"Open to All; Influenced by None":
The Revolutionary Press in Colonial Virginia

David Rawson, Worcester State College

 

 E Pluribus Unum

 
 

 


Copyright, 2001, David A. Rawson. All rights reserved.

This document is a draft of a presentation delivered at the SHARP Annual Meeting, July 2001, and is reproduced here for criticism and comment only. Please do not copy or quote from it in a scholarly work. Inquire with the author regarding revised versions.


The newspaper press of Revolutionary America has been praised for its openness to opinions critical of the British imperial government. This acclaim emanates from that press's own promotional efforts, as reflected in the masthead mottos that proclaimed that they were "Open to All; Influenced by None." (1) As a result, most observers have marked this period as the genesis of the journalistic independence and integrity still claimed by the modern American media, print and electronic. But this platitude ignores a fundamental problem with the Revolutionary-era press: its professed integrity becomes quickly suspect when one closely examines the events of that day, especially in the interplay of conflicting perspectives on those events.

This paper examines a specific event in the history of press freedom in Virginia: the September 1775 seizure of the Norfolk press used by John Hunter Holt by the last royal governor, Lord Dunmore. This is an episode that has not received as much notice among historians of the Revolution as have the conflicts in New York fostered by Holt's father, John, between the Sons of Liberty and the colonial government. Nor is this as well known as other press-related events of 1775, such as Isaiah Thomas's flight from Boston to Worcester to preserve his beloved Massachusetts Spy, or the trashing of James Rivington's New York City printing office by a group of Connecticut patriots. (2) Indeed, this event merited just one paragraph in Arthur M. Schlesinger's magisterial study of the Revolutionary press, Prelude to Independence. (3) Such an oversight is undeserved, however, but understandable, given that the unpublished record of this event was inaccessible until relatively recently. With that material now in hand, this episode provides us with an opportunity to examine the value of truth in the Revolutionary media, when truth conflicted with a greater human attribute, that of virtue, and thereby to also consider the moral dimension of this essential freedom in the Revolutionary mind.


With the appearance of a second Virginia Gazette in Williamsburg in May of 1766, the editorial focus of Virginia's newspapers had changed. (4) This change is regularly described as one of competition among their publishers for the hearts and minds of Virginians; William Rind's new journal is seen as a patriotic challenge to Alexander Purdie's older, official one. But reality is more complex than this simple and oft-repeated dichotomy. Within weeks of Rind's appearance in Virginia that spring, the resident royal governor, Francis Fauquier, discovered that he had lost the ability to circulate information supporting his government. Rind became the government's printer in November 1766, but his press actually represented the views of the dissidents in the legislature who had elected him to that office, and not those of the government, per se. Meanwhile, his predecessor in that office, Alexander Purdie, broadened his newspaper's content in order to expand his readership and thereby counter the loss of this governmental subsidy, with the crucial assistance of a new partner, John Dixon. However, this change was not as abrupt as it may first appear, or as it has been depicted by scholars of this period, such as Stephen Botein. (5) Through at least the preceding decade -- and perhaps from earlier still -- the lone Virginia printing office in Williamsburg evolved from its initial function as an agency of the government and the church, into a commercial and political resource for Virginia's growing population; the office became ever less a retailer of official imprints and ever more a wholesaler of popular ones. For Virginia's newspapers, this evolution meant that their content needed to reflect the interests of their readers, and not those of the governor. Newspapers now found their viability -- and thus their profitability -- in reinforcing the developing political economy of Virginia, and so focused more on the activities of society and less on those of government.

The concept of a political economy in early American society is one that some observers have found difficult to grasp, particularly in light of our modern sense that an "economy" is something generally financial in nature. But for those living in eighteenth-century Virginia, the political economy was a self-evident reality. It was the collective interconnections in society that continually evolved according to shifts in that society's political, economic, and social imperatives. In his description of this concept, Drew McCoy notes that American colonials "lived during an age when a consideration of the normative dimension of economic life had not yet been sacrificed to the hubris of those who would claim to make economics into a 'non-moral' science." Thus, for these Virginians, political economy fell under "the broader rubric of moral philosophy" and not social science. (6) That moral dimension is something that we, as scholars, forget at our peril.

