Print Culture

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The impact of printing and print culture on the emergence and consolidation of the new nation can hardly be overstated. All through the eighteenth century, printing, nation building, and forging a national identity went hand in hand in America. Few commentators on the history of the book subscribe to older notions of printing as an un-equivocal agent of change; but it is now generally accepted that, to a great degree, America is a nation that printed itself into being. More than any other Western nation, the United States, in terms of culture and ideology, developed out of a dynamic process of self-definition and self-invention in which the production, dissemination, and consumption of print played a crucial part. Thus, dismissing the idea that the American Revolution had started with the outbreak of hostilities between Britain and the colonies, John Adams argued in a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1815:

The Revolution was in the Minds of the People, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen Years before a drop of blood was drawn at Lexington. The Records of thirteen Legislatures, the Pamp[h]lets, Newspapers in all the Colonies ought [to] be consulted, during that Period, to ascertain the Steps by which the Public Opinion was enlightened and informed concerning the Authority of Parliament over the Colonies.

Although printing and the press are instrumental in nation formation generally, America's rise to nationhood was unique in the close symbiosis between print culture and the emergence of a republican ideology. Through the mediation of printing and print culture, the republican public sphere was created in which such iconographic texts as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers could be conceived, written, disseminated, and debated. The history of America's print culture can be divided roughly into three stages: the imperial crisis of the 1760s and 1770s; the Revolutionary War; and the post-Revolutionary period of consolidation.

freedom of the press: from duty to right

Printing in eighteenth-century America was more commercially competitive than in Europe, where much of the print trade still depended on patronage from the state, church, or affluent citizens. Combining the activities of printer, bookseller, and publisher in one person, the colonial printer earned his living by printing almanacs, stationery, business forms, and, most important, newspapers: 75 percent of American printers between 1700 and 1765 printed newspapers. Yet many colonial printers regarded their trade not just as a livelihood but as a calling, seeing it as their civic duty to spread reliable information and useful knowledge to the population at large. This made freedom of the press from early on an issue of national and ideological significance, rather than of mere personal and commercial interest. Benjamin Franklin spoke for many of his colleagues when, in his "Apology for Printers" (1731), he defended himself against the censure of a controversial handbill he had printed by asserting that as a printer he was a disinterested, neutral mediator whose aim was first and foremost to promote the common good of society. Seeing that the "Business of Printing has chiefly to do with Mens Opinions" and "most things that are printed tending to promote some, or oppose others," it is the task of the printer to ensure that all sides get equal access to print. A free press being a guarantee for the democratic access to knowledge and "public opinion," the question of what should be printed and what suppressed should be decided solely by whether it was conducive of "general Utility."

This being the general mood among printers in America, it is not surprising that when the Stamp Act was introduced in November 1765 it was met with a barrage of criticism. Widely denounced as a repressive measure aimed at curtailing the liberty of the press, American printers again based their case against the legislation on the "public good" argument. Yet this time the "common good" was redefined as the republican common good, and the freedom of the press would from now on be a republican right, not merely a utilitarian duty of a printer to society. A "free press" and a "free people" were henceforth interchangeable phrases. "Can our Liberties be secure," a correspondent in the New Hampshire Gazette wondered, "when that great and essential one of the PRESS is daily attacked, and PRINTERS and BOOKSELLERS are so terrified by uncommon RIGOUR, that they will neither Print nor Publish?" Although repealed in 1766, the Stamp Act had politicized the issue of the freedom of the press for good (though not for the first time) and had thus fundamentally changed relations between the American colonies and the British authorities. More important, it had given the American colonies a powerful weapon in their future struggle with Britain—a body of staunchly republican printers and writers who were no longer satisfied to enlighten and inform the reading public but sought to make it politically independent as well. During the imperial crisis America's printers thus assumed a new prominence; between 1764 and 1783 the number of printers more than doubled, and similarly the number of newspapers in those years went from twenty-eight to fifty-eight.

Before tensions arose between the colonies and Britain, colonial American newspaper printers mainly copied items from London newspapers, publishing imperial and foreign news, rather than domestic. But during the Revolutionary crisis they increasingly began to copy news items from each other, thus spreading accounts of significant events. News of the clashes at Lexington and Concord spread like wild-fire across thousands of miles; citizens in South Carolina could promptly read about decisions in New England legislatures. During the War of Independence, printing developed into a technology of revolution. Skirmishes, boycotts, and incidents of lawbreaking were certainly important instruments of expressing and organizing republican resentment, but the most effective Revolutionaries by far were the ones who provided the copy for the newspapers and pamphlets and the printers who printed it.


The Body of
B. Franklin,
Like the Cover of an old Book,
Its Contents torn out,
And stript of its Lettering and Gilding,
Lies here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be wholly lost:
For it will, as he believ'd, appear once more,
In a new & more perfect Edition,
Corrected and amended
By the Author.

