The News Media and the Making of America, 1730-1865

Spreading News of the War

War news during the American Revolution was eagerly sought and dominated the print culture of the period. Newspapers, sermons, and personal letters were all vehicles for spreading news. Broadsides featuring the latest information or poems about battles served as both personal expressions of emotions and contemporary reportage of events. Information about battles and campaigns was also depicted in maps, which served not only to demarcate physical characteristics of the landscape but also to show the movement of troops and the outcome of conflicts. Most of these maps were created by British military engineers and draftsmen and published in London; however, they circulated on both sides of the Atlantic.

As with the earlier colonial period, manuscripts, printed pieces, and oral communication intersected in many ways. A clear example of how these various news media interacted is seen in the dissemination of the Declaration of Independence. While we know this text as a lithographic broadside featuring the calligraphic version of the Declaration, Americans in 1776 first experienced it either in printed form or heard it read to them at a church service, a public gathering, in a tavern, or at home. This cross-pollination between media is evident in the number of reports that appear in newspapers of people reading the Declaration to assembled crowds of people and soldiers. Furthermore, in Massachusetts, where all municipalities were linked to the official Congregational church, it was actually ordered that the Declaration be read by every minister in the commonwealth to his congregation and the act of doing so be recorded in the town records.

Just as the dissemination of news was crucial to the colonies unifying against perceived British tyranny in the prewar years, it was equally important to maintaining that unity and morale through the long war.