headshot of the author and the blue book cover

Notes on “Revolutionary Networks: the Business and Politics of Printing the News, 1763–1789”

Colonial-era publishers in the United States were small, family-run businesses that spanned social classes, divided politics and drove forward discourse. Though tiny operations independently, they collectively shaped widespread opinion and developed into the fractured news environment we have today.

That’s one main theme from Revolutionary Networks: The Business and Politics of Printing the News, 1763–1789, an academic book published by Joseph M. Adelman earlier this year by Johns Hopkins University Press.

Adelman adds a lot to the literature on the details of how publishing houses worked in this era. In truth, I sought even greater detail on the real operations but I so appreciated his inclusion of basic finances and revenues, and much detail on the people behind it. I found myself scribbling many notes down on what I’d like to further research for my own understanding of the history of my trade. Much thanks to Adelman.

My friend Everett kindly bought me this as a gift, and I quickly read through it back in February. This is one of many publishing and journalism history books I’ve enjoyed the last several years. Below find notes for myself. I encourage you to buy the book and explore the topic yourself.

My notes for further exploration:

  • The Pennsylvania Journal and other early colonial-era newspapers left little space for local news. They were often no more than a list of ships coming to port because the intended audience was a small group of elite men who got their local news from gossip snd letters. These were national and international stories, and local commerce updates.
  • Newspapers represented 80% of all printed materials in colonial era even though newspapers weren’t widely printed in colonies until early 1700s.
  • In the 1960s Jürgen Habermas (who popularized the “public sphere“) wrote that low-cost printing allowed rational debate less tied to social class of participants
  • Benedict Anderson: “print capitalism” was a feature of forming American nationalism
  • Trish Loughran argues nationalism was idealized in places like Common Sense snd the Federalist papers more than it was yet a reality, like the print networks that were decentralized before civil war
  • Robert Parkinson notes patriot leaders used the press to argue for national unity, including whiteness as an identity
  • This book argues the small publishers took small scale practice of editing and reprinting (means of distribution) with their broad networks of collecting news (curation of news)
  • Of publishers: “Although they were tradesmen, they interacted with the elites of society.” They were early middle class society: skilled artisans with strong networks snd wide range of political beliefs. Publishers were “meer mechanics” though some had enough success to become elite. They interacted with enormous range of socioeconomic spectrum to gather news, very literate though situated between classes.
  • By 1789, “well over four hundred printers were active in the United States, nearly 8 times as many as in 1763.”
  • Publishers wanted a federalist pro-constitution cause for unified nationalism that allowed their business and commerce to flourish
  • The iconic colonial-era legal case: John Peter Zenger an exception of a local colonial publisher who gained notoriety because of his libel case
  • The publishing apprenticeship took 7 years typically
  • Typically wife was part of family business (as Ben Franklin notes his wide Deborah in his autobiography helped “cheerfully”)
  • Their employees would include apprentices and journeymen, whom stayed and ate with family
  • Ben Franklin like other publishers used slave labor to print early in his career
  • In 1763, of 59 printers in colonies, at least 36 had family ties in the industry
  • Samuel Green was an influential printer whose family clan ran publishing in New England. Between 1700-1750 half of printers there were Greens (23)
  • Bradford in NYC and smaller Sower family in Germantown Philadelphia
  • Wives when widowed became publishers; often temporary though. At least 15 women did this during colonial period; Mary Katherine Goddard ran Maryland Gazette, got a portrait by Charles Wilson Peale and became first postmistress of Baltimore by Continental Congress
  • Post war publishing boom, including many immigrants as commonly publishers with apprentice in one city and move onto the next, featured 68 printers starting in the mid Atlantic: “Philadelphia was the most popular single destination, with 40 printers; New York City had 13.”
  • Philadelphia printer David Hall had one of the best transit Atlantic information connections in all the colonies, his agent in London was his good friend William Strahan (apprentice of Franklin ; publisher of The Pennsylvania Gazette) (30)
  • 100 pounds including the cost of the printing press several sets of type cases composing sticks and posing stones frames and other materials to start a print house
  • in 1776 at the dissolution of the partnership the largest printing office in North America, that of Benjamin Franklin and David Hall, was valued at more than 300 pounds, including type (metal) worth more than 218 pounds
  • This meant a credit and debit system developed in which personal recommendations and vouching allowed for a printer to gain capital from merchants or other wealthy lenders
  • Franklin invested in many of his apprentices to help fund their own new print houses
  • Newspapers had two funding streams and are foundation of a printing house: Subscriptions which cost 8 to 10 shillings per year during the late colonial period. Those subscribers known as unreliable payers.
