Information, Empire, and Roads to Revolutions

This post is a part of a series entitled “(In)forming Revolution: Information Networks in the Age of Revolutions.”

By A. Zuercher Reichardt

Anglo-French competition in Europe and across the globe propelled the development of early infrastructure states. While the infrastructure state was largely confined to la Métropole in eighteenth-century France, major mid-century reforms extended Britain’s infrastructure state to its North American colonies. In both the British Atlantic and in France, the development and improvement of state information circuits marched in lockstep with the expansion of print and epistolary networks that conveyed opinion and propaganda over many of the same pathways forged by the state.

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Map of the British and French Dominions in North America, with the Roads, Distances, Limits, and Extent of the Settlements, by Jno. Mitchell d.f. with Improvements. Amsterdam: I. Covens and C. Mortier, 1755–1761. Hand-colored map. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (001.05.00) [Digital ID # ar004401]

Situating the British Empire and the American Revolution in the context of eighteenth-century imperial rivalry, this piece argues, first, that the growth of the transatlantic British infrastructure state was part and consequence of Britain’s contest with France for North America; and second, the growth of state infrastructure aided political opposition and revolutionaries in the move toward American revolution. 

State information networks in France and Britain transformed over the eighteenth century. Far from insular developments, these advancements in communications were the product of close study between the two nations. The first major development was the rise of a professionalized bureaucracy, military, and diplomatic corps. The second was the rapid improvement of European communication systems: massive road projects, centralized postal networks, packet boat services, courier systems, and more.

Robert de Vaugondy, Gilles and Didier Robert de Vaugondy, Atlas Universel, Par M. Robert Geographe ordinaire du Roy, et Par M. Robert De Vaugondy son fils Geographe ord. du Roy, et de S. M. Polonoise, Duc de Lorraine et de Bar, et Associe de L’Academie Royale des Sciences et belles Lettres de Nancy, Avec Privilege Du Roy. Paris: Chez Les Auteurs ,Quay de l’Horloge du Palais, Boudet Libraire Imprimeur du Roi, 1757.

Many of these developments were not immediately translated to North America, but by the mid-eighteenth century, both France and Britain began to apply these practices to their Atlantic Empires. Over the 1740s and 1750s, France—out of an administrative push to consolidate the paperwork of New France and to improve military lines through the heart of the continent—looked to further unite Canada and Louisiana by forging regular correspondence channels between the two territories. As the Seven Years’ War broke out, Britain, in turn, looked to create a singular communications hub around New York and its cluster of new military offices and other imperial institutions. Renewed  attention to the British North American postal network—a concern tied to conveying military paperwork and news—also brought new efforts to survey roads and standardize riders. And as Britain inaugurated its Atlantic packet boat service, France sought to create a fleet of frigates specifically designed to carry transatlantic news.

In October 1754, as word of Anglo-French armed confrontation in North America reached Europe, the Earl of Albemarle, British ambassador to France, wrote to the Prime Minister and Duke of Newcastle, Thomas Pelham-Holles, “By the nature of our constitution, nothing is kept from the Knowledge of the Whole World, even Intentions, & thoughts are guessed at, & made publick by those abominable writers of Daily Newspapers.”[1] Newcastle wrote that same month to Albemarle to describe an advertisement for the recruitment of troops to America circulating in various British papers. Its publication was “most ill judg’d,” Newcastle bemoaned, for it had “set all the Foreign Ministers on Fire.” Even more, he worried, “the French will know Our Strength, or rather Our Weakness.”[2] The unavoidable openness of British newspapers, they believed, allowed Britain’s rivals to gather intelligence of the ministry’s military and diplomatic actions.

Yet, after only a few years, British officials on either side of the Atlantic took a more congratulatory tone. Colonial governors and others contributed letters, memorials, and other official papers to colonial printers who turned extracts into news items. British officials enclosed newspaper clippings in their letters directed back to the metropole.[3] Benjamin Franklin, as the Deputy Postmaster General, described colonial newspapers as “on many Occasions useful to Government.”[4] By 1758, the turning point of the North American theater of the Seven Years’ War, the press was celebrated as one of the British state’s greatest weapons in its contest with France. For imperial ministers, royal officers, colonial leaders, and bureaucrats, newspapers provided a communications safety net that supported the official information circuits of the military, governors, and other agents.

