The press experienced tremendous growth between 1754 and 1829. Its expansion outpaced economic growth, impelled by an outsized belief in the cultural and especially the political significance of print communication, and by favorable government policies. Colonial North Americans, especially in the northern British colonies and among the gentry in the southern ones, hailed print communication as "the art preservative," a technology profoundly transforming the ways that a society might conserve and extend its texts, values, and history. They understood it as the engine of Enlightenment, expanding the intellectual and scientific frontiers of civilization.
First among the uses of printing in British colonial North America, however, was religion. The famous attachment of the Puritan settlers of New England to pious reading made that region the center of print production through the seventeenth century and the sole host of newspaper production in the first two decades of the eighteenth. New England's, and especially Boston's, primacy lasted till the end of the colonial period.
In the early Republic, as the political concerns generated by the Revolution interacted with commercial interests in the rising cities of the mid-Atlantic region, Philadelphia (and later New York) overtook Boston as the center of print culture. At the same time, biases in print culture against women and members of lower social classes began to fade, as women's literacy levels moved toward parity with men's and as popular styles became more common in newspapers, pamphlets, and chapbooks (literally, cheap books).
Benjamin Franklin embodies these shifts. Born in Boston and raised in a highly literate family, he experienced rebellion against the theocracy of New England firsthand as an apprentice at his brother James's newspaper, the New England Courant. After breaking with James, he moved to Philadelphia, where he spearheaded a variety of civic improvements, won fame for his experiments with electricity, and transformed himself from an artisan into a gentleman political leader and later a diplomat. As the most famous printer of the colonial period, he symbolizes the role of the press in commerce, politics, and Enlightenment, as well as its migration to the mid-Atlantic region and its increasing secularization.
Franklin's print output also captures the various uses of printing in the late colonial period. His two most famous imprints were Poor Richard's Almanac and the Pennsylvania Gazette, which remain among the most readable colonial publications. The Almanac, which sold ten thousand copies a year, was the lead title for Franklin's large and successful publishing and bookselling enterprise, which included an American edition of Samuel Richardson's Pamela—the first novel published in North America—and a series of popular pamphlet versions of the sermons of the evangelist George Whitefield. In addition to printing and publishing titles, Franklin and his London partner, William Strahan, also imported and sold British imprints. The North American colonies still looked to London as their cultural metropolis, and the logistics of printing in the colonies made it far easier and cheaper to import long works, especially full-length books. The first full-length English-language Bible to be printed in America, published by Mathew Carey in Philadelphia, did not appear until 1782. For the most part, early American printers simply could not afford to tie up so much of their scarce type in a long work.
The Pennsylvania Gazette was a more typical production for a colonial printer. If one counts each edition of a newspaper as an individual imprint, then newspapers were by far the most common kind of printed good in the late colonial period, except perhaps for job printing, the printing of ad hoc items like handbills or legal forms. Franklin's Gazette was archetypical. The largest and most successful newspaper of its day, it performed four basic tasks. First, it was an authoritative source of "official" information, carrying true texts of government proclamations and reliable shipping news. Second, it guided its readers through the available "intelligence" copied from British newspapers and informed letter writers, ship captains, and other informational middlemen. In this task, its work was aided by Franklin's position as postmaster for Philadelphia (appointed 1737) and later for the colonies (appointed 1753). These patronage posts also point to the typically close association of colonial printers with governing authorities; for Franklin and other printers, official government printing, the second task, was a crucial revenue source. But they also performed a third task that separated them from the government in providing a platform for letter writers arguing about public affairs. By printing and monitoring such discussions, colonial newspapers provided an incipient public sphere in the colonies. Since at least the acquittal of John Peter Zenger for seditious libel in New York in 1735, colonial printers had claimed the right to publish honest criticism of corrupt officials; by providing a forum for public criticism, the press worked as the "palladium of liberty." Colonial printers always exercised discretion in publishing controversial pieces, however. Freedom of the press, a phrase that meant different things to different people, was best enjoyed in moderation. Fourth, the Gazette carried advertising
In a prosperous colonial newspaper, advertisements could fill half the space.
