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Chapter 7: colonial newspapers and magazines, 1704-1775

Elizabeth Christine Cook, Ph.D., Instructor in English in Teachers College, Columbia University.
  • Literature in the colonial newspapers.
  • -- the New England Courant. -- the New England weekly journal. -- Franklin as journalist. -- advertisements of books. -- the South Carolina gazette. -- the Virginia gazette. -- politics in the later newspapers. -- the vogue of French radicalism. -- the Massachusetts spy. -- magazines. -- the General magazine and historical chronicle. -- the American magazine. -- the Pennsylvania magazine. -- the Royal American magazine

The development of the colonial press coincides with a period often regarded as narrowly provincial in American literature. That spirit of adventure which enlivens the early historical narratives had settled into a thrifty concern with practical affairs, combined with an exaggerated interest in fine-spun doctrinal reasoning. The echoes of Spenser and other Elizabethans to be heard in some few Puritan elegies and in Anne Bradstreet's quaint imagery, had died away. Knowledge of Europe had become so casual that the colonial newspaper often found it necessary to describe Dresden or Berlin as “a fair, large, and strong city of Germany,” and to insert other geographical notes of the simplest sort.

These limitations in the colonial point of view, however, had several striking effects on the early journalism between 1704 and 1750, or thereabouts. The reader who examines the small, ill-printed, half illegible news sheets is surprised to find them more varied in many ways, and more distinctly literary than modern journalism aims to be. The simple fact of the matter is that the dearth of news at length forced the editorial mind to become inventive and even, in some instances, creative. When we remember that European news failed entirely during the long winters; that intercolonial communication was irregular and unsystematic; that criticism of the government in political editorials meant an official inquiry followed by the forced discontinuance of the paper, if not by a trial for libel; that the public already had enough religious exhortation from the pulpit and from pamphlets [112] on The fatal consequences of unscriptural doctrine or twenty considerations against Sin,--remembering these things it will not seem so extraordinary that the newspapers turned to the spectacle of the actual life about them, and, to convey it, sought their models in the world of letters so little known in the colonies.

It was James Franklin, Benjamin Franklin's older brother, who first made a news sheet something more than a garbled mass of stale items, “taken from the Gazetts and other Publick Prints of London” some six months late. Franklin, “encouraged by a number of respectable characters, who were desirous of having a paper of a different cast from those then published, . . . began the publication, at his own risk, of a third newspaper, entitled The New England Courant.” 1 These respectable characters were known as the Hell-Fire Club; they succeeded in publishing a paper “of a different cast,” which, although it shocked New England orthodoxy pretty thoroughly, nevertheless proved vastly entertaining and established a kind of literary precedent.

For instead of filling the first page of the Courant with the tedious conventionalities of governors' addresses to provincial legislatures, James Franklin's club wrote essays and satirical letters after the manner of The Spectator just ten years after the first appearance of The Spectator in London. How novel the whole method would be to New England readers may be inferred from the fact that even the Harvard library had no copies of Addison or Steele at this period. Swift, Pope, Prior, and Dryden would also have been looked for in vain. Milton himself was little known in the stronghold of Puritanism. But the printing office of James Franklin had Shakespeare, Milton, Addison, Steele, Cowley, Butler's Hudibras, and “The Tail of the Tub2 on its shelves. All these were read and used in the editor's office, but The Spectator and its kind became the actual model for the new journalism.

As a result, the very look of an ordinary first page of the Courant is like that of a Spectator page. After the more formal introductory paper on some general topic, such as zeal or [113] hypocrisy or honour or contentment, the facetious letters of imaginary correspondents commonly fill the remainder of the Courant's first page. Timothy Turnstone addresses flippant jibes to Justice Nicholas Clodpate in the first extant number of the Courant. Tom Pen-Shallow quickly follows, with his mischievous little postscript: “Pray inform me whether in your Province Criminals have the Privilege of a Jury.” Tom Tram writes from the moon about a certain “villainous Postmaster” he has heard rumours of. (The Courant was always perilously close to legal difficulties and had, besides, a lasting feud with the town postmaster.) Ichabod Henroost complains of a gadding wife. Abigail Afterwit would like to know when the editor of the rival paper, the Gazette, “intends to have done printing the Carolina Addresses to their Governour, and give his Readers Something in the Room of them, that will be more entertaining.” Homespun Jack deplores the fashions in general, and small waists in particular. Some of these papers represent native wit, with only a general approach to the model; others are little more than paraphrases of The Spectator. And sometimes a Spectator paper is inserted bodily, with no attempt at paraphrase whatever.

