Newspapers in Revolutionary Era America & The Problems of
Patriot and Loyalist Printers

 E Pluribus Unum

 

 

The Changing Role of Printers and Newspapers
in the Era of the Revolution

As the tensions between England and the colonies increased, so did the tensions between loyalists and patriots in America.  Newspapers which had once indiscriminately printed items regardless of the viewpoint they presented found that such "objectivity" was no longer either desirable--or possible.  Whereas printers had once regarded themselves as artisans, the charged times allowed them to see their roles in a new light.  In his essay, "Printers and the American Revolution," Stephen Botein explains:

Very gradually . . . there arose from the Revolutionary experience a revised understanding of what it was to be an American printer. Responding to and perhaps also promoting a new belief that sharply antagonistic opinions might properly be articulated in the public forum, printers in America began to discard their neutral trade rhetoric, in order to behave aggressively and unapologetically as partisans. At the same time, reflecting the more intense ideological content of Revolutionary politics, American printers began to revive the ancient trade refrain of their English forebears. Once again it was insisted that printers were not mere ‘mechanics’ but men of independent intellect and principle.  (from The Press & the American Revolution, eds. Bernard Bailyn and John B. Hench, Boston : Northeastern University Press, 1981, 45)

 

Does this look like objective journalism?

 

Even those printers who wished to keep aloof from politics would have found it difficult to do so.  The printer's income derived from those who sponsored the newspaper (for example, the government in the case of loyalist printers) or from the advertisers and readers.  (Benjamin Franklin offered a humorous but serious argument that printers should not necessarily be held responsible for the opinions expressed in their publications in his famous "Apology for Printers") However, advertisers and readers became unwilling to support the production of papers that presented views antithetical to their own.  As printer Isaiah Thomas later explained:

It was at first the determination of Thomas that his paper should be free to both parties which then agitated the country, and, impartially, lay before the public their respective communications; but he soon found that this ground could not be maintained. The dispute between Britain and her American colonies became more and more serious, and deeply interested every class of men in the community. The parties in the dispute took the names of Whigs and Tories; the tories were the warm supporters of the measures of the British cabinet, and the whigs the animated advocates for American liberty. The tories soon discontinued their subscriptions for the Spy; and the publisher was convinced that to produce an abiding and salutary effect his paper must have a fixed character. He was in principle attached to the party which opposed the measures of the British ministry; and he therefore announced that the Spy would be devoted to the support of the whig interest.

This shift in the nature of newspapers and other forms of print in America helps us understand why Jefferson would one day write: "I would rather live in a country with newspapers and without a government, than in a country with a government but with out newspapers.”


If the King Doesn't Cut Off Your Cheeks,
The Mob May Still Burn You Out

Printers who worked during the many years when the English licensing act was in force knew that they could be put in the pillory, thrown into jail, or even have their ears and cheeks cut off if they used their publications to voice opposition to the government. (See The Dangeorus Lives of Printers: The Evolution of the Freedom of the Press) However, although the end of the licensing act in 1694 inspired the birth of a new age of printing, in fact, during the revolutionary era in America a loyalist printer in a rebellion-minded town or a radical printer in a tory town risked not only bankruptcy but other repurcussions.   An excited mob, for example, could attack your home, your shop, or your person. Again, Thomas provides a case in point. "He was hanged in effigy in North Carolina. The British troops in Boston paraded before the Spy office and threatened Thomas with a tarring." (Marcus McCorison, "Foreward," The Press & the American Revolution, Eds. Hench and Bailyn, Worcester: American Antiquarian Society, 1980, 7). It was not unusual for a mob to run oneprinter out of town and turn the press and types over to another printer with the opposite sympathies.


Threats to the Patriot Press

Some of the key patriot presses were the Boston Gazette, the Massachusetts Spy printed by Isaiah Thomas, the New York Journal, and the Pennsylvania Journal and the Pennsylvania Chronicle when published by William Goddard. While licensing laws no longer threatened printers who opposed the official government, there were still legal repercussions to be considered:

Printers were therefore generally held responsible for content, and the penalties for printing revolutionary attacks on the colonial government were usually severe. Isaiah Thomas, a colonial printer who was associated with insurgent sentijment, risked personal safety and jeapordized his business each time his press was identified as the source of revolutionary propaganda. Eventually, he moved from Boston to Worcester to prevent the British from destroying his press and the beginnings of his personal library, which now forms the core of the American Antiquarian Society collection. Seditious libel was usually the charge against colonial printers who supported the revolutionary cause, and there were frequent prospectuions for this political crime in the years just before the Revolution. (from the "Introduction" to Massachusetts Broadsides of the American Revolution, Mason I. Lowance, Jr., & Georgia B. Bumgardner, eds., Amherst, MA, 1976,1) (For more on Isaiah Thomas, see "The Patriot Press" and His "Forge of Sedition"

