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.

February 24

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

New-York Journal (February 21, 1771).

“Celebrating the Repeal of the oppressive Stamp-Act.”

Just as Americans participated in the commodification of events associated with the American Revolution several years before the skirmishes at Concord and Lexington, they also staged commemorations of those events long before declaring independence.  After the repeal of the Stamp Act in March 1766, for instance, colonists marked the anniversary the following year and continued to do so.  They celebrated not only the repeal of that odious measure but also the successful organizing and resistance strategies that convinced Parliament to repeal it.  Many among the gentry engaged in legislative resistance, including the House of Burgesses passing the Virginia Resolves and representatives from several colonies signing petitions at the Stamp Act Congress.  Merchants pursued economic resistance, leveraging commercial pressure on their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic by refusing to import goods while the Stamp Act remained in effect.  Popular protests erupted throughout the colonies, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Savannah, Georgia.  In newspapers, circular letters, pamphlets, broadsides, and handbills, the colonial press covered all of these actions.

As the fifth anniversary of the repeal approached, an advertisement addressed to “all the Friends of LIBERTY” appeared in the February 24, 1771, edition of the New-York Journal.  “THIS early Notice is given,” the advertisement proclaimed,” that for celebrating the Repeal of the oppressive Stamp-Act, ample Provision will be made on the 18th March next, at HAMPDEN-HALL, that the Anniversary may be kept, with proper Festivity and Decency.”  Celebrating such anniversaries was important.  Doing so helped to keep colonists vigilant when it came to other abuses.  In the time since the repeal of the Stamp Act, the colonies experienced another round of objectionable taxation in the form of duties on imported goods imposed by the Townshend Acts.  Widespread resistance, including another round of nonimportation agreements, eventually resulted in the repeal of most of those duties, but the tax on tea remained.  In addition, British soldiers were quartered in Boston, a factor that contributed to the Boston Massacre in March 1770.  Newspapers throughout the colonies covered that event and the subsequent trials, many of them also carrying advertisements for pamphlets and prints related to the murders in Boston.  When colonists in New York gathered to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the repeal of the Stamp Act, “so general and important a Cause,” they likely recollected other events that occurred since, each of them as “oppressive” as the Stamp Act.  The anniversary of that first major victory against Parliament provided an opportunity for reflection on other challenges the colonies experienced and continued to face.