Eliga Gould: How Did the British Press Cover the American Revolution?

Eliga Gould is professor and chair of the history department at the University of New Hampshire. His most recent book is Among the Powers of the Earth: The American Revolution and the Making of a New World Empire.

Thomas Jefferson was worried. The year was 1784, and he was in Europe to negotiate trade agreements on behalf of the newly independent United States. But the republic had a problem with its image. So Jefferson decided to set the record straight with an article in Europe's leading newspaper, the French-language Gazette of Leiden. "America," he wrote, characterizing the prevailing view, "is a scene of ... riot and anarchy." According to European newspapers, Congress was weak, the states were in turmoil, and people were fleeing to Canada. None of this was true, Jefferson assured the Gazette's readers. The trouble was that printers on the continent had "not yet got into the habit of taking the American newspapers. Whatever they retail ... on the subject of America, they take from the English." And the English view was not flattering.
Today, as the Arab Spring roils the Middle East, mixing hopes for reform with fears of betrayal, it is worth remembering that we have been here before. More than 200 years ago, the American Revolution captured the world's attention much as events in Egypt, Libya, and Syria have over the past year. Then as now, most of what people knew about foreign events came from the media. In Jefferson's day, the leading outlets were pamphlets, journals, and newspapers, not the electronic venues that currently predominate. Yet the effect was the same: Some of the information was accurate, while a good deal was not. Either way, Britain was the chief international source for news about America, and British writers had a lot to say.
Because the British press was the freest in the world at the time, opinion on the revolution was hardly uniform. For people on the margins of British politics -- manufacturers in cities that were not represented in Parliament, humble men and women who shouldered much of the war's fiscal burden without having a say in its conduct, and religious dissenters of all descriptions -- the American Revolution was an event to be celebrated: a "new order for the ages," in the words of the motto that Congress adopted for the United States, and an example to be followed. Although outright support was limited, several of England's most popular newspapers expressed sympathy for what the Westminster Chronicle called their "brethren" in America. George Washington, in particular, was widely admired, with even hostile papers depicting the general as "a man of sense and great integrity," in the words of Edinburgh's Scots Magazine. Americans, wrote Thomas Pownall, a former British governor of Massachusetts and friend of Benjamin Franklin, in a widely read pamphlet from 1783, were the New World's "chosen people."
But many Britons took a different view of the United States, and they found a receptive audience among readers of newspapers that supported the British government...

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