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

 E Pluribus Unum

 

 

Isaiah Thomas clearly believed that newspapers and other forms of printing served an important role in the revolution. He wrote:

Common sense in common language is necessary to ifluence one class of citizens, as much as learning and elegance of composition are to produce an effect upon the other.  The cause of America was just, and it was only necessary to state this cause in a clear and impressive manner, to unite the American people in its support. (The History of Printing in America, 267)

In the following excerpt from The History of Printing in America, Isaiah Thomas describes the ways in which specific newspapers supported the revolution.

*The title of the first section, "The Growth of Newspapers in the Revolutionary Era," was added by the editor of this web page.


Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America: With a Biography of Printers and an Account of Newspapers, ed. Marcus A. McCorison, Barre, Mass.: Imprint Society, 1970.

Overview
Description of The Royal American Magazine, published by Isaiah Thomas
Description of The Universal Instructor and Pennsylvania Gazette
Description of The Pennsylvania Magazine, or American Monthly Museum
.


*The Growth of Newspapers in the Revolutionary Era

 

In 1754, four newspapers only were printed in New England, 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. No paper had then been issued in Connecticut, or New Hampshire. Some years before, one was printed for a short time in Rhode Island, but had been discontinued for want of encouragement. Vermont as a state did not exist, and the country which now composes it was then a wilderness. 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 New England, in 1755; and one paper now published contains as much matter as did all the four published in Boston, in the last year mentioned.

At the beginning of 1775, there were five newspapers published in Boston, one at Salem, and one at Newburyport, making seven in Massachusetts. There was, at that time, one published at Portsmouth; and no other in New Hampshire. One was printed at Newport, and one at Providence, making two in Rhode Island. At New London there was one, at New Haven one, one at Hartford and one in Norwich; in all four I Connecticut;and fourteen in New England. In the province of New York, four papers were then published; three in the city and one in Albany. In Pennsylvania there were, on the first of January, 1775, six; three in English and one in German, in Philadelphia, one in German, at Germantown; and one in English and German, at Lancaster. Before the end of January, 1775, three newspapers, in English, were added to the number from the presses I Philadelphia, making nine in Pennsylvania. In Maryland, two; one at Annapolis, and one at Baltimore. In Virginia, there were but two, and both of these at Williamsburg. One was printed at Wilmington, and one in Newbern, in North Carolina; three at Charleston, South Carolina; and one at Savannah, in Georgia. Making thirty-seen newspapers in all the British colonies, which are now comprised in the United States. To these may be added one at Halifax, in Nova Scotia; and one in Canada, at Quebec.

In 1800, there were at least one hundred and fifty publications of this kind printed in the United States of America, and since that time, the number has increased to three hundred and sixty. Those published before 1775 were weekly papers. Soon after the close of the Revolutionary war, daily papers were printed at Philadelphia, New York, &c., and there are now, 1810, more than twenty published, daily, in the United States.

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.

For many years after the establishment of newspapers on this continent, very few advertisements appeared in them. This was the case with those that were early printed in Europe. In the first newspapers, advertisements were not separated by lines from the news, &c., and were not even begun with a two line letter; when two line letters were introduced, it was some time before one advertisement was separated from another by a line, or rule as it is termed by printers. After it became usual to separate advertisements, some printers used lines of metal rules; others lines of flowers irregularly placed. I have seen in some New York papers, great primer flowers between advertisements. At length, it became customary to 'set off advertisements,' and from using types not larger than those with which the news were printed, types of the size of French canon have often been used for names, especially of those who advertised English goods.

In the troublesome times, occasioned by the stamp act in 1765, some of the more opulent and cautious printers, when the act was to take place, put their papers in mourning, and, for a few weeks, omitted to publish them; others not so timid, but doubtful of the consequence of publishing newspapers without stamps, omitted the titles, or altered them, as an evasion; for instance the Pennsylvania Gazette, and some other papers, were headed 'Remarkable Occurrences, &c.' -other printers, particularly those in Boston, continued their papers without any alteration in title or imprint.

From the foregoing it appears that, from the time when the first public journal was published in the country, viz. in April, 1704, to April 1775, comprising a period of seventy-one years, seventy-eight different newspapers were printed in the British American continental colonies; that during this period, thirty-nine, exactly one-half of that number, had been, occasionally, discontinued; and that thirty-nine continued to be issued by the several establishments at the commencement of the revolution. The papers published in the West Indies are not included in this computation.

In the course of thirty-five years, newspaper establishments were, as previously remarked, multiplied in a surprising degree; insomuch, that the number of those printed in the United States in June, 1810, amounted to upwards of three hundred and sixty.

A large proportion of the public papers at that date were established, and supported, by the two great contending political parties, into which the people of these states are usually divided; and whose numbers produce an equipollence; consequently, a great augmentation of vehicles for carrying on the political warfare have been found necessary.

