EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

November 24, 2012

Book tells how 18th-century newspapers covered war


The Eagle-Tribune

---- — ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — It was the 18th-century version of a tweet: a two-sentence, 25-word dispatch in a London newspaper reporting the American colonies had declared their independence from Great Britain.

The events of the Revolutionary War may seem like ye olde news to today’s history students, but they were breaking news to people on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, and newspapers were the main source of information. Some historians theorize there would have been no American Revolution without the era’s newspapers, even though they tended to be four-page publications crammed with information that was days, weeks or months old.

“Newspapers are what fanned the flames of rebellion,” said Todd Andrlik, whose collection of 18th-century newspapers is the focus of a book published this month.

“Reporting The Revolutionary War” (Sourcebooks) primarily focuses on the turbulent 20-year period between the end of the French and Indian War and the conclusion of the American Revolution. The large-format book features reproductions of the actual newspaper pages from the era, with contextual essays written by three dozen historians, scholars and authors.

“For 250 years, newspaper accounts have been relegated to footnotes,” said Andrlik, a marketing executive for a Chicago-area construction firm.

Over the past five years, his collection of newspapers from the 1700s has grown to more than 400, including editions of American and British publications that are among the rarest of their kind. Andrlik’s book is unique because it compiles so many primary sources in a single publication, according to one Revolutionary War author and historian.

“I’ve seen nothing like it and I’ve been studying the Revolution since 1955,” said Thomas Fleming, whose contribution to the book details the obstacles the Americans and British faced in negotiating a peace treaty to end the war.

Getting news into print was a hands-on, time-consuming task in the late 18th century. It could also be life-threatening, especially if a newspaper printer was on the wrong side of the rebellion.

Word of the outbreak of fighting at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, wasn’t front-page news in nearby Boston because there were no front pages being published: Most of the city’s printers had fled from the British occupation forces, Andrlik said. Two days later, a newspaper in Portsmouth, N.H., was one of the first with a page one story of the battles, publishing an account under the headline “Bloody News.”

The news of the American Declaration of Independence was published in the London Gazette on Aug. 13, 1776, barely five weeks after the Continental Congress had finalized the document. Tucked between business notices and brief overseas dispatches, the short note served as a news bulletin at a time when the typical trans-Atlantic voyage could take up to two months:

“Advice is received that the Congress resolved upon independence the 4th of July; and, it is said, have declared war against Great Britain in form.”

“Newspapers in those days had the same attitude toward a hot story: They got it into the papers as quickly as possible,” Fleming said.

Full versions of the rebellious colonies’ declaration were appearing in British publications just days later. One Scottish periodical provided its own analysis of the document, including a snarky response to what became one of the Declaration of Independence’s best-known lines: “In what are they created equal?”

Fleming said the American population was “amazingly literate” during the period, and the new nation’s military and political leaders such as George Washington and John Adams realized how newspapers could be as important to the Revolution’s success as the outcome of any battle.

He pointed out how Washington started his own newspaper to fill an information void while his army was fighting in New Jersey.

“You didn’t have to hold rallies,” Fleming said. “You were rallying them with this journalism.”