In my last blog post I discussed the origin of the term, "Spy" and hinted at its use as a naming rubric for 18th century newspapers. Now a (slightly) deeper dive into the subject of newspapers of the American Revolution.
A Literate FrontierBy the mid-1760s, there were 24 weekly newspapers in the 12 colonies, and satirical attacks on government became common practice. Weekly newspapers in major cities and towns were strongholds of patriotism (although there were a few Loyalist papers).
|Twelve of the British colonies had 24 newspapers|
So we can see that the idea of using the name “Spy” for a newspaper was consistent with the origin of the word and its more general use. A paper’s staff and contributors observe, ask about, watch and follow closely. At least that is the hope of the public who rely on their objectivity and sense of fairness. For, as American society became more literate, the power of the press grew.
Spy as a Newspaper
The turbulent years between 1775 and 1783 were a time of great trial and disturbance among newspapers. Interruption, suppression, and lack of support checked their growth substantially. Although there were forty-three newspapers in the United States when the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, compared with thirty-seven at the time of the battle of Lexington in 1775, barely a dozen published on a continuing basis during that period. Curiously, not one newspaper in the larger coastal cities - Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, published uninterrupted through the duration of the war.
|Voices of Rebellion|
The nature of the rebellion caused some of this. When the colonial forces were in possession, Loyalist papers were suppressed. Conversely, during British occupation, patriot papers dispersed, or were discontinued, or they became Loyalist, until the patriots once more ascended. In result, some papers from the cities along the coast moved inland, where they could continue to publish. Exigencies of war brought logistical problems such as shortages of paper, ink, etc. This brought about poor quality papers or skipped issues to save resources.
|Papers often ran political cartoons and characitures|
that bordered on the absurd
The Massachusetts Spy
Let’s turn to the paper that was the epitome of the kind of “Spy” we are talking about. Isaiah Thomas's Massachusetts Spy, published in Boston and Worcester, was constantly on the verge of being suppressed, from the time of its establishment in 1770 to 1776 and during the American Revolution. In 1771-73 the Spy featured the essays of several anonymous political commentators who called themselves "Centinel," "Mucius Scaevola" and "Leonidas." They spoke in the same terms about similar issues, kept patriot issues on the front page, and responded to attacks by pro-government papers. Rhetorical combat was a patriot tactic that explained the issues of the day and fostered patriotism short of outright rebellion. The columnists spoke to the colonists as an independent people tied to Britain only by voluntary legal compact. The Spy soon carried its radicalism to a logical conclusion. Later, when articles from the Spy were reprinted in other papers, the country as a whole was made ready for Tom Paine's critical patriotic statement: Common Sense in 1776.
|A critical voice in its heyday|
Who was Isaiah Thomas?
We are not talking about a legendary NBA player but a legendary newspaperman. Our Isaiah Thomas was born in Boston, Massachusetts and apprenticed in July 1756 to one Zechariah Fowle, a Boston printer, with whom he formed a partnership in 1770. This resulted in the publication of the Massachusetts Spy. The partnership broke up after a few months, but Thomas continued publication alone. He had a motto for his paper: “Open to all parties, but influenced by none.” Sort of the “Fair & Balanced” of its day. The Spy initially came out three times a week but under Thomas’s sole ownership it became a semi-weekly, and then in 1771, a weekly. The Spy championed the Whig cause early on, resulting in the British government's attempt to suppress it. Massachusetts’s last Royal governor, Thomas Hutchinson, ordered the attorney general to prosecute Thomas, but the grand jury failed to find cause for indictment.
|Isaiah Thomas holds an important place in America's|
More Flash than Bang?
The general spirit of the time produced an abundance of mottoes, editorials, letters, and poems. In the beginning of the struggle both editorials and communications urged united resistance to oppression, praised patriotism, and denounced tyranny. Over time, these patriotic urgings became more vigorous, and in many ways led popular sentiment. Later, the idea of independence took form, and theories of government were discussed. Unfortunately (or fortunately) too often zeal for the cause over rode any semblance of journalistic standards resulting often in exaggerated or even false reporting.
A Struggle of Ideas
Despite their shortcomings, the newspapers of the Revolution were an effective force working towards the unification of sentiment, the awakening of a consciousness of a common purpose, interest, and a shared vision of the future among the separate colonies, and of a determination to see the war through to a successful conclusion. They were often more single-minded than the people themselves, and they bore no small share of the burden of arousing and supporting the often discouraged and indifferent public spirit. In this sense they were highly successful in helping shepherd the thirteen hapless colonies in a long and impossible struggle that resulted in an improbable victory.
|The struggle of ideas led to and buttressed the|
struggle for independence