ISAIAH THOMAS* descended from a respectable family which
had settled near Boston not many years after that town was founded.
His grandfather carried on mercantile business in that place,
in a store which he owned, on the town dock; and died in the year
1746, leaving four sons and two daughters, who were all arrived
at the age of maturity. His second son, Moses, lived some time
on Long Island, where he married and had two children; the youngest
of whom is the subject of this memoir.* (* He was engaged as clerk
to an officer in the expedition against Cuba, in 5740, much against
the wishes of his father Peter, from whom he absconded and enlisted
as a common soldier. The interest of the father placed him in
a better situation than he would have held in the ranks, but did
not obtain his discharge. He afterwards sailed on a voyage to
the Mediterranean. He owned a farm on Long Island, which he cultivated,
while he kept a shop.)
Moses Thomas having expended nearly all his patrimony, went
away, and died in North Carolina; leaving his widow in narrow
circumstances with five dependent children. Her friends on Long
Island took the charge of providing for the two who were born
there, and had been left in their care; the others she supported
by the profits of a small shop she kept in Boston. Her Boston
diligence and prudent management ensured success; insomuch that
besides making provision for her family, she was enabled to
purchase a small estate in Cambridge. This place she after-
155 ward unfortunately lost; for being fully possessed with
the idea that the continental paper money, issued during the
revolutionary war, would ultimately be paid in specie, and having
what she thought a very advantageous offer for her house and
land in that kind of currency, she sold the same, and became
one among the number of unfortunate people who lost nearly the
whole of their property from a misplaced confidence in the paper
currency of the day.
When her son, Isaiah, born at Boston, January 19, 1749, O.S.,
was six years of age, he was apprenticed by his mother to Zechariah
Fowle; who, as has been already stated, principally made use
of his press in printing ballads, and b who - e was soon employed
to set types; for which purpose he was mounted on a bench eighteen
inches high, and the whole length of a double frame which contained
cases of both roman and italic. His first essay with the composing
stick, was on a ballad entitled The Lawyer's Pedigree (1755)
which was set in types of the size of double pica.
He remained eleven years with Fowle; after which period they
separated, in consequence of a disagreement. On quitting Fowle,
in 1765, he went to Nova Scotia, with a view to go from thence
to England, in order to acquire a more perfect knowledge of
his business. He found typography in a miserable state in that
province; and, so far was he from obtaining the means of going
to England, that he soon discovered that the only printer in
Halifax could hardly procure, by his business, a decent livelihood.
However, he remained there seven months; during which time the
memorable British stamp act took effect in Nova Scotia, which,
in the other colonies, met with a spirited and successful opposition.
The Halifax Gazette was printed by a Dutchman, whose name was
Henry. He was a good natured, pleasant man, who in common concerns
did not want for ingenuity and capacity; but he might, with
propriety, be called a very unskilful printer. To his want of
knowledge or abilities in his profession, he added indolence;
and, as is too often the case, left his business to be transacted
by boys or journeymen, instead of attending to it himself. His
printing affairs were on a very contracted scale; and he made
no efforts to render them more extensive. As he had two apprentices,
he was not in want of assistance in his printing house; but
Thomas accepted an offer of board for his services; and the
sole management of the Gazette was immediately left to him.
He new modelled the Gazette according to the best of his judgment,
and as far as the worn out printing materials would admit. It
was soon after printed on stamped paper, made for the purpose
in England. To the use of this paper, 'the young New Englandman,'
as he was called, was opposed; and, to the stamp act he was
A paragraph appeared in the Gazette, purporting that the people
of Nova Scotia were, generally, disgusted with the stamp act.
This paragraph gave great offence to the officers of government,
who called Henry to account for publishing what they termed
sedition. Henry had not so much as seen the Gazette in which
the offensive article had appeared; consequently he pleaded
ignorance; and, in answer to their interrogatories, informed
them that the paper was, in his absence, conducted by his joumeyman.
He was reprimanded, and admonished that he would be deprived
of the work of government, should he, in future, suffer any
thing of the kind to appear in the Gazette. It was not long
before Henry was again sent for, on account of another offence
of a similar nature; however, he escaped the consequences he
might have apprehended, by assuring the officers of government
that he had been confined by sickness; and he apologized in
a satisfactory manner for the appearance of the obnoxious publication.
