Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


Benjamin Franklin: Empire Man or Radical Political Theorist?

As an older man writing his life’s story, Benjamin Franklin bemoaned that, in his youth, when he’d “had such a Thirst for Knowledge, more proper Books had not fallen in my Way.”[1] The books on his family’s shelves were mostly in “polemic Divinity,” he said, and as we know from how his life played out, Franklin’s inclinations tended more toward physics than metaphysics. To make up for the absence of useful reading in his own home, Franklin borrowed books, read widely, and famously practiced writing based on articles in the news journal, The Spectator. At merely thirteen years old, Franklin entered the printing world himself in his brother’s printshop.

Eager to bring Britain’s (especially London’s) cosmopolitan culture to Boston, the Franklin brothers set out to use James Franklin’s printing house and especially his New-England Courant to set a higher standard for learning and culture in Boston. James Franklin also used the Courant to test the limits of press freedom in Boston. (He discovered there wasn’t much, and he was jailed for a month for contempt of court.[2] Benjamin became the publisher while James was in jail, and he published in the newspaper—in case people might like to borrow or buy them—a list of books available in the Courant’s printshop. The books in Franklin’s list suggest the worldliness of the Franklin press, and they indicate the brothers’ interest in views of political freedom being articulated and published in Britain. Indeed, the list provides invaluable insight into the worldly design behind the newspaper and its publishers and friends.

Benjamin Franklin: Empire Man or Radical Political Theorist?


Excavating Antebellum Black Politics via America’s Historical Newspapers

I am finishing a history of antebellum black politics, a little-studied topic for which many of the usual sources are unavailable: white politicians did not record their correspondence with black men, and the latter rarely donated personal papers to libraries, for obvious reasons. However, America’s Historical Newspapers (AHN), used with precision, can produce extraordinary insights into the quotidian fabric of American politics and culture, evidence otherwise unavailable. 

Three examples illustrate its unique capacities.  First, AHN can be extremely productive in combination with another archival base—the decennial manuscript census of the U.S. The latter can be searched online to locate name, state, county, and municipality going back to 1790 (I use archives.com, but there are other genealogical databases).  Prior to 1850, the information is very limited, in that only heads of households were named, with numbers of household members distributed by sex and age range; race is indicated in various ways. Starting in 1850, however, much more information is available: full names of all family members, house numbers, exact ages, employment, real property, literacy, place of birth, and more. The census, combined with hundreds of individual name searches in AHN, has allowed me to construct a prosopography of the black political class in Portland, Maine; New Bedford, Massachusetts; Bucks County, Pennsylvania; and Providence, Rhode Island.

Excavating Antebellum Black Politics via America’s Historical Newspapers


The Mysterious Mr. Carter: Transatlantic Adventures in Early American Finance

In August 1799, as partisan antagonism heated up in advance of the forthcoming U.S. presidential election, the Republican press worked hard to paint the Federalist establishment in the colors of an imperial court. Drawing comparisons with Caesar’s Rome, these newspapers pointed out that leading figures in the political and business elites of the new nation were tied to each other by more than just their shared social position.

“General Hamilton,” wrote a correspondent to the New London Bee, “is married to the daughter of Gen. Schuyler, of New York sister of Mrs. Church. Mr. Church then called Carter, was co-contractor in the army with col. Wadsworth, both of whom made great fortunes by the war. And the son of Mr. C.,” the writer went on, “is about to marry the daughter of Mr. Bingham of Philadelphia, the federal Senator. Thus are our advocates for war cemented together.”

The article was soon reprinted in the Philadelphia Aurora. Its message was clear: if the Quasi-War with France were to escalate, as men like Hamilton seemed to wish, it would be ordinary folk doing the fighting and the dying, while the Federalist aristocracy would be the ones to benefit.

