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Boston and Beyond

November 24, 2012

Book tells how 18th-century newspapers covered 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.”

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