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Old Newspapers, New Perspectives On The American Revolution

Nov 25, 2012
Originally published on November 25, 2012 7:33 am

Time has a way of condensing major historical events into a few key moments, with one-dimensional, legendary figures at the forefront. In his new book, author and archivist Todd Andrlik gives life and depth to one such event — the American Revolution. He uses newspaper reporting from that era to provide a sense of the Revolution as it actually unfolded.

The book includes eyewitness accounts, newspapers and battlefield letters — the kind of primary sourcing that's increasingly rare in our Wikipedia world. It's called Reporting the Revolutionary War: Before It Was History, It Was News. "It's not just newspaper clippings, it's the entire newspapers," Andrlik tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "These newspapers are not like we think of today, they're quite different in that they're only four pages in length, and only about 10 by 15 inches tall."

Andrlik says he went on a quest for 18th century newspapers that might contain accounts of the Revolution, sourcing them from people who'd found them in attics or in the walls of old homes. "They're available on the open market much like fine art or any other type of historical collectible.

"It's completely different," he continues — not just in size but in content. "There's no headlines. Back then, they used datelines because they were mostly printing news from other newspapers. So today we have AP and Reuters; back then they had a news exchange system where as soon as a printer finished typesetting his edition of the week, he would then send issues to other printers around Colonial America, and those newspaper printers would take extracts, often verbatim."

Andrlik keeps his antique newspapers carefully in acid-free Mylar folders, but he does take them out for display occasionally. A New Hampshire Gazette from April 21, 1775, has breaking news: the battles of Lexington and Concord. "This is only one of two Colonial American newspapers to print the news on its front page," he says. Newspapers from that era typically reserved their interior pages for important news "because that's what was typeset later in the week so it could be most current."

The Virginia Gazette of Aug. 26, 1775, is another notable newspaper, featuring an eyewitness account of the Battle of Bunker Hill. "And alongside that account is an engraving, or an illustration I should say, of the entrenchment on Breed's Hill [where most of the battle was actually fought]," Andrlik says. "This is one of a kind ... in the sense that this is the only known newspaper illustration to depict a current event during the entire American Revolution."

There's a lot more in those old newspapers than in your high school and college textbooks, he adds. "The Boston Tea Party, it was not universally celebrated in America. The 'Shot Heard Round the World,' well, it came very close to happening four months earlier, in New Hampshire. Benedict Arnold, he actually revitalized the American Revolution. The fact that Paul Revere was one of thousands of people caught up in the Battles of Lexington and Concord, and that he really wasn't mentioned in the newspapers of the period because they didn't want to let out how they had alerted the countryside."

Andrlik has some tips for readers looking for historical treasures in old newspapers. "It's an exciting kind of real-time adventure, but at the same time, you have things that you're not used to seeing, such as the old English 'S,' which looks like an 'F.' " The old papers pre-date standardized English, so there are frequent run-on sentences. "I think I counted once in a paragraph there were 40 commas and 22 capital letters," he says.

If he had to pick one favorite document from the time, Andrlik says he'd choose the Continental Journal from Jan. 23, 1777, which has George Washington's personal account of the crossing of the Delaware and the Battle of Trenton. "Each newspaper has exciting material and new discoveries. ... These newspapers are to me, the way to make the American Revolution real. Without newspapers, there would have been no Revolution."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Time has a way of condensing major historical events into a few key moments, with one-dimensional, legendary figures at the forefront. In his new book, author Todd Andrlik gives life and depth to one such event, the American Revolution. He uses newspaper reporting from that era to provide a sense of the Revolution as it actually unfolded.

His book includes eyewitness accounts and battlefield letters, the kind of primary sourcing that is increasingly rare in our Wikipedia world. The book is called "Reporting the Revolutionary War: Before It Was History, It Was News."

Todd Andrlik joins us in our Washington studio. Thanks for being here.

TODD ANDRLIK: Good to be here, Rachel.

MARTIN: So what drew you to this project?

