​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​   James Smart's Philadelphia

Philly News, 1776

     How the Philadelphia press covered the beginning and end of the Revolution (with some tidbits of sex and violence included.)

by James Smart

      Philadelphia's colonial newspapers were based at the center of the biggest news

story of the 18th century, the American Revolution. Independence was declared under

the editors' noses. How did Philadelphia newspapers cover the Revolution? The answer

is, barely -- at least, by modern newspaper standards.

     Colonial newspapers were published by printers, not writers. The printer who could write well was rare. A notable exception, Benjamin Franklin, was out of the business before the Revolution started. There were no reporters, no staffs. Printers accepted for publication just about anything they could get their hands on: letters, official documents, announcements submitted by prominent organizations, articles by any "respectable gentleman" who dropped in at the office with a piece of writing.

     News from far away was more prized than local news. Even though Philadelphia was second only to London in size in the British empire, it had a population of only about 40,000, in under two square miles. If anything important happened, everybody knew it.

     Letters from London, right off the ship, were what printers craved. Any sea captain just arrived in port might wander into a printer's office, tell how he "spoke" the captain of another ship he passed at sea, and pass along the most improbable rumor from Europe, the West Indies, South Carolina or some other distant place. It would eagerly be printed. The most outrageous tales, the most contradictory versions of the same story, the most obviously biased account -- it didn't matter, as long as it could be billed as "the freshest foreign advices".

     There were no display headlines. There was no special front page placement of important news. It was a good half century before newspapers began to develop into the form familiar to modern readers.

      In 1775, there were 37 newspapers in the American colonies. Seven of them were in Philadelphia. All were weeklies; within a decade, some would try publishing two or three times a week.

     Through the nine years of the Revolutionary War, 11 papers were published at some time in Philadelphia. Four were in German. Two, one English and one German, were Tory papers printed only while the British army occupied the city.

     Philadelphia had a high literacy rate. Most dissident religious groups in Great Britain and Germany stressed their right to read the Bible, so they saw to it that their children could read. The colonies were full of such people, notably in New England and Pennsylvania where religious liberty was a founding principle. Many who could read the printed word had a hard time reading handwriting, and wouldn't know where to begin to put more than an X on paper. But they could read newspapers.

     The leading Philadelphia newspapers during the Revolution were the Gazette, the Journal and the Packet. The Pennsylvania Gazette started out as the Universal Instructor in All the Arts and Sciences and Pennsylvania Gazette, on Dec. 24, 1728. Nine months later, with only 90 subscribers and badly in debt, the printer, Samuel Keimer, sold out to his 22-year-old former apprentice, Benjamin Franklin.

     Franklin then had a partner, Hugh Meredith, who dropped out in 1732. In 1748, Franklin took on David Hall as a partner. Franklin sold out because of other interests in 1765, and Hall and William Sellers guided the Gazette into its prime.

     The Pennsylvania Journal or Weekly Advertiser was started by William Bradford on Dec. 2, 1742. Bradford's uncle, Andrew Bradford, had published the American Weekly Mercury from 1719 to 1722. It was Philadelphia's first newspaper, and North America's third. Boston had a newspaper briefly in 1704; the Boston Gazette beat the Mercury by one day as the second newspaper.

     In 1754, William Bradford established the London Coffee House at Front and Market Sts. in Philadelphia, and had his office there. It became the hangout for all the city's prominent merchants and maritime men, which brought all the news and gossip right to his coffee pot and porter casks -- not to mention that potential advertisers gathered there.

     The Pennsylvania Packet or General Advertiser was begun on Oct. 28, 1771, by John Dunlap. Dunlap came from County Tyrone, Ireland, at age nine, and was apprenticed to an uncle whose printing business he took over in 1768, at age 19, when Uncle William was ordained an Episcopal cleric and moved to Virginia. Young Dunlap was so poor at first that he slept under the counter of the shop on Market St., and lived entirely on pepperpot soup from the open-air market stalls down the middle of the street, Philadelphia's main thoroughfare. But he was prospering by the time he founded the Packet.

     Partners named Story and Humphreys founded the Pennsylvania Mercury in April of 1775, but its shop burned down in December of  '75 and it lost everything.

     James Humphreys Jr. started the Pennsylvania Ledger in January of 1776. It was a Tory newspaper, often in trouble with the Philadelphia patriots. Humphreys suspended publication in November of 1776, but resumed from Oct. 10, 1777, to May 23, 1778, during the occupation. When British troops pulled out of Philadelphia, Humphreys prudently went with them.

