Beginning with a small psalm book that filled a basic need in the devotional lives of colonists, landmark printings across the colonies captured moments in American thought.
With a bit of verve, luck, and ingenuity, printing was brought to British North America in 1638. Stephen Daye, a locksmith by trade, was under contract to establish a press in North America upon his arrival. In 1640, less than two years after landing in Massachusetts Bay, Daye and his son Matthew printed The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the first book to be printed in what is now the United States.
Spanning nearly 150 years, this article follows the spread of printing in the earliest years of the republic. American printing, often rugged, immediate, and practical took on a distinctive character and urgency. From sermons to pamphlets, newspapers, and broadsides, publications that gave shape to American causes and ideologies were distinctively products of the new American press. The work of such printers as William Bradford, Benjamin Franklin, John Dunlap, and Mary Katherine Goddard, who memorialized major moments in American cultural history, thought, and politics, carry the story forward.
Beginning with a small psalm book that filled a basic need in the devotional lives of colonists, landmark printings across the colonies captured moments in American thought. Over time, publications questioned governing authority and sparked thoughts of revolution, independence, and self-governance. The following tells the story of American printing as it evolved from a colonial necessity to the clarion of freedom.
The Bay Psalm Book
The decision to print a book of psalms metered for singing may seem an odd choice as the first book to be printed by the settlers of Massachusetts Bay, but this modest book served the larger purpose of the colony—to live within the reformed church. The Bay Psalm Book, as it is known, is essentially sacred text to be sung during the liturgy. A committee of thirty learned elders, including John Cotton, Richard Mather, and John Eliot, set about the task of creating a new translation of the 150 Hebrew psalms into English and casting the text into verse for singing.
Printing the Bay Psalm Book in 1640 required importing the tools and materials of printing to the new colony. The Reverend Jose Glover put this into action when he resigned his post in Surrey, England, and set sail for the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1638 with his family, possessions, and a printing press operation, replete with paper and slightly worn type. Glover died aboard ship, and it was left to his widow Elizabeth to establish the press.
Elizabeth Glover eventually moved the printing operation to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and placed it under the charge of her husband’s apprentice, Stephen Daye (1594?–1668). Daye was a locksmith by trade; his press work and spelling were inconsistent. Two centuries later, American printer Isaiah Thomas would remark that the Bay Psalm Book “abounds with typographical errors. . . . This specimen of Daye’s printing does not exhibit the appearance of good workmanship.” It was, nevertheless, the first full venture of printing in British North America, and this ambitious effort is an important monument of the establishment of this nation and its culture. It is estimated that 1,700 copies of the book were printed, which sold for twenty pence. Today, only eleven copies survive.
Library of Congress Copy of the Bay Psalm Book
The Library of Congress copy of the Bay Psalm Book arrived at the Library in the 1960s. The copy is in its original binding. This volume is one of the eleven extant copies of the Bay Psalm Book; it is one of the five surviving copies that lack a title page. Years before this volume was given to the Library, twelve pages were removed to complete another copy, now held by the New York Public Library. Meant to be sung during worship service, the metered rhyme imposed on the psalms often produced a somewhat awkward result. The book is open to the Psalm 23:
The Lord to mee a shepheard is,
want therefore shall not I,
Hee in the folds of tender-grasse,
doth cause mee downe to lie.
David M. Rubenstein’s Copy of the Bay Psalm Book
In November 2013, philanthropist David Rubenstein purchased this copy of the Bay Psalm Book at auction. It was the first time in more than sixty-six years that a copy of this rare book was sold on the open market. Mr. Rubenstein’s copy, which has been rebound, is complete and one of the six copies that includes the original title page. Other copies of the Bay Psalm Book are held by the Old South Church in Boston, Harvard University, John Carter Brown Library, American Antiquarian Society, Yale University, New York Public Library, Rosenbach Museum and Library, Huntington Library, and Bodleian Library. Both this copy and the Library of Congress copy were at one time in the library of the Reverend Thomas Prince, and therefore originally part of the historic Old South Church library in Boston. These two copies of the text are together for the first time since they were separated long ago.
