Sponsored by BYU Studies—Joseph M. Adelman is an assistant professor of history at Framingham State University and the author of Revolutionary Networks: The Business and Politics of Printing the News, 1763-1789 (JHU Press, 2019).
Welcome! Before we begin, would you tell us a little bit about yourself and your new book?
A native of New York, I’ve been interested in history and especially the American Revolution since I was in second grade (you can ask my family how many times I read Johnny Tremain as a child). After college, I spent two years working as the Communications Director for a New York State assemblyman, which opened lots of questions for me about the intersection of politics and the news media.
But I knew I wanted to answer them from a historical perspective, so I returned to school, eventually earning my Ph.D. in history from the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
I’m now a historian of early America and the Atlantic world, with a specialization in the history of politics, media, and business. For the past seven years I’ve taught at Framingham State University, where I’ve taught a wide range of courses across Atlantic and American history.
Revolutionary Networks is the product of questions I began asking in college about how the American Revolution became successful. The book focuses in on the printing trade and printers as a key group of people for understanding how that process happened.
I argue in Revolutionary Networks that much of the political organization we see on the surface, the people we’re familiar with, like John Adams, and events such as the Boston Tea Party, come out of work going on behind the scenes in printing offices.
Furthermore, that work is not simply political, but grows out of the business practices and commercial interests of the printers themselves. That pushes us to consider how a group of non-elite people shaped politics and also to think more about how commercial interests shaped political ideology.
This book evolves from your PhD dissertation for which you had a pair of advisors. What were some of the challenges and opportunities of having two distinct voices guide you?
They might read this so I have to be careful what I say! More seriously, though, I think on balance having two equal voices opened some fruitful ways of thinking about my work, but as you suggest, was not without challenges. They both stemmed from the same place: I got two pieces of advice on everything. It worked in the end because my advisors (Toby Ditz and Phil Morgan) respect each other and the advice they give and were very capable of disagreeing without being disagreeable, to borrow a cliché.
But anyone who knows their scholarship knows that they have very different perspectives not only in their topics of research but also on historical methods, how to intervene in a historical debate, and so on. Having started graduate school in my mid-20s, it was certainly difficult to figure out how to mediate between two strong voices without completely losing myself.
What I eventually came to realize was that, when I was revising my dissertation, I needed to start with the areas where they agreed that something was amiss, even though they often advised heading different directions from their diagnoses. I also learned to focus in on their areas of strength when considering what questions to ask them.
Both commented on all areas of my work, but as time went on, one tended to spend a bit more time on questions of evidence and contribution to the discipline, and the other a bit more on questions of writing and style, how I was expressing myself and telling the story.
In the end, I think it made the work stronger, even if there were some hair-pulling moments in the middle.
What was a “printer” in the time period covered in your book? What were their social and economic classes?
During the colonial and Revolutionary eras, a printer referred to the master artisan who ran a printing office. An office included a number of other workers, including the printer’s wife, who often worked in the shop itself in addition to supervising housing and food for everyone under the roof; some number of apprentices, teenagers training in the trade; and some number of journeymen, adults who had completed apprenticeships but had not opened their own shops.
Some number of printers also held people in slavery who worked in the trade.
Most of the printers of this era were somewhere in a mushy middle of society. They could never rise particularly high (other than Benjamin Franklin, the exception who proves the rule) because they were manual laborers. Their hands were dirty and their bodies broke because of the labor they did. At the same time, they mingled with the elite of society because they published political, intellectual, and religious tracts that required them to work with authors, political leaders, and merchants.
A printer engaged in three types of work in their offices.
First, they and their employees did the manual labor of composing the type, inking it, and operating the press to imprint the letters on paper. This activity occurred regardless of what type of text they were producing.
Second, for items like their newspapers and almanacs, printers often served as the editor. In that capacity they selected what material went into a publication, organized it, and prepared it for the printing process.
Finally, for those newspapers and almanacs printers were often also the publisher, which now would be the person responsible for financing and overseeing a publication.
After the Revolution these roles began to separate, especially in the largest cities along the Atlantic coast (I hint at the beginning of this transition in my final chapter). By the early nineteenth century, someone who wanted to publish/finance a newspaper would hire someone else to edit it and a third person or office to do the manual labor. However, the further away from the coast and the smaller the town, the longer the work categories remained with a single person.
What were the different ideological breakdowns of the printers in your book?