Benjamin Franklin, a mere boy at this time, contributed to the Courant the first fruits of his days and nights with Addison. The fourteen little essays from Silence Dogood to the editor are among the most readable and charming of Franklin's early imitations, clearly following The Spectator, yet at rather long range and with considerable adaptation to the New England environment. Silence rambles on amiably enough except for occasional slurs on the New England clergy, in regard to whom the Courant was always bitter, and often scurrilous. For the Hell-Fire Club never grasped the inner secret of Mr. Spectator, his urbane, imperturbable, impersonal kindliness of manner. Instead, they vented their hatred of dogmatism and intolerance in personalities so insolent as to become in themselves intolerant. Entertaining, however, the Courant is, from first to last, and full of a genuine humour and a shrewd satiric truth to life.

Offensive as the Courant certainly was to New England orthodoxy, its literary method was seized upon and used in the new paper established under the influence of the Boston clergymen Mather Byles and Thomas Prince. This was The New [114] England weekly journal, and Mather Byles, hailed at the time as “Harvard's honour and New England's hope,” who “bids fair to rise, and sing, and rival Pope3 contributed largely to the verse and prose on the first page of the paper. A series of “Speculations” is announced, in exact and close imitation of The Spectator; even a fictitious author, Proteus Echo, appears as a new Spectator of men and manners, to banter a folly by representing it in a glass. He forms a club, and sketches the members for us in his second essay, which proceeds exactly as the second number of The Spectator.

These characters of Proteus Echo's “Society” show some good strokes. There is Mr. Timothy Blunt, an amusing New England version of Sir Roger de Coverley. He lives at some distance from the town of Boston, but rides in every week, often bringing his “Wallet balanced with two Bottles of Milk, to defray his necessary Expenses .... His Periwigg has been out of the Curl ever since the Revolution and his Dagger and Doublet are supposed to be the rarest Pieces of Antiquity in the Country.” If it had not been for an unlucky stroke to his “Intellectuals” in his infancy, “he would have stood the fairest of any of his Contemporarys to have found out the Philosopher's Stone.” The “wonderful Mr. Honeysuckle, the Blossom of our Society, and the beautiful Ornament of Litterature,” is nothing less than Will Honeycomb translated into a poet.

On the whole, however, such work is rare in the Journal. Strictly moral essays, of which even The Spectator has its full share, soon follow the more creative touches, and we find the ordinary eighteenth-century treatment of merit, covetousness, idleness, the vapours, and so on. Such essays came to be the accepted “filling” for the first page of many newspapers up to 1740 and sometimes after that date. Jeremy Gridley's Rehearsal (1743-6), for instance, has a series of speculations rather above the common order, yet requiring no especial notice for their originality or their importance except as a type.

Benjamin Franklin's later journalism amply fulfilled the promise contained in the Silence Dogood papers. When he finally established himself in Philadelphia, shortly before [115] 1730, the town boasted two wretched little news sheets, Andrew Bradford's American Mercury, and Keimer's Universal Instructor in all Arts and sciences, and Pennsylvania gazette. This instruction in all arts and sciences consisted of weekly extracts from Chambers's Universal Dictionary, actually commencing with A, and going steadily on towards Z, followed by instalments of Defoe's Religious Courtship, called by the editor “a scarce and delightful piece of History.” Franklin quickly did away with all this when he took over the Instructor, and made it The Pennsylvania gazette. The Gazette soon became Franklin's characteristic organ, which he freely used for satire, for the play of his wit, even for sheer excess of mischief or of fun.