ANDRLIK: It was love at first sight. It really was. Five years ago, my wife and I took our first family vacation after the birth of our daughter. And we went to Galena, Illinois, this cozy little kind of river town on the Mississippi. And there, on the main street, was a rare bookshop that I just stumbled into and discovered in this nondescript kind of container a newspaper from 1865 that reported the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. And that flipped the switch, holding the historical newspaper in my hand and reading the first draft of history

MARTIN: So you basically accrued this amazing collection of original newspaper clippings from the time to retrace the Revolutionary War. Where did you find these things, first of all?

ANDRLIK: Yeah, it's not just newspaper clippings. It's the entire newspaper. These newspapers are not like we think of today. They're quite different in that they're only four pages in length and only about 10 by 15 inches tall. So what I did is began kind of this quest finding them from people who had found them in attics, or behind walls of old homes, European book dealers. They're available on the open market much like fine art or any other type of historical collectible.

MARTIN: So give us a sense of what the journalism looked like at that time.

ANDRLIK: It's completely different. For instance, you open up a newspaper and the first thing that's going to strike you is that there's no headlines. Back then, they used datelines because they were mostly printing news from other newspapers. So today, we have AP and Reuters. Back then they had a news exchange system where as soon as a printer finished typesetting his edition of the week, he would then send issues to other printers around Colonial America. So if you found a newspaper and it was a Philadelphia newspaper, and it said Savannah April 14th, chances are that came from the Georgia Gazette.

MARTIN: So you've brought some of these newspapers with you. Let's take a look at some of these. You can go ahead and grab those.

ANDRLIK: OK, sure.

MARTIN: I mean we should note, these are very carefully preserved, right?

ANDRLIK: Yes. So these are in an acid-free kind of Mylar protective folder. And this year is the April 21, 1775 New Hampshire Gazette. What's unique about this is that it contains the breaking news of the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

MARTIN: And what the breaking news consists of back then?

ANDRLIK: Well, breaking news at that time was mostly rumor and hearsay.

(LAUGHTER)

ANDRLIK: I mean, people were...

MARTIN: And a couple of days late.

ANDRLIK: Exactly, so in this case, it's two days after the battle. The messengers had arrived in town. So the newspaper printer took whatever it could and tried to kind of work through what is fact and what is fiction and print in this front page article a smorgasbord of what had come in to the front office there.

MARTIN: Huh.

ANDRLIK: but what's really unique, Rachel, about this particular newspaper, this is only one of two Colonial American newspapers to print the news on its front page. Newspapers in the 18th century typically reserved the interior pages for the latest breaking domestic news because that's what was typeset later in the week so it could be most current.

MARTIN: Huh.

ANDRLIK: The other interesting note is that there's a headline here, a centered two-word headline: Bloody News. And so that surely caught the attention of the colonists reading this newspaper.

MARTIN: You also include some tips in your book about how to read these articles, right?

ANDRLIK: Yeah, you have things that you're not used to seeing such as the Old English S, which looks like an F but better resembles the manuscript S of the period.

MARTIN: And long sentences.

ANDRLIK: This is before standardized English. So what you see is a lot of run-on sentences. I think I counted once in a paragraph there were 40 commas and 22 capital letters.

MARTIN: What did you learn about that time by spending so many hours rummaging through these articles in these newspapers?

ANDRLIK: I think for me it was realizing that there's a lot more than what we gained in our textbooks in high school and college. The Boston Tea Party, it was not universally celebrated in America. The Shot Heard Round the World, well, it came very close to happening four months earlier, in New Hampshire. The fact that Paul Revere really wasn't mentioned in the newspapers of the period because they didn't want to kind of let out how they had alerted the countryside.

Without newspapers there would have been no Revolution. Newspapers are what fanned the flames of rebellion, they're what sustains loyalty to the cause. And they ultimately aided in the outcome of the war.

MARTIN: Todd Andrlik, his new book is called "Reporting the Revolutionary War." He joined us in our studios in Washington.

Thanks so much, Todd.

ANDRLIK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.