In reinforcing Virginia's evolving political economy, the colony's newspapers presented a perspective that was critical of imperial authority and dismissive of the official line, even as an alternative one emerged that reflected the interests of Americans generally and Virginians specifically. From the alternate political viewpoint, the activities of the king's government after the Seven Years' War were calculated to diminish the constitutional rights of loyal British subjects in America. From the alternate economic viewpoint, the mercantilist policies of the king's government were calculated to enrich a small class of merchants while impoverishing the producers of the commodities that those merchants extracted from the colonies. And from the alternate social viewpoint, the laws of Parliament and the policies of the king's governments were calculated to reduce the American colonists to a social standing subservient to those people living on the home islands. The Virginia Gazettes of this period proceeded from the knowledge that these alternate perspectives were more demonstrable facts than irrational beliefs; and so their editorial content shifted to support the ways that Virginians sought to counter the designs of self-interested men in Britain.

The principal consequence of this editorial evolution was that business announcements took on an ever greater precedence over the old staple of legal notices in their pages. The vitality of American commerce and its importance to the British empire was seen by the colonials as an important avenue for asserting and protecting the rights inherent to their British citizenship. This shift demonstrates, as well, the growing need for advertising space for businesses and trades as commerce thrived after the Seven Years' War, an economic reality that proved to Virginians the correctness of their political position.

By 1775, Williamsburg hosted three newspapers, all claiming the title Virginia Gazette. But even with the greater advertising space that they represented, these papers still could not meet demand, especially with one being required to carry the government's legal notices. Thus, a fourth Virginia Gazette, this sub-titled the Norfolk Intelligencer, appeared in that bustling port in mid-1774. (7) As the name suggests, this paper was about intelligence, the perishable life-blood of commerce; it was a journal not just designed to handle the growing demand for advertising that fueled the port's business engine, but to also provide any news that effected the town's commercial pursuits, yet which might not appear in the Williamsburg papers. Its proprietor, Robert Gilmour, was a successful Scottish merchant in Norfolk, a man who recognized the need to address both of these challenges. Gilmour had the distinct misfortune, however, to start this venture in the midst of the growing problems between Great Britain and its American colonies; indeed, his paper commenced publication only days before news of the passage of the Coercive Acts reached Virginia. (8) Gilmour's apparent reluctance to publish political intelligence thereafter, rather than commercial intelligence he intended, led to hostility. By the end of 1774, Gilmour had been induced, or perhaps compelled, to sell his fledgling journal to someone more sympathetic to the patriot cause than he.

That person was John Hunter Holt. He was not only the son of the patriot printer of New York City, but also the nephew of the late William Hunter, Virginia's public printer from 1750 to 1761. With these connections, Holt was able to acquire the Norfolk Intelligencer in a transaction financed by a group of patriot leaders that including his uncle Samuel Holt, a successful Williamsburg merchant. The younger Holt was apparently trained in his father's New York offices, and so the Norfolk paper's content quickly became very much like that seen in the New York Journal: highly partisan and vitriolic. So by the summer of 1775, all four Virginia Gazettes were noisily challenging the policies of the king and his government, just as their fundamental support of Virginia's evolving political economy required. It should not then be surprising that the Old Dominion's last colonial governor would seek to undermine their dominance and impudence.

John Murray, the fourth Earl of Dunmore, had arrived in Virginia in 1771. (9) Initially, he pursued a policy designed to defuse the growing political tensions by resuming land grants west of the Appalachian ridge in contravention of the Proclamation of 1763. This decision itself served the colony's political economy, by vesting more Virginians with the land they always sought to enhance both their economic and social standing; but his decision also led to conflict with the native peoples living on the lands that he granted. During the winter of 1774-1775, Dunmore waged a war against the Shawnee to suppress their opposition to further westward expansion. But this campaign meant that he did almost nothing to comply with London's directives to find and seize munitions and supplies in the hands of rebellious militia groups that winter. Thus when he returned from his war in the spring of 1775, Dunmore found the political situation spiraling out of control rapidly.

