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

 E Pluribus Unum



Although the first printing press arrived in America in 1638 - only six years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth -- no newspaper was published in the colonies until sixty-six years later in 1704. In that year, postmaster-bookseller John Campbell printed the first issue of The Boston News Letter. Few newspapers were introduced thereafter until the sudden outburst of journalism that accompanied the approach of the American revolution. Isaiah Thomas, a patriot printer in the revolution, later explained in his landmark work The History of Printing in America:

In 1754, four newspapers only were printed in Newengland; these were all published in Boston, and usually on a small sheet; they were published weekly, and the average number of copies did not exceed six hundred from each press. . . . In 1775, a period of only twenty one years, more copies of a newspaper were issued weekly from the village press at Worcester, Massachusetts, than were printed in all Newengland in 1754; and, one paper now published, contains as much matter as did all the four published in Boston in the year last mentioned.

What happened? Why did the press remain quiet for so long, and how can we account for the rapid growth of newspapers in the 1770s?

The Relationship Between the Struggle for Control of the Press and the Struggle for Rights


Revolutions cannot succeed without effective communication among the people who are rebelling.  Without the existence of a relatively free press, the American Revolution might never have happened.  And interestingly, America owes the development of the free press to the long struggle in England for individual rights.  In 1215, a group of British nobles and clergymen forced the king to limit his powers by signing the Magna Carta. From that point up through the time of the American revolution, English history can be seen as a progression of attempts to expand the rights of the people. At each stage of the struggle, the press was regarded as a bone of contention.  The force in power would attempt to control the press as a means of suppressing rebellion.  And at each stage, a group of printers would defy the laws as a way of contributing to the fight for rights. It is no coincidence, then, that the end of the licensing laws that long controlled printers came shortly after "The Glorious Revolution," when William and Mary agreed to sign the Declaration of Rights as a condition for coming to the throne.

Perhaps one of the best ways of understanding the American revolution is to see it as a continuation of the British struggle for individual rights and a free press.  Thus, to understand the American revolution we need to have an understanding of the interlinked struggle for freedom and a free press that took place in England in the long years leading up to the 1770s. 

English Licensing Acts and
the Evolution of Freedom of the Press

While colonial postmasters were well placed to gather the "intelligence" necessary for printing newspapers, they were also particularly subject to the power of the authorities. As government appointees, postmasters needed to stay in the favor of officials to keep their jobs. If they also operated presses, their incomes were largely dependent on contracts to do official printing for the government. The ongoing struggle between printers and the authorities represents one important story in the larger narrative of the struggle for individual rights in both England and America.  Indeed, the easing of the government's tight control over the press at the end of the seventeenth century probably is one factor that contributed to the success of the revolution. 

We often hear the phrase "The pen is mightier than the sword," but pause for a moment to consider its meaning.   It is difficult for an individual to stand up against a powerful government.  One sword cannot accomplish much in the face of a large army.  Yet, by spreading negative information and opinions about the government, one person has the potential to create a groundswell of dissatisfaction that could weaken the control of those in power.

1275: Criticizing Becomes a Crime

Understanding the power of the pen, British monarchs placed restrictions on the dissemination of information long before the invention of the printing press.  In 1275, "De Scandalis Magnatum" prohibited the distribution of "any false News or Tales, whereby discord, or occasion of discord or slander may grow between the King and his People, or the Great Men of the Realm." [3 Edw. 1, ch. 34 (1275)]. Although this might at first sound like a reasonable way of protecting officials from slander, in fact, the application of "De Scandalis" established the principle that even those who made negative comments about the King or government could be called before a select group of officials without need for any warrant or other legal proceeding even if the comments were truthful. Known as the Star Chamber because of the decor of the room in which they held their proceedings, this tribunal had the power to confer any punishment they pleased for the crime of "endangering the public peace" by criticizing a monarch or other official.

