History of American Newspapers - Revolutionary Epoch and Early National Era: 1770–1820 - The Massachusetts Spy and The Patriotic Press

The Massachusetts Spy and The Patriotic Press

Isaiah Thomas's Massachusetts Spy, published in Boston and Worcester, was constantly on the verge of being suppressed, from the time of its establishment in 1770 to 1776, during the American Revolution. In 1771-73 the Spy featured the essays of several anonymous political commentators who called themselves "Centinel," "Mucius Scaevola" and "Leonidas." They spoke in the same terms about similar issues, kept Patriot polemics on the front page, and supported each other against attacks in progovernment papers. Rhetorical combat was a Patriot tactic that explained the issues of the day and fostered cohesiveness without advocating outright rebellion. The columnists spoke to the colonists as an independent people tied to Britain only by voluntary legal compact. The Spy soon carried radicalism to its logical conclusion. When articles from the Spy were reprinted in other papers, as the country as a whole was ready for Tom Paine's Common Sense (in 1776).

The turbulent years between 1775 and 1783 were a time of great trial and disturbance among newspapers. Interruption, suppression, and lack of support checked their growth substantially. Although there were forty-three newspapers in the United States when the treaty of peace was signed (1783), as compared with thirty-seven on the date of the battle of Lexington (1775), only a dozen remained in continuous operation between the two events, and most of those had experienced delays and difficulties through lack of paper, type, and patronage. Not one newspaper in the principal cities, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, continued publication throughout the war. When the colonial forces were in possession, royalist papers were suppressed, and at times of British occupation Revolutionary papers moved away, or were discontinued, or they became royalist, only to suffer at the next turn of military fortunes. Thus there was an exodus of papers from the cities along the coast to smaller inland places, where alone it was possible for them to continue without interruption. Scarcity of paper was acute; type worn out could not be replaced. The appearance of the newspapers deteriorated, and issues sometimes failed to appear at all. Mail service, never good, was poorer than ever; foreign newspapers, an important source of information, could be obtained but rarely; many of the ablest writers who had filled the columns with dissertations upon colonial rights and government were now otherwise occupied.

News from a distance was less full and regular than before; yet when great events happened reports spread over the country with great rapidity, through messengers in the service of patriotic organizations. The quality of reporting was still imperfect. The Salem Gazette printed a full but colored account of the battle of Lexington, giving details of the burning, pillage, and barbarities charged to the British, and praising the militia who were filled with "higher sentiments of humanity." The Declaration of Independence was published by Congress, 6 July 1776, in the Philadelphia Evening Post, from which it was copied by most of the newspapers in the new nation; but some of them did not mention it until two weeks later, and even then found room for only a synopsis. When they were permitted to do so they printed fairly full accounts of the proceedings of provincial assemblies and of Congress, which were copied widely, as were all official reports and proclamations. On the whole, however, a relatively small proportion of such material and an inadequate account of the progress of the war is found in the contemporaneous newspapers.

The general spirit of the time found fuller utterance in mottoes, editorials, letters, and poems. In the beginning both editorials and communications urged united resistance to oppression, praised patriotism, and denounced tyranny; as events and public sentiment developed these grew more vigorous, often a little more radical than the populace. Later, the idea of independence took form, and theories of government were discussed. More interesting and valuable as specimens of literature than these discussions were the poems inspired by the stirring events of the time. Long narratives of battles and of heroic deaths were mingled with eulogies of departed heroes. Songs meant to inspire and thrill were not lacking. Humor, pathos, and satire sought to stir the feelings of the public. Much of the poetry of the Revolution is to be found in the columns of the newspapers, from the vivid and popular satires and narratives of Philip Freneau to the saddest effusions of the most commonplace schoolmaster.

The newspapers of the Revolution were an effective force working towards the unification of sentiment, the awakening of a consciousness of a common purpose, interest, and destiny among the separate colonies, and of a determination to see the war through to a successful issue. They were more single-minded than the people themselves, and they bore no small share of the burden of arousing and supporting the often discouraged and indifferent public spirit. Many of the papers, however, which were kept alive or brought to life during the war could not adapt themselves to the new conditions of peace.

Perhaps a dozen of the survivors held their own in the new time, notably the Boston Gazette, which declined rapidly in the following decade, The Connecticut Courant of Hartford, The Providence Gazette, and The Pennsylvania Packet of Philadelphia, to which may be added such representative papers as the Massachusetts Spy, Boston's Independent Chronicle, the New York Journal and Packet, the Newport Mercury, the Maryland Gazette of Annapolis, the Pennsylvania Gazette and The Pennsylvania Journal, both of Philadelphia. Practically all were of four small pages, each of three or four columns, issued weekly. The Pennsylvania Packet, which appeared three times a week, became in 1784 the first daily paper. In the same year the New York Journal was published twice a week, as were several of the papers begun in that year. There was a notable extension to new fields. In Vermont, where the first paper, established in 1781, had soon died, another arose in 1783; in Maine two were started in 1785. In 1786 the first one west of the Alleghenies appeared at Pittsburgh, and following the westward tide of immigration the Kentucky Gazette was begun at Lexington in 1787.

Conditions were hardly more favorable to newspapers than during the recent conflict. The sources of news were much the same; the means of communication and the postal system were little improved. Newspapers were not carried in the mails but by favor of the postmen, and the money of one state was of dubious value in another. Consequently circulations were small, rarely reaching a thousand; subscribers were slow in paying; and advertisements were not plentiful. Newspapers remained subject to provincial laws of libel, in accordance with the old common law, and were, as in Massachusetts for a short time in 1785, subject to special state taxes on paper or on advertisements. But public sentiment was growing strongly against all legal restrictions, and in general the papers practiced freedom, not to say license, of utterance.

With independence had come the consciousness of a great destiny. The collective spirit aroused by the war, though clouded by conflicting local difficulties, was intense, and the principal interest of the newspapers was to create a nation out of the loose confederation. Business and commerce were their next care; but in an effort to be all things to all men, the small page included a little of whatever might "interest, instruct, or amuse." Political intelligence occupied first place; news, in the modern sense, was subordinated. A new idea, quite as much as a fire, a murder, or a prodigy, was a matter of news moment. There were always a few items of local interest, usually placed with paragraphs of editorial miscellany. Correspondents, in return for the paper, sent items; private letters, often no doubt written with a view to such use, were a fruitful source of news; but the chief resource was the newspapers that every office received as exchanges, carried in the post free of charge, and the newspapers from abroad.

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