Printing in Massachusetts
Stephen Daye stepped aside from the Cambridge Press in 1649 and his assistant English-born Samuel Green (ca. 1614–1702) assumed control until it ceased operation in 1692. Green was the first of a two-hundred-year run of family printers. His work exemplified the narrow range of publishing in seventeenth-century Massachusetts. With a purposeful selection of essays, sermons, and homilies, the press in this period served the church rather than the social and economic interests of a growing river city.
To produce the most significant publication of the Massachusetts colonial period, the Eliot Indian Bible, Green took on an assistant, Marmaduke Johnson (1614–1702), to manage the printing of 1,000 copies of the book, each more than 1,100 pages in length. Johnson went on to operate the first press in Boston in 1674 where he and others attempted to launch a newspaper. Despite several efforts of local printers, British North America did not have a successful, continually published newspaper until Bartholomew Green (1666–1732) printed the Boston News-Letter in 1704.
Although printing eventually spread to other Massachusetts towns, it was carefully controlled by civil and church authorities. An open press implied the ability to question standing authority and to promote heresy. Because newspaper printing often sustained the finances of a press operation, many Massachusetts printers found government intervention intolerable and moved out of the colony in order to operate viable printing businesses. Philadelphia, in particular, emerged as the next major center of colonial printing in the eighteenth century, in part, because its size and diversity attracted a more varied and robust press.
Eliot Indian Bible
Printed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, between 1660 and 1663, the Eliot Indian Bible was the first complete bible printed in the Western Hemisphere. As part of his mission to convert the indigenous people of Massachusetts, Puritan clergyman John Eliot spent fourteen years translating the Geneva English Bible into Natick, a dialect spoken by the Algonquin tribes in the region. Equally formidable was the story of printing the bible. Under Stephen Daye’s supervision, 1000 copies were printed by Samuel Green on the first printing press in colonial America. He was assisted by a newly arrived English printer, Marmaduke Johnson, who brought with him 100 reams of paper and 80 pounds of new type, including extra “O’s” and “K’s” necessary to accommodate Algonquin spellings. At its completion, the Eliot Bible emerged as the largest printing project in seventeenth-century America.
Disallowance of Colonial Statutes
The British government regarded the colonies’ new democratic institutions with caution. In order to control the colonies’ legislative assemblies the king’s primary council of advisors, known as the Privy Council, reviewed all laws passed by the colonies. The Privy Council confirmed or disallowed new legislation, a power that it exercised from the 1660s until the end of the colonial period. Disallowance of a statute meant that the statute was effectively repealed from the time the Privy Council rendered its decision. Typically the Privy Council sent handwritten notices to the colonies ordering any required changes in the law. This item is the only known printed notice of disallowance.
The Beginning of Printing in New York
The “Pioneer Printer of the Middle Colonies” William Bradford (1663–1752) was born into a family of English printers. He apprenticed in London with printer Andrew Sowle and married Sowle’s daughter. Together the couple set off to Philadelphia in 1685 to begin life as a Quaker family. Bradford’s training gave him a significant advantage over colonial printers who were less schooled in the craft of printing. He would become known for many “firsts”—the first printer in Philadelphia, co-owner of the first paper mill in America, printer of the first American paper currency, printer of the first book in New York, and the printer of New York’s first newspaper, the New-York Gazette. Like most early printers of the era, Bradford’s business was sustained by printing almanacs, newspapers, and government reports.
In the first release from his press, the almanac for 1686 titled Kalendarium Pennsilvaniense, or America’s Messenger, Bradford wrote: “I have brought that great Art and Mystery of Printing into this part of America, believing it may be of great service to you in several respects.” Bradford soon stepped into controversy when Governor William Penn took umbrage at a reference to him in the almanac. A later pamphlet printing further inflamed the issue. In 1692 Bradford printed a broadside, An Appeal from the Twenty-eight Judges to the Spirit of Truth, written by an opposing Quaker, George Keith. The text was found seditious, and Bradford was tried and jailed for printing without identifying himself in the imprint. With his release, he accepted an offer from the Provincial Council to become the first printer in New York.