Knowledge is Power and The Printing Press
Threatens to Give Knowledge to the People

If the pen is mightier than the sword, the printing press is certainly mightier than the pen.  Gutenberg's invention of moveable type in the mid-fifteenth century suddenly made it possible to disseminate printed information in a relatively quick and inexpensive fashion among a large and geographically disparate body of readers. The power of the press was immediately evident to those who were accustomed to wielding power by granting privilege or punishment. As one Elizabethan wag put it:

To come to the presse is more dangerous, then to be prest to death, for the payne of those Tortures, last but a few minutes, but he that lyes upon the rack in print, hath his flesh torne off by the teeth of Enuy, and Calumny euen when he means no body any hurt in his graue. (Elizabethan Pamphleteers 30).

By 1585 the Star Chamber ordered that any one who wished to print a book would first need a license. By 1637, "epigram(s) or rhyme(s) in writing sung and repeated in the present of others . . . (or) an ignoninious or shameful painting or sign" were cause for punishment. Attempts to demonstrate the power of the press only led to more strictures, and De Scandalis Magnatum was reenacted in 1554 and later expanded. The licensing act of 1637 placed a limit on the number of printers.  While this rule meant that only a limited number of readers would be able to have access to a limited number of publications, it also insured that only those printers who met government approval would have the opportunity to circulate publications.

1637: Chopping Off Ears and Cheeks
Fails to Keep Printers in Check

It took more than a little courage to challenge the Star Chamber. Consider the case of Prynne, Burton, and Bastwicke, three printers who were found guilty of libel in June, 1637. One of their offenses had been their pronouncement that they would follow the Bible rather than the dictates of a king. (Prynne had already been found guilty of a similar charge five years' earlier and sentenced to stand in the pillory on two occasions, and to have one ear cut off each time. He also lost his university degree, was disbarred, had to pay a fine of 5,000 pounds, and was supposed to be perpetually imprisoned, without books, pen, ink, or paper.). Here is a description of their public punishment:

Mr Burton spake much while in the pillory to the people. The executioner cut off his ears deep and close, in a cruel manner, with much effusion of blood, an artery being cut, as there was likewise of Dr Bastwick. Then Mr Prynne's cheeks were seared with an iron made exceeding hot which done, the executioner cut off one of his ears and a piece of his cheek with it; then hacking the other ear almost off, he left it hanging and went down; but being called up again he cut it quite off. --John Rushworth (1706, abridged edition) Historical Collections volume two, pp. 293


Of course, Prynne had not taken any pains to disguise his disagreements with the King, as is evident from the title page of one of his works shown below.

1640s: The Power of the Press is Briefly Unleashed

When Parliament itself began to vie with the king for control of the country during the English civil war, both sides in the battle hoped to use the press to stir up public support for themselves. In fact, Burton, Prynne and Bastwick were released from prison and celebrated as heroes.  William B. Warner describes the situation clearly when he writes in A Global Mutation in Media:The Invention and Expansion of Print Media:

History ran an early experiment in unlicensed printing: during the English Civil War (1641-1649), when Parliament had won effective control of London and the Stuart monarchy raised its standard at Oxford, England experienced a suspension of the informal system of censorship developed by the Crown and the Stationery's Company in the first century of printing in London (Feather). Civil War brought an unregulated explosion of print--much of it propaganda designed to advance one side or other in the war. Citizens began to experience, and perhaps enjoy, unfiltered access to a wide variety of writing.

The loosening of controls led to an immediate, dramatic rise in publishing.  Between 1640 and 1660, at least 300 news publications were produced.

1644: Milton Defends
the Right of Free-Born Men to Speak Free

Parliament attempted to regain some control on printers when it passed the Licensing Order of June 16th, 1643. This order was designed to bring publishing under government control by creating a number of official censors to whom authors would submit their work for approval prior to having it published. The impact of this act?  Only 20 master printers were still in operation by the end of the century. (See "The Literary Era" at DotPrint.)

