September 14, 2009 by · 9 CommentsMott, Emery, Thomas, Tebbel and Brigham are household authors on the bookshelves of most newspaper collectors, but another name needs to be added to the list. Eric Burns. Burns is the author of Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism. Most of us have read -- on more than one occasion -- about the history of Public Occurrences, The Boston News-Letter, Zenger's New York Weekly Journal and Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette. But how often do we get to read these stories and many distinct others from a book published in the 21st century? Perhaps what thrilled me the most about this book was its style. To me, Burns was masterful at marrying the story-telling flair of David McCullough with the newspaper history acumen of Mott, Emery and others. More so, I enjoyed learning several fun facts and exciting stories about many of the newspaper titles I see for sale at rarenewspapers.com or even hold in my own collection. The Boston Gazette, according to Burns' C-SPAN presentation on his book, is the most influential newspaper this country has ever known. He says the Gazette got us into the Revolutionary War, sped up the course of the war and may have even determined the outcome of the war. A good chunk of Infamous Scribblers is dedicated to supporting this thesis. "Almost certainly the war would not have ended with an American victory in a period of seven years -- from first shot to signed treaty -- had not the newspapers constantly reminded the colonists of the cause they shared, thereby inspiring the valor of soldiers, and the patience and support of civilians," Burns said. He points out that newspapers were the only form of media at the time and served as the great unifier of our nation during a time when America "needed unity as much as we needed ammunition." Here are a few fascinating excerpts from Infamous Scribblers: On a printer's disincentive to publish a newspaper: "Despite a New World population of more than 300,000 by 1700, there were not enough customers of newspapers -- too few English speakers in America, too few towns and villages that were too widely scattered to allow for news to be gathered efficiently and a paper to be distributed economically." On a newspaper's role in the Revolutionary War: "It was Franklin, though, who most succinctly and accurately assessed the role of the media in the days leading up to the war. It was he, astute as ever, who pointed out that the press not only can 'strike while the iron is hot,' but it can 'heat it by continually striking.'" On Sam Adams: "The least ethical newsman of the entire colonial era, if not the entire history of American journalism." On 18th century journalism: "As a rule, newspaper publishers of the time did not chase after interviews or hustle to the scenes of events with their juices flowing and pen fingers twitching. For the most part, they were denizens of the print shop, preferring that the news be spoken in their ears or slipped under their doors -- that it be delivered to them, in other words, as spices were delivered to the grocer or bolts of clothes to the tailor." On reporting and publishing during the Revolutionary War: "The Revolutionary War was not an easy one to cover. For one thing, once the fighting started there was more news than ever but no more shipments of ink or type or spare parts for the presses coming into American ports. There were no more shipments of paper either, and, as for the quantities still available or smuggled into the colonies from a friend in the motherland or a trader in another European nation, there were higher priorities for it than journalism." On an unlikely spy embedded as a printer: "Jemmy Rivington's Tory newspaper, the Royal Gazette, was extremely critical of George Washington. However, Rivington was also a spy who passed along secrets of the British navy to colonial leaders. On one occasion, Rivington helped break a British code that almost surely saved American lives during one of the war's earlier battles." On printing business diversification: "Colonial printers did not just publish newspapers... they continued to publish documents for agencies of government and various other materials such as sermons, speeches, and contracts, for private clients... they turned out pamphlets, Sunday supplements of a sort, commentaries on the news of the day..." On the importance of 18th century newspapers: "Perhaps the importance of the press to the outcome of the war can be exaggerated, but not easily and not by much. It was newspapers that kept the colonies informed of the progress of the fighting in a way that letters and patterers could not have done, and in the process united the colonies in a way that was beyond the ability of the jerry-built wartime government." Below is the presentation Eric Burns gave at a book store in Washington, DC, which aired on C-SPAN. (You'll be forced to watch a short commercial before the one-hour long presentation by Burns begins.)
This post was authored by Todd Andrlik, a collector of rare and historic newspapers that you can follow at toddand.com and raglinen.com. Todd recently launched the Historic Newspapers Network for the newspaper collecting community.