Gaine, Hugh (1726-1807)
Hugh Gaine (1726-1807)
Irish Apprentice. Hugh Gaine is best remembered as “the turncoat printer of the American Revolution.” Born near Belfast, Ireland, he became an apprentice to the printers Samuel Wilson and James Magee in 1740. Before his six years of servitude ended, however, young Gaine found himself unemployed when the Wilson-Magee partnership dissolved. As a result Gaine boarded a ship bound for America. Settling in New York, he became a journeyman for James Parker, printer-editor of the New York Weekly Post-Boy and an associate of Benjamin Franklin. Gaine worked at Parker’s shop for seven years.
Making a Name. In 1752 Gaine started his own newspaper, the New-York Mercury. Its content soon made it one of the better papers in the colonies. Aside from the more-common stories on fires, robberies, and murders gleaned from other newspapers, the Mercury had essays on religion, philosophy, science, and love and marriage. Gaine focused on political issues and frequently printed the decrees of governors. The newspaper along with the proceeds earned from selling sundries at his print shop made Gaine a prosperous man. In 1759 he married Sarah Robbins and fathered three children: Elizabeth, John, and Anne. After his first wife died Gaine married Cornelia Wallace in 1769 and had two more children: Cornelia and Sarah.
Early Patriot. In the early 1760s Gaine protested the British mercantile policies, like many other colonial printers. When the Stamp Act became effective on 1 November 1765, the Mercury appeared on unstamped paper with the heading “No Stamped Paper to be Had,” which appeared in place of the paper’s title for the next two weeks. When the Townshend duties went into force in 1767, Gaine again joined the opposition; he endorsed colonial nonimportation and printed John Dickinson’s “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania.”
Conservative Heart. After Parliament had recalled all the duties except the tax on tea, Gaine advocated that the Whigs end the colonial boycott as a measure of goodwill. Unlike many others, he wished to limit the opposition to British economic policies and did not see any reason to further antagonize the mother country. Perhaps Gaine’s increasing wealth contributed to new-found conservatism. A 1768 appointment as public printer of the province of New York carried with it a government contract as well as a measure of prestige. (To mark the occasion Gaine changed his newspaper’s name to New-York Gazette; and the Weekly Mercury.) In addition, by the late 1760s Gaine owned real estate, including his shop and house in Hanover Square and part of a farm in Albany County, and he had heavily invested in the construction of a Long Island paper mill.
Wavering Stance. Between 1768 and 1775 Gaine supported accommodation with the mother country. Although he sympathized with the Whig movement, he deplored violent acts such as the Boston Tea Party. Nevertheless, after the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775 Gaine joined the Patriot camp wholeheartedly. He enthusiastically accepted the Declaration of Independence, and before the British army captured New York in September, Gaine and his family fled to Newark, New Jersey, where the Mercury became an organ for the revolutionary cause.
Serle. All the printers had fled New York City, but royal authorities found Gaine’s shop, the Bible and Crown, nearly intact. (When Gaine departed he left the paper’s nameplate and most of his type in the care of a clerk.) Ambrose Serle, the secretary of Adm. Lord Richard Howe, began to publish a British version of the Mercury. Meanwhile, Gaine’s operations in Newark were not bearing fruit. Subscribers were scattered and short of cash, and few advertisers were to be found. As a result, on 1 November 1776 Gaine returned to New York City. British officials quickly saw the propaganda value of his return and allowed him to resume printing the Mercury, but under Serle’s editorial supervision. The Patriot press labeled Gaine “the greatest liar upon earth.”
Tory Servant. After Serle returned to England in the summer of 1777, the Mercury reverted to Gaine’s full control although the British still did not trust him. As a result the appointment of royal printer in the province went to another Tory editor, James Rivington, who had just returned from exile in England. Nevertheless, Gaine remained firmly in the royal camp for the next six years of British occupation. He boarded a naval officer in his home and even served in the city militia. Once British forces evacuated New York, however, he dropped the word Crown from the name of his shop and ran the last issue of the Mercury on 10 November 1783.
Last Years. For the remaining years of his life Gaine maintained his printing business, selling a variety of domestic and imported tomes. His former loyalism did not dissuade him from supporting the new federal Constitution in 1787. He also became active in civic affairs and helped found the American Booksellers Association, serving as its first president. Various real estate holdings ensured that his last years were financially comfortable. Gaine died at the age of eighty-one in 1807.
Significance. The common view of Hugh Gaine is that he surrendered his political convictions too readily, especially when his financial security was threatened. James Grant Wilson observed: “When with the Whigs, Hugh Gaine was a Whig; when with the Royalists, he was loyal; when the contest was doubtful, equally doubtful were the politics of Hugh Gaine.” Yet, Gaine’s Mercury made a lasting impact on American journalism, serving as a model for other newspapers during its thirty-year life.
Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Journals of Hugh Gaine, Printer, 2 volumes (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1902);
Alfred Lawrence Lorenz, Hugh Gaine: A Colonial Printer-Editor’s Odyssey to Loyalism (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972).