The short answer is they were all over the place. A significant number (about 40%) I can identify as Patriots, that is, supporters of the American cause, and a small minority as Loyalist, with a number of others whose inclinations weren’t clear or who attempted to maintain a neutral public stance. And that changed over time.
Before the 1760s, most printers publicly stated their neutrality. They drew on the vision of press freedom that Benjamin Franklin explained in 1731 in his “Apology for Printers,” in which he argued that he ran a free and open press. That meant that the press would be first free from government interference about what he could print, and second open to all parties, but that he himself would not take sides.
Two factors changed that. First was simply the escalating political crisis of the 1760s and 1770s, which made it harder not to appear partisan in some way. Second was the growth of printing in larger towns. When there was just one newspaper in a town, its printer had to appear neutral in order to draw business from across the political spectrum. Once there were multiple newspapers in a town, that calculation shifted because it became possible and in fact might well be more profitable to support one side over the other.
After the war, most of the Loyalist printers left the United States, even though in the general population more Loyalists stayed put. My book leaves off just before the establishment of the federal government under the Constitution, which most printers supported. In the 1790s, printers became the core of the early national partisan system.
How were the commercial interests of printers balanced with their political ideologies? Does this messy reality complicate the jobs of historians interpreting the time period?
Printers struggled with how to navigate their commercial and political interests during the American Revolution. As I noted, their political views ran the gamut, and in their towns they faced a variety of political environments. In Boston, for example, the predominant sentiment was against British policy, which made things much more difficult for Loyalist printers. New York, by contrast, had a strong Loyalist contingent among the population, and so Loyalists felt more comfortable and Patriots a bit less bold. Things get complicated very quickly because each town had its own set of political issues, and each printer his or her own set of commercial concerns based on the number of printers in town, their relative standing before the political crisis, and so on.
All of that makes the job of historians difficult, and it was all the more vexing because printers left few records other than the products of their shops, that is, the printed material they published.
So for me to determine what the commercial concerns were for most printers, what their political views were, and then how they intersected, I had to spend a great deal of time in my research reading between the lines. Some left behind letters and account books, and for them I can say a bit more, and the rest I had to draw logical conclusions from the evidence. And of course there was a group that I felt I couldn’t say much of anything about because there’s so little evidence of their activities.
What kinds of materials were produced by printers? What was the role of a local newspaper in the typical household?
Printers produced a whole range of items in their offices, and the type and amount depended on the size, interests, and relative success. Much of what they printed was “job printing,” or what we might call print on demand—someone walks into the office with a manuscript and agrees to a price to produce a hundred copies of whatever it is.
Most tried to produce some “steady sellers,” items that were guaranteed to attract interest. Almanacs were a very popular and nearly universal print genre because most people wanted to have one on hand through the year. Many then produced pamphlets of speeches, sermons, political treatises, or other topics. They printed forms that could be filled out but had standard language, such as notes of credit, indentures, and so on. And many printed a newspaper that they published weekly.
Newspapers were produced really for a small, relatively elite audience, people middle class and above.
Each issue contained advertisements, which usually took up a third to half of the total space. These could include merchants and vendors, government notices, and notices searching for runaways (which included servants, the enslaved, horses and other animals, and the occasional wife).
The rest of the paper was devoted to political and commercial news from the British empire, in particular from London, other colonies, and a small section devoted to local news.
The content was aimed at the small group of elite and politically active men in a town, so they were as likely to read and talk about the newspaper at a local coffee house or tavern as they were at home. And reading practices were more social, so that a group of people might read the newspaper together, whether in a social space or at home. The goal was to keep up to date with what was happening in the imperial center and learn more information for the effective practice of business.
How essential were networks to the success—and survival—of early printers?
Well I argue that networks were indispensable for the printing trading, so I would say they were very important indeed. This was especially true for news circulation because most of the news was non-local and printers needed a way to get a hold of it. So they created networks that were largely informal but crucial. They would be in contact with former colleagues—masters with their former apprentices and journeymen, family members, or people who had both been apprentices in the same office—and exchange newspapers through the post office to generate the content they needed for each weekly issue.
They also needed networks to sell much of their other printing work. To use a hypothetical, say a New York printer printed 500 copies of a pamphlet but could only sell 300 from his office. He might try to send the remaining copies to colleagues in other towns to sell them, and they would be doing the same with theirs. And even though they were competitors, they also might collaborate on particular projects both within town and across space.