In protest, English poet and political writer, John Milton, published the Areopagitica: A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing.The work opened with the following epigraph:


This is true liberty, when free-born men,
Having to advise the public, may speak free,
Which he who can, and will, deserves high praise;
Who neither can, nor will, may hold his peace:
What can be juster in a state than this?

-- from Euripid. Hicetid


Milton's argument, in brief, was that precensorship of authors was little more than an excuse for state control of thought. Recognizing that some means of accountability was necessary to ensure that libelous or other illegal works were kept under control, Milton suggested this could be achieved by ensuring the legal responsibility of printers and authors for the content of what they published.  Predicting that restrictions on the press would never work over the long term, Milton wrote:"Methinks I see in my mind a mighty and puissant Nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks. . . . You cannot make us now lesse capable, lesse knowing, lesse eagerly pursuing of the truth."  The basic message of these lines is quite simple:  The truth will out!  The printing press would eventually shift information and power into the hands of the people.

1660s-1680s: The Return of the Monarchy Brings Stricter Controls -- But Only Briefly

With the downfall of the republican parliamentary government and the restoration of the monarchy in 1660s came even tighter controls on the press.  A single individual was given the authority to publish an official newspaper along with the responsibility of serving as censor for all other publications.  Roger L'Estrange, one of the series of men who served as the enforcer of the licensing act during part of that period, offered the following thoughts about a particular newspaper:

Supposing the press in order, the people in their right wits, and news or no news to be the question, a publique Mercury should never have my vote; because it makes the public too familiar with the actions and counsels of their superiors, too prag matical and censorious; and gives them not only an itch, but a colorable right and license to be meddling with the government. --quoted in.F.B. Sanborn's Journalism and Journalists, The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 34, Issue 201, July 1874  (at MOA)

See Making History: The London Gazette for a description of licensing practices during the restoration and an account of L'Estrange's own "official" newspaper.

1695: The "Glorious Revolution" Brings the End of English Licensing Laws, a New Age of Print --
and an Age of Revolution?

With the Glorious Revolution of 1688, William and Mary were invited to ascend the throne on the condition that they agree to the terms spelled out in the Declaration of Rights. This came to be understood as part of the British "constitution" that American patriots cited as the source of their own freedoms as "Englishmen." (For more on this subject, see The Rhetoric of Rights: Americans are "Englishmen" and Englishmen Have Constitutional Rights elsewhere on this site.)

Milton proved to be right after all. Although most accounts stipulate that "the Licensing act expired in 1695," the "expiration" was not the result of a simple lapse of attention on the part of the government.  Instead, the freedoms established by the Declaration of Rights created a more open society, and an explosion of print was the result.  In England, the emergence of publications like the Tatler and the Spectator are given credit for creating a 'bourgeois public sphere' that allowed for a free exchange of ideas and information.  In America, the end of the Licensing Act also sparked the creation of new publications and set the stage for the battle of words that would lead to the American revolution in the second half of the eighteenth century.

See also:

Kent's Commentaries on "De Scandalis" and

AN ENQUIRY Into the QUESTION, Whether JURIES are, or are not, JUDGES OF LAW, As well as of FACT; With a particular Reference to The CASE of LIBELS, by Joseph Towers London, 1764  -- argues that "though the freedom of the press may often degenerate into a censurable licentiousness, yet it is certain, that a free people have much more danger to apprehend from a restraint of the Liberty of the Press, than from any, even the worst abuse of it." This transcription is available through the Liberty Library Constitutional Classics, a treasury of primary source materials that document English and American political history.

Thomas Paine, Liberty of the Press, October 19, 1806, courtesy of the Thomas Paine National Historical Association .


