January 14

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

Massachusetts Spy (January 14, 1773).

“AN ORATION on the Beauties of Liberty.”

An advertisement in the January 14, 1773, editions of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter and the Massachusetts Spy announced the imminent publication and sale of a political pamphlet about “the Beauties of Liberty or the essential rights of the Americans.”  David Kneeland and Nathaniel Davis advised that the work was “Now in the press” and would be available in a few days.  The printers also noted that the pamphlet was “AN ORATION … Delivered at the second Baptist-Church in Boston, upon the last annual thanksgiving.”

Kneeland and Davis did not name the orator-author, perhaps expecting that many prospective customers already knew his identity as a result of having heard the sermon on liberty or heard about it from friends and acquaintances.  The title page attributed the Oration on the Beauties of Liberty to “A British Bostonian.”  The same author composed The American Alarm, published and advertised a few weeks earlier.  John M. Bumsted and Charles E. Clark identify both pamphlets as the work of John Allen, “a Baptist minister and recent émigré from England, politically disenchanted and personally discredited” for an incident involving a forged promissory note.[1]

According to Bumsted and Clark, the second of those pamphlets, the Oration, “proved to be one of the best-selling pamphlets of the pre-Revolutionary crisis, passing through seven editions in four cities between 1773 and 1775” and the “immense popularity of this fiery attack on British policy – specifically the appointment of the Commissioners of Inquiry into the burning of the Gaspee – marked the author as an agitator of considerable importance.”[2]  Advertising may have contributed to the popularity of the pamphlet, especially if Kneeland and Davis carefully chose which newspapers carried their notice.  Isaiah Thomas, the printer of the Massachusetts Spy, had a reputation as an agitator.  Benjamin Edes and John Gill, printers of the Boston-Gazette did as well.  Following the initial announcement about the pamphlet on January 14, Kneeland and Davis placed an advertisement in the Boston-Gazette on January 18, but opted not to insert notices in the other two newspapers published in the city that day, the Boston Evening-Post and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy.  Their conceptions of the political sympathies of both the printers and readers of those newspapers may have played a role in selecting where to invest their limited funds for advertising.

**********

[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.

Leave a Reply