Review: Todd Andrlik, “Reporting the Revolutionary War”

My interests in the late colonial and revolutionary periods include print culture and history of the book. Ever since I was an undergraduate and first accessed a Readex database, I have been fascinated with colonial newspapers and not just the content but with the mechanics, logistics, and persons involved. Every major research project I have undertaken has made significant use of newspapers and pamphlets. In that time, I have come to understand and appreciate the centrality and importance of newspapers to colonial life, particularly in but not limited to urban areas. Indeed, I have always felt quite privileged to have access to such primary sources and perhaps it is part of the standard vanity of the historian but I also always suspected that general readers—the kind who buy books about the Revolution by the truckload—would be just as interested in seeing and just as excited by these primary sources as I continue to be. Todd Andrlik thought the same thing and his book, Reporting the Revolutionary War: Before it was History, it was News, appears to have proven me right.

Andrlik is an eighteenth-century newspaper collector and enthusiast and founder/co-founder of two websites, Rag Linen and the Journal of the American Revolution. Published by Sourcebooks, he has reproduced hundreds of colonial and revolutionary newspapers through which the book tells the story of the Revolution as experienced secondhand by colonists themselves. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the book, aside from its content, is the literally stunning design. Full-color reproductions of newspapers from throughout the colonies chronicling almost every major event of both the coming of the Revolution and the war itself adorn almost every page. To help put the newspapers in context, Andrlik enlisted a number of scholars, many highly respected academics, to write brief introductory essays to each major event. They are succinct and highly useful to a general reader.

Andrlik recently went on a promotional tour throughout the country, which included an appearance on CNN with Soledad O’Brien. Andrlik could not have hoped for a better reception. Within a few weeks of its release back in November, it was Amazon’s bestselling book on the Revolution. It was also just awarded the annual prize for best book on the Revolution by the The New York Revolutionary War Round Table (former winners include Mary Beth Norton, Ben Carp, and Maya Jasanoff). The reviews on Amazon from general readers confirmed my own (and Andrlik’s) suspicions that the reading public would be interested in these primary sources. From the perspective of an historian, I find this highly encouraging. With the inclusion of London newspapers and no political agenda in selection whatsoever, general readers will get a glimpse of what it means to be an historian as they try to interpret these sources for themselves. Of course, there are accounts of the more glorious moments of the war but there are also accounts of the more violent aspects of the imperial resistance of the 1760s and 1770s, which are sure to make some readers reflect on their previous assumptions about patriots and their cause.

I have very much enjoyed every minute I have spent with the book, which being a graduate student is not as many I would have liked. In fact, the book is so visually impressive that even though I ended up paying just over $13 for it on B&N (whose exclusive edition comes with 4 wonderful full front-page pull-out reproductions), I nevertheless find myself treating it quite carefully (gingerly, even). I hate to end this review with such a well-worn cliché but this book truly does make a near-perfect gift for any friend or family member that is interested in the Revolution or even just history in general.

Michael D. Hattem is a PhD student at Yale University.

7 responses

  1. Michael,

    Thanks for the review. I heard him on NPR, and really appreciated his enthusiasm. I will get this book.

    I have used newspapers in my research as well, and come up against a major challenge to arguing for their centrality — circulation numbers. How do you envision handling that issue? Knowing how many people actually read these documents seems important.

    Also, I wonder if you or the other readers of the Junto can help me however. I know that the Bailyn et alia school have made pamphlets and newspapers the central evidence base for EAR political history. But can you refresh my memory on the previous school I read about (maybe in Countryman) which tried to find evidence of more commoners viewpoints such as graffiti?


    Taylor Spence, PhD

  2. Taylor, thanks for your response. Circulation, or more accurately, “reception” is the bane of any early eighteenth-century (print) historian’s existence. The average circulation for newspapers in the mid-eighteenth century was between 500 and 1,000. If one wanted to speculate considering, say, New York City in the early 1760s, there were on average three weekly papers (though, sometimes four) each with a circulation of around 800. That would be about 2,400 copies of various newspapers circulating per week. With a total population of approximately 18,000, that would mean 1 copy of a paper for every 7.5 residents. This would be even less if one were to adjust for literacy rates. If we take into account public readings in taverns and multiple readers per copy (both of which were common practices), it seems possible to infer that the majority of the city was regularly exposed to the weekly papers.

    Of course, that in itself tells us nothing of their engagement with the papers or the news and debates which they carried, for which we rely on very spotty anecdotal evidence. One of the few things that is a constant over much of the entire eighteenth century is the steady growth of newspapers, in number of papers being published, circulation numbers, and rate of publication (weekly to daily). This, and particularly the significant growth of newspapers in the middle third of the century (despite being very risky financial ventures for non-capitalized printers), attests to the demand for both newspapers and information in general. This is just a speculation from my own experience, but it also seems that there is a correlation between conflict (of almost any kind) and temporary rises in readership or interest. That is to say, when there were wars or important political conflicts (both internal and imperial) or even just rhetorical conflicts conducted primarily through the newspapers, more people wanted to read or hear them. Nevertheless, specific questions of reception have been left largely to speculation because the sources needed just are not there.

