In the early days of the American colonies, newspapers were the sole provinces of the wealthy administrators of the English Crown. The cost was high, typically several pounds per week. At the time this was more than the average colonist’s monthly wages. These periodicals typical dealt with issues like European warfare and diplomacy and colonial statutes, important matters for English gentlemen but not for the colonists. As a result, there were rarely more than 2,000 subscribers for any given periodical. Until 1750, few colonies had more than a single paper in operation at any given time.
Nonetheless, the colonies had unusually high literacy rates. It is commonly estimated that around 90% of whites in northern America were literate by the early 18th century. By comparison, only half of the white populace in England was literate at that time. This was largely a result of the mostly protestant makeup of the northern colonies. Protestantism stresses literacy in order to ensure that worshipers could understand holy texts without reliance on the priesthood. In this way, Protestantism created a fertile ground for the newspapers that were to come.
Newspapers and The Revolution
After 1750, the situation changed dramatically. As the English crown began to regulate and tax more activities in America, politics became highly relevant to the daily lives of all those living in the colonies. Newspapers sprang up across the colonies, often with expressly political intent. One particular important moment for American newspapers was the publications of a series of newspaper articles entitled Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies in 1767. The series argued that because the colonists were not represented in the English Parliament, they therefore could not properly tax them. This series was published in over twenty papers in the colonies.
A few years later, a group of experienced debaters led by Samuel Adams used newspapers to inform 260 towns on issues of overbearing English policies and invited each to express their own opinions on the matters. Incredibly, most of the towns responded, with community leaders drafting documents and the whole town voting on the responses.
Thomas Paine’s Common Sense is rightly understood as the document that did the most to foment a revolutionary spirit in America. Its unprecedented sales of over half a million copies in the first year made it the most read political document of its time. Less appreciated is the extent to which Common Sense owed its success to the broad circulation of newspapers throughout the country. The tract received tremendous publicity from the papers. Furthermore, R. Bell, the pamphlet’s publisher, relied heavily on the distribution networks created by the newspapers in order to ensure the document would reach as broad an audience as possible.
News in the Republic
From the moment America gained its independence, the founding fathers recognized the importance of the press. However, until the federal government became firmly established in 1787 there were few large-scale changes to the system that had served the colonies before the revolution. The ratification of the constitution changed the situation completely. A relatively little known clause in the constitution, the Postal Clause, quickly brought a much larger scale system of distribution of information into being. This clause allowed the federal government to obtain a monopoly on mail delivery and use government funds and legal rights to expand the postal network.
A long line of postmaster generals, starting with Benjamin Franklin, did just that. In 1788 there were less than 100 post offices but by 1800 there were almost 1,000. Twenty years later there were 4,500. A large and connected mail routing system allowed citizens of the republic to send news to one another but the effect of the post office on news accessibility was far greater than that.
Those in charge of the federal government decided that even more important than private mail was the availability of newspapers to the public. In 1791, Madison remarked that Congress had an obligation to improve the “circulation of newspapers through the entire body of the people”. He helped champion the Post Office Act of 1792. The act included a provision for the delivery of newspapers by the Post Office at extremely low rates for delivery of newspapers. For the century following the passage of the Post Office Act, newspapers often accounted for more than 95% of the weight of mail transported by the post office, but never made up for more than 15% of the revenue. The result of this large indirect subsidy of the fledgling industry was enormous. In 1790, before the passage of the act there was less than one newspaper produced for every 5 citizens. By 1840 there were almost three papers printed per person.