5. Reporting the War
For "fresh news" of the war, Americans did not depend on newspapers. The few newspapers published in the states appeared only once or twice a week, and most offered only reprints of days-old coverage from other papers. Postal expresses delivered the newspapers throughout a region, by which time the old news was even older—and probably already conveyed by word of mouth. What newspapers offered was commentary on the events and issues of the day—in political essays (and diatribes), partisan editorializing, readers' letters, and submitted poems and songs. So how did one learn the news?
Broadsides (7) reporting news of the war, 1776-1783. "Breaking news" did not arrive minutes after an event in the American Revolution, but it arrived faster than we might assume today, especially through the medium of the broadside—a large one-page handbill printed quickly for prompt distribution of news, advertisements, songs and poems, personal announcements, and official proclamations. Posted on trees and lampposts in public areas, especially in taverns, broadsides delivered "fresh news" and "important intelligence" of the war's progress. Note the reportorial modes of these seven Revolution broadsides, and how they cite the original and any confirming sources of the news. Compare them with the military broadsides used to announce orders and requisitions (#3: Leading the War). What is the equivalent of the broadside today? (Enlarge the broadsides for easier reading. 8 pp.)
Broadside on a parade condemning the treason of Benedict Arnold, 1780. In September 1780 Benedict Arnold, the commander of early American victories in the Revolution, barely escaped arrest for treason against the United States. With the British spy chief John André he had plotted to turn over the fort of West Point to the British (for a price). When Arnold learned that André had been arrested with proof of the plot, he fled to a nearby British ship, soon returning to fight as a general in the British army. The extensive newspaper coverage included this cartoon published as a broadside in Philadelphia, its text (without the image) reprinted in newspapers throughout the states. The broadside depicts a two-faced effigy of Arnold paraded through the streets, a figure of Satan brandishing his pitchfork over Arnold's head. The text describes the parade in detail and concludes with a poem on Arnold's treachery. Where might this broadside have been posted? How might its impact have changed when printed in newspapers without the image? (2 pp.)
- Overall, how would you characterize broadside news coverage during the Revolution?
- What variety of content is presented? from what sources?
- What variety of reportorial tone and levels of objectivity do you find?
- How were original and confirming sources of the news presented in the broadsides? (Note, especially, the confirming sources in the 1783 broadside Important Intelligence of PEACE.)
- In what circumstances would most people read or hear the news in a Revolution broadside? How would this affect individual and group response to the news?
- How did broadside news differ from newspaper reporting? What did each offer that the other could not?
- What is the closest equivalent of the news broadside today? Why?
- Compare the news broadsides with the military broadsides in #3: Leading the War. What purposes were met by each?
- Where might the anti-Arnold broadside have been posted? How would its impact have changed when printed in newspapers without the image?
- Research the traditional "Pope's Night" parade (see Supplemental Sites) to identify its elements in the anti-Arnold parade. How were such parades a familiar mode of condemnation in eighteenth-century America?
- Compare the anti-Arnold broadside of 1780 with similar broadsides that contain images and text, especially two by Paul Revere—A View of the Obelisk under Liberty-Tree in Boston, (CRISIS #3: see "Joy to America!") and The Bloody Massacre (CRISIS #5: see "Blood of our Fellow Citizens").
- Create a news broadside for an important event of the last ten years, designed to be posted publicly and read aloud. Where would you post the broadside? What would be gained and lost in adapting a pre-twentieth-century news medium for the twenty-first century?
- How did Patriot leadership—military, diplomatic, and governmental—promote and hinder the war effort?
- How did the war affect Patriots, Loyalists, Indians, African Americans, and women? How were power relationships changed?
- How were decisions by Britain and France critical to the outcome of the war?
- Was victory the last achievement of the thirteen colonies or the first achievement of the new nation?
Broadside news of the Revolutionary War
Broadside on Benedict Arnold's treason
– Fresh News from Boston, broadside, New York City, 1776 (detail). Courtesy of the Library of Congress. Digital image accessed through Early American Imprints, Doc.14763, American Antiquarian Society with Readex/NewsBank.
– Cornwallis Retreating!, broadside, Philadelphia, 1781 (detail). Courtesy of the Library of Congress. Digital image accessed through Early American Imprints, Doc.17391, American Antiquarian Society with Readex/NewsBank.
– A Representation of the Figures exhibited and paraded through the Streets of Philadelphia, on Saturday, the 30th of September, 1780, broadside, Philadelphia, 1780; facsimile reprint (detail). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Printed Ephemera Collection, Call. No.: Portfolio 146, Folder 2a.
Banner image: John Trumbull, Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, oil on canvas, 1820 (detail). Courtesy of the U.S. Capitol, Office of the Architect of the Capitol.
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