From the first he had a way of adapting his models to his own uses. The series of essays called The busy-body, which he wrote for Bradford's American Mercury in 1729, followed the general Addisonian form, modified already to suit homelier conditions. The thrifty Patience, in her busy little shop, complaining of the useless visitors who waste her valuable time, is related to the ladies who address Mr. Spectator. The Busy-Body himself is a true Censor Morum, as Isaac Bickerstaff had been in the Tatler. And a number of the fictitious characters, Ridentius, Eugenius, Cato, and Cretico, represent traditional eighteenth-century classicism. Even this Franklin could use for contemporary satire, since Cretico, the “sowre Philosopher,” is evidently a portrait of Franklin's rival, Samuel Keimer.

As time went on, Franklin depended less on his literary conventions, and more on his own native humour. In this there is a new spirit,--not suggested to him by the fine breeding of Addison, or the bitter irony of Swift, or the stinging completeness of Pope. The brilliant little pieces Franklin wrote for his Pennsylvania gazette have an imperishable place in American literature. It is none the less true that they belong to colonial journalism.

The Pennsylvania gazette, like most other newspapers of the period, was often poorly printed. Franklin was busy with a hundred matters outside of his printing office, and never seriously attempted to raise the standards of his trade. Nor did he ever properly edit or collate the chance medley of stale [116] items which passed for news in the Gazette. His influence on the practical side of journalism was very small. On the other hand, his advertisements of books show his very great interest in popularizing secular literature. Undoubtedly his paper contributed to the broader culture which distinguished Pennsylvania from her neighbours before the Revolution. Starting with the custom of importing a stray volume or two along with stationer's supplies, Franklin gradually developed a book shop in his printing office. There was nothing unusual in this fact, by itself. His rival, Andrew Bradford, and many other printers in the colonies had odd collections for sale. But while Bradford was advertising the Catechistical guide to sinners, or The plain man's path-way to Heaven, along with an occasional Spectator, Franklin's importations, listed in the Gazette for sale, included works of Bacon, Dryden, Locke, Milton, Otway, Pope, Prior, Swift, Rowe, Defoe, Addison, Steele, Arbuthnot, Congreve, Rabelais, Seneca, Ovid, and various novels, all before 1740. The first catalogue of his Library Company shows substantially the same list, with the addition of Don Quixote, and the works of Shaftesbury, of Gay, of Spenser, and of Voltaire. These latter were probably for sale in the printing office as well.

Advertisements of merchandise in all the colonies throw a good deal of light on the customs of the time, and, incidentally, also on the popular taste in reading. We find that Peter Turner has “Superfine Scarlet Cloth, Hat Linings, Tatlers, Spectators, and Barclay's Apology4 ; that Peter Harry imports “Head Flowers in Boxes, Laces and Edgings, Psalm-books, Play-books, the Guardians in 2 vol., Women's Short Cloaks, Men's Scarlet Great Coats” 5 and other apparel. The ship Samuel, from London, brings over “sundry goods, particularly a very choice collection of printed Books, Pictures, Maps and Pickles, to be Sold very reasonable by Robert Pringle.” 6

Franklin's influence in journalism was not confined to Pennsylvania. He often assisted young journeymen in the establishment of newspapers in distant towns. Thomas Whitemarsh, for instance, went to Charleston, South Carolina, [117] in 1731, as Franklin's partner in a new enterprise, which soon included a new paper, The South Carolina gazette. Naturally, Whitemarsh filled his front page with essays, sometimes reprinted from The Spectator, but often original, with a facetious quality suggesting Franklin. A few burlesques such as the papers of a certain Meddlers' Club are little better than nonsense, rarely enlivened by a flash of wit. Once we find an odd bit of local colour, when a member of this club criticizes the fair ones of Charleston for promenading too much along the bay. “I have heard,” he says, “that in Great Britain the Ladies and Gentlemen choose the Parks and such like Places to walk and take the Air in, but I never heard of any Places making use of the Wharfs for such Purpose except this.” Essays of one sort or another were always popular in The South Carolina gazette. Here may be found interesting notices of the various performances (probably professional) of Otway's Orphan, Farquhar's Recruiting officer, and other popular plays of the period which were given at the Charleston theatres for twenty or thirty years before the first wandering professional companies began to play in the Northern colonies. Here, too, we find in the issue of 8 February, 1735, what is probably the first recorded prologue composed in the colonies.

