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  • The Politics of the Print MediumThe Professional Code and the 1764 Paxton Boys Debate
  • Angel-Luke O'Donnell (bio)

On 14 December 1763, during a period of renewed hostilities between white and Indian communities, fifty-seven white colonists from western Pennsylvania attacked the Conestoga manor and massacred the six Native American residents there. At the time, a further fourteen residents of Conestoga had been away selling baskets, and after hearing of the murders, they fled to Lancaster town where the local elites offered them refuge in the county jail. Two weeks later, on 27 December 1763, a group of fifty white Pennsylvanians rode into Lancaster to finish off the remaining Conestoga residents. The colonists broke open the jail and killed the fourteen Indians sheltering there. The brutality of the two attacks terrified Indian communities throughout Pennsylvania and one hundred fifty Native Americans sought sanctuary in the provincial capital, Philadelphia. Immediately following the Lancaster massacre, there were rumours that the western colonists planned to gather hundreds of supporters to march on Philadelphia to kill the Native Americans and anyone protecting them. This threat sent the capital into panic. The citizens erected barricades in the streets and volunteers organised themselves into armed companies. Throughout January and into February, Philadelphians repeatedly sounded alarms and prepared to repulse the advancing rioters violently. On 4 February 1764, the rioters arrived just outside Philadelphia in Germantown. The news caused further panic in the city, but eventually, the provincial elite put together a delegation, including local notable Benjamin Franklin, to meet with the rioters and discuss terms. The rioters, known as the Paxton Boys for their supposed origins around Paxton town, dispersed after the delegation agreed that the government would hear the grievances of the western Pennsylvanians. The massacre and the march on Philadelphia precipitated one of the most prolific and disruptive printed debates in colonial American history.1 Moreover, and of particular interest to book historians, the print medium itself contributed to the disruptiveness of the debate. [End Page 66]

Looking at the Paxton Boys texts through a bibliographical lens reveals something of the character of the debate. Most significantly, the debate was large scale. Between January and November 1764, Pennsylvanian printers produced one hundred and nine editions of texts in English and German that either explicitly discussed the Paxton Boys or else responded to a text that had.2 Alison Olson estimated that the volume of Paxton material produced in 1764 represented a 40% increase in publications over the previous year. The Paxton Boys texts themselves constituted 20% of all printed items produced in the province and while Olson was not explicit in what she was counting, these estimates are suggestive that the Paxton Boys was a major moment in early American printing. Despite involving a large number of editions, the debate was coherent and focused on responses to the Paxton Boys. Seventy-eight of the hundred and nine editions explicitly mentioned the Paxton Boys, their massacre of Native Americans, or their march on the city. The remaining thirty-one editions referred to one or more of the other texts. While most texts were in English—eighty-nine editions—there was a significant minority of twenty German-language editions. This German intervention in the debate broke down a longstanding language barrier in Pennsylvanian print culture. The debate was lively. In the bibliography appendix to this article, there are eighty-two unique titles and ten German translations of Anglophonic titles. Fifteen entries are second editions or variant imprints and two entries are third or fourth editions. A Serious Address was the most reissued title with four editions. The debate was relatively accessible for most readers as many texts were available in cheap formats. Although printers produced texts from broadside to sextodecimo, the cheaper octavo was the most common format.3 There was also a wide range in the number of pages, from single-sided handbills to a ninety-six-page octavo German translation. However, most texts were smaller and presumably cheaper. The average length was thirteen pages, but most pamphlets were eight pages long, meaning that the majority of texts were only one or two sheets of paper. These disruptive texts were broadly accessible because...


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