Trusting that his new-found popularity as a territorial expansionist would limit any potential political damage, he decided that he had to move against the militias; instead, Dunmore's actions had the effect of pouring gasoline on a fire. On April 16th, he ordered all of the gunpowder stored in the public magazine at Williamsburg removed to a man-of-war moored in the James River for safekeeping. The ensuing uproar nearly resulted in a march on the palace by patriot militias then gathered near Fredericksburg, but cooler heads prevailed, George Washington among them. Here Dunmore was lucky because just as the gunpowder crisis subsided, news events at Lexington and Concord arrived, rekindling patriot tempers. But his luck held only briefly. Within days, a dispatch from Dunmore to the Board of Trade in London landed in the hands of William Rind's successor, John Pinkney. In this purloined letter, Dunmore proposed a ruthless plan for dealing with any rebellion in Virginia: he would use the British navy against the river-front plantations of patriot leaders. When the second installment from his dispatch was about to appear in Pinkney's Gazette, Dunmore decided that discretion was the better part of valor; he fled Williamsburg in the dead of night, an action which proved his cowardice to many Virginians. For the next fourteen months, the governor commanded a ragtag fleet of British naval and Virginia trading vessels that loitered in the Chesapeake Bay. Dunmore's fleet became home to thousands of loyalist Virginians and runaway slaves. But more importantly, he used this fleet just as he had said he would in the purloined dispatch. He raided patriot positions and supply caches as he attempted, in his own inimitable way, to quell the rebellion.

Norfolk became a particular focus for Dunmore. The largest town and port in late-colonial Virginia, it was considered a loyalist stronghold by both sides, primarily because of the numerous Scottish merchants there, men like Robert Gilmour. Their loyalties lay with the Crown and the mercantilist system that Parliament had crafted over the preceding century and not with the Virginia planters, who were the objects of their commercial maneuverings. So while the de facto patriot government in Williamsburg saw Norfolk as a danger to Virginia's independence, Dunmore and his de jure government afloat saw supporters in its citizenry; eventually he would try to rouse them against the efforts of the revolutionary government. Early on the afternoon of Saturday, September 30, 1775, the press used by John Hunter Holt became a means to that end.

Dunmore was especially distressed that, through all of the chaotic events of 1775, he had been completely unable to either communicate his views or to mobilize public opinion in support of his government in the public prints. Furthermore, he believed that not only did the four Virginia Gazettes now serve the revolutionary leadership, but that the editors were themselves revolutionaries, as evinced by their plebeian editorial perspective. Of particular note was the Norfolk Intelligencer, which had become Dunmore's harshest critic that summer. John Hunter Holt had learned well his polemical craft in New York. But unfortunately for him, his office was uniquely convenient to the waters of the Chesapeake and thus to Dunmore's fleet. The governor ordered the captain of the sloop H.M.S. Otter, Matthew Squire, to seize Holt's printing equipment and supplies, as well as anyone working there. The subsequent action seems to have stunned those who saw it:

...on Saturday, between two and three o'clock, afternoon, an officer, with twelve or thirteen soldiers, and a few sailors, landed at the County wharf, in Norfolk, under cover of the men of war (who made every appearance of firing on the Town, should the party be molested) and marched up the main street to mr. Holt's printing office, from whence without the smallest opposition or resistance (although there were some hundred spectators) they deliberately carried off the types, and sundry other printing implements, with two of the workmen, and, after getting to the water side with their booty, gave three huzzas, in which they were joined by a crowd of negroes. A few spirited gentlemen in Norfolk, justly incensed at so flagrant a breach of good order and the constitution, and highly resenting the conduct of lord Dunmore and the navy gentry (who have now commenced downright pirates and banditti) ordered the drum to be beat to arms, but were joined by few or none; so that it appears Norfolk is at present a very insecure place for the life or property of an individual, and is consequently deserted daily by numbers of the inhabitants with their effects. (10)

This account of Squire's raid -- reported in Purdie's Gazette and reprinted verbatim in John Holt's New York Journal -- noted that Dunmore's purpose was not just to simply silence Holt, but to set up a newspaper to challenge the remaining Virginia Gazettes:

