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1754-1783: Communications: Overview

1754-1783: Communications: Overview

A Revolutionary People. The period 1754 to 1783 not only witnessed a political revolution but one in communications as well. In 1754 most inhabitants of British North America would readily call themselves Britons and would also identify themselves with their resident colonies as Virginians, New Yorkers, or Rhode Islanders, for example. By 1783, even though local identity was still important, they also thought of themselves as Americans. In a letter to Hezekiah Niles on 15 February 1818, colonial statesman and former president John Adams asserted that the American Revolution was effected long before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people. This sentiment developed in colonial America partially through an enhanced system of communications.

Transportation. Colonial America was an ever-expanding, mobile society. The population doubled every twenty years, and the economy grew faster than in England. American attempts to facilitate trade, travel, and dissemination of information contributed to the communications revolution. Although transatlantic voyages still took approximately eight weeks, more ships made the trip than in the previous century. Land travel was greatly aided by improved road networks, including the Great Wagon Road connecting western Pennsylvania with Georgia. Military expeditions such as Maj. Gen. Edward Braddocks against French posts in the interior cut pathways through the forests, helping open the West to settlement. And Daniel Boone blazed the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap and into Kentucky. The refinement of the Conestoga wagon during this era allowed travelers to move large amounts of freight and personal possessions. By 1775 British North America had achieved integration in an economic empire, and most colonies enjoyed a reliable if not swift means of transportation.

The Printed Word. American provincials were probably the most literate people of the eighteenth century. In New England approximately 90 percent of the adult white men and 40 percent of the adult white women could read and write. In other colonies the literacy rate among white males varied from 35 to more than 50 percent. (Only 33 percent of males in England were literate.) Most of what Americans read was religious though the Enlightenment encouraged inquiry into mans scientific as well as social and political environment.

Postal Service. An organized post office helped spread ideas and information. Packet ships (small, fast vessels designed specifically to carry the mail) provided regular deliveries from England, but once the mail reached the colonies, it encountered delays caused by unreliable post riders, circuitous routes, and occasionally severe weather. As deputy postmaster general, Benjamin Franklin introduced a series of reforms that improved service and increased profits for the Crown through standardized rates. Since many local postmasters were also printers, the bulk of the correspondence in the mail bags of post riders was newspapers. With the approaching conflict with the mother country, intercolonial committees of correspondence arranged for their own mail deliveries through specially appointed couriers.

Newspapers and Pamphlets. The revolutionary crisis increased the power and prestige of the press. There were twenty-one newspapers published in America in 1763. By 1775 there were forty-two: fifteen in New England, thirteen in the Middle colonies, and fourteen in the Southern colonies. An average of one paper was published for every sixty thousand to sixty-five thousand people. Colonial newspapers were weeklies (unlike modern papers that are generally dailies), and circulation figures are hard to determine for them. Benjamin Edes of the Boston Gazette and Country Journal claimed two thousand copies weekly from mid 1774 to mid 1775, and James Rivington of Rivingtons New York Gazetteer or the Connecticut, Hudsons River, New-Jersey, and Quebec Weekly Advertiser maintained he sold thirty-six hundred copies in seven days in October 1774. Such figures are unusual, however, and the weekly average for a colonial newspaper was probably closer to three hundred copies. The revolutionary crisis also sparked a tremendous increase in political pamphlets. More than one-half of the non-newspaper imprints from American presses between 1639 and 1783 were concentrated in the twenty years after 1763. Thomas Paines Common Sense (1776) and The American Crisis (1776-1783) were probably the most influential pamphlets of the revolutionary era.

Printers. One of the most striking features of this period is the extent to which the Whigs controlled the press. The Stamp Act of 1765 confronted printers with a challenge to both their economic livelihood and traditional political neutrality. Although virtually all printers opposed the statute out of self-interest, only a few initially issued strong statements of protest. Gradually popular opinion forced them to take sides and abandon their objectivity. While some entered the Loyalist camp, the majority went to the Patriot side. The latter group soon controlled public opinion through propaganda, and their stature rose in the eyes of Americans as the guardians of virtue. Indeed, until the early nineteenth century a partisan press was the norm in the United States.

Word of Mouth. Although a literate people, most Americans preferred face-to-face communication. They lived in a world of oral culture, in which ideas and information passed through the spoken word. By the 1750s Boston, New York, and Philadelphia had dozens of taverns, where patrons exchanged news, gossiped, or discussed business. Sunday mornings presented a time to converse as community members gathered to worship at the local church. Similar opportunities occurred at markets, fairs, militia musters, and elections. On the frontiers people eagerly awaited the arrival of traders and peddlers.

Language. The Revolution created not only a new nation but also a new variety of English. The moment the first settlers landed at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, the new physical and social environment plus contacts with foreign peoples caused a language drift from parent English. The affirmation of American English as an official variety of the language, however, did not occur until the Revolution and the creation of a culturally and politically independent society.

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