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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Saturday, January 02, 2016

The Mysterious Constitutional Courant

Yesterday’s posting introduced Lawrence Sweeny, a New York newspaper carrier. He played a small but significant role in promoting resistance to the Stamp Act in 1765.

In September of that year, after protests against the Stamp Act had erupted in Boston and Newport, a fake newspaper called the Constitutional Courant appeared in New York. It was dated 21 Sept 1765, and said to be “Printed by Andrew Marvel, at the Sign of the Bribe refused on Constitution-Hill, North-America.” The Princeton University library displays its front page.

Isaiah Thomas later wrote that the Constitutional Courant was really printed in Woodridge, New Jersey, by William Goddard (1740-1815). After being trained in New Haven and New York, Goddard had run a newspaper in Providence until that spring, and the next year he tried Philadelphia. Crown officials reported hearing that James Parker (1714-1770) owned that press and, as a postmaster, sent copies to other cities.

The “newspaper” contained three anti-Stamp Act essays signed with three different pseudonyms and a brief mention of the recent change in government in London. Reportedly the established New York printers had turned down those essays because they were too incendiary. Hence the need for a special printing and secrecy.

In an exhaustive article published by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Albert Matthews reported that there were at least two reprints of the Constitutional Courant, presumably from other presses responding to local demand. One of those reprints probably occurred in Boston since the 7 October Boston Evening-Post quoted one essay and told readers, “we hear, it will soon be republished.”

Lawrence Sweeny was one of the people who sold the Constitutional Courant on the streets of New York. According to Thomas, royal officials called him in and demanded to know where that paper had been printed. “Sweeney, as he had been instructed, answered, ‘At Peter Hassenclever’s ironworks, please your honor.’” Peter Hasenclever had come to America in 1764 to manage an extensive iron-manufacturing enterprise in New Jersey.

The masthead of the Constitutional Courant was the first reappearance of Benjamin Franklin’s “Join or Die” snake since 1754, when he created the image to promote colonial cooperation and the Albany Plan. From then on, the snake promoted a united American front against new measures from London instead of against external enemies. Printers pulled out those snake woodcuts again in 1774 as the conflict with London heated up.


Mary Jean Adams said...

I'm not clear what makes this newspaper "fake". Can't be the pseudonyms. As I understand it, that was pretty common practice. Are you saying the news it printed was fake? (That might have been fairly common practice, too!) If anything, it seems like "independent" might better describe it.

J. L. Bell said...

The pseudonyms in the Constitutional Courant were not just the essayists, which was common, but also the printer/publisher.

Beyond that, I guess the question depends on what readers expected in a newspaper. This one didn’t have any news besides the Stamp Act essays—no shipping news, no mortality statistics, no advertisements. There weren’t any plans for future issues. So it strikes me as more of a broadside designed to mimic a newspaper than like a newspaper that was really, really focused on the Stamp Act.

Mary Jean Adams said...

J.L. That makes sense. Thanks!