Newspapers in America
Before the Era of the Revolution

 E Pluribus Unum

 

 

Looking back in 1910 on his years as a printer during the period before and during the American Revolution, Isaiah Thomas noted:

It was common for printers of newspapers to subjoin to their titles 'Containing the freshest Advices both Foreign and Domestick;' but gazettes and journals are now chiefly filled with political essays. News do not appear to be always the first object of editors, and, of course, 'containing the freshest advices,' &c., is too often out of the question.

As you can see below, not even Thomas could resist making that claim in his "Boston Gazette."

By the 1770's, a network of colonial postmasters had been established and these men often received copies of foreign publications as part of their work as well as having access to the newspapers to be delivered to subscribers in their area. For these reasons the postmaster was often the one to establish the first newspaper in a town, and he would fill his publication with "intelligence" gleaned from overseas journals and from newsletters exchanged with other postmaster-printers. As two enterprising printers announced in their 1775 prospectus for the Pennsylvania Mercury that intended to offer "a Relation of the most remarkable and important Occurrences, Foreign and Domestic, collected from the Magazines and Papers in Europe and America, as well as from other Sources."

 

--To communicate Advertisements of every Kind--the Arrival and Departure of Ships--All interesting marine Intelligence--Improvements in Agriculture, &c. &c. with such ingenious Observations as may tend to the Entertainment of the Public--Nor shall a Place be wanting for judicious Remarks, Essays, Moral, Historical, Political, Geographical, and Poetical of the Learned of both Sexes, in this and the neighbouring Provinces, whose general Assistance is earnestly requested, and to whom the Paper shall be ever free, and their Productions received with Gratitude--Fully intending to establish a Correspondence in Europe, the several Colonies in America, and Islands in the West-Indies.

 


What Qualified as "News"

Several characteristics of late eighteenth century newspapers are immediately evident from the prospectus above. Intelligence of matters "Foreign and Domestic, collected from the Magazines and Papers in Europe and America" was intended to provide one of the main sources of content for newspapers. Although the more respected newspapers of today claim to privilege "objective" reporting of events, with journalists' commentaries limited to the editorial sections of the paper and the remarks of others confined within the restraints of the "letters to the editor" column, the late eighteenth century newspaper offered a lively mélange of "intelligence" from a variety of sources. As Patricia Bradley notes in her disssertation, Slavery in Colonial Newspapers on the Eve of the Revolution, 1770-1776 (Ann Arbor, 1988):

At a time when formal channels of news were not plentiful, British and American periodicals frequently used hearsay and gossip in their news columns, items appearing as 'an extract from a Letter" or 'Our correspondent observes.' These items were likely to express the opinion, interpretation or concern of the particular writer."

Colonial editors transcribed the British press accounts verbatim to their own pages, frequently including all the versions available from the British periodicals they received. Although that coverage might include biased and inaccurate versions, no one version dominated because other coverage was available in the same newspaper. (62-3)

It was not unusual, in fact, for a newspaper early in the revolutionary period to publish several accounts of even an event as controversial as the Battle of Concord and Lexington, offering not only different sets of facts but also contrasting viewpoints.


See At Other Sites:

The Story of The New England Courant (where Benjamin Franklin began his trade) and sample issues from the 1720's

All the News? The American Revolution and Maryland’s Press -- A wonderful collection of Maryland newspapers from the 1760's and 1770's available in Adobe Acrobat (.pdf) form.

History Buff: The First Ten Newspapers Printed in America (Note: gives insight into newspapers as business enterprises, personal expression, and political tools.)

The Newspaper Library Web Catalogue The British Library Newspaper Library

Concise History of the British Newspaper The British Library Newspaper Library

All-American: Colonial Journalism 1607-1783

The History of Printing
 
Part II Journalism Index
 
 
Two pages from an unidentified Boston newspaper for the week of July 4, 1776

The Popular Press in New Hampshire 1756-1800, an online exhibit from the Department of Special Collections of the University of New Hampshire

Printing in New Jersey


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.