Censorship During the Revolution Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The American war against Great Britain began with the battle at Lexington, Massachusetts, on April 19, 1775, but the struggle by American rebels for the support of their fellow colonists preceded this skirmish. It has been estimated by historians that colonists who remained loyal to the British monarchy may have numbered 20 percent at the most, but the strength of loyalist support varied widely between and within colonies. Disloyalty to the British crown was not a step taken lightly, and as long as the conflict was viewed as between the American colonies and the British parliament, many who were later considered loyalists or Tories often supported measured resistance to perceived threats to their liberties by Britain. The lines between American patriots and loyalists began to harden after Lexington, and they became fixed after the Declaration of Independence. Actions and even words against the American cause brought swift and often harsh censure.

The revolt of American colonists against British rule tested the rebels’ commitment to liberty; they suppressed dissent by those who expressed loyalty to Britain or dissatisfaction with armed insurrection.

The American war against Great Britain began with the battle at Lexington, Massachusetts, on April 19, 1775, but the struggle by American rebels for the support of their fellow colonists preceded this skirmish. It has been estimated by historians that colonists who remained loyal to the British monarchy may have numbered 20 percent at the most, but the strength of loyalist support varied widely between and within colonies. Disloyalty to the British crown was not a step taken lightly, and as long as the conflict was viewed as between the American colonies and the British parliament, many who were later considered loyalists or Tories often supported measured resistance to perceived threats to their liberties by Britain. The lines between American patriots and loyalists began to harden after Lexington, and they became fixed after the Declaration of Independence. Actions and even words against the American cause brought swift and often harsh censure.

Continental Association

In 1774 delegates from the thirteen colonies met as the First Continental Congress to seek redress of grievances against Britain that dated back to 1763. After failing in their previous attempts to petition Great Britain’s Parliament to rescind what many American colonists considered unjust encroachments upon colonial prerogatives, the Continental Congress set up the Continental Association to put economic pressure on Britain. Effective December 1, 1774, American colonists would cease to import goods from Britain, the British Indies, and Ireland. Effective September 1, 1775, colonists would discontinue their exportation of colonial goods to these destinations. Congress authorized the establishment of committees in every town, city, and county to enforce the association’s decrees. All voters eligible to participate in local elections could vote for committeemen. This enforcement apparatus was the first legally sanctioned effort to enforce compliance with the colonials’ struggle against the British. By 1775 local committees were summoning violators of nonimportation. They might be fined or have their names published in the local newspaper. The outcome desired by the committees was to have the dissenters sign oaths pledging themselves to the Continental Association.

One of the most outspoken and influential critics of British rule in North America was the British-born pamphleteer Thomas Paine, whose writings frequently got him in trouble. (National Archives)

Committees of Safety

The shedding of American blood at Lexington quickened the pace and resolve of American resistance to British authority. As the rebels brushed aside the governmental structures put in place by imperial Britain, they went about setting up their own governments. On July 18, 1775, the Second Continental Congress recommended the establishment of committees of safety in the various colonies to carry on the functions of government. Among the duties of these committees were the recruitment and arming of troops, gathering pledges of support for the nonimportation of British goods, and the apprehension of Tories opposed to the struggle for American rights. The local committees of safety drew sharp lines between friends and enemies of the American cause. While the phrase “enemies of the people” had been used in the Continental Association to stigmatize those who violated the commercial prohibitions of that document, this negative label was extended to any persons who expressed any disapproval of revolutionary activities or who took any action contrary to the American cause.

As the eyes and ears of American resistance, local committees of safety sometimes created situations to expose Tories. Some local committees circulated defense associations, which were agreements to take up arms against Britain. Persons who refused to sign these agreements were publicly labeled as enemies. Another tactic used to expose the unsympathetic was the official mustering of the local militia. Once the disaffected were identified, they came under the committees’ control. Suspects were watched, fined, required to post bond for their proper behavior, disarmed, imprisoned, or forcibly removed to other areas in the colony or to another colony. Sending away dissenters or getting them to flee to areas under British military protection served the purpose of separating the critics of the American cause from their neighbors, whom they might influence.

Punishing Loyalists

When the Second Continental Congress declared for independence on July 4, 1776, the necessity for a united colonial front against the British gained urgency. American rebels faced a war against the British military, domestic resistance from colonists opposed to independence, and lack of commitment from Americans who either maintained neutrality or changed their support depending on the latest military situation. Antiloyalist legislation and its enforcement depended on the relative strengths of the competing sides and the threat of the British military to local security. Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey each had significant portions of its populations either opposed to or neutral to the American cause.

