To the Home Page of the National Humanities Center Web Site National Humanities Center Toolbox Library: Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature
contact us | site guide | search
Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersBecoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Becoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Theme: GrowthTheme: PeoplesTheme: EconomiesTheme: IdeasTheme: American
Theme: Ideas

Poor Richard Almanack, 1739
- Newspapers
- Pamphlets and Broadsides

Consider other titles for this section: perhaps PRINTING, MEDIA, THE NEWS, "HEAR YE!" . . . or BLOGGING. Bloggers' replies to posts appear in seconds; in the 1700s, pamphleteers' replies appeared in days or hours. As the Internet redefined "mass communication" in the late 1900s, the printing press revolutionized the interchange of news and ideas (as well as gossip, political badinage, and bad poetry) in British America, especially from the 1730s and 1740s. What evolved was "a broad, vital avenue of discussion for public issues," writes historian Jon Butler, "a 'public space' with distinct modern overtones quite different from the private aristocratic politics that typified politics previously in both Europe and America."1 Listing the genres of works that filled this "public space" overwhelms—advertisements, almanacs, alphabet books, blank forms, broadsides, catalogues, catechisms, chapbooks, cookbooks, dictionaries, epitaphs, . . . etc.2 Here we will sample three major genres of this printing extravaganza: newspapers, pamphlets, and broadsides.
  • Newspapers. To fuel a "public space" of discussion with printed works requires a literate citizenry, of course. In 1750 in New England, almost 70 percent of white men and 45 percent of white women could read; in the southern colonies, about 50-60 percent of men and 40 percent of women. With a literacy rate greater than Britain, the colonies by mid century hosted more newspapers than the mother country.3 To sample their expansive output, we read articles, editorials, and news items from a northern newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, edited and printed by Benjamin Franklin, and a southern newspaper, the Virginia Gazette, printed in Williamsburg, followed with three editorials by Franklin on the duties of the printer in the "public space" of ideas.
    • - Pennsylvania Gazette, edited and printed by Benjamin Franklin, Philadelphia, selections, 1730-1743.
    • - Benjamin Franklin, editorials in the Pennsylvania Gazette: "The Printer to the Reader" (1723); "Apology for Printers" (1731); "Statement of Editorial Policy" (1740).

  • Pamphlets and Broadsides. In a short time, printers could turn out single-page broadsides and multi-page unbound pamphlets (many of the texts in this Toolbox appeared first as printed pieces from colonial or British printing presses). One phenomenon of the quick-print world was the pamphlet war—back-and-forth volleys among two or more ideological adversaries (as in spitfire blogging). Here we experience four pamphlet wars of the 1700s, all in Boston—over slavery, an unpopular governor, and the divine purpose and mechanism of earthquakes. Finally, read the sample of broadsides published from 1700 to 1760, including governor's proclamations, poems on natural phenomena, elegiac poems, and completed fill-in forms.
    • - Samuel Sewall, John Saffin, and Rev. Cotton Mather, publications on the morality of slavery, 1700-1706, excerpts.
    • - Rev. Cotton Mather and Gov. Joseph Dudley, publications on the administration of Governor Dudley, 1707-1708, excerpts.
    • - Rev. Thomas Prince & Prof. John Winthrop, pamphlets and letters to The Boston Gazette on God, earthquakes, and lightning rods, 1755-1756, excerpts.
    • - Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, Some Account of What Is Said of Inoculation or Transplanting the Small Pox, 1721, pamphlet, excerpts.
    • - Rev. Cotton Mather, Several Reasons Proving That Inoculating or Transplanting the Small Pox, Is a Lawful Practice, and That It Has Been Blessed by God for the Saving of Many a Life, pamphlet, 1721, excerpts.
    • - Rev. Cotton Mather, Dr. William Douglass, et al., letters to the Boston New-Letter and New-England Courant, 1721, excerpts.
    • - Printed broadsides, 1700-1760, selections from the Printed Ephemera Collection, Library of Congress.