We hear that a PRESS is soon to be set up on board the ship which lord Dunmore lately seized from messrs. Eilbeck, Ross & co. under his lordship's own immediate inspection, with proper assistants; so that we may soon expect to see the GOSPORT CHRONICLE published by authority, which it is said is to contain, occasionally a certain illustrious chief's wars in Vandalia, some curious anecdotes, diverting stories, and a number of other valuable and interesting particulars, which no doubt will ensure to the new publication a very extensive circuit, and consequently redound to the credit and interest of its noble proprietor. (11)

Purdie's account of the raid was not the first seen in Williamsburg's Gazettes, but it was the longest and most satiric. This should not be a surprise. Its entertainment value and political perspective were just as important as was its account of the facts of an event, fitting the mold of what Purdie had produced since 1766 as he buttressed the developing political economy.

In the accumulated mythology about the Revolution, Americans have lost sight of the fact that both sides tended to spin events to their advantage in print. The papers of neither side were truly open because each excluded and distorted the views of their opponents, while carefully crafting stories favorable to their positions. The need to communicate his position and counter the opponents' spin was the actual motive for Dunmore's seizure of Holt's press, as evinced by unpublished reports of the event. (12)

On the morning of the raid, Captain Squire sent a letter to Holt demanding that the editor desist from slandering his character, as Holt had done in his most recent issue. Indeed, by today's standards, Holt was way out of line: he had implied that Squire was guilty of bestiality in a condescending commentary on Squire's seizure of a small vessel near Hampton. (13) While this does not seem very unusual for the period, Holt's most recent calumnies appear to have been the last straw for Squire. Dunmore's order to seize Holt's newspaper office seems, by its timing, the result of Squire asking Dunmore for permission to deal with an affront to his honor more than with anything else, and that Dunmore acquiesced to Squire's request because of similar aspersions aimed at him. Witnesses reported that, upon receipt of Squire's letter, Holt said publicly that he would not apologize for his past comments and that he intended to continue to slander Squire whenever possible. Thus, Holt's refusal to curb his tongue would not just explain the raid, but also subsequent reports of Squire's visible anger at not finding the villainous Holt on the premises that day.

The Norfolk borough council reacted strongly to the raid, calling the incident "a gross violation of all that men and freemen can hold dear." They asked that Dunmore return the seized materials and punish Squire. (14) Dunmore, however, demurred:

... if any individual shall behave himself as your printer has done, by aspersing the characters of his majesty's servants and others, in the most scurrilous, false, and scandalous manner, and by being the instigator of treason and rebellion against his majesty's crown government, and you [the council] do not take such steps as the law directs to restrain such offenders, I do then expect you will not be surprised if the military power interposes to prevent the total dissolution of all decency, order, and good government. (15)

In this last line we see what evidently disturbed Dunmore most about Holt. By shaping his journal to fit the demands of shifting popular opinion, and so to vulgarity, Holt had deserted the absolute value of truth, even as he proclaimed his devotion to that virtue. For Dunmore, the resolution was simple:

. . .I promise the printer, on my honour, if he will put himself and his servants under my protection, that they shall not meet with the least insult, and shall be permitted to print every occurrence that happens during these unhappy disputes between the mother country and her colonies, he only confining himself to the truth, and representing matters in a fair, candid, impartial manner, on both sides. (16)

Dunmore was, of course, just as disingenuous as his detractors, but that fact does not diminish the reality that Holt's newspaper was open only to certain perspectives. His was not a free press, nor were any of the others by this time -- despite the openness implied by the appearance of this exchange in the pages of Purdie's Gazette. The hypocrisy of all the printers' claims to the contrary infuriated Dunmore, even as he attempted to control the flow of public information himself:

This, I hope, will convince you that I had nothing more in view, when I requested capt. Squire to seize the types, than that the unhappy deluded publick might no longer remain in the dark concerning the present contest, but that they should be furnished with a fair representation of facts, which I know never can happen whilst the press remains under the control of its present dictators. (17)