For more on the History of Print from other sites, see:

A Global Mutation in Media: The Invention and Expansion of Print Media and Print on the Market and the Ideal of Public Culture at U. C. Santa Barbara

Jones Telecommunications and Media Encyclopedia

Timeline of the History of Information

Printing in England from William Caxton to Christopher Barker, an online exhibition at the University of Glasgow

The Rise of a Free Press, a timeline

The History of Printing, this page was designed to demonstrate the usefulness of newsletters, but the sample page offers a helpful explanation of the rise of (and restrictions on) printing

The Newspaper, although this web page from Japan is made up entirely of excerpts from the Encyclopedia Brittanica, the resulting overview provides a clear description of the evolution of the newspaper.

The Infancy of Printing: Incunabula at the Golda Meir Library:

Printing: Renaissance & Reformation, an exhibit at the Thomas Cooper Library, University of South Carolina;

Printing: An Industry Born from Dot.Print.

Printing and Print Culture from The Media History Project at the University of Minnesota.

Intellectual Copyright Chronology

The Information Age and the Printing Press: Looking Backward to See Ahead by James A. Dewar in Ubiquity online magazine.  This article on the question of freedom and the internet includes an analysis of the impact printing had on the politics of earlier ages.

Although The Impact of the Printing Press is the work of student Jerry Huang of the University of Texas at Austin, it offers useful information, particularly on the Timeline page.

An 18th Century Courtroom Conflict
Over Freedom of the Press:
The Trial of John Peter Zenger

The trial of American printer John Peter Zenger in 1735 was used as a precedent that enabled printers to disseminate truthful information, whether or not it damaged the reputation of a public figure.  If you would like to read more about this colorful and historic trial, use the links below.

Journalism in the United States

Peter Zenger and Freedom of the Press


The Acquittal of John Peter Zenger

Famous American Trials: John Peter Zenger Trial, 1735

What the Scholars Say

“Part Two, Shifting Freedoms of the Press in the Eighteenth Century,” Richard Brown, in The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World, Amory and Hall, eds, Cambridge, 2000, p. 371:

Although the Zenger case did not immediately enlarge legal protections for the press, it did underscore the limited ability of royal officials to protect themselves by using seditious libel proceedings, especially where popular issues were being decided by juries. Fundamentally, the case left unresolved a contradiction that persisted for the rest of the century: Was it possible to combine a turbulent factionalism, which implied that power rested with the people, with the authority needed to sustain social and political cohesion – the “public good” as it had been idealized for centuries – which government by its very nature was meant to embody and maintain? This contradiction was echoed in the colonists’ uncertainty about the proper role of newspapers. Were they guardians of liberty, charged with publishing (making public) “news” of the inner workings of politics? Or should newspapers avoid adding fuel to the fire of factional politics by refusing to purvey the distortions of language and fact that, in England, went hand-in-hand with a partisan press?

Resources at Other Sites:

Newspapers and Freedom of the Press--a brief history of freedom of the press from Compton's Encyclopedia

Accounts of recent trials in which a principle or precedent from the American revolution was cited:

I do not see a philosophical or historical basis for asserting that "commercial" speech is of "lower value" than "noncommercial" speech. Indeed, some historical materials suggest to the contrary. See, e.g., ante, at 8 (citing Franklin's Apology for Printers); Ex parte Jackson, 96 U.S. 727, 733 (1878) (dictum that Congress could not, consistent with freedom of the press, prevent the circulation of lottery advertising through methods other than the United States mail); see also In re Rapier, 143 U.S. 110, 134-135 (1892) (continuing to assume that freedom of the press prevents Congress from prohibiting circulation of newspapers containing lottery advertisements); Lewis Publishing Co. v. Morgan, 229 U.S. 288, 315 (1913) (same); see generally Brief for American Advertising Federation et al. as Amici Curiae 12-24 (citing authorities for propositions that commercial activity and advertising were integral to life in colonial America and that Framers' political philosophy equated liberty and property and did not distinguish between commercial and noncommercial messages). Nor do I believe that the only explanations that the Court has ever advanced for treating "commercial" speech differently from other speech can justify restricting "commercial" speech in order to keep information from legal purchasers so as to thwart what would otherwise be their choices in the marketplace. [n.4]

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.