Of course, the government also had unofficial ways of harassing the patriot press.  When William Gardner began to print The Pennsylvania Chronicle, he found himself unable to obtain copies of other newspapers because the government-appointed postmaster refused to deliver them, thus depriving him of sources of information.   The same postmaster also refused to deliver copies of the Chronicle, leading Gardner to propose his Petition for a Postal System. (See


Threats to the Loyalist Press

While loyalist printers enjoyed the monetary support and protection of the government and did not have to worry about being charged with libel in the years leading to the war, they did have to live in fear of mobs. This fact may have even caused some to change their political sympathies, or to leave town, or to leave the country. As Carol Sue Humphrey writes in "This Popular Engine": New England Newspapers during the American Revolution, 1775-1789 (Delaware, 1992):

If it is obvious that most printers were patriots during the Revolution, the subject of their wartime loyalties nevertheless calls for some analysis because of the resulting changes in the profession. Several did espouse the British cause early in the struggle before being forced to flee. Four Loyalist printers left Boston when the British evacuated in 1776: Margaret Draper, John Howe, John Hicks, and Nathaniel Mills. James and Alexander Robertson, co-publishers of the Norwich Packet (with John Trumbull), also proved to be Loyalists and fled to New York in May 1776. All of these printers, except Margaret Draper, reestablished their presses in areas under the control of the British army. In fact, James Robertson followed the army, establishing gazettes in New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston during the times when these cities were under British occupation. None of these printers, however, were able to reestablish their New England newssheets after the war ended.

Another newspaper publisher accused of Toryism was Robert Luist Fowle of New Hampshire. The nephew of Daniel Fowle of Portsmouth, Robert Fowle published the Exeter edition of the New Hampshire Gazette from 22 May 1776 to 15 July 1777. In the spring of 1777, Fowle faced charges of counterfeiting the state currency, which he had originally printed. Though he denied the allegations, he was arrested on 15 July 1777. While out on bail, Fowle fled to Canada, confirming the charges as far as most New Hampshirites were concerned. While it is unclear whether Robert Fowle was a British sympathizer, he did take refuge behind the British lines. He actually had very little choice-there was no where else for him to go. Even though the allegations against Fowle were never proven, he later received a pension from the British government to compensate him for property seized by New Hampshire following his flight. Following the end of the war, Fowle returned to New Hampshire, married his brother's widow, and established a store in Exeter, all apparently with few problems or recriminations.

The person hanging from the tree in the picture above is the person who printed this picture:
loyalist printer, James Rivington

One of the best-known loyalist printers of the Revolutionary era is Jamees Rivington.  He began Rivington’s New-York Gazeteer or the Connecticut, Hudston’s River, New-Jersey, and Quebec Weekly Advertiser with a trial issue on March 18, 1773, and began regular publication beginning on April 23.("James Rivington," Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 43, American Newspaper Journalists, 1690-1872, 398.) At first Rivington was praised by the celebrated patriot printer Isaiah Thomas in his paper, the Spy—“Few men, perhaps, were better qualified . . . to publish a newspaper,” Rivington was frequently challenged by the Sons of Liberty. In the Gazeteer of 17 August 1774, “a letter signed ‘A Merchant of New-York’ called Sears ‘a tool of the lowest order,’ a ‘political cracker,’ and ‘the laughing- stock of the whole town.’” Rivington was hung in effigy by his more radical neighbors on April 13, 1775, and he printed a print of the hanging in the April 20, 1775 issue of Rivington’s New-York Gazeteer. Repeatedly attacked by mobs throughout his career, Rivington took the interesting tactic of apologizing to the townspeople on several occasions, asking their permission to continue his activities. (See the Notices Published by Rivington available at American Memory.) However, that approach seemed to enjoy very limited success.  In one case when a mob attacked Rivington's print shop, his type was melted down to make bullets for the rebels.  Rivington was twice appointed the official printer for the Kinge, and under this sponsorship printed the New York Loyal Gazette later called the Royal Gazette.

(For further reference, see: John L. Lawson, “’The Remarkable Mystery ‘ of James Rivington, ‘Spy,’” Journalism Quarterly, 35 (Summer, 1958): 317-323, 394; and Dwight Teeter, “’King’ Sears, the Mob and Freedom of the Press in New York, 1765-76,” Journalism Quarterly, 41 (Autumn 1964): 539-544.)


See Also on This Site:

Dr. David Rawson's: "Open to All; Influenced by None": The Revolutionary Press in Colonial Virginia (only on this site)


See Also on Other Sites:

Loyalist Propaganda from the MARYLAND LOYALISM and the American Revolution site

THOMAS HUTCHINSON and LOYALISTS at the PBS site, Liberty! The Chronicle of the Revolution


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.