In Pennsylvania, the legislature took steps to punish non-Associators. Many of these non-Associators were Quakers, whose pacifism kept them from supporting either the British or the Americans. Representing nearly one-third of Pennsylvania’s population, Quaker refusal to take up arms caused considerable resentment among the state’s militiamen, who pressured the legislature to penalize those not siding with the militia. A fine and an additional tax were levied against persons refusing to serve. In 1777 the legislature demanded that all adult, white male inhabitants take an oath of allegiance. Those who refused lost their citizenship, were disarmed, and could not sue to recover debts or engage in real estate transactions. In 1778 the legislature passed an act allowing the confiscation of property owned by notorious loyalists. During the next three years nearly five hundred were identified, and many lost their property. When the British evacuated Philadelphia in June, 1778, some loyalists failed to leave with the British forces. To make an example, twenty-five loyalists were hanged. It is not clear whether all of these Tories aided the British or if some merely held loyalist sympathies.

In New York Tories held a majority in the southern counties of Queens and Staten Island. The loyalists in Queens embarrassed their patriot opponents in November, 1775, during an election to send delegates to a provincial congress. The loyalists refused to send delegates, defeating the patriots by a vote of 747–221. After their electoral setback, the patriots sent twelve hundred troops to discourage the loyalists. About twenty were arrested. In December, 1775, Staten Island loyalists also voted not to send delegates to the provincial congress. After the suppression of Queens’s loyalists, the Staten Islanders decided to elect delegates.

A significant part of New Jersey’s population did not support the patriots. In the eastern counties, Tories held considerable influence, while neutrals, mostly religious pacifists, were numerous in the western counties. The legislature penalized active Tories, but pacifists in New Jersey did not suffer persecution.

The Press

Censorship of the press during the American Revolution was as swift and certain as was the suppression of individual dissidents. American patriots tolerated no criticism of their cause. The censorship of James Rivington illustrates the various means used to silence opponents of the Revolution. Arriving in America from Britain in 1760, Rivington established a successful bookstore in New York City. In 1773 he also decided to publish books, pamphlets, and a newspaper, the New-York Gazetteer. For a time his newspaper carried articles arguing both sides of the dispute between the colonies and the mother country. As the conflict deepened, Rivington began to publish an increasing number of pro-British pamphlets. Meanwhile, he published articles and editorials that satirized the Sons of Liberty. These radical patriots urged people to cancel their subscriptions to the New-York Gazetteer. Rivington’s pro-British pamphlets were publicly burned. On April 13, 1775, Rivington was hanged in effigy by a crowd at New Brunswick, New Jersey. On May 10, a mob entered his shop, damaged his press and other equipment, and tried to kidnap him. Rivington managed to escape to HMS King Fisher in New York’s harbor. After Rivington agreed to support the Continental Association, the provincial congress of New York agreed to allow him to resume his business. On November 23, an armed mob led by Isaac Sears, a leader of the Sons of Liberty criticized by Rivington, broke into Rivington’s shop and destroyed his printing press. This effectively ended publication of the New-York Gazetteer. Rivington fled to Britain in early 1776 but returned to British-occupied New York City to begin publishing Rivington’s New-York Loyal Gazette. This unabashedly pro-British newspaper continued until the British withdrew from New York City.

Impartiality did not fare much better than Toryism. In Boston, the Fleet brothers’ Evening-Post published news articles and letters from patriots and loyalists. Although denying public claims that they were a loyalist organ, the Fleet brothers ceased publication after the battles of Lexington and Concord. Even a pro-patriot paper could raise the ire of patriots. In February, 1777, the Maryland Journal, owned by the patriot William Goddard and published by his sister Mary Katherine Goddard, ran into trouble with the local Whig Club, who misinterpreted a tongue-in-cheek piece anonymously submitted by a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The satirical article advised the acceptance of the peace terms offered by the British ministry. The Whig Club demanded that the publisher leave Baltimore within forty-eight hours. The Goddards stood their ground, and the Maryland House of Representatives backed them. Two years later the Maryland Journal came under fire for publishing an article by General Charles Lee, who had been dismissed by General George Washington. The article was critical of Washington and aroused the anger of Washington’s friends. William Goddard was mobbed, forced to publish a recantation, and narrowly escaped hanging. Goddard appealed for state protection and published a disavowal of his recantation.

The need to protect military secrets and maintain popular support for the sacrifices of war make censorship common during wars. Censorship during revolutionary or civil wars is usually even more quickly invoked, and the penalties much harsher, than is the case with wars of other kinds. American revolutionaries propagandized to rally their countrymen to arms against Great Britain. They held no tolerance for neutrality nor opposition in their struggle for independence. Local committees of safety held wide powers of censorship that were used against