By John F. Di Leo -
In June, 1776, with Richard Henry Lee’s proposal for independence from Great Britain awaiting a vote in the Continental Congress, a committee of five – Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert R. Livingston, Roger Sherman, and Thomas Jefferson – selected one from among their number to be the key author of a formal Declaration of Independence.
While the entire Continental Congress contributed to it, through their helpful editing, the principal author has long been known to be Thomas Jefferson, and he was rightly so proud of it that he wanted his authorship of this document to be on his tombstone rather than his service as President of the United States. The revolutionary generation had their priorities straight – the power of the pen can indeed be more significant and lasting than even the power of the sword.
The Congress spent several days in debate, striking a clause here, adding a tidbit there. They wanted to satisfy their own constituents, and shame the loyalists, and convey their respect for the opinion of foreign nations, and shame the king, and hopefully not offend their many supporters in Parliament… oh, this document was meant to accomplish a great deal. But the most important of its objects was to speak for posterity, to leave a historical record that, win or lose, this group of patriots had just cause for taking this step, and this document would be their message to the ages.
Future historians, two centuries, even two and a half centuries later, would still read this chronicle of grievances and understand that George III had indeed severed the bonds that connected us across the Pond, and that we were indeed right to declare ourselves independent of him and his whole tyrannical regime.
Technology Lends A Hand
When the British nobles won the Magna Carta from King John, nearly six centuries earlier, the document had to be copied in longhand to be disseminated among the people. Throughout human history, mass production of the written word required the labor-intensive process of hand copying, restricting the accessibility of the people to new information. The manufacture of a master plate or stamp – like today’s rubber stamp – was limited and expensive if it went beyond a few words, like a Wanted poster or Declaration – “Do Not Poach In The King’s Forest”.
Gutenberg’s printing press in the mid-1400s, combining a traditional agricultural screw press with easily switched beds of movable type, had made swift dissemination of information much easier, and printing became one of the local industries of the American colonies once they started to become established in the 1600s.
The historical record is full of American patriots making stirring speeches in the service of the revolutionary cause – Patrick Henry on the floor at Williamsburg, acting out a slave auction as he spoke… student Alexander Hamilton at his college doorstep, exhorting a crowd to be civilized and peaceful in order that his loyalist dean might escape the mob… John Adams rising again and again in the Continental Congress, ever encouraging his fellow delegates to acknowledge in words what was already a fact, that we were ready to declare our independence.
But it was before the days of YouTube, of television, of radio. However stirring those soundbites were, they could never have had the same thrilling effect in the third person that they had originally in the capitol building or the village square.
It was the written text – pamphlet, flyer, newsletter, newspaper – that helped spread support of the Glorious Cause throughout the colonies.
Independence was only really popular in New England in 1775, even though the Continental Congress had raised an army and appointed George Washington to command it. The majority of the people in the rest of the colonies hoped for reconciliation, though many of their elected representatives were ahead of them in advocating the uncharted course of independence.
Until the winter of 1775-1776, when the tide of public opinion began to turn. Oh, there’s no firm date, no specific point when you can honestly say that independence finally crept past the 50% mark in public opinion. These were the days before Gallup and Harris, before every political consultant and every college produced public opinion polls on everything from political issues to which profession is most detested. But the historical record is clear on this much: that the Glorious Cause of American Independence suddenly became more popular with the publication of Common Sense on January 10, 1776.
Booklets and Weeklies
Thomas Paine was an immigrant with a chip on his shoulder and a flare for political writing. He had held several jobs – including being an unsuccessful shopkeeper, tax collector, and charity manager in Great Britain before coming to these shores, then saw success as a newspaperman and bridge designer later in life.
As a newly arrived immigrant still finding himself in this New World, he was horrified at what he saw in New England, particularly in Boston. People held without charge, denial of trial by jury, soldiers quartered in private homes without the permission of the families who owned them – these are wartime conditions, and if we were going to suffer wartime conditions anyway, we might as well acknowledge the truth and declare ourselves at war.
He self-published Common Sense, at first anonymously (it was treason, after all!), until his authorship became so well-known that withholding his name was pointless. The book sold like wildfire, and spread throughout the colonial mind. In John Adams’ words, "Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”
And Thomas Paine was not alone. The newspapers printed letters to the editor, long and detailed tracts, often republished as broadsides in their own right after first appearing in the weekly.
For example, loyalist Samuel Seabury published letters and pamphlets in the name of “A Westchester Farmer” or simply “A.W. Farmer” in 1774 and 1775… so the young collegian patriot Alexander Hamilton published his responses, “A Full Vindication of the Measures of Congress” and “The Farmer Refuted.”