New York Printer William Bradford
With his recent imprisonment fresh in his memory, William Bradford relocated from Philadelphia to New York, where he was promised the freedom to print whatever work he might procure. Bradford wanted to clarify the circumstances of his previous conviction in Philadelphia, resulting in the printing of New-England’s Spirit of Persecution Transmitted to Pennsilvania, usually identified as the first book printed at his New York press. The move to New York proved to be the beginning of an auspicious fifty-year career as royal printer to the colony and the official printer for New Jersey, as well as the beginning of a long line of Bradford family printers. The copy shown here is believed to be one of only five extant volumes of this publication.
Printing Colonial Laws
Colonial assemblies often failed to effectively publish the laws they enacted in seventeenth-century America. Most assemblies did not begin printing their session laws until after 1704, some began much later. Massachusetts, an outlier in this regard, began printing its session laws, albeit intermittently, in the 1650s. New York printed the laws passed by its legislative assembly beginning in the 1690s. This collection of the session laws of the New York General Assembly was printed by William Bradford. Bradford’s innovation was to number the pages of the pamphlets for each legislative session consecutively so that they could be bound together at a later date.
Spread of Colonial Printing
Printing was very slow to spread throughout neighboring colonies after it was introduced in Massachusetts Bay. It was almost exclusively an urban activity, and only then in cities with sizable populations. In 1720, Boston, New London, New York, and Philadelphia were the only cities with print shops. Twenty years later—a century after the Bay Psalm Book came to press—printing had spread to nine cities.
The harsh reality of the colonial economy was that larger book publications were more cheaply produced in England and shipped to the colonies. It was difficult for printers to stay afloat in the early period, and many printers sought out some form of “bread and butter” printing to offset the costs of their more elaborate printing productions. These colonial printing staples included government forms and proclamations, religious pamphlets, sermons, primers, chapbooks, and posters. Newspapers would later be counted on as a source of revenue, but before 1720 many failed. After 1740, with the reduction in government and church oversight, the establishment of profitable newspapers, and the larger role printing played in broadcasting information, printing emerged as a powerful and viable business.
The Beginning of a Free Press
After apprenticing with printer William Bradford at the New-York Gazette, German-born J. Peter Zenger (1697–1746) launched a second newspaper in New York, the New-York Weekly Journal, on November 5, 1733. The independent political newspaper was founded largely to challenge the authority of William Cosby, the governor of New York. After unsuccessful attempts by Cosby to shut the paper down and a declaration that four issues of the Journal be publicly burned, a bench warrant was issued that led to Zenger’s arrest for seditious libel on November 17, 1734. As a result of Zenger’s imprisonment, the November 18 issue was not published. Although he remained in prison for eight months, this was the only break in publishing in the paper’s history. In the November 25 edition of the Journal, shown here, Zenger offers an “apology” for the skipped newspaper. Zenger won his widely-publicized case, which planted a seed for freedom of the press.
Young Franklin in Boston
Born in Boston, Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) was the fifteenth child and the tenth son of Josiah and Abiah Franklin. His father attempted to “tithe” his son to the church in preparation for the clergy, but the expense was too great. Young Franklin was pulled out of school and, at age twelve, apprenticed to his older brother James, a printer.
In 1721 James Franklin published one of the earliest newspapers in America, The New-England Courant, the first to include literary pieces and essays in a newspaper format. The younger Franklin was drawn to the idea of appearing in print and submitted several failed efforts to make it into the pages of his brother’s paper. Finally, at age sixteen, under the pen name of Silence Dogood, Benjamin Franklin developed a character whose commentary appealed to James, which resulted in the publication of fifteen of Mrs. Dogood’s letters in the Courant.
When James Franklin finally learned of the true authorship of the letters, his anger separated the brothers. Soon thereafter James was charged and imprisoned for “scandalous libel” for controversial content in his paper. Benjamin left Boston and settled in Philadelphia. When the Courant was suppressed in 1727, James and Ann Franklin moved to Rhode Island and established that colony’s first press that same year in Newport.