     One of the liveliest publications was Benjamin Towne's Pennsylvania Evening Post, the only evening paper. Towne came from England in 1769 and became journeyman to William Goddard, Whig publisher of the Pennsylvania Chronicle. Goddard's backers, Joseph Galloway and Thomas Wharton Sr., were Tory leaders. Why they financed a printer of opposite politics is a mystery. Goddard printed John Dickenson's early patriot writings, "Letters of a Pennsylvania Farmer". The backers pulled out, and Towne quit in protest.

     He began printing the Post in 1775. In 1776, he borrowed a supply of paper (scarce during the Revolution) from the Ledger. On it, he ran a fake letter signed "A Tory", which praised the Ledger as "subservient to the purposes of Lord and General Howe". The militant patriot readers believed it, and that's why Humphreys was later so quick to suspend publication of the Ledger and flee the city when patriots took full control in '78.

      As the British invasion army moved up from Delaware toward Philadelphia in 1777, the patriot papers began closing down. John Adams, at Congress in Philadelphia, noted in his diary on Sept. 16, 1777, "No newspaper this morning. Mr. John Dunlap of the Packet has moved or packed up his types".

     Dunlap published at Lancaster, Pa., 75 miles west of Philadelphia, in 1777 and '78. The Journal and the Gazette suspended publication.

     But Benjamin Towne, after a two week hiatus, blandly resumed publication, lowering the price from four pence to three pence, and sold newspapers to the Tories and British soldiers. Humphreys, as mentioned, continued his Ledger during the occupation. And Christopher Sauer closed his Germantowner Zeitung, which he issued at Germantown, northwest of the city, and moved to Philadelphia to print a German Tory paper, the Pennsylvanische Staats -Courier.

     In the spring of 1778, James Robertson, a New York Tory publisher, came to occupied Philadelphia and published briefly the Royal Pennsylvania Gazette. Everything changed again when the British army left. But Benjamin Towne halted publication of his British-oriented Post for only a month after the king's troops evacuated the city. In June of '78, the Post was back, now patriotic again and priced back up to four pence.

     The Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, the ad hoc revolutionary government, vowing to punish collaborators, issued a list of traitors. Towne casually printed the list in the Post. His name was on it. The patriots were incensed. The Rev. Dr. John Witherspoon, president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) published a satirical "Recantation" for Towne, in which he had Towne confess he was "a coward from my youth, so that I cannot fight; my belly is so big that I cannot run, and I am so great a lover of eating and drinking that I cannot starve."

     Towne ignored the situation, calmly publishing articles urging severe punishment for Tories. He managed to avoid real trouble until 1779. Then he published some articles accusing Tom Paine, of all people, of treason. On July 29, a mob headed by a rabid patriot, artist Charles Wilson Peale, dragged Towne before a meeting of radicals. A noose was put around Towne's neck, and it was suggested that he reveal the author of the anti-Paine articles. Towne happily named Whitehead Humphreys.

     The mob released Towne and marched to Humphreys' house. He was out. The patriots bopped Humphreys' sister on the head with a club, and then waited for him outside. He arrived and fought his way into the house, swinging his cane. He aimed a musket at his visitors from an upstairs window. The mob lost interest and left.

      Humphreys was later tried by a committee gathered at Bradford's Coffee House, and let go on the grounds that freedom of the press should not be restrained.

     In September of 1780, Benjamin Towne advertised for "boys and men willing to hawk this paper," when most newspapers were sold only by subscription. He announced that his Post, then tri -weekly, would be published daily in the spring of 1783, and some historians cite it as America's first daily. But Towne really didn't manage to get out an edition every day, and the Post folded in 1784. In that same year, John Dunlap's Packet went daily, and was the first consistent and successful daily newspaper.

     Towne wasn't the only colonial Philadelphia publisher to have run-ins with angry readers. Hugh Henry Brackenridge had a similar experience. Two magazines were published in Philadelphia during the Revolution. One was the Pennsylvania Magazine, printed by Thomas Aitken, and edited and partially written by Tom Paine. (Serious historians have had the taste to refrain from pointing out the apt partnership of Aitken and Paine.)

     The other magazine was the United States Magazine, founded in 1779 after the Pennsylvania Magazine folded. Its editor was Brackenridge. Brackenridge antagonized Gen. Charles Lee, the fiery former British officer turned American general. He criticized Lee's conduct on the field at the Battle of Monmouth, N. J., for which the general was court-martialed.