There were hundreds of such debates during the 1770s, keeping printing presses busy and educating the populace about the issues at hand. This was no popular revolution claiming to overthrow the cossacks or get back at the rich or the church. It was an intellectual revolution, in which words and wisdom contributed to the victory as much as musket and sabre did.
A Dangerous Profession
Outside of Thomas Paine, editor of The Pennsylvania Magazine by the time he started writing polemics for the cause, most of these writers depended on someone else’s printing press.
While the loyalists could publish under their own name if they wished (though eventually they feared reprisal from patriots), the patriots usually had to publish anonymously out of fear of the British police power. Advocating treason against the king was illegal, even a capital crime if the government chose to make an example out of the writer.
So these patriots could and did slip their manuscripts into the slot at a print shop and maintain their anonymity, if they chose, but the printers had a great deal of difficulty accomplishing the same goal.
Yes, movable type could be changed, so a print shop could unload the evidence of a printing job eventually… but it certainly wasn’t instantaneous, and if the shop was raided during a print run, they would indeed be caught red-handed… or black-handed, as the case may be.
Worse, if the printer was willing to publish an article as a Letter to the Editor in his newspaper, as so many did, that editor could hardly deny that he had printed it. There was a general concept of a free press, and the papers could certainly claim the right to publish both sides of an argument, particularly in the interest of selling product, but there was always the risk that a British colonial governor might decide one had gone too far. It wouldn’t be the first time that soldiers or police knocked the door down. And when they did, they sometimes smashed the presses, burned the paper stock, poured out the ink. This wasn’t a momentary attack; it was the destruction of the man’s livelihood, and that of his employees as well.
Until we gained the Constitutional guarantee of a free political press, with the First Amendment’s ratification a decade and a half later, the business of political printing was dangerous indeed. The king’s soldiers might harass you, pull contracts for government printing, destroy your shop, imprison you for treason. Or the locals on either side might vandalize your shop, or attack your home, for thinking that you were siding too much with the "wrong" side.
James Rivington of New York was the most unlikely case of all; as publisher of a Tory newspaper throughout the wartime occupation of New York by the British, he seemed the very dictionary definition of a loyalist… but as a top-secret member of the Culper Spy Ring, Rivington was a font of information to General Washington… ever mindful of the risk that his fellow patriots must think him an enemy as long as his service to the Glorious Cause remained necessarily secret.
Rivington sacrificed his career in the service of the cause of independence. The people were aware only of his paper’s public support of the king, so his business folded quickly in 1783, when his loyalist customers left for Britain and the returning victors spurned the well-known Tory’s publication. A sad end for a true hero, who broke a British naval code in his unheralded service to the patriots.
The Printing of a Declaration
In this context, consider what happened in that long ago day in July, 1776. The Continental Congress could pass a measure, hop on a horse, and ride away if need be. The delegates were beloved by their constituents (at least, by a majority of them), all the more so by having had the courage to declare Independence. Still, they risked all – and many lost their homes, their farms, their businesses, their family members, and their own lives in the long war.
When Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, they sent it off to be printed.
They were in Philadelphia, so they went to John Dunlap, printer of The Pennsylvania Packet, who had already had the courage to do printing work for both the revolutionary government of Pennsylvania and the Continental Congress. On July 4, President John Hancock delivered the first order, and Dunlap got to work, setting the type and printed 200 copies now known as the Dunlap Broadsides.
The gentleman’s shop was fortunate; he was spared many of the attacks that other publishers suffered for their political printing, but he didn’t know he would. He printed this declaration anyway, without evidence of fear of reprisal, and continued his work in support of the cause throughout the war. After we won our independence, he changed the name of his newspaper and turned it into a daily, the first successful daily in America: The North American and United States Gazette.
It took courage to dare to say what the Founders said, and more still to put it in writing, with their signatures at the bottom. As they said in their stirring close, they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to the Glorious Cause, and we still cheer them today – with fireworks, parades, the flying of flags and wearing of red, white and blue – for their courage.
But let’s not forget also the courage of the printers of the Revolutionary era. These too were heroes, and without them – the Dunlaps and Franklins as well as the Hamiltons and Jeffersons – the honorable philosophy of our Founding era would be lost to us.
These noble patriots put their possessions and livelihoods at risk in support of the cause; up and down the coast there were brave newspapers, pamphleteers, authors, and printers who put modern technology to work in the service of their countrymen, that this nation and its people might be forever free.
Copyright 2012 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and trade compliance lecturer. A former chairman of the Milwaukee County Republican Party, he has now been a recovering politician for over fifteen years. His columns are found regularly in Illinois Review.
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