The American Revolution was the first event of its kind in which the media played a central, if not defining role. In a major way, the media served to shape public opinion surrounding a break with England. Recently I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Carolyn Eastman, who teaches United States History at the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Eastman is an expert on the role that the media played in shaping the early citizenry’s sense of what it meant to be “American.” What follows is various excerpts from that interview, along with other notes and thoughts.The early American media played a critical role in connecting citizens to events that shaped their national experience. Whether it was Paul Revere’s widely distributed (and essentially inaccurate) engraving which depicted the “Boston Massacre” (he called it “The Bloody Massacre”) in newspapers across New England, Patrick Henry’s fiery “Liberty or Death” speech, or John Dickinson’s thoughtful and popular “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania” essays that rallied colonial opposition to the Townsend Act in 1767-68, early American newssheets, pamphlets, newspapers, and oratory played prominent roles in shaping the early formation and growth of our nation.
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Carolyn Eastman, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Eastman is a recognized expert on the subject of early American media history. She is currently studying the ways in which early Americans began to think of themselves as being “American” after the Revolution by examining the ways that they learned to participate as members of a public.
The Early Colonial Press
According to Dr. Eastman, by the 1770′s, Americans were becoming a very media-conscious people. “By the early 1770′s, there were hundreds of papers, pamphlets, and other news available on the streets in cities in the colonies, especially in the north. So early Americans were closely connected and networked though print and oratory. This is in part because by the time of the Revolution, printing presses had become cheaper as people acquired the raw materials needed to build their own; before that, they would import presses from Europe, which was expensive. Literacy was high in comparison with the rest of the world, especially in the north; census statistics in the south are more difficult to come by (in general, they suggest that the rate of literacy was lower than the north but still higher than most other nations). Reading was very important, not only crossing income levels as a principal form of entertainment, but also very necessary for preparing oneself for a life in commerce.”
Eastman continues, “But getting to this media-conscious level was a slow process. During most of the colonial period, most Americans would have had access to the Bible and perhaps a few other religious publications, but very limited access to much else. Printing in the colonies was expensive and usually limited to religious tracts; importing publications from England and elsewhere was also very expensive. Thus, those individuals who read broadly came from the highest echelon of society.”
As early as 1640 there was a printing press in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The press was run by Stephen Day, and his first publication was the “Bay Psalm Book”. The first newspaper to appear in the American colonies was a newssheet called “Publick Occurrences”, which appeared in Boston in 1690. It lasted one issue. While equipment for printing presses were still being imported from England well into the 18th century, there in fact was a paper mill established in Germantown, Pennsylvania as early as 1690. William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, had hired a master printer named William Bradford early in the colony’s development. Brought over from England, Bradford produced religious publications and other printed material. In 1725, Bradford moved to New York and established the New York Gazette, the first newspaper in that city and one of the first in the new world.
In 1733, a group of merchants and public officials, apparently upset with William Cosby, the colonial governor, offered their backing to a young printer named John Peter Zenger. The only other newspaper in the city, the New York Gazette, was run by Bradford, who also happened to have become the government printer. Zenger’s New-York Weekly Journal, which first printed in November of 1733, had no implied or expressed restrictions on its content, and it began to regularly attack government policy and the existing establishment. Cosby subsequently had Zenger arrested and he was jailed (interestingly enough, his wife continued to run the paper in his absence). During the trial, Zenger’s lawyer pleaded directly to the jury, urging them to “break precedent”, and in the “cause of liberty, to lay claim to the Right… the Liberty.. both of exposing and opposing arbitrary power by speaking and writing- Truth.” After a brief deliberation, the jury came back with a verdict- “not guilty.” Zenger was released.
Historians Michael Emery and Edwin Emery concluded that the Zenger case had tremendous inspirational impact. “The trial did enunciate a principle- even if it did not establish legal precedent- and this principle is vital to our libertarian philosophy today in matters of free speech and the press.” According to Gouvernor Morris, the prominent revolutionary figure, the trial of Zenger in 1735 was the “morning star of that liberty which subsequently revolutionized America.”
Dr. Eastman says that the focus of early newspapers was different than today’s major dailies. “Almost always, newspapers of the day would cover foreign affairs first and foremost; this was just because events abroad were very important to early Americans as a whole,” Eastman continues. At this time, Americans viewed themselves as inhabiting a remote country far from the center of civilization. “So you would see front pages covering what was going on around the world. Then you would have advertisements for businesses, which also helped to subsidize the paper, and only then would you have coverage of local events.”
