For the 83rd episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Teri Finneman spoke to Autumn Linford about the real story of James Rivington, the most infamous printer of the American Revolution.
Autumn Linford is a Roy H. Park Fellow and doctoral student at the University of North Carolina. She is the author of “Rivington Revisited: A Nuanced Look at James Rivington, America’s ‘Tory’ Printer” in the forthcoming September 2021 issue of Journalism History.
Featured Image: James Rivington, engraved by A. H. Ritchie. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)
Autumn Lorimer Linford: Like his pamphlets, like his newspaper, which, again, were preserved because they include some of the most influential pieces of the war. You know, these are the things that you learned about in high school. I mean, Hamilton’s songs are written about the stuff that Rivington published.
Teri Finneman: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports media.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Teri Finneman: And together, we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available at journalism-history.org/podcast. This episode is sponsored by Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History.
The Fourth of July is a time of celebration in America. A time to recognize the heroic patriots who fought for the nation’s independence. But how much do we really know about these patriots, their tactics, and the public’s attitude toward revolution at this time? In this episode, Autumn Lorimer Linford, a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina, discusses the vicious media climate during the Revolutionary War and the real story of James Rivington, a famous newspaper printer who tried to be objective and endured the wrath of the patriots. Autumn, welcome to the show. Why were you interested in studying the Revolutionary War press in the first place?
Autumn Lorimer Linford: You know, in all of my research I am very fascinated by moments of upheaval.
You know, when everything changes, and people have to adapt, and the Revolutionary War was very much one of those times. You know, we like to think about it now as this foregone conclusion that the patriots would win. The Americans were the good guy. We were on the right side. But at the time, it was really all just this big question mark. Most of those people still considered themselves British. Their identity was still British until very late in the game. You know, most of them wanted change, sure, but it wasn’t until the very end that people wanted that big of a change. And the very idea of starting a new country was, well, revolutionary. So it makes for this fascinating time period to study.
Teri Finneman: So today we’re focusing a lot on James Rivington. So why were you interested in studying him in particular?
Autumn Lorimer Linford: Sure. So I had learned like a lot of people do about Rivington as an undergrad in an intro to journalism history class.
In textbooks, he’s often pulled out as sort of the token Tory, you know, the one that – the one example of a pro-British printer that we pull out and talk about, and that’s very much how he was talked about when I was learning about him, as a Tory, as pro-British. And then later as a media historian, I was working on a different project, as you do. And I kept coming across Rivington. But things weren’t adding up, I guess. He was clearly a character, you know, he was somebody interesting. He’s a gambler, he’s a risk-taker, he’s somebody who’s clearly intelligent, but also has this really sassy, snarky side to him. So he was someone who was kind of fun to keep tabs on while I was working on this other thing. But then I kept running into things in the primary source material that didn’t match up with this hyper-British persona than I had been taught.
He would publish pro-British pieces, yes. But then he’d publish a rebuttal. He’d print something by Samuel Seabury who was, of course, a very famous Tory thinker. But then he’d print a rebuttal from Alexander Hamilton. You know, in fact, he was actually the printer that a lot of the great thinkers of the day went to, including Hamilton and Ben Franklin. Um, and then in his private correspondence, he would write, you know, to friends. Like a friend in Boston and say, oh, I’ve been printing this piece and it’s really going to ruffle some feathers. But it’s really well written and it gives the other side an opportunity to rebut it, right? So clearly, he wasn’t all Britain all the time. And the contradiction between what I had learned and what I was reading in the primary sources I guess it sort of set off my spidey senses.
You know, it made me think that maybe there was more to Rivington that I had thought.
Teri Finneman: So you mentioned his correspondence. Uh, you looked at his personal letters, how did you go about researching this project and finding those letters?
Autumn Lorimer Linford: Right. You know, I tried to find everything that I could get my hands on that he had written or published. And some of it was easy to find, like his pamphlets, like his newspaper. Which, again, were preserved because they included some of the most influential pieces of the war. You know, these are the things that you learned about in high school. I mean Hamilton songs are written about the stuff that Rivington published. Um, other things like his personal correspondence were a little bit harder to find. That took all kinds of research. You know, online, physical archives, microfilm, really anything I could find, everything I could find. But that I think is actually the fun part of this type of research.
