Why Colonial Printed Matter Was Conservative

WHEN PRINTING PRESSES, type-fonts, paper, and ink had to be imported, when land transportation was crude and cities were few, no man could own or operate a printing press without the knowledge and assent of the government. Never was the press more effectively controlled than during the earliest years of the American colonies. One did not find in this vast unsettled country those “secret presses” which in England tantalized and enraged the authorities during the 17th century.

In none of the colonies was there anything that would today be recognized as “freedom of the press.” By 1686 the English government was including in its regular instructions to provincial governors the following paragraph:

And forasmuch as great inconvenience may arise by the liberty of printing within our said territory under your government you are to provide by all necessary orders that no person keep any printing-press for printing, nor that any book pamphlet or other matters whatsoever be printed without your especial leave and license first obtained.

This control remained among the legal duties of royal governors as long as there were royal governors in the thirteen colonies. Although difficult or imprudent to enforce, the power was in the background and must have deterred colonial printers.

Authorities were still impressed by the great power for irresponsible attack which a press could put in any man’s hands. The European governing classes would no more have thought of leaving the manufacture of explosive printed matter unregulated than they would have permitted the unlicensed manufacture of gunpowder or the raising of private armies. In America control was exercised, sometimes in one way, sometimes in another, and the need to censor varied with the flow of events. But one fact is clear: the traditional European idea of monopolizing the press to cement the social order was successfully transplanted to American shores. American circumstances made that control even more effective than it had been in England.

Between 1639 and 1763, more than half the imprints of American presses came from New England, and all but a small number of these were printed in and around Boston. The Massachusetts press restrictions were therefore one of the largest single influences of the early age. For two decades after the establishment of the first printing-press in Massachusetts in 1638, there was no official board of censorship, but the meager output of the Cambridge press included not a single item that could have displeased the magistrates. Disputes within the community—such as the Anne Hutchinson affair or the demand for legal reform led by Dr. Robert Child—produced no printed matter in Massachusetts to support the discontented. The Cambridge press was supervised by the president of Harvard College. In 1662 the Massachusetts legislature, worried by “incendiaries of commonwealths,” passed an Act “for prevention of irregularities & abuse to the authority of this country by the printing presse,” and the law set up a board to censor all copy before it went to press. The story of printing in colonial Massachusetts, then, is simply a tale of different forms and degrees of control. Censorship was strictly enforced until about 1685, somewhat more laxly for the next forty years. After 1723, the colonial government did not exercise its control by censoring manuscripts before they went to press but by frequent threats of prosecution (and occasional actual prosecutions) under the extensive law of libel.

In England during these years, the increase of population, the multiplication of presses, and the rise of liberal ideas had made government control of the press harder to enforce. But government control of the press remained effective in Massachusetts. Because Massachusetts was a colonial government acting under its own laws, the lapses in the English law of censorship (as for a period after 1679) and even the expiration of all English censorship laws in 1695 did not have the same permissive effect on the American side. Censorship (that is, control before publication), though somewhat relaxed, continued in Massachusetts Bay for another quarter-century. Thus, when the News-Letter, the first regular newspaper in America, appeared in Boston on April 24, 1705, it carried the insignia of censorship already obsolete in England: the tell-tale phrase “published by authority.” The Governor’s Council continued to maintain an unquestioned right to suppress offensive printed matter.

Effective press control continued into the era of the Revolution. In 1770, during the early stages of the Revolutionary agitation in Massachusetts, the English Lords of the Council for Plantation Affairs complained that the colonial government had failed to punish “seditious and libellous publications.” The Massachusetts Governor’s Council replied that, within the constitutional limits, it had actually been more successful than the House of Lords had been in England. “Why is there not a charge against the House of Lords … that they do not suppress those seditious and libellous publications at home? If we have any amongst us, there are fifty in England to one here.” Nevertheless, the Council tried to vindicate itself by starting libel prosecutions against offensive printers. By the time of the Revolution, suppression of opposition presses was an established practice; freedom of printing had acquired no general support, nor had it become fixed in the habits of the community. Therefore, as the Revolutionary spirit rose in Boston, the radical party used mob terror against writers and printers who dared defend King and Parliament. When Massachusetts drew up its new constitution in 1778, it included a declaration in favor of freedom of the press, but the declaration was rhetorical and ambiguous, probably because of widespread doubts of the wisdom of such a novel institution. During the War, when all publications unfavorable to the Revolutionary movement were suppressed, there was no effective freedom of the press. After peace came, political leaders in Massachusetts demanded, not a “free press,” but return to a “well-regulated” press.