  • William Rind claimed in his Virginia Gazette that “ I hardly receive enough for my Gazette to pay the writers I am obliged to employ to dispense it; so that all my paper, the maintenance and pay of Workman etc. etc. are hitherto sunk.” He implored his readers to settle their accounts in order “to save myself and family from other ruin.”
  • Advertising was far more lucrative than subscribers in those days. In the mid 1760s for example John Whole charged five shillings to run an advertisement for four weeks and one shilling each week thereafter, amounts that were relatively common. Therefore a newspaper of average distribution about 500 copies per issue could earn about 400 pounds per year in subscription and several pounds of revenue per issue in advertising (call it 3 pounds per issue or 150 pounds per year)
  • Governments were frequently customers, both printing bills and proclamations and even contracting out printing of money (34)
  • In 1769 the Pennsylvania government paid both publisher Hall and Sellers for 56 pounds and 15 shillings worth of work and William Goddard for 140 pounds for shillings 6D, in addition to German printer John Henry Miller paying him 33 pounds 15 shillings
  • 18-year David hall and Franklin partnership ended. Hall tried to remain neutral in early colonial disputes but PA Assembly wanted support from their official printer against the English.
  • Joseph Galloway house speaker and merchant Thomas Wharton brought in William Goddard (via Franklin associate James Parker) from a NYC apprenticeship role. Goddard got half of equity; Galloway and Wharton each a quarter. Franklin had an option to get a stake. Goddard launched the Pennsylvania Chronicle in 1767 and had 1k subscribers. In one month it became one of colonies’ largest papers . But Goddard proved independent from Galloway snd Wharton; he ended up writing pamphlets denouncing his partners
  • Early printers welcome feuding pamphlets and letters on religious topics as they would sell more print runs and copies of their newspapers (42)
  • Before 1765, a letter cost one shilling per sheet of paper between New York and Boston, and 2 1/2 shillings from Boston to Charleston, more than a weeks wages for an ordinary labor. Even after parliament reduced postage rates in 1765, the cost of sending a letter remained extremely high for most people” (44)
  • Free and open press was already an old idea in the English speaking world; the “meer mechanics” self description was at least in part to limit scrutiny when libel and sedition were easier to make
  • John Milton among the figures that pushed against licensing acts
  • This colonial era was a hot dialogue on free press being a tool against government overstep . Following South Sea Company corruption scandal the “Cato” letters argues for the press as “ bulwark against governmental power.”
  • Publick Occurrences in Boston in 1690 and after one issue gets suppressed by government, with local news and French King Louis Xiv gossip; early example. In the 1720s Franklin and his older brother James got into trouble during a controversy over smallpox inoculation
  • Philadelphia lawyer Andrew Hamilton defended Zenger in his famous libel case ( more history than legal precedent though)
  • Franklin’s Apology for Printers: “ The business of printing has chiefly to do with men’s opinions.” Of course they’ll upset some (48) “ printers “should acquire a vast unconcernedness as to the right or wrong opinions contained in what they print”
  • Printers must be Disinterested
  • But Franklin “constantly refused to print anything that might countenance vice, or promote immorality ,“ although he might have earned considerable profit by doing so in view of “the corrupt taste of the majority.”
