How fast did news of American independence spread?

Declaration spread

I just ran across this Smithsonian piece from 2017. Fascinating:

It was the breaking news to end all breaking news—the fledgling British colonies of North America were committing treason and declaring independence. But in an era long before smartphone push alerts, TV interruptions and Twitter, breaking news broke a lot slower. How slow, though? Last year, a Harvard University project mapped how quickly the Declaration of Independence spread through the colonies based on newspaper archives.

A fascinating animation breaks down the dissemination of the news. The full text of the Declaration of Independence was first published in the Pennsylvania Evening Post on July 6 in Philadelphia, where the Continental Congress had been meeting to compose it. Other Philadelphia newspapers reprinted the document, including a German newspaper that translated it for the area’s large immigrant population, in the following days. (The same German-language newspaper also holds bragging rights for being the first paper to report on the Declaration of Independence.)

Read the rest here.

Printers, Information, and the American Revolution

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Early in my career I was very interested in the communication of information in early America.  One of the first pieces I ever published was an essay on the way letters were used to spread the First Great Awakening in New England.  One of my favorite reads in graduate school was Richard D. Brown’s Knowledge is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America.  I remember how thrilled I was when Brown agreed to chair a panel I put together for one of the early Omohundro Institute conferences in Worcester. I continued to explore the spread of information into the New Jersey countryside in my Stony Brook doctoral dissertation and some of this research found its way into my first book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.

So needless to say, I have been taking a walk down memory lane reading the recent series at Age of Revolutions blog on information networks.

The latest installment is Joe Adelman’s piece on printers.  Here is a taste of ” ‘Meer Mechanics’ No More: How Printers Shaped Information in the Revolutionary Age”:

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.  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.  But more broadly it remains a truism that printers were not active participants in the intellectual production of news and arguments about the Revolution.

Read the rest here.

“Information Networks in the Age of Revolutions”

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This is the title of a Fall series of posts at the Age of Revolutions blog. In an introductory post, Bryan Banks tells us what we can expect and sets the series in context. Here is a taste:

Robert Darnton, Emeritus Harvard University librarian and renowned historian of the French Enlightenment, delivered a lecture on the history of communication before a large crowd at the American Historical Association. Only a handful of days after fears of a global collapse (Y2K) subsided, Darnton historicized our own information age and argued that “communication systems” have always shaped events. Darnton described the growing print industry of the eighteenth century, as well as the oral news networks at work in the city of lights, mobilizing le peuple, along with would-be French revolutionary politicians, to revolution.[1] Other historians picked up where Darnton left off, examining the ways that French radical and conservative news outlets shaped the revolutionary experience itself. In short, information networks formed and imagined Revolution.[2] The series we’ve put together here at AoR, seeks to explore the information age of the Age of Revolutions, examining the ways that information traveled and made revolution thinkable.

In many ways, this series covers fairly well-trodden ground, but addresses a very real contemporary issue. Seventeen years later, Darnton’s words continue to ring true — the future and the present are constantly battled over in the media. Our contemporary political world also begs scholars to continue to think about information networks and media politics. For example, eighteenth-century readers shared information in different ways, and any news that challenged one’s political position was called into question. “Fake news” is hardly a new opprobrium.

Read the entire introduction here.

Here is the lineup of posts:

September 6, 2017:

Alyssa Zuercher Reichardt, “Information, Empire, and Roads to Revolution

September 11, 2017:

Joseph M. Adelman, “Meer Mechanics” No More: How Printers Shaped Information in the Revolutionary Age”

September 13, 2017:

Rob Taber, “Rumor and Report in Affiches Améciaines: Saint-Domingue’s American Revolution”

September 18, 2017:

Jordan Taylor, “Information and Ideology in Henri-Antoine Mézière’s Canadian Age of Revolutions”

September 20, 2017:

James Alexander Dun, “Le Cap to Carlisle: News of the Early Haitian Revolution in the United States”

September 25, 2017:

Melanie Conroy, “Visualizing Social Networks: Palladio and the Encyclopédistes, Part I”

September 27, 2017:

Melanie Conroy, “Visualizing Social Networks: Palladio and the Encyclopédistes, Part II”

September 29, 2017:

Information Networks in the Age of Revolutions Bibliography

The Walking Mail Carrier

The other day I was thinking about the changes in the dissemination of information and news that have occurred in my lifetime.  Sunday was my birthday and, as has been the case for the better part of the last four decades, I received a birthday card in the mail from my mother and my aunt.  These were actual birthday cards–not virtual cards or Facebook birthday greetings.  I could hold them in my hand, open them, and read them.  They were delivered by a mail carrier working for the United States Post Office.

I am grateful for all of my Facebook friends who wished me a happy birthday on Sunday, but I also wondered how many more of these cards, delivered by a mail carrier, I will receive during the rest of my lifetime.

I thought about my birthday cards again after reading Wayne Curtis’s essay “Flash!: Information at the Speed of Foot.”  He begins with a very entertaining story about a mail carrier named Martha Cherry:

16 years ago a mail carrier with the cheerful name of Martha Cherry was fired. She was 49-years-old, and had been with the U.S. Postal Service for 18 years, delivering mail by foot in Mount Vernon, N.Y., in Westchester County.

Cherry was let go after her superiors determined that she walked too slowly. “You were observed on June 9, 1997, to walk at a rate of 66 paces per minute with a stride of less than one foot,” the condemning report charged, adding the detail that her “leading foot did not pass the toe of [her] trailing foot by more than one inch.” The upshot? She took 13 minutes longer than necessary to walk her route.

The flap was, essentially, over whether mail — that is, information — should move at three miles per hour or three-and-a-half miles per hour. And it all seems tremendously quaint now — post offices are being shuttered almost daily, regular Saturday mail delivery may cease next August, and the postal service is hemorrhaging staggering amounts of money — last year it posted a deficit of $16 billion. Mail moving a half-mile per hour slower was not responsible for this.

Curtis goes on the discuss the role that walking has played in the history of information.  He concludes:

Information today moves at the speed of light. And while we thrill at the idea of boosting our home data connections to 60 MBPS, I don’t think it would be a bad thing if more of us embraced slow information, and continued to convey it by foot. This would have the benefit of allowing information time to cool down as it traveled, making it less scalding upon arrival, while granting us sufficient time to digest what we’ve learned.

The postal carrier is one the great figures in our national development, like the Minute Men or the Doughboys. But they are increasingly an anachronism, soldiers on the front lines with bayonets rather than lasers.

So, as the post office continues its gradual slide into irrelevancy, I’d like to propose a memorial to Martha Cherry, the mail carrier with the one-foot stride. Perhaps a nice bronze statue. She represents not only what’s sure to be a fading sight along our streets and boulevards in the years ahead, but recalls an era when information moved with an appealing lack of urgency, and a time when information was conveyed by superheroes.

I think I will go out and take walk.