Rivington, James (1724-1802)
James Rivington (1724?-1802)
Man of Mystery. One of the most intriguing printers to come out of the Revolutionary era is James (Jemmy) Rivington. While Isaiah Thomas of the Massachusetts Spy stated that “few men, perhaps, were better qualified ... to publish a newspaper,” Ashbel Green described Rivington as “the greatest sycophant imaginable; very little under the influence of any principle but self-interest, yet of the most courteous manner to all.” Moreover, his newspaper circulated some of the most vicious anti-Patriot propaganda of the war, yet there is reason to believe that Rivington was a spy in the pay of George Washington.
Origins. The son of prominent London publisher and book dealer Charles Rivington, James was born around 1724. After his father’s death in 1742 Rivington and his brother John operated the family business. In 1752 Rivington married his first wife, Elizabeth Minshull, and four years later became the partner of James Fletcher. Together they printed Tobias Smollett’s History of England (1757–1758) and made a profit of £10,000, considered a fortune at the time. After Rivington gambled away some of his share at the Newmarket racetrack, he decided to pay off his debts and sail to America. He still had enough money to start several new business ventures, including a bookstore in Philadelphia (1760) and New York City (1761). He also opened an art gallery in New York and a bookshop in Boston in 1763.
Giving Offense. Rivington lost another large sum of money by investing in a land scheme called the Maryland Lottery. However, he managed to recover once again and launched his most well-known endeavor in New York City in 1773, Rivington’s New York Gazetteer or the Connecticut, Hudson’s River, New-Jersey, and Quebec Weekly Advertiser. The newspaper proved to be a huge success, with 55 percent of its contents devoted to advertisements. At first Rivington promised to please readers of all “Views and Inclinations,” but as time went on, his Tory views became more audible. On 18 August 1774 the Gazetteer ran a letter signed “A Merchant of New-York.” The missive incurred the wrath of Isaac “King” Sears, the local leader of the Sons of Liberty, by calling him “a tool of the lowest order.” Rivington refused to reveal the identity of the author and continued to run stories critical of the Whigs. By 1775 Thomas referred to the Loyalist printer as “that JUDAS” while Benjamin Edes and John Gill of Boston called him “dirty” and “malicious.” When a New Jersey mob on 13 April hanged him in effigy, Rivington labeled its members as “snarling curs” and lambasted Sears as “SIMPLETON SAP-SKULL.” However, ten days later news of the battles of Lexington and Concord reached New York, and Rivington softened his tone by declaring that he would henceforth act from “such principles as shall not give offence.”
Public Enemy. On 10 May, Sears and a mob wrecked Rivington’s print shop while its owner fled to the safety of a British warship in the harbor. Rivington then petitioned the Second Continental Congress for a pardon, apologizing for his “wrong and mistaken” opinions. Congress referred the matter to the New York Provincial Congress, which granted Rivington’s request. Once he became His Majesty’s printer in New York, however, Rivington was emboldened and started anew with his verbal attacks upon the Patriots. On 20 November 1775 Sears and the Sons of Liberty again destroyed Rivington’s presses but this time carried his type back to Connecticut. Although the New York Provincial Congress denounced this violence, Connecticut officials would not extradite Sears for prosecution. Rivington returned to England in January 1776.
Return. Rivington stayed in exile for eighteen months and then returned to New York in September 1777 as the king’s printer. In order to show his support for the royal cause, on 4 October he renamed his newspaper Rivington’s New York Loyal Gazette; the name changed to the Royal Gazette on 13 December. Rivington delighted in publishing the most outrageous and unfounded rumors concerning the Patriots, causing George Washington himself to complain. Following the British defeat at Yorktown, Virginia, in October 1781 Rivington sensed the need to change his tone and asked the forgiveness of American military and civil authorities. New York officials allowed him to remain in the city after the British evacuation. Some historians speculate that the reason for such leniency was because Rivington was actually an American spy. A story circulated that Washington himself visited the printer immediately after the British evacuation and gave him a large purse of money. In 1783 he renamed his paper for the fourth time, calling it Rivington’s New York Gazette and Universal Advertiser. Nevertheless his apparent change of heart did not convince his old nemesis Sears, who warned Rivington not to print his paper anymore. On 31 December 1783 the last issue of the New-York Gazette appeared. Rivington continued as a bookseller and stationer for another nineteen years, but without much success. His second wife, Elizabeth Van Home, whom he married in 1769, died in 1795, and he was placed in debtor’s prison in 1797. Rivington’s legacy lingered in New York for many years following his death on 4 July 1802. During the Civil War the Boston Journal stated that “Rivington lives in history as well as Arnold.”
Catherine Crary, “The Tory and the Spy: The Double Life of James Rivington,” William and Mary Quarterly, 16 (January 1959): 61–72;
Michael Sewell, “James Rivington,” in American Newspaper Journalists, 1690-1872, Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 43, edited by Perry J. Ashley (Columbia, S.C.: Bruccoli Clark/Detroit: Gale Research, 1985), pp. 398–402.