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.

Revolutionary America: An Update on Textbook Selection

brown-and-carpIn the past I have spent a lot of time stressing over readings for my 300-level course on the American Revolution at Messiah College.  How many  monographs should I assign? How should I balance new works with classics in the field? What are the seminal scholarly articles that must be assigned?  What about important primary sources?

This year I decided to avoid the stress and assign only two textbooks. The first text is Gordon Wood’s short and concise The American Revolution: A History.  Wood’s text is limited in what it accomplishes, but I want students to have a political overview of the events leading up to the revolution, the war, and the confederation period.

The second text is Richard D. Brown and Benjamin Carp’s reader Major Problems in the Era of the American Revolution, 1760-1791.  This text is loaded with excerpts from some of the best secondary essays in the field (Gordon Wood, Alfred Young, Gary Nash, Fred Anderson, Carp, McConville, Armitage, Jasanoff, Dowd, Sinha, Zagarri, Crane, Butler, Noll, Onuf, Gross, Beeman, Cornell, Bouton) and some very teachable primary sources.

Most importantly, Major Problems allows me to assign manageable readings that my students can actually digest and discuss.  It allows us to spend more time analyzing primary sources and has enabled me to introduce historiography more effectively.  The discussions in class have been much better because we are not rushing to finish one monograph and get to another.  After fifteen years of teaching this course it now feels less like a graduate seminar and much more like an undergraduate history course.

Here is what we have done so far:

Day 1: Introduction to the course.

Day 2:  Discussion of the “Britishness” of the colonies of the eve of the American Revolution. Here I reveal my preference for the Anglicization interpretation of British America. Ben Franklin’s “For Interest of Great Britain Considered” (1760) was perfect for this discussion.

Day 3: We talked about the 12-15 research paper the students will write.  I introduced students to the Early American Imprints and Early American Newspapers collections. (We are fortunate to have these resources at Messiah College–thanks Beth Mark!).

Day 3: Discussion of four documents on changes in British customs policy and the Proclamation of 1763.  My favorite is George Washington’s letter to his land agent about trying to illegally buy land beyond the Proclamation line.  It portrays Washington as a self-interested land speculator.  This is a side of Washington that is new to most of my students.

Day 4: We read documents on the Stamp Act.  Brown and Carp include sources chronicling the violent resistance to the Act as well as the more intellectual opposition that came through people like Patrick Henry and the Stamp Act Congress.  The students really enjoy the descriptions of mob activity in New York written by Lieutenant Governor Cadwallader Colden and his son David.  Today one student pointed out David Colden’s blatant attempt to land a job as a stamp collector and court the favor of the powers-that-be in London. Rank ambition indeed!  (Colden would end up fleeing to Canada).

Stay tuned.