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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Monday, January 02, 2012

“I was neither whig nor tory but a Printer.”

Benjamin Towne of the Pennsylvania Evening Post was one of Philadelphia’s most enthusiastic Whig printers from 1775 to late 1777, when the British army seized the city. He was then one of Philadelphia’s most enthusiastic royalist printers. When the Continental authorities returned in the middle of 1778, Towne didn’t flee like the other printers.

That left him with the only printing press in Philadelphia, so he had a monopoly on government business for a while. In fact, the state government paid Towne to reproduce its long list of people who had treacherously cooperated with the British military, including himself. He also got the job of printing some proclamations of the Continental Congress.

In October 1778 the Rev. Dr. John Witherspoon, a delegate from New Jersey (shown here), found Towne at a bookstore. This is how Isaiah Thomas described their meeting in his History of Printing in America:
After some conversation, Towne requested the doctor to furnish him with intelligence and essays for the Evening Post, as he formerly had done. The doctor refused, and told him that it would be very improper for a member of congress to hold intercourse with a man who was proscribed by law; but he added, “if you make your peace with the country first, I will then assist you.”

“How shall I do it, doctor?”

“Why,” answered the doctor, “write and publish a piece acknowledging your fault, professing repentance, and asking forgiveness.”

“But what shall I say?”

The doctor gave some hints; upon which Towne said, “Doctor, you write cxpeditiously and to the purpose; I will thank you to write something forme, and I will publish it.”

“Will you? then I will do it,” replied the doctor. The doctor applied to [the bookseller] for paper and ink, and immediately wrote, “The humble Confession, Recantation and Apology of Benjamin Towne,” etc. It was an excellent production, and humorously ironical; but Towne refused to comply with his promise to publish, because the doctor would not allow him to omit some sentences in it.
Witherspoon’s essay somehow made it into print nonetheless. Written in Towne’s voice, it started by acknowledging that he had printed under the protection of both the American and British governments, and went on to claim that he had printed lies for the latter.
The facts being thus stated, (I will presume to say altogether fully and fairly) I proceed to observe, that I am not only proscribed by the President and supreme executive Council of Pennsylvania, but that several other Persons are for reprobating my paper, and allege that instead of being suffered to print, I ought to be hanged as a Traitor to my Country. On this account I have thought proper to publish the following humble confession, declaration, recantation, and apology, hoping that it will assuage the wrath of my enemies, and in some degree restore me to the favor and indulgence of the Public. In the first place then, I desire it may be observed, that I never was, nor ever pretended to be a man of character, repute or dignity. . . .
I do hereby declare and confess, that when I printed for Congress, and on the side of Liberty, it was not by any means from principle, or a desire that the cause of Liberty should prevail, but purely and simply from the love of gain. I could have made nothing but tar and feathers by printing against them as things then stood. I make this candid acknowledgment not only as a penitent to obtain pardon, but to show that there was more consistency in my conduct than my enemies are willing to allow. They are pleased to charge me with hypocrisy in pretending to be a Whig when I was none. This charge is false; I was neither whig nor tory but a Printer. 
Towne toughed it out in Philadelphia for the rest of the war, but he had trouble finding subscribers for his Evening Post and printed sporadically. In 1783 he tried something novel: printing a new issue of the paper every day. The result was America’s first daily newspaper, but Towne couldn’t keep up the pace past 26 Oct 1784. He went back to job printing and died nine years later, still in Philadelphia.


Todd Andrlik said...

The Pennsylvania Evening Post also holds the claim of first newspaper to publish the Declaration of Independence (July 6).

Library of Congress lists the Evening Post's frequency as "irregular," which is confirmed by records at the American Antiquarian Society that show Towne's attempt at printing daily starting on May 30, 1783, (still skipping Sundays).

Assuming the AAS collection of this title is comprehensive during that period, Towne's six-days-a-week edition lasted less than four weeks when it went back to irregular.

So, similar to the asterisk next to Benjamin Harris's Publick Occurrences for being America's first daily newspaper despite only one issue, the Evening Post earns the title of America's first daily after three weeks of maintaining the frequency.

J. L. Bell said...

I understand some of Towne's daily issues were only a single half-sheet, printed front and back, and that he hawked copies in the streets himself. His political malleability might have left him unable to build up enough subscribers to sustain the business. Another Philadelphia paper soon became America's first successful daily.