The Press and The American Revolution

How Did The Press Effect The American Revolution?

The American Revolution, and the conflicts leading to it, as well as the press’s coverage, influence, and impact on the events, is a crucial time in American history. Not only is it important for the founding of “free” American culture, it was also the rise of the American press. Unfortunately, in Rodger Streitmatter’s book, Mightier Than The Sword: How The News Media Have Shaped American History, it is only briefly spoken about, and even than Mr. Streitmatter only talks about its triumphs, which is of course is only half of the battle. In order to truly appreciate the impact that Thomas Paine and Samuel Adams had on American journalism, indeed to be fully informed and a member of the involved public, one needs all possible facts of the story; as one of the foundations of good journalism says, the news must be comprehensive and in proportion.

While Mr. Streitmatter does in fact give an accurate account of what some, members of the early American press were up to, other important aspects are left out. Leading up to, during, and after the American Revolution, the press was not only a powerhouse and force to be reckoned with, but also had the potential to be detrimental to a reporter’s livelihood if he decided to speak out against The Crown. Even after American public opinion started to turn against the ruling British government, there were still many people loyal to “British Crown Rule”. As Binghamton University Professor Robert G. Parkinson brings to light in his article The Impact of The Press on The American Revolution, many lesser known reporters who were in support of Tom Paine’s and Sam Adams’s radical ideas were not as keen to reveal their ire at the British for fear of retaliation by loyalist Americans (Parkinson). If not with death or violence, many early American printers were threatened with the loss of their means of publishing. On the other side, many loyalist papers were also intimidated, in one account, a printer for The New York Packet, Samuel Loudon, dared to publish a pamphlet in response to Tom Paine’s Common Sense; it called the “scheme of independence ruinous and delusive” (Parkinson). When Loudon was summoned by the Mechanics Committee, a radical patriot group, to reveal the name of the pamphlet’s author he refused, and his printing business was shut down, in Loudon’s own words, the men of the committee “nailed and sealed up the printed sheets in boxes, except a few which were drying in an empty house, which they locked, and took the key with them.” He was warned not to publish the pamphlet again or his safety would be in jeopardy. Seen in this light, journalism during the American Revolution, was much more difficult, and in fact triumphant, than Streitmatter lets on. With the whole of events of the revolution taken in account, Tom Paine, the grandfather of modern journalism and revolutionary printer Sam Adams, are seen in a much more revolutionary light.

Another important aspect overlooked by Mr. Streitmatter is the view of the American Revolution through the eyes of the British press. While most Americans saw revolution as the fight for independence, many Britons on the other hand, saw what is equivalent to the current warring status of the Arab Spring and the Middle East. Many British citizens were fearful that the revolution of the Americans would topple their functional order and dismember Britain’s empire by, "inclosing us within the confined seas of England, Ireland, and Scotland", as written in one British pamphlet (Bailyn). Also important to note is that American’s were seen as bullies in the eyes of most Britons, mainly for their treatment of minorities, especially African-Americans. In Taxation No Tyranny, written by influential British writer Samuel Johnson, compiler of the first modern English dictionary, readers are asked how it was "that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes” (Bailyn). Being among the poorly treated minorities, even some of the most powerful Native-American tribes sided with the British and fought against the rebels. So too, did tens of thousands of African-Americans who fled to fight with the king’s forces. Seen in its full light, America’s fight for independence is much more than a few American colonies trying to separate from Britain rule. With all the facts it can be seen as true American Revolution.

Even though Streitmatter talks briefly about Thomas Paine, and does indeed credit him with sowing the seeds of revolution, what is left out is just how attached, and unattached, he was to the American Revolution. Thomas Paine was a radical democrat who hoped for global equality. He was so much in favor of equality that after he wrote his book The Rights of Man in 1791, in which he supported hyper-democratic moods in France and attacked tyrannous England, he had to flee Britain after being indicted for seditious libel, a hanging offense (Hogeland). The revolution that Thomas Paine was so much a part of did not in fact end with any of his ideas. Left out of Mr. Streitmatter’s book, is how Thomas Paine was manipulated by George Washington into helping to him create his own republic. When Paine was arrested in 1792 and thrown in a French prison during the Reign of Terror, he asked Washington for help but was met with only silence and resentment from the man he thought he shared a vision with (Hogeland). Before his death in 1809, he grew to hate Washington and did not return to America for over a decade. It was only after Washington left office that Paine would return to New York where he lived as a sad, broken man, plagued by alcohol and neglect; an enemy to the Republic he was so influential in founding (Hogeland). His funeral was attended by only six people. Like so many great people in history Thomas Paine was largely forgotten about, and Streitmatter does not add much to lift the grandfather of American journalism to his true revolutionary status. A clear lax in journalistic verification. If one intends to write a book on journalistic history, all facts must be presented in order to allow the interested public to full disclosure.

Looking at these ignored details through the journalistic eye, and holding it to the principals of true verification, they are without a doubt imperative to the history of American journalism. After reading Streitmatter’s work, one might be led to believe that all ended well for the main sower of the revolutionary seed, however, as further investigation shows, he did not. It is the discipline of verification that ultimately separates journalism from entertainment, and leaving out important facts from important points in history borders on “infotainment” and possibly even propaganda if it shows people only one side of events. Through further investigation and research, Streitmatter’s work becomes more and more simplified, and loses its essence of verification. Journalism should be comprehensive, however, Streitmatter’s work falls below the standards of verification, as it is certainly oversimplified and incomprehensive, only giving barebones facts aimed more at entertainment, which are not enough to truly appreciate the effect of journalism on the American Revolution.

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