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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Friday, January 30, 2009

John Gill: Luckless Printer

Continuing my comments on Prof. Jill Lepore’s essay about eighteenth-century American newspapers in The New Yorker, I think the Boston printer John Gill deserves a little more love. Lepore calls him Benjamin Edes’s “lacklustre partner.” The word “luckless” might be more fitting.

Gill was less politically active than Edes, who was probably one of the “Loyall Nine” who organized the first anti-Stamp Act protests. But that doesn’t mean Gill was politically tepid. The pair’s friendly young rival Isaiah Thomas recalled:

Gill was a sound whig, but did not possess the political energy of his partner. He was industrious, constantly in the printing house, and there worked at case or press as occasion required.
John Adams left a verbal picture of how the Gazette, which appeared each Monday, was assembled on Sunday, 3 Sept 1769:
Spent the Remainder of the Evening and supped with Mr. [James] Otis, in Company with Mr. [Samuel] Adams, Mr. Wm. Davis, and Mr. Jno. Gill. The Evening spent in preparing for the Next Days Newspaper—a curious Employment. Cooking up Paragraphs, Articles, Occurences, &c.—working the political Engine!
So where was Mr. Edes that night when there was work to be done?

Ironically, Gill actually seems to have suffered more than Edes for the paper’s political stands. I’ve already described how the British military authorities came looking for Edes in 1775, after he’d slipped out of town. The soldiers had to content themselves with jailing Edes’s teen-aged son Peter (which Lepore mentions) and then Gill (which she doesn’t).

And then there was a little matter of an assault in January 1768. John Mein, co-owner of the Boston Chronicle, was furious that Edes and Gill’s Gazette had printed an essay attacking him. He came to the rival shop two successive days demanding the identity of the essayist “Americus.” The Gazette printers, with Edes doing most of the talking, refused to cooperate.

Mein said then he’d hold the printers themselves responsible for the essay and asked them to step outside. They refused to do that, too. So Mein promised that the next time he met either Gazette printer, he’d thrash him. And of course Mein met Gill first.

Mein smacked Gill with his cane, which was not only assault but also a way of signifying that Gill was no gentleman. Gill then sued Mein, with Otis as his principal attorney. (Mein suspected Otis was “Americus” all along.) Calling his client no “Boxer, Bruizer, Man of the sword or any Prowess whatever,” Otis argued in court that he’d never take on Mein, but “I would beat 2 of Gill,” thus portraying Mein as a bully. Eventually Mein had to pay a 40-shilling fine for criminal assault, then £75 plus costs to Gill.

During the war, Edes got custody of the Boston Gazette. Gill started The Continental Journal in May 1776 and ran it nearly until his death in 1785. The newspaper ran this obituary:
Capt. John Gill, for disseminating principles destructive of tyranny, suffered during the siege of this town in 1775, what many other printers were threatened with, a cruel imprisonment. He, however, was so fortunate as to survive the conflict; but had the mortification, lately, of seeing the press ready to be shackled by a stamp act fabricated in his native state; he, therefore, resigned his business, not choosing to submit to a measure which Britain artfully adopted as the foundation of her intended tyranny in America. His remains were very respectfully entombed last Monday afternoon.
At the time, the Massachusetts General Court was debating whether to levy a small tax on some printed goods—part of the economic crisis that led to Shays’ Rebellion. Critics in the press were quick to point out the irony of that measure. Neither Edes nor Gill was ever fully satisfied with the new republic they’d helped bring about.

The thumbnail image above shows an issue of Gill’s Continental Journal from 1782, on sale through the New York Times store.


Tracey Buswell simmons said...

I am the DAR descendent of John Gill. A044675. Living in Fairfax, VA currently. Huzzah!

L Gill said...

Historians have missed a significant fact- Ede's was married to Gill's daughter, and thus became junior partner in his father-in-law's establishment. Edes got out of Boston and saved their most valuable asset, the printing press; John Gill and grandson Peter Edes went to prison, a threat something neither man may have thought would really be enforced upon an old man and a youth. Perhaps this measure was designed to pressure Edes into giving up the press.