Review of Don N. Hagist’s “The Stamp Act Riots Heard ‘Round the World”

Yesterday evening I had the pleasure of attending a public lecture, “The Stamp Act Riots Heard ‘Round the World,” presented by Don N. Hagist at the Newport Historical Society. Hagist, an independent scholar, is the author of several books about the era of the American Revolution, including The Revolution’s Last Men: The Soldiers Behind the Photographs; British Soldiers, American War: Voices of the American Revolution; and General Orders, Rhode Island: December 1776 – January 1778. He has also compiled four hundred advertisements in a volume that may be of particular interest to regular visitors here: Wives, Slaves and Servant Girls: Advertisements for Female Runaways in American Newspapers, 1770-1783.

For this presentation, Hagist set about exploring how the world heard about protests against the Stamp Act that took place in Newport, Rhode Island. To do so, he consulted American and British newspapers, demonstrating how local history telescoped out to tell a much larger story about the initial acts of resistance to Parliamentary authority and how protests in Newport were viewed on both sides of the Atlantic.

If we want to know about the reception the Stamp Act received in Newport, why not go to the Newport Mercury directly? Hagist deftly explained how changes in demographics and communications made reading newspapers in the eighteenth century much different than reading them in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Even a busy port like Newport was a small town compared to today’s standards, and keep in mind that newspapers were published once a week. There was little need for the local printer to provide extensive details about events that happened in town. Either local residents witnessed the protests against the Stamp Act themselves or they heard about them via word of mouth before the next issue of the local newspaper was published. Hagist explained that colonists consulted newspapers to learn about what was happening in faraway places, not their own neighborhoods. Indeed, news items were usually organized geographically, with items from London, the metropolitan center, and the English provinces appearing first, followed by news from other countries in Europe, then news from around the Atlantic world and the globe, and finally news from other colonies in British mainland North America.

As a result, the most extensive newspaper coverage of public demonstrations against the Stamp Act in Newport appeared not in the Newport Mercury but instead in publications printed in other cities. According the Hagist, the September 2, 1765, issue of the Newport Mercury, the first to appear after local residents made effigies, built a gallows, hanged and burned the effigies, and threatened the local stamp agent and forced his resignation in late August, mentioned these events, but not in nearly as much detail as the edition of the Boston Evening-Post, also published on September 2. (Here we see how printing a newspaper only once a week allowed for information to travel some distance and thus appear in print “simultaneously” as “the freshest advices, foreign and domestic.”)

The Boston Evening-Post devoted an entire column to providing extensive details about recent events in Newport. On the same day, the Connecticut Courant, published in Hartford, also offered coverage of the protests in Newport. Even though readers were treated to only half a column, this still exceeded the amount of detail in the Newport Mercury. In its September 6 issue, the New-Hampshire Gazette reprinted the coverage from the Boston Evening-Post. Printers continued a practice common in the colonial era: spreading news by borrowing generously from newspapers they received from their counterparts in faraway places. Reprinting news items verbatim was a standard practice, for all kinds of events and not just the protests against the Stamp Act.

Hagist then demonstrated that coverage of the protests in Newport crossed the Atlantic. The earliest report he found appeared in the London Chronicle on October 5, 1765, indicating that letters received from Boston included accounts of a “dangerous mob” in Newport. Over the course of the next month, an assortment of newspapers in London and other cities in Great Britain offered further coverage of the protests in Newport. This was news, but not “big news,” Hagist argued. One reprinting of the coverage from the September 2 Boston Evening-Post appeared between news from the continent and theater notices. Hagist explained that riots and other forms of political violence were much more common in the eighteenth century than today. Although we may think of the Stamp Act protests in Newport and elsewhere as exceptional, early modern newspaper printers and readers did not always think that they merited special attention.

Still, as time passed many London newspapers continued to insert items about the protests in Newport, sometimes rehashing information previously published when it came via a new source on one of the most recent ships to arrive at a port in England. The conclusion that Hagist reached next may have been the most surprising material for his audience: not everybody in London and the rest of England agreed that the Stamp Act was a good idea. Some sympathized with the colonists. British printers inserted the entire text of colonial charters in their newspapers so readers could decide for themselves if the traditional rights and privileges of colonists to govern themselves had been violated.

Hagist also offered one item of particular interest to me: an advertisement in which a London printer and bookseller announced that he sold about half a dozen pamphlets opposing the Stamp Act, each printed in Newport. This demonstrated both the flow of ideas and the flow of printed goods across the Atlantic. During the question-and-answer period I challenged Hagist on his interpretation of that advertisement, asking if he might have been too generous in asserting that such advertisements demonstrated any particular sentiment toward the colonists’ plight rather than opportunistic printers seeking to make a profit off of a political controversy. He acknowledged that the profit motive was indeed present, even a driving force, but argued that making a profit and engaging in an open exchange of ideas and rigorous debate were not mutually exclusive. (I’ve made similar arguments about a variety of advertisements featured here and that I have examined elsewhere, so it’s not surprising that his answer satisfied me.)

Hagist concluded, as I will now, with a brief summary of his presentation. Newspaper coverage of the Stamp Act protests in Newport was accurate. He did not find evidence of exaggerated rumors. The event, like other demonstrations occurring throughout the colonies, was major news in the American press. It was also considered news in Great Britain, but not accorded the same importance. It merely appeared alongside other news from the colonies, though over time it did spark additional debate in English newspapers. In general, coverage in British newspapers was remarkably balanced, defying modern expectations.

Over the past three months I have attempted to demonstrate that the content and appeals of many of the advertisements featured here were shaped by the events, especially continuing opposition to the Stamp Act, covered elsewhere in colonial newspapers. It’s necessary to examine the advertisements in the context of the news items in order to achieve a complete picture of how attempts to market various goods would have resonated with potential customers. Don N. Hagist’s lecture provided some of that context in a lively presentation that clearly engaged a standing-room-only audience at the Newport Historical Society last night.

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If you’d like to learn more about Don N. Hagist’s work, visit his blog:  British Soldiers, American Revolution.

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