Publisher, printer, bookseller, spy
James Rivington, born in London to a family of publishers, was named by the king of England as the Royal Printer of New York during the Revolutionary War (1775–83). His Royal Gazette became one of the best-selling newspapers in the colonies, and it is considered the first daily newspaper to be published in the United States. He began the war as a Tory or Loyalist—someone who wanted to remain loyal to and keep the American colonies a part of England—but in 1781 he began to work as a spy for General George Washington (1732–1799; see entry). Rivington's work for the patriot cause was not known during his lifetime, however, and he died poor and unrecognized.
James Rivington was born in England in 1724, the sixth son of Charles Rivington and Eleanor Pease. His early life was spent in Derbyshire, but in the 1740s, he entered into his family's publishing business in London. In 1752, he married Elizabeth Minshull, but she died young. Their only child died in infancy.
Rivington and his brother John ran the family operation until Rivington left in 1756 to open his own publishing business with James Fletcher, Jr. This partnership proved immensely profitable because of their success in publishing History of England, a book by Tobias Smollett (1721–1771), a major British author.
According to people who knew Rivington at this time, he liked to spend money and live well. He was known for his fine clothing and for the vast amounts of money he spent at the race track in Newmarket. However, Rivington soon gambled his earnings away and declared bankruptcy. Bankruptcy is the practice by which a person legally declares himself unable to pay his debts and gives to the people he owes the right to divide his belongings and take them in payment of his debts.
Threatened with debtor's prison, Rivington decided to begin a new life in the American colonies. (At this time in England, many of the people in prison were there because they were unable to pay their bills. Legally, they could be kept in prison until they, or their family, paid off those debts.) Rivington immigrated to the United States and settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1760.
Begins new life in America
In America, Rivington made his living as a bookseller, and he again became successful. Upon his arrival in 1760, he opened a book shop on Market Street in Philadelphia. Then, in September 1760, he opened a second store in Hanover Square in New York City. He advertised himself as the only "London book seller in America" and offered to supply the public libraries with books. He opened a third bookstore on King Street in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1762. The stores also sold other merchandise, such as paintings.
Thus Rivington had created a chain of bookstores that captured a large part of the book trade in three of the colonies' largest cities: Boston in New England, and New York and Philadelphia in what were known as the "Middle Colonies." In 1765, Rivington concentrated his business at the New York City location, possibly in part because he had his eye on another money-making venture. In 1766, while living in Annapolis, Maryland, he offered people shares in his "Maryland Lottery." This was a scheme to sell people land at a profit. However, the scheme failed and Rivington again declared bankruptcy.
Once again, Rivington overcame adversity. In November 1768, he opened a book-selling business as J. Rivington & Co. in the Wall Street business district of New York City. He again reaped success through a wise choice of authors to publish. In 1768, he published the poems of Charles Churchill, an English writer known for his satirical works poking fun at people or ideas. By 1769, Rivington was well enough established in New York City society that he was able to win the hand of Elizabeth Van Horne, who belonged to a prominent family. The couple had two sons and a daughter.
Rivington's second marriage seems to have steadied him. His book-selling business continued to prosper, and in 1773, he expanded to include a print shop that did pamphlets and handbills (printed advertisements) as well as books. Accounts from the time describe Rivington as an elegant dresser, well mannered, interested in theater, and fond of high living (good food and parties).
Begins publishing New-York Gazetteer
In the spring of 1773, Rivington began a new venture. He issued free copies of a new newspaper that was eventually to be called Rivington's New-York Gazetteer; or the Connecticut, New Jersey, Hudson's River, and Quebec Weekly Advertiser. Most readers soon shortened the name to the New-York Gazetteer. Deciding to publish a newspaper was a costly business in colonial America. First, a printing press, an expensive investment, had to be shipped from England. Rivington also had to purchase printing plates and other supplies. He even had to arrange for the purchase of paper from England, since few paper mills existed in the colonies. At this time, paper was made from cotton rags, and it was expensive.
Colonial papers were unlike modern newspapers, which are typeset with computers and printed on computerized presses. Rivington's paper had to be typeset by hand, by a typesetter who selected each letter and placed it in a large wooden tray. Then the letters were inked, loaded onto the printed press, and pressed over sheets of paper, one page at a time, by a pressman. When enough of a particular page had been printed, the letters were unloaded from the printed plate, cleaned, stored, and then reused to typeset the next page. It was a time-consuming, dirty task but one that demanded great attention and some artistry.
Rivington had different goals in mind when he began publishing the paper. Most newspapers of the time were openly biased, in favor of one point of view. No one used on-site correspondents to report local news, so the typical colonial paper was full of sensational stories and rumors. These papers were also very repetitive, because they reprinted stories from each other.
