December 20

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Massachusetts Spy (December 17, 1772).

“It is requested that those thoughts may be published, at this alarming season.”

In November and December 1772, an author who identified himself as “A BRITISH BOSTONIAN” placed a newspaper advertisement addressed to “the Inhabitants of the Town of BOSTON” in which he proposed publishing “a concise Essay upon the Beauties of LIBERTY in its Political and Sacred branches.”  As a relative newcomer to the city, he considered it “very unpolite [for] a stranger to take this freedom” of publishing “The AMERICAN ALARM, Or, a Confirmation of the Boston Plea, for the Rights and Liberties of the People” without first requesting “the approbational leave of the Gentlemen of Boston.”  The “Gentlemen” of the city could demonstrate their approbation or support for the project by entering their names on the subscription lists kept by printers David Kneeland and Nathaniel Davis.

Although historians and bibliographers formerly attributed American Alarm to Isaac Skillman, the pastor at the Second Baptist Church of Boston, John M. Bumsted and Charles E. Clark convincingly demonstrate that John Allen, “a Baptist minister and a recent émigré from England, politically disenchanted and personally discredited,” penned both American Alarm and An Oration, Upon the Beauties of Liberty, Or the Essential Rights of the Americans.[1]  Kneeland and Davis printed these “small but inflammatory political pamphlets” in 1773, suggesting that the advertisement in the Boston-Gazette and the Massachusetts Spy helped in recruiting subscribers for American Alarm.[2]  Bumsted and Clark describe the Oration as “one of the best-selling pamphlets of the pre-Revolutionary crisis, passing through seven editions in four cities between 1773 and 1775.”[3]

They devote less attention to American Alarm, but do provide essential context for understanding events that would have resonated with newspaper readers and prospective subscribers to the pamphlet when they encountered the advertisement.  Allen wrote American Alarm in response to Governor Thomas Hutchinson’s announcements that the colonial legislature would no longer pay the salaries of the governor and judges.  Instead, those officers would receive their salaries from the Crown, an arrangement that many colonizers believed made the governor and judges beholden to the monarch and, especially, Parliament.  According to the British Bostonian, “The plan is laid, the foundation is fixed, to make them [the governor and judges] dependant for place and payment, upon the arbitrary will, and power of the British ministry; upon that power that has for years been seeking the destruction of your RIGHTS.”[4]

Bumsted and Clark describe Allen as “New England’s Tom Paine,” a counterpart to the author of the political pamphlet, Common Sense, widely considered to have had the most significant impact in convincing colonizers to declare independence.  Bumsted and Clark assert that some colonizers did not need as much pushing in that direction as their leaders.  The arguments made by the British Bostonian and the popularity of American Alarm and, especially, the Oration “suggest that in attitude if not in ideology, a large portion of the population may have been well in advance of its leadership” in 1772 and 1773.[5]  Those colonizers expressed their politics by buying the pamphlets and imbibing their contents.  Though he may have exaggerated how much support and encouragement he initially received, Allen asserted that after he delivered “my thoughts in public, upon the Beauties of LIBERTY” that listeners “requested that those thoughts may be published, at this alarming season.”


[1] John M. Bumsted and Charles E. Clark, “New-England’s Tom Paine:  John Allen and the Spirit of Liberty,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 21, no. 4 (October 1964): 562.

[2] Bumsted and Clark, “New-England’s Tom Paine,” 561.

[3] Bumsted and Clark, “New-England’s Tom Paine,” 561.

[4] British Bostonian [John Allen], The American Alarm, or the Bostonian Plea, for the Rights, and Liberties of the People (Boston:  D. Kneeland and N. Davis, 1773), 17.

[5] Bumsted and Clark, “New-England’s Tom Paine,” 570.

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