The News Media and the Making of America, 1730-1865

Prelude to Revolution

The Halifax Gazette, or The Weekly Advertiser

The Halifax Gazette for February 6-13,1766, showing a devil woodcut stabbing the stamp

Debates about imperial issues roiled the colonies in the decade before the first shots of the Revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord. But the documents that reflect those debates are often more about news than about argumentation. That is, they are about events and how those events were reported and used for political organizing. The buildup to war and revolution involved an interplay between popular politics and elite politics, between street culture and print culture. Protests against the Stamp Act of 1765, for example, appeared as reasoned arguments in pamphlets and newspaper essays, but they also took the form of mob actions in the streets of American cities. These events in turn became items in newspapers and broadsides that circulated locally and in other towns and colonies—and sometimes sparked new protests there. In other words, events made news, and news made events. This is the symbiosis of news and politics.

The Stamp Act, often viewed as the beginning of the imperial crisis, indicates the importance of printed media in the colonies, for while this piece of British legislation impacted many classes of people, including merchants and those in the legal community, it hit printers hardest. Every aspect of the printing business—from paper to the advertisements that appeared in newspapers and even apprenticeships—was subject to taxes and fees that had the potential to cripple any American printing establishment. As a result, printers were uniformly opposed to the legislation and frequently and consistently lambasted it in the materials they produced. Before the passage of this legislation, printers often attempted to remain politically neutral as they sought to please all potential customers and patrons, including their subscribers, advertisers, and their colony’s royal government. But the Stamp Act forced them to rebel against Parliament and its policies. The repeal of the Stamp Act in early 1766 only served to embolden many printers’ opposition to the Crown and they continued to advocate for American rights throughout the imperial crisis and during the war.