J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Anthony Haswell and Isaiah Thomas

During the preparation of “Mapping Revolutionary Boston” website/app, as I recall, someone asked if there was enough information to profile a printer’s apprentice—like Johnny Tremain, but real. So I worked up an article on the youth of Anthony Haswell (1756-1816).

The text under young Anthony’s yellow pin describes how he was born in England, brought to Boston by his father, and basically abandoned when he was a teen. He worked through the town’s Overseers of the Poor to get himself apprenticed to a printer instead of a potter.

Those paragraphs don’t cover Haswell’s later life: possible military service during the Revolutionary War; a return to printing; starting the first newspaper in Springfield, Massachusetts, with Elisha Babcock in 1782; and then settling in Bennington, Vermont, as postmaster and publisher of the Vermont Gazette a year later.

I was surprised to find no biographical information about Haswell in Isaiah Thomas’s History of Printing in America, first published in 1810. Thomas claimed to write about everyone in the profession through the Revolution. To be sure, he highlighted firsts, and the Vermont Gazette was that state’s second newspaper, but Haswell was a very prominent printer in that state up through the time Thomas wrote his book.

Furthermore, Thomas must have watched Haswell’s career because he was the printer who’d signed up young Anthony as an apprentice back in 1770. During the war, when Thomas was beset by creditors, Haswell even became the nominal publisher of Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy for a while. That episode prompted the only mention of Haswell in Thomas’s History, and it’s hardly flattering:

The printer of the Massachusetts Spy, or Boston Journal, was obliged to leave Boston, as has been mentioned, on account of the commencement of hostilities between the colonies and the parent country. He settled in this place [Worcester], and on the 3d of May, 1775, recommenced the publication of that paper, which he continued until the British troops evacuated Boston; when he leased it for one year to William Stearns and Daniel Bigelow. . . .

After the first lease expired, the paper was leased for another year, to Anthony Haswell, printer. Owing to unskilful workmen, bad ink, wretched paper, and worn down types, the Spy appeared in a miserable dishabille during the two years for which it had been leased, and for some time after. At the end of that term, the proprietor returned to Worcester, and resumed its publication…
Why did Thomas have so little, and nothing good, to say about his former apprentice? I suspect politics was involved. Thomas was a Federalist. Haswell became a Jeffersonian, and not just any Jeffersonian—he was one of the printers jailed under the Sedition Act in 1799 and made into a martyr for press freedom. Here’s a page about Haswell at the Bennington Museum, and another from the Posterity Project.

So Anthony Haswell might not have been discussed in Thomas’s History of Printing because he was too prominent a printer.


Joseph M. Adelman said...

Politics certainly may have played a role, but I think part of the key is that Thomas only went through the Revolution, and doesn't include printers/editors whose primary work period occurred after about 1780. Stopping there meant that he had a relatively controlled group of people; after the Revolution the printing trade expanded exponentially, to the tune of several hundred new printers (some flashes in the pan, others long-serving) appearing within about 15 years of the end of the war.

So Benjamin Franklin Bache, for example, appears in The History of Printing in America only in a brief mention in the article on his grandfather. No mention of Mathew Carey, who arrived in Philadelphia in 1785. Now those are both Republicans, but neither is there mention of people like Noah Webster or John Fenno. To have included these (and others of the period) would have required a monumental effort.

On the other hand, there are among Isaiah Thomas's papers at the American Antiquarian Society some manuscript notes he was using to prepare a revised edition (which did not appear until 1874, more than 40 years after his death. The editors of that issue omitted many of his edits (including some unsavory comments about Franklin). I don't have anything in my notes about Haswell, but that doesn't mean there isn't more there. But now I may keep my eye out for him.

Charles Bahne said...

While I'm not an expert in the field, I think that line about "unskilful workmen, bad ink, wretched paper, and worn down types" says it all. Perhaps some personal feud had erupted between Thomas and his former apprentice, and Thomas didn't want to say anything that might call attention to Haswell.

J. L. Bell said...

Thomas didn’t write anything about Benjamin Russell, another former apprentice who became a prominent newspaper publisher after he grew up, and a Federalist. So I agree the timing was a big criterion.

But I can't help but note that Thomas devoted a paragraph in his 1810 edition to the American Recorder of Charlestown (c. 1785-88) because "it was the only newspaper issued from a press in the county of Middlesex."

Yet he didn’t mention the launch of Haswell and Babcock’s Springfield paper, the first in what was then Hampshire County, three years earlier.

J. L. Bell said...

Yeah, there’s a tone in that comment about the Spy during that seems more sour than it needs to be. Whose “worn down types” was Haswell using, after all? Was the “wretched paper” supply the fault of the printer, or the war? Even quietly acknowledging how those troubles persisted after Thomas took over again doesn’t make up for the rhetorical juxtaposition of “Anthony Haswell, printer” and “unskilful workmen.” Perhaps hell hath no fury like a master scorned.