The Birth of the American Newspaper


When first born in the 1600s, American newspapers lacked objectivity. Articles were nothing more than opinion pieces. The first American newspaper, Publick Occurences, was created in 1690 by Ben Harris in Boston, Mass. This newspaper only lasted a day because the authoritarian government felt offended by his political views.

During this time period, newspapers were not to offend or insult the colonial or British government as such powers made the final say to approve or disapprove of an article. In 1700, over 300,000 people lived in America, but not enough newspaper customers due to the fact that too few people spoke English, and too few towns to allow for news to be obtained efficiently and a newspaper to be distributed economically.

In 1704 came the Boston News-Letter created by John Campbell, however the government also disliked this newspaper and it was subsidized. The first real newspaper, New-England Courant by James Franklin, was created in 1721 in Boston. Although this newspaper was the first unlicensed, it was the best. The newspaper contained writings such as essays, opinions and satire.

Most writers at this time wrote their point of view on certain topics. Franklin focused on the Puritan theocracy and, as a result, was placed in jail two times because a legislative committee felt his paper insulted religion. But, Franklin wasn’t the only writer placed in jail. John Peter Zenger was a colonial publisher of The New York Weekly Journal. On November 17, 1734 he was arrested for seditious libel of the royal governor, William Cosby. He was released on August 4, 1735 after Andrew Hamilton defended him in court. Zenger’s truth was used as a defense against seditious libel for the first time.

Cartoons in Newspapers

Cartoons and illustrations were printed in newspapers to capture the attention of the public. On May 9, 1754, Ben Franklin created the earliest American newspaper cartoon in his newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, created in 1723. His cartoon pertained to the French and Indian War as he used the illustration of a segmented snake, which read, “Join or Die” to influence soldiers to take part in the war.

On November 1, 1765 came The Stamp Act, which called for taxes on all documents. In regards to newspapers, the act required that printers places stamps on their pages and pay tax collectors one penny for each copy of each issue of each newspaper, as well as twice the amount for each advertisement. Printers couldn’t afford the costs and this hit the newspapers bad. By this time, there were at least twelve newspapers in the colonies, which showed growth.

On March 5, 1770, the Boston Massacre took place. Late in the afternoon of that day, a crowd of Boston civilians gathered to throw snowballs at a small group of British soldiers guarding the Boston Customs House. The soldiers became enraged; someone yelled “Fire” and the soldiers fired into the crowd, leaving five civilians dead. Paul Revere drew a cartoon of the Boston Massacre, which was placed on newspapers. When civilians saw the cartoon, they became outraged and furious.

The Revolutionary War and its Effects on Newspapers

The Revolutionary War began in 1775 and lasted until 1783, in which newspapers covered news of the war. Newspapers were also used for propaganda and for the revolutionary prose of political essayist such as Thomas Paine. Newspapers were also very one-sided during this time. For example, The Crisis was an Anti-British/Pro-American newspaper in London that perceived the British as bad and the American colonists as good.

The Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights

When first created, the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights were printed on the front page of newspapers. The Pennsylvania Packet, a newspaper in Philadelphia at the time by John Dunlap, who was an officer in the Revolution, displayed the Declaration of Independence on the front page of his newspaper on July 8, 1776, four days after America declared its independence from Britain.

Two days after the signing of the Bill of Rights, Dunlap’s newspaper had the entire text of the U.S. Constitution in its issue dated September 9, 1787, although the Bill of Rights was later ratified in 1791. Under the First Amendment came freedom of the press, which gave the press protection from censorship. At this time newspaper started to play a central role in national affairs. Overall, during the revolutionary War, newspapers served as passing news of the defeat of the British and victory of independence in America. Also, newspapers began to display more editorials and satires.

The Fight for a Free Press

During the time period of 1783 to 1801, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison created The Federalist Papers, which urged ratification of the U.S. Constitution. The Federalists, led by Hamilton, controlled the federal government until 1801. The Anti-Federalist Press, led by Thomas Jefferson, urged that the central governing authority of a nation be equal or inferior to, but not to have more power than its sub-national states. The Federalists and Anti-Federalists chronicled the fight for a free press. At this time, pamphlets, preachers and politicians were replaced by newspapers because of their influence on the public opinion.

The amount of newspapers continuously expanded. When the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, there were forty-three newspapers in print. By 1814, there were three hundred and forty-six newspapers. Between the years of 1690 and 1820, there were two-thousand, one-hundred and twenty newspapers.

The Sedition Act

When John Adams became President over Thomas Jefferson in 1797, printers became bigger, whether attacking or defending Adams. In 1798, Adams signed into law The Sedition Act, which made defaming his administration a federal crime. Twenty-five people were arrested for sedition, fifteen indicted and ten convicted. When Thomas Jefferson became president in 1801, he also felt that newspapers were insulting. During his second term as president, he believed newspapers should be divided into four sections: Truths, Probabilities, Possibilities and Lies in order to create a “union of opinion.”

The Penny Press

The Penny Press emerged in 1833 and allowed newspapers to sell for a penny per copy. Prior to the Penny Press, newspapers were sold and bought by predominantly the wealthy. The cost of a year’s subscription was to be paid in full and in advance. Since the Penny Press allowed for newspapers to be sold cheap, newspapers were significant in the advancement of literacy and more copies were sold.


Early American newspapers served to deliver news and, most notably, for writers to express their personal views. Due to the lack of technology at the time, newspapers were the only relying passage of news to the public. Americans enjoyed reading opinion pieces of individuals. Even during post-Revolutionary America, intellectuals relied on newspapers to write their opinions regarding current events. During the time, the Sedition Act succeeded in limiting the undermining potential of newspapers. However, the act did not stop future writers from writing opinion pieces. Journalists today are expected to write objectively, but opinion pieces are not discouraged. American newspapers served a profound impact on American history.