But his journeyman was summoned to appear before the secretary
of the province; to whose office he accordingly went. He was,
probably, not known to Mr. Secretary, who sternly demanded of
him, what he wanted?
A. Nothing, sir.
Q. Why came you here?
A. Because I was sent for.
Q. What is your name?
A. Isaiah Thomas.
Q. Are you the young New Englandman who prints for Henry?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. How dare you publish in the Gazette that the people of Nova
Scotia are displeased with the stamp act?
A. I thought it was true.
Q. You had no right to think so. If you publish any thing more
of such stuff, you shall be punished. You may go; but, remember,
you are not in New England.
A. I will, sir.
Not long after this adventure occurred, a vessel arrived at
Halifax from Philadelphia, and brought some of the newspapers
published in that city.
The Pennsylvania Journal, published the day preceding that
on which the stamp act was to take effect, was in full mourning.
Thick black lines surrounded the pages, and were placed between
the columns; a death's head and cross bones were surmounted
over the title; and at the bottom of the last page was a large
figure of a coffin, beneath which was printed the age of the
paper, and an account of its having died of a disorder called
the stamp act. A death's head, &c., as a substitute for
a stamp, was placed at the end of the last column of the first
page. Thomas had a strong desire to decorate The Halifax Gazette
in the same manner; but he dared not do it, on account of his
apprehension of the displeasure of the officers of government.
However, an expedient was thought of to obviate that difficulty,
which was to insert in the Gazette an article of the following
import: 'We are desired by a number of our readers, to give
a description of the extraordinary appearance of the Pennsylvania
Journal of the 3oth of October last, 1765. We can in no better
way comply with this request, than by the exemplification we
have given of that journal in this day's Gazette.' As near as
possible, a representation was made of the several figures,
emblems of mortality, and mourning columns; all which, accompanied
by the qualifying paragraph, appeared together in The Halifax
Gazette, and made no trifling bustle in the place.
Soon after this event, the effigy of the stampmaster was hung
on the gallows near the citadel; and other tokens of hostility
to the stamp act were exhibited. These disloyal actions were
done silently and secretly; but they created some alarm; and
a captain's guard was continually stationed at the house of
the stamp-master, to protect him from those injuries which were
expected to befal him. It is supposed the apprehensions entertained
on his account were entirely groundless. The officers of the
government had prided themselves on the loyalty of the people
of that province in not having shown any opposition to the stamp
act. 'These things were against them;' and a facetious officer
was heard to repeat to some of his friends, the old English
proverb: 'We have not saved our bacon.'
An opinion prevailed, that Thomas not only knew the parties
concerned in these transactions but had a hand in them himself;
on which account, a few days after the exhibition of the stampmaster's
effigy, a sheriff went to the printing house, and informed Thomas
that he had a precept against him, and intended to take him
to prison, unless he would give information respecting the persons
concerned in making and exposing the effigy of the stampmaster.
He mentioned, that some circumstances had produced a conviction
in his mind that Thomas was one of those who had been engaged
in these seditious proceedings. The sheriff receiving no satisfactory
answer to his inquiries, ordered Thomas to go with him before
a magistrate; and he, having no person to consult, or to give
him advice, in the honest simplicity of his heart was about
to obey the orders of this terrible alguazil; but being suddenly
struck with the idea that this proceeding might be intended
merely to alarm him into an acknowledgment of his privity to
the transactions in question, he told the sheriff he did not
know him and demanded information respecting the authority by
which he acted. The sheriff answered, that he had sufficient
authority; but on being requested to exhibit it, the officer
was evidently disconcerted, and showed some symptoms of his
not acting under 'the king's authority.' However, he answered
that he would show his authority when it was necessary; and
again ordered this 'printer of sedition' to go with him. Thomas
answered, he would not obey him unless he produced a precept,
or proper authority for taking him prisoner. After further parley
the sheriff left him, with an assurance that he would soon return;
but Thomas saw him no more; and he afterward learned that this
was a plan concerted for the purpose of surprising him into
A short time before the exhibition of the effigy of the stamp-master,
Henry had received from the stamp-office the whole stock of
paper that was sent ready stamped from England for the use of
the Gazette. The quantity did not exceed six or eight reams;
but as only three quires were wanted weekly for the newspaper,
it would have sufficed for the purpose intended twelve months.
