Propaganda was important during the Revolution. What is your favorite propaganda item? Why?
My favorite is Tom Paine’s “These are the times that try men’s souls.” It’s infinitely better than his Common Sense, the last third of which, with its blabber about the British being easy to defeat, should be subtitled Common Nonsense.
The Declaration of Independence is the most important for many reasons. It is perfect propaganda because it is short, simple, blunt, and one-sided. It is so full of social booby traps that you have to wonder to just which revolution it belongs. It challenges us to be just in ways that the Constitution never does.
The Declaration of Independence. “All men are created equal,” indeed, which conveniently ignored slaves. It also condemned the British for inciting “merciless Indian savages,” ignoring how the American rebels themselves tried hard to incite them against the British and American loyalists. Fortunately, the Declaration’s high standards eventually supported abolition, universal suffrage, civil liberties, and the civil rights movement.
I like the tale of how Banastre Tarleton allegedly dug up the grave of South Carolina militia colonel Richard Richardson in 1780, with the general’s widow present. Tarleton is supposed to have said he wanted to look at the face of a brave man, but Americans said that he was looking for the Richardson family’s silver. It’s a great story illustrating British greed and cruelty, but it never happened. Shortly after Tarleton and his troops’ visit to the plantation, South Carolina governor John Rutledge wrote a letter decrying the way that Tarleton’s men ransacked the plantation. Rutledge wrote that the British claimed to be seeking the recently deceased Richardson, but that if they really wanted to find him all they would have had to do was dig up his grave near the front door. Somehow this was transmuted into a grave-robbing incident, one of the many false charges against Tarleton that motivated Americans to continue resisting the British occupation of South Carolina.
Common Sense. Because it worked!
A political graphic printed in London at the beginning of the Revolution, The Scotch Butchery (1775) portrays Scottish soldier burning Boston as their liberty-loving English comrades look on in horror. The graphic reflects the deep unease in Anglo-American society at the role of Scottish soldiers and politicians in the British Empire. It is a wonderful source because it serves to remind us that liberty in the revolutionary era had a darker side – antipathy towards the Scots was widespread and the anti-Catholic undertones of the graphic reminds us of the bigotry that sometimes went hand in hand with the language of liberty.
Rebel leadership effectively utilized widespread fear of slave insurrection, especially following Dunmore’s Proclamation, to mobilize if not support for their own cause, distrust of the British. In short the result of British flirtations with employing slaves/free blacks, drove many southerners toward independence.
General William Tryon (former governor of North Carolina and New York) helped lead an incendiary expedition through the Saw Mill Valley in November 1777. The raid prompted a heated exchange between General Samuel H. Parsons and Tryon, which was reprinted in several newspapers. Under the pseudonym “Hortensius,” Governor William Livingston of New Jersey added his own retort on March 18, 1778. Livingston called Tryon “Major-General Firebrand” and “good Master Combustion.” He concluded, “‘charging the firing of New-York upon the inhabitants, whose interest it was to save it, is such a complication of cruelty and falsehood, as is rather to be detested in silence than capable of being expressed in words.’’ In truth American sympathizers probably had been responsible for torching a sixth of New York City on September 21, 1776. Livingston’s biographer called him “the most effective war propagandist on the colonial side.”
It might strike people as odd that a cartoon published 20 years before the first shots at Lexington and Concord would be the most important piece of American Revolutionary War propaganda. However, Ben Franklin’s image of a rattlesnake became the enduring metaphor for the 13 colonies to unite to win their independence from Great Britain during the Revolution. It does not matter that both Georgia and Delaware were omitted and the New England states were merged together!
This iconic image simply depicts the reason why the colonies must unite and work together. It was published and republished by newspapers throughout the war. As a testament to its lasting message, the cartoon continued to be adapted through the American Civil War. Today, it is commonly republished as illustrated on the home page of the Journal of the American Revolution!