I cannot conclude what I have written on the subject of publike journals, better than by extracting the following pertinent observations on newspapers, from the Rev. Dr. Miller's Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century.

'It is worthy of remark that newspapers have almost entirely changed their form and character within the period under review* (*the eighteenth century) For a long time after they were first adopted as a medium of communication to the public, they were confined, in general, to the mere statement of facts. But they have gradually assumed an office more extensive, and risen to a more important station in society. They have become vehicles of discussion, in which the principles of government, the interests of nations, the spirit and tendency of public measures, and the public and private characters of individuals, are all arraigned, tried, and decided. Instead, therefore, of being considered now, as they once were, of small moment in society, they have become immense oral and political engines, closely connected with the welfare of the state, and deeply involving both its peace and prosperity.

'Newspapers have also become important in a literary view. There are few of them, within the last twenty years, which have not added to their political details some curious and useful information, on the various subjects of literature, science, and art. They have thus become the means of conveying, to every class in society, innumerable scraps of knowledge, which have at once increased the public intelligence, and extended the taste for perusing periodical publications. The advertisements, moreover, which they daily contain, respecting new books, projects, inventions, discoveries and improvements, are well calculated to enlarge and enlighten the public mind, and are worth of being enumerated among the many methods of awakening and maintaining the popular attention, with which more modern times, beyond all preceeding example, abound. . . . (14-19)

*The title of this section was added by the editor of this web page.


THE ROYAL AMERICAN MAGAZINE. A Prospectus of this work appeared many months before the magazine; but the disordered state of public affairs, and the difficulties which individuals experienced from them, prevented it from being sooner put to press; and after a few numbers had been published, the distress occasioned the inhabitants of Boston by shutting up and blockading their port, obliged its editor to suspend the publication.

The first number for January, 1774, was published at the close of that month. It was printed on a large medium paper in octavo, on a new handsome type. Each number contained three sheets of letter press, and two copperplate engravings. The title was, The Royal American Magazine, or Universal Repository of Instruction and Amusement. The type metal cut in the title page, represented, by an aboriginal, America seated on the ground; at her feet lay a quiver, and near her a bow on her right hand rested; in her left hand she held the calumet of peace, which she appeared to offer to the Genius of Knowledge standing before her dispensing instruction. Imprint, 'Boston: Printed by and for Isaiah Thomas, near the Market.' Then follow the names of several printers on the continent who sold the work.

The editor, after having been at considerable trouble and expense in bringing the work before the public, published it six months, and then was obliged, first to suspend, and afterwards to relinquish it; but Joseph Greenleaf continued the publication until April following, when the war put a period to the magazine.

This was the last periodical work established in Boston before the revolution. It had a considerable list of subscribers. (page 286)


The Universal Instructor in all Arts and Sciences: And Pennsylvania Gazette. This was the second newspaper established in the province; it has been continued under the title of The Pennsylvania Gazette to the present time, and is now the oldest newspaper in the United States.
No. 1, was published December 24, 1728, by Samuel Keimer, on a small sheet, pot size, folio. In No. 2, the publisher adopted the style of the Quakers, and dated it "The 2d of the 11th mo. 1728." The first and second pages of each sheet were generally occupied with extracts from Chambers's Dictionary; this practice was continued until the 25th of the 7th mo. 1729, in which the article Air concludes the extracts.

When the paper had been published nine months, the printer had not procured one hundred subscribers.

Franklin, soon after he began business, formed the design of publishing a newspaper, but was prevented by the sudden appearance of this Gazette: he was greatly disappointed; and, as he observes used his endeavors to bring it into contempt. He was successful, and the publisher, being obliged to relinquish it, for a trifling consideration resigned it to Franklin. At this time Franklin was in partnership with Hugh Meredith; they began printing this paper with No. 40, and published it a few weeks on Mondays and Thursdays, on a whole or half sheet, pot, as occasion required. The price "ten shillings per annum." The first part of the title they expunged, and called their paper "The Pennsylvania Gazette. Containing the freshest Advices Foreign and Domestick." The Gazette, under their management, gained reputation, but until Franklin obtained the appointment of postmaster, Bradford's Mercury had the largest circulation; after this event, the Gazette had a full proportion of subscribers and of advertising custom, and it became very profitable.

