In early 2017, the Washington Post debuted a new masthead with the motto “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” At about the same time, the New York Times announced a new advertising slogan: “The truth is more important now than ever.” With their new slogans, these papers hoped to renew their commitments to the value of truth and fearless journalism. Whether they knew it or not, they were joining a long lineage of newspapers that printed pithy mottoes in response to an era of rapid political change.
The American Revolution was one such era. The imperial crisis of the 1760s and 1770s, the war of the 1770s and 1780s, and the challenges of the new republic during the 1780s and 1790s each posed important questions about the press’s role in society. Some of these questions were quite practical: should American newspapers continue to reprint most of their news from London papers, especially those that (for Patriots at least) had become objects of suspicion? Other questions were more profound: should papers offer a balanced and impartial perspective? Should they pursue truth at all costs? Who should determine what that truth was in the first place?
From the 1760s through the 1790s, American printers answered these questions, in part, through their mastheads. A masthead, printed at the top of the front page, described the essential information about a newspaper: its name, price, publisher, and its location. For many years, there was little other information available to readers in mastheads. If newspapers printed mottoes they were often formulaic, inherited from London papers. But in the era of the revolution, printers often began to use their mastheads to locate their papers’ positions on a broader landscape of culture and politics. They did this by inserting a motto (sometimes more than one) just below the paper’s name, to describe its printer’s purpose or ambition. Sometimes, printers accompanied these mottoes with woodcut images that complemented or extended the points raised by the motto.
Printers in revolutionary America could often be tight-lipped about their changing expectations about the role of the press in society. They only occasionally inserted a paragraph in their paper discussing their evolving vision of their newspaper. But they regularly communicated about this through mastheads and mottoes. Despite this, scholars of the American Revolution and its print culture have largely ignored them. There has been no systematic study of newspaper mastheads in revolutionary America. In recent years, the advent of digital databases has made it possible to amass a large collection of newspaper mottoes, and to investigate the circumstances surrounding them. Examining these mottoes, and how they changed in the late eighteenth century, can help us to understand how newspapers, and popular expectations surrounding them, evolved over time.
Mastheads before the Imperial Crisis
When he looked back on the eighteenth century, Presbyterian minister and intellectual Samuel Miller derided the newspapers published in North America during the early part of the century for being “confined, in general, to the mere statement of facts.” Yet even this rebuke probably overstated the sophistication of these papers. Most newspapers from that era did not even claim to print facts. Rather, they simply shared news as it came to them, without making much (if any) effort at verification.
Newspaper mastheads reflected this indifferent attitude. They were most notable for the absences that they contained. The vast majority of mastheads lacked woodcut images, fancy fonts, or any mottoes at all. Just as their columns simply announced the news without justification or explanation, so did these papers’ mastheads announce the paper’s name without explaining its purpose. These absences signaled the lack of an editorial purpose. They were not aiming to convince anyone of anything. They weren’t trying to offer truth or even to interpret the news. They didn’t claim that the information they provided would be important, entertaining, or even worthwhile. They were merely passing along information, much as a friend shares a rumor.
It was only in the 1740s that it became common for North American newspaper mastheads to include mottoes. But mid-century newspaper mottoes were rather dull. Printers relied almost exclusively on two mottoes; in fact, the first was perhaps less a motto than a warning. It asserted that the paper was “Published by Authority.” This claim was derived from the venerable London Gazette, the oldest and most widely-circulating newspaper in the Anglophone world. When North American papers published this claim, it suggested that they had a relationship with the colonial government. In some cases, papers that claimed to be “Published by Authority” may have been subject to prior restraint from imperial officials. Indeed, printer John Campbell noted in the masthead of the Boston News-Letter, the first long-running newspaper in North America, that it was “Published by Authority.” When he described his weekly process of putting together the News-Letter, Campbell noted that he brought “what is Collected” to the colony’s officials, for their “approbation.” But this degree of inspection and interference may not have been typical. In other colonies, the label of “Authority” likely only indicated that the colony’s government had chosen this press as its preferred publication outlet.