Rivington wanted to use his New-York Gazetteer to publish both sides of the argument as to whether the American colonies should rebel against England. He also proposed to include more international news than other American papers. The happenings in other parts of the world were important to Americans because if they declared war against England, the colonists wanted to know whether they could expect support from England's enemies in Europe (namely, France and Spain).
His background in book publishing helped Rivington make the New-York Gazetteer a quality publication. It appealed to readers because of its attractive layout, good quality paper, and easy-to-read typefaces. By 1774, the New-York Gazetteer claimed a readership of more than 3,600 people. This was a huge audience for a colonial newspaper, and it made Rivington's one of the largest and best-read papers in America. Rivington himself claimed that his paper was sold throughout the colonies, in the West Indies, England, France, Ireland, and the Mediterranean countries in Europe.
The Sons of Liberty have a political agenda
While modern readers can appreciate Rivington's attempt to report the news in an unbiased way, those who lived during his time did not. The patriots relied on the newspapers to print stories that would make their readers angry with the British and eager to break away from England. As the patriots stirred up rebellion against England, Rivington responded by printing more stories that gave reasons why the American colonies should remain tied to England.
The Sons of Liberty openly challenged Rivington as a traitor to the cause of freedom. The Sons of Liberty was the name given to groups of patriots who formed to protest the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765. The Stamp Act imposed a fee on all printed material. The Sons of Liberty knew that putting a fee on newspapers and pamphlets would interfere with their ability to get their message of rebellion to the colonists. Later the Sons openly promoted armed rebellion against England, and used violence to persuade others to this viewpoint. Rivington, a good businessman, knew when to back down. He signed a form supporting the group and promised to print stories and editorials that fit the patriot agenda.
Printshop destroyed by patriot mob
The Sons of Liberty, however, were not convinced of Rivington's change of heart. In 1774, Isaac Sears (1730–1786), one of the patriots openly criticized in the New-York Gazetteer, decided that Rivington needed a lesson. Sears led a mob of supporters who ransacked Rivington's print shop and damaged his printing plates. Rivington himself was arrested and brought before the Continental Congress (the local patriot government), questioned, and then released. His newspaper continued to be closely watched by the Sons of Liberty.
In November 1775, the Sons of Liberty were fed up. Rivington had continued to print Loyalist stories and editorials, so this time the patriot mob that attacked Rivington's shop burned it to the ground. They destroyed the printing press and, according to legend, took away the printing plates to melt down into bullets for the patriot cause.
Named Royal Printer of New York
The incident not only ruined Rivington's livelihood, it probably frightened him. He left for England in January 1776. During his year in England, he was appointed the Royal Printer of New York by King George III see entry. This honor meant that Rivington could print the King's royal coat of arms symbol on his newspapers. Thus readers would know that Rivington had the king's favor.
Meanwhile, back in America, the Revolutionary War had heated up. It looked like the British were going to win the war because they had more and better trained soldiers and a navy to ship troops and supplies. By January 1777, British general William Howe's army occupied New York City. Rivington's fears of the patriots' vengeance lessened, and he returned to New York later in 1777 with a new printing press and type. He reopened his print shop in October and resumed publication of his newspaper, now calling it Rivington's New York Loyal Gazetteer. In December, he renamed the newspaper The Royal Gazette.
Patriots denounce The Royal Gazette
Whether Rivington was responding to his role as the King's voice in New York, or whether Rivington was angry about his treatment at the hands of the Sons of Liberty, his commitment to reporting both sides of the news changed. The Royal Gazette now printed stories that clearly favored the British. He printed poems, letters, and essays that made fun of patriot leaders, including General Washington. He poked fun at the continuing American losses in the battlefield, and tried to weaken the public's enthusiasm for the war.
The American Loyalists and the British troops stationed in New York eagerly supported The Royal Gazette, but his British bias earned Rivington ongoing criticism and threats from the patriot leaders and the general public. However, while the British army was in New York City, the patriots could not move against Rivington or his printing operation. Among themselves, the patriots called Rivington's paper "The Lying Gazette."
Nevertheless, Rivington's newspaper was the most important Tory newspaper in the colonies during the Revolutionary War. When wartime shortages of paper and ink threatened to stop publication, other Tory publishers were willing to help Rivington keep The Royal Gazette going. With their help, The Royal Gazette continuously published, at least five days each week, from the summer of 1778 until the summer of 1783, when the war ended. For this reason, many historians consider The Royal Gazette the first daily newspaper in the United States.
Changes allegiance to work for rebel cause
About 1781, Rivington had a change of heart and began passing information about British plans to General Washington. The reason for this change is unknown. However, Rivington may have sensed that victory now lay within America's grasp and decided to side with the expected victors. The Americans had won battles at Saratoga, New York, and Trenton, New Jersey, and the British suffered from lack of supplies and soldiers to replace those killed in battle.