Early theatrical notices may also be followed in The Virginia gazette, a paper of unusual excellence, edited by William Parks in Williamsburg, the old capital of Virginia. Here The busy-body, The Recruiting officer, and The Beaux-Stratagem were all performed, often by amateurs, though professionals were known as early as 1716 in Williamsburg. Life in Williamsburg in 1736 had a more cosmopolitan quality than in other towns. A sprightly essay-serial called The Monitor, which fills the first page of The Virginia gazette for twenty-two numbers, probably reflects not only the social life of the capital, but also the newer fashion in such periodical work. It is dramatic in method, with vividly realized characters who gossip and chat over games of piquet or at the theatre. The Beaux-Stratagem, which had been played in Williamsburg three weeks before, is mentioned as delightful enough to make one of the ladies commit the indiscretion of giggling. The Monitor represents a kind of light social satire unusual in the colonies.

Satire of a heavier sort when attempted by newspaper [118] writers was never long sustained above mere invective, though it sometimes began with tolerable Hudibrastic or Popean couplets. The Dunciad and Hudibras were well known and often quoted in such bitter controversies as the famous Whitefield warfare in Charleston between 1740 and 1745. A Tale of a Tub and Gulliver's travels also furnished admirable epithets for one's foes. Occasionally some journalist tried to moderate the heat of battle by recurring to the dignity of Addison. In political controversy, especially if he happened to be a liberal, he preferred Cato's letters,7 Locke, or Algernon Sidney, throughout the early period. Thus it was that the colonists from Boston to Savannah were constantly imbibing advanced British constitutional theories.

After 1750, general news became accessible, and the newspapers show more and more interest in public affairs. The literary first page was no longer necessary, though occasionally used to cover a dull period. A new type of vigorous polemic gradually superseded the older essay. A few of the well-known conventions were retained, however. We still find the fictitious letter, with the fanciful signature, or a series of papers under a common title, such as The Virginia-Centinel, or Livingston's Watch-Tower. The former is a flaming appeal to arms, running through The Virginia gazette in 1756, and copied into Northern papers to rouse patriotism against the French enemy. The expression of the sentiment, even thus early, seems national. This whole series, though somewhat florid in style, shows the familiarity of the cultivated Southerner with his favourite English poets,--Young, Pope, Shakespeare. Livingston's well-known Watch-Tower,8 a continuation of his pamphlet-magazine The independent Reflector, has already the keen edge of the Revolutionary writings of fifteen and twenty years later. The fifty-second number even has one of the popular phrases of the Revolution: “Had I not sounded the Alarm, Bigotry would e'er now have triumphed over the natural Rights of British Subjects.” 9

This expression “natural rights,” occurring so early as 1755 [119] in Livingston's paper, is probably accidental or vague, but the full political theory of Rousseau, with all its abstractions regarding mankind in general, was soon added to the definite and always cherished belief in the constitutional privileges of Englishmen. The ideas of the French philosophers were in the air, and there is plenty of evidence in the colonial newspapers for fifteen or twenty years before the Revolution that the French influence was increasing. Even during the French and Indian war, booksellers advertised French texts, grammars, and dictionaries in the papers, while courses in French were often announced. Before the close of the war, we find The Boston gazette printing extracts from Montesquieu's Spirit of laws, with an apology and the expressed hope that it may not be “political Heresey” to suppose that “a Frenchman may have juster Notions of Civil Liberty than some among ourselves.” This was in the days when “Gallic perfidy” was the popular note.

