The American Revolution and the Press: The Promise of Independence

The American Revolution and the Press: The Promise of Independence

by Carol Sue Humphrey

Finalist, 2014 AEJMC Tankard Book Award

Carol Sue Humphrey’s The American Revolution and the Pressargues that newspapers played an important role during America’s struggle for independence by keeping Americans engaged in the war even when the fighting occurred in distant locales. From the moment that the colonials received word of Britain’

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Finalist, 2014 AEJMC Tankard Book Award

Carol Sue Humphrey’s The American Revolution and the Pressargues that newspapers played an important role during America’s struggle for independence by keeping Americans engaged in the war even when the fighting occurred in distant locales. From the moment that the colonials received word of Britain’s new taxes in 1764 until reports of the peace treaty arrived in 1783, the press constituted the major source of information about events and developments in the conflict with the mother country. Both Benjamin Franklin, one of the Revolution’s greatest leaders, and Ambrose Serle, a Loyalist, described the press as an “engine” that should be used to advance the cause. The efforts of Patriot printers to keep readers informed about the war helped ensure ultimate success by boosting morale and rallying Americans to the cause until victory was achieved. As Humphrey illustrates, Revolutionary-era newspapers provided the political and ideological unity that helped Americans secure their independence and create a new nation.

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Northwestern University Press
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By Carol Sue Humphrey

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2013 Northwestern University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8101-2650-3



On July 4, 1776, one of the most celebrated events in American history occurred in Philadelphia. On that day, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, explaining why the thirteen colonies had chosen to break away from Great Britain. The members of the Congress believed that it was very important to present their reasons for declaring independence in a public, written format. From the very beginning of the disagreements with Britain, published materials had played a central role in presenting the various arguments over taxes and the rights of the colonials, and would continue to be important throughout the American Revolution. Of particular importance were the newspapers published on a regular basis from Maine to Georgia. Americans either sought out copies of the newspapers themselves or went someplace where they could hear them being read aloud. Newspapers were the major source of information about what was happening elsewhere in the colonies.

Historians have long studied and discussed the factors that led to the American Revolution, and they have always given ample credit for the success of the revolt to the press, and particularly the newspapers, for their efforts during the conflict. Even those historians who wrote in the years immediately after the war praised the press for its many contributions to ultimate victory. In discussing the Stamp Act and its impact on New Hampshire, Jeremy Belknap declared that the newspapers were "filled with essays, in which every plea for and against the new duties was amply discussed." Another of the earliest historians of the American Revolution, David Ramsay of Charleston, South Carolina, affirmed that "in establishing American independence, the pen and the press had a merit equal to that of the sword." Yet, although scholars have agreed that the newspapers played an important part in the move toward independence, they have disagreed on the exact nature of that role. Some of these debates have grown out of discussions of how newspapers were produced. Today, the jobs of printer, editor, and publisher are filled by separate individuals, but one person often did most or all of these jobs in the eighteenth century. Thus, over the years, studies have credited eighteenth-century journalists with everything from providing part of the building blocks for American democracy to establishing the beginnings of professional journalism in the United States; from fueling a class conflict between those in and out of power to serving as a reflector of the growing unity that existed in the American colonies long before the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord.

In general, there are five different views of the role of the mass media during the Revolutionary War. The nationalist/romantic schools dominated prior to the Civil War. The developmental school, which came to prominence after the Civil War, has proved the most pervasive and continues to be the most dominant interpretation. The progressive school appeared in the early twentieth century, but has remained influential since that time. The consensus and cultural schools both appeared following the Second World War. Obviously, these groups overlap, but each has certain characteristics that differentiate it from the other outlooks. All of these groups have impacted how we think about the influence and impact of newspapers in winning American independence from Great Britain.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, historians emphasized the patriotism of the printers in their efforts to help America establish its republican system of government as a model for the rest of the world to follow. These scholars are often classified as nationalist or romantic in their outlook and conclusions. For these historians, the American colonies had an important role to play in making the world a better place to live through the spread of democracy and freedom, and the newspapers served well in helping to bring about the break with Great Britain that led to these developments.

Much of the history written by these historians discussed the "great men" of journalism who worked during the American Revolution. The emphasis was on the importance of individuals in creating American mass media that kept the people informed on the issues involved in the conflict with Great Britain. The historians of this school knew most of the people they wrote about, and some had experienced the American Revolution personally. They believed strongly in the role of the printers in producing the revolt that led to independence.

