Not Just the News:
A War of Letters, Pamphlets, & Sermons

 E Pluribus Unum



Although we usually think of newspapers and books as being the main products of printing, there are many other types of texts that are part of print culture. Americans in the Revolutionary era exploited every possible mode of print to persuade readers to support their cause. As Bernard Bailyn explains in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution:

Whatever deficiencies the leaders of the American Revolution may have had, reticence, fortunately, was not one of them. They wrote easily and amply, and turned out in the space of scarcely a decade and a half and from a small number of presses a rich literature of theory, argument, opinion, and polemic. Every medium of written expression was put to use. The newspapers, of which by 175 there were thirty-eight in the mainland colonies, were crowded with columns of arguments and counter-arguments appearing as letters, official documents, extracts of speeches, and sermons. Broadsides -- single sheets on which were often printed not only large-letter notices but, in three or four columns of miniscule type, essays of several thousand words -- appeared everywhere; they could be found posted or passing from hand to hand in the towns of every colony. Almanacs, workaday publications usually available in the colonies, carried, in odd corners and occasional columns, a considerable freight of political comment. Above all, there were 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 -- the pages stitched together loosely, unbound and uncovered -- usually for a shilling or two.

[The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Enlarged Edition, Bernard Bailyn, (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1992), 1-2.]

Among the most typical modes of communication in 1770's America were letters, sermons, speeches and meetings, pamphlets, broadsides, newspapers, and magazines. A person in the 1770s might well have read broadsides and pamphlets regularly. That same person might periodically participate in discussions at civic meetings, and listen to or even deliver a speech.

Mode of


in Which Disseminated


Political Speeches

Ceremonial Speeches


Courtroom Oratory


Either read/delivered orally from manuscript notes or text, or done extemporaneously. Typically, most Puritan divines would speak from prepared text, while clergy of other sects and particularly Evangelicals would be more likely to speak extemporaneously. Many political speeches delivered at assemblies and other meetings would have been extemporaneous, but it depended to some extent on the situation and the speaker.

Notes on sermons and other speeches were sometimes outlined by hand by listeners into notebooks used for those purposes.

Speeches were sometimes passed on by word-of-mouth and through personal letters.

Sometimes published in newspapers, almanacs, broadsides, pamphlets; and/or books.




Read aloud by rider (for example, Paul Revere on his famous ride), by town crier, or by leaders to members of a group (for example, from general to army.) For an example, look at this description of how Standing Orders were circulated in the Revolutionary army.
Informal oral exchanges of information and ideas among friends or acquaintances at home or on visits to friends, businesses, church, and taverns. Taverns were one place at which people were sometimes able to converse with travelers from outside their own areas.


Informal Letters
Letters to family, friends, and other acquaintances made it possible for people to exchange information from one area to another. It was quite possible to exchange letters with people in England because ships carried mail as well as passengers (who also carried mail). Letters sometimes includes notes or copies of printed material such as pamphlets or newspapers.
A person sometimes invited another individual to start up a formal correspondence on a particular topic as a way of exchanging information and views.

During the revolutionary era, many communities set up "committees of correspondence" in order to promote a regular exchange of information Letters sent to and from these committees may have been read aloud at gatherings and were often printed and disseminated in newspapers and in broadside form. The Report of the Committee of Correspondence to the Boston Town Meeting. November 20, 1772 Sometimes a "committee of correspondence" would issue a broadside in order to communicate with a particular body of people, such as "Pilots" or "Mechanics." Look at this broadside authored by a Mechanic adressing a different class of people.

Debate by
Letter "News
Reports" and
Meeting Reports and
Circular Letters
Diaries, Ledgers. Commonplace Books, "Paper Books"
Legal Documents:
Contracts, Wills, Etc.
Although pamphlets are, in one sense, a format in which many different types of material were eventually circulated, some compositions were designed particularly to function as pamphlets, in the fashion modeled in the "pamphlet wars" that were waged in England during the civil wars there or during other religious and/or civic controversies.

Sometimes with

Could be presented orally by salesperson,
in image and/or print form on sign,
in image and/or print form on broadside,
almanac or newspaper. One example: newspaper mastheads.
Depictions of People, Places,
and Events

Sometimes sketched by individuals into personal diaries, notebooks, and almanacs.

Sometimes printed on broadsides, and in pamphlets, almanacs, newspapers, and books. One good example is Revere's "Boston Massacre"

Sometimes circulated on currency, flags, seals on official documents, coats of arms, and/or printed as broadsides, in newspapers, and incorporated into pamphlets and books usually as part of frontispiece or title page.



Could be composed by a printer or other individual and circulated in the form of a broadside, or could develop as individuals and groups modified the lyrics of a familiar song to suit a new situation. Sometimes songs which arose from the streets was then printed as broadside.


So What? Imagine . . .

The movement of ideas from one mode to another -- from a speech to a letter to a broadside, to a meeting, to a formal motion written into a document, to a newspaper article, to speeches, to letters, to broadsides, to meetings and speeches, to newspaper articles and so forth -- allowed for the development of new ideas and methods of persuasion.