Had there been an Abraham Zapruder armed with a motion picture camera on Lexington Green on April 19, 1775, we might know precisely what occurred when the first shot was fired in the Revolutionary War. But we will never know if that shot was fired accidentally, whether it was fired by British soldiers following orders, or as some alleged if it was fired by a colonist in hiding. What is known is that soon after that historic day the Massachusetts Committee of Safety deposed witnesses of the bloody event, from which it cobbled together an account showing that the regulars opened fire after being commanded to “Fire, by God, Fire.” That account circulated before the official British report was published. In a day when knowledge of who fired the first shot to launch a war was still important, the Massachusetts radicals had scored a propaganda master stroke.
My favorite propaganda item is more in the category of misinformation than propaganda: Washington’s June 1780 proclamation to the Canadians. Planning for a combined Franco-American attack on New York City, Washington and Lafayette intended the proclamation only to deceive Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander in chief, as to the allies’ true objective. Washington sent a draft of the proclamation, which hinted that an allied invasion of Canada was imminent, to Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold in Philadelphia to have it printed in secret. Though Washington was unaware that Arnold was then negotiating with Clinton for the price of his defection, the American commander did not inform Arnold of the proclamation’s true purpose. Arnold, believing he now knew of a secret allied plan to invade Canada, immediately passed the information to his British confidants in New York. Thus, the soon-to-be traitor actually helped Washington in his misinformation campaign.
The mezzotint by Philip Dawe, A Society of Patriotic Ladies at Edenton in North Carolina (London, 1775) always makes me laugh. It’s a satirical print that mocks the ladies of Edenton who had signed on with the Continental Congress’s 1774 boycott of British goods. The women look hideous. They look easily seduced, or eager to be. They seem neglectful of house and home. A woman drinks from a punch bowl. A child spills a tray while a dog urinates on the carpet. Not only does it show how many British people questioned women’s active involvement in the non-importation movement, it does so in an almost comical way.
Colonel Benjamin Church, the boisterous soldier whose hunting party located and killed Metacomet in 1676 thus ending “King Philip’s War,” published his story (“The History of King Philip’s War“) in 1716, when he was 77 years old. A second edition was released in 1772, which seemed to have been immensely popular with colonists who, by the time of publication, had already experienced the Stamp Act and the Boston Massacre. This edition also included engravings done by Paul Revere himself. In the wake of Church’s reprint, William Hubbard’s text (“A Narrative of the Indian Wars in New England“) was also renewed for another edition in 1775, within a month of Bunker Hill. It can easily be imagined why this harrowing tale of a collection of colonies uniting under the common goal of denouncing a “monarch’ would strike a chord with the public during the Revolution.
After the shooting on King Street on 5 March 1770, the town of Boston commissioned a report titled A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre. It offered a detailed description of the Boston Massacre by James Bowdoin, Dr. Joseph Warren, and Samuel Pemberton, but the booklet’s major value comes from its appendix: scores of eyewitness accounts of that shooting and the events that led up to it. The collection is one-sided, of course, but it’s also a very useful historical source.
What’s more, the Short Narrative inspired responses from the Crown government: a pamphlet published in London titled A Fair Account of the Late Unhappy Disturbance at Boston, containing other eyewitness accounts, and a stack of depositions (still unpublished) from British soldiers testifying about their bad experiences in Boston in 1768-70. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s report on the shooting at Lexington and Concord in 1775 looks like an attempt to replicate the effect of the Short Narrative. All those publications gave us more eyewitness accounts to work with.
The Short Narrative reflected a conviction that the most convincing propaganda wasn’t just a political argument or inflammatory rhetoric but sworn testimony from individual people about what they had experienced.
In the opening dark days of 1776 when it looked like the cause was running out of steam, Thomas Paine’s treasonous pamphlet Common Sense came upon the scene. It quickly became a huge best seller and my favorite propaganda item of the entire RevWar. The language in the pamphlet was written for the common man to understand and was an early empowering wake-up call to regular people that they didn’t need a king at all. And particularly not “an ass” like King George III. Common Sense told everyone that they weren’t just rabble riff-raff, that they had the ability to run their own lives and to pick their own form of elected government. This concept was very… revolutionary! “We have it in our power to begin the world over again” are still powerful words to this day.
I like the liberty pole best. It was a simple log stuck upright into the ground, but with its symbolism, it drove British officers and soldiers alike crazy.