The stress on "great men" is most clearly seen in the work of Isaiah Thomas and Joseph Buckingham. Both of these men are very important in the history of American journalism because of their efforts to preserve the records of the work of printers during the American Revolution. Both placed particular importance in their histories on the Boston Gazette and its publishers, especially Benjamin Edes. Thomas was himself a printer of note during the Revolution, but in his The History of Printing in America, he cites Edes and the Gazette as being extremely important in the move toward independence: "No publisher of a newspaper felt a greater interest in the establishment of the independence of the United States than Benjamin Edes; and no newspaper was more instrumental in bringing forward this important event than The Boston Gazette." Thomas's book was the first major history of American journalism and is worth reading by modern historians because it offers useful insights and many interesting stories about the era of the American Revolution, and is an essential resource for anyone studying the role of newspapers during the Revolutionary era. Thomas is also important in the early history of American journalism because of his efforts to preserve the actual records of the newspaper press from the Revolutionary era. He personally saved many of the newspapers he received through the regular exchange system engaged in by printers during the eighteenth century. He also founded the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1812, as an organization that worked to preserve the historical documents that showed the first century of the development of the mass media in America.

Joseph Buckingham sought to preserve the journalistic record of the American Revolution by republishing it in a book that would be easily available to the general American public. His Specimens of Newspaper Literature also credited Benjamin Edes and his supporters with an important role in America's fight for freedom and independence. He praised the Gazette's writers as a patriotic group that produced many pieces that urged the colonials to stand up to the British government. According to Buckingham, "One united spirit of hostility to the arbitrary exercise of power and prerogative pervaded their minds, and each seemed strengthened and invigorated by contact with another." This unity of spirit and encouragement of one another enabled the writers in the pages of the Boston Gazette to lead others in America to unite in their fight against Great Britain.

As a group, the nationalist/romantic historians had a major impact on our understanding of the role of newspapers during the American Revolution because they preserved so much material that later historians have used for their own research. But these writers also perceived only good in the various efforts of the press of the Revolutionary era. The fact that these historians either experienced the American Revolution directly or knew the people who did made it more difficult for them to see any problems or concerns about the role of the press during the colonies' fight for independence. These historians continually emphasized the importance of the newspapers in bringing on the revolt against British tyranny and praised the printers for their loyalty and patriotism in the fight for liberty and independence.

Following the Civil War, the first generation of professionally trained historians began to produce studies of American history. These writers slowly moved away from the focus on "great men" to produce a more general overview of how the press had grown and developed over time. They thus helped us deepen our understanding of American history beyond a study of individuals to a broader consideration of trends and developments. Influenced by an increasing emphasis on the validity of science and its techniques, these scholars underscored the organic nature of the development of the United States and its institutions. Most historians of American journalism continued to be working journalists (as Thomas and Buckingham had been), but they were influenced by the changes in the newspaper—and how it was produced—that arose in the early nineteenth century. These historians increasingly stressed the professional development of the press, underscoring the origin of the mass media and their progress toward "proper" practices such as an emphasis on news and timeliness. Most of these authors emphasized journalistic "firsts" and, as a result, often still dealt with individual newspapers and publishers rather than the industry as a whole. But their focus pushed their readers to think beyond a handful of individuals to a broader consideration of changes in journalism that affected everyone in the business. This interpretation became the most popular among historians of newspapers and the press and has remained strong for well over a hundred years.

Prominent among the advocates of this interpretation were several authors who produced important surveys of the history of American journalism. This group included such historians as Frederic Hudson, James Melvin Lee, Willard Grosvenor Bleyer, and Robert W. Jones. All of them emphasized the impact of the Revolutionary War in the development of the American press from a trade into a profession, and the influential role the newspapers played in the American Revolution itself. According to Bleyer, the weekly newspapers "played their part in developing a feeling of solidarity among the colonists in the struggle against the mother country" and "the protracted struggle between the colonies and the mother country from 1765 to 1783 demonstrated the value of the press as a means of influencing public opinion." Jones concluded that "the position of the newspaper publisher was now one of greater importance because of the prestige resulting from the success of the Revolutionary War." All of these authors emphasized specific papers and people that they considered to be important, but they also focused on the various changes in all newspapers and their production that occurred during the American Revolution.

The most important member of the developmental school was Frank Luther Mott, the author of one of the dominant twentieth-century survey histories of American journalism. In many ways, Mott's efforts constituted the height of the dominance of the ideas of the developmental school. In his studies of the American Revolution, he emphasized that deepening public interest in American political affairs as the conflict with Great Britain intensified led to greater influence and prestige for the press. Particularly important in this increase in influence and prestige were the efforts of the mass media during the Stamp Act crisis. Because of the successful fight against the Stamp Act in 1765, colonial leaders "respected this new power" and realized the possibilities for influencing people that the newspapers offered. Mott concluded that "by the end of the war journalism had made a distinct gain in prestige." He also stressed the importance of how news was acquired during the American Revolution. In an important article published in the Journalism Quarterly in 1944, Mott traced the spread of the news of the battles of Lexington and Concord through the pages of the colonial newspapers, showing that it took six weeks for the news of the battle to appear in all the newspapers throughout the colonies. But Mott also showed that modern sensibilities of the timeliness of news did not really function in the eighteenth century. The slowness of the mail and other modes of communication meant that three to six weeks for news to spread throughout the colonies represented a timely sharing of information for that period. But even though communication of important events through the newspapers took longer than modern readers would be comfortable with, Mott's work emphasized the growing importance of the mass media as major sources of information as the colonials successfully broke away from Great Britain.

