A short while ago, I wrote on the importance of political caricatures within eighteenth-century British America. I called for an increased focus on how caricatures affected, and in some cases represented, politics during the American Revolution. In today’s post, I’d like to do something similar—I’d like to call for an increased focus on newspaper mastheads. An increased exploration on what they meant, and how they were used for political mobilization.
In the eighteenth century, newspapers became increasingly popular. Historians have covered this in great detail, and many continue to emphasize the importance of print culture. “What about print culture?” is a common question at conferences. But sometimes I feel that we place too much emphasis on particular content and on readership and scope. We (try to) look at who was reading newspapers, in what numbers, if possible, and what was being reported. Little emphasis is placed on specific printers and their editorial flare.
Of course, many papers followed a similar template from week to week: advertisements, news from Europe and from other colonies, and local news. Sometimes debates were printed from Parliament, or from another legislature. More often than not, historians and students use newspapers for an insight into the political climate of a particular area. And it is usually on page 3 where we find the information we’re looking for, especially if we are familiar with the paper.
But newspaper mastheads are often overlooked. They are subsumed by the sometimes sensationalist detail of the other pages. In the years leading up to the American Revolution, newspaper mastheads became a central articulation of a printer’s political sentiment. It was, after all, a central place where they could enunciate their beliefs—were they against Parliamentary measures or not? for instance—and by extension influence their readers’ beliefs and politics, as well. Put simply, a newspaper masthead can be representative of both the printer’s political views and his or her readers’, as well. Using mastheads can also be particularly useful in the classroom. Why did the printer’s printers masthead mean? Why did they change it? What impact might that have had?
Most historians have a “go-to” newspaper. Currently, my work at the Adams Papers often leads me to the Aurora General Advertiser, in Philadelphia, or the Columbian Centinel, in Boston. But when I was completing my dissertation, at the University of Stirling, it was John Holt’s (1721–1784) New-York Journal; or, the General Advertiser. And here it offers a good example.
Holt is a famous, or infamous, printer, even though he is without a full-length biography. Well-versed in the printing practices of Benjamin Franklin, Holt was an outspoken advocate of colonial opposition to Parliamentary legislation during the 1760s and early 1770s. The Sons of Liberty favored his newspaper above all others in New York. So, too, did Alexander McDougall before he became de facto leader of the extra-legal organization.
But Holt influenced New York politics through more than just the words he printed. He did it through his masthead, as well. Throughout most of the 1760s and early 1770s, Holt’s masthead was the Royal Coat of Arms. The image enveloped the colonists in a British reading of the press. British symbols loomed larger as they turned the page. Holt and his readers were part of the wider British Empire. But after the formation of New York’s Committee of Fifty-One, in mid-1774, Holt changed his masthead. The Royal Coat of Arms was removed. In its place was a slight alteration of Franklin’s “Join, or Die” cartoon. Holt’s masthead now boldly proclaimed “UNITE OR DIE.”
The New-York Journal; or, the General Advertiser was the first newspaper in the colonies to promote intercolonial unity through its masthead. Later, the editors of the Massachusetts Spy and the Pennsylvania Journal changed their newspapers’ masthead, too. But Holt was first.
His contemporaries certainly noticed the change. An anonymous letter in James Rivington’s Gazetteer lambasted Holt’s newspaper as “a receptacle for every inflammatory piece that is published throughout the continent.” The new masthead was just the icing on the cake, an unwelcome frosting to the city’s politics.
In December 1774, after the First Continental Congress had met and enforced the Continental Association, Holt changed his masthead again. His newspaper adopted the emblem that adorned the Journal of the Proceedings of the Congress. Holt was now referring to the colonies as a united political entity (even if the image wasn’t as clear as the Journal’s). Holt also chose to keep the image of a snake as an iconographic illustration: through the Continental Congress twelve colonies were now united. Indeed, Holt alleged that colonies’ unification could not be separated from the Congress. Encircled around the image, writing inscribed on the snake read “UNITED NOW ALIVE AND FREE AND THUS SUPPORTED EVER BLESS OUR LAND FIRM ON THIS BASIS LIBERTY SHALL STAND.”
To be sure, it’s difficult to gauge how much of an impact Holt’s new mastheads made upon New York City’s politics. And quantifying his readers is equally difficult. Rivington, at one time, claimed he had thousands of subscribers in and out of New York. It’s unlikely that Holt had as many. But as newspapers were left in taverns and coffeehouses for people to browse through, just as they were sent across the colonies and over the Atlantic, Holt’s New-York Journal made an impact. Other editors incorporated similar mastheads into their newspapers, perhaps because Holt was making an impact. Rivington also printed Holt-related criticism. Holt, the former mayor of Williamsburg, was dividing opinion, sparking controversy. He was embracing the kind of rhetoric that would later make him, as per The Journal of the American Revolution, one of the top ten printers who “had the biggest impact” in the Revolutionary Era.
