Hindsight might be 20/20, but events that will someday constitute history can be a muddle of myopia.
Todd Andrlik, a history buff who works in marketing in Chicago, has amassed a significant collection of printed newspapers, going back 250 years. He assembled many of them in “Reporting the Revolutionary War: Before It Was History, It Was News,” a coffeetable book describing the War of Independence day-to-day, as Colonial readers would have read about it.
It all started, as most things did, in Philadelphia.
Tucked into a somewhat wonky story about tax law in the Pennsylvania Gazette, dated May 10, 1764, is this item:
“Our other Advices by the Packet are, that a Scheme of Taxation of the American Colonies has for some Time been in Agitation. That it had been previously debated in Parliament, whether they had Power to lay such a Tax on Colonies which had no Representative in Parliament…”
Not quite the shot heard ’round the world, but this is the first known published account of a complaint regarding taxation without representation, the idea that would form the core of the American Revolution.
Newspapers of that era were much different than papers of today. Because of slow communication lines, “breaking news” meant events that happened weeks before. News was cribbed from personal correspondence, often reprinted from other newspapers as they flowed between the Colonies.
“The effort to go out and be a journalist didn’t exist,” said Andrlik. “As the war begins, you see news by after-action report; commanders would summarize the engagement, send it up the chain to the President of Congress. The President of Congress would circulate the summary to the newspapers.”
The reports from commanders could not be verified or cross-examined. Some decisive victories for the Colonies — the Battles of Trenton and Princeton — were summarized in British newspapers of the time as shows of force for the Crown.
The modern technology now wrestling news away from the printed page — the tweet, the blog, the status update — is being used in the service of historical news. The website of the Rosenbach Library and Museum, for example, is now posting historical images and documents pertaining to the Civil War as it happened 150 years ago, day to day, in real time.
“Reporting the Revolutionary War” offers a similar experience of plodding through historical accounts as they happened.
“You’re getting an appreciation for the length of time it took for this thing to unravel,” said Andrlik. “It’s not a quick one-page worth of bullet points. It’s 20 to 30 years of revolution. That, to me, is fascinating — you see this gradual unfolding.”
Fabric of history survives on rag linen
Ironically, the old technology of the day is why these newspapers still exist. In the 18th century, newspapers were printed on rag linen, a material woven from shredded clothes and sail-cloth — strong enough to withstand centuries. Today, paper is made from much flimsier wood-pulp.
Andrlik’s newspaper collection was photographed in high-definition color, and reprinted in the book with certain passages highlighted, guiding readers to the parts pertinent to the progress of the revolution. The rest of the paper is still legible, including, for example, an account of an infestation of caterpillars, an ad for a lost horse, and a short history of the Russian empire.
“For me, it wasn’t just the news pertaining to the American Revolution. It was the ads, the obituaries, the essays,” said Andrlik. “All of the contextual pieces I never got in textbooks.”
Andrlik included commentary from three dozen historians who put the old newspapers into context, and help readers see the forest through the rag-linen trees.