BOOK REVIEW: William Hunter: Finding Free Speech—A British Soldier’s Son Who Became an Early American by Eugene A. Procknow (Mechanicsburg, PA: Sunbury Press, Inc., 2022)
An unknown, virtually invisible figure finds his historical reputation established in William Hunter: Finding Free Speech—A British Soldier’s Son Who Became an Early American. Eugene A. Procknow, frequent contributor to the Journal of the American Revolution and author of Mad River Gazetteer (2011), has delivered a biography of an interesting British subject who eventually became a successful newspaper editor and Kentucky politician. The life of William Hunter is a story of the hectic situation of a British soldier’s family, the world of newspapers and politicians, and the politics of the new state of Kentucky:
William Hunter lived an extraordinary life spanning the American War of Independence, through the Early Republic, and ending just a few years before the American Civil War. Residing in Britain, Canada, France, and the United States, he experienced the terrors of a soldier’s family following a father in combat, arduous land and sea journeys, loss of a sibling, separation from family, and immigration to a new country. Overcoming these obstacles, he became a pioneering newspaper editor, a leading member of his community, and a watchful government official. While William did not achieve the stature of a famous founder, his fulsome life represents those who helped a struggling new nation develop during the Jacksonian period. (page x)
The book is divided into four parts. The first part, “Discerning Revolutionary Journalist,” is perhaps the most interesting. William Hunter’s private journal essentially describes life on the run. His father, a British soldier in the 26th Regiment of Foot, was sent by Gen. Thomas Gage to a post in Canada before the war began. Members of the regiment were captured in Montreal, and since it was customary for a soldier’s family to accompany him into captivity, William was sent to New Jersey and New York as a prisoner. His father remained a respectable non-commissioned officer, and he and his family were treated well. After a prisoner exchange, the Hunter family sailed to England, but they were captured by a French ship in the English Channel. Now in captivity in France, Hunter’s mother met the Marquis de Lafayette in Normandy in 1779. The family soon made it to England, where Hunter lived and learned the newspaper and book-making trade. When his father died and his mother and sister emigrated to Lisbon, William Hunter made the decision to return to America, where there were more opportunities for someone with his skills and experience.
In Parts 2 (“Reporting the Peoples’ News”) and 3 (“Building Businesses and Contributing to the Community”), Procknow describes the politics involved with establishing a newspaper business. William Hunter learned about printing local and national news, working with partners, and dealing with apprentices and competitors. He moved to the nascent state of Kentucky, which joined the Union in 1792. Hunter was involved with starting several newspapers and sought government contracts as a printer. Cut-throat competition was all a part of the early media industry, but according to Procknow, Hunter was able to successfully adapt. He got involved with the book retailing business, ran a warehouse, and became an auctioneer. Active in Kentucky politics, he took part in the world of banking, which was profitable until the Panic of 1819, as described in Part 4, “Turning to Politics.” After that, Hunter ran for the Kentucky legislature and served for several years as a Democratic-Republican. His activities on behalf of Andrew Jackson were noticed, and Hunter went to Washington in the Jackson administration as an auditor for the Treasury Department.
The final part of the book, “Reflecting on a Remarkable Life,” Procknow explains how Hunter’s life is relevant to American society today. William Hunter was a risk-taker and overcame adversities to achieve some level of material and civic success, which is a very “American” story. Although he was born in America, because he was the son of a British soldier Hunter was considered to be an immigrant. His life, therefore, serves as an example of how immigrants helped the nation succeed in its early years. Procknow then completes the book with several appendices, describing how he found Hunter’s private journal, listing the publications Hunter was involved with, and giving brief biographical sketches of the people in Hunter’s life. There were many books and newspapers credited to William Hunter during his lifetime, but his private journal seems to have been the most interesting:
Today, Hunter’s distinctive contributions are the books and articles that he penned and published during his life. His previously unattributed and unevaluated memoir is the only known extant journal written by the son or daughter of a British soldier serving in the American Rebellion. With elegantly composed prose, William described the trials and tribulations of soldiers and their families on campaign with the British Army. (p. 231)
Although the book’s title is William Hunter: Finding Free Speech, there is little said on that subject. Granted, Procknow includes the story of how Hunter flagrantly courted imprisonment when he criticized the Alien and Sedition Acts during the Adams administration through a series of editorials. But this is such a minuscule part of the biography, the title should be amended. The real focus is on Hunter’s work as a newspaper man and book retailer, not free speech. Procknow has a direct and easy narrative style, but it is interrupted by many editorial “misses” that should have been caught prior to publication. That said, William Hunter: Finding Free Speech is still a fascinating look at the Early Republic through the life of a man who had his hands in many enterprises: media, civics, banking, and politics. It is unfortunate that there is no physical description of William Hunter in existence, but at least a picture of his gravesite obelisk is included at the end of the book.
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