The Patriot Press
The Patriot Press
Importance. The term Patriot press refers to those newspapers and pamphlets after 1765 that ran essays, editorials, and articles critical of the king and Parliament. The impact that these periodicals had on American society was indeed significant. They stimulated the
These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: ‘Tis dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed, if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to TAX) but “to BIND us in ALL CASES WHATSOEVER,” and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious, for so unlimited a power can belong only to GOD.
Source: Thomas Paine, The American Crisis, no. 1 (Philadelphia: Printed & sold by Styner & Cist, 1776-1777).
people’s outrage by the principal means of opinion control: propaganda, or the spreading of ideas, information, and rumor for the purpose of aiding or undermining a cause, institution, or person.
Dominance. Whig control of the colonial communication network on the eve of the war with Britain was a significant feature of the revolutionary movement. Prominent printers such as Benjamin Edes, Isaiah Thomas, William Goddard, John Holt, William Bradford III, and Peter Timothy were early instigators of the Patriot press. In fact, prior to 1774 not a single newspaper was exclusively pro-British. There are several reasons for this. First the Stamp Act bound many printers to the Patriot side at the beginning of the controversy with England. It infringed on both the printers’ profits and their rights. Meanwhile, Loyalist publishers were slow to come to the defense of the British government, finding it safer to remain neutral until British military and civil authorities could protect them.
Postmasters. What made the Patriot press even more effective was the fact that many Whig newspaper editors such as Goddard and James Parker were also local postmasters. Until 1773 printers used the official mails, causing Postal Inspector Hugh Finlay to note that couriers were overburdened with newspapers. After this point some publishers, especially Goddard, employed their own riders to deliver papers. Moreover, the committees of correspondence began operating an intercolonial news exchange through the use of special post riders such as Paul Revere of Boston. Even when the British-sponsored General Post Office closed in late December 1775, news of the signing of the Declaration of Independence spread like wildfire.
Political Pamphlets. Between 1764 and 1776 approximately 195 pamphlets addressing the issue of independence appeared in North America. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776), undoubtedly the most reprinted pamphlet of the era, sold more than 120,000 copies in less than three months. Eventually it went through twenty-five American and five foreign editions. It passionately stated the grievances against the king and Parliament and was greatly instrumental in uniting public sentiment.
Virtue. The dominant theme of Patriot propaganda was virtue. In the eighteenth century virtue was a vogue word, so widely used that it had no precise meaning. However, its main qualities seem to have been self-restraint and self-sacrifice. A virtuous person did not engage in excess during times of plenty and certainly did not betray his cause in times of adversity. Virtue was in essence the desire to put the public good ahead of personal interest. A person had to daily make steady self-conscious choices in order to maintain his or her virtue and to check any of the more-base human desires. Moreover, the virtuous person acted with courage no matter what the circumstances.
Other Themes. Americans believed they had a moral as well as legal responsibility to themselves to defend their hearths and homes against tyranny. Prewar propaganda had long established the notion that England had violated the rights of the people. Reverend Jacob Green stated in a 1778 sermon: “We are contending for liberty. Our cause is just — is glorious; more glorious than to contend for a kingdom.” Another minister noted that “This land is God’s possession, given to us to inherit, and England herself recognized the grant by the charters granted the settlers; no one else has any right to it; therefore British attempts to take it by force are unjust and barbarous.” Self-interest played a role in continuing the war as well. The consequences of having participated in a failed rebellion were never far from the thoughts of Patriot soldiers and statesmen alike. Reverend Phillips Payson intoned that “the subjugation of these States would be followed with the most shocking scenes of hanging and gibbeting.” In The Crisis Extraordinary (1780) Paine focused on economic considerations, warning that the cost of British taxation (£6 million) outweighed the total price tag of waging war (£2.75 million). The newspapers and pamphlets emphasized the positive features of the rebellion by addressing the advantages of victory. Propagandists purposely wrote in terms of generalities so as to not alienate large groups. Commerce, freedom, and happiness were the key words employed in many Whig polemics. And like Loyalists, Patriots focused on the depravity of their enemy, who “by fire, sword and famine spread destruction and desolation around them.” The Massachusetts Spy (Boston), New York Journal, Connecticut Journal (New Haven), Freeman’s Journal (Exeter and Portsmouth, New Hampshire), Pennsylvania Evening Post (Philadelphia), and Pennsylvania Packet (Philadelphia) all ran accounts describing desecrated graves, burned libraries, and defiled women.
Propaganda Coups. There is no doubt that the Patriot press waged a more effective propaganda campaign than did the Loyalist press. One of the finest examples concerns the rapidity in which news spread of the fighting at Lexington and Concord: within four days word of the battles reached New York City; five days, Philadelphia; nine days, Williamsburg, Virginia; and twenty days, Charleston. The Declaration of Independence and Common Sense were read to American troops and also made readily available in printed form. After composing Common Sense Paine served in the American army as a private and wrote his first series of Crisis papers (1776-1783) on a drumhead. These essays appealed directly to the emotions of American men, women, and children and helped rouse flagging spirits during the bleak winter of 1776-1777. He assured his audiences that “by perseverance and fortitude we have the prospect of a glorious issue; by cowardice and submission, the sad choice of a variety of evils” including “slavery without hope.”
McCrea. Probably the greatest propaganda coup of the war concerned the murder of Jane (Jenny) McCrea. During British general John Burgoyne’s expedition in July 1777 to seize Albany, New York, some of his Native American scouts raided near Fort Edward and brought in the scalp of a young woman. Ironically, McCrea was the fiancée of Lt. David Jones, one of Burgoyne’s Tory militia officers. American general Horatio Gates quickly saw the propaganda value of this incident (regardless of McCrea’s political affiliation) and wrote a letter designed for publication “in every Gazette,” describing “a Young Lady lovely to sight, of virtuous Character, and amiable Disposition” murdered “and mangled in a most shocking Manner.” As a result thousands of American
militiamen flocked to Gates’s army, “inflamed with such wrath as had not filled their bosoms” since Lexington and Concord. By October the name Jane McCrea had become a watchword, and Gates had enough troops to surround Burgoyne and defeat him in one of the most stunning American victories of the war.
Significance. The Patriot press helped keep the Revolution alive in the hearts and souls of the American populace until the war was finally won. After 1783 newspapers maintained their position as guardian of the public good and safeguard against tyranny. Indeed a vigorous partisan press was the norm in the United States for several more decades.
“The Colonial Press,” in Encyclopedia of the North American Colonies, volume 3, edited by Jacob E. Cooke (New York: Scribners, 1993), pp.111-122;
Richard B. Kielbowicz, News in the Mail: The Press, Post Office, and Public Information, 1700-1860s (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1989);
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Prelude to Independence: The Newspaper War on Britain, 1764-1776 (New York: Knopf, 1957);
Christopher Ward, The War of the Revolution, 2 volumes (New York: Macmillan, 1952).