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Puritan Amnesia and Secular Attitude: Newspapers and National Identity in Revolutionary America

For many, the American Revolution represents the beginning of our history as a society. In the public memory of the past, the preceding colonial years are relegated to Puritan pre-history, as if only after 1776 we began to walk upright. This assertion of public sentiment can be traced through diverse sources, including civic commemorations, historical fiction and America's early newspapers.

This pre-history was not akin to a period of prelapsarian innocence. There is evidence that America's newly minted citizens were reluctant to embrace their Puritan heritage. A unique feature of American newspaper accounts in the years between 1776 and 1784 is the absence of any allusion to that biblical and metaphorical "city on a hill" invoked by John Winthrop, incoming governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in his 1630 sermon preached on board the Arbella bound for New England. "The eyes of all people are upon us," Winthrop said, and warned that if the Puritans made a mess of things, they would become global laughingstocks. 1

If the "eyes of all people" were upon the colonies in 1776, the colonists—at least those whose letters and opinions appeared in the papers—were not interested in having that gaze cast backward at their Puritan forebears. Francis J. Bremer, who detected a similar evolving pattern of Puritan neglect in Boston's civic commemorations, concluded that "the first symptoms of Winthrop amnesia emerged as early as 1905." 2 Judging from the manner in which Winthrop and the Puritans were treated—or not—by the revolutionary press, amnesia set in significantly earlier than that.

From our contemporary perspective, we can perceive in those early news accounts a cultural methodology aimed at persevering in a war with England—a nation more experienced, better equipped, just as determined and infinitely richer. This is not to imply that the effort was consciously methodical at the time. The three categories of articles from America's Historical Newspapers examined for this short study were Legislative Acts or Proceedings, News/Opinion and Letters during the years 1776 to 1784. A few hundred newspapers may not support a definitive study, but they did reveal an interesting and important element in the construction of American national identity.

American print culture in 1776 and 1777 was understandably dominated by war news, which often included extracts of letters from military men, all-important shipping news and the successes and failures of privateers (private warships). Military "letters from camp"—public glimpses into private correspondence—gave these articles a personal tone and engaged the reader on an emotional level. A soldier wrote from Mount Mifflin, New York, September 15, 1776, "We are lying here hourly expecting to be engaged with the enemy; there has been several skirmishes, one we had yesterday which has done us great honour, 1800 of our men attacked nearly the same number, they had greatly the advantage of us by the number of field pieces they had, however, we beat them off with small loss on our side. . . .No doubt you are greatly alarmed at New York being in possession of the enemy, but depend upon it, it will not turn out to their advantage. We are in general in pretty good health and high spirits."3 The importance of first-hand good news from the field in rallying the spirits of the populace could not be underestimated.

Another patriotic tool was the op-ed piece. The more grandiose of this genre drew parallels between the fledgling republic and ancient Rome, and called upon the most famous heroes and villains of that empire in order to elucidate the current crises. The following appeared on October 8, 1776, in the Pennsylvania Evening Post, apparently in response to damaging rumors: "The Convention had scarcely met when your enemies began, in low whispers, to traduce them. A regular established government under the authority of the people only would act with such vigour as to defeat all their diabolical machinations." The writer, who calls himself Cassius, exposes their strategy: "Let F attack their ordinances, Brutus their oath of allegiance, and Camillus the plan of choosing the council, and stick at nothing which can in the least degree yield assistance in this hour of distress." Cassius warns, "Let them [the enemies] outwit you now, and they will ride you hereafter."4

Another such piece from January 13, 1777 attempted to direct public attention toward the dire necessity of a standing army. "A war with Great Britain is a game we must not think of playing without our most wakeful attention. The superiority of regular disciplined troops in the field, over raw, unexperienced militia is what the experienced ages has demonstrated, and our best officers assures us. This consideration, among others undoubtedly, has determined the Hon. Congress to raise a regular standing army … " Objections were that the colonies did not intend to fight the British in the field but rather by hit-and-run guerrilla tactics, that armies were too expensive and so forth. This writer vigorously met those objections: "To say we will not fight them in the field, is to say we will not fight at all. . . . As an instance of this kind, we see Pompey and Caesar obstinately disputing for the empire at Rome, the former endeavoring to gain his point by protracting the war, and harassing his enemy, the latter by one decisive blow, which he finally effects. . . ."5 Again, the historical reference—the meaningful reference—was to Rome, not to America's Puritan past.

Money was much on the public's mind. On the same day, in the same paper, a reprinted letter from Philadelphia entitled "Advice to the Public" encouraged everyone to accept the currency "of any of the United Colonies" because refusing or depreciating the currency, particularly that of the confederate States, played right into Tory hands as a divide-and-conquer ploy.6 These editorials reflected the need for a spirit of unity among the colonists.