For example, because everyone bought an almanac, Boston printers all jointly published the almanac written by the most popular writer of the era in the 1750s and 1760s. Everybody had a stake in the profits, so it worked for everyone.
What role did printers play in the Stamp Act crisis? Did this experience awaken them to a heightened awareness of their ability to influence the war?
Printers were integral to the protests against the Stamp Act, which is often seen as the first set of the mass-scale movements against British policies. The reason is that it directly targeted their businesses: it was a tax on print, adding from a halfpenny to a few pounds to the cost of almanacs, newspapers, pamphlets, books, legal and commercial forms, even playing cards and dice. Therefore, even though they had a range of political reactions and opinions about the legitimacy of a tax imposed by Parliament, printers were in all-but-universal agreement that the Act would dramatically harm their businesses.
They therefore made sure that protests received maximum coverage, selecting accounts to reprint as news traveled up and down the Atlantic coast. And in a number of cases printers were part of the core leadership orchestrating the protests, groups that by the end of the crisis had taken the name Sons of Liberty.
For some printers, I think it absolutely shaped their views of their own influence, but for many I think the effect was at a less conscious level.
That is, through the Stamp Act crisis many printers began to develop thicker ties to those in other towns. They didn’t necessarily see those directly as having an impact on their political influence, but in the succeeding years of the crisis and then the Revolutionary War, those networks absolutely came into play in critical ways.
How might the Revolution have been different if printers had made no ideological contributions?
Well I wouldn’t have been able to write a book about it, for starters!
I think the best way to think about this question is to think about a case in the book where political leaders were ambivalent about an initiative led by printers. In early 1774, a printer named William Goddard set off on a journey to try to convince people to start a “Constitutional Post” that would exist outside the boundaries of the imperial Post Office.
I explain in detail in Revolutionary Networks how and why he made that move, but in general he tried to organize political and commercial leaders with printers to create this new postal system. It had a small modicum of success because it served the interests of a group of printers, so Goddard showed up at the first Continental Congress in September 1774 to pitch his plan to that group.
At this point the war had not started, but that Congress agreed to a series of joint actions against British policies, including the imposition of non-importation and non-consumption of British goods, with an Association to enforce it in local communities. It might have made sense to take on the postal system to facilitate communication about these issues, but Congress didn’t bite in the fall of 1774. They only acted the following summer when there was a military need for independent communication.
As I argue in the book, that’s a crucial step (it makes the Post Office older than every American institution besides Congress and the Army).
But they had a yearlong head start because of Goddard’s work that made getting a Continental Post Office up and running much smoother. So I think we would still have had political debates in print, but they would not have circulated in the ways they did. And the structures that facilitated the exchange of information would have reflected more the needs and interests of political leaders than printers.
This goes beyond the timeframe of your book. How did the legacy of early Atlantic printers influence the industry on the Pacific coast in the 19th century?
That’s a difficult question to answer because Pacific printing is a phenomenon that occurs much later, and so the printing industry in the East had already undergone a variety of fundamental changes. But he mid-nineteenth century, paper was made from wood pulp, which was much cheaper than the linen that was used in the eighteenth century, and printing presses were made entirely from iron and other metals rather than having a wood frame.
And those are just the two most basic changes in terms of technology, not to mention the structural changes to job tasks that I discussed above, among other things.
In terms of English-language printing, newspapers for example don’t appear in California until the Gold Rush of the late 1840s, when a number spring up in and around San Francisco.
But as happens in various places away from the coast, the same pattern tended to emerge. When a printer was a sole operator in a community, and especially while it was relatively small, subsidies from government or local elites were critical and that printer tended to portray himself as politically neutral. Once the market expanded so that many printers were in operation, partisan publications emerged more forcefully.
Other than the ease of creating print, what would early Atlantic printers most envy about today’s printing world?
I actually think there’s a lot they would not envy, in no small measure because the function they served as middlemen and -women has largely disappeared. The barriers to entry to publish are very low because you can start a blog or a Twitter feed for free, but the platforms themselves are all owned and operated by large corporations.
I do, however, think that they would have enjoyed the relative lack of government interference in publishing. That was something that—though rare in the colonial and Revolutionary eras—was a constant concern for them.
I am worried about potential developments now in terms of press freedom, but the prevailing ethos is one in which people publish material largely without concern about government action.
This interview is sponsored by BYU Studies.