Dunmore's response to the borough council appeared in Purdie's Gazette with the most potentially inflammatory passages italicized for emphasis, bracketed by two other reports that did not recognize that there was a problem with truth in any of Virginia's Gazettes, much less in Holt's. Indeed, most of Dunmore's charges against Holt were excised from all of the reports of this exchange published in Virginia; we only know of them from the copies that Dunmore sent to his superiors. In Purdie's report, the borough-council's memorial preceded Dunmore's response, focusing on the peaceful intentions of the town's inhabitants without mentioning Holt's conduct at all. The item that followed his letter was a commentary that argued, at some length, that Dunmore simply could not be believed because his previous actions demonstrated a lack of virtue on his part. Moreover, this writer asserted, Dunmore did not serve the truth himself. He had failed to engage in the ongoing public discourse in Holt's pages by rebutting a Dunmore family "genealogy" that Holt published previously, one which claimed that the governor was descended from Scottish rebels, and so of suspect loyalty himself:

"as we presume it to be truth, the recital could not justly subject the bare retailer [Holt] to such violence and oppression." (18)

This response ignored the possibility that Dunmore was correct in his accusations and justified in his protestations, because he had proved himself unworthy of anyone's belief. The questions he raised about Holt's character and motives were not just ignored, they were expunged in the public prints, because of Dunmore's character.

In describing Holt as a "bare retailer" of this presumed truth, the commentator in Purdie's Gazette pointed to the new reality for Virginia newspaper publishers: the salability of their product was more important than the absolute veracity of its informational content. The selling point here was Holt's adherence to the new political economy. Thus the appearance of a free press, one that advanced Virginians' interests through open discourse, counted for more than the reality of a free press. Allowing the opposition to speak in Virginia's public prints would impair the patriot leadership's control of the state's social, political and economic structures -- the roots of its changing political economy -- which was the leadership's ultimate goal. Indeed, restraining Loyalist access to the press was the central reason for the raid on James Rivington's New York City press by Connecticut revolutionaries later that same year.

From the perspective of Virginia's revolutionary leaders, this seizure was an obvious and immoral attempt to stifle freedom of the press, to silence a voice that was properly critical of Dunmore's role in suppressing the rebellion that had emerged that summer in America. But from Lord Dunmore's perspective, it was a matter of preserving a respect for the truth and the crown. Holt's weekly invective against both the governor and his subordinates was not just seditious or treasonous, it was nothing but outright lies. Moreover, with all four Virginia Gazettes in the hands of men who, like Holt, were dependent on the patronage of rebellious Virginians, the means to counter and refute the lies of the Norfolk Intelligencer were beyond Dunmore's reach. So without access to the public prints, the governor chose to seize the press producing the most bothersome newspaper in the colony and to use it to counter the libelous and traitorous publications of the remaining presses in Williamsburg.

This event leaves us with the premise that freedom of the press in Revolutionary Virginia was a reality only for those sympathetic to the rebellion, that these presses were not "Open to All; Influenced by None" as they so proudly proclaimed. The respective virtue of the opponents was the basis of believability in these accounts, not demonstrable fact, and would remain so throughout the Revolutionary era. Freedom of the press in Revolutionary Virginia meant the freedom to criticize people and events who tested Virginians' control of their society. It did not mean the freedom to publish anything by anyone, as it does in a modern sense. The nexus between editorial writer and the newspaper reader was one full of expectations on both sides, expectations shaped by and shaping the emerging political economy. Freedom of the press in Revolutionary Virginia meant the right to publish what sustained Virginians' sense of themselves and their society; but it did not mean the right to speak the truth, seek justice, and or act impartially.


Notes:

1. This is the motto from the masthead of William Rind's (later John Pinkney's) Virginia Gazette.

2. Both incidents are described in Isaiah Thomas's The History of Printing in America, with a Biography of Printers & and Account of Newspapers. ed. by Marcus A. McCorison, from the 2d ed. (New York: Weathervane Books, 1975; 1st. ed. pub. 1810; 2d. ed. pub. 1874), 180-181, 508-509.

3. Arthur M. Schlesinger [Sr.], Prelude to Independence: The Newspaper War on Britain, 1764-1776. (New York: Vintage Books, 1965; orig. pub. 1958), 238-239.