  • Printers in the colonial era were already seeing themselves as tied to a public good not only partisan issues
  • Samuel Inslee and Anthony Carr promised their paper in 1770 would be sacred to “the cause of truth and liberty, and never be prostituted to the purposes of party, but be equally free for all.” (49)
  • Before 1765, printers were trying to avoid all partisanship but it was becoming increasingly difficult. Free press and independence was a commercial strategy
  • He argues trying to be valuable to all sides was chiefly a commercial success rather than pursuing a single patron of one kind or another
  • Stamp Act was an example of putting colonial printers into a choice: defy stamped papers to risk fine but show patriot; get stamp and seem a loyalist
  • David Hall in Philadelphia was an example of a publisher halting his newspaper for a time, as he felt split between the patriots and loyalists in terms of whether he should print without the stamps required by the stamp act or comply with the new law (61)
  • Philadelphia publisher William Bradford took a leadership role with that city’s sons of liberty group (62)
  • 1765: an anonymous writer in Boston Evening Post criticized Massachusetts Gazette for not publishing local news of Aaugust 14 Boston riots and the destruction of Stamp Officer Andres Oliver’s house. It was the beginning of the revolution forming local news (64)
  • Sons of Liberty routinely threatened printers who were thought to consider publishing (legally) during the Stamp Act. Meanwhile governors criticized printers for encouraging riotous behavior (media as mirror!), for example Massachusetts governor Francis Bernard reported to the board of trade that “the infamous set of newspapers “published during the crisis proved “the immense pain‘s that have been taken to poison the minds of the people”
  • Two Boston stamp act riots Aug. 16 supported by elites but Aug. 26 went farther and ransacked other officials: were these legitimate and ethical means? This moment in 1765 marked the birth of local news as newspapers began covering how colonial efforts
  • In the colonial era woodblock images were rare, often only appearing in advertisements (75)
  • The Stamp Act aligned the business interests of centrist publishers with patriot radicals by its repeal in 1766. It set the stage for more radical printers (80)
  • Pennsylvania Farmer letters (written by John Dickinson, a Delaware merchant who moved to PA) first published the dozen in Pennsylvania Chronicle (Goddard) and Pennsylvania Gazette (David Hall) between December 1767 and February 1768. These letters most popular serialized essay until Common Sense pamphlet (86)
  • Even in Boston, loyalist papers remained, helped by government contracts : between 1769 and 1775 the board of customs station in Boston paid Green and Russell 2400 pounds (92)
  • Despite the Boston Massacre being a well-known event today it was not widely reported on or distributed across the colonies beyond other prominent events (94)
  • Samuel Adams mocked the prominent patriot Boston printers Edes and Gill for being insufficiently committed to the patriotic cause snd instead profiting from the revolution: “to foul mouth printers tools with open jaws / for interest only not their country’s cause” (95) patriots needed publishers and clergymen to spread support .
  • Boston’s committee of correspondence led this campaign of letters of support from other town against various imperial action and expected printers to publish the letters free of charge. A debate pushed and eventually the correspondence committee of Boston agreed to defray the expense of publishing the other town letters into the newspaper, “a week later the committee pulled funds to purchase beer for its meetings.” “ in essence than even pro patriot printers wanted to treat the resolves the advertisements were notices to be paid for by the committee – or perhaps the town meeting, which had granted the committee authority. The letters took up valuable advertising space and help them keep their newspapers going. A defunct newspaper did neither the printers or the Boston committee very much good.” (97)
  • The printers also published letters while keeping sources anonymous, serving a vital role ; also allowed people like Samuel Adams to write pseudonymously
  • John Dunlap who took over his uncle William’s printing office in 1768 at the age of 21 claimed in the first issue of the Pennsylvania Packet that he planned to print “upon” principles the most impartial and disinterested.”(101)
  • Bradford’s Pennsylvania Journal account of Boston Tea Party included what seems like an eyewitness account added to a report published in Boston , could have been hand written or memory of the horse rider. (109) Sourcing and attribution standards weren’t yet set
  • On Dec 26, ship Polly was spotted near Chester about 15 miles south of Philadelphia, the committee met the ship at Gloucester point just beyond the reach of Philadelphia‘s customs officials. They shared the news from Boston Tea Party and these Philadelphia patriots told the captain of the ship Polly that they would do the same if he tried to enter Philadelphia. The ship captain agreed to return to London without attempting to bring the East India tea to Philadelphia (110) this has been called the Philadelphia Tea Party.
  • First published on May 9, 1754 in the Pennsylvania Gazette, the Join or Die emblem made first by Benjamin Franklin during the Seven Years War returned to signify a call of colonial unity in the face of the Intolerable Acts (114)
  • During the early Revolutionary era, papers continued to run advertisements and chase down subscriber revenue (115)
