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The Newspaper in Early America

By Cliff Odle

"Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
Thomas Jefferson, 1787.

The American Revolution was made possible, among other elements, by the involvement of newspapers. For many colonists, newspapers were the most effective way of recieving information concerning the rising tensions between the King and his colonial subjects. Some papers were radical mouthpieces, making a stand for separation from the United Kingdom. Others gave voice to those that favored remaining united with Britain. Still others would allow both views to fight it out in articles and opinion pages. These early newspapers built the foundation of the free press as it is exercised in today's America and protected in the First Amendment.

During the late 1600's, most people received their news either from the local town crier or over a pint at the local tavern. Many colonists were either farmers from the countryside or sailors and dockworkers in port cities such as Boston, New York and New Haven. These were men who, for the most part, could not read, so they relied on information to come by word of mouth. But a growing number of the colonial population were becoming literate, and preferred to get their news in another fashion.

On September 25, 1690 the first multi-page newspaper was printed in the colonies. It was called "Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick." The paper, printed by Richard Pierce and edited by Benjamin Harris, lasted for one issue. Unlike the bland one-page broadsheets that preceded it, Publick Occurences did not have permission from the government to print, and so it was suppressed.

In 1704, postmaster and bookseller John Campbell was given permission to print the Boston News-Letter. It started as a single-page weekly, and was heavily subsidized by the government. It focused on news from Britain and European affairs. Any leftover space was used for local news such as fires, deaths or ship arrivals. In 1722, the paper was taken over by Bartholomew Greene and John Draper. They changed the focus to colonial news and began selling space for local advertisements, such as an ad for a lottery designed to raise money for road construction.

Throughout the 1720's, newspapers began to appear in other colonial cities such as New York and Philadelphia. Their continued development was helped along by a young prodigy named Ben Franklin. Franklin went to work as an apprentice printer under his brother, James. James Franklin was the editor of the fourth newspaper established in the colonies, the New England Courant. Ben Franklin even acted as the publisher after James was jailed for printing articles that the government considered libelous. Ben did not get along with his bother, so he illegally left his apprenticeship and fled to Philadelphia. After establishing himself, he took over a paper called "The Universal Instructor in all Arts and Sciences and Pennsylvania Gazette." Franklin wisely shortened the name to The Pennsylvania Gazette. By the 1820's, it would be known as The Saturday Evening Post. From 1723 until 1800, the Gazette was considered the most prominent newspaper in the country. Franklin's writings were often done under pen names such as Mrs. Silence Dogood, Anthony Afterwit, and Richard Saunders. He also created new features such as the first political cartoon published in America. Using the Saunders name, he went on to publish Poor Richard's Almanak. Franklin also championed the cause of literacy by printing advertisements for works by writers such as Francis Bacon, John Milton, John Locke, and Alexander Pope, as well as classical literature by the likes of Ovid and Seneca. Although Franklin published editorials concerning the rising tensions between the colonists and King, the articles fell short of being considered libelous under British law. Another paper, however, decided to cross the line with a vengeance.

The Massachusetts Spy was an underground newspaper published by a member of the Sons of Liberty named Isaiah Thomas, who also published a magazine called the Royal American Magazine. The Royal American featured engravings by another of the Sons of Liberty, Paul Revere. The Spy, however, was a platform for Thomas to launch scathing attacks on the policy and character of King George III. He printed his paper from the second floor of the building that currently houses Boston's Union Oyster House. Although The Massachusetts Spy became so infamous that British officials labeled the building "Sedition Foundry," Thomas somehow managed to avoid arrest. After participating in the Battle of Concord, he finally had to pack up and move his operation to Worcester, Massachusetts. Historians believe that the fearless radical position of the Spy helped give rise to Thomas Paine and his pamphlet Common Sense. In 1810 Thomas wrote The History of Printing in America and founded the American Antiquarian Society.

By 1784 there were 43 newspapers in print throughout the brand new United States of America, that went by names such as The Virginia Gazette, The Watch Tower, and The Independent Reflector. Their ranks would also include the first daily newspaper, The Pennsylvania Packet. Until the Packet, most papers ran three days a week at the most. In addition to news, they carried a variety of political opinions and helped to shape American political thought. Using fake names, those in favor of a strong federal government would square off against those who favored a weaker federal government that protected states rights. These editorial battles, both thoughtful and vicious, laid the foundation for today's American political thought.

In 1791, the US Bill of Rights to the Constitution insured the survival of a free press in the first amendment, and by 1814, there would be over 346 newspapers throughout the country. By the 1830's, advances in printing and a steady rise in the literacy rate of the country kept the number of newspapers growing. Today's media owes a debt of gratitude to the pioneers of the early American press, who turned the American Revolution into what was, above all, a war of ideas. Just as muskets need powder and ball to be effective, ideas need ink and paper to thrive. It can be said that the American Revolution was fought with a gun in one hand and a pen in the other.

Sources and Further Reading:
Blanchard, Margaret A., ed. History of the Mass Media in the United States, An Encyclopedia. New York, Routledge. 1998

Cook, Elizabeth C., "Colonial Newspapers and Magazines 1704 - 1775." History of English and American Literature. New York, Putnam. 1921

Sloan, W. David., ed. American Journalism: History, Principles, Practices. MacFarland & Company, NC. 2002

Edited by Marisa Calleja

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