Around this time of year, we often hear about the heroes of the American Revolution: Paul Revere, George Washington, and so many others. While the contributions of these patriots can hardly be disputed, there remains a hero that many of us may not readily attribute the success of the Revolution to: the rise of the printing press in colonial America and print media.
The first printing press that utilized movable type was invented in the 15th century by Johannes Gutenberg. Almost 300 years later in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin was behind his version of the press, publishing the Pennsylvania Gazette. The capabilities of the printing industry allowed Franklin to publish his take on the state of English-American affairs, and paved the way for many other newspapers and publishers throughout the colonies to do the same.
The Movement of News
Newspapers, printed essays, and informational pamphlets raced through the colonies during the Revolution, giving readers battle updates and editorials at an unprecedented pace and circulation rate. Todd Andrlik curated, wrote, and edited Reporting the Revolutionary War: Before It Was History, It Was News (2012), a book compiled of Revolutionary newspaper clippings with accompanying historical analysis. In an interview with Mount Vernon, the group that preserves George Washington’s Virginia estate, Andrlik discussed the effect print had on the American fight for independence. “Contemporary historian David Ramsay, who twice served as a delegate in the Continental Congress, wrote that ‘in establishing American independence, the pen and the press had merit equal to that of the sword,’” Andrlik shared. While the style of newspapers was rather different than what we know today—this was long before photos and even standardized language came into play!—the idea of spreading ideas and opinions still resonated. The printed word itself may have only reached a circulation of 600 colonists, “but papers benefited from an amplified reach because they were often read aloud in meeting houses, coffee houses, taverns, and private homes,” explained Andrlik.
Leaders and Newspapers
Andrlik readily agreed that newspapers affected the opinions and decisions of Revolutionary leaders, including George Washington himself. “Bruce Chadwick, one of 37 historian contributors to Reporting the Revolutionary War, wrote in George Washington’s War (2004) that ‘The help of the press was another part of Washington’s winter [of 1777] strategy. The general read as many newspapers as he could.’” There was even an army-controlled newspaper called the New-Jersey Journal, which allowed Washington himself to provide direct reports on the war, and to counter Loyalist reports in nearby cities.
The Newspaper Process
Not only was the method of printing much different than it is today (25 hours to typeset four pages!), but everyone played every role. Finding and choosing stories to print was up to the publisher and his apprentices, who all equally acted as reporters, editors, and typesetters. Post-battle reports were top news, which were disseminated to the press by the President of Congress after he received word from the commanding officers. Smaller newspapers would pick up and reprint these stories from larger publications, spreading the news to the many corners of the colonies.
The Revolutionary Outcome
Because of this new capability for news to travel throughout America, the Revolution and its supporters certainly had an advantage. Andrlik summed up the effect newspapers had on the war saying, “Newspapers were absolutely pivotal in making America. As the only mass media at the time, they fanned the flames of rebellion, sustained loyalty to the cause, and ultimately aided in the outcome.”
Thanks to newspapers and their makers during the American Revolution, and the continued fight on behalf of American soldiers to retain our freedom.
Happy Independence Day, from The YGS Group!