John Adams, for example, had long argued that “license of the press is no proof of liberty.” As early as 1774, when a defender of the British cause argued that the Revolutionary accusations of tyranny were unfounded because the most diverse opinions were allowed to be published in Massachusetts, Adams complained of “the scandalous license of the tory presses.” “There is nothing in the world so excellent that it may not be abused…. When a people are corrupted, the press may be made an engine to complete their ruin; and it is now notorious, that the ministry are daily employing it, to increase and establish corruption, and to pluck up virtue by the roots…. and the freedom of the press, instead of promoting the cause of liberty, will but hasten its destruction.” It is not surprising that John Adams and his fellow Federalist leaders in Massachusetts favored the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798; they were worried only that the laws might not be effective. “If there is ever to be an amelioration of the condition of mankind,” Adams was still warning two decades later, “philosophers, theologians, legislators, politicians and moralists will find that the regulation of the press is the most difficult, dangerous, and important problem they have to resolve. Mankind cannot now be governed without it, nor at present with it.”

In colonial Massachusetts, ruling clergymen, like the Mathers in their heyday, had found ways outside the law to enforce their standards. When Increase Mather wrote a book in 1700 attacking the practices of a church newly-established in the colony by the Rev. Benjamin Colman and his friends, the accused minister prepared a reply, but to secure its publication he had to send his manuscript to New York. “The Reader is desired to take Notice,” Colman’s pamphlet explained, “that the Press in Boston is so much under the aw of the Reverend Author, whom we answer, and his Friends, that we could not obtain of the Printer there to print the following Sheets, which is the only true Reason why we have sent the Copy so far for its Impression and where it [is] printed with some Difficulty.” Bartholomew Green, the Boston printer, explained the good commercial reason behind his refusal: the last time he had done a printing job without advance government approval, he had been required to revise and reprint it before publication to meet official criticism.

Printing began under government sponsorship in all the colonies. The press was supposed to be a prop for existing institutions; where there was danger that it might serve another purpose, authorities preferred no press at all. “I thank God, we have not free schools nor printing,” Sir William Berkeley, governor of Virginia for thirty-eight years, boasted in 1671, “and I hope we shall not have these hundred years. For learning has brought disobedience and heresy and sects into the world; and printing has divulged them and libels against the government. God keep us from both.” Some Virginia leaders of the next century did not share Berkeley’s enthusiasm for illiteracy, but for many years his modest ambitions for Virginia were fulfilled at least with regard to the press. In 1682, the government received its first scare from a press and printer imported by John Buckner, rich landowner and merchant of Gloucester County, whose offense was to print some of the colony’s laws without authority. Buckner was called before the Governor and Council, was ordered to cease his subversive activities, and “for prevention of all troubles and inconveniences, that may be occasioned thorow the liberty of a presse” was required to post bond for his good behavior. In 1683 the King of England ordered that to prevent any such “troubles and inconvenience” in the future, the Governor of Virginia should “provide by all necessary orders and Directions that no person be permitted to use any press for printing upon any occasion whatsoever.” Until 1730, when William Parks set up shop in Williamsburg, there was no printing press in Virginia. From then until 1766 Virginia had only a single press and that was the official organ of the government. “I do not know that the publication of newspapers was ever prohibited in Virginia,” Jefferson recalled many years later. “Until the beginning of our revolutionary disputes, we had but one press, and that having the whole business of the government, and no competitor for public favor, nothing disagreeable to the governor could be got into it.”

Outside of Boston, the two leading colonial printing centers were Philadelphia and New York City. In both places, the right of the authorities to control printed matter—if not by censorship, then by libel prosecutions and by legislative censure—continued to be recognized at least until the Revolution. In Philadelphia, William Bradford, who was Pennsylvania’s first printer (first imprint: 1686), was in continual trouble with the government and the Society of Friends, usually for the most trivial indiscretions. Finally, in 1693, when he was prosecuted for publishing a tract on one side of an internal Quaker dispute, he left the colony in disgust and became the royal printer in New York. For the next half-dozen years, there was no press at all in Philadelphia. William Bradford’s son, Andrew, who returned to Philadelphia and became the official “Printer to the Province” in 1719, was only slightly more successful than his father in satisfying the authorities. Libel trials and suppression of the opposition press were common there until the eve of the Revolution.