Empowered by the very medium they used to distribute their Revolutionary ideas, it was the republican writers and printers who crucially helped to mobilize an intercolonial and protonational public—which was, essentially, a public of readers. Whereas during the imperial crisis pamphleteers had tended to write for an educated elite, the burgeoning print culture democratized the American people's involvement in the Revolution. This is borne out by the rise in the sheer numbers of American publications in this period: the number of American imprints rose from around 350 in 1765 to close to 500 in 1770 to almost 1,000 in 1775. Even more impressive is the circulation of certain key texts: the Declaration of Independence was printed in at least seventeen American editions in 1776 and 1777, and in virtually all the newspapers, while Thomas Paine's Common Sense (1776) sold approximately 120,000 copies in its first three months after publication, and an estimated total of 500,000 copies in 1776, to a population of around 3,000,000 (20 percent of whom were slaves and 50 percent of whom were indentured servants).

the limits of print

But the democratizing and unifying impact of print had its limits. Print culture and technologies of print are structured; they derive that structure from the dominant culture, which seeks to further its ideological agenda. That is, while printing helps to shape a culture and a society, it is also true that culture shapes print. Even before the Revolution, American printers had occasionally used the power of the printed word to "correct" certain developments they considered undesirable. Thus in the 1740s and 1750s Benjamin Franklin had fought a particularly bitter print war against the German-language print empire of Christoph Saur. Franklin feared that the independent German-language printers of Germantown might become too influential among the large German immigrant community of Pennsylvania and thereby frustrate his mission of ethnically engineering the population of the state: "While we are … Scouring our Planet, by clearing America of Woods, and so making this Side of our Globe reflect a brighter Light to the Eyes of Inhabitants in Mars and Venus, why should we in the Sight of Superior Beings, darken its People?" Franklin pondered in his essay "Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind" (1751). Franklin on several occasions started German-language newspapers in order to force his German competitor out of business. During the Revolutionary War, the Whig printers that zealously defended the freedom of the press as being of paramount importance to civil society were by no means prepared to extend that freedom to Tory printers like James Rivington, printer of the New-York Gazetteer.

After the Revolution printing was the arena for the bitter struggle between Federalists and Republicans over the ratification of the Constitution. During this struggle the evolving relation between print and political culture ushered in a fundamental change in the symbolic value of print. Crucially, both the emerging political language of Anglo-American republicanism and the emergence of a post-Revolutionary public sphere were grounded in a new way of perceiving printedness. Thus, in the course of this process the Constitution was understood as a printed form of legitimate government, and the free republican press as the embodiment of the res publica and the sovereignty of the people. In Federalist 84 (1788), Alexander Hamilton defended the omission from the Constitution of a bill to protect the freedom of the press by saying it would be "impractical" to implement it; the Bill of Rights of 1791 corrected this. An acrimonious print battle then erupted between Federalists and Republicans over the Republic's political alliance with the Jacobin administration in France, once more threatening to tear the nation apart. In response, President Adams signed the Sedition Act of 1798 into law, effectively limiting freedom of the press again by threatening opposition printers with heavy fines and imprisonment.

Print culture is inextricably bound up with America's rise to sovereign nationhood and its emergence into a distinct cultural domain. Yet it is important to realize that print is not prior to the culture of colonial America or of republican America, but was shaped and conditioned by it. This process continued into the early decades of the nineteenth century. As American printers endeavored to consolidate the prominent position in the public sphere they had gained during the Republic's formative years, they were experiencing major transformations in their trade. The introduction of new materials (notably machine-made paper), technologies (such as the steam-powered press) and dissemination channels (improved mail and transportation networks, and the invention of the telegraph), as well as sharp increases in literacy rates and overall readership numbers, forced American printers to adopt more mass-market oriented activities and strategies. While many in the print trade ventured into large-scale commercial newspaper publishing, the early nineteenth century also saw the emergence of the modern publisher. Replacing the eighteenth-century master printers and booksellers, the new publishing entrepreneurs increasingly came to dominate the entire process of the financing, production and dissemination of printed material. Levels of capital investment steadily rose, and more industrial labor practices were introduced. What once was a craft rooted in European practices and dependent on Old World materials and machines, quickly became an energetic and innovative industry. By the 1840s, the domestic American print market had come of age.

See alsoAdams, John; Alien and Sedition Acts; Americanization; Book Trade; Constitutionalism; Declaration of Independence; Democratic Republicans; Federalist Papers; Federalist Party; Franklin, Benjamin; Jefferson, Thomas; Magazines; Newspapers; Paine, Thomas; Politics: Political Pamphlets; Press, The; Printers; Printing Technology; Rhetoric; Satire .


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Wil Verhoeven