Review: Adelman, Revolutionary Networks

Cover of Revolutionary Networks by Joseph M. AdelmanJoseph M. Adelman, Revolutionary Networks: The Business and Politics of Printing the News, 1763–1789 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019).

Historians often rely on a pair of archetypes to think about early American newspaper printers. First, in colonial British North America, printers evaded regulators by pretending to be “meer mechanics” who simply passed along information as it came to them. When he published the Pennsylvania Gazette in the early eighteenth century, for example, Benjamin Franklin famously protested that “Printers naturally acquire a vast Unconcernedness as to the right or wrong Opinions contain’d in what they print.” Second, historians of the American Revolution and the early U.S. republic often valorize printers as ideologically-driven leaders whose presses pushed forward political causes. Beginning with Isaiah Thomas’s history of printing and David Ramsey’s history of the American Revolution, scholars have often been inclined to treat printers as central heroes of the revolutionary era.

In his new book Revolutionary Networks, Joseph Adelman helps us to get past these rather static models. Neither sieves nor saints, Adelman’s printers are opinionated, but opportunistic. They rely on familial and professional connections to survive, but also resist becoming the pawns of powerful allies. They are strategists who use politics to their benefit when they could but also avoid politics when necessary. They are survivors who occupy the “mushy middle” of society.

The imperial crisis and revolutionary war posed a number of questions for newspaper printers. Their answers were far from obvious. Should a printer align with one party and risk alienating half of the newspaper’s readers? When war and economic challenges arise, should a printer stick it out or move on to greener pastures? In general, Adelman shows that printers navigated this uncertain era with an eye on their pocketbooks. In doing so, they played a key role in mobilizing and organizing political opinion in the revolutionary era.

One of the book’s major contributions is its conceptualization of networking as a vital resource for printers. They recognized that the most effective way to create a solid economic foundation for their newspapers was to place oneself at the center of lively networks of exchange. During the imperial crisis, this sometimes meant that urban printers took advantage of growing political ferment by integrating themselves among protestors. As Adelman notes, for example, Boston printer Benjamin Edes was deeply involved in the Sons of Liberty. By putting himself at the center of a growing political movement, Edes assured that his Boston Gazette would be able to draw on a network of politically-engaged readers and subscribers.

One of the great strengths of this book is Adelman’s ability to weave between microscopic and macroscopic modes of analysis. He is equally comfortable analyzing a single broadside at length or speaking more broadly about this generation of printers. He draws on a database of 756 newspaper printers to glean insights about their lives, their mobility, and the economic imperatives that they faced. While newspaper printers are unusually visible in the archive—their names appearing in thousands of mastheads or colophons—in most cases, existing scholarship has revealed relatively little about their lives. As Adelman often demonstrates, understanding where these printers came from can help us to grasp the choices that they made in navigating the era of the American Revolution.

This database, and most of Adelman’s narrative, focuses on master printers. If Revolutionary Networks tells us a great deal about these printers, it tells us less about the individuals who worked for these printers as journeymen or apprentices. As I read this book, I couldn’t help but wonder what insights a similar dataset of ordinary print laborers might have yielded. It would have been impossible to assemble on the scale that Adelman manages in his dataset. After all, we don’t even know the names of most journeymen or apprentices. But Adelman’s self-consciousness alignment with book history’s emphasis on “the production and circulation of texts as a material process,” (to use his description) raises questions about the people whose labor sustained the production and circulation of revolutionary newspapers. Did the ordinary laborers who set type, dried pages, and spread ink shape the ways that newspapers changed during this period? Did they participate in the networks of exchange and mobility that their employers did? Adelman’s work provides a productive framework for future research on this topic.

One particularly welcome aspect of Adelman’s book is its interest in women who worked as printers. While some scholarship has focused on women printers in early America, as Adelman has noted on this blog, most of the broader histories of print culture fail to incorporate their accounts in a meaningful way. Many women printers came to their positions as widows after the death of their husbands. As Adelman argues, women were integral to the print shop. Historians of print media ought to take Adelman’s lead in thinking more carefully about the role of women in print production. Because a significant number of women were prepared to assume control of a print shop after their husband’s death, often with little or no interruption to a newspaper’s output, it is fair to assume that women’s contributions to the print shop was far more than incidental or episodic.

It is an odd thing to say, but there is surprisingly little substantial, archivally-resourceful scholarship on newspapers during the American Revolution. The work that does exist often focuses on the consumption of newspapers, rather than their production. For this reason alone, Adelman’s Revolutionary Networks is an important contribution for early American historians. But through his careful reconstruction of printers’ networks, he has done more than “fill a gap”—he has welcomed readers into a largely unfamiliar world in ways that will surprise and delight even those who are well-acquainted with early American newspapers.

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  1. Pingback: Adelman, Revolutionary Networks « The Junto - Online Deal and Buy - Great Shopping Experience

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