clark, “Early American Journalism: News and Opinion in the Popular Press,” in History of the Book in America, ed. Amory and Hall, vol. 1, 359.
7. Botein, “Meer Mechanics,” 211–225.
8. For more see Hiller Zobel, The Boston Massacre (New York: Norton, 1970), 66–67, and Richard Archer, As If an Enemy’s Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 147–148.
9. Boston Gazette, February 1, 1768.
10. Zobel, Boston Massacre, 152–163; Archer, As If an Enemy’s Country, 162–163; and Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., Prelude to Independence: The Newspaper War on Britain, 1764–1776 (New York: Vintage, 1957), 105–108.
11. Michael Warner, The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), 34–72.
12. Schlesinger, Prelude to Independence, 257.
13. Memorial of Samuel Loudon to the New York Committee of Safety, 20 March 1776, in American Archives 4th series, ed. Peter Force (Washington, DC, 1839), vol. 5, 439.
15. Thomas C. Leonard, “News for a Revolution: The Exposé in America, 1768–1773,” Journal of American History 67 (June 1980): 26–40.
16. Benjamin Franklin to Richard Price, Passy, 13 June 1782, in Papers of Benjamin Franklin, ed. William Wilcox (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959–), vol. 37, 472–473.
17. Pasley, “Tyranny of Printers,” 47–48, 404.
18. Ambrose Serle to the Earl of Dartmouth, 25 July 1776, in Facsimiles of Manuscripts in European Archives Relating to America, 1773–1783, ed. Benjamin F. Stevens (Wilmington, DE: Mellifont, 1970), vol. 24, 2040–2046.