In the late 1730s and 1740s, another motto became more prominent: “Containing the Freshest Advices, Foreign and Domestick.” Some variants of this motto also circulated, promising the “most Remarkable Occurrences, Foreign & Domestick,” for example. Also derived from English precedents, this motto promised a speedy delivery, which would be valuable to an audience of mariners and merchants whose business relied on the “freshest” information. By the 1750s and early 1760s, every North American newspaper that printed a motto (between half and two-thirds of all papers, depending on the year) used this formulation.
As their reliance on these two mottoes demonstrates, colonial Anglo-American newspapers made strikingly little effort to differentiate themselves from other newspapers. This was likely due, in part, to the lack of competition among papers. There were relatively few newspapers in this era, and seldom more than two in a particular city. Creating a distinctive “brand” was therefore unnecessary. Additionally, use of these familiar mottoes was probably related to printers’ incentives to conform to government orthodoxy. By associating themselves with “Authority,” newspapers implicitly promised to avoid controversy or criticism of the British government. By passing along the “Freshest Advices,” printers implied that they would uncritically import their news, and indeed their truths, from Britain—a circumstance that would have likewise appealed to colonial administrators.
The American Revolution and Mastheads
This all began to change as the earliest stages of what would become the American Revolution erupted. The Stamp Act crisis of 1765–1766 and the broader imperial crisis that followed it compelled many printers to reorient their papers’ missions, and therefore to reconsider their mottoes. During the late 1760s and early 1770s, about a fifth of newspapers using mottoes gave up on the “Freshest Advices” template. This change was most abrupt, though, during the war itself. In 1776, when the Continental Congress declared independence, about eight-five percent of newspaper mottoes promised to provide their readers with the “Freshest Advices.” In 1783, when the war formally concluded, only a fifth of mottoes did so.
The Williamsburg Virginia Gazette seems to have been the first American newspaper to adopt a different motto. William Rind founded it as a more adventurous alternative to the identically-titled, government-friendly Virginia Gazette published by Joseph Royle, which had pointedly refused to publish anything that might give “Offence to the Legislature.” In May 1766, Rind chose the motto “Open to All Parties, but Influenced by None” for his paper. He likely copied this motto from the London Public Ledger, a newspaper that was (at least for the moment) more sympathetic to the American colonists’ complaints than many newspapers aligned with the British ministry. In his first issue, Rind projected his paper as a check against the “intemperate Effusions of factious Zealots” and declared that he would “reject every Proposition to make our Paper a Vehicle for the dark purposes of private Malice.”
Yet even in his claims to independence, Rind positioned himself an arbiter of what constituted “intemperate Effusions” or “private Malice.” As his editorial choices quickly made clear, he viewed Loyalist and pro-ministry thought as the illegitimate product of party, and protesting Whig arguments to be in the legitimate mainstream. Indeed, the very first article that he printed was an account of a meeting protesting the Stamp Act, which its contributor had introduced as a means for Rind to “give an early Instance of your Determination to preserve the freedom of your press.” In this rendering, Rind’s promise to be “Open to All Parties, but Influenced by None” did not indicate that he would be neutral or balanced, as one might expect, but rather that he would provide an outlet for dissent in contrast to other newspapers that had been influenced by the government. As an essayist calling himself “A Constant Customer” wrote to a rival paper, claiming that Rind’s “weekly declaration that he is influenced by no body” was an “easy screen,” because he could always simply claim that he lacked space to print anything he didn’t wish to print.
During the 1760s and 1770s, several other Patriot newspapers, such as the Massachusetts Spy, the New-York Chronicle, and the Connecticut Courant, followed Rind’s lead by adopting some variation of the motto “Open to All Parties, and Influenced by None.” By taking this new motto, these papers configured their lack of bias or influence in opposition to the apparently-biased papers that remained loyal to the colonial government. The Philadelphia Freeman’s Journal, first published in 1781, supplemented this motto with an image of a blindfolded figure of Justice, holding a balance in one hand and a sword in the other.
