Violence against the Press: Policing the Public Sphere in U.S. History

By John Nerone | Go to book overview

[I]t was my lot to remain with a people who had power in their hands and money in their purses. In this situation it was the part of a wise man to evade the power and possess as much of the money as possible. This I have endeavoured to do.

The printer, he pointed out, was only a medium, not an author: "Alas! Alas! I AM BUT A POOR PRINTER, subjected, by my vocation, to the disagreeable task of bringing into the world the monstrous conceptions of disordered fancies." And so, as a mere mechanic, he printed "tory news, tory lies, and tory essays." Yet he remained virtuous because he kept his press open:

But will anyone say I have refused to publish whig news, whig lies, and whig essays? I challenge all Philadelphia to produce a single writer who ever sent me a whig piece for publication, which I refused or neglected to print.

And ultimately all of this printing caused no harm because the "outrageous lies" that came from Rivington's press were believed only by Tories in London and New York. Honest Americans had too much common sense to take the Royal Gazette seriously, he supposed.

These two antiapologies underscore the impact of the Revolution on press ideology. Patriots lampooned the traditional defenses of printers that they were but passive conveyors of public debate and that they were simply obeying market forces. During the Revolution, a printer who was not a patriot had no right to print; after the Revolution, press conduct could not be justified simply by a printer's claim to being a humble artisan. Printers had acquired the status of opinion leaders and would have to live up to it.

Patriots could be quite unforgiving toward printers who had strayed during the war. Despite the best intentions of responsible political leaders, spasms of anti- Tory violence ran through the states at the close of the war. 205 One of the victims of such violence was James Rivington.

Rivington intended to stay in New York City and continue printing after the war, but New York's radicals objected. In December 1783 he was visited by Isaac Sears, John Lamb, and Marinus Willett, who demanded he abandon his business in New York City. There followed a series of attacks: a beating by Nicholas Cruger on 11 January 1784 in reaction to a wartime aspersion; a nocturnal assault on Rivington's house by Sears and company on 14 January; and a threat to attack again the next day. 206 Rivington gave in. Years later Alexander Hamilton recalled that a movement in the state legislature to "discountenance" these actions was stymied by Sears, Lamb, and Willett, all of whom had just been elected to the Assembly. 207 Treatment of loyalists was a partisan issue, with the left wing of New York's Revolutionary leadership seeking revenge, urging intolerance.


Conclusion

The practices of the Revolution included the suppression of unpopular ideas. Loyalism was clearly beyond the boundaries of acceptable printed discourse. Other

-50-

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Violence against the Press: Policing the Public Sphere in U.S. History
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Acknowledgments v
  • Contents vii
  • 1 - Introduction 3
  • 2 - The Press and the American Revolution 18
  • Conclusion 50
  • 3 - Antipress Violence and Politics in the Early Republic 53
  • 4 - The Crusade Against Abolitionism 84
  • Conclusion 110
  • 5 - The Civil War and Civil Liberties 111
  • Conclusion 126
  • 6 - Violence and Minority Media 128
  • Conclusion 163
  • 7 - Labor-Related Violence 165
  • Conclusion 195
  • 8 - Recent Violence Against the Mainstream Press 196
  • Conclusion 211
  • 9 - Conclusion 213
  • Appendix A - Survey Questionnaire 219
  • Appendix B - The Flow of Antiabolitionist Violence 221
  • Notes 231
  • Index 293
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