The gradual expansion of the newspaper press during the 18th century permitted larger numbers of ordinary people to read more broadly by the time of the American Revolution. By that time, newspapers had become a centrally important form of media coverage. At the outbreak of the Revolution, Thomas Paine began distributing “The American Crisis” (1776-83), a series of pamphlets aimed at rallying morale. “…the summer soldiers and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of every man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” George Washington had “The American Crisis” read to his troops at Valley Forge.
By the 1770s, newspapers had become a vital part of colonial life. In a society where communication between the colonies, and even between towns, was difficult, they provided one of the most efficient means of spreading news. The newspapers announced events such as the Boston Massacre, Bunker (Breed’s) Hill, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, as well as Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown. And as a result of the Revolution, newspapers became the principal means for conducting and participating in political discussion within our emerging democracy.
Reaction to the Stamp Act
At the end of the Seven Year’s War, in 1765, England’s coffers were exhausted. The English Prime Minister, George Greville, proposed legislation for the now infamous “Stamp Act”, which imposed taxes on the British colonies on everything from newspapers and legal documents to playing cards. News that Parliament had approved the act reached the colonies in April. Reaction was almost universally hostile. Patrick Henry, a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, introduced a set of resolves opposing the act. These resolves were subsequently printed and distributed to various printers and newspapermen. The editor of the Virginia Gazette, a prominent Virginian newspaper at the time (and owned by a Royalist), refused to print them. But on June 24th, the Newport (Virginia) Mercury printed the full text. Other papers soon printed the resolves too, including the Boston Gazette.
There were Sons of Liberty chapters already in existence throughout most of the colonies. These chapters were secret organizations formed throughout the colonies in response to the Stamp Act. They took their name from a speech made by a man named Isaac Barre, in which he railed against the Act and Parliament in general. These chapters kept in touch with another through “committees of correspondence” which were essentially writing committees whose goal was to spread news and information between like-minded individuals. There were many colonial printers among these insurgents including Benjamin Edes of the Boston Gazette, Isaiah Thomas of the Massachusetts Spy, and William Goddard of the Pennsylvania Chronicle. Due to intense pressure by the Sons of Liberty
and organized protests in nearly all the British American colonies, the Stamp Act was dissolved by Parliament in March, 1776. But Parliament quickly supplanted it with other tax acts that led to increasing protest organizing by the colonists.
Colonial protest movements had to face the fact that their effectiveness was mitigated by their lack of coordination between the colonies. Each colony had a separate group of leaders, tactics, and goals, and very little communication existed between them. But the succession of tax acts passed by Parliament strengthened the growing feeling among the people that they might be able to overcome their colonial differences and offer a united front against the King and Parliament. Franklin, himself an accomplished printer, was so distressed by the colonists’ inability to put their differences aside and work together on virtually any issue that in 1754, when French attacks on Virginians on the Ohio River escalated, Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette published a depiction of a dismembered snake, each section representing a different colony.
Promotion and Credibility
“During the Revolution, the press helped to inform citizens in the far-flung states about the progress of the war, but printers also took advantage of this position to promote their own services, says Dr. Eastman. “Pamphlets and newspapers often discussed the fact that only printed materials could disseminate information across such a large nation. As a result, the celebration of the press became a common aspect of late 18th-century nationalism; citizens believed that this might be one of the best-informed countries in history, with a nation full of educated and informed citizens. Even the classic text, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, is an example of this phenomenon. This pamphlet stated that thousands of people had read it and that, as a result, ideas of independence from Britain were on everyone’s lips. Paine folded that image of print spreading ideas far and wide together with the image of a new age of critical citizens who could make radical political decisions in extreme times. Ironically, he radically over-inflated the number of his readers — the scholar Trish Loughran has shown that the overwhelming majority of printed editions of Common Sense remained in the immediate Philadelphia area. But nevertheless, Paine’s rhetoric about the tie between literate, politically-sophisticated citizens and the print media remains a central aspect of American nationalism.”
After the Revolution, newspapers quickly became tied to the emerging two-party system. At first, the founders of the new nation and the Constitution didn’t recognize the degree to which political parties and partisanship would come to define politics in America. They worried about other issues, such as “whether commerce, or the market, could corrupt the media,” as Eastman states. But especially during the administration of John Adams in the late 1790s, political leaders who opposed Adams began to use newspapers as organs to circulate opposing political ideas. Many leaders were deeply disturbed by the idea that American politics might become so divided, but few people ever questioned the notion that newspapers themselves would be partisan. “They would never have thought that a paper ought to not represent a particular party view,” Eastman says. In towns and cities throughout the nation, newspapers sprang up that openly advocated either the Federalists or the Republicans. Even the smallest towns came to have rival newspapers; very few areas supported only one. In the largest cities, Philadelphia and New York, the Federalists and Republicans supported several newspapers on each side. Eastman notes that the conglomeration of the media so prevalent today is a far cry from the media diversity of the early Republic. “It’s strange in a way that today, for whatever reason, the market dictates that only one paper in a market such as Austin, for example, is sufficient.”