Much the same story is told of New York, which did not begin to rival Boston or Philadelphia as a source of printed matter until after 1760. The famous case of John Peter Zenger (1734-35), which affirmed the power of juries in libel cases to decide the law as well as the fact, is important in retrospect and as a landmark of legal doctrine. But it was not a turning point in the practices of the community; even after the Zenger case, the question in New York was not whether the press should be “well-regulated” but who should have the power of regulation. Zenger’s reward for his vindication in the trial which made him a hero in later histories of freedom of the press, was his appointment to the monopoly of “Publick Printer” in 1737. Twenty years later another printer, Hugh Gaine, was brought to the bar of the Assembly and reprimanded; he “humbly asked their Pardon” but still was required to pay costs—all for the offense of printing part of the public proceedings of the representative body! James Parker, Printer to the General Assembly of New York, obeyed Governor Clinton’s ban in 1747 on publishing the Assembly’s remonstrance against the Governor; although the next year he dared to print it among the Assembly’s votes. But within a decade, in 1756, the Assembly itself declared Parker “guilty of a high Misdemeanor and a Contempt of the Authority of this House” for printing an article critical of them in his newspaper. And so it went.

It was not only by government control, by censorship, and by threat of libel prosecution that the American colonial press was confined. The earliest American presses owed their very existence to the colonial governments, a fact which inevitably affected the character of printers and the output of their shops: government support meant government control. In these scattered colonial communities—where what little passion there was for literature could be satisfied with books imported from the mother country—the introduction of printing presses might have been delayed for decades if it had depended on the market for polite literature. But soon after the first settlements, each government needed a printing press to circulate proclamations and laws, to provide copies of debates, proceedings, decisions, and votes to the members of the governors’ councils and representative assemblies, and to supply the legal forms needed every day. Even in the earliest years of each colony, when the market for commercial printing was small, the demand for locally printed books non-existent, and the market for newspapers and periodicals still undeveloped, the government could offer an annual contract with an assured income to anyone who promised to meet its needs.

The story of the introduction of printing into the American colonies is, in short, an account of how the thirteen different governments subsidized a public service. In Massachusetts the earliest press was, as might be expected, under the close surveillance of the leading clergymen and of Harvard College; it served church and state at the same time. Its scope and limits were symbolized in its first three products: the recently revised Freeman’s Oath (1639); an almanac calculated for New England (1639); and the famous Bay Psalm Book (1640), a new and supposedly more literal translation of the Psalms by three New England divines. The staples of this earliest press in the English colonies were the enactments of the General Court.

Benjamin Franklin, being an enterprising businessman, valued his appointment as clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly mainly as a way to secure the government printing business for his presses. Within less than a dozen years (1739-1750) Franklin received as clerk’s fees and for printing statutes and paper currency the sum of £2,762 of Pennsylvania money. Franklin’s Modest Enquiry into the Nature and Necessity of a Paper Currency (1729), which he had both written and printed, urged the printing of more provincial paper money secured by Pennsylvania’s plentiful supply of land. “My friends there (in the House,) who conceiv’d I had been of some service, thought fit to reward me by employing me in printing the money; a very profitable jobb and a great help to me. This was another advantage gain’d by my being able to write.” On another occasion, Franklin was even paid for destroying the colony’s currency when it had become worn through use. About this time, too, the neighboring colony of Delaware gave Franklin its contract to print money, laws, and government proceedings.

William Parks, who in 1730 brought Virginia its first press in a half-century, had only a few years before set up shop in Annapolis as official printer to the province of Maryland, which had attracted him by a guaranteed annual fee for printing the debates, votes, and laws of its Assembly. Parks set up his press in Williamsburg only after the Virginia legislature had offered him their official printing and an increasing yearly sum which began at £120 and reached £280 before his death. Not all the colonies were so fortunate; some had to send their work to neighboring colonies or even abroad. Although the Assembly of South Carolina began offering a bounty as early as 1722 in order to attract a printer, it was nine years before one could be persuaded to settle there.

Under these circumstances, the colonial press could hardly be a nursery of novel, startling, or radical ideas. The printer had to be a “government man,” acceptable to the ruling group in his colony. Only the government business made it at all possible for a man to live by his press in the colonies; therefore, government printing held the first claim on a prudent printer’s time, as was evidenced by the many apologetic prefaces to privately-supported books that had been delayed or had to appear in abridged form. As the commerce and population of each colony grew, however, government printing gradually became a smaller proportion of the total printing business. Only then did it become financially possible for a dissident or unconventional printer to make his way.

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