He was proud of his politics, too. And the iconography of his Journal offers an insight into how he articulated his politics as a complement to the news he printed. Other printers in New York and across the colonies used their masthead(s) to influence politics. But Holt, I think, deserves more credit. At the very least, he merits a full-length biography.
Great post, Chris. And I fully agree about Holt deserving a full biography — he had a fascinating “CV” for someone living in the eighteenth-century. Not to mention that his wife was a printer as well!
A Holt biography, like Gordon Bond’s biography of James Parker, would be great. I’d love to see something done on the printers in colonial New York City collectively, as they were a fascinating array of characters.
As to the mastheads specifically, without trying to minimize Holt’s importance, it seems to me that they are more important for how they reflected New York City politics (and, particularly, the specific audience within New York City) rather than how they impacted those politics. In this case, to my mind, Holt’s masthead at the end of 1774 reflects the degree of popular support that existed for the Congress, and the recently passed Articles of Association, the supporters of which were, by this time, Holt’s primary intended audience. After all, considering the political economy of print, printers were artisans who needed to make money and there was no money in targeting your most regular and visible production to a small subset of your potential readership.
Fair point, Michael, and thanks for commenting. We absolutely do need a decent biography.
I appreciate your point, and agree with it to a certain extent. I think Holt was reflecting at least some of his audience. He was reinforcing some people’s views.
But given that others printers in New York didn’t adopt the same masthead or put forward the same message, I think Holt should be highlighted.
After the Association was introduced James Rivington changed his masthead from a boat—I can’t think which type—to the Royal Coat of Arms. The contrast with Holt is striking. Did Rivington have a larger readership? A readership who weren’t all that supportive of the Association?
If that’s the case, then, was Rivington more reflective of sentiment within New York City (and beyond)? I don’t know, but I think his change makes Holt’s efforts more significant. After the first change Holt was speaking for and to a smaller set of people, knowing that his paper would likely provoke conversation in New York and beyond. The symbolism of the second change is clear. The colonies were united through the Congress.
I think explaining Holt’s change(s) through financial necessity, or sensibility, downplays the significance of his actions, especially after he changed his masthead again. Changing it was an attempt to mobilize support, not maintain it.
Chris, your points are well taken. It’s not my intention to minimize Holt’s political contribution. And lord knows I am the last person who would minimize the political importance of newspapers (or print, in general). That is why I used the phrase “political economy of print,” i.e., to think about where/how politics and economics intersect. Not financial “necessity,” but certainly financial “sensibility” needs to be taken into account when talking about the work and livelihood of an artisan (in almost any context). I think the combination of Holt and Rivington’s masthead changes speaks to how divided the city’s inhabitants were, i.e., that two printers both felt their newspaper could be sustained by a opposite factions. Also, I agree that Holt is definitely worth highlighting, as you mention, as was Rivington, for the ways in which they were willing to politicize their livelihoods in a moment of such political, economic, and social instability. I am not minimizing the fact that they are political actors, but merely trying to add context to their political actions.
I’d agree with Chris in nudging back at the extent to which you suggest Holt might have been a captive of larger political forces and/or economic concerns. He was, individually, not particularly good at taking direction from others, and printers as a group (I argue at much greater length in a manuscript-under-review) were much more active than we usually suppose.
Again, I did not make some kind of economic determinist argument above. I’m not suggesting that Holt was a helpless “CAPTIVE of larger political forces and/or economic concerns.” I am simply saying that you can’t ignore those larger political forces and economic concerns, particularly the ways in which they intersected, both generally and in Holt’s life and work. Acknowledging the political and economic exigencies to which someone was subjected does not minimize their individuality, agency, or activity, it contextualizes it.
For sure, Michael. I don’t think Holt was a political go-getter who based his actions on what he and his like-minded associates, or readers, thought. But I’d say that his politics was, by far, the main reason for changing the masthead.
Changing the masthead was an attempt, I think, to legitimize his political associates’ views, particularly outside of the city. Holt and his supporters held no real institutional support; the DeLanceys and their supporters were in the Assembly and Council. William Tryon didn’t really do much to challenge, or undermine, it, either.
Popular support in New York could only do so much; but outside, if they were able to mobilize support from people like Samuel Adams, whom McDougall and Sears corresponded with frequently throughout early 1774, then it might have led to an opportunity to challenge the DeLanceys’ institutional support base.
That’s an expert answer to an interesting question