The dual growth of official and print communication networks physically reshaped the empire, as pathways of paperwork became inscribed upon the continent and across the Atlantic. The British military constructed an unprecedented web of roads and transport services that not only connected colonial frontiers to provincial centers, and provincial centers to London, but also formed a new centralized imperial communications infrastructure. It was a triumph in war-making: the improvement of British communications turned the tide of war, propelled Britain to victory over France, and ultimately removed the French Empire from an enormous swath of the North American continent.[5]

The British military and other imperial institutions continued to expand the network of roads and paperwork routes after the end of the North American theater in 1760. Some of these efforts were prompted by military goals of securing new British territories acquired from the French. Others emerged during military campaigns against warring indigenous nations during the 1760s, and still others resulted from the desire to incorporate new cities and colonies, especially Montreal and Quebec, into the imperial road network.

In building these physical information channels, the British created an imperial infrastructure state in North America. But maintaining that state was another matter. Looking forward to the American Revolution is to look also to the massive importance of print, press, and propaganda in the escalation of political conflict. And if ideology, constitutional thought, cultural consciousness, or political debate had causal force in the drive to North American revolution, so too did the expansion of the channels that allowed for the movement of newspapers, tracts, letters, and opinion.

In the decade following the Seven Years’ War, ministerial concerns over the British Atlantic press again multiplied—this time perceived foreign threats were replaced by fears of a menace within the Empire itself. What had served Britain in its competition with France, and in its suppression of and negotiation with indigenous states, also opened up the imperial government to new challenges. Those ever-thickening communication channels spread not only up and down the seaboard, but also deep into the Interior, allowing information, goods, and ideas to penetrate more quickly and more deeply into American society than ever before. It was these networks connecting American society together, and connecting that society with Europe and beyond, that made it possible for radical ideas and subversive interpretations of the news to circulate widely in British America. For as state infrastructure grew, so too did private correspondence networks and the world of public prints. The number of newspapers in the British colonies, which had already risen during the war, doubled again between 1763 and 1775.

The intimate relationship between newspapers and the state continued. The postal service claimed a legal monopoly over the circulation of prints, and it remained the primary mode of newspapers delivery to subscribers. While some actions looked to regulate or curtail the incendiary press—and government surveillance of the postal service increased substantially—the British imperial ministry and its North American agents still largely allowed patriot and oppositional prints and correspondence to travel its routes. Some printers employed their own riders to deliver newspapers, but even those “supplemented rather than competed with the imperial postal system.”

In short, the development of centralized communications infrastructure had proved an unquestionable advantage in an external, inter-imperial war. But in the war’s aftermath, centralized infrastructure exposed the British state to internal, intra-imperial threats. Roads to power, then, became roads to crisis.

A. Zuercher Reichardt is a 2017-2018 junior visiting fellow at the Center for Humanities & Information at Pennsylvania State University, and an Assistant Professor of History and Constitutional Democracy at the University of Missouri

Title image: The Twopenny-post Boy. n.d.


[1] Private, Albemarle to Newcastle, Fontainebleau, 23 October 1754, Newcastle Papers, Add MS 32,851, British Library, f.82.

[2] Newcastle to Albemarle, 10 October 1754, Newcastle Papers, Add MS 32,851, f.56.

[3] Memorial, Reynolds to Thomas Robinson, Georgia, 5 December 1754, Hardwicke Papers, Add MS 35009, British Library, f.204-205.

[4] “Additional Instructions to the Deputy Postmasters of North America, 10 March 1758,” Franklin Papers, Vol. 7, 390–392.

[5] Alyssa Zuercher Reichardt, “War for the Interior: Imperial Conflict and the Formation of North American and Transatlantic Communications Infrastructure, 1727-1774,” Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University, 2017. 

Further Reading:

For historiography of French and British communications infrastructure in eighteenth-century North America, see: Joseph Adelman, ““A Constitutional Conveyance of Intelligence, Public and Private”: The Post Office, the Business of Printing, and the American Revolution,” Enterprise & Society, vol. 11 no. 4, 2010; Kenneth Banks, Chasing Empire Across the Sea: Communications and the State in the French Atlantic, 1713-1763 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002); and Konstantin Dierks, In My Power: Letter Writing and Communications in Early America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).

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