Growing deprivations were reflected in Pennsylvania's 1778 embargo on the exportation of wheat, flour, beef, pork "or other victuals, whether alive or dead, from this state to any parts or places beyond sea..."7 Times were getting hard.

In 1780, Ethan Allen's captivity narrative was published sequentially by the New-Hampshire Gazette. Allen (1738-1789), colonel of the Green Mountain Boys, a citizen's militia, was on his way to becoming a revolutionary icon for his part in the battle of Fort Ticonderoga. Allen was later captured by the British and freed in a prisoner exchange. His status as the future folk hero of Vermont was evident in the spunky, damn-the-torpedoes narrative voice that dominated his account of the ordeal. Believing he would be hanged, he wrote, "I had lastly determined … that if a cruel death must inevitably be my portion, I would face it undaunted," and expressed his desire to "exhibit a good example of American fortitude." As for the afterlife that preoccupied the Puritans, Allen wrote that he knew nothing of the "mode or manner" of the world of the spirits, but that he "expected, nevertheless, when [he] should arrive at such a world, that [he] should be as well treated as other gentlemen of [his] merit." 8

When Cornwallis and his army surrendered in 1781, many accounts were published of the celebrations that followed,9 along with one mention of public prayer in Boston.10 The Salem Gazette reported, "It is with the most singular satisfaction, that the Publisher of this Paper can, so soon after the commencement of its publication, congratulate his Readers on so great an event as the Capture of Lord Cornwallis and his army. . . . The greatest joy and satisfaction were shewn, in this and the neighboring towns." 11

A number of peevish Tory op-eds popped up: "North America still continues to be a seene of mystery; we wish we could with confidence say, not a mistery of iniquity, tending directly and inevitably to national destruction.12 Yet we are told with confidence, that the new Phaenomenon called a Congress, with all its dependencies and connections, after withstanding the whole force of Great-Britain for six or seven years, unmoved and unshaken, is so feeble, tottering, and unsubstantial, as to be crumbling down of itself, and will soon vanish like the baseless fabric of a vision." 13

Then there were op-ed pep-talks designed to cheer the British loyalists still in New England. "I cannot find that there is a disposition to give up America," one English gentleman wrote in a London paper, Dec. 5, 1781. "All men now believe the existence of the empire depends upon it. . . . Do not despond on your side the water, but let all our friends keep up their spirits; for upon this, and a reversal of our measures in every particular, our safety must depend. That reversal I trust is now at hand." 14

A topic that would dominate the papers from 1781 until the end of the war was prisoner exchange. A cartel (prison ship) from Halifax arrived in Salem on November 1 with 38 American prisoners. The day before, a cartel from Newfoundland had "brought near 400 men, being the crews of five privateers. . . all belonging to this port."15 On November 3, the Boston Evening-Post published a list of recently released British officers.16 Letters from both American prisoners and the British officer in charge aboard the Jersey appeared in the Continental Journal on July 4, 1782. "Friends and Fellow-Countrymen of America," the prisoners' communication began. "You may bid a final adieu to all your friends and relations, who are on board the Jersey Prison ship at New York, unless you rouse the government to comply with just and honourable proposals [for prisoner exchange], which has already been done on the part of Britons, but alas it is with pain we inform you, that our petition to his Excellency General Washington. . . is frankly denied. What is to be done? Are we to lie here and share the fate of our unhappy brothers who are dying daily?" 17

The British officer pleaded for an exchange as well: "The very great increase in prisoners, and heat of the weather, now [unreadable] all our care and attention to keep them healthy. Five ships have been taken up for their reception, to prevent being crowded, and a great number permitted to go on parole."18 On October 10, 1782, the New-Hampshire Gazette reported the arrival of a cartel from Bermuda with 62 prisoners, and the capture of 25 American privateers. "The American prisoners," the article states, "are not confined [in Bermuda], but are in general treated with great humanity."19 The tone of all these pieces was civil, even compassionate. The subtext was a message of exhaustion.

Then the mood changed. Even before the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783, editorials and legal proceedings began appearing in American newspapers to bar the return of "refugees"—British loyalists, many motivated by property interests, who wanted to return to the United States. The State of Massachusetts prepared a long list containing hundreds of names of the "most detestable Tories" so inclined, and passed legislation prohibiting their return. Former governor Thomas Hutchinson headed the roll. Several major newspapers reprinted the list in its entirety.20 Other states passed similar legislation. A Richmond editorial encouraged all states to follow Virginia's lead in making laws to handle the refugee problem so the public wouldn't have to deal with that "glaring public evil." 21

The situation continued to heat up. "A certain obnoxious printer, who not many months since, execrated the idea of a republican government, may look upon the attack that was made on his house last Friday night as a prelude to what he may expect," a New York opinion piece threatened. "The friends to America are adopting measures to sweep off Tories, which will answer a much better purpose than hints:--Trouble is nigh."22

We see in these examples from America's Historical Newspapers an evolution of independent, secular spirit—one might even say attitude—in the former colonies during the Revolutionary War. These new republicans were galvanized by the urgency and historicity of the moment. The journalism from this period reflects newly emergent cultural priorities, which did not include a collective memory of the Puritan past.