You know, there’s nothing like that moment when you realize that you can recognize your subject’s handwriting out of a stack of 250-year-old letters. That’s when it all comes alive, that’s when it gets really fun.
Teri Finneman: So people today think the media now is so vicious and partisan. But they have no historical context of what the press in this country was like in its early years. Around the time of the Revolutionary War, there was also a determined pro-British branch here in this country as you talked about. Not everyone here was a patriot wanting American independence. And newspapers set up in these partisan camps. So tell us more about what the press was like in the 1700s.
Autumn Lorimer Linford: Sure, uh, you know, the revolution really eventually made everybody pick a side. And New York was one of the worst places for that. It was already a big place, it was already a major city, and so you have this strong contingent of British supporters.
But also this growing group of revolutionaries, and in the middle of that, like you said, is a fight over the freedom of the press. Objectivity at the time wasn’t really a thing [laughs]. They talked a lot about the free press, and they talked about being impartial. But it was actually expected that newspapers would pick a side. And they were punished if they didn’t, you know, financially or through threats or through physical violence. It was partisanship under the name of impartiality. I think you also have to remember that at the time, the printer really was the end all, be all of the press. He was the editor, sometimes he was the writer. Often, he’d get news and opinions that would be sent in by regular citizens or by contributors, and then that stuff would get published. But it was always the printer who had the final say on what made the cut, on what actually made it into the press.
So that’s a lot of pressure on one, well, often one man to make very public decisions about who he was going to support. And especially, in this case, you know, it got to the point that if you didn’t wholly support the patriots, you were in big trouble.
Teri Finneman: Yeah, I think that’s really interesting because when people are told the story of the Revolutionary War, they mostly hear about the patriots, who are framed as these great men who stood up for ideals and who are given this heroic framing. So I remember the first time that I read that these people weren’t always the angels that they’ve been made out to be and how eye opening that was, which we’re going to delve into further. So let’s talk more about how printers at this time used the pages of their newspapers to attack one another in print. What were some of the words exchanged from both the Tory and the patriot papers?
Autumn Lorimer Linford: Yeah, there was a lot of – a lot of trash talk between printers going on. It’s actually pretty fun to read if you ever have the time. Uh, you know, one would call another detestable or treasonous. Obnoxious was another word that they used a lot. They would call them ugly. They would write little mean poems about each other and print them, which for some reason always strikes me as just insult to injury, you know, if you take the time to not only insult someone’s intelligence but take the time to make it rhyme. It just makes it that much worse, I guess. Rivington himself was called liar, he was called haughty, dirty, malicious, a sycophant, despotic, a pest. Abagail Adams actually called his newspaper The Lying Gazette.
Another writer called him – called his newspaper full of twistifications. Um, so, yeah, there was a lot of insults going back and forth. It wasn’t – it wasn’t all polite, for sure.
Teri Finneman: Yeah, so let’s talk more about Rivington. Uh, he created controversy a number of times with his paper. So let’s talk about one of the first times that he upset people, and Gazette subscriptions were canceled en masse as you describe. Uh, what was happening early on that made people so mad at his newspaper?
Autumn Lorimer Linford: All right, so this is a bit of a story. So in 1774, Rivington made two very important enemies. One was John Holt, who was another New York printer who was adamantly patriot. And the other, uh, enemy that Rivington made was Isaac Sears who was the head of the New York Sons of Liberty. And Sears was a real thug, [laughs].
Um, this guy, you know, he was not Johnny Tremaine, he’s not the Son of Liberty that you’re taught in elementary school. He was a dangerous man who was quick to violence and had a mob backing him up. So Rivington’s fight with those two starts in August of ’74. In one article which Rivington did not write but he did print, he called Holt an abhorrent to all good men and a pest to society. So Holt gets offended by this and calls Rivington out basically saying, “What did I ever do to you? you know, I – I’ve never printed anything bad about you. Why would you print this about me?” He also visits Rivington’s print shop and told Rivington that there would be consequences, you know, if he ever printed another attack on him. But, of course, Rivington being the risk-taker, the sassy pants, the guy who can’t ever back down from a fight, he prints the entire exchange,
which embarrasses Holt and turns him into a formidable enemy. He – Rivington might have survived that little feud that he started if he hadn’t also called out Sears. So in the same newspaper that he printed the exchange with Holt in, he also prints this article written by a merchant of New York, which calls Sears among other things Sir Francis Wronghead.
