From Lexington to Vienna: Reporting Revolution in an Absolutist State

By Jonathan Singerton

Long before “the shot heard round the world” at Lexington and Concord, Viennese readers of the local Wienerisches Diarium saw it coming. An editorial comment in their February 1775 edition told them so: “the rigid attitude of both sides [means] war can hardly be avoided.”[1] For over a decade their newspaper had covered disturbances in British North America.  Since December 1774, they had been treated to reprints of texts by the “American rebels” themselves. Within four years, they could read the latest developments under the  “American News” section, and by 1783 the page-count on the American Revolution in Vienna surpassed a staggering 3,500 pages.[2]

WDThrough the Wienerisches Diarium, Vienna’s inhabitants could learn about the upheaval unfolding across North America. As the most widely circulated paper in the Habsburg Monarchy and the official state newspaper, it earned scrutiny from court censors. News of democratic revolution was something antithetical to the absolutist power of the Habsburg monarchs.[3] As other European powers, such as Spain, the Dutch Republic, and France, entered the conflict, the Habsburg monarchs wished to remain neutral. The mouthpiece of the monarchy could hardly be seen to take a position for or against any of the belligerents. How did Viennese editors witnessing such events manage to report the American Revolution in one of the most autocratic states in Europe? 

Since no newspaper in the Habsburg Monarchy had a correspondent in North America, editors cropped news items from other newspapers in Hamburg and Hannover, which did the same from publications in London, Paris, and Amsterdam. Generally, news of American events took about six or eight weeks to reach Vienna.[4] Precision naturally suffered from splicing sources – which were “inaccurate, incomplete, or simply propaganda of a rumour that had arisen elsewhere” – into a coherent narrative.[5]

Readers unknowingly digested “false news” filled with misinformation. English spellings proved problematic, such as “Syrus Deane” and “John Hankok,” the reported President of the “Amerikanische Stände,” a term often muddled to mean estates, assemblies, or actual states.[6]  The most notable error concerned the “Dictator of the American States for six months,” George Washington, who also received several premature obituaries in the Wienerisches Diarium.[7]

Although borrowing from foreign presses had its pitfalls, there was also potential.  Editors avoided the biases associated with such sources by reprinting reports from both pro- and anti-American newspapers in Britain, such as the favourable London Gazette and critical London Evening Post.

At the same time, the Wienerisches Diarium disseminated actual Americana to its audience. The earliest piece came in late December 1774 with a published translation of Summary View of the Rights of British America by a “Herr Jefferson” – this was also the first mention of Jefferson’s name in the Habsburg state.[8] This Americana contained some explosive claims and explanations for grievances with Great Britain, which made their way to Habsburg audiences.

That the official newspaper of the Habsburg Monarchy published these accounts without hindrance from the censors is astonishing when we consider that the regime was censoring certain American-related texts and books.[9] These primary documents were reprinted simply as matter of fact and without comment, which might have persuaded the censors to allow them  to go to press.

The Wienerisches Diarium began life as an ‘enlightened’ project to inform the masses about political events. The rising number of sources selected indirectly from American newspapers meant the American voice sounded louder in Vienna than the British one. One notable example was when the editors had to discern for their readers who shot first at the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Interestingly, they chose an American newspaper as the trusted source on the exact details of the encounter. This source, cited as the “Salemzeitung,” was in fact the Essex Gazette of Salem, Massachusetts where the editors laid the fault of the conflict with “the troops under the command of General Gage.”[10] Although the Diarium explained on 21st June 1775 that British forces resolved “not to fire first” and to act with “all possible tenderness,” the 24th June edition of the Diarium clarified with the Essex Gazette‘s version.[11]

The Diarium’s editors also reported onanother divisive event, the Declaration of Independence. First news of an announcement arrived in Vienna in mid-August 1776, but on 17th August, the Diarium proclaimed, “We have news from America, which reports that the General Congress has finally declared itself independent with a small majority.”[12] The fact that Congress’s adoption was unanimous and only New York abstained was lost on the Diarium and the Declaration was not immediately reproduced. On August 31st, only the concluding paragraph of the Declaration appeared, and several weeks later, the immortal lines of the preamble featured in the September 11th edition.[13] The body of the Declaration, however, parts of which enumerated the grievances against King George III, were omitted – the Diarium’s managers could not risk disseminating such  anti-monarchical writing.

