On April 19th, 1775, King George’s redcoats attempted to destroy military supplies in Concord, Massachusetts. With the help of spies and the gathering of information, the colonists had heard of this plan weeks before and hid most of their supplies in a nearby town. What preceded that day was what Ralph Waldo Emerson described as, “The shot heard round the world.” That is, the first official musket shot of the American Revolution. The battle that ensued led to the siege of Boston and the previous evenings warning ride at midnight by Paul Revere was seared into history books. Most of us have heard these stories before, some of us have even toured the hallowed streets where the roots of the war for independence began to sprout. But what many may not know is the pivotal role that print played in the American Revolution. We will now shed a snippet of light on that for you.
Prior to the telephone and the telegraph, newspapers were the way in which colonies could essentially keep in contact with one another. At the start of the Revolution there were approximately 37 newspapers in the American colonies. These newspapers produced a four-page print every week. In reading these issues, colonists were able to stay informed regarding events occurring hundreds of miles away. “Because of the structure of the newspaper business in the 18th century, the stories that appeared in each paper were “exchanged” from other papers in different cities, creating a uniform effect akin to a modern news wire. The exchange system allowed for the same story to appear across North America, and it provided the Revolutionaries with a method to shore up that fragile sense of unity.” (https://oxfordre.com/americanhistory) Additionally, pamphlets were printed during this time period. “Pamphlets were one of the most important conveyors of ideas during the imperial crisis. Often written by elites under pseudonyms and published by booksellers, they have long been held by historians as the lifeblood of the American Revolution.” (https://oxfordre.com/americanhistory)
Interestingly, many of the publishers and columnists during that time period used pseudonyms. It is argued that in doing so, it was no longer an individual writing for the cause of the Revolution. “As one literary scholar has suggested, by adopting such identities those “guardians” were then not real, individual inhabitants of Boston or Philadelphia, with particular social interests, but universal promoters of republican liberty.” This in turn helped garner support for the war effort. Pseudonyms were used both in newspaper print and by those that penned pamphlets. Of these, newspaper production ebbed and flowed during the war. “On April 19, 1775, there were thirty-seven active newspapers in the colonies. When Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, 1781, there were thirty-five. Of those original thirty-seven papers that printed the news of Lexington and Concord, only twenty made it through the war and very few of those were able to continue publishing a paper each week.” (https://oxfordre.com/americanhistory)
It has been argued that rather than generating support for the war, print was used as a propaganda tool by politicians holding a minority viewpoint regarding independence. “One progressive historian, Arthur Meier Schlesinger, published a central text about the role of print in the Revolution in 1957. His Prelude to Independence moved past the instrumental Progressive interpretation that saw the patriots as false prophets. For Schlesinger, the printers were essential to moving the Revolution forward, and they also believed in the broader deals articulated in the newspaper essays and pamphlets that they sent forth from their print shops each week.” However, the argument in favor of newspapers and other print being used as a propaganda tool may better proved by looking at the geography of the time. Throughout most of the war, the redcoats held a vast majority of the South. In doing so, they were attempting to keep the Continental Army up in the North. After 1780, there were not any pro-American newspapers South of Williamsburg. “The impact of this print vacuum is seldom appreciated (because difficult to quantify) in scholars’ interpretations for why the war in the south turned into a brutal civil war in the early 1780s. If print was essential to organizing and garnering support for the war in the 1770s in the northern and middle colonies, then it stands to reason that the lack of it in the south—or the robust appearance of British papers—also contributed to the fraying of patriot support in the Deep South.” (https://oxfordre.com/americanhistory) This fraying of support led to the Battle of Kings Mountain in which Patriot and Loyalist militias fought one another in South Carolina. The battle was defined as the war’s largest all-American fight.
The historical facts above do not touch on the spies during the war that used newspapers to communicate. Additionally, they fail to mention an underlying cause of the Revolutions beginnings. That is, the Stamp Act. While many factors and tense standoffs were thrown into the boiling pot that simmered until wars outbreak, the Stamp Act turned the stovetop’s heat too high. In an attempt to help pay off the debt incurred during the French and Indian Wars, Great Britain imposed a tax on the colonies. “The Stamp Act of 1765 (was an Act of the Parliament of Great Britain that imposed a direct tax on the British colonies in North America and required that many printed materials in the colonies be produced on stamped paper produced in London, carrying an embossed revenue stamp. Printed materials included legal documents, magazines, playing cards, newspapers, and many other types of paper used throughout the colonies. Like previous taxes, the stamp tax had to be paid in valid British currency, not in colonial paper money.” (Wikipedia) This tax infuriated the colonists and helped lead to the creation of the First Continental Congress and the slogan, “No taxation without representation.”
One can argue that print not only helped to fuel the fire and support of the Revolution, but also attributed to the early causes of the war. While newspapers and flyers helped the colonies communicate and propagate public opinion amongst the colonists, the Stamp Act and other unjust taxes on the colonies helped initiate the first shots of the war. David Ramsay, one of the most prominent historians of the Revolution is quoted as saying, “In establishing American independence, the pen and press had merit equal to that of the sword.”