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.