By the 1750s almost every colony had a newspaper. In the southern colonies newspapers usually were printed by state-supported printers, who had been brought to the provincial capital to do the official printing of the laws. Such newspapers, which were usually local monopolies, claimed to be printed "By Authority"; their printers took great care not to offend the government. In a few northern cities, competitive newspaper markets had appeared. In 1775 Philadelphia had six newspapers, Boston five, and New York three. In between these two models were situations of moderate competition, like Connecticut, where four newspapers were published in different cities, or Rhode Island, where newspapers were published in Providence and Newport.
the printing press and the revolution
As the Revolution approached, the political work of these newspapers changed dramatically, and a raucous pamphlet literature circulated transatlantically. A key moment of change occurred with the Stamp Act crisis in 1765. The Stamp Act was in part a tax on printing. Even though their business was targeted by the tax, printers moved slowly to oppose it, reined in by their habit of deferring to authority. Franklin himself, working in London as a colonial agent, lobbied against the tax, but also nominated his friend and business associate John Hughes to be a stamp distributor. Only after angry popular protests exploded throughout the colonies did printers realize that this was not business as usual. Pressure forbade publishing on stamped paper, and, ultimately, printers rallied in opposition, printing illegally or stopping publication.
From then until the outbreak of actual warfare in 1775, printers were caught between a traditional avoidance of partisan attachment and the demands of activists on the one hand and authority on the other. The ambiguity in the opposition movement regarding independence and loyalty could throw printers off balance. Printers who misread the situation by favoring the Loyalist cause, like John Mein in Boston and James Rivington in New York, became targets of mob violence. Mein published cargo manifests appearing to show that John Hancock had violated nonintercourse agreements by importing enumerated British goods. Rivington published a series of pamphlets ridiculing the Patriot leadership. Both claimed "impartiality" but, simply by displaying disunity in colonial opinion, undermined the resistance. Colonial publications also circulated in Britain and were included in governors' reports as records of public opinion. In fact, Rivington and Mein both received financial subsidies from the British as well.
The Revolutionary controversy politicized printing. Intensifying with the committee movement in the early 1770s, Patriots policed public sentiments, even while producing a mountain of printed arguments about legitimate government in pamphlets and newspapers. This propaganda campaign climaxed with Tom Paine's Common Sense, the publishing sensation of the age, which, Paine claimed, ran 120,000 copies in its first few months—one copy for every ten adults.
Throughout the period of active warfare, neither side tolerated opposition publishing in territory it controlled. Freedom of the press was not a key goal of the Revolution. Rather, the revolutionaries concentrated on presenting a convincing depiction of public sentiment to, as the Declaration of Independence put it, a "candid world." A key part of this candid world was the British public, including Parliament. Both sides battled for support through the press. The newspaper habit of copying news directly from other newspapers meant that any circulating publication might be the equivalent of a wire service story today.
The Revolution confused the question of freedom of the press but heightened the sense of the press's importance to republican government. After the Revolution, printing was overwhelmingly framed as an instrument of self-rule, and all sectors of political opinion concurred on its importance. Culturally, this meant that literary production, including novels and plays, was assigned a political mission. Women were drafted into the project of literary nationalism, in part through the institution of "republican motherhood." The Republic became the template for understanding any work in the realm of print, including religious newspapers. When such newspapers began to appear at the turn of the century, they styled themselves and their evangelical mission after the political work of the revolutionaries.
a national public sphere
An overriding concern with the successful functioning of the Republic was manifest in the extension of the postal system. In the first federal administration, when congressional leaders had difficulty agreeing on any of the key institutions of the national government, they quickly and consensually passed sweeping postal legislation, creating the department with the greatest number of officeholders, the largest amount of available patronage, and the most contact and influence on the everyday lives of ordinary people. The postal system was designed as an information infrastructure. It was, in other words, designed to support a dramatic expansion of printing. Thus Congress authorized the postal system to subsidize the circulation of printed goods through reduced postage for newspapers and periodicals. Printed matter, then as now, constituted the overwhelming bulk of material in the system. The postal system also subsidized the circulation of information by stipulating free exchange of newspapers and periodicals among editors. Until the advent of telegraphic news in the mid-nineteenth century, the work of editing a newspaper largely consisted of reading the "exchanges" and copying interesting items.