     Worse, he printed a sexy letter Gen. Lee sent to Becky Franks, one of the belles of Philadelphia society no matter which army's officers were in town. Lee attended a ball wearing a new kind of riding breeches, with a broad leather insert on the inside of the legs. Miss Franks giggled and told everyone that Lee was wearing patched britches.

     Later, Lee sent her the breeches for her examination, and concluded his accompanying note with a challenge to a suggestive-sounding "duel." "You have already injured me in the tenderest part," wrote Lee, "and I demand satisfaction. I insist on the privilege of the injured party, which is to name his hour and weapons: and as I intend it to be a very serious affair, I will not admit of any second: and you may depend upon it, Miss Franks, that whatever may be your spirit upon the occasion, the world shall never accuse General Lee with having turned his back upon you. . ."

     Brackenridge got hold of a copy of the letter and published it. The New York Tory newspapers picked it up with delight. Lee and his aides went to the magazine office with blood in their eyes, and banged on the door. Brackenridge looked out an upstairs window.

     "Come down," yelled Lee, "and I'll give you as good a horse-whipping as any rascal ever received!" "Excuse me, general," said Brackenridge. "I would not go down for two such favors." And he calmly closed the window.

     Brackenridge was mild and studious, a licensed Presbyterian preacher. He was the exact opposite of rival magazine writer Tom Paine, a boisterous atheist. Aitken, the publisher, once reported that Paine never worked without a decanter of brandy at his elbow. "The first glass put him in a train for thinking," wrote Aitken. "The second I feared would disqualify or render him intractable, but only illuminated his intellectual system; and when he had swallowed the third glass, he wrote with great rapidity, intelligence and precision. . ."

     But, to the original question: how did Philadelphia newspapers cover the Revolution? Let's examine the coverage the Gazette gave to some of the momentous events in American history.

     "The shot heard round the world" was fired at Lexington, Mass., on April 19, 1775. The Gazette's next issue was Wednesday, April 26. Page one devoted two of its three columns to advertising. The left hand column had an article, which jumped to the last of the four pages, discussing Benjamin Franklin's 1754 plan to unite the colonies. Page two was mostly foreign news. The first story in the first column, dated Florence, Italy, Feb. 18, was of the election of Pope Pius VI. There were February items from London and Cork, and some routine news from Boston dated April 17. Page three led off with the election of New York delegates to the Continental Congress.

     Halfway down that first column, headed, "Philadelphia, April 26," the big news finally began: "On Monday evening last an express arrived here from New York, by whom we have the following advices. "Watertown, Wednesday morning, near 10 of the clock. "To all Friends of American Liberty, be it known, that this Morning before Break of Day, a Brigade consisting of about 1,000 or 1,200 Men landed at Phipps Farm, at Cambridge, and marched to Lexington, where they found a Company of our Colonial Militia in Arms, upon whom they fired without any Provocation, and killed 6 Men, and wounded 4 more."

     The article continues with sketchy reports brought by relay of horsemen from Massachusetts, and also two letters on the subject. Then the Gazette launched into nearly a column of London news from January, February and March. Month-old European news was considered the latest in 1775.

     Buried at the end of the London news, with no headline or other break to separate it, was this paragraph: "Yesterday, at 3 o'clock in the Afternoon, pursuant to public Notice, there was a Meeting of Near Eight Thousand of the Inhabitants of this City, to consider of the Measure to be pursued in the present critical Situation of the Affairs of America. The Business was opened with several eloquent and patriotic Speeches, and the Company universally agreed to Associate, for the Purpose of defending with ARMS their Property, Liberty and Lives, against all Attempts to deprive them of them."

     That's all. There were 73 lines of London political news, and nine lines devoted to a meeting of 8,000 persons in Philadelphia. None of the "eloquent and patriotic speeches" were quoted. It didn't even mention that the location was outside the State House (Independence Hall.) Perhaps this article epitomizes the reason that 18th century newspaper editors downplayed such local stories. Nearly 20 percent of the population was at that meeting; why tell the readers something everybody already knew?

     Before May 3, the next regular issue, the Gazette distributed two Postscripts, the 18th century equivalent of an "extra." The first was a two-pager, three columns on each page, giving some newly arrived London and New York political news. The second was one page, of two abbreviated columns, bearing three letters from Boston, dated the 19th and 20th, with further details about the battles of Lexington and Concord. For readers who missed the Postscripts, the Gazette ran the same letters in a two-page supplement to the May 3 issue, which also contained a column and a quarter of letters and four and three-quarters columns of advertising.