Your Humble Servant, SILENCE DOGOOD
“Being still a Boy, and suspecting that my Brother would object to printing any Thing of mine in his Paper if he knew it to be mine, I contriv’d to disguise my Hand, & writing an anonymous Paper I put it in at Night under the Door of the Printing House,” wrote Benjamin Franklin about his letters under the pseudonym Silence Dogood. During a six-month period in 1722, Benjamin penned fifteen letters from this clever, sharp-tongued widow who held a satiric view of the world and cast a critical eye on the pretentions of Bostonians. Commenting on love and courtship as well as the travails of aging, Mrs. Dogood soon gained a devoted following, as well as a few marriage proposals. Franklin continued writing under pseudonyms throughout his life, creating full characters for his pen-names Harry Meanwell, Alice Addertongue, Timothy Turnstone, and of course, poor Richard Saunders.
Franklin as Colonial Printer
Arriving in Philadelphia empty-handed, Benjamin Franklin found work with printer Samuel Keimer. After several false starts with businesses and a near-fatal bout with pleurisy, he traveled to London in 1724 to carry out business that never transpired. Unable to afford a return trip on his own, Franklin spent the next year and a half working as a printer. As it had for William Bradford, training in the English craft of printing bolstered his skills and design aesthetic. By the time Franklin retired in 1748, he had established the largest printing business in colonial America and was considered its most accomplished printer.
For many, Franklin’s fame as a writer and printer rests on Poor Richard’s Almanack, which is recognized for Franklin’s homespun wit and wisdom, under the pseudonym Richard Saunders. But Franklin’s accomplishments as a printer were far greater. He built his business on the profitable formats of printing at the time—job printing, government forms and currency, almanacs, pamphlets, and newspapers. He rescued a Philadelphia newspaper from bankruptcy and in 1729 rebuilt it as the Pennsylvania Gazette (later published as the Saturday Evening Post), the most successful colonial American newspaper. He was the first printer to propose a monthly magazine.
Although Franklin would go on to distinguish himself as a scientist, diplomat, politician, and writer, his success was built on the foundation of his work as a printer. It brought him wealth as well as a public platform.
A Masterwork of Printing
Cicero’s Discourse of Old-age, Benjamin Franklin’s personal favorite from his press, is considered to be the finest example of the printing art in colonial America. This work by the Roman philosopher statesman Cicero is also the first classical work translated and printed in North America. In his “Printer to the Reader” note, Franklin explains that he printed this “in a large and fair Character, that those who begin to think on the Subject of old-age, . . . may not, in Reading by the Pain small Letters give the Eyes, feel the Pleasure of the Mind in the least allayed.”
In 1747, Philadelphia was facing an unexpected crisis. Spanish, French, and Indian privateers were raiding properties along the Delaware River and capturing vessels en route to Philadelphia. The safety of residents and the viability of the port city’s economy were under threat. In his pamphlet Plain Truth, Benjamin Franklin urged the Pennsylvania Assembly to unite and establish a defensive voluntary military force to protect property and vet the incoming vessels. Franklin later recalled that the pamphlet, of which more than 2,000 copies were printed, “had a sudden and surprising Effect,” especially given the Quaker residents’ penchant to avoid confrontation. The pamphlet included the first political cartoon of any kind published in America, foreshadowing Franklin’s famous “Join or Die” cartoon of 1754 in the Pennsylvania Gazette.
Poor Richard’s Almanack
As a writer, Benjamin Franklin is best known for the wit and wisdom he shared with the readers of his popular almanac, Poor Richard, which he wrote under the pseudonym Richard Saunders. In his autobiography, Franklin notes that he began publishing his almanac in 1732 and continued to do so for twenty-five years:
“I endeavour’d to make it both entertaining and useful, and it accordingly came to be in such Demand that I reap’d considerable Profit from it, vending annually near ten Thousand.”
March to Declaration
After the British Parliament passed the Sugar Act (1764) and the Stamp Act (1765), many colonists sought means to break from the tyranny of British rule and expand individual rights. The dramatic political and social shift played out in the pamphlet wars that fueled the American Revolution and shaped the early republic. Pamphlet literature informed the political conversation, and it is estimated that more than 1,500 titles were published between 1763 and 1783.
Popular pamphlets such as James Otis’s Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (1764), John Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (1767), and Common Sense (1776) by Thomas Paine exerted tremendous influence. Easily printed and distributed, pamphlets played a dramatic role in fomenting and spreading rebellion. Many went through multiple editions; others were republished in their entirety in newspapers. Patriots created loosely organized circulating societies as a means to gather, read, and forward important publications.