Teri Finneman: [Laughs].
Autumn Lorimer Linford: Um, yeah, and Sears just blows up. He storms over to Rivington’s office. He demands to know who wrote this article? But Rivington has always said that he won’t reveal the names of his sources. So Sears writes him a letter and accuses Rivington of skulking behind his press, and he basically says if you don’t tell me who wrote this so that I can go beat them up –
I’m going to consider you the author and just beat you up instead. And again, Rivington, because he is who he is, he prints the whole thing, and in this response, he prints – well, first you have to understand Rivington’s newspaper is one of the best printed, you know, skillful-wise in the colonies. He takes excellent care of, you know, making sure that every word looks right. That it’s edited correctly, that it’s – it’s beautiful. Um, that the ink is, you know, mixed properly, everything. But in this letter that he writes of Sears, he includes every grammar and spelling and every kind of mistake in the book that you can possibly make on this. Now whether or not Sears actually made those mistakes in his original letter to Rivington is, you know, anybody’s guess at this point.
But it makes Sears look like a fool [laughs]. It makes him look like he’s, you know, just someone throwing a tantrum. It makes him look very, very foolish. And then to top it off, Rivington writes his own little response to this letter underneath it and makes fun of him. Which, of course, a bully like Sears just can’t let go, and in making fun of Sears and making an enemy out of Sears, Rivington also makes him a target – himself a target for all the Sons of Liberty. They wrote against him in other papers, they threatened him, they threatened his distributors, and they really make his point. So it’s suddenly dangerous to have a copy of Rivington’s Gazette.
And Rivington, and again, as a gambler, as a risk-taker, he actually prints a little notice claiming that all his subscriptions – subscriptions are actually rising because of all of this. Kind of a no press is bad press kind of thing. He actually writes when you damn the printer and burn his pamphlet, he laughs, reprints, triumphs, and fills his pockets. Uh, but the whole thing is a bluff. He really is just bleeding customers. Within six months of this exchange with Holt and Sears, there are at least 21 different towns that cancel the entire town’s worth of subscriptions and just en masse. South Carolina bans his newspaper outright. Newport, Rhode Island, boycotts anything written by, published by Rivington. So he’s losing communities, whole communities, whole providences just in one go.
Teri Finneman: Wow, and then I mean it doesn’t get better the – from there right? I mean, there’s just this constant cycle of Rivington printing and people getting mad [laughs].
Autumn Lorimer Linford: Yeah.
Teri Finneman: But it’s – it starts to get more serious. You talk about to the point that his life is in danger. So talk more about some of the serious backlash that he faced as this kept building.
Autumn Lorimer Linford: Right, things just escalate from there. You know, first they start with his pamphlets and his newspaper. They burned his – his printings they – he actually – they actually tarred and feathered some of his pamphlets because they couldn’t get him. They started out with threats to him, he was hung in effigy, he was burned in effigy. Which, of course, he responds to in the snarkiest way possible. But that only leads to more threats of violence, and at this point, even his friends are begging him to pick a side and preferably the patriot side because, throughout all of this, Rivington is still trying to print both sides.
And it’s starting to take a little bit of a toll. He’s starting to print a little more on the Tory side than the patriots. But he’s still trying to keep it pretty balanced. This all culminates in May of ’75 by which time the Loyalists in New York, most of the people who believed in the British cause, had already left New York. It had gotten dangerous enough that they had fled. Rivington, of course, stays, and he prints some more pamphlets that were finally it for the patriots. They had had it. So Sears, our old friend and bully, finally had the backing that he needed to really go after Rivington. So the first time he goes after him, he leads a mob in the middle of the night to Rivington’s house and they try to kidnap him. Luckily, some neighbors hear Rivington screaming and they rescue him. They actually hide him up a chimney so that the mob can’t find him.