On the issue of press liberty and censorship, including the Zenger trial of 1735, see Theme V: AMERICAN, #3: Rights. To what extent, if any, did the expansion of printing in the 1730s and 1740s position the colonies for union? for rebellion? (42 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. Overall, what impressions do you get of the "public space" of discussion in colonial America of the 1700s?
  2. Compare the "public space" of discussion that developed through printing in the 1700s with that of the Internet in our time.
  3. How far can one extend the analogy of blogging to the pamphlet wars of the 1700s? What other analogies from cyberspace can be applied to the printing environment of colonial America?
  4. Select an event in prerevolutionary America of the 1700s that was widely discussed in print (an Indian war, a theological dispute, or a rebellion against an unpopular governor). Compare it with a similar event in the 1600s to analyze the influence of printing on the discussion and outcome of the eighteenth-century event.
  5. Compare the two colonial newspapers—the northern Pennsylvania Gazette and the southern Virginia Gazette. Are they more similar than different? To what factors would you ascribe the differences?
  6. Based on his editorials, what advice might Benjamin Franklin offer to newspaper editors and online bloggers today about their duties to the reading public? What advice would he offer to the readers?
  7. What would be a twenty-first-century equivalent to each of the broadsides in the 1750s collection?
  8. To what extent, if any, did the expansion of public printing in the 1730s and 1740s position the colonies for union? for rebellion?

Framing Questions
  •  What central ideas distinguished the eighteenth- from seventeenth-century American colonies?
  •  How were these ideas shaped, and how did they influence the colonists' perception of themselves and their relationships with God, with each other, and with Britain?
  •  How did their concepts of liberty, rights, equality, and independence change in this period?
  •  To what extent were the shaping ideas "American"?

The Pennsylvania Gazette:  7  
Franklin editorials:  5  
Pamphlet war #1:  7  (slavery)
Pamphlet war #2:  4  (governor)
Pamphlet war #3:  9  (smallpox vaccination)
Pamphlet war #4:  4  (God & earthquakes)
Printed broadsides:  6
TOTAL 42 pages
Supplemental Sites

Cultural Readings: Colonization and Print in the Americas, from the University of Pennsylvania Library

Virginia Gazette, 1736-1780, digital images, from Colonial Williamsburg

Pennsylvania Gazette, selected transcribed articles and letters (browse by date), from the American Philosophical Society and Yale University

Benjamin Franklin: In His Own Words, from the Library of Congress

Poor Richard's Almanac, by Benjamin Franklin, digital images from Gettysburg College Publick Occurrences, the first and last issue of a Boston newspaper, September 1690, in American Beginnings (National Humanities Center)

1 Jon Butler, Becoming America: The Revolution Before 1776 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 110.

2 . . . hymnals, memoirs, playbills, poems, prayer books, primers, proclamations, sermons, songs, spellers, textbooks, wills, and more. Publishing genre list from Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans, 1639-1800 (Archive of Americana; Reader subscription database).

3 Butler, Becoming America, p. 111.

Images courtesy of the Library of Congress, Printed Ephemera Collection:
  • - "Blazing-stars passengers of God's wrath . . . "; Boston, 1759 [Portfolio 35, Folder 26].
  • - Proclamation by Thomas Pownall, governor of Massachusetts; Boston, 1757 [Portfolio 35, Folder 22].
  • - Old Testament text, Amos 4:11, in German; Pennsylvania, 1755 [Portfolio 142, Folder 5].
Image: Poor Richard, 1739: An Almanack for the Year of Christ 1739, Philadelphia, 1738, cover. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
Image: Virginia Gazette, 26 January 1739, p. 1, from the Colonial Williamsburg Digital Library, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Permission pending.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. Religion I   2. Religion II   3. Religion III
4. Learning   5. Communication   6. Science
7. Health

TOOLBOX: Becoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Growth | Peoples | Economies | Ideas | American

Contact Us | Site Guide | Search

Toolbox Library: Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature
National Humanities Center
Web site comments and questions, contact:
Copyright © National Humanities Center. All rights reserved.
Revised: September 2009