“Meer Mechanics” No More: How Printers Shaped Information in the Revolutionary Age

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

By Joseph M. Adelman

The men and women who physically produced the texts lauded as key to the American Revolution rarely get their due. Their absence from the story of print and the American Revolution is not by accident, nor is it because scholars have a nefarious agenda to ignore the role of printers. On the contrary, it’s exactly how most, if not all, American colonial printers portrayed themselves and their careers. In so doing, they drew on a long tradition exemplified by Benjamin Franklin’s “Apology for Printers,” published in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1731. Franklin declared that he and the Gazette were merely conveyances for the opinions of others, and that his only editorial judgment was to stay within the legal bounds of libel, opened a space for him to publish political essays and news items without claiming responsibility for them. In Franklin’s case, that decision was intentional. That characterization, it turns out, obscures the work printers were doing in their shops and along postal routes.

Prior to the past ten years, most scholars dismissed printers as manual laborers — men and women who set type and pulled the press, but did not intervene to shape the content of the texts they brought to life. The scholarship of Robert Darnton, however, invites us to think carefully about the full range of people who contributed to printed works: authors and readers, to be sure, but also the intermediaries who brought printed materials to light, including printers, publishers, wholesalers, post riders, and others.[1] Though his archival research focused on the ancien régime and revolutionary France, Darnton’s methodological interventions have encouraged scholars working on other regions (including British colonial North America, for example) to consider how the processes of production, circulation, and consumption have shaped not only texts but also historical events. Scholars in the past decade have paid more attention to printers and their activities, most notably with the publication of work by Robert Parkinson, Russ Castronovo, and others.[3] But more broadly it remains a truism that printers were not active participants in the intellectual production of news and arguments about the Revolution.

My own research focuses on precisely that middle zone of the communication circuit: the printers and editors who produced newspapers and other forms of printed news and politics during the American Revolution. For decades, historians have described printers as “meer mechanics,” to use a phrase from Stephen Botein’s famous essay on printers.[3] An entire school of scholarship on the American Revolution, in fact, emphasized the importance of texts — in particular pamphlets — for developing an ideology of revolution without so much as mentioning the material factors through which those pamphlets were produced.

Sometimes for the same reason but often simply because it quickly became standard, printers during the Revolutionary era continued to describe themselves in terms that elided their role in the intellectual production of their newspapers and pamphlets. They nevertheless spent their working days doing precisely that in ways both large and small in order to generate the content they needed to fill the pages of their newspapers. Printing offices were quite small, so a master printer would take on what we now think of as distinct roles as printer, editor, and (often) publisher.

In their work as editors, these printers practiced news-gathering as it was understood in the eighteenth century, seeking out items to print as they crossed the threshold of their office doors. Though many printersㅡespecially those who operated the only newspapers in their townsㅡwere relatively ecumenical in seeking out sources of news and information, they nonetheless displayed tendencies in selecting which news outlets they would clip from. For example, by 1775, printers with Loyalist tendencies were much more likely to reprint news items from James Rivington’s Rivington’s New-York Gazetteer, who was King’s Printer and the most vocal Loyalist printer in the colonies, than the more Patriot-friendly New-York Journal of John Holt.[4]

The work of printers as editors could sometimes appear undetectable except under the closest of readings. To figure out in my own research when printers intervened, I have set several versions of a particular paragraph alongside one another, something made possible thanks to the various historical databases that have made eighteenth-century newspapers more accessible (for the most part). Printers usually reprinted paragraphs verbatim from an exchanged newspaper from another town, but occasionally made small and subtleㅡbut often criticalㅡrevisions.

By a gentleman from Philadelphia we learn, that a vessel arrived there the 8th instant, in a short passage from St. Croix, who brings advice on an engagement between the French and English fleets off Barbados, which terminated signally in favour of the French. Three British line of battle ships were sunk, one of them the Sandwich, in which Admiral Rodney had his flag; one more ship of the line was burnt, and another captured. Admiral Rodney had lost one of his legs in the action.—The action was long, severe and bloody.—The British fleet was totally dispersed, and when this vessel left St. Croix, the French fleet was cruizing to windward of Barbados, with a view to intercept Admiral Ross, who was expected to arrive soon with 8 ships of the line, from Gibraltar; he being a part of the fleet sent for it’s relief.

Isaiah Thomas, the Worcester publisher of the Massachusetts Spy (and future founder of the American Antiquarian Society), received an exchange copy of the Journal. In his copy of the paper, still held at AAS, Thomas marked the paragraph for reprinting in the Spy. But at the end, he scribbled four words: “[This account wants confirmation.]” And so the paragraph appeared, with Thomas’s amendment, on July 26 in the Spy.

Newspaper article about the events of the Revolutionary war, 1781.
Left: New-Jersey Journal, July 11, 1781. Right: Massachusetts Spy, July 26, 1781 [Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society]

I don’t know why Thomas added the sentence in brackets for inclusion in the Spy, but his intervention significantly alters how readers encounter the passage. This is a relatively small change, even by the standards of reproduction as they existed in the late eighteenth century. And this particular paragraph did not circulate particularly far, either in the original version of the New-Jersey Journal or the revised Massachusetts Spy rendering. Thomas, however, clearly thought the news intriguing enough to share, even while casting doubt on its veracity. The example reminds us that printers were intervening in their newspapers and other publications on a regular basis as part of their work. Their contributions were often invisible on the surface, but printers exerted enormous influence on the process by which political news and ideas circulated the colonies and states.

Joseph M. Adelman is an assistant professor of history at Framingham State University and the Assistant Editor for Digital Initiatives at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. A historian of media, communication, and politics in the Atlantic world, he is currently completing revisions on his book manuscript, tentatively entitled Revolutionary Networks: Printers and the Production of American Politics, 1763-1789.

Title Image: Franklin Printing Press: Philadelphia Public Art


[1] Robert Darnton, The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie, 1775-1800 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979).

[2] Stephen Botein, “‘Meer Mechanics’ and an Open Press: The Business and Political Strategies of Colonial American Printers,” Perspectives in American History 9 v(1975): 127–225; idem, “Printers and the American Revolution,” in The Press and the American Revolution, ed. Bernard Bailyn and John B. Hench (Worcester, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 1980), 11–57. Prominent examples of work that elides printers from textual production include: Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992); Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (Chapel Hill: OIEAHC, University of North Carolina Press, 1969, repr. 1998); T.H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[3] Robert G. Parkinson, The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, NC: OIEAHC, University of North Carolina Press, 2016); Russ Castronovo, Propaganda 1776: Secrets, Leaks, and Revolutionary Communications in Early America, Oxford Studies in American Literary History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014); Karen A. Weyler, Empowering Words: Outsiders and Authorship in Early America (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 2013); William B. Warner, Protocols of Liberty: Communication Innovation and the American Revolution (Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

[4] Rivington’s loyalties during the war became very complicated. After leaving New York because of an attack on his office in late 1775, he returned under the cover of the British occupation in 1776. But there is evidence that he became a spy for George Washington, and at the end of the war he stayed in New York after the British Army departed in 1783.

Further reading:

Joseph M. Adelman, “Free from the Government,” We’re History, January 17, 2017.

Joseph M. Adelman, “‘A constitutional Conveyance of Intelligence, public and private:’ The Post Office, the Business of Printing, and the American Revolution,” Enterprise & Society 11, no. 4 (2010): 709-52.

Ben Franklin’s World,  Episode 144: Robert G. Parkinson, The Common Cause, July 25, 2017.

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