The Mysterious Mr. Carter: Transatlantic Adventures in Early American Finance


Runaway! Recapturing Information about Working Women's Dress through Runaway Advertisement Analysis, 1750-90

Indentured and enslaved women in the American colonies provided domestic, agricultural, and commercial labor, but left behind little documentary evidence of their lives. Some women chose to abscond from service. In Figure 1 below, a runaway woman’s master has recorded details of her appearance in a newspaper advertisement which seeks her return. Written from the master’s perspective, such runaway ads often state the name of the woman, describe her visual appearance, record the clothing she wore when she eloped, and occasionally mention personality quirks and aptitudes. These ads offer intriguing glimpses of women whose story is otherwise difficult to tell through other documentary sources.

Very little imagery of 18th-century American working women exists, so runaway advertisements provide us with the most comprehensive source for study of their dress. (Figure 2) Garments described in the advertisements are tantalizing in their detail, listing an array of textiles, pattern, and color. In past studies, garment descriptions in runaway ads have been minimally analyzed in quantity or were randomly selected to illustrate working men and women’s dress in costume studies. [1]  In creating the Runaway Clothing Database [2], I aimed to examine what was typical in working women’s dress, and how that dress was influenced by geography, type of servitude, and other criteria.

Runaway! Recapturing Information about Working Women's Dress through Runaway Advertisement Analysis, 1750-90


The "New People" in China: Using Historical Newspapers to Analyze America’s First Contacts with Asia

The Chinese themselves were very indulgent towards us, and happy in the contemplation of a new people, opening to view a fresh source of commerce to their extensive empire.
—From the journal of Major Samuel Shaw, as reported in Fowle’s New-Hampshire Gazette, 27 May 1785, and other historical newspapers

To the calls and “huzzahs” of astonished merchants, sailors, and dockworkers, the American ship The Empress of China slipped into her berth along the wharves of New York’s East River on 11 May 1785. The Empress was the republic’s first Indiaman—the first American vessel to sail “eastward of Good Hope” into the waters of the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Fifteen months earlier, she had departed New York with a cargo of Appalachian ginseng and Spanish dollars. Now onlookers gaped to see the wares she had brought back from the East.

As soon as customs documents had been signed, ledgers and daybooks filled out, and cargo assigned to auction, the Empress’s business agent, Major Samuel Shaw, sent a hurried message to the corner of Great Dock and Broad Streets.  It was here at Samuel Fraunces’s tavern that the U.S. Secretary of Foreign Affairs, John Jay, maintained his department office. Shaw believed it a matter of urgent business to frame the Empress’s journey to China as a historic achievement that catapulted the new republic into the community of civilized nations.  Shaw himself captured the country’s sense of the significance of the voyage when he prefaced his letter to Jay with the words, “It becomes my duty to communicate to you . . . an account of the reception its citizens have met with, and the respect with which its flag has been treated in that distant region.”

The "New People" in China: Using Historical Newspapers to Analyze America’s First Contacts with Asia


Locating Black Canada in the U.S. Periodical Press: A 19th-Century Network of Affiliations

In her time Charlotte Elizabeth Linden would have been called a “race woman.” From the 1890s to the mid-1910s, the Cleveland Gazette reported on her involvement in a wide array of African American causes. At various junctures she served as president of one of the many U.S. literary societies named after Phillis Wheatley; chair of committees for her church; state organizer of the “colored work” of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union; president of the City Federation of Women’s Clubs; representative for the Colored Knights of Pythias; and more. As Dr. Thomas William Burton wrote:

I admire a woman who delights in working with the hand as well as the head; who, when she works, has something to show for her labor; and wherever she may chance to be, can adapt herself to the surroundings, and there remain without assumption. These qualities we can find in the person of Mrs. Henry Linden, of Springfield, Ohio.

By all accounts, Linden would seem to fit firmly within the narrative of late nineteenth-century African American racial uplift, oriented to improving African American life in a way we also recognize as firmly national. Yet, in a self-published book of poetry, Linden included a poem titled “To the Queen of the British Government” in which she described herself as “a Canadian complete.”

