More than 240 years ago, Paul Revere took his famous “midnight ride” into the Massachusetts countryside to warn colonists that the British army was on the march from Boston.
The lanterns hanging in the steeple of Old North Church that April night were part of a sophisticated communications system most Americans don’t know existed. For nearly a decade, leaders of an anti-imperialist movement worked with newspaper printers and editors to build networks that facilitated correspondence and intelligence. That work was essential to sounding the alarm that brought thousands of militiamen to the outskirts of Boston within hours, ultimately creating the conditions that allowed those opposed to British rule to unite across the colonies.
As we celebrate Revere’s legacy today, we should remember that political movements rely on more than leadership. They also need communication networks to unify different groups and rally them to a common cause. During the Revolutionary War, printers and editors did the physical work of producing pamphlets, broadsides and newspapers, but they also engaged in a great deal of intellectual work to shape the news and intelligence regarding protests during the crisis. Their work made the press a central component of national politics from the start and cemented freedom of the press as integral to the success of America.
It took only 10 weeks from when the “shot heard ’round the world” was fired on the town common in Lexington, Mass., until the establishment of the Continental Army in Massachusetts that summer.
How did disparate town militias gather together and transform so quickly into a single entity? They had access to all the necessary information.
That information ranged from anti-British tracts to local news to information on organizing across the colonies. During the 1760s and 1770s, a group of printers who supported the anti-imperial cause began to collaborate with political leaders to use their communications networks to spread arguments against British policies.
In Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston, printers took on leadership roles within the Sons of Liberty. Then they organized committees of correspondence that shared intelligence and news about activities across the colonies. Revere, after all, previously served as a courier. When protesters threw shipments of tea into Boston Harbor in 1773, he delivered the news to New York and Philadelphia. He also warned the town of Portsmouth, N.H., of a possible British incursion in 1774.
Patriots relied on sophisticated communications networks during this time that both allowed them to stay connected across the colonies and evade British eyes and ears. They built these networks on the existing infrastructure newspaper editors and their connections created as part of the ordinary course of business. Perpetually in search of news from London and other colonies, newspaper editors maintained ties with as many other printers and editors as they could. They circulated their newspapers to one another through the post office, which provided free postage for “exchange copies” sent between printing offices.
Of course, communication was not perfect. Several towns nearly dispatched their militias to Boston in September 1774 during the Powder Alarm, when rumor spread that British warships anchored in the harbor had fired on the town. The men of Pomfret, Conn., had mustered on the town green and were ready to march when an express rider arrived to tell them the rumor was false.
However, on the morning of April 19, 1775, reports of movement by British troops were accurate, and the news spread quickly. In Watertown, Mass., just outside Boston, local leader Joseph Palmer drafted a short letter to “all friends of American liberty” that the British had encountered a colonial militia in Lexington and had “fired without any Provocation, and killed 6 Men and wounded 4 others.” Palmer noted the time — 10 a.m. — and dispatched a rider. Over the next several days, the letter wound through Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, arriving in Philadelphia five days later, which meant the riders stopped only long enough to alert each town along their route.
Newspaper publication followed closely behind. Within 10 days, the letter had been published as far away as Williamsburg, Va. (at least a three-week journey from Boston). A full account of the battle took longer to appear because the fighting scattered Boston’s printers from their offices. Isaiah Thomas, for example, who relocated under the cover of darkness 40 miles west to Worcester just before the British march, included lengthy and detailed reports May 3 in his newspaper, the Massachusetts Spy.
Others rushed to take depositions from participants and witnesses and hastily published a pamphlet of testimony to send to London in an effort to win the propaganda battle they knew would be underway. By the time the document arrived in England, the two sides already had faced off at Bunker Hill, and George Washington was en route from Philadelphia to Cambridge to take command of the new Continental Army.
With the war in motion, printers and political leaders shifted the uses of the communications infrastructure from shaping public opinion against British policies to providing support to the war effort. At its peak, they were able to quickly circulate Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, “Common Sense,” in which he argued in favor of independence, in the winter and early spring of 1776, and then news of Congress’s declaration of independence that summer.
The war fractured these networks as the two armies threatened and dislocated thousands of Americans up and down the Atlantic coast, including many printers. Once the war ended in 1783, the printers who returned, with the help of a younger generation, began to rebuild networks for a new national communications infrastructure in the independent United States.
By the 1790s and early 1800s, newspaper editors and their networks, as historian Jeffrey Pasley has shown, would come to form the backbone of America’s earliest political parties.
In 1860, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lionized Revere as a lone herald who would unite Americans. He wrote: “The fate of a nation was riding that night/ And the spark struck out by that steed in his flight/ Kindled the land into flame with its heat.”
In reality, Revere was far from alone. When he set out on his famous ride, he trod a path already well-cleared by politicians, printers and editors.