A Free Press?

Could the same free press that unsettled American loyalty to George III now undermine loyalty to the new constitutional government?

Massachusetts Centinel and Republican Journal, 1784

Massachusetts Centinel and Republican Journal, 1784

Pennsylvania Packet, 1789

Pennsylvania Packet, 1789

Newspapers free from government control seemed essential for citizens to be well informed about public affairs. But newspapers changed dramatically in the 1790s, when America became deeply divided over both foreign and domestic issues. Colonial papers had declared themselves to be above party politics. Now many newspapers became frankly partisan, presenting only one side of every issue, denouncing anyone who disagreed, sometimes printing rumors about the personal lives of the political opposition. What if privately controlled media misinformed the public about issues that voters needed to understand?

"Franklin" common press, about 1720

Benjamin Franklin identified this printing press as the one that he had used while learning his trade in England in the 1720s. The press became a historical icon through its association with the famous revolutionary. Franklin symbolized the powerful influence of patriot printers in spreading enlightened ideas and mobilizing American colonists toward revolution. Yet his grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, faced indictment for printing criticisms of the John Adams Administration in the 1790s.

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"Nothing but a newspaper can put the same thought at the same time before a thousand readers."

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1848

Independent Chronicle, 1790

Independent Chronicle, 1790

Aurora General Advertiser, 1795

Aurora General Advertiser, 1795

Connecticut Courant, 1795

Connecticut Courant, 1795

New York Spectator, 1810

New York Spectator, 1810

Sentinel of Freedom, 1811

Sentinel of Freedom, 1811

New Hampshire Patriot, 1812

New Hampshire Patriot, 1812

The Native American, 1812/1813

The Native American, 1812/1813