It was not many weeks after the sheriff already mentioned, made
his exit from the printing house, when it was discovered that
this paper was divested of the stamps; not one remained; they
had been cut off and destroyed. On this occasion, an article
appeared in the Gazette, announcing that 'all the stamped paper
for the Gazette was used, and as no more could be had, it would
in future be published without stamps.'
In March, 1767, Thomas quitted Halifax, and went to New Hampshire;
where he worked, for some time, in the printing houses of Daniel
Fowle, and Furber & Russell. In July following he returned
to Boston. There he remained several months, in the employ of
his old master, Z. Fowle.
Receiving an invitation from the captain of a vessel to go
to Wilmington, in North Carolina, where he was assured a printer
was wanted, he arranged his affairs with Fowle, again left him,
by agreement, and went to Newport. There he waited on Martin
Howard, Esq., chief justice of North Carolina, who was then
at that place, and was about departing for Wilmington. To this
gentleman he made known his intention of going to North Carolina,
and received encouragement from the judge, who gave him assurances
of his influence in procuring business for him at Cape Fear;
for which place they sailed in the same vessel.
A gentleman at Newport also favored him with a letter of recommendation
to Robert Wells, printer, in Charleston, South Carolina.
When he arrived at Wilmington, he, in pursuance of advice from
Judge Howard, and several other gentlemen, waited on Governor
Tryon, then at that place. The governor encouraged him to settle
there, and flattered him that he would be favored with a part
in the printing for government. But as a printer he labored
under no inconsiderable difficulty, that is, he had neither
press, nor types, nor money to purchase them.
It happened that Andrew Steuart, a printer, was then at Wilmington,
who had a press with two or three very small founts of letters
for sale. He had printed a newspaper, and as some work was given
him by the government, he called himself king's printer; but
at this period he was without business, having given offence
to the governor and the principal gentlemen at Cape Fear. For
this reason he was desirous to sell the materials he had then
in that place, and to return to Philadelphia, where he had another
small printing establishment.
Pursuant to the advice of several gentlemen, Thomas applied
to Steuart, to purchase the press, etc.; but Steuart, knowing
he could not easily be accommodated with these articles elsewhere,
took advantage of his situation, and demanded about three times
as much for them as they cost when new. After some debate, Steuart
lowered his price to about double the value. Several gentlemen
of Wilmington offered to advance money, on a generous credit,
to enable Thomas to make the purchase. When Steuart found the
money could be raised, he refused to let the types go without
an appendage of a negro woman and her child, whom he wished
to sell before he quitted the place. An argument ensued; but
Steuart persisted in his refusal to part with the printing materials,
unless the negroes were included in the sale. Thomas, after
advising with friends, agreed to take them, finding he could
dispose of them for nearly the price he was to give for them.
He then thought the bargain was concluded; but Steuart threw
a new difficulty in the way. He had a quantity of common household
furniture, not the better for wear, which he also wanted to
dispose of; and would not part with the other articles unless
the purchaser would take these also. The furniture was entirely
out of Thomas's line of business, and he had no use for it.
He, therefore, declared himself off the bargain; and afterward,
when Steuart retracted respecting the sale of furniture, Thomas
began to be discouraged by the prospects the place afforded;
he was not pleased with the appearance of the country; his money
was all gone; and his inclination to visit England was renewed.
For these reasons he renounced all thoughts of settling at Cape
Fear at that time; although a merchant there offered to send
to England by the first opportunity for a printing apparatus,
which he would engage Thomas should have on a long credit.
With a view to go to England, he entered himself as steward
on board a ship bound to the West Indies; expecting when he
arrived there he should easily find an opportunity to go to
London. He did duty on board the vessel ten days; but imbibing
a dislike to the captain, who was often intoxicated, and attempted
to reduce him into a mere cabin boy, and to employ him about
the most servile and menial offices, he revolted at these indignities,
and procured his discharge. On this occasion he remembered the
recommendation he had received at Newport to a printer at Charleston;
and, finding a packet bound there, he quitted a very kind friend
he had gained at Wilmington, and after a long passage, in which
he met with many adventures, besides that lamentable one of
spending his last shilling, he arrived at Charleston.