The new federal and state governments also subsidized printing through requirements for publishing the laws. The federal government required the secretary of state to publish laws at advertising rates in two newspapers in each state; state governments had similar requirements. In addition, legislatures, including the U.S. Congress, contracted with printers to publish their proceedings, and all levels of government generated a great deal of job printing. Thus printers, competing in the early Republic for government patronage, served as intensifiers of partisan competition.
partisanship and the press
All the informational initiatives of the early Republic were rooted in a recognition of the importance of a national public sphere. Because legitimate government, as thinkers like Thomas Jefferson explained, came from the informed consent of the people, it was necessary to create a system by which information and opinion circulated. Such a public sphere would also produce a national identity, an imagined community. But this line of thinking did not reckon on partisan divisions. Coming out of the Revolution, leaders expected citizens, as well as printers, to approach national issues as rational individuals seeking a common good. This ideal conflicted with the recent reality of a revolutionary movement deploying heated propaganda. In other words, the Revolution's ensemble of advocacy practices contradicted its ideology of rational liberty.
This tension played out in the work of printers in the 1790s and was resolved by the 1820s. The socalled first party system produced a vicious pamphlet and newspaper war, radiating outward from Philadelphia to rival networks of printers in state capitals. The Federalist administrations of George Washington and John Adams patronized printers like John Fenno and tried to find ways to stifle the opposition printing of Philip Freneau and Benjamin Franklin Bache, who enjoyed varying levels of support from Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Because republican mores condemned the personal participation of government leaders in partisan attacks, the printers and pamphleteers fought a kind of proxy war. Their marginal status allowed opposition publicists to deploy the old advocacy tools of the Revolution; but, because they now used them against a legitimately elected government, their patriotism was continually challenged. The partisan conflict climaxed in the controversy over the Alien and Sedition Acts, passed in 1798. The outcry against these attempts to muzzle the opposition was vehement enough to contribute to Jefferson's election as president in 1800.
Jefferson's election seemed to validate partisan newspapering. Ironically, his administration also began to withdraw from the practice by establishing the National Intelligencer as its official newspaper. Although a staunch Republican organ, the Intelligencer was also a steadfast source for authoritative reports of the proceedings of the federal government and was used as a resource by printers of every political persuasion. A parallel national source was Hezekiah Niles's Weekly Register, founded in 1811 in Baltimore. These two newspapers sought to embody a national consensus on public discussion.
But the middle ground was never secure. Although at times national politics quieted during the two decades following Jefferson's election, and although in many states and localities a single party dominated politics, the national public sphere turned toward permanent division. In the 1820s, with the rise of the second party system, in which Jacksonian Democrats competed against National Republicans and later Whigs, the press solidified the partisan allegiances and practices that would characterize it for the rest of the century.
Andrew Jackson's six-year campaign for the presidency marked the maturation of partisan newspapering. Beginning with a cadre of editors including Amos Kendall and Francis Preston Blair—his famous "kitchen cabinet," a term coined in 1832 to refer to an informal group of advisers to one in power—Jackson's organization created a national network of party papers that would coordinate the presentation of a spectacle of public support. His media campaign did this first by producing representations of Jackson—descriptions of his principles, proposals, heroic personal history, and prodigious character—and then of the people spontaneously acclaiming Jackson. Just as in the Revolution, the newspaper editors actively participated in movement activities, coordinating caucuses and conventions, acting as secretaries at meetings, producing official reports, and then printing them in their newspapers, which propagated all this material through the national system of postal exchange. Niles, the Weekly Register editor, would later refer to this system as "manufacturing public opinion."