  • William Goddard (33 years old) part of forming constitutional post to rival British postal system in part as part of his expansion to Baltimore for his new expanded publishing office to include Maryland Journal (leaving his sister Mary Katherine Goddard to maintain Pennsylvania Chronicle (118), he hired his own postal rider like other printers. Goddard would be later described by one historian as a “political knight-errant always avid for new adventures”
  • Loyalist (and neutral printers, as Patriots argued there was no distinction ) were increasingly made more loyal from Stamp Act to 1775, as they had to rely on imperial and governmental posts as other maneuvers and revenue dried up. (This is a phenomenon where one radical group pushes the center to the other extreme for support). In 1775 still 40% of newspaper publishers we identified as loyalists, and a third of them were immigrants mostly from Scotland. (126)
  • Rivington’s New York Gazetteer and early expansion newspaper (and he was a loyalist who still made money by selling patriot material which he bought from the Bradfords in Philadelphia, members of Sons of Liberty
  • Rivington (called a “Pensioned Servile Wench”) and Robert Wells of South Carolina were heavily boycotted beginning in 1775, these loyalist publishers were essentially challenged to drop what we’d later call first amendment rights
  • After first Continental Congress accelerated partnership, Lexington and Concord tested the rider method of news spreading and then publishers printing. In five days the news of L&C spread across new England and mid-Atlantic colonies far faster than other news, aided by horse riding. (135)
  • Isaiah Thomas frequently sent discounted newspapers to colonial soldiers but still provincial government owed him 31 pounds 10 shillings by 1775 (136)
  • Communication lines were heavily disrupted by the war; with British occupation of cities, many patriot printers scattered; loyalists retreated behind British lines. The relative coordination between printers regardless of politics were repaired. Paper and ink and typeset supply lines very difficult to maintain, many printers frequently writing for access. This changed as printers moved due to the war;
  • Of the 134 master printers working by 1783 only 65 have been active at the start of the war eight years earlier. Of the 106 printers with known political leanings, 61 appeared to have been patriots, 39 loyalists, for a neutral, and to switch sides during the course of the war. 40 fought in The revolutionary war, including William Bradford who is in his mid-50s (141)
  • In summer 1775, William Strahan, who had a decades long friendship with printer David Hall, continued to write to David’s son William Hall, who is named after Strahan, and he expressed hope that Benjamin Franklin, also a long time friend, would be able to exert his influence to bring hostilities to end. With that letter enclosed “many of the new pamphlets regarding America,” to be sold since it was still a business relationship. They wrote during the war (144)
  • Mary Katherine Goddard published the first edition of the Declaration of Independence to include the signers names in January 1777 (145)
  • May 1775, Goddard’s proposal for a continental post office was taken up by the second continental Congress after having largely been ignored by the first. The congress appointed Benjamin Franklin his first postmaster general, unlike Goddard‘s proposal and operated as a government institution without subscription, and Congress insisted that the post to be a quasi-national infrastructure that operated from Maine to Georgia
  • Even after King George III denied the Olive Branch petition (July 1775), most colonialists expected reconciliation but then the January 1776 printing of Common Sense changed everything (150) Paine had written and edited for Pennsylvania Magazine (Robert Aitken) with help of Franklin letter of recommendation
  • Paine published Common Sense with printer Robert Bell; 77 pages; 25 editions 16 in Ohiladelphia and around the colonies. Thomas Paine wrongly exaggerated and said 100k copies in 1776 which would have been logistically impossible.
  • Other letters followed like Plain Truth and college of Philadelphia provost William Smith’s Cato letters
  • John Dunlap printed the Declaration: only Hancock (president of congress); Charles Thomson (secretary) and Dunlap (printer) had signed on the document July 4 1776
  • It was in at least 30 newspapers in nine states by August 2, including german translation in a Germantown newspaper July 9 1776
  • Benjamin Towne, a Philadelphia printer who published his Pennsylvania Evening Post throughout the war remained in that city during the British occupation of September 1777 to 1778 (160) other Philadelphia printers fled to Lancaster and York with Congress; as both loyalist and patriot publishers fled cities during occupations. Towne was one of several exceptions
  • Ambrose Serle, secretary to British General Howe, developed a plan to subsidize loyalist papers as he felt combating narrative was crucial (160) Serle wrote To the Earl of Dartmouth in 1776 that the American newspapers “had a more extensive and stronger influence “the nearly any other form of communication in creating “the present commotion “ (160)
  • In fall 1776 William Goddard and his sister Mary Katherine were criticized and threatened by patriots for a letter they published in their Maryland Journal that ironically praised the offer of peace by General William Howe, when pressed to share who the author was William Goddard defended the Free Press by refusing “to suffer the secrets of his press to be extorted from him in a tumultuous way “ (162)
  • In November 1775 a group of 100 patriots marched from New Haven Connecticut ransacked loyalist printer James Rivington in his New York office . One of the leaders was Isaac Sears who defenders crossing colonial lines by saying “There are not spirited and leading men enough in N. York to undertake such a business or it would’ve been done long ago.”