At the core of the printed arguments were the notions of the right to self-government and the value of a republic over a monarchy. Thomas Jefferson’s 1774 A Summary View of Rights of British America declared clearly that because of the king’s tyrannical rule, the contract with the colonies had been broken. Thomas Paine soon followed with his pamphlet that stated the American people, by their own virtue, were entitled to their own republic. The revolution in American thought, captured in print, was underway; and the rebellion was soon to follow.
“These are the times that try men’s souls.”
This extremely rare broadside printing opens with Thomas Paine’s famous overture “These are the times that try men’s souls,” which soon became the catchphrase for the struggle for freedom and liberty throughout the American Revolution. When Washington viewed the first printing of Paine’s American Crisis on December 19, 1776, he immediately ordered it read to his troops before crossing the Delaware River to attack Trenton on Christmas Day. The successful attack reaffirmed Washington’s command, bolstered American morale, spurred reenlistments, and laid the groundwork for another successful attack days later. Boston printer John Gill published this broadside as an extra in his newspaper, the Continental Journal. It is among the few appearances of The American Crisis as a separate text and the only one issued as a broadside intended for public posting.
A Summary View of the Rights of British America
In preparation for the First Continental Congress in 1774, Thomas Jefferson set out a list of grievances against George III in a short pamphlet titled A Summary View of the Rights of British America. In this strong opening volley of the Revolution, Jefferson complained about the punitive aftermath of the Boston Tea Party and asserted that the king and Parliament had no right to govern the colonies. The pamphlet was printed in Williamsburg by Clementina Rind (ca. 1740–1774), who continued editing and publishing the Virginia Gazette for a year between the time her husband died in 1773 and her own death in 1774. Clearly the pamphlet was never proofed by the author’s astute editorial gaze at its printing, as it was later heavily annotated with corrections by Jefferson, an uncharacteristic gesture by someone who otherwise rarely marked his books.
Nowhere is the impact of the printed page on the American Revolution more evident than in the printing and distribution of Common Sense. Published anonymously in Philadelphia in January 1776, Common Sense appeared at a time when separation from Great Britain was being fiercely debated. Through simple rational arguments, Thomas Paine focused blame for colonial America’s troubles on the British king and pointed to the advantages of independence. With more than half a million copies in twenty-five editions appearing throughout the colonies within the first year, this popular pamphlet helped to turn the tide of sentiment toward revolution. Because of its treasonable content, the pamphlet was published anonymously, but the printer Robert Bell (ca. 1732–1784) was willing to take on the risk. John Adams later commented that “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”
The Royal American Magazine
Throughout the Revolution pamphlets, posters, and newspapers fueled revolutionary zeal. Printers risked their property, and in some cases their lives, to continue a stream of pro-revolutionary rhetoric and information. Isaiah Thomas was no stranger to this notion. Thomas had successfully launched a short-lived monthly, The Royal American Magazine, or Universal Repository of Instruction and Amusement in 1774. As the title suggests, Thomas hoped to borrow the best of the style of the British press while advancing the patriot cause. Paul Revere supplied engraved plates for some of the illustrations, such as the one shown here.
Declaration of Independence
It is fitting that the means by which the colonies declared their separation from British rule was that of a one-page printed broadside. In fact much of the American Revolution was reported through pamphlets, posters, and newspapers. When actions demanded rapid distribution, the colonies turned to the power of the press to further the revolutionary cause.
Before putting independence to the vote, the Committee of Five (John Adams, Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson) was formed to draft a statement. Thomas Jefferson was chosen to write the declaration. Between June 11 and June 28, 1776, Jefferson penned the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, which firmly stated it was just and right that the colonies separate themselves from a rule that had so violated their contract.
On July 4, 1776, a draft of the Declaration, with key changes by Franklin, Adams, and the Continental Congress, was delivered to John Dunlap (1747–1812), owner of a print shop located near the Philadelphia State House. That night it is estimated that 200 copies of the “Dunlap Broadside” were printed for distribution to members of Congress, to commanders of the Continental Armies, and to King George of England. News spread quickly through the colonies; twenty-nine newspapers printed the text of the Declaration of Independence and colonial presses printed nineteen additional broadside editions.