When he presented the letter of recommendation to Wells, the
printer, he had the mortification to learn he was not in want
of a journeyman. However, Wells civilly employed him at low
wages, and soon put him into full pay. He continued at Charleston
two years; and had nearly completed a contract to go and settle
in the West Indies; but his health declining, he returned to
Boston in 1770, after having visited several of the southern
He now formed a connection with Zechariah Fowle, and began
business by publishing The Massachusetts Spy, a small newspaper
printed three times in a week.
Thomas's partnership with his former master, Fowle, continued
but three months. He then purchased the printing materials which
Fowle had in his possession, and gave his security to Fowle's
creditor for the payment. Fowle had, during nineteen years,
been in possession of his press and types, and had not paid
for them. The creditor was a near relation by marriage, and
had exacted only the payment of the annual interest of the debt.
Thomas continued the Spy, but altered the publication of it
from three times to twice a week. Each publication contained
a half sheet. After having published it three months in the
new form, he discontinued it in December, 1770. On the 5th of
March, 1771, he began another paper with the same title, which
was published weekly, on a large folio sheet.
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.
Some overtures had been previously made by the friends of the
British government to induce him to have the Spy conducted wholly
on their side of the question; and, these having been rejected,
an attempt was made to force a compliance, or to deprive him
of his press and types. It was known that he was in debt for
these articles, and that his creditor was an officer of government,
appointed by the crown. This officer, notwithstanding he was
a very worthy man, was pushed on to make a demand of payment,
contrary to his verbal agreement, under the apprehension that
the money could not be raised. When Thomas assumed the debt
of Fowle, he gave his bond, payable in one year, under an assurance
that the capital might lay as it had done, if the interest annually
due should be punctually paid; and when contrary to stipulation
the capital was demanded, he borrowed money, and paid one debt
by contracting another.
An essay published in the Spy, November, 1771, under the signature
of Mucius Scaevola, attracted the attention of the executive
of the province. Governor Hutchinson assembled his council on
the occasion; and, after consultation, the board determined
that the printer should be ordered before them. In pursuance
of this resolution, their messenger was sent to inform Thomas
that his attendance was required in the council chamber. To
this message he replied, 'that he was busily employed in his
office, and could not wait upon his excellency and their honors.'
The messenger returned to the council with this answer, and,
in an hour after, again came into Thomas's printing house and
informed him that the governor and council waited for his attendance;
and, by their direction, inquired, whether he was ready to appear
before them. Thomas answered, that he was not. The messenger
went to make his report to the council, and Thomas to ask advice
of a distinguished law character. He was instructed to persist
in his refusal to appear before the council, as they had no
legal right to summon him before them; but, should a warrant
issue from the proper authority, he must then submit to the
sheriff who should serve such a process upon him. This was a
critical moment; the affair had taken air, and the public took
an interest in the event. The council proceeded with caution,
for the principle was at issue, whether they Possessed authority
arbitrarily to summon whom they pleased before their board,
to answer to them for their conduct. The messenger was, however,
the third time sent to Thomas, and brought him this verbal order.
Mess. The governor and council order your immediate attendance
before them in the council chamber.
T. I will not go.
Mess. You do not give this answer with an intention that I should
report it to the governor and council?
T. Have you any thing written, by which to show the authority
under which you act?
Mess. I have delivered to you the order of the governor and
council, as it was given to me.
T. If I understand you, the governor and council order my immediate
attendance before them?
Mess. They do.
T. Have you the order in writing?
T. Then, sir, with all due respect to the governor and council,
I am engaged in my own concerns, and shall not attend.
Mess. Will you commit your answer to writing?
T. No, sir.
Mess. You had better go; you may repent your refusal to comply
with the order of the council.
T. I must abide by the result.*
The messenger carried the refusal to the council. The board
for several hours debated the question, whether they should
commit Thomas for contempt; but it was suggested by some member
that he could not legally be committed unless he had appeared
before them; in that case his answers might have been construed
into a contempt of their body, and been made the ground of commitment.
It was also suggested that they had not authority to compel
his appearance before them to answer for any supposed crime
or misdemeanor punishable bylaw, as particular tribunals had
the exclusive cognizance of such offences. The supposed want
of authority was, indeed, the reason why a compulsory process
had not been adopted in the first instance. There were not now,
as formerly, licensers of the press.