After 1760 all the important works of Rousseau, Montesquieu, and the Encyclopedists as well as many other French books were advertised for sale in the colonial press. Such advertisements indicate the taste of the reading public more accurately than do catalogues of private libraries, which represent individual preferences. Voltaire had long been known in the colonies. Rousseau's Social Contract was advertised as a Treatise on the social compact, or the principles of political law. He himself is referred to again and again as “the ingenious Rousseau,” or “the celebrated Rousseau.” And Emile and La Nouvelle Heloise were evidently in demand. The famous Letters of a Farmer in Pennsylvania by John Dickinson belong to the colonial press in a very special way, since not only did they first appear in The Pennsylvania chronicle, The Pennsylvania journal, and The Pennsylvania gazette almost simultaneously in the winter of 1767-1768, but they were reprinted in nearly every newspaper on the continent, from Nova Scotia to Georgia.10 The Letters were soon known in France, where they were translated by Jacques Barbeu Dubourg, with a preface of glowing compliment.

Reports of French interest in America inclined the colonists still more to the French philosophy of government. As a [120] matter of fact, from the time of the Stamp Act, political essays of every description filled the newspapers, and what one paper published was soon reprinted in others. Thus the influence of the press in this critical period can hardly be overrated. If the “pumpkin Gentry” of New England (to use a tory phrase) took offence at some encroachment, gentlemen planters of the South were sure to read the whole case in a few weeks and, in spite of their differing civilization, to sympathize with the Northern firebrands. When Dr. Arthur Lee sent home to The Virginia gazette his Monitor, a series of essays describing hostile conditions in London, and urging his countrymen to non-importation, it was not by any means his countrymen of Virginia alone who heard the call. The Monitor has something of the distinguished style of the Farmer, and it is natural that the two should have been published together in a Williamsburg edition. Revolutionary Virginia burgesses always toasted the Farmer's and Monitor's letters together. But essays of an entirely different type also appeared constantly. Republicans and Loyalists fought violent battles under assumed classical names. Constitutionalis, Massachusettensis, Senex, Novanglus, Pacificus, Caesariensis, Amicus Publico, Cunctator, Virginius, Mucius Scaevola, Cato, Scipio, Leonidas, Brutus, and many more argued hotly and often powerfully the whole question of allegiance, on abstract grounds.

Isaiah Thomas's Massachusetts spy shows the course of this long battle. Constantly on the verge of being suppressed, from its establishment in 1770 to the Revolution, it carried radicalism to its logical conclusion. When the Spy began to be reprinted in other papers, as “the most daring production ever published in America,” the country as a whole was ready for Tom Paine's Common sense.

In regard to other forms of periodical literature before the Revolution, it is often difficult to draw precise distinctions.11 Newspapers are easily enough distinguished in general by the attempt to give items of current news. Outside the regular news sheets, there is a strange assortment of colonial productions usually classed as magazines, but in many cases hardly [121] recognizable as such. For instance, William Livingston's Independent Reflector, or weekly essays and also Andrew Oliver's Censor, are nothing more than single essays published serially. The Censor was published in weekly reply to “Mucius Scaevola” and other writers of the Spy. The very meaning of the word “magazine” in the eighteenth century makes classification difficult. It was literally a “storehouse,” being applied to literature as a “collection” ; almost any assemblage of writings, especially if published serially, could be referred to as a “magazine.” Even the regular London magazines of the period were made up largely of excerpts from weekly reviews and periodicals, along with a summary of the news of the month. A department called “Poetical essays” was usually more original, but on the whole both The Gentleman's magazine and The London magazine could be described fairly enough as collections of material from various sources.

There were a few magazines of this standard English type in America before the Revolution. Franklin, as usual, led the way, though it happened that his rival Andrew Bradford actually published the first magazine in the colonies. Franklin's soon followed, and these two little periodicals brought out the same month in Philadelphia, 1741, clearly indicate the attempt to transplant the English type, with some adaptations, for colonial readers. Franklin's title, The General magazine and historical chronicle for all the British plantations in America, shows his intention of giving a review of colonial news rather than of British. He did, as a matter of fact, use The Virginia gazette and other weeklies for articles and verse, but he also took European items whenever he could get them. Both magazines were evidently premature, however, for Bradford's existed only three months, and Franklin's only six.