Partisans in the 1820s justified their action as participating in a healthy contest for public opinion. They argued that competition in politics promoted freedom in the same way as competition in the marketplace. Unlike the first party system, Jacksonian politics did not itch to treat opposition as treason. However, the majoritarian impulse in Jacksonian democracy subsequently encouraged a deep hostility toward antislavery activism; Jacksonian publicists like Amos Kendall urged federal action to silence abolitionists.
a plural press
The republican impulse, federal policy, and party competition drove the development of the newspaper press and pamphleteering. This sector of the press was the most public, numerous, and ideologically wrought. But other sectors of the press developed in different ways and in a different direction. Print offices "graduated" apprentices at a higher rate than markets could support, and the political enthusiasms of new printers, enhanced by government patronage and subsidies, encouraged them to start financially shaky newspapers. Printers constantly scrambled for new projects to add revenue.
In addition to job printing, which grew steadily, printers took on more and more book and periodical publishing. Entrepreneurs often sought to publish books "by subscription," selling copies before they were printed. Anne Royall, perhaps the nation's first female literary celebrity, notoriously coerced famous people into subscribing to her work in progress, threatening to ridicule them in it otherwise; she then publicized the names of her subscribers to get more subscribers. Many authors and publishers made arrangements with colporteurs (peddlers) like Mason Locke Weems. From 1794 to 1825 Parson Weems, the author of a biography of George Washington that spawned such legends as the cherry-tree incident, traveled from town to town selling books, pamphlets, and periodicals. Evangelical groups were especially good at this form of publishing and marketing books. Methodist circuit riders carried material printed by the Methodist Book Concern (est. 1789). The American Bible Society (est. 1816) and the American Tract Society (est. 1825) used similar techniques to try to put religious texts, including the Scriptures, into the hands of ordinary people, giving these religious organizations a claim to have invented the idea of mass communication.
More security for printers was to be found in publishing "steady sellers." Most reliable were practical books like schoolbooks and almanacs. Because printing remained relatively decentralized in the early Republic, profitable franchises in this kind of publication could be found in towns scattered throughout the country. John Prentiss, who founded the Keene, New Hampshire, Sentinel in 1799 with only seventy subscribers, secured his business by publishing a series of successful schoolbooks. Economies of scale involving expensive new technology eventually caused book printing to centralize in metropolitan areas, leading to the rise of mammoth firms like Harper and Brothers.
Religious publication and "steady sellers" opened the way for the development of reform publications and literary culture. Both were originally peripheral to the dominant republican mission of the press. Reform publications often developed out of the religious press and grew as positions were rejected by the mainstream. The most famous reform periodicals of the period appeared as the second-party system took shape. Benjamin Lundy's pioneering abolitionist paper, the Genius of Universal Emancipation, established in 1821, recruited William Lloyd Garrison, later the editor of the Liberator, as a collaborator. Frances "Fanny" Wright, the celebrated feminist, abolitionist, and socialist, and Robert Dale Owen, founder of the New Harmony colony in Indiana, edited the New Harmony Gazette, then moved it to New York City and renamed it the Free Enquirer in 1829. The Free Enquirer would later become associated with the Workingman's Party, and its staff would participate in founding the Workingman's Advocate, one of the nation's earliest important labor papers.
The rise of a literary print culture relied on the republican impulse to develop an autonomous national culture, a religious interest in elevating morals, and a commercial interest in selling fiction to expanding audiences. Ladies' magazines, often supported by religious publishers, were an important early resource and helped to launch the sentimental novels that were best sellers by mid-century. Before 1829, however, writers of the British Isles continued to dominate American bookshelves; the popularity of Hugh Henry Brackenridge's Modern Chivalry series, published beginning in 1792, was far exceeded by the Waverley novels, the first of which appeared in 1814, by the Scottish Sir Walter Scott.
By the late 1820s the press had also begun to recognize the nation's ethnic and racial diversity. There had been a thriving German-language press since the colonial period but relatively little publishing by other minority groups. In 1827 Samuel E. Cornish and John B. Russwurm established Freedom's Journal, the nation's first African American periodical, and in 1828 the first Native American periodical, the Cherokee Phoenix, appeared. These and other "group" media accepted the dual task of providing a separate identity for their readers and simultaneously trying to be a voice for the group in the larger public sphere.
See alsoAlien and Sedition Acts; Book Trade; Election of 1800; Newspapers; Niles' Register; Paine, Thomas; Politics: Political Pamphlets; Print Culture; Printers; Printing Technology; Women: Writers .
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