And when the mob can’t find him, they head over to the print shop instead. They destroy his press, they throw his type, you know, the tiny little individual metal letters that they would use to set the press. Uh, they threw those into heaps in the dirt. They carried some of them away and melted them into bullets. Rivington hides on a boat for a little while with his family then comes back. He prints another essay that again really gets to the patriots, and this time, this is, you know, the final, this is it for the – for Sears and the mob. This time in the middle of the day, Sears with 75 other men on horseback surround Rivington’s shop and they take everything. They – all the printing equipment, all the type, even that week’s newspaper edition.
They destroy everything that they can on site and anything that they can’t destroy right then and there, they load up in – load it up in a cart and take it away. So Rivington is just left with nothing. And to really add insult to injury, a crowd of about 1,500 people gather around and cheer while the mob is destroying this man’s whole livelihood, whole life and career. And they sing Yankee Doodle as the cart pulls away. So within a couple of days, Rivington is also receiving death threats. He’s receiving threats of very frighteningly explicit threats of mutilation, and, you know, all the things that would happen to him if he stuck around. And this time it’s bad enough, Rivington actually takes his family and flees to England for a little while.
Teri Finneman: So you mentioned Alexander Hamilton earlier, and both Hamilton and James Madison were weighing in on that, all of this. So what stance did they have on Rivington?
Autumn Lorimer Linford: [Laughs]. So Madison is actually interesting. He basically wants five minutes alone behind the woodshed with Rivington. He – he wrote to a friend that if he had Rivington alone for 24 hours he would “meet with adequate punishment.” Hamilton – Hamilton is an interesting case in this instance. You know, of course, Hamilton was not exactly known for his temperance. He was not known for having a whole lot of chill and yet he said he thought that the mobs had gone too far. He basically says, “Look, I know that Rivington is awful. And I know that his press is dangerous and detestable.
But I can’t help but disapprove and condemn this step of destroying everything that Rivington had, of threatening his life.” So even Hamilton who, again, not really known for being a laidback kind of guy thought that the mobs had crossed a line.
Teri Finneman: So after all that Rivington has been through and how he’s been treated by the patriots, you wrote that he went full on Tory and spent the rest of the war gleefully reprinting rumors, undercutting patriot leaders, and spreading outright lies. So what were the kinds of things that he printed after he gave up on objectivity?
Autumn Lorimer Linford: Right. So he spends two years in Britain and then comes back again because, of course, he does. Because he can’t ever say no to a fight, and this time he doesn’t even try to pretend that he’s impartial. He prints real stolen correspondence from George Washington.
He prints fake correspondence from other patriot leaders. He makes fun of how scruffy the patriot troops are. He makes fun of the fact that the Americans can’t pay their troops and really does everything he can to point that out whenever he can. He makes an atlas with maps that mark all of the places where the patriot troops were defeated. I mean he does everything he can to undercut the patriots or make fun of them. You know, he basically becomes the partisan monster that the patriots had spent all of this time accusing him of being.
Teri Finneman: Mmm. So what do you think is the main lesson to take away from his story?
Autumn Lorimer Linford: You know, really, I think Rivington is a great example of how the circumstances you’re in can affect journalists, too.
He genuinely tried to remain impartial, but eventually just succumbed to what was happening around him. I think it’s a good reminder that the printers of the revolution who we all agree were enormously influential in the American Revolution were not immune to their circumstances. And I think it’s always a good reminder that when we look at history that the people are always nuanced. You know, they’re – they’re people.
Teri Finneman: And then our final question of the show is why does journalism history matter?
Autumn Lorimer Linford: Okay, I’ve been – I think about this a lot, actually [laughs]. I think journalism history matters because journalism matters. You know, I – I believe in journalism, I believe that good journalism is essential for so, so many reasons. And I think that if you believe that journalism is essential –
then you have to believe that journalism history is essential, too. Everything that we do is tied to our past. If you want to talk about media law, if you want to talk about media ethics, the basic structure of a news article, the way we treat our sources, basic AP style, it’s all tied to media history. It’s media history that shapes who we are and what we do as journalists. So to me, if you appreciate journalism, if you think it’s important, then you have to appreciate its history, too.
Teri Finneman: Okay, well, thanks so much for joining us today.
Autumn Lorimer Linford: Thank you.
Teri Finneman: Thanks for tuning in and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter at jhistoryjournal. Until next time, I’m your host Teri Finneman signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow. Good night and good luck.