The next attempt at this sort of periodical came from Boston two years later. Jeremy Gridley was the able editor of The American magazine and historical chronicle. It is an excellent piece of work for that date, both in general arrangement and in details of printing. There is very little original material, however, since the editor not only imitated The London magazine very closely in plan, but boldly copied most of the essays, articles, and verse from it or from The Gentleman's magazine. An occasional translation from the classics by a Harvard [122] student, a burlesque by “Jonathan Weatherwise” on the absurd weather signs of the country folk, or perhaps a timely article from a “neighbouring colony” does not suffice to impart a native flavour to the magazine as a whole. It is distinctly “imported.” The attempt was nevertheless creditable, and certainly kept readers in touch with the best English reviews. The magazine continued for three years.

A dozen years later The New England magazine of know-ledge and Pleasure announced its motto, “Alluring profit with delight we blend,” but it confined itself to hackneyed essays on old models. In the same year, however, at Philadelphia, a magazine of decided originality and of genuine importance in colonial literature was coming out month by month with the first provost of the new college as its editor and guiding spirit. The Rev. William Smith, called to America from Aberdeen in 1752, brought a great love of letters to his new work and soon succeeded in imparting his own literary enthusiasms to a group of young students. It is largely due to his constant encouragement that a strain of lyric poetry at length sounded in clear, welcome notes, a strain all too short and slight, but of real beauty. These young poets belonged to the generation after that of Franklin's famous Junto, one of the college group being a son of Franklin's friend Thomas Godfrey, the mathematician. Thomas Godfrey, Jr., needed all the active help of the provost, since poetical gifts did not meet with favour in the Godfrey household. Francis Hopkinson, Joseph Shippen, and Nathaniel Evans were also introduced to the public by Smith.

The interesting thing about William Smith's own literary enthusiasms is his love of eighteenth-century romanticism. In a thoroughly romantic temper he made himself a retreat by the falls of the Schuylkill, which he describes under the guise of Theodore, the Hermit, in his American magazine, noting “the singular gloom of its situation,” hidden by “a romantic tuft of trees,” and made more lonely by surrounding waters. He could soon announce in his magazine that he had almost too many poems to draw from. Practically all the verse in its thirteen numbers is original, although at times, especially in the long poems of James Sterling, the most conventional eighteenth-century manner is amusingly evident. The essays, with very few exceptions, were not only written in the colonies but were [123] often well adapted to the problems of the day, the war on the border, the Indians, the public policies of the government. The pride in “this young country” is everywhere evident, combined with perfect loyalty to Great Britain. In this year 1758 the successor of The American magazine, called The New American magazine, continued the same general policy, without securing the same originality. William Smith had been called to England, and the new venture lacked his power. It had the honour of publishing Nathaniel Evans's fine Ode on the late General Wolfe, however, in probably its earliest and simplest form.

With the next magazines we are again on the eve of the revolution. “The town has met,” and we read instructions, articles, orations, odes, and satires on the situation, sometimes reprinted from the newspapers, sometimes written for the magazine, but always inflammatory, since the two noteworthy periodicals of this period, The Pennsylvania magazine and The Royal American magazine, were edited respectively by the two firebrands, Thomas Paine and Isaiah Thomas. Paine's magazine did not lack pungent wit of one kind or another, although for the more strictly literary sections both he and Isaiah Thomas drew freely on conventional English sources which, in theory, they should have rejected. Thomas's Royal American magazine is enlivened by the famous Paul Revere engravings and is otherwise interesting, particularly for its confident belief in the new country soon to be the United States. [124]

1 Isaiah Thomas, History of printing in America. In Transactions and collections of the American antiquarian Society, vol. v, p. 110.

2 The spelling of the Courant.

3 See Book I, Chap. IX.

4 See The American Mercury, No. 1010, 3 May, 1739.

5 See The South Carolina gazette, February, 1734.

6 Ibid., No. 511, 9 January, 1744.

7 Cato's letters or The British Cato, a series of political papers by Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard, published in London from 1720 to 1723.

8 Appearing in Gaine's Mercury in 1754-1755.

9 The italics are not in the original.

10 See also Book I, Chap. VIII.

11 Mr. Albert Matthews notes this difficulty in his bibliography of New England magazines. See his Lists of New England magazines, in Publications of the colonial Society of Massachusetts, vol. XIII, pp. 69-74.

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