4. This paragraph synopsizes chapter 4 ("Revolutionary Disruptions and Alterations") in Rawson, "'Guardians of their own Liberty': A Contextual History of Print Culture in Virginia Society, 1750 to 1820," Ph.D. dissertation, College of William & Mary, 1998 (UMI # 99-20309), esp. 201-235.

5. Stephen Botein, "'Meer Mechanics' and an Open Press: The Business and Political Strategies of Colonial American Printers," Perspectives in American History, 9 (1975), 127-225.

6. Drew McCoy, The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian Virginia. (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1982; orig. pub. 1980, University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture), 6.

7. U.S. Newspaper Project entry no. 85-25871; Clarence S. Brigham, comp. History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820. (Worcester, Mass.: American Antiquarian Society, 1947), vol. II. Brigham's account of the seizure flawed, based apparently on Peter Force (see note 8). He describes the paper as" "Weekly. Established June 9, 1774, by William Duncan & Co., with the title of 'Virginia Gazette or, Norfolk Intelligencer.'..." Duncan was the printer, Robert Gilmour (the "& Co." part) was the financing.

8. Indeed, his start date of June 9th was two days after the day of prayer and fasting, June 7th, proclaimed by the House of Burgesses two weeks earlier in protest of these Parliamentary acts.

9. This description of Dunmore and his policies is drawn from John E. Selby, Dunmore. (Williamsburg: Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, 1977) and Selby, The Revolution in Virginia, 1775-1783. (Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1988).

10. Virginia Gazette (Purdie & Co.), Oct. 6, 1775. This paragraph was reprinted in Peter Force's American Archives (ser. 4, vol. 3, col. 847) with several silent emendations; that reprinting also left off the two subsequent paragraphs that first delineated Dunmore's reasons for the seizure before fully satirizing them.

11. Ibid. Gosport is an Elizabeth River inlet opposite Norfolk that was then the anchorage for naval vessels and later became the site of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. The Vandalia reference chides Dunmore for his campaign against the Shawnee the year before -- in a region encompassing the proposed (by Philadelphians) new inland colony of Vandalia -- when more important events were occurring in the seaboard colonies, a neglect that would likely be repeated in his Gazette.

12. Dunmore's perspective on this event can be found in his report to Lord Dartmouth, dated Oct. 4, 1775 (Great Britain, Public Records Office, Colonial Office [hereafter cited as PRO/CO] 5/1353. fol. 301) which was microfilmed as part of the Virginia Colonial Records Project (a consortium of Virginia research libraries operating from 1964 to 1990 under the direction of the Virginia State Library [now the Library of Virginia]).

13. From Virginia Gazette, or Norfolk Intelligencer, Sept. 27, 1775, now lost, but reported in Dunmore's aforementioned report (Ibid.) and a letter from James Parker to Charles Steuart, Oct 2, 1775, Steuart Papers, National Library of Scotland (microfilmed by the Virginia Colonial Records Project). Holt noted that Squire had been "too free with people sheep & hoggs;" he also cast aspersions on the character of Dunmore's father who had been detained during the Scottish rebellion of 1745 (William J. Van Schreeven, Robert L. Scribner, and Brent Tarter, comps. and eds. Revolutionary Virginia, The Road to Independence: A Documentary History. 8 vols. [Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia for the Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, 1973-1983], IV: 155-156 n. 2).

14. "Address of the Common Hall of the Borough of Norfolk to His Excellency Lord Dunmore, Sept. 30, 1775," Virginia Gazette (Purdie), Oct. 13, 1775.

15. "Lord Dunmore to the Common Hall of the Borough of Norfolk, Oct. 3, 1775," Virginia Gazette (Purdie), Oct. 13, 1775. The italics used by Purdie for emphasis in publishing this piece have been omitted as they were not in Dunmore's original (Van Schreeven, Revolutionary Virginia, IV: 164 n. 2).

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. "To the right hon. the earl of Dunmore," Virginia Gazette (Purdie), Oct. 13, 1775. Emphasis added here.


 
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