Irish-born John Dunlap, who had served with Washington in earlier revolutionary conflicts, emerged as one of the most successful American printers of the period. His weekly Pennsylvania Packet, or General Advertiser, established in 1771, became America’s first successful daily newspaper. Because he held the contract as printer for the Continental Congress, Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence was delivered to John Dunlap’s print shop in Philadelphia. It is estimated that of the two hundred copies of the “Dunlap Broadside” that were printed, twenty-six have survived, two of which are in the collections of the Library of Congress.
Independence Declared / Rewards for Return of Slaves
First published in 1728, the Pennsylvania Gazette was the most successful newspaper in colonial America. It owed its success to Benjamin Franklin, who wrested control of the paper from Samuel Keimer in 1729 and then used his influence as postmaster to increase its circulation and list of subscribers. Franklin introduced the editorial column, humor, and the first weather report. By 1776, the paper was owned and run by David Hall Jr., the son of Franklin’s partner, David Hall Sr., and William Sellers. On July 10, 1776, they printed the Declaration of Independence on columns one and two. Advertisements fill the remaining page and include rewards for the return of slaves and indentured servants. Such advertisements were a major source of revenue for colonial newspapers.
Mary Katherine Goddard
From the outset, women in America were involved with printing as a craft and as a business. Women such as Dinah Nuthead, Anne Franklin, Elizabeth Timothy, and Anne Catherine Green assumed the task of printing and the management of the family business upon the loss of their husband or father. Two women became printers in their own stead: Jane Aitken, daughter of the printer of the first American English Bible, Robert Aitken, and Mary Katherine Goddard (1738–1816), who conducted the family printing business in Baltimore from 1774 to 1784. Goddard also served as Baltimore’s postmaster from 1775 to 1789. In 1777 she was chosen to produce “an authentic copy of the Declaration of Independence, with the names of the members of Congress subscribing to the same,” which for the first time revealed the names of all of the signers to a wider public.
John Hancock’s Plea for Support
By December 1776, the Continental Army was floundering. New York had been captured, New Jersey was under siege, and George Washington was being pushed back across the Delaware River. John Hancock approached Mary Katherine Goddard of Baltimore to publish this broadside to sound the alarm and plea for unity and support among the colonies. This is the only known copy of the Baltimore printing of this Revolutionary War broadside. Goddard, who would be asked to print a second edition of the Declaration of Independence in 1777, published more than 200 imprints during her career as a printer.
Now considered to be one of the most significant American contributions to political thought, the Federalist Papers, eighty-five essays that supported the ratification of the new U.S. Constitution, first appeared in New York newspapers in 1787 under the pseudonym “Publius.” From the moment the U.S. Constitution appeared as a document under consideration, it had been the target of attack. Alexander Hamilton responded in Federalist No. 1 that the authors would “endeavor to give a satisfactory answer to all the objections which shall have made their appearance, that may seem to have any claim to your attention.” Although it was widely known that the essays were the work of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, the authors maintained their anonymity to promote discussion of the substance of the essays.
Even as these essays on central themes of federalism were still appearing in newspapers, there was significant demand for their publication in book form. The New York publishing firm J. and A. McLean released the first thirty-six essays in volume one in March 1788. Volume two completed the series and included eight additional essays when published in May of that year. While The Federalist had an impact on New York’s vote for the Constitution, it had a less direct impact on the immediate issue nationwide. Several states had already voted for ratification before the book was released. By the time New York put the Constitution to vote, ten states had already ratified the document, one more than what was needed for ratification.
Advertisement for the Federalist Papers
The Federalist Papers initially appeared in three New York newspapers: the Independent Journal, the New-York Packet, and the Daily Advertiser. Beginning on October 27, 1787, the authors often published three or four new essays a week until May 1788. The essays were reprinted by newspapers in other states as the constitutional ratification debates were taking place. The publication of the essays in book form is noted by this front page advertisement in the New-York Packet—“in the presses and speedily will be published.”
