FOR CENTURIES TO COME the influential American “gentlemen of the press” would not be “gentlemen” at all by European standards. The ancestors of the American newspaperman were not essayists, wits, and professional writers, but primarily printers—craftsmen dealing in useful public information. They were not literati, whose habitat was the drawing room, the coffee house, or the salon. On the contrary, they were servants of the general public: in 18th-century language, “Publick Printers.” Their hands stained with printers’ ink, they frequented the legislative assemblies and the marketplace to gather a salable commodity. Their print-shops became forums and post offices, centers for news and opinions. To make their living, they had to win the confidence of the government, to discover sources of news, and to find ways of distributing their commodity quickly. They were already beginning to develop the unprecedented network of public information which eventually would hold a vast nation together, stimulating as it satisfied the appetite for news.
Some special features of colonial life increased the influence of men who made a living from this kind of work. The most important single fact was the large number of separate governments—each with its own executive and legislature, each with its own acts, laws, debates, votes, proceedings, and orders to be printed. The mere existence of so many separate political units gave a focus and a practical public purpose to the earliest American printed matter, and so helped put the printing press in the service of the whole literate community.
By the time of the Revolution, each colonial government had a printer in its own capital to serve its own needs, and printers could be found in all the principal cities up and down the Atlantic seaboard. If one colonial government was displeased with its Public Printer, another would welcome him and set him up with its official business. Men qualified to become “Publick Printers” always remained in demand.
At the same time that printing presses were spreading out into the towns of America, they were also going out from London, Oxford, and Cambridge into the English provinces, but the American colonial printer had a dignity and influence (as well as several new functions) unknown to his English provincial counterpart. The “Publick Printer” was an American institution. William Parks, Benjamin Franklin, William and Andrew Bradford lived at the centers of government, where news was made. Their influence in public life foreshadowed the special American relation between politics and the press which has most recently found expression in the regular Presidential Press Conference. The English provincial printer was just another craftsman; only the King’s Printer in London held an official position. But the Public Printer of each American colony held an important public post.
As printer of the colonial laws, the proceedings of the assembly, and the principal newspaper, the Public Printer was the chief local customer of the post office. Therefore, he always found it convenient, and often found it profitable, to become the local postmaster. Not only could he then use the post-riders to deliver his papers at public expense (Franklin did this for a while), but he profited from the postmastership in many indirect ways. The great distances, which sharpened the appetite for news, made the post office in each town a gathering place for men of affairs. Since all letters passed first through the postmaster’s hands, he had the quickest and most confidential access to news. When townspeople came to get their mail, he could gather news items of local interest and at the same time sell books, magazines, cough medicine, sealing wax, chocolate, lemons, writing paper, pens, and fiddle strings. The printer’s shop came to resemble the later General Store. In every community its owner was a person of influence.
The first regularly-published American newspaper, the Boston News-Letter (April 24, 1704), was “published by Authority” by John Campbell, Postmaster, “Publick Printer” to the colony. Succeeding Postmasters in Boston even came to think that such a publication was attached to their office. Ellis Huske’s paper, founded in 1734, bore the significant name of The Boston Weekly Post-Boy and the imprint:
Boston; Printed for Ellis Huske, Post-Master: Advertisements taken in at the Post-Office in King’s-Street, over against the North-Door of the Town-House, where all Persons in Town or Country may be supplied with this Paper.
In Connecticut also the first newspaper was established by a printer who was postmaster of the colony. The advantages of being postmaster helped keep the press in the hands of respectable men who possessed the confidence of their government.
The earliest printers (and often the writers) of books and newspapers in the American colonies were thus intimately acquainted with the public taste and with the problems of selling and delivering printed matter to a wide public. One of the few occasions when Franklin violated his rule that one should “never ask, never refuse, nor ever resign” a public office, occurred in 1751 when he sought the job of Deputy Postmaster General for the American colonies and authorized his friends in England to pay up to £300 for it. “The Place has commonly been reputed to be worth about £150 a Year but would be otherways very suitable to me, particularly as it would enable me to execute a Scheme long since form’d of which I send you enclos’d a Copy, and which I hope would soon produce something agreeable to you and to all Lovers of Useful Knowledge for I have now a large Acquaintance among ingenious Men in America.” This “scheme” was to lead to the formation of the American Philosophical Society, first conceived by Franklin as a kind of clearing house for useful knowledge. Correspondence was its primary purpose, for Franklin believed that progress would come from pooling casual information from men living in “different climates, having different soils, producing different plants, mines, and minerals, and capable of different improvements, manufactures, &c.”