  • Historians now think that Rivington was a double agent providing information to George Washington
  • Many loyalist publishers left the United States after the revolution, including a known total of 20, nine of them went to Canada five and went to the British isles and three to the west Indies. The loyalist printers left a thorough record by virtue of their petitions to the loyalist claims commission established by Parliament in 1783 to process applications for reimbursement by American loyalist who suffered property losses as a result of the war. One example is James Humphries a one time Philadelphia printer who claim damages of 1713 pounds. He reported publishing his Pennsylvania ledger in 1775 to November 1776 in favor of the British government. (166)
  • In fall 1777 during the occupation of Philadelphia, patriots destroyed the Germantown printing office of Christopher Sower Junior who remained neutral and refuse to take an oath of allegiance the united states (168)
  • James Johnston was loyalist publisher of Georgia Gazette, he was one of 117 loyalists permanently banned from Georgia but that order was rescinded in part because Savannah had not found another publisher to print new state government documents and produce newspaper at a loss
  • After the revolution, Philadelphia ,New York and Boston were home to an expanding array of printing innovation that had previously only been seen in Europe, including the daily newspaper. Benjamin Towne started the first daily newspaper in the United States; in 1783 Pennsylvania Evening Post and Daily Advertiser; Pennsylvania Packet by Dunlap and Claypool followed soon after (181)
  • Matthew Carey chose to move from Dublin to Philadelphia because he read accounts of his being imprisoned for his promotion of Catholic rights and criticism of British officials in the Pennsylvania Packet and Weekly Advertiser (188) Carey met on his voyage over a man who could introduce him to the Marquis de Lafayette. Hill gave him $400 to launch his print house, and later it was Lafayette who introduced him to President George Washington who is willing to receive his Pennsylvania Evening Herald newspaper so that Carrie could list Washington as one of his subscribers. His American Museum was an early example of an attempt at a national publication
  • In 1785 politicians in the Massachusetts General Court, Unai Ronica Lee passed a stamp act that looked eerily similar to the one imposed by the British imperial government in 1765 that resulted in the Stamp Act protests. In a petition to the General Court, John Russell noted that advertising revenue “enabled him to afford his papers at such a moderate price, that it easily circulated among all ranks of people even among those of the lowest fortune.” (191) he believed that the new Massachusetts tax would reduce revenue from advertisements and force and increase in subscription costs which would prevent “the circulation of that political intelligence, which is manifestly necessary to the virtue freedom and happiness of the people. “Subscribers are notoriously lax about paying, and printers often help felt helpless to control that side of their business, but they had more success with advertisers
  • Eleazer Oswald faced prosecution twice for early colonial liable on the 1780s, he printed the Independent Gazetteer in Philadelphia; he dueled with Matthew Carey in 1786 over an escalating series of charges, another quarrel involved Thomas McKean the powerful chief justice of Pennsylvania in 1783 McKean attempt to have Oswald and died the label charges for publishing criticism of them but a grand jury twice declined. In 1788 Oswald face a lawsuit by Andrew Brown the printer of the federal Gazetteer who had demanded that Oswald reveal the names of those who attacked Brown and Oswald paper. These were early steps in defining Free Press in America (193)
  • Despite efforts, publishers were not yet sophisticated enough in the 1780s to manage large scale distribution of a national publication
  • After a relatively centrist colonial era of printers, after the revolution printers took on more bold stances on issues and would not mask their own views, in Philadelphia in 1788 Benjamin Franklin lamented in his autobiography that printers “make no screw bowl of gratifying the malice of individuals by false accusations of the fairest characters among ourselves, augmenting animosity even to the producing of tools, and are moreover so in discreet as to print screwless reflections on the government of neighboring states, and even on the conduct of our best national allies, which may be attended with the most pernicious consequences” Franklin argued printers might ruin the nation and they didn’t curate their views (195)
  • The first criticism of the U.S. Constitution appeared in Philadelphia’s Freeman‘s Journal on September 26, 1787, just nine days after its signing, written by Francis Bailey, who received a “vicious denunciation in response (198)
  • Most Printers were in large cities by virtue of their audience and business model, and the cities generally felt as though they would benefit from the defense of commerce and trade the constitution would offer, so intern most printers were federalists in favor of the national government built into the constitution(199
  • Still most printers use the phrase “free and open press” to defend their impartial and important role
  • In October 1787 Benjamin Russell, publisher of the Sentinel in Boston, wrote that he would not run any essays in opposition to the Constitution unless the author was willing to reveal his or her name to the public. (Beginning of the fight to avoid anonymous sources) One writer suggested in the Boston independent Chronicle, wanted to, “keep us in our divided and distracted condition” (199) another writer in the Philadelphia Independent gazetteer suggested that the printer should publish his name so that he could “declare that every writer is either in native or a citizen of one of these states.”
  • In May 1788 Congress passed a resolution that reaffirmed its previous position that printers were “allowed to exchange their papers with each other by means of the public mail without any charge of postage ” so long as the newspaper was not being used to conceal any other letters or newspapers (201) The post office act of 1792 further cemented this situation
  • On the day of John Adams’s inauguration Benjamin Franklin Bache wrote an essay in his Aurora newspaper that the day was a “Jubilee for the United States because the name of Washington from this day ceases to give a currency to political iniquity; and the legalize corruption ”