When this edition reached the Queen-Regent Maria Theresa (1717-1780) and her co-regent son Joseph II (1741-1790), they were incensed that such an article had passed the censors. Count Christian August von Seilern (1717-1801), the Governor of Lower Austria and previously Ambassador in London  (1766-1770), sympathised with the article and futilely attempted to reason with the monarchs, insisting that their authority had not been questioned.[14] The newspaper’s perceived  transgressions brought  an even higher level of scrutiny.

This reporting created a hotbed of pro-American sentiment in Habsburg territories, which influenced the first diplomatic mission between the United States and the Habsburgs in 1778, when the American representative William Lee arrived in Vienna hoping to procure an alliance with the monarchs. Though he failed to get access to the court, the fervor for the American cause stoked by newspaper coverage created a welcoming environment outside of the court for Lee. He remarked to his brother about his amazement of such interest, “Some of distinction here are warm for the part of America.”[15] 

The unique situation of the Wienerisches Diarium reveals the domestic impact of revolutionary news, editorial judgment, and the response of monarchical governments to the American Revolution. The line between objective news and subjective sympathy was narrow. Viennese editors reported extensively on the transatlantic struggle in North America and informed an interested populace about the revolution. In doing so, the newspaper formed pro-American sentiments in Habsburg territories where monarchs already feared the revolutionary fervor would spread. This domestic reception of the revolution in turn shaped how foreign policy between the European states and the incipient United States developed. 

—–

Jonathan Singerton is a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh, where he is finishing a dissertation titled “Empires on the Edge – The Habsburg Monarchy and the American Revolution 1763-1789.” His broader research interests concern transatlantic and Mediterranean trade, eighteenth-century international relations, and the Age of Revolutions beyond the Atlantic World. He was an Ernst Mach Fellow at the Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften and an International Fellow at the Robert H. Smith Center for Jefferson Studies. He has published previously on this topic in German and English.

Title image:Bernardo Bellotto, Vienna from Belvedere, 1758.

Endnotes:

[1] Wienerisches Diarium, February 11th 1775. The newspaper and many others are available through the Austrian Newspapers Online (ANNO) database: http://anno.onb.ac.at/cgi-content/anno?aid=wrz [1.03.2012].

[2] Paul Köpf, “Der Amerikanische Unabhängigkeitskrieg in der Rezeption zeitgenössischer Wiener Zeitungen, 1775–1783,” Wiener Zeitschrift zur Geschichte der Neuzeit, Vol. 10, No. 1 (2010), 64–82.

[3] In 1782, a Chief Editor of the Wienerisches Diarium was established, but prior a team of editors seemed to run the show, see Anrea Reisner and Alfred Schiemer, “Das Wien(n)erische Diarium und die Entstehung der periodischen Presse,” in Matthias  Karmasin, and Christian Oggolder, eds., Österreichische Mediengeschichte (Wiesbaden, 2016), 87-112.

[4] Ernst-Victor Zenker, Geschichte der Wiener Journalisten von den Anfängen bis zum Jahre 1848 (Vienna, 1892), 31-2.

[5] Horst Dippel, Germany and the American Revolution, trans. Bernhard Ulhendorf (Williamsburg, 1976), 17.

[6] Paul Köpf, “Wir Haben Nachricht aus Amerika” Der Amerikanische Revoltuionskrieg in zeitgenöissischen Wiener Zeitungen 1774-1781, Unpublished Dissertation (Wien, March 2009), 24; Count Florimund Mercy-D’Argenteau to Prince Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz, 16th February 1779, Haus-Hof-und-Staatsarchiv. Staatskanzlei, Frankreich, Karton 160, folio 51.

[7] “Diktator der Amerikanischen Staaten auf sechs MonateWienerisches Diarium, 26th August 1775.

[8] Wienerisches Diarium, 24th December 1774 No. 103, Anhang, 9-11.

[9] Jonathan Singerton, “Some Here Are Warm for America” Knowledge of and Sympathy for the American Cause in the Habsburg Monarchy 1763-1783,” Journal of Austrian-American History, Vol. 1, No. 2 (2018).

[10] Essex Gazette, 25th April 1775.

[11] “Man will wissen, die Armee der Landtruppen habe folgende Entschließungen getroffen: Alle Mietlinge, die in Gefangenschaft gerathen, mit aller möglichen Zärtlichkeit zu behandeln; im Falle aber einer von der Landmilitz getödtet werden sollte, alsdenn Mann für Mann zu nehmen; des Menschenbluts, wo immer möglich, zu schonen, und nicht zum ersten zu feuern, es sey dann bey einem öffentlichen Gefechte; keine Art von Plünderung zu begehen.” Winerisches Diarium, 21st June 1775, and 24th June 1775.

[12] Wienerisches Diarium, 17th August 1776. “Wir haben Nachricht aus Amerika, welche melden, daß der Generalkongreß […] sich endlich mit einer kleinen Mehrheit von Stimmen für die Unabhänigkeit erklärt habe.”

[13] Wienerisches Diarium, 31st August and 11th September 1776.

[14] Seilern was a noted close confident of Maria Theresa of whom she said “Ich ihm von Allem rede und er der einzige ist, mit welchem ich mein Herz ausschüttern kann.” in Jeroen Frans Josef Duindam, Vienna and Versailles: The Courts of Europe’s Dynastic Rivals 1550-1780, (Cambridge, 2003), 235. Seilern also helped the American activist Pierre-Augustin de Beaumarchais (1732-1799) secure an audience with the Habsburg monarchs in 1774, for this and his attempt to reason see Anna H. Benna, Contemporary Austrian Views of American Independence, trans. Cheryl Bernard, (Horn, Niederösterreich, 1976), 36-37.

[15] William Lee to Edmund Jennings, June 24th 1778 in Worthington C. Ford, Letters of William Lee, II (Brooklyn: Historical Printing Club, 1891) 454-55.

Further readings:

Horst Dippel, Germany and the American Revolution, trans. Bernhard Ulhendorf (Omohundro Institute: Williamsburg, 1976).

Jonathan Israel, The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World 1775-1848 (Princeton University Press, 2017).

Pieter M. Judson, The Habsburg Empire – A New History (Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass., 2016).

Nicole M. Phelps, Sovereignty Transformed: US-Habsburg Relations from 1815 to the Paris Peace Conference (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2013).

Janet Polasky, Revolutions Without Borders: The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic (Yale University Press, 2016).

Jonathan Singerton, “Some Here Are Warm for America” Knowledge of and Sympathy for the American Cause in the Habsburg Monarchy 1763-1783,” Journal of Austrian-American History, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Forthcoming, 2018).

Géza Závodszky, American Effects on Hungarian Imagination and Political Thought 1559-1848, trans. Amy Módly (Atlantic Research and Publications Inc., New Jersey, 1995),

2 thoughts on “From Lexington to Vienna: Reporting Revolution in an Absolutist State

  1. Engaging, very interesting account of how newspapers published Revolutionary Era news. I wonder how the coverage differed from those in the Germanic States, especially those that sent soldiers to fight for Britain. Did the extensive Hapsburg coverage emanate from hostilities to those states?

    Like

  2. Duncan,

    This is funny and interesting.

    I never knew that the Habsburg Empire included “hotbeds of pro-American sentiment,” circa 1776!

    Like

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