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 19, 2018

“I am come to demand the author of the piece you printed”

Yesterday I described how the 18 Jan 1768 Boston Gazette published a critique of John Mein and John Fleeming’s Boston Chronicle that insinuated they were “Jacobite” traitors to the British Empire.

As a Scotsman, Mein was sensitive to that charge of disloyalty, so he went to speak to the printers of the Gazette, Benjamin Edes and John Gill.

Edes later published a detailed account of their discussion (which I’ve broken up into shorter paragraphs for easier reading):
In consequence of a piece signed Americus, published in the last Monday’s Gazette, Mr. Mein came to our office between 4 and 5 o’clock the same afternoon, and there being a number of persons present, he desired to be spoke with in private, accordingly I withdrew with him to another room—when he said, I suppose you know what I am come about.

I told him I did not.

Well then, said he, I am come to demand the author of the piece you printed against me; and if you will not tell me who he is, I shall look upon you as the author, and the affair shall be decided in three minutes.

In reply to which I said, Mr. Mein, above all persons in the world, I should not have thought a Printer would have ask’d such an impertinent, improper question; and told him that we never divulg’d authors; but if he would call on the morrow between 9 and 10 o’clock, being then very busy, I would let him know whether I would tell the author or not,—and added,—if we have transgress’d the law, it is open, and there he might seek satisfaction.

He said he should not concern himself with the law, nor enter into any dispute; but if I did not tell the author, he should look upon us as the authors, and repeated it, the affair should be settled in three minutes.

I then ask’d him, if what he said with regard to settling the affair in three minutes, was meant as a challenge or threat? which he declin’d answering, but said he would call at the time appointed, and then departed.
Already newspaper printers believed that they had the right not to divulge their sources—at this time, the sources of the articles they printed because they didn’t really do their own reporting. Mein, who hadn’t been in the newspaper business for long, viewed his dispute with “Americus” as personal.

We return to Edes’s story with what happened 250 years ago today:
Accordingly the next morning, I was at the office precisely at 9 o’clock, where I found Mr. Mein, who immediately after my entrance, and saying your servant, ask’d whether I would tell him the author of the above piece or no.

I told him I would not.

He then said he should look upon me and Mr. Gill as the authors.

I told him he might and welcome. I then ask’d him what he meant by saying the last night he would settle the affair in three minutes, whether as a challenge or threat?

He answered, if I would take my hat, and take a walk with him to the southward, he would let me know.

I told him I was not to be at every fellow’s beck, and did not regard him.

He then said, I shall look upon you as the author.

I reply’d, you may.

Your servant, and your servant.
On the one hand, the genteel civility of all those “Your servants.” On the other hand, two boys on the playground, taunting, “Oh, yeah?” “Yeah!” “Oh, yeah?” “Yeah!”

TOMORROW: Someone gets hurt—and it’s not Mein or Edes.


Mike said...

So basically, Mein is the Donald Trump of the 18th century.

J. L. Bell said...

There are some similarities (name-calling, bankruptcy), but a lot more differences, I’d say.

Schuyler Mansion said...

Not so much. Using information from the Inspector General of Customs, he had earlier revealed the names of all of the Whigs continuing to trade with England in violation of their own Non-Importation Agreements, to their considerable embarrassment. Their response was to seek personal and public retribution through anonymous publications and menacing by an armed mob who specifically threatened to kill him.[Nicolson, Colin "A plan "to banish all the Scotchmen": Victimization and political mobilization in pre-revolutionary Boston." Massachusetts Historical Review, Vol. 9 (2007) pp 64 Jstor.org] If this is in 1775, this is after years of antagonism for his "Whistleblowing".

Schuyler Mansion said...

Oops, saw 1775 in a different article in a different tab- sounds like this is the year before the publication of names. Mea Culpa. That's what I get for bouncing between article today.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, Mein definitely learned to play the game of attacking political enemies through insinuations in his newspaper, and publishing leaked information that would embarrass them. But that came to a peak in late 1769 and this exchange with Benjamin Edes was in January 1768, less than two months into Mein’s newspaper career.

It’s conceivable that Mein truly didn’t understand journalism ethics yet, or didn’t realize how they had developed in America. But I suspect he was aware of printers’ claims of confidentiality (which are still contested today). I think that because Mein saw “Americus” as making a personal attack on him, the situation felt different.

J. L. Bell said...

Under oath more than a year later, Edes admitted that he wasn’t sure whether he had said, “I was not to be at every fellow’s beck,” “…every rascal’s beck,” or “…every scoundrel’s beck.”