Imagine the following scenario that took place repeatedly (although not in exactly this form) in the 1770s.  A minister in New Hampshire might have delivered a sermon that moved a parishioner to write a letter to a friend in Maryland that prompted the recipient to publish a pamphlet which was reprinted in Connecticut where it inspired a reader to circulate a broadside announcing a meeting where a speech was given that was recounted in a newspaper mailed to Virginia and reprinted as a broadside that was read aloud among a group of people who then wrote a letter to their representatives in the Continental Congress and that incited the delegates to make speeches initiating a debate in that body that led to the drafting a document to be sent to the British. . . and so on and on and on. It would be impossible to follow this sequence of transfers because inherent in this concept is the idea that it is a circuit. The communication -- the civic conversation -- never ends.

What's Happening In This Picture?

An image of "Rhetorica" From Margarita Philosophia, 1508.
Note the way this emblem acknowledges the interconnectedness
of various sources of ideas and information.



See the Communication Circuit in Action:
Look at One Document

Sometimes we can see how the communications circuit worked in eighteenth century America by examining a single document. If you look closely at the broadside below, you will note that an event has been translated into a body of information and ideas put into the form of a letter. You should be able to trace this single sheet of print documents the way that set of information and ideas has been passed along from one person or group to another. You should also be able to identify some of the many forms of communication that are used in the transmission of this material; in the course of the progression of this particular set of information and ideas, letters, verbal conversations, scribal transcriptions, meetings, and print are involved. And what series of communications do you think the printing of this broadside might have initiated?

Image Courtesy of Library of Congress
Click here for full text.

This broadside demonstrates one way print was used to disseminate information during the Revolutionary period.

However, print was not the only means of circulating information and ideas. Examine this artifact to identify other forms of communication that are embedded within this broadside.

To read the document, you should choose to view a medium or large version of the image. To read the text, click here.


Look at the links below and see if you can find examples of the movement between oral, scribal, and printed culture. Can you explain why spoken things might have been printed?

Journals of the Continental Congress for Thursday, May 11, 1775

The Federalist Papers

The Isaac Bickerstaff Predictions
How an early eighteenth century London almanac led to the printing of a broadside, a pamphlet, and another pamphlet in response. A good example of the eighteenth century communications circuit in action.

Here's an example of how the words of John Dickinson, author of Letters of a Farmer, became the lyrics of "The Liberty Song"


Print, Literacy and Power: To 1900 -- A course page for University of California, Berkeley, InfoSys 182AC, Spring 2002 by Mary Kay Duggan, Information Management and Systems. Includes a collection of images of oral and print culture as well as links to useful databases of maps, texts, and other resources.

P.6 Pamphlets; Periodicals; Broadsides; Prints--Communications HistoryPrinters' First Fruits

The Cary Collection An archive that offers an online collection of materials related to the history of print. Most of the resources are images.

Resources by Category


Printers and Printing

Joseph Moxon. Mechanick Exercises. London, 1683. A description of a book that offered explanations of the tools and work of the printer. The Exercises were reprinted in America in 1896. For other notes on this work, see:



Practical and Occult Uses of Astrology in Colonial America
Describes the role of astronomy -- and almanacs -- in early America. Includes a page on the History of Almanacs.

An Early American Almanac
Selected pages from "The Astronomical Diary and Almanac" for 1742.

Pages from Poor Richards Almanac, 1753

Rider's British Merlin, London: 1701
Although this exhibit from Glasgow University describes the evolution of almanacs from the sixteenth century and focuses on one English example, the site provides a very helpful explanation of early almanacs and their uses.

Almanacs and Calendars Page at the Lily Library
Another site on English almanacs with a clear description of their purpose and design.

They Tell Us More Than the Weather: Eighteenth Century American Almanacs
An exhibition checklist from the UCLA Library's Special Collections Department.

Recent Changes in the Farmer's Almanac



The Newspaper Library Web Catalogue The British Library Newspaper Library
Concise History of the British Newspaper The British Library Newspaper Library

The History of Printing

Part II Journalism Index

Two pages from an unidentified Boston newspaper for the week of July 4, 1776

Newspapers at the Colonial Records Project of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History



Exhibit of Broadsides at William and Mary

The Massachusetts Historical Society The Collection Broadsides

Women's Suffrage Broadsides

Magic Lantern Broadsides (Including Light and Dark in Big City)

Broadsides at AAS

An American Time Capsule Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera

Yesterday's News Broadsides Exhibit at the Folger

Index to This Section:

Would there have been an American Revolution Without Newspapers and Mail? The Role of Communications in the American Revolution 

Getting the Word Out: Franklin's Communications Revolutions

The Dangerous Lives of Printers:
The Evolution of Freedom of the Press

Newspapers in America Before the Era of the Revolution

Newspapers in Revolutionary-Era America and the Problems of Patriot and Loyalist Printers

A Patriot Printer and His "Forge of Sedition":
The Story of Isaiah Thomas

The Role of Newspapers in the Revolution:
Isaiah Thomas's The History of Printing in America

Not Just the News:
A War of Letters, Pamphlets, Broadsides, and Sermons

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The E Pluribus Unum Project is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is co-directed by Dr. John McClymer, Professor of History, Assumption College; Dr Lucia Knoles, Professor of English, Assumption College; and Dr. Arnold Pulda, Director of Gifted and Talented student programs for the public schools in Worcester, MA. Visitors are encouraged to send inquiries or suggestions.