The council, being defeated in the design to get the printer
before them, ordered the attorney general to prosecute him at
common law. A prosecution was accordingly soon attempted, and
great effort made to effect his conviction. The chief justice,
at the following term of the supreme court at Boston, in his
charge to the grand jury, dwelt largely on the doctrine of libels;
on the present licentiousness of the press; and on the necessity
of restraining it. The attorney general presented a bill of
indictment to the grand inquest against Isaiah Thomas for publishing
an obnoxious libel. The Court House was crowded from day to
day to learn the issue. The grand jury returned this bill, Ignoramus.
Foiled by the grand jury in this mode of prosecution, the attorney
general was directed to adopt a different process; and to file
an information against Thomas. This direction of the court was
soon known to the writers in the opposition, who attacked it
with so much warmth and animation, and offered such cogent arguments
to prove that it infringed the rights and liberties of the subject,
that the court thought proper to drop the measure. Unable to
convict the printer either by indictment or information in Suffolk,
a proposal was made to prosecute him in some other county, under
the following pretext. The printers of newspapers circulate
them through the province, and of course publish them as extensively
as they are circulated. Thomas, for instance, circulates the
Spy in the county of Essex, and as truly publishes the libel
in that county as in Suffolk where the paper is printed. The
fallacy of this argument was made apparent; the measure was
not adopted, and government for that time gave over the prosecution;
but, on a subsequent occasion, some attempts of that kind were
renewed.* (*On account of some essays addressed to the king,
published in the Spy in September, 1772, and at other periods).
It became at length apparent to all reflecting men that hostilities
must soon take place between Great Britain and her American
colonies. Thomas had rendered himself very obnoxious to the
friends of the British administration; and, in consequence,
the tories, and some of the British soldiery in the town, openly
threatened him with the effects of their resentment. For these
and other reasons, he was induced to pack up, privately, a press
and types, and to send them in the night over Charles river
to Charlestown, whence they were conveyed to Worcester. This
was only a few days before the affair at Lexington. The press
and types constituted the whole of the property he saved from
the proceeds of five years labor. The remainder was destroyed
or carried off by the followers and adherents of the royal army
when it quitted Boston.
On the night of April i8, 1775 it was discovered that a considerable
number of British troops were embarking in boats on the river
near the common, with the manifest design to destroy the stores
collected by the provincials at Concord, eighteen miles from
Boston; and he was concerned, with others, in giving the alarm.
At daybreak, the next morning, he crossed from Boston over to
Charlestown in a boat with Dr. Joseph Warren went to Lexington,
and joined the provincial militia in Boston opposing the king's
troops. On the 20th, he went to Worcester, opened a printing
house, and soon after recommenced the publication of his newspaper.*
(Dr. Warren was soon after appointed major general of the provincial
troops, and was killed in the battle of Breed's, often called
Bunker's hill, June
The provincial congress, assembled at Watertown, proposed that
Thomas's press should be removed to that place; but, as all
concerns of a public nature were then in a state of derangement,
it was finally determined that his press should remain at Worcester,
and that postriders should be established to facilitate an intercourse
between that place, Watertown and Cambridge; and at Worcester
he continued to print for congress until a press was established
at Cambridge and at Watertown.
During the time he had been in business at Boston he had published
a number of pamphlets, but not many books of more consequence.
Having made an addition to his printing materials, in 1773,
he sent a press and types to Newburyport, sand committed the
management of the same to a young printer whom he soon after
took into partnership in his concerns in that place; and in
December of the same year, he began the publication of a newspaper
in that town. His partner managed their affairs imprudently,
and involved the company in debt; in consequence of which Thomas
sold out at considerable loss. In January, 1774, he began in
Boston the publication of The Royal
The publication of the Spy ceased for three weeks. It appeared
from the press in Worcester, May 3d, This was the first printing
done in any inland town in New England.
This was the first press set up in Newburyport.
American Magazine; but the general distress and commotion in
the town, occasioned by the operation of the act of the British
parliament to blockade the port of Boston, obliged him to discontinue
it before the expiration of the year, much to the injury of
his pecuniary interests.
* He was engaged as clerk to an officer in the expedition against
Cuba, in 5740, much against the wishes of his father Peter,
from whom he absconded and enlisted as a common soldier. The
interest of the father placed him in a better situation than
he would have held in the ranks, but did not obtain his discharge.
He afterwards sailed on a voyage to the Mediterranean. He owned
a farm on Long Island, which he cultivated, while he kept a