     On the May 17 issue, column one was ads; the other two columns of page one were affidavits from witnesses and participants of the two battles, printed by order of the Continental Congress. The affidavits jumped to page four, the back page, taking up all of it but two small ads.

     The Gazette gave the Battle of Bunker Hill the same relative treatment. The first report was halfway down the first column of page three, jumbled in with routine military news. But the Gazette's coverage was extensive, compared to Dunlap's Packet. The front page of the April 24 Packet was all advertising, reflecting the springtime season: garden seed, fishing tackle, and horses at stud ("Young Valiant, at 20 shillings the season. . . Any persons that send their Mares may depend upon their being Taken Good Care Of. . .")

     In fairness to the Packet, the first news of Lexington didn't reach Philadelphia until 5 P. M. of publication day. But Dunlap issued no Postscript. And in the next issue, May 1, the start of the war got a bit more than one column on page three. "Philadelphia, May 1" was the heading. "Accounts from Rhode Island respecting the late transaction in Massachusetts Bay, being the substance of several letters arrived at New York, dated April 21, seven o'clock A. M. 1775." Then came the four letters, each beginning, "First account," "Second account" and so on. The Packet gave Bunker Hill the bottom of column two, page three, on June 26, and the same in the next issue, July 3 of '75. Twice as long as the battle news on July 3 was a maudlin elegy to patriot leader Dr. Joseph Warren, killed in the battle. It began: "He's gone -- great Warren's soul from earth is fled; Great Warren's name is numbered with the dead. . ."

     And what about the biggest news story in American history, the Declaration of Independence? The Packet would have had a clear beat on that. John Dunlap was the official printer of the Continental Congress. Thomas Jefferson's final handwritten copy was delivered to Dunlap on July 3, 1776, to be printed for Congress. Dunlap printed it, lost the copy, and let one typo slip through into American history forever -- "unalienable" instead of "inalienable".

     But everybody else beat Dunlap on the news story. He didn't issue an extra, waiting to publish the text of the Declaration in the Packet in his regular July 8 issue, giving it the first two columns of page one. (The top of the third column was a notice to "those Gentlemen indebted for this paper longer than Twelve Months" to pay up, or their subscriptions would be canceled.) At the top of column one, page three, the Packet ran, in larger than normal type, the announcement: "THIS DAY at Twelve o'clock, the DECLARATION of INDEPENDENCE will be PROCLAIMED at the STATE -HOUSE".

     The Gazette had the news first. In its July 3 issue, midway down the third column of page two, wedged between reports of British troop transports at New York and of a Tory mutiny aboard a Philadelphia-owned ship, were four lines: "PHILADELPHIA July 3 "Yesterday the CONTINENTAL CONGRESS declared the UNITED COLONIES FREE and INDEPENDENT STATES". The Gazette led page one in its next week's edition, July 10, with the complete text of the Declaration.

     But guess who beat even Dunlap with the first publication of the complete text? Benjamin Towne, in the Evening Post of July 6.

     The surrender of Gen. Cornwallis at Yorktown and the end of hostilities got only slightly better treatment than the beginning of the Revolution. The Gazette is typical. On Wednesday, Oct. 24, 1781, column three of the second page, tacked on the end of "Extracts of Letters from Camp before York in Virginia", in slightly larger type, leaded out and with white space around it, is the 18th century equivalent of a "fudge" or a "lift": "Early on Monday morning an Express arrived in town, with the agreeable and very important intelligence of Lord Cornwallis and his army having surrendered on the 17th instant. We impatiently await the arrival of His Excellency General Washington's dispatches, particularizing this most interesting event".

     By the time the Gazette was delivered, everybody knew the story. Before dawn Monday, one of the city watchmen, an old German, became an 18th century equivalent of broadcast news by interrupting his usual regularly repeated time checks with the news flash: "Dree o'clock", he would yell, "und Cornvallis is taken!"

     The Oct. 31 Gazette dispensed with all advertising on page one, which was unheard of. The front page, jumping to page two, was all official dispatches from Washington, LaFayette and other officers. The dispatches ran chronologically, starting before the surrender. The real news was finally reached in the middle of column two. The stories jumped to the back page, where were printed the exchange of letters between Washington and Cornwallis, and the articles of capitulation signed by Cornwallis.

     The Nov. 7 issue devoted all of page two to detailed lists of captured troops and materials, down to the last wagoner and drummer, the last cannon sponge and hand grenade. The lists were completely itemized -- five French horns, one cask raisins, etc. At the end of the lists of captured personnel were "80 followers of the army". Since the army consisted of nearly 8,000 men, they must have been fourscore very active young women.