Locating Black Canada in the U.S. Periodical Press: A 19th-Century Network of Affiliations


Reporting the War of 1812: U.S. Newspaper Coverage of Naval Captain David Porter

During the recent bicentennial of the War of 1812, historians revisited America’s second war of independence in a spate of books that detailed the conflict on land, at sea, through cause and effect, and various other angles. One fact remains—the War of 1812, which lasted for two-and-a-half years, is as controversial and misunderstood today as it was in 1814. Often called “Mr Madison’s war” and even “Mr Jefferson’s war,” the War of 1812 remains fertile ground for historical research and analysis. In one 1983 work on the evolution of American newspapers in the years leading up to the War of 1812, Donald R. Avery concluded the war was the pivotal event in the shift of newspaper coverage from foreign to domestic news. This brief study demonstrates—through use of the digital Early American Newspapers database—the validity of Avery’s thesis by examining coverage of one American war hero, during and after the War of 1812. 

Reporting the War of 1812: U.S. Newspaper Coverage of Naval Captain David Porter


Lafayette's Return: An Early American Media Event

In summer 2015, a wooden frigate named the Hermione sailed from France to the United States. It was recreating one of the voyages that brought the Marquis de Lafayette to fight in the American War of Independence. The new Hermione was a painstaking replica of Lafayette’s ship, built with authentic eighteenth-century methods. Its voyage, however, became a modern multimedia spectacle—with international television coverage, a website, and a busy Twitter account.

Advanced technology aside, something similar happened nearly two hundred years ago. In the summer of 1824, Lafayette himself, now an elderly man, returned to the United States after many years in France. Enormous crowds of Americans, many of whom were too young to remember the Revolution at all, turned out to see the legendary general in person. His tour of U.S. cities also became a national journalistic event; today, we can trace it through thousands of surviving newspaper articles. Exchanging stories through the federal postal system, newspaper editors helped their readers visualize other communities’ celebrations. By doing so, they helped Americans experience the feeling of membership in one nation.

Lafayette's Return: An Early American Media Event


Reading between the Lines: Exploring Postbellum Plantation Memoirists through Digitized Newspaper Collections

Late nineteenth and early twentieth-century plantation memoirs and reminiscences are an important, though often overlooked, genus of Lost Cause apologia. Printed by some of the nation’s leading publishing houses, these narrative sources tend to foreground a conspicuous nostalgia for the plantation-era South, adopting literary strategies that connect with discourses of paternalism and carefully fashioned vignettes on close affinities, real or imagined, between master and slave.

Despite a recent plethora of books on the southern autobiographical impulse, critical assessment of plantation memoirs and reminiscences has not been forthcoming to date. This is unfortunate, not least because the potential scope of such analysis affords an excellent opportunity to reveal the ways in which white elites used a lifetime’s memories to underpin southern regional identity and history in the years following the Civil War and Reconstruction. This absence of scholarly attention may indicate the unfashionable status of a cluster of authors who, writing many years after the events they describe, privilege fond memories of plantation life and lifestyle. Much ink was spilled in an effort to capture everyday relationships and social interactions between ruling landowners and their dependents that from today’s vantage point can appear overblown, obtuse or outdated.

Reading between the Lines: Exploring Postbellum Plantation Memoirists through Digitized Newspaper Collections


Concerning Sol Hess, Unsung Pioneer of the Continuity Comic Strip: New Findings from America’s Historical Newspapers

The Gumps, a comic strip drawn by Sidney Smith and “watched daily by millions,” is generally credited as being the first continuity strip in which the characters’ situations continued from day to day. There had been continuity in strips before The Gumps began in 1917, particularly in the work of Harry Hershfield (“Desperate Desmond”) and Charles W. Kahles (“Hairbreadth Harry”), but it was The Gumps’ influence that led to the avalanche of soap and adventure comic strips appearing in the 1930s and after. The actual creation of The Gumps is not entirely certain. Sidney Smith, who signed the strips, claimed credit in various newspaper columns, although he gave credit to Captain Joseph Medill Patterson, head of the Chicago Tribune News syndicate, for creating the title. A third name must be added to that creator’s list, a Chicago watch salesman, jeweler and gag-man named Sol Hess.

Concerning Sol Hess, Unsung Pioneer of the Continuity Comic Strip: New Findings from America’s Historical Newspapers


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