Whatever the reason, Rivington was admirably placed to collect and deliver military information to Washington. Like many newspaper publishers, Rivington's shop also functioned as a gathering place. It was here that subscribers picked up their latest edition of the newspaper, and some lingered to read it aloud for the benefit of the illiterate in the audience (those who could not read or write). Rivington had only to be in his shop to hear British officers and Loyalist supporters discussing the news.
Rivington's work as a patriot spy was rumored for many years among historians. It was finally considered proved with the printing of "The Tory and the Spy: The Double Life of James Rivington," written by Catherine Snell Crary, and published in a historical magazine in 1959. Among other evidence offered by Crary was the fact that in 1781, Rivington passed along a set of British naval signals to the French admiral patrolling the American coast (France had agreed to support the American cause). The signals helped this French ally intercept messages between British ships, so the French admiral could then plan counter moves against the British.
Rivington's readers and the general public, however, did not know of his new patriot sympathies. They saw only his newspaper stories, which continued to support the British. This Loyalist cover helped Rivington in his role as double agent, spying for both sides.
When the British left New York City in 1783 at the end of the war, General Washington sent American officers and troops to Rivington's home to protect him from the wrath of the jubilant Americans. Washington himself is said to have visited the Rivington house. This protection seems to have puzzled Rivington's neighbors. Why would the patriot general protect the Tory whose newspaper worked to damage Washington's cause? Only the passage of time would reveal Rivington's part in the British withdrawal from New York City.
Again faces bankruptcy
With the American army occupying New York City, Rivington tried to keep his newspaper going. He renamed it Rivington's New York Gazette and Universal Advertiser and removed the royal arms. However, Isaac Sears and some of his friends visited Rivington and shut down the paper, ending Rivington's career as a newspaper editor-publisher. After the war ended in 1783, Rivington tried to mend his fortunes by setting up as a bookseller and stationer (supplier of writing supplies). His business did not flourish, perhaps because many Americans did not patronize his shop because they were still bitter about his Loyalist leanings during the war. Rivington died in poverty in New York City in 1802.
Today, Rivington's dual role in the war is known, and a street in New York City is named for him.
For More Information
Blanco, Richard L., ed. The American Revolution, 1775-1783. Vol. 1. New York: Garland Publishing, 1993, pp. 843-49.
Crary, Catherine Snell. "The Tory and the Spy: The Double Life of James Rivington." William and Mary Quarterly, 16 (1959): 61-72.
Duyckinck, Evert A., and George L. Duyckinck. Cyclopaedia of American Literature: Embracing Personal and Critical Notices of Authors, and Selections from Their Writings, From the Earliest Period to the Present Day; With Portraits, Autographs, and Other Illustrations. Vol. 1. Philadelphia: Wm. Rutter Co., 1875, reprinted, 1965, pp. 217, 290-95, 456, 472-74,478.
Purcell, L. Edward. "James Rivington." Who Was Who in the American Revolution. New York: Facts on File, 1993, p. 408.
Pennsylvania Historical Society, 1300 Locust St., Philadelphia, PA 19107. Tel: (215) 732-6200. Fax: (215) 732-2680. [Online] Available http://www.libertynet.org/~pahist (accessed on 7/19/99).
The Role of the Press in Colonial America
The earliest American newspaper on record was published in the South in 1638. By the time of the American Revolutionary War (1775–83), there were forty-two newspapers being printed in the colonies, with the New England, Middle, and Southern colonies evenly represented. About a third of the newspapers were Tory or Loyalist in tone (they favored remaining part of Britain). The majority of the colonial newspapers were issued weekly, and were purchased by subscription by several hundred people. Many more, however, actually heard the news, which was read aloud in coffeehouses and taverns.
Sharing the news by reading it aloud in public places served two purposes. It made the news available to those unable to pay for a paper. And it informed those unable to read (at the time of the Revolution, almost half the male population was illiterate).
Colonial newspapers carried different information from modern papers. A typical colonial paper was four pages (a large sheet folded in half and printed as four pages). The front page was filled with advertisements. The other pages carried reprints of news stories from other papers and the text of speeches and sermons. The papers also offered poetry, letters, essays, and editorials. Many editorials were unsigned, so that the authorities could not find and punish the colonial authors who urged the colonists to rebel against English rule.
In Colonial America there weren't any telephones, computers, faxes, e-mails, cars, or trains. Information was shared by people traveling by horseback, on foot, or by ship. News arrived slowly and was eagerly awaited. The newspapers were one way for patriots to share their messages of the benefits of declaring the American colonies' independence from England. At this time, each colony considered itself a separate entity. By showing the colonists that they had something in common (their grievances against England), the newspapers helped forge a sense of community among the colonies. This sense of being one nation was vital to the colonies' success in gaining their freedom from England.
"Rivington, James." American Revolution Reference Library. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 11, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/educational-magazines/rivington-james
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