Note on “Reporting the Revolutionary War” from 2012 by Todd Andrlik

As Mark Twain put it: “History is the pale and tranquil reflection” of news.

Before the patriotic tales of heroism, there was urgent, partisan and divided reporting about the relationship between American colonists and the British crown. In his 2012 book Reporting the Revolutionary War, Todd Andrlik gives us a chance at seeing the events when there was nothing predetermined.

The book is heavily reliant on scanned copies of original source newspapers (both from colonial and English accounts), with some contextual interpretation from 37 historians. I recommend the book for a visual look at the fast-paced beat reporting the era. Below I share just a few notes that stood out to me.

We know the Founding Fathers understood the importance of accessible information about the state. Thomas Jefferson is popularly credited with writing in 1787: “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

These papers were often family affairs, collecting information from letters, but they were thought to be heavily influential. Andrlik is part of a chorus of historians who argue there would be no successful American Revolution without this communication engine.

Here are a few notes from the book:

  • The Revolution was no foregone conclusion. People consumed the build of these tensions and growing hostilities.
  • May 10, 1764, the Pennsylvania Gazette is thought to have started the claim of “taxation without representation” with a report of Pennsylvania General Assembly debating the English Parliament, “whether they had power to lay such a tax on colonies which had no representatives in parliament”
  • The 16th century avvisi were expensive trade letters, the earliest B2B for business value news. They were essentially subscription services dispassionate information for investment and politics
  • These 18th century newspapers were largely purchased per issue, though may have had subscriptions