Viewing their politics as unbiased, Patriot printers sometimes imagined that Loyalist and government-friendly publications were therefore “partial” or partisan. In the spring of 1774, for example, Loyalist printer James Rivington adopted the motto “Printed at his Ever Open and Uninfluenced Press” for his newspaper. Far more than most of the Patriot printers that took on similar mottoes, in the mid-1770s Rivington actually did print material from multiple sources and points of view. Yet only a few months after he affixed this motto to his masthead, Rivington faced a backlash from a group of Baltimore subscribers who protested his paper’s printing choices. Because they disagreed with many of the “political publications” in Rivington’s paper, they pulled their subscriptions. They specifically noted what they saw as the hypocrisy of Rivington’s claims to being open and uninfluenced: “The motto to your paper beguiled us, and induced us to suppose you, really, an impartial printer.” What these subscribers wanted, it appeared, was less an open press and more a press that was uninfluenced by their political adversaries.
Many printers did not even adopt a pretense of impartiality. During the war, a number of Patriot newspapers signaled their devotion to the colonial resistance through their mastheads. The Massachusetts Spy changed its masthead frequently during the war, using mottos such as “Undaunted by Tyrants We’ll Die or be Free,” “Unanimity at Home, and Bravery and Perseverance in the Field, will secure the Independence of America,” and “The Entire Prosperity of a Virtuous, Free and United People, shall extirpate Tyranny, and establish Liberty and Peace.”The Independent Ledger changed its masthead to include an image of thirteen arms extended toward a central heart, with the motto “All Hands with One Inflamed Enlightened Heart.” Likewise, the newly-founded Boston Independent Chronicle added an image to its masthead in late 1776 that depicted a figure with a sword and a piece of parchment marked “Independence” along with the text, “Appeal to Heaven.”
As they adopted increasingly assertive mottoes, Patriot printers positioned themselves as mediators of news from around the world. Instead of simply repeating news from London presses, and thereby allowing London to shape their own view of the world, Patriot printers came to argue that they should be the ones to determine what was, and was not, true. Patriot printer Isaiah Thomas, for example, inserted into his Massachusetts Spy masthead an image of two children selecting flowers from a basket with the text “They Cull the Choicest.” The implication was that the Spy would publish the most important, relevant, and truthful—the “choicest”—essays, information, and news available.
Other printers’ mastheads expressed their selectiveness in subtler ways. During and after the Stamp Act crisis, a number of protesting printers inserted the phrase “and most important” into the traditional “Freshest Advices” motto, so that it read “Containing the Freshest and most important Advices, Foreign and Domestic” (emphasis added). The Portsmouth Mercury and Weekly Advertiser, founded by opponents of the Stamp Act who were dissatisfied with the New Hampshire Gazette’s temporizing, was among the first to adopt this form. The connection between the imperial crisis and this new motto was also especially obvious in the case of the vehemently anti-Stamp Tax newspaper the Boston Evening-Post, which updated its masthead in late 1765 to include not only a reference to the “most important Advices,” but also, simultaneously, a second motto that read, “The united Voice of all his Majesty’s free and loyal Subjects in america,—liberty and property and no Stamps.”
Once the war ended, printers began to emphasize not only their selectiveness, but also their ability to provide their readers with the truth. The Pennsylvania Mercury and Weekly Advertiser’s masthead, for example, invoked a phrase from Juvenal about a man who would “devote his life to the truth.” The Delaware Gazette quoted a line from Alexander Pope: “All, All But Truth, Drops Dead-Born from the Press.” Finally, the New-York Journal and State Gazette quoted from Scottish poet James Thompson, “Here Truth Unlicens’d reigns; and dares accost even Kings themselves, or Rulers of the Free!” These promises positioned the printer as a filter to restrict the falsehoods that newspapers inevitably encountered.
Many Americans viewed these mottoes as a significant part of the newspaper. Some readers treated them as a kind of contract between a printer and his or her audience. As Rivington had found, some readers might cancel their subscription if they found that a printer was not fulfilling the terms of his motto. But others directed their comments, essays, and information toward newspapers that claimed to be “unbiased.” Those who claimed to be “unbiased,” through mottoes such as “Open to All Parties, But Influenced By None,” (or variants) faced particular pressure. One contributor to the Massachusetts Centinel, for example, simply prefaced an essay with the note, “As your motto is ‘Uninfluenced by Party’ you are requested to insert the following.” Likewise, Peter Edes, printer of the Newport Herald, explained that he would continue to publish controversial pieces by pointing out that he had committed to this through the Herald’s motto, “It is to Contradiction, Consequently to the Liberty of the Press, That Physics, Morality and Politics, Owe Their Improvements.”
