Issues of the press seem increasingly relevant in light of the recent U.S. presidential election. At its best, the press can play a critical role in informing, educating, and shaping the public’s thoughts—just as it did at the time of the nation’s founding. In fact, the press was so crucial in those early days that David Ramsay, one of the first historians of the American Revolution, wrote that: “In establishing American independence, the pen and press had merit equal to that of the sword.” To illustrate the influential role of the press in the formation of the United States, we’ve pulled out some interesting highlights from Robert G. Parkinson’s article, “Print, the Press, and the American Revolution,” for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History.
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. 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.
Pamphlets became strategic conveyors of ideas during the imperial crisis
Often written by elites under pseudonyms, pamphlets 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.”
The concept of anonymity transformed 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. 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.
Printers 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.
Publishing loyalist pamphlets could have been dangerous for those who opposed the revolution.
Printers 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.
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. 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.” They warned Loudon to stop publishing the pamphlet, or else his “personal safety might be endangered.”
(Loyalists) Mein and Fleeming sought to embarrass the Sons of Liberty … 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. 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.
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 and 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.
Featured image credit: “Join, or Die” by Benjamin Franklin. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.