August 26

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

Massachusetts Spy (August 26, 1773).

“THE trial and defence of the Rev. JOHN ALLEN, (author of the Oration on the Beauties of Liberty).”

In several entries for the Adverts 250 Project, I have traced advertisements for The American Alarm, or the Bostonian Plea, for the Rights, and Liberties, of the People and An Oration, Upon the Beauties of Liberty, or the Essential Rights of the Americans, both signed by “A British Bostonian,” in late 1772 and 1773.  According to John M. Bumsted and Charles E. Clark, 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.”[1]  Both pamphlets had been attributed to Isaac Skillman for some time, but work undertaken by Thomas R. Adams in the early 1960s “conclusively identified the author of the pamphlets as one John Allen.”[2]

Curious about the evidence that settled any dispute over the authorship of these pamphlets, I consulted the entries for each in Adams’s bibliographical study, American Independence: The Growth of an Idea.  Adams pointed to the December 10, 1772, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, stating that it “identifies John Allen as ‘The British Bostonian’ who wrote An Oration Upon the Beauties of Liberty.”[3]  The local news included in that issue includes the reference: “Last Thanksgiving P.M. Mr. Allen, a British Bostonian, preached a Sermon at the Rev. Mr. Davis’s Baptist Meeting-house from those Words, Micah VII. 3.”  An advertisement in the February 2, 1773, edition of the Essex Gazette promoted “An Oration on the Beauties of LIBERTY, from Mic. vii. 3. Delivered at the Second Baptist Church in Boston, on the last Thanksgiving Day.”  That does indeed present conclusive evidence of Allen’s authorship of the Oration.

Newspaper advertisements provide additional evidence.  A notice in the August 26,1773, edition of the Massachusetts Spy explicitly associates Allen with the Oration.  David Kneeland and Nathaniel Davis, the publishers of the Orationand the American Alarm, advertised “THE trial and defence of the Rev. JOHN ALLEN, (author of the Oration on the Beauties of Liberty) … Published at the request of many.”  As Bumsted and Clark explain in their biographical sketch of Allen, he “was tried in the Old Bailey for forging and uttering a promissory note for pounds” in January 1769.  Allen claimed that he discovered the note in a memorandum book and, unaware that it was a forgery, attempted to claim a reward for returning it to the rightful owner.  He gave a misleading account about how he came into possession of the note.  In the end, “Allen was acquitted of the charge of forgery, but obviously he had not conducted himself as a clergyman should in the affair.”  Rumors traveled with Allen when he migrated from London to Boston, making some colonizers hesitant to allow him to preach and, eventually, inciting interest in publishing a transcript of his trial, though “whether by his friends or his enemies is not clear.”[4]

Identity of the author of An Oration, Upon the Beauties of Liberty may have been temporarily obscured, but residents of Boston knew that Allen was the “British Bostonian” who penned that pamphlet, originally a sermon, and other political tracts published in the early 1770s.  Newspaper advertisements play a role in confirming Allen’s authorship centuries later, providing key evidence for bibliographical work.


[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): 561.

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

[3] Thomas R. Adams, American Independence: The Growth of an Idea: A Bibliographical Study of the American Political Pamphlets Printed between 17634 and 1776 Dealing with the Dispute between Great Britain and Her Colonies (Providence: Brown University Press, 1965), 68-9.

[4] Bumsted and Clark, “New England’s Tom Paine,” 562-3.

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