Newspapers. Many of the era’s most popular propaganda pieces — Common Sense, American Crisis, Declaration of Independence, A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre, the “Join/Unite or Die” rattlesnake, etc. — first appeared, were widely republished or actively promoted in newspapers. As the only mass media of the day, newspapers were the No. 1 propaganda tool of the war. Political and military leadership knew it.
While the Revolutionary writers of essays and news often earned celebrity status for their name-calling, fear mongering and enemy demonizing tactics, those working the press were equally important. Through the strategic selection and placement of news (typically excerpts of private correspondence or oral intelligence), essays, and advertisements, colonial newspaper printers were just as dangerous throughout the Revolution as those with fingers on triggers. “A newspaper in South Carolina in the present state of their affairs would be equal to at least two regiments,” wrote Benjamin Rush to Nathanael Greene, September 4, 1781.
Many scholars today are on record as saying “without newspapers, there would have been no American Revolution,” so I think newspapers are hands down the most important propaganda of the era and why I’ve concentrated my research and writing on them.
A Circumstantial Account of an Attack that happened on the 19th April, 1775. There is a copy in the Massachusetts Historical Society that was moved from the Dr. Joseph Warren MSS to the large broadsides files, and that detail seems to have been unnoticed by most. Near where it describes the Americans fired first, Warren penned in a footnote mark, “╫”, then at the bottom added his own note: “╫ the People say the Troops fired first & I believe they did”. You can see this actual copy, footnote and all, at masshist.org (but the website fails to ID the footnote as that of Warren).
Philip Dawe’s, “The Bostonians Playing the Excise-man, or Tarring and Feathering” (1774). This colorful print portrays the violence of the American Revolution. It reminds me how violent the Patriots could be. In this image, the Patriot mob has tarred and feathered the tax collector and hauled him to their liberty tree, where they force him to consume tea. The noose in the background serves as a reminder of what the Patriots might do to anyone who opposed their view of liberty.
It’s hard to deny the importance of Paul Revere’s woodcut of the Boston Massacre. However, I would argue that just as important was the reprinting of accounts of Stamp Act riots, particularly a broadside from November 1765 often referred to by its title “No Stampt Paper to be had.” The reason this broadside is important is because it is an excellent example of a larger development that was crucial in terms of propaganda, i.e., the rapid circulation of news of resistance from one colony to another. The impact of the press cannot be underestimated. It not only made it possible for colonists in Connecticut to resist against stamp collectors after reading reports of what had happened in New England, but it also contributed to a sense that this was an intercolonial struggle, one in which all the colonies had a stake. And that sense was, in turn, crucial to both the success of the nonimportation and non-exportation boycotts later in the decade and the response by the colonies to Massachusetts following the Coercive Acts.
I was tempted to argue for Paine’s Common Sense, but that misses the point a bit as it isn’t my favorite. It’s the most important, true. It turned the hearts and minds of countless numbers of common Americans into proponents for independence. But it’s a mess of a pamphlet and so completely misrepresents the reality of the British Constitution that just thinking about it makes my heart hurt. My favorite propaganda item is Henry Clinton’s Philipsburg Proclamation of 1779. It problematizes our notion of “propaganda,” because it appears to have been issued in all sincerity as a maneuver to undermine the labor force of the patriots by denying planters in the north and south their enslaved population. Just like Dunmore’s Proclamation in 1775, it appears more a tactical, cynical manipulation of the economic situation at the time. But the language shows it to be more than that. Whereas Dunmore, a slaveowner himself, could not have cared less about the fate of the people whom he owned or to whom he offered freedom in 1775, Clinton made it continental British policy that no one could claim a right to any person behind British lines. And it made no distinction as to gender or to occupation–if you were in British territory, your life was yours and you could choose what to do with it. It gave thousands of enslaved men and women a promise of liberty perhaps more tangible and potent than anything written by Thomas Jefferson and, however imperfect, as Simon Schama has nicely written, it was proven real by the enforcement of it at the end of the conflict in 1783. It’s my favorite because of the historical paradox: the British followed through on their promise of freedom long before the Americans did.