Reporting the Revolutionary War
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Mount Vernon had the opportunity to speak with Todd Andrlik, author and editor of Reporting the Revolutionary War. This award-winning book takes a close look at the impact that newspapers had on the Revolutionary War period.
Todd Andrlik: My full-time job is in marketing and media, so I've always had a strong interest in journalism. I randomly stumbled upon 18th century newspapers and how they shaped the American Revolution while researching a historic newspaper for sale at a rare book shop. That one night of discovery triggered a five-year commitment to researching, curating, writing and editing Reporting the Revolutionary War.
What I love most about American Revolution-era newspapers is that they let you see the world as George Washington saw it. When I’m reading about the Battle of Bunker Hill in a Virginia Gazette, I feel like I’m looking over Washington’s shoulders. It is also worth noting that our founding fathers were the first collectors of newspapers because they realized the value of their historical record. “I consider their preservation as a duty,” Thomas Jefferson said.
Newspapers were absolutely pivotal in making America. As the only mass media at the time, they fanned the flames of rebellion, sustained loyalty to the cause and ultimately aided in the outcome. Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote to General Nathaniel Greene during the Revolutionary War that a newspaper “in the present state of affairs would be equal to at least two regiments.” Contemporary historian David Ramsay, who twice served as a delegate in the Continental Congress, wrote that “in establishing American independence, the pen and the press had merit equal to that of the sword.” By allowing the general public unprecedented access to the original papers, this book lets us learn firsthand what many modern historians claim: Without newspapers, there would have been no American Revolution.
Newspapers of the Revolution are quite different from newspapers today yet they share some similarities. Dimensions of 18th century newspapers were a tad smaller than modern tabloids with a menu of content consisting of advertising, local and world news, legal notices, essays and more. However, keep in mind that this was before photos, before headlines and before standardized English.
The average circulation of the top 100 newspapers today is 200,000. In 1775, the average circulation was 600, but papers benefited from an amplified reach because they were often read aloud in meeting houses, coffee houses, taverns and private homes. Today, news is on demand and practically streaming in real time.
Back then, newspapers were printed once a week. A 1776 newspaper tended to be only four pages long and was crammed with content that was days or weeks old, depending on how far the news had to travel on horseback or by ship. Still, the British Empire’s newspaper network was the fastest way of spreading news that the nation had ever seen, and the news was considered fresh when it arrived because it was the latest information colonists had.
Finally, if you think MSNBC and FOX News are notorious for their bickering and biases, media partiality and propaganda were perfected during the American Revolution with Patriot and Loyalist newspapers fighting to keep their respective populations engaged.
Definitely. Washington read newspapers voraciously and understood the immense power of the printed word. Bruce Chadwick, one of 37 historian contributors to Reporting the Revolutionary War, wrote in George Washington’s War (2004) that “The help of the press was another part of Washington’s winter [of 1777] strategy. The general read as many newspapers as he could… he had friends in every major city in the states send him their newspapers and asked anyone scheduled to visit him to bring along the latest editions. He read them to find out how the press and public felt about the army – and him – but also to determine what the British were doing.”
The following winter, Washington received authorization from Congress to fund the publication of the New-Jersey Journal, a completely army-controlled newspaper that served as Washington’s mouthpiece and helped offset the political vitriol from James Rivington’s and James Humphreys’ Loyalist papers being printed in British-occupied New York and Philadelphia. The story of the Journal is well told in Chadwick’s volume. In Reporting the Revolutionary War, general audiences can now experience firsthand the same impressive assortment of war intelligence and public opinion that Washington craved from newspapers.
This is before paid professional reporters and editors, so typically the printer and his/her confidants (and perhaps apprentices) obtain, sort through and select the content that is typeset for each issue (it took approximately 25 hours to typeset one four-page issue). The top sources of colonial news were other newspapers, private letters from colonists plus oral and written intelligence from ship captains, sailors, merchants, travelers and militia.
During the war, the best source of battle news was the after-action report. Following major actions, commanding officers would summarize the engagement, including details about the dead and wounded, and send it the President of Congress, who would circulate the summary to local newspapers. Those reports would then be printed and reprinted up and down the continent in multiple newspapers. Several after-action reports are featured in Reporting the Revolutionary War with Washington’s own account of crossing the Delaware River and the Battle of Trenton perhaps being the most popular. As the book describes, Washington saw most of the action as he raced back and forth through Trenton on his horse with musketballs flying through the air around him. His colorful and explosive letter, which was printed on the front page of the January 23, 1777, Continental Journal (Boston), is written not only to state the facts, but also to drum up Congressional, press and public support for his army. Washington explains the large quantity of ice significantly slowed his crossing of the Delaware, that it was 3 a.m. before the artillery was all over and 4 a.m. before the troops took up their line of march. Washington also writes that the Hessians surrendered because they knew they were about to be “cut to pieces."
