What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A few Copies of The TRIAL … of the SOLDIERS … for the Murders at Boston.”
In January 1771, John Fleeming, a printer in Boston, published an account of the trial of the soldiers involved in the “horrid MASSACRE” on March 5, 1770. He advertised in the Boston Evening-Post in advance of taking the book to press and then continued advertising once copies were available. Additional advertisements of various length and detail soon appeared in the New-Hampshire Gazette and the Providence Gazette. Printers and booksellers in New England believed that a market existed for this volume, but they also sought to enlarge that market by inciting more demand.
Commemoration and commodification of the events that culminated in the colonies declaring independence began long before fighting commenced at Lexington and Concord in April 1775. Writing to Thomas Jefferson in 1815, John Adams reflected on the American Revolution as a process or a series of experiences rather than a military conflict. “What do we mean by the Revolution? The war? That was no part of the revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected from 1760-1775, in the course of fifteen years, before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington.” In other words, the American Revolution took place in the hearts and minds of colonists prior to declaring independence.
The commodification of events like the Boston Massacre contributed to those transformations. Advertisements for Fleeming’s book found their way into newspapers published in towns beyond New England, including the February 19, 1771, edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. “A few Copies,” printer and bookseller Robert Wells announced, “of the TRIAL at large of the SOLDIERS of the 29th Regiment, for the Murders at Boston, March 5th, 1770 … may be had at the Great Stationary and Book Store.” Far away from Boston, residents of Charleston did not experience the “horrid MASSACRE” in the same way as the inhabitants of the town where it happened. It did not have an immediate impact on their daily lives. Yet newspaper coverage and opportunities to purchase commemorative items kept them informed and allowed them to feel as though they also participated in events that unfolded in the wake of the Boston Massacre. They could not attend the trials, but they could read about them and then discuss politics with friends and neighbors, their views shaped in part by what they learned from newspapers and commemorative items, including books and prints depicting the event. Printers like Robert Wells helped shaped colonists’ understanding of politics and current events not only through publishing news but also through selling commemorative items.