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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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

News of the Revolution in Vienna

Back in February, the Age of Revolutions blog featured Jonathan Singerton’s interesting analysis of how the American Revolution was reported in the Holy Roman Empire.

As the article’s headline notes, the Empire was an “Absolutist State” with strict censorship of the news. As in authoritarian regimes today, the rulers feared that any critique of other rulers could be interpreted as critique of themselves and inspire the local opposition.

Singerton focuses on the news reported in the Wienerisches Diarium, Vienna’s newspaper, and the behind-the-scenes arguments over that reporting. About the Declaration of Independence, he writes:
First news of an announcement arrived in Vienna in mid-August 1776, but on 17th August, the Diarium proclaimed, “We have news from America, which reports that the General Congress has finally declared itself independent with a small majority.”[12] The fact that Congress’s adoption was unanimous and only New York abstained was lost on the Diarium and the Declaration was not immediately reproduced. On August 31st, only the concluding paragraph of the Declaration appeared, and several weeks later, the immortal lines of the preamble featured in the September 11th edition.[13] The body of the Declaration, however, parts of which enumerated the grievances against King George III, were omitted – the Diarium’s managers could not risk disseminating such anti-monarchical writing.

When this edition reached the Queen-Regent Maria Theresa (1717-1780) [shown above] and her co-regent son Joseph II (1741-1790), they were incensed that such an article had passed the censors. Count Christian August von Seilern (1717-1801), the Governor of Lower Austria and previously Ambassador in London (1766-1770), sympathised with the article and futilely attempted to reason with the monarchs, insisting that their authority had not been questioned.[14] The newspaper’s perceived transgressions brought an even higher level of scrutiny.

This reporting created a hotbed of pro-American sentiment in Habsburg territories, which influenced the first diplomatic mission between the United States and the Habsburgs in 1778, when the American representative William Lee arrived in Vienna hoping to procure an alliance with the monarchs. Though he failed to get access to the court, the fervor for the American cause stoked by newspaper coverage created a welcoming environment outside of the court for Lee. He remarked to his brother about his amazement of such interest, “Some of distinction here are warm for the part of America.”[15]
That William Lee was a brother of Richard Henry, Francis Lightfoot, and Arthur Lee—a Virginia dynasty not quite as controlling as the Hapsburgs.

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