The Federalist Papers were written specifically to advance the cause for a U.S. Constitution in New York. Their publication in book form was, in part, an effort to provide other states with a playbook for ratification, but the book appeared late in the process. Although it was widely known that the eighty-five essays that made up The Federalist were the work of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, the initial curious speculation about attribution of specific essays gradually developed into heated controversy. The authorship of some essays are still being debated by scholars. The edition on the left was once owned by Hamilton’s wife, whose sister gave it to Thomas Jefferson. As his notes indicate on the volume, Jefferson attempted to determine the authorship of each essay.
American printing came into its own at the end of the eighteenth century. By then most materials needed for book production could be obtained locally; it was no longer necessary to turn to Europe for paper, ink, type, or presses. In the century’s last decade, 13,000 titles were published in America. Many of these were the familiar almanac, pamphlet, or religious texts, but textbooks, spellers, arithmetics, and primers were also among that number.
By the time Isaiah Thomas (1749–1831), patriot printer and founder of the American Antiquarian Society, wrote History of Printing in America in 1810, 360 newspapers, including more than 20 dailies, were in print in the United States—more than in the entire circulation of Great Britain. Books published in the U.S. were still relatively expensive compared to their British counterparts. Full-length texts were uncommon, especially belle lettres or fine literature. Although moralistic works, such as Francis Bacon’s Essays or John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, were colonial blockbusters and religious texts still dominated the market, there is evidence that thousands of people were reading short stories, novels, and children’s books. With the onset of mechanized printing only a few years away, America would soon be awash in the printed page.
History of Printing
Isaiah Thomas’s enterprise in Worcester, Massachusetts, grew to be one of the great American printing houses, with its own paper mill and bindery. Thomas printed almanacs, newspapers, and magazines, and was the first to print music in America. He printed a folio bible in 1791 and then went on to publish the vast majority of school books and bibles used at the time in the United States. His History of Printing in America, with a Biography of Printers, and an Account of Newspapers celebrated the dramatic role printing had played in the formation of colonial America and marked the end of the era of the hand press.
First Bible Printed in the New Nation
During British colonial control, the printing of bibles in America was forbidden. Following the Revolution the dearth of bibles captured the attention of the U.S. Congress. When the call to import massive numbers of bibles failed, Congress entertained the 1781 petition of the Philadelphia printer Robert Aitken, who asked for sanction and support to print a bible. Publisher of the Pennsylvania Magazine and the initial Journals of Congress, Aitken had already printed several editions of the New Testaments before he proposed the project to Congress. Convinced of his credentials for this difficult task, Congress granted Aitken permission and financial support to print the first American bible. Although 10,000 copies of the Aitken Bible were printed, a copy of the first printing, such as the one shown here, is very rare. It is estimated that no more than forty survive today.
The First American Novel
Newspapers and pamphlets dominated publishing in eighteenth-century America. The printing of poetry and narrative fiction lingered behind. William Hill Brown’s 1789 epistolary novel, The Power of Sympathy, or, The Triumph of Nature, Founded in Truth, was the first novel authored by an American published in America. Mirroring European conventions for prose fiction, the book’s storyline was riddled with seduction, suicide, infidelity, and incest. Rational characters withstood these ordeals, while the overly emotive succumbed to their own weaknesses. Such themes were a means of promoting virtue in the new republic, focusing on the moral education of women and the standard of rational thought. Scandalous as the work might seem, it was published by the leading book publisher in America, Isaiah Thomas, which gave the work national exposure.
The Poems of Phillis Wheatley
Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral—one of the signal moments in American letters—was originally published in London, England, on September 1, 1773. Wheatley’s collection was the first volume of poetry by an African American poet to be published. Regarded as a prodigy by her contemporaries, Wheatley was approximately twenty at the time of the book’s publication. Although purchased as a domestic slave in Boston, she was educated in Latin, Greek, and the classics and, by age twelve, had published her first poem. Despite unsuccessful efforts to print Poems on Various Subjects in America, Wheatley found patronage to publish her work in London. She returned to Boston triumphant, only to be asked to defend the authorship of her poetry in court, under the examination of such Boston luminaries as John Hancock and Governor Thomas Hutchinson. The committee’s acknowledgement of her authorship, with a signed testimonial, was included in the 1787 Philadelphia-printed edition.