During his long association with the colonial postal service—first (after 1737) as Deputy Postmaster at Philadelphia and later (1753-1774) as Deputy Postmaster General for all the American colonies—Franklin did a great deal to speed up the postal service and to make it profitable to himself. By 1769 the office, which had barely repaid expenses before he took it over, netted Franklin a profit of £1,859. When Franklin had become Postmaster at Philadelphia in 1737, there was no legal provision for admitting newspapers to the mails nor any established rates for carrying them. As Postmaster he could simply hand his own papers to the postriders (and forbid them to carry competing papers). The other publishing advantages of his job were numerous: “it facilitated the correspondence that improved my newspaper, increas’d the number demanded, as well as the advertisements to be inserted, so that it came to afford me a considerable income. My old competitor’s newspaper declin’d proportionably.”
When Franklin became Deputy Postmaster General for all the colonies he widened the experiment he had tried in Philadelphia of allowing his competitors to use the mail. In 1758, he established for the first time fixed (and highly profitable) postal rates for newspapers. Even this reform was designed less to provide a free press than to strengthen and increase a conservative press. His aim, he explained, was “to remedy these Inconveniences and yet not to discourage the Spreading of Newspapers, which are on many Occasions useful to Government and advantageous to Commerce and to the Publick.”
The control over newspaper distribution, and hence over printed opinion, by the colonial governments became more burdensome as the conflict of opinion sharpened. William Goddard (1740-1817) and his sister, Mary Katherine Goddard (1736-1816), earned places as patron saints of a free press in America by opposing the post-office monopoly. In many ways a prototype of the American businessman, Goddard was restless, humorless, and tactless, but he was remarkably endowed with aggressiveness, organizing ability, and a knack for making himself heard. The son of the physician-postmaster of New London, Connecticut, Goddard had learned the printer’s trade as an apprentice to James Parker and John Holt, postmasters and newspaper publishers of New Haven. In 1762 Goddard set up a printing press in Providence, Rhode Island, founded a newspaper, and became the town’s postmaster. Unable to secure the eight hundred subscriptions necessary to make his newspaper pay, he moved first to New York and then to Philadelphia to try his fortune in different publishing ventures. He finally established himself in Baltimore, where his Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser (1773-1793) spoke out in the last years before independence.
As proprietor of “a very free press,” he had been victimized by the government-controlled post office, which charged him one pound a week for delivering three hundred and fifty newspapers to places outside Philadelphia. Goddard reacted to such abuses by setting up his own postal system to make his publications independent of the government. Goddard’s project grew and, on December 30, 1773, news of the Boston Tea Party was brought from New York to his office in Baltimore by his own postriders.
Desire for a freer, more “constitutional’1 postal service was in the main stream of Revolutionary sentiment. As early as 1711 the Virginia House of Burgesses had refused to appropriate money for the post office, which had been recently reorganized under an act of Parliament, on the ground that the rates established by the British Act amounted to taxation without consent. Not until later in the 18th century, after nine years of Franklin’s absentee management of the post office, was there any effective competition for the old system. By then the rise of newspapers had enlarged the demand for postal service, and the courage, enterprise, and organizing ability of William Goddard had made a new system possible. “Having at all times acted consistently, and to the utmost of his power in support of the English Constitution and the rights and liberties of his countrymen … especially as a printer, regardless of his own personal safety or private advantage,” explained John Holt, printer of New York, in May 1775, Goddard had “by this conduct, incurred the displeasure of many men in power, and been a very great sufferer (the greatest, he believes, in this Country) by the stoppage and obstruction given to the circulation of his newspapers by the Post-Office, which has long been an engine in the hand of the British Ministry to promote their schemes of enslaving the Colonies and destroying the English Constitution.”
The needs of the Continental Congress, of the new American army, and of the rising colonial newspapers brought into being the first United States post office. When the publicly-owned American postal system was set up on July 26, 1775, it was not on the foundation of the British system but on that of Goddard’s private enterprise which had aimed to free the post office from the domination of government. Yet, the new government expressed its conservatism when it named as first Postmaster of the United States, not Goddard who had conceived and organized it, but Franklin who had for many years run the British system. In one way or another the American post office—and especially the Postmaster General and the local postmasters—would continue to be involved in politics.
The colonial printer-journalist-postmaster was thus pursuing a new and distinctively American profession. He started in America as a craftsman and small businessman rather than as a man of letters, but he had an important function in government, which kept him in touch with public affairs. The dispersion of government into thirteen different centers, the urgent need for certain kinds of practical information, and the combination of the printshop with the post office interfused the currents of the printed word and the currents of the public mind.