Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite: The American Revolution & the European Response

By Charles W. Toth | Go to book overview
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The student of the American Revolution who cares to lift his or her eyes away from the colonial scene is often surprised by the objectivity of English newspapers. And this was true not only on the eve of the Revolution, but during a good part of the war for independence. It was only after England again went to war with France in 1778 that sthe colonies lost some of the valuable support which resulted from this objectivity. As the historian, Edward Gibbon, perhaps expressed it best with the remark that "I thought there was no disgrace in becoming the advocate of my country against a foreign enemy."

Every important paper in England published letters on the front page, largely reflecting the opinions of men in public life, and mostly signed with Roman pseudonyms. Lacking the editorial so familiar today, these letters were practically the only expressions of opinion to appear in the English newspaper during this age (and much quoted in America). Indeed the letter remained a characteristic feature of English journalism during the entire revolutionary period.

Among the most prominent and, perhaps, the most impartial was H. S. Woodfall Public Advertizer. According to the Cambridge History of English Literature, "merit and immunity from the law of libel were the only conditions exacted." The fact that during this period so much of the opinion was favorable toward the colonies is a matter of considerable significance, although it must be understood that frequently pro-American feeling was simply a vehicle used by political factions in conflict over largely English issues.

In the decade preceding the Declaration of Independence the newspapers fell far short of general interest in colonial grievances. The Stamp Act of 1765 was the exception for, after all, it was the first important contest with respect to the constitutionality of English policy. The response to the Boston Tea Party, however, opened a new chapter in the British press which did not subside until England went to war again with France in 1778. The numerous letters published during this period suggest that pro-American sympathy largely represented anti-ministerial feeling and Whig reaction to "monarchical oppression." Indeed the "outs" in English political life found in the American cause a potent means to express domestic discontent; thus

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