Meredith and Franklin separated in May 1732, Franklin continued the Gazette, but published it only once a week. In 1733, he printed it on a crown half sheet in quarto. -Imprint, "Philadelphia: Printed by B. Franklin, Post-Master, at the New Printing-Office near the Market. Price 10 s. a year. Where Advertisements are taken in, and Book-Binding is done reasonably in the best manner." In 1741, he enlarged the size to a demy, quarto half sheet, and added a cut of the Pennsylvania arms in the title. In 1745, he reverted to foolscap folio. In 1747 the Gazette was published "By B. Franklin Postmaster, and D. Hall;" it was enlarged to a whole sheet, crown, folio; and afterward, by a great increase of advertisements to a sheet, and ofte4n to a sheet and a half demy. On the 9th of May, 1754, the device of a snake, divided into parts, with the motto-"Join or die," I believe, first appeared in this paper. It accompanied an account of the French and Indians having killed and scalped many of the inhabitants in the frontier counties of Virginia and Pennsylvania. The account was published with this device with a view to rouse the british colonies, and cause them to unite in effectual measures for their defence and security, against the common enemy. The snake was divided into eight parts, to represent, first, Newengland; second, Newyork; third, Newjersey; fourth, Pennsylvania; fifth, Maryland; sixth, Virginia; seventh, Northcarolina; and, eighth, Southcarolina. The account and the figures appeared in several other papers, and had a good effect.

The Gazette was put into mourning October 31, 16i5, on account of the stamp act passed by the British parliament, which was to take effect the next day. From that time until the 21st of November following, the publication of it was suspended. In the interim, large handbills, as substitutes, were published, headed "Remarkable Occurrences." - "No Stamped paper to be had," &c. When revived, it was published without an imprint until February 6, 1766, it then appeared with the name of David Hall only, who now became the proprietor an the printer of it. In May following, it was published by Hall and Sellers, who continued it until 17777; but, on the approach of the British army, the publishers retired from Philadelphia, and the publication was suspended while the British possessed the city. On th4e evacuation of Philadelphia, the Gazette was again revived, and published once a week until the death of Sellers in 1804. After this event, it was printed by William and David Hall, and is now published by Hall and Pierrie every Wednesday. Hall the present partner is grandson of David, and the son of William Hall. (Volume 2, pages 327-330:)


The Pennsylvania Magazine, or American Monthly Museum. This Magazine was first published in January, 1775, by Robert Aitken. The celebrated Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense, &c. was one of the principal compilers and writers of the Museum. It was a work of merit; each number contained forty eight pages, octavo, with an engraving. The war put a period to it.

Aitken contracted with Paine to furnish, monthly, for this work, a certain quantity of original matter; but he often found it difficult to prevail on Paine to comply with his engagement.

On one of the occasions when Paine had neglected to supply the materials for the Magazine, within a short time of the day of publication, Aitken went to his lodgings, and complained of his neglecting to fulfil his contract. Paine heard him patiently, and coolly answered, "You shall have them in time." Aiken expressed some doubts on the subject, and insisted on Paine's accompanying him and proceeding immediately to business, as the workmen were waiting for copy. HE accordingly went home with Aitken, and was soon seated at the table with the necessary apparatus, which always included a glass, and a decanter of brandy. Aitken observed, "he would never write without that." The first glass put him in a train of thinking; Aitkin feared the second would disqualify him, or render him untractable; but it only illuminated his intellectual system; and when he had swallowed the third glass, he wrote with great rapidity, intelligence and precision; and his ideas appeared to flow faster than he could commit them to paper. What he penned from the inspiration of the brandy was perfectly fit for the press without any alteration, or correction.*

*Aitken was a man of truth, and of an irreproachable character. This anecdote came from him some years before his death. (Volume 2, page 345-6)


ALEXANDER AND JAMES ROBERTSON. James Robertson first set up his press in New York, in 1768. After remaining there a short period, he entered into partnership with his brother. They published in that city The New York Chronicle, which, after a trial of about two years, was discontinued, and they moved to Albany. Until that time, New York was the only place in the colony where printing had been introduced.

The Robertsons were the first who opened a printing house in Albany. They were patronized by Sir William Johnson, then superintendent of Indian affairs, who advanced them money to purchase a press and types. They began business there about the year 1771, and soon after published a newspaper.

They set up press in Norwich, Conn., in 1775, in company with John Trumbull, but continued their printing house in Albany until the commencement of the revolutionary war; when, being detected in publishing and circulating in a private manner, highly obnoxious handbills, etc., in support of the royal cause which they decidedly espoused, they judged it expedient hastily to leave the city, and went to Norwich. They left their press and types in the care of a friend who resided in the vicinity of Albany. This friend removed them privately to his farm and there buried them. They were afterwards taken up and sold to Solomon Balantine, who began the establishment of a second newspaper in that city in 1782.

The Robertsons remained in Norwich until the British army, in 1776, took possession of New York, when they went to that city, and there published The Royal American Gazette. (pages 483-484. For additional information on this subject, see pp. 303, 476-7.)


An Excerpt From Isaiah Thomas's The Only Sure Guide to the English Tongue along with a brief biographical profile at the University of Pittsburgh

You can see "A Curious Hieroglyphic Bible" printed by Isaiah Thomspon at a Today in History Exhibit at the Library of Congress.


 

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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