The American Revolution and Early Republic

1760s-1800s

“There is nothing so fretting and vexatious, nothing so justly terrible to tyrants . . . as a FREE PRESS," Sam Adams wrote in the Boston Gazette in 1768 under the pseudonym Populus. What role did the press play during the War of Independence and early republic? How did personal bias factor into the news reporting of the time?

Outcome

The news stories of the Revolutionary War period continue to impact American society today. As recently as 1996, a congressional commemoration, HR 1776, was passed "In commemoration of Black Revolutionary War patriots and the 275th anniversary of the birth of the 1st Black Revolutionary War patriot, Crispus Attucks, who was the 1st American colonist killed by British troops during the Revolutionary period . . .”

During the early years of the republic, the fundamentals of journalism began to take root. Journalists attempted to keep the public informed about British actions and atrocities. They endeavored to unify the disparate parts of the colonies and keep them engaged in the fight for independence.

 

Sam Adams by John Singleton Copley in 1772.
 

Sam Adams by John Singleton Copley, c. 1772. Library of Congress

Though not in the form of newspapers or broadsides, The Federalist Papers were reprinted in major newspapers across the thirteen states. These writings not only informed the public of the intricacies of the Constitution but also educated the public on the intricacies of their government. They serve today as a guide for understanding the thinking of those who wrote the Constitution.

Newspapers and pamphlets played a role in supporting the partisanship that emerged after George Washington left office. Newspapers launched scathing attacks on opposing political factions who disagreed over whether or not to build a strong federal government and include a bill of rights in the Constitution. Turmoil among political parties continues to this day, with partisanship playing a more critical role at certain times in history than others.

 

The Farmington Times. Farmington, Missouri. March 29, 1918.
 

The Farmington Times. Farmington, Missouri. March 29, 1918. Library of Congress

To restrain criticism of the young government and avoid personal scrutiny, the Federalist Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which President John Adams signed reluctantly. Many newspaper editors and writers who openly attacked the Federalists were sent to jail, accused of sedition against the government. The political opposition retaliated in kind, resulting in one of the most acrimonious campaigns in American history.

Echoes of the arguments around the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts continue to this day. More than a century later, the Sedition Act of 1918 made it illegal to express opinions that criticized the government during World War I. It was repealed two years later after a public outcry and the arrests of more than two thousand people, mainly immigrants and laborers.

 

Discuss the following questions:

  1. What does Crispus Attucks’s commemoration two centuries after his death tell you about our understanding of history?
  2. What was the role of The Federalist Papers back in the 1780s and today?
  3. How did newspapers contribute to partisanship in the early days of the republic and how does that partisanship continue in the press today?
  4. How can criticism of government officials and their actions lead to retaliation against the press? Do you feel the government should have this kind of power? Why or why not?

Directions: Create Your Own Story

Journalists during the Revolutionary War period did not hesitate when it came to expressing their opinion. In the final activity, you will get a chance to write your own editorial based on a modern-day issue or event that has to do with ensuring basic democratic rights.

  1. Brainstorm topics you see in the news regularly or an event that happened recently that relates to an issue of ensuring basic democratic rights for those individuals or groups involved in the matter.
  2. Choose your topic and research two or three articles about it using reliable news sources that you have used in class or your teacher recommends.
  3. Write a short piece on how your topic relates to guaranteeing basic democratic rights to those involved and for all Americans.
  4. Review the images in the carousel and decide which image will best accompany your piece—be creative!

As you write your article, keep the following in mind:

  • Length: 2–3 paragraphs.
  • Include essential background (who, what, where, when, why, how).
  • State where you stand on the matter and why.
  • Tie your argument back to a specific idea from one of the primary sources provided in the carousel below.
  • Decide which news format you would like to use, newspaper or website.
  • Give your article a title and add a headline (a good headline catches the reader’s attention in some way).

Create Your Own Story

Quick recap: Choose your news format and an image from the carousel. Insert your copy, including title and subheading. Download and share with your classmates.


Please select your media type.

Volume IIV
October 23, 2020
Issue 001

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