What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“John Stevens, near Liberty-Tree.”
In the spring of 1768 Charles Dunbar, a gardener, placed an advertisement in the Newport Mercuryto announce that he sold “a Quantity of choice good Garden Seeds.” Customers could purchase “Early Charlton Peas,” “fine Madeira Onion,” “double curled Parsley,” and a variety of other seeds directly from Dunbar or from “Gilbert Stewart, the North Corner of Banister’s Row” or “John Stevens, near Liberty-Tree,” and “Caleb Earle at the upper end of the Town.”
Dunbar’s advertisement testifies to colonial understandings of urban geography and how to navigate cities, especially smaller ones. Residences and businesses did not have standardized street numbers in the 1760s. Some of the largest American cities would institute such a system in the final decade of the century, but on the eve of the Revolution colonists relied on a variety of other means for identifying locations. Sometimes indicating just the street or an intersection gave sufficient direction, such as “North Corner of Banister’s Row.” Sometimes the descriptions were even more vague, such as “upper end of the Town.” Especially in towns and smaller cities, neither residents nor visitors needed much more information to locate residences and businesses. Colonists also noted the proximity of shop signs. In another advertisement in the same issue of the Newport Mercury, Thomas Green listed his location as “the Sign of the Roe Buck in Banister’s Row.” Advertisements from other newspapers printed throughout the colonies in the 1760s suggest that residents of Newport likely used Green’s sign as a marker to identify other locations next door to his shop or across the street or three doors down. Although associated with particular businesses, shop signs served a purpose other than merely branding the enterprises of their proprietors.
In that regard, shop signs operated as landmarks, another common method for indicating location … and some landmarks communicated more than just location. Dunbar indicated that prospective customers could find his associate John Stevens “near Liberty-Tree,” a landmark that could not be separated from its political symbolism even as the advertiser used it to facilitate commerce. As a result, politics infused Dunbar’s advertisement, prompting readers to consider more than just their gardens as they contemplated which seeds to purchase and plant. Dunbar’s notice was not an isolated incident. In the wake of both the Stamp Act and, later, the Townshend Act, colonists designated Liberty Trees and quickly incorporated the symbolism into their understanding of urban landscapes. Advertisers in Boston most frequently invoked the city’s Liberty Tree as a landmark to aid prospective customers in finding their businesses, but Dunbar’s notice demonstrates that advertisers in other cities adopted the same strategy. Some advertisers in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, took similar steps when they stated their location in relation to “Liberty-Bridge.” Even if advertisers did not actively endorse particular political positions, their use of these landmarks demonstrates how quickly residents of their cities integrated symbols of resistance into their points of reference for navigating urban centers.
In his opening remarks, Breen commented that he particularly enjoys making presentations about his books because doing so gives him opportunities to share “all the wonderful aspects of the book.” Public lectures allow him to set the record straight in the wake of reviewers who misinterpret or miss the point of his work. What follows here may or may not miss the point, in Breen’s estimation, but it does seek to engage with the narrative he presented.
In researching George Washington’s Journey, Breen set out to trace a series of trips that the nation’s first president undertook during the first two years of his first term in office, journeys to all thirteen of the original states, from Georgia to the Maine frontier (then still part of Massachusetts), between 1789 and 1791. Washington made these journeys, Breen contended, as a means of bringing the federal government to “the people.” To a greater degree than other founders, according to Breen, Washington realized that the new republic would succeed or fail based on the attitudes of the people, the masses that were still organizing their thoughts about the meaning of the Revolution and attempting to figure out what they wanted the new nation to be. Washington realized that common men had replaced the quiet deference that existed before the Revolution with new modes of interacting in everyday life and raucous participation in local politics. All too often the focus was too local, privileging the needs of the individual states over the nation as a whole. More than once Breen reminded the audience that Washington favored a stronger federal government as a means of strengthening the nation, an aspect of the drafting, ratification, and implementation of the Constitution that all too many of the devotees of the founders seem unaware. Republican government was an experiment, one that Washington (as well as others in the founding generation) feared could fail. Washington worried for the economic stability and military security of the new nation. This made his journeys to the states – to the people – imperative. He understood “that the threads that bound the American people to a single political identity were fragile and untested.” To knit those threads together, he took the federal government to the people, in the form of his own person, to help those overly fixated on local interests realize that the nation amounted to more than the sum of its parts.
Breen made convincing arguments about the purpose and effects of Washington’s journeys, but I couldn’t help but feel that he overstated his case. A significant undercurrent that ran throughout his lecture could be summed up by the subtitle of his book: The President Forges a New Nation. (Yes, I understand that publishers, rather than the historians who write the books, often craft the titles in order to appeal to broad audiences. That being said, Breen’s presentation embraced the general sentiment of that subtitle.) Breen told a story in which the fate of the nation depended on a single individual, suggesting that without Washington’s itinerary through cities, towns, and villages in each of the states that the people in those separate states would not have coalesced as a unified nation. I question to what extent the president alone forged the new nation. I do not disagree that Washington’s journeys played an important role in knitting together geographically distant constituencies that had their own interests. I’ll incorporate this aspect of Washington’s presidency into the coursework and classroom discussion the next time I teach my course on the Era of the American Revolution and the Constitution.
Yet Washington did not singlehandedly unify the new nation. A variety of people, events, and factors also played significant parts in the process, including merchants, shopkeepers, artisans, authors, artists, and printers who promoted patriotic and nationalist consumer and visual cultures in the 1780s and 1790s. I do not object to acknowledging the purpose of Washington’s journeys throughout the nation, but I am cautious when doing so skates right up to hagiographical depictions of the first president by suggesting the survival and success of the republican experiment could be traced back exclusively to a single cause, one insightful leader who engaged with and made himself accessible to the people.
Breen stated that the Washington who made these journeys was a Washington that most people, even the most ardent fans of the first president, probably do not know. When considering the constellation of founders that served in Washington’s administration, the president sometimes recedes into the background. He was genial, but not usually depicted as a particularly daring risk taker or bold innovator when considered in the company of his more intellectual peers, especially Jefferson and Hamilton. Not as comfortable interacting with others in social situations as those men, Washington often seemed awkward in comparison and lacking their charm, despite his general amiability. The Washington who made himself accessible to the people, who made a point of traveling to visit them in their own towns, who insisted on staying in public inns (Washington slept here!) rather than secluding himself in the homes of the local elite and powerful, who interacted with men, women, and children throughout the nation, is a Washington perhaps unfamiliar to most Americans. Washington was a man among the people, not just a man of the people.
Yes, this may be a new Washington that historians and the public may not have previously encountered, but the overall tone of Breen’s presentation – all the superlatives concerning the first president and his intentions for undertaking his journeys – does little to shift general perceptions of Washington. Overall, Breen seemed to reify Washington as exceptional and extraordinary. Certainly it must be possible to recognize Washington as the gifted and effective leader that he was, to honor his achievements and contributions to the nation, without implying that his actions were the only (or even the most important) factor in unifying the new nation. Breen tells an important and powerful story, but it is a story that would benefit from more context. It needs to be situated within other narratives and interpretations of the politics and culture of the first decades of the new American republic.