GUEST CURATOR: Zachary Karpowich
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Among all the WRITERS in favour of the COLONIES, the FARMER shines unrivaled for strength of argument, elegance of diction, knowledge in the laws of Great Britain and the true interest of the COLONIES.”
In the April 14, 1768, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette David Hall and William Sellers published an advertisement for a pamphlet containing a popular and widely read set of letters written by John Dickinson, a lawyer and legislator from Pennsylvania. They are titled “LETTERS from a FARMER in Pennsylvania, to the INHABITANTS of the BRITISH COLONIES.” According to the introductory notes in the “Online Library of Liberty” compiled by the Liberty Fund, Dickinson penned them under the name of “A Farmer” due to the fact that they were quite controversial. In these letters, he spoke out against the British Parliament and discussed the sovereignty of the thirteen colonies. The “Letters” famously helped unite the colonists against the Townshend Acts. These acts were passed largely in response to the failure of the Stamp Act. Dickinson argues in his letters that the taxes laid upon the people with these laws were for the sole purpose of gaining revenue from the colonies. Parliament was not trying to regulate trade or the market. This meant that they were illegal and should not have been passed. This pamphlet was meant to collect all of the “Letters” to help spread Dickinson’s arguments, showing that there was already growing discontent in the colonies in the late 1760s.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Hall and Sellers did not merely make an announcement that they had “Just published” a pamphlet that collected together all twelve of John Dickinson’s “LETTERS from a FARMER in Pennsylvania, to the INHABITANTS of the BRITISH COLONIES.” Not unlike modern publishers, their marketing efforts included a testimonial that described the significance of the title they offered for sale. Indeed, they devoted nearly half of the space in their advertisement to an endorsement reprinted from the Boston Chronicle. In so doing, Hall and Sellers advised potential customers that “Among all the WRITERS in favour of the COLONIES, the FARMER shines unrivalled for strength of argument, elegance of diction, knowledge in thelawsof Great-Britain, and the true interest of the COLONIES.” Colonists unfamiliar with the “Letters” were encouraged to purchase the pamphlet and read them. Colonists who had already read them as they appeared in newspapers were encouraged to acquire the pamphlet and continue referring to the wisdom provided by “such an able adviser, and affectionate friend.”
The testimonial from the Boston Chronicle also indicated that the “Letters” “have been printed in every Colony, from Florida to Nova-Scotia.” For several months in late 1767 and early 1768, printers up and down the Atlantic coast reprinted this series of twelve essays. For some this meant an essay a week over the course of three months, but others published supplementary issues that sped up publication of the “Letters” as they simultaneously disseminated other news and advertising. Not all newspapers had finished the project at the time Hall and Sellers published the pamphlet that collected all of the “Letters” together. The day before their advertisement appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette, James Johnston published “LETTER X” in the Georgia Gazette. Once the pamphlet was ready for sale, printer-booksellers in several colonies began promoting it in their own newspapers. A network of printers participated in distributing Dickinson’s “Letters” twice, first as editorial content in newspapers and then as pamphlets that conveniently collected the essays into a single volume. As Zach notes, Dickinson’s reasoned arguments aided in uniting many colonists in opposition to abuses committed by Parliament, but the dissemination of his work depended on the active involvement of colonial printers.