Revolutionary Networks: The Business and Politics of Printing the News, 1763-1789 by Joseph M. Adelman (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019)
An explosion of new media! News editors and writers under attack for their views! Increasing media polarization along partisan lines. Readers expecting the news to be free. Newspapers teetering on the edge of profitability. A synopsis of the news industry today?
No, this is how Joseph M. Adelman describes the business of printing in Revolutionary America in his new book, Revolutionary Networks. He aptly portrays the complex challenges of a fast-growing but risky publishing business that required long hours of heavy manual labor and earned scant profits. Cogently, he contends the oft-repeated assertion that, “in establishing American independence, the pen and the press had merit equal to the sword,” is overly simplistic and was not reflective of broad segments of the eighteenth-century printing industry in America.
Adelman offers an intriguing alternative thesis backed up with extensive data analysis and expertly-researched case studies. He asserts a more comprehensive and inclusive thesis that “printers played a crucial role in the formation and shaping of political rhetoric,” by developing global and regional trade and information-gathering networks. To deepen his analysis, Adelman compiled a comprehensive database of 756 printers who operated in the Revolutionary Era. While the vast majority of master printers were men, Adelman identified fifteen women who operated printing establishments during the colonial period.
In addition to political ideology, another facet of Adelman’s thesis is that printers adopted network-enabled commercial practices to gather the most timely and relevant news and to maximize profitability. Types of networks included kinship, correspondent, and business associates. As case examples, he cites the Green family who operated nearly one-half of early eighteenth century New England printing offices and Benjamin Franklin’s extensive East Coast correspondent network.
Starting with the Stamp Act crisis of 1765 which imposed tax on all forms of paper, Adelman describes the transformation of newspapers from mere reporters of the news to highly influential political advocates. The British-imposed tax threatened printers’ commercial viability. In response to this threat, printers became vociferous protestors of the Stamp Act, not just reporters of the protests. Resistance to the tax galvanized and expanded the colonial printing networks and more tightly aligned printers and political leaders.
As the Stamp Act crisis subsided, new British laws restricting the freedoms of colonists engendered various forms of resistance including extralegal committees who needed an alliance with printers to publish their letters and communications. These new sources of business generated considerable new revenues for sympathetic publishers. However, printers who supported the British government experienced significant reductions in subscription and advertising revenues and were forced to rely on government contracts for financial viability.
In the lead-up to the outbreak of hostilities, the pace of publishing hit record levels in the thirteen colonies. Adelman reports that the number of imprints (items published) almost tripled from 1772 to 1775. However, military and civil disruptions during the War for Independence fractured networks and disrupted commerce and trade. Critically, printers had to decide which side they were on, and when the other party controlled their operating territories, many printers were forced to flee. Adelman finds that fifty-one printers had to evacuate their offices at some point during the war. As a result of these dislocations, the number of imprints fell precipitously during the eight-year war and did not fully recover until 1790.
Adelman’s data demonstrates that printers divided along the same lines as the general population with Rebel, Loyalist, and neutral-leaning newspapers. Remarkably, this newly-compiled data demonstrates that almost forty percent of printers espoused Loyalist views. A particular strength of Adelman’s work is his description of the issues and difficulties faced by Loyalist printers. Most of the loyalist publishers were only able to operate behind the British lines and due to the lack of advertising and subscription revenues they primarily existed on British government printing contracts. As the British army evacuated its enclaves around the major Atlantic ports, twenty of the Loyalist printers left the United States. Canada was the most popular location for resettlement followed by Britain and then the British West Indies.
With the war’s end, the printing business began to change and dramatically expand. While some changes were technological, such as reducing cycle times permitting publication of daily newspapers, others were about clearly establishing the roles of newspapers as advocates for politicians and governments. Increasingly, papers flourished as state printers and communications organs for political parties. Using his database, Adelman offers a data-driven description of this explosive growth of the printing industry. By the time the new Federal Government commenced operations, the number of active printers in the United States increased from 113 to 229. Immigration fueled the growth in printers as fifteen new printers moved to the United States just in the period 1783 to 1785, moving primarily from Britain. Despite facing increased competition from new entrants, printing economics improved as the proportion of printers in business for five or more years increased from a war-time low of sixty percent to seventy-five percent a decade later. Concentrated in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia prior to the war, printers became more geographically distributed in the last two decades of the eighteenth century. Printers joined fellow Americans in moving west and nascent publishing ventures started west of Appalachians. By 1789, startup printing businesses appeared in thirty-eight previously unserved towns.
One of the most intriguing trends identified in Adelman’s data is the doubling of printers during the period 1790 to 1796. However, his work ends with the ratification in 1787 of the Federal Constitution. Despite an assertion that this period has been well covered by other scholars, his book would benefit from an additional chapter. For example, information from his databases might provide fresh explanations for the publishing winners and losers during this unprecedented increase in printing.
Some of the most fascinating portions of Adelman’s volume are his descriptions of the physical printing process and the business operations of a commercial printer. Typically, printing offices were family affairs. A master printer gathered and edited the news content, ran the printing operations and, many times, contributed manual labor. Along with household duties, spouses kept the accounting records or operated a retail book or stationery store. Journeymen and apprentices who lived under the same roof and alongside the master printer’s children prepared the ink and paper, performed compositing tasks and operated the printing press. Even working six days a week and only producing four pages on a single sheet of paper, newspapers were limited to a single weekly edition. Oft overlooked today, before printing the paper needed to be dampened to better receive the ink and after pressing, a printed page had to dry overnight. Another night was required to print and dry the second side. The printing process required long, arduous hours in dirty, ink-stained conditions which quickly aged master printers and their helpers.
While Adelman’s description of a newspaper printing office is outstanding, his data analysis would benefit from considering the economic impact of other printing jobs such as books, pamphlets, broadsides, and forms. It would be interesting if Adelman were to analyze various corollaries of commercial success. For example, is commercial success more positively correlated with producing the broadest range of print products or by specializing in one product line? Another thought-provoking analysis would be evaluating the economics of different printing office models such one operated by the Philadelphian Matthew Carey who subbed out selected printing jobs to rural printers to reduce costs and published magazines and books rather than traditional newspapers.
A powerful reason to read Adelman’s book is that many of the Revolutionary Era publishing trends regarding growth, profitability, advocacy, and polarization ring true today. For that reason, I particularly recommend Revolutionary Networks to those interested in the impact of news media on our contemporary political processes. Further, general and scholarly Revolutionary Era readers will benefit from a fuller understanding of the impact the publishing industry had on all sides of the conflict. From an historical approach perspective, Adelman’s innovative use of data analytics supported by detailed case studies is an excellent example for researchers to follow when reinterpreting historical periods. Lastly, Adelman points out the fallacies of oversimplifications and one-sided views, lessons that all of us need to keep front and center.
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Adelman has not published his complete data base. An on-line source for data on period printers can be found at github.com/AmerAntiquarian/Printers-File