    I also think it’s important to make a distinction between newspapers and pamphlets. The latter were printed less often and cost more (in terms of a cost-to-information ratio, if not always in cost). Yet, these too would be shared and read aloud. Newspapers and pamphlets (like personal papers and government documents) cannot help but be a major source base for early Americanists due to the volume of them which have survived or were preserved. I think the question to ask in determining their importance for historians is: What are the alternatives? One studying any aspect of eighteenth-century politics, culture, or public affairs (in the broadest sense) at some point must go to the prints and newspapers, in particular.

    I don’t think historians need to focus on arguing about exposure to prints. What we need to do, especially print historians, is to continue to think of new and creative ways of uncovering the cultural ramifications of print, especially in terms of reception. All that said, I am more a historian interested in print than a bona fide print historian and so I would hope someone whose focus is on prints, like our own Joe Adelman, will weigh in and correct me, if need be.

    • I think you make a good point here, Michael, about the prevalence of newspapers, but the difficulty of interpreting them as evidence. One thing that I wonder is whether digitization might be a route into this – changes in layout/types of articles appearing in newspapers could be traceable in a way that allows for data-mining (in a way that OCR errors mean that searches for keywords aren’t as helpful).

      Taylor – I remember reading Simon Newman’s ‘Embodied History’ a few years ago, which I think you may find interesting.

  3. Taylor, thanks for your interest and support. I’ve been trying to track references to pre-1900 newspaper circulations that I encounter in secondary sources (those references often originating from primary sources). My log is maintained here: — full quotes from the sources are listed below the table and there is a link to the bibliography.

    As Michael states, the actual impressions or reach of colonial newspapers is far more remarkable than the circulation figures. Today, many advertising and PR execs rely on media impressions as a metric to calculate campaign ROI. The professional will use a multiplier (typically somewhere between 2.5 and 3 for printed newspapers/magazines) to estimate the pass-along circulation. For example, if a PR pro got his/her client editorial coverage in the Wall Street Journal, which has an average daily circulation of 2.1 million, s/he could also say that the article generated approximately 6.3 million impressions.

    In the case of colonial newspapers, I think it is also important to remember that local papers often had regional readership extending far beyond city limits. Newspaper printers often boasted about subscriptions being taken via numerous agents in distant towns. So, in addition to what was certainly an exceptional local readership, Boston newspapers were also circulated among New Yorkers, etc. New York papers among Philadelphians, etc.

    Also, keep in mind that newspaper circulations fluctuated, sometimes substantially, during this time with printers moving, stopping and starting operations, changing ownership, etc. The Massachusetts Spy (Boston) is a great example. In the colophon of his April 6, 1775, issue, printer Isaiah Thomas boasts “the greatest CIRCULATION of any in New-England.” While the average subscriber base in 1775 was closer to 600, the Spy claimed 3500. Not long after the April 6 issue, Thomas moved his press(es) 42 miles west to Worcester. Thomas placed ads in competing papers that stated he “begs the continuance of the favors of his good Customers.” Thomas’s plea didn’t work. By 1780, the circulation of his Spy sank about 90 percent to between 300 and 500. Thomas’s advertisement in the Boston Evening-Post also claimed the move was temporary, but he never returned to Boston.

    So while today’s newspapers can probably earn an impression multiplier of 2.75, I think some could argue that eighteenth-century newspapers — particularly those from larger cities where distant merchants also had a stake — had a multiplier closer to 20, 25 or more.

  4. I just noticed this comment thread and thought I might jump in given Michael’s invitation.

    First, as far as circulation numbers go, the concrete numbers that both Michael and Todd offered are accurate, though I’d add the caution that nearly all numbers for Revolutionary-era newspapers are tentative and the result of either guesswork or projection on the part of the printer. (It also leaves aside that “subscribers,” “people who pay for the newspaper,” and “readers” are not the same thing.) I’d also add on the discussion about multipliers that we do need to remember that issues would often be read by multiple people, but I would be very hesitant to place that number higher than 5 or 6 per issue on average; that’s where most historians of reading and the press are in any case.

    As for arguing for their centrality of newspapers, Taylor, I offer a few thoughts. The first is that contemporaries (and not just the newspaper printers) found them important, and we can see that they contain important arguments about imperial resistance (you need to look in newspapers, for instance, to find the first publication of Dickinson’s Pennsylvania Farmer letters). Secondly , I offer a bit of a hint of what my work focuses on. In my book, I aim to show that newspapers facilitated the circulation of ideas and public opinion through the culture of reprinting. That is, even though I said above that only 5-6 people might read a given newspaper, a printer in a neighboring town would reprint some of the news from that paper and bring more eyeballs to a particular strain of argument, an account of an event, or the like. It has thus far required the dreaded OCR-keyword searching (I wish I had a better technique at the moment), but you can see by counting recurrences what some of the most widely distributed arguments were, where they traveled, and so on. Lastly, as Michael noted, newspapers were very much in demand through the eighteenth century, and exploded in numbers in the last decade of that century. All of these point to newspapers as important sources.

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