Defining Ourselves as “American”
“One of the most interesting aspects of the American Revolution, and the events immediately following our independence, is that the wide geographic, religious, commercial, political, or wealth differences that existed between the colonies led all kinds of ordinary people to attempt to define a new national identity with common desires and goals,” Dr. Eastman comments. “Correspondence of the day indicates that many people understood the enormous hazards associated with winning independence and establishing the new country’s place in the world. Many individuals worried that this new nation wouldn’t last, or that democracy would lead to social chaos. This led to a heightened sense of the importance of creating a national identity and a shared sense of the nation’s goals for the future. The thing is, there was never any clear, coherent way of getting that sort of information out to the public (given the limited number of papers any one printing press could print). This is one of the big shifts I study – the transition from a kind of uncertain understanding of what “nationalism” meant in the late 18th century to a much more vibrant, familiar nationalism during & after the War of 1812.”
Dr. Eastman continues, “I analyze how Americans learned to think of themselves as being ‘American’ after the Revolution by examining the ways that they learned to participate as members of a public. I do this by studying ordinary people’s experience with the media — print and oratory — because, in such a diverse country, these were the only means by which public information could be transmitted. But I don’t just look at this as a one-way street of information flowing outward from a center. I also look at the ways that ordinary people themselves learned the skills of composition and oratory, skills that they believed were central to being good citizens. Their own educations made men and women particularly critical and engaged members of the public. So when I read people’s diaries and letters, I frequently find them criticizing local ministers or politicians for being poor speakers at the same time that they agonized about their own attempts to sound polished and educated in writing or in conversation.”
The Importance of Oratory
Another huge factor in Americans’ new sense of self-awareness, was oration and oratory skills, skills that overlapped with literacy and the importance of keeping abreast of printed information. “I believe that Americans after the Revolution believed that oratory was valuable to all people, not just formal public speakers,” Dr. Eastman says. “I think it fed their sense that they were training an entire country to be well-spoken (rather than to present themselves as the ‘hicks’ that the British believed them to be) and to be educated and well-read. They also believed strongly that the new nation required a public made up of critical and knowledgeable citizens in order to ensure the long-term stability of the country.” Of course, the media had a strongly interconnected role in this skill; most important speeches of the day were transcribed and printed for everyone to read, in their entirety. Children in schools were asked to memorize and recite those speeches as a part of their everyday schoolwork.
Printed oratory played a large role in promoting nationalism, especially following the War of 1812. Since many Americans felt that this was the moment at which they had finally gotten the country out of Britain’s economic stranglehold, nationalistic writing and oratory accelerated. Many biographers and writers began to collect and publish the writings and correspondence of prominent revolutionaries. Paying homage to the people who formed the nation in the first place was important to many people. “The histories of the Revolution and especially the biographies of prominent Americans were very much a part of that move”, Eastman says. “I found that one of the ways that leaders promoted nationalism among young people was to encourage them to ‘be like’ Washington, Fisher Ames, Patrick Henry, and other patriotic men — these men’s characters and oratorical abilities were described in excruciating detail in order for young people to emulate them.” Young people recited their speeches in school and learned how to emulate Washington’s gentility or Henry’s fervent patriotism, qualities that were now defined as “American.” As a result, Eastman’s work shows that oratory remained as important to the new nation as were the burgeoning print media.
I asked Dr. Eastman to recommend any books, current or otherwise, where one might better understand the basis or background for this subject. “One of the best is Jay Fliegelman’s ‘Declaring Independence’. I also love Kenneth Cmiel’s ‘Democratic Eloquence’. On the state of the newspaper press in the early Republic, see Jeffrey Pasley’s ‘The Tyranny of Printers.” These are all brilliant books and extremely well-written.
About Dr. Carolyn Eastman
Dr. Eastman teaches United States History at the University of Texas at Austin. Her work A Nation of Speechifiers: Print, Oratory, and the Making of a Gendered American Public, 1780-1830 (forthcoming) examines the ways that the media functioned at the center of American public life in the early Republic. She analyzes the active roles of ordinary men and women in helping to define American nationalism, civic roles, and gender identities, in part through their engagement with print and oratory. Professor Eastman teaches courses in gender and sexuality studies, early American history, and the public sphere.
 In addition to the books recommended by Dr. Eastman, I also found “The Press and America: An Interpretive History of the Mass Media” by Michael Emery and Edwin Emery (1999) especially useful on this subject.
Another really good source on this subject is “Muckraking!: The Journalism that Changed America” by William Serrin and Judith Serrin (2002).
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