Colonial Newspapers: Unsung Heroes of the American Revolution

The Print Shop at Colonial Williamsburg

Colonial newspapers are unsung heroes of the American Revolution and the Revolutionary War. Specifically, several newspapermen and women deserve recognition for their role in America’s founding, including:

  • Benjamin Edes and John Gill, Boston Gazette
  • Isaiah Thomas, Massachusetts Spy
  • William Goddard, Pennsylvania Chronicle
  • Peter Timothy, South Carolina Gazette
  • Thomas Green, Connecticut Courant
  • John Holt, New York Journal
  • Solomon Southwick, Newport Mercury
  • William Gradford III, Pennsylvania Journal
  • Mary Goddard, Maryland Journal
  • Anne Catharine Green, Maryland Gazette
  • James Rivington, Royal Gazette
  • Paul Revere, engraver for colonial newspapers (e.g., Massachusetts Spy and Boston Gazette)

One author who recognizes the revolutionary role of newspapers, and their printers and journalists, is Eric Burns, author of Infamous Scribblers (2006).

Marrying the story-telling flair of McCullough with the journalism history acumen of Mott and Emery, Burns says that the Boston Gazette, arguably the most influential newspaper the country has ever known, got us into the Revolutionary War, sped up the course of the war and may have even determined the outcome of the war. And a good chunk of Infamous Scribblers is dedicated to supporting this thesis.

As Burns admits, “Perhaps the importance of the press to the outcome of the war can be exaggerated, but not easily and not by much. It was newspapers that kept the colonies informed of the progress of the fighting in a way that letters and patterers could not have done, and in the process united the colonies in a way that was beyond the ability of the jerry-built wartime government.”

Burns points out that newspapers were the only form of media at the time and served as the great unifier of our nation during a time when America “needed unity as much as we needed ammunition.”

Below are a few other highlights from Infamous Scribblers:

On reporting and publishing during the Revolutionary War: “The Revolutionary War was not an easy one to cover. For one thing, once the fighting started there was more news than ever but no more shipments of ink or type or spare parts for the presses coming into American ports. There were no more shipments of paper either, and, as for the quantities still available or smuggled into the colonies from a friend in the motherland or a trader in another European nation, there were higher priorities for it than journalism.”

On a newspaper’s role in the Revolutionary War: “It was Franklin, though, who most succinctly and accurately assessed the role of the media in the days leading up to the war. It was he, astute as ever, who pointed out that the press not only can ’strike while the iron is hot,’ but it can ‘heat it by continually striking.’”

On an unlikely spy embedded as a printer: “Jemmy [James] Rivington’s Tory newspaper, the Royal Gazette, was extremely critical of George Washington. However, Rivington was also a spy who passed along secrets of the British navy to colonial leaders. On one occasion, Rivington helped break a British code that almost surely saved American lives during one of the war’s earlier battles.” Read the Rag Linen blog post on this topic.

Additional resources on the role and significance of colonial printers during the American Revolution:

Below is the presentation Eric Burns gave at a book store in Washington, DC, which aired on C-SPAN.

2 Comments

  1. Dee
    March 19, 2010

    Very interesting. Love stuff on the American Revolution. Here’s a great American Revolution. magazine history buffs may be interested in: http://www.patriotsar.com/

  2. T. Holt Murray
    November 16, 2011

    Hello,

    I know this is a dated blog post, but when I occasionally I do a little research on my heritage/ancestors, etc.

    My full name is Thomas Holt Murray (the fourth) and I connect back to the original one, T.H. Murray of clearfield, PA. This TH Murray was the son of Alexander Murray, who had married Isabella Holt, the daughter of Thomas Holt of Bradford, PA (don’t worry, I will get somewhere…). Looking up Thomas Holt, the info doesn’t mention his father, but it does say he was the grand-son of John Holt Revolutionary War Hero in publishing.
    So, I guess, I was just wondering two things: do you have more info on John Holt & do you have the name of his son, who seems to have slipped between the informational cracks of time.

    Thank you, T. Holt Murray

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