Reporting the Revolutionary War

All the news that was fit to print in the 1760s, ’70s and ’80s.

Reporting the Revolutionary War

Todd Andrlik likes to read and collect newspapers. Newspapers from the eighteenth century, that is. And in particular, papers from the time of the American Revolution.

What makes Revolutionary War-era newspapers so compelling? They provide “extraordinary intelligence” about the founding of our country, says Andrlik, noting that they take the reader beyond the “unreal,” sanitized history taught in high school and college to a visceral understanding of what the colonists were thinking and doing. Not to mention how the news of the day — including the Boston Massacre, Boston Tea Party, and Battle of Bunker Hill — was reported. “As the only mass media, newspapers played a pivotal role in the making of America — the primary means of mass communication, propaganda, support of the cause, and sustaining interest in the fight.”

Expecting that others might also appreciate the contents of Revolutionary War-era newspapers, Andrlik reproduced his collection in the book “Reporting the Revolutionary War” (Sourcebooks), alongside essays by distinguished historians (which help place the articles in context). The historians also highlight key developments, like the article in which “No Taxation without Representation” comes to life — the May 10, 1764 edition of The Pennsylvania Gazette.

One might not expect to need a reader’s guide, but eighteenth century newspapers aren’t as easily consumed as contemporary newspapers, in part because of inconsistent grammar and spelling, and because lowercase s letters in eighteenth-century newspapers are Old English and resemble a modern-day f. So “less” and “myself” read like “lefs” and “myfelf,” a quirk that takes some getting used to.

Another difference is that most Colonial newspapers lack headlines. “What you typically see are datelines and an introductory line that typically says, ‘Extract of a letter from….’,” says Andrlik, noting that the much of the content was derived from correspondence, including handwritten letters. And the so-called headline news typically appeared on pages 2 and 3, while columns and ads were on the front and back pages.

But much like newspapers today — which may present news and opinion from either a conservative or liberal point of view — Revolutionary War newspapers often evinced either a Patriot or Loyalist bias. “Through a variety of propaganda tactics — like strategic news selection and demonizing the enemy — they could motivate people who supported their cause,” says Andrlik, who describes the Boston Gazette as the quintessential Patriot paper, with the Boston Chronicle and the New York Gazeteer as two standout Loyalist rags.

Sometimes papers even went so far as to provide a framework for action, as did the September 5, 1765 Supplement to the Boston News-Letter, which, in the midst of strong opposition to the much-hated Stamp Act, encouraged violence against stamp masters and loyalists alike. It even provided a “practical to-do list” “for a three-day riot,” which read, in part:

Day One: assemble and erect gallows.
Make effigies of the stamp master, hated loyalists
Cart effigies through town to gallows and hoist effigies by neck 15 feet high
Make a fire and burn those effigies to ashes

Day Two: Gather a crowd, march to house of loyalist No. 1. Shatter windows, break doors to pieces. Damage partitions, ruin furniture. March to home of loyalist No. 2. Tear his house to pieces. Destroy his furniture and ravage his cellar. Destroy all provisions, wine. March to the home of the stamp master. Threaten his home if he doesn’t resign. Receive the promise of resignation, return to the first two homes to continue destruction.

Day Three [morning]: Listen to the stamp master’s public resignation.

Meanwhile, there was considerable sentiment in British newspapers in favor of America having its freedom. “There are a lot of parallels to the way the American press covers wars today,” says Andrlik, noting that the British questioned the wisdom of engaging in a long, costly fight while in the midst of a debt crisis.

As for Andrlik, he believes that “Reporting the Revolutionary War” — named “Best American Revolution Book of 2012” by the New York Revolutionary War Round Table — has the potential to make everyone’s library of Revolutionary War history books more dynamic. “Read the histories by David Hackett Fischer [‘Washington’s Crossing’], David McCullough [‘1776’], and Ray Raphael, and appreciate all the research and analysis they put into it. Then take a break and flip open ‘Reporting the Revolutionary War’ and see how events were reported,” he says. “Reading Revolution Era newspapers in their original form helps reproduce the same immediacy and uncertainty felt by those who first held them.”

Before History dot-com
Rag Linen (Online museum of historic newspapers)