Learn More: The Battle of Trenton
Regardless of many newspapers’ insistence on being impartial, the printer's point of view is typically apparent via distortions, exaggerations and sometimes even fabrications. Similar to left- or right-leaning 21st century media, contemporary readers of American Revolution-era newspapers were well aware of this bias. Common propaganda tactics like name calling, fear mongering, selective news printing and demonizing the enemy helped fight the battle of mind control. Despite this, 18th century newspaper printers still needed to maintain strong subscriber and advertiser bases, so they commonly printed news from credible sources and added disclaimers to those who might be otherwise. Plus, battle reports during the war were frequently eyewitness accounts and very accurate with the preferred propaganda tactic being to inflate the enemy’s numbers and deflate your own (to numb losses and magnify victories).
There is equally tremendous insight and perspective to be gained from British newspapers and the book provides a strong balance of newspaper accounts from both sides of the Atlantic. For instance, through British media we see in 1765-66 how London merchants became pro-American lobbyists fighting Parliament alongside the Sons of Liberty for the repeal of the Stamp Act. We read how the Declaration of Independence was analyzed and questioned offshore. We read how London newspapers reported the battles of Trenton and Princeton, both decisive American victories, in a fashion that would suggest the British won. We read how British papers described John Paul Jones as a pirate and how they thought victory was close at hand until the very end. Also, because British newspapers used the same propaganda tactics as American papers to boost morale and increase support (don’t forget newspapers were the No. 1 propaganda tool), the book goes to great lengths to play referee. To help readers safely digest the primary sources, understand media bias, separate fact and fiction, and bridge centuries, 70 contextual essays by modern historians are sprinkled throughout. Plus, a section at the front of the book contains 15 colonial newspaper reading tips, serving as an 18th century journalism primer.
I have dozens of favorites. I love the newspaper accounts of Washington’s resignation as commander in chief plus his first inauguration and farewell address, which appear in the final chapter and epilogue. I’m also fond of the quality and quantity of coverage of the Southern Campaign in the northern papers. The Stamp Act and Powder Alarm crises unfold with amazing drama and intensity in 1765-1766 and late 1774 newspapers. I am a huge fan of the August 26, 1775, issue of the Virginia Gazette (Dixon and Hunter) with the only known newspaper illustration of a current event published during the entire American Revolution. It is an ingenious depiction of the battlefield at Breed’s Hill based on an eyewitness account and made entirely of standard typesetting components found in the print shop.
Arguably the biggest breaking news story of the 18th century was the Battle of Lexington and Concord, so if I had to pick one favorite newspaper I’d probably say the April 21, 1775, New-Hampshire Gazette (Portsmouth) with its front-page article and “BLOODY NEWS” headline. It was the only newspaper, of 38 at the time, to use a headline over its first report of the battle (headlines weren’t common or an efficient use of space back then) and one of only two newspapers to print the news on its front page, displacing the typical essays, advertisements or foreign news.
In the days just before and after war erupted, many Boston printers ceased newspaper production and left town. With a lack of Boston news coverage following the “shot heard ‘round the world,” historians writing about the Siege of Boston have long relied most heavily on the newspaper accounts from nearby communities like Portsmouth.
Todd Andrlik is curator, author and editor of Reporting the Revolutionary War: Before It Was History, It Was News (beforehistory.com), named one of the Best Books of 2012 by Barnes & Noble and Best American Revolution Book of 2012 by the New York American Revolution Round Table. Featuring hundreds of high definition color images and analysis from 37 historians, the single volume lets readers experience the Revolution the way the colonists did -- in their very own town newspapers and broadsheets. “This is ‘you are there’ history at its best,” American History magazine said in its review. Andrlik is also the founder and developer of Journal of the American Revolution (allthingsliberty.com), a multi-author online magazine that he co-edits with historian Hugh Harrington. A full-time marketing and media professional, Andrlik has written or ghost-written thousands of published articles on various business topics. His history-related articles have appeared in Patriots of the American Revolution, Huffington Post, Boston Globe, and Journal of the American Revolution.