1 John Winthrop, "A Model of Christian Charity," The Norton Anthology of American Literature, vol. A, 6th ed. Ed. Nina Baym (New York: Norton , 2003), 216. "The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken. . . we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world."

2 Francis J. Bremer, "Remembering—and Forgetting—John Winthrop and the Puritan Founders," The Massachusetts Historical Review 6 (2004): 41.

3 "Extract of a letter from Camp, at Mount Mifflin, Sept. 15, 1776," Norwich Packet, Sept. 30 to Oct. 7, 1776, vol. IV, issue 158: 3. America's Historical Newspapers (Readex, a division of NewsBank)

4 "To the People," Pennsylvania Evening Post, Oct. 8, 1776, vol. II, issue 268: 499. America's Historical Newspapers (Readex, a division of NewsBank)

5 "From a Late Boston Paper," Norwich Packet, Jan. 13, 1777, vol. IV, issue 172: 1. America's Historical Newspapers (Readex, a division of NewsBank) .

6 "Advice to the Public," Norwich Packet, Jan. 13, 1777, vol. IV, issue 172: 2. America's Historical Newspapers (Readex, a division of NewsBank)

7Pennsylvania Packet, Aug. 4, 1778: 3. America's Historical Newspapers (Readex, a division of NewsBank)

8 "Narrative of Col. Ethan Allen's Captivity &C. &C. Continued from our Last," New-Hampshire Gazette, Jan. 29, 1780, vol. XXIV, issue 22012: 4. America's Historical Newspapers (Readex, a division of NewsBank)

9Philadelphia Evening Post, Nov. 3, 1781, vol. VII, issue 791: 182.

10 "Rev. M. Wight's; Old-Brick; Rev. Mr. Eliot's; Monday; Heaven; Providence; United States," Boston Evening-Post, Nov. 3, 1781, Vol. I, issue 3: 3. America's Historical Newspapers (Readex, a division of NewsBank).

11Salem Gazette, Nov. 1, 1781, vol. I, issue 3: 3. America's Historical Newspapers (Readex, a division of NewsBank.)..

12 "Mystery of Iniquity" from the Oxford English Dictionary: The mystery of the existence of evil and the Devil, whose origin it is supposed reason alone cannot explain; (in extended use) any instance of extreme and inexplicable evil or suffering. http://dictionary.oed.com.floyd.lib.umn.edu.

13 "Abridgement of the State of Politics This Week," Boston Evening-Post, Nov. 3, 1781, vol. I, issue 3: 2.

14 "New York, March 6. Extract of a letter from a gentleman of distinction, in London, dated December 5, 1781," Pennsylvania Packet, Mar. 14, 1782, vol. XI, issue 858: 4. America's Historical Newspapers (Readex, a division of NewsBank).

15Salem Gazette, Nov. 1, 1781, vol. I, issue 3: 3. America's Historical Newspapers (Readex, a division of NewsBank.)

16 "Poughkeepsie, October 22. A Rebus," Boston Evening-Post, Nov. 3, 1781, vol. I, issue 3: 2. America's Historical Newspapers (Readex, a division of NewsBank).

17 "On Board the Prison-Ship Jersey, New York, June 11," Continental Journal, July 4, 1782, issue CCCXXXIII: 2. America's Historical Newspapers (Readex, a division of NewsBank).

18Continental Journal, July 4, 1782, issue CCCXXXIII:2. America's Historical Newspapers (Readex, a division of NewsBank).

19New-Hampshire Gazette, Oct. 12, 1782, vol. XXVI, issue 1354: 3. America's Historical Newspapers (Readex, a division of NewsBank).

20Providence Gazette, Aug. 30, 1783, vol. XX, issue 1026: 1; Boston Gazette, Sept. 1, 1783, issue 1514:1. America's Historical Newspapers (Readex, a division of NewsBank).

21 "American Intelligence," Boston Gazette, Sept. 1, 1783, issue 1514: 2. America's Historical Newspapers (Readex, a division of NewsBank).

22New-Hampshire Gazette, Dec. 31, 1783, vol. XXVII, issue 1420:2. America's Historical Newspapers (Readex, a division of NewsBank).

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