These new mottoes established a kind of “brand” for newspapers. One needed only glance at some of them to know where they stood. In this way, mottoes are an underappreciated aspect of the movement toward political, and then partisan, newspapers in late eighteenth-century America. For newspaper consumers, especially those who lived outside of cities or those engaging with papers from far away, a particular paper’s political commitments might be somewhat mysterious. But there was nothing mysterious about the Greenfield Gazette’s sympathies after it changed its motto in late 1798 from “An Impartial Register of the Times” to “A Register of Genuine Federalism.” Francis Barker, the new editor of the Greenfield Gazette who altered the motto, explained his editorial direction by arguing that printers who spread “error” were a “pestilence to society.” He went on to explain that he would devote his paper to the “propagation of federal principles.” Politics was, and is, after all, partly a contest over what is truth and what is error.
Indeed, the American Revolution itself was in some way a contest over truth and who got to determine what was true. Most famously, in the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress proclaimed a series of lofty (if ultimately hollow) “self-evident truths.” In the same way, American printers and readers sought to define the truth or falsity of more mundane matters: a letter from Paris, a ship captain’s story, or a news paragraph from London. In their mastheads and mottoes, American printers signaled their intention to move away from copying English precedents. With these new mottoes, printers committed themselves to the idea that Americans—both readers and printers—would not inherit truth from abroad, but would instead decide for themselves what was true in America.
For example, the most important recent work on revolutionary newspapers by Robert Parkinson appears to only mention mottoes once in passing. See Robert G. Parkinson, The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 694. Arthur Schlesinger’s classic work on newspapers in the revolutionary era does mention mottoes several times, but does not engage with them in any kind of systematic way. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Prelude to Independence: The Newspaper War on Britain, 1764–1776 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1958).
John Camm, A single and distinct view of the act, vulgarly entitled, the Two-penny act (Annapolis, 1763), 47. Thomas K. Ford and Park Rouse, The Printer in Eighteenth-century Williamsburg: An Account of His Life & Times, & of His Craft (Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg, 2003), 13.
See London Public Ledger, June 7, 1766. Unfortunately, copies of the Public Ledger between December 31, 1765 and June 7, 1766 have not been preserved. The issue numerations suggest that this was not a gap of production, but of preservation. As a result, it is unclear when the first issue appeared with that motto. Although I am unable to locate evidence that the motto appeared in the Public Ledger before it appeared in the Virginia Gazette, it is a fairly safe assumption. According to Robert R. Bataille, the Public Ledger’s motto was widely noticed and even inspired some comment among contemporaries. See Robert R. Bataille, “Hugh Kelly, William Jackson, and the Editorship of the Public Ledger,”Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 79 (no. 4, 1985), 523.
The Portsmouth Mercury and Weekly Advertiser does not appear in the America’s Historical Newspapers database, but I have included it in my data. See Charles Evans, American Bibliography, vol. 4: 1765–1773 (Chicago: Blakely Press, 1907), 33; John Farmer and J. B. Moore, eds., Collections, Historical and Miscellaneous; and Monthly Literary Journal, vol. 3 (Concord, NH: J. B. Moore, 1824), 240.
Boston Evening-Post, November 18, 1765; New-York Gazette, September 16, 1765. Connecticut Courant, November 6, 1770. Note also that in an editorial in 1767, the printer of the Pennsylvania Chronicle expressed a desire for his paper to “contain the freshest and most important Advices.” See Pennsylvania Chronicle, and Universal Advertiser, July 11, 1767.
The Latin phrase “Civis erat qui libera posset / Verba animi proferre, et vitam impendere vero. — Juvenal” appears in the masthead of the Pennsylvania Mercury and Weekly Advertiser. It roughly translates to “He was a citizen who would swim against the torrent, make his opinions known, and devote his life to the truth.” See first instance in Pennsylvania Mercury and Weekly Advertiser, November 4, 1784.