Many other historians have adopted the developmental interpretation of the role of the press in the American Revolution. The result has been a number of studies by authors such as Albert Carlos Bates and Rollo G. Silver that emphasized the growth of American journalism primarily through the study and comparison of the careers of individual people and the records of individual newspapers. C. M. Thomas studied the press of the Revolutionary era by reviewing the careers of three New York printers: John Holt, James Rivington, and Hugh Gaine. He concluded that most American printers in the 1760s and 1770s were good at their jobs, but only those who supported the Patriot cause have been remembered. Capable printers such as Rivington and Gaine "chose the side that lost and were lost with it," though they too played an important part in the growth, development, and improvement of the American press in the eighteenth century.

The developmental outlook has also produced important studies of specific roles that the press generally plays, particularly in the development of the editorial function. Jim A. Hart emphasized the growing use of editorial opinion in the newspapers published during the American Revolution. Before the Revolution, opinions typically took the form of letters and essays from contributors, but Hart concluded that at this time "the first strains of the editorial ... appeared occasionally." In a similar vein, John M. Harrison concluded that Revolutionary newspaper contributors constituted "the first editorial writers in the American press, establishing one of the primary functions of newspapers as they were to develop in the United States." According to these historians, the printers of the newspapers of the Revolutionary era played an essential role in developing what has become one of the most recognized and widely accepted functions of the mass media, that of expressing opinions about public developments and events through editorials. Journalism historians who accept the developmental interpretation have often emphasized the growing business acumen and professionalism of the Revolutionary-era printers and the resulting improvements in the mass media that developed during the war. Because of this interest, these historians have appreciated printers' efforts to be good newspapermen and businessmen first and Patriots or Loyalists second. Both Alfred McClung Lee, in a study of printing partners John Dunlap and David C. Claypoole of Philadelphia, and Sidney I. Pomerantz, in a study of the press of New York and New Jersey, concluded that the Revolutionary-era printers were good businessmen who tried to operate their establishments as well as possible. Pomerantz discussed the challenges faced by Loyalist printers Hugh Gaine, James Rivington, and James Robertson, but focused most of his attention on Patriot printers John Holt, Samuel Loudon, Isaac Collins, and Shepard Kollock. Pomerantz praised the men he studied for helping the Revolutionary cause "while observing the canons of journalistic conduct all too often forgotten in wartime." In a study of James Rivington, Robert M. Ours lamented that Rivington has not been remembered for his contributions to American journalism: "Rivington's direct legacy to American journalism was virtually nil—largely because of his reputation as a Tory liar. That was unfortunate, because his newspaper was one of the better ones in the colonies in the early months of its existence. Rivington had an excellent pattern to offer journalists in his policies regarding impartiality and freedom of the press. The evidence is strong that he tried to adhere to his announced policies. That he failed in the long run was largely the result of wartime pressures and polarization." Ours urged his readers to look beyond Rivington's political stance to recognize his major contributions to the development of newspapers in the United States.

As a group, the developmental historians have continued to emphasize the growth and development of American journalism during the American Revolution, placing particular emphasis on the increasing professionalism of eighteenth-century printers. The American Revolution provided the impetus for colonial printers to become more aware of the potential of their publications, particularly their weekly newspapers. The developmental scholars emphasize this growing awareness among eighteenth-century printers. These historians show the conflict with Great Britain as an essential piece in the press's move from being primarily a source of information to also serving as a medium that influenced public opinion, a move that was necessary if American journalism was to develop into the powerful instrument that it became in the nineteenth century.

After 1900 historians presented a new interpretation of American history that came to be reflected in journalism history. In an era concerned with inequities and the lack of unity in American society in the twentieth century, the progressive historians emphasized the presence of conflict from the initial settlement of the colonies down to the present. Most of the disagreements and arguments occurred between different classes of people or geographic sections in the American colonies, but the Revolutionary era represented a period of both internal and external troubles. Divisions existed both between groups within the colonies and between the colonies and Great Britain. In this environment, the press played an important role in encouraging and carrying out a crusade for change. In pushing for alterations in the relationship between the colonies and Great Britain, the mass media often helped to accentuate the differences and thus helped to make the divisions grow and become worse.

Excerpted from THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION AND THE PRESS by Carol Sue Humphrey. Copyright © 2013 Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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