- The American Revolution and the Press: The Promise of Independence by Carol Sue Humphrey
Carol Sue Humphrey presents a history of the imperial crisis and the American Revolution as those events were reported in newspapers of the period. Of the nine chapters (including the introduction and conclusion), six offer a detailed chronological examination of events in the two decades between the conclusion of the Seven Years War in 1763 and the peace treaty at the end of the Revolution in 1783. Each of these chapters includes an overview of political and military developments and their coverage in newspapers printed throughout the colonies. In addition, the first chapter explores the historiography of the role of the press in shaping the Revolution as it has been interpreted over the past two centuries. The second chapter briefly rehearses the history of the press in colonial America to provide context for the chapters that follow. In particular, this chapter underscores the importance of the Zenger trial and the expansion of press freedom from the 1730s onward and places coverage of the Seven Years War as a precursor to both the press and the public’s expectations in the following decades. The book’s conclusion examines some of the logistics of publishing newspapers in the eighteenth century, including the ways printers encouraged readers to participate in the Revolution by providing rags to make paper (that would ultimately become newspapers) and the difficulty in sometimes generating or acquiring enough content to print a given issue. Here, Humphrey reiterates her argument that printers forged public perceptions of events through choosing what to print and what to exclude, making the press a particularly important institution in shaping events during the years of resistance and revolution.
In making such claims about the significance of the press in the American Revolution, Humphrey contends that newspapers were the primary mechanism that bound thirteen distinct colonies together as a single nation. In so doing, she implicitly invokes Benedict Anderson’s concept of “imagined communities.” Such an interpretation depends on both the dissemination and reception of content; the author identifies more than enough material either reprinted from one newspaper [End Page 108] to another or submitted by local readers (rather than generated by printers themselves) to make this case effectively. Although Humphrey includes Loyalist newspapers in her study, much of the interpretive weight falls on the role Patriot printers played in initially publishing and, in turn, reprinting accounts of British abuses during the imperial crisis (whether at the hands of Parliament or soldiers quartered in the colonies) and, eventually, news about battles and significant political events after the war began. She depicts a partisan press that often delivered content that seems equal parts news and propaganda, from accounts of British cowardice and cruelty to attempts to inspire readers to actively support independence and the war as well as boost morale among soldiers and civilians alike.
While greater consideration of Loyalist printers and publications might have been beneficial, especially in terms of reception (to parallel claims about how readers of Patriot publications reacted to their contents), Humphrey does not portray the press as uniformly contributing to the Patriot cause. She effectively outlines the transition from an open press to a partisan one in the decade before the Revolution. Prior to the 1760s, printers usually published items on both sides of any argument, but as the contest with Parliament became more heated, newspapers increasingly took on specific ideological positions, often tied to location and other circumstances. Printers sometimes found themselves confined not by official restrictions of what they could publish but rather by the marketplace of ideas. Some printers were ardent Patriots from the start, but others recognized that the survival of their newspapers (and livelihoods) depended on taking positions palatable to the majority in their respective communities. In that regard, the public shaped the press as much as the press shaped the public.
Throughout the book, Humphrey quotes extensively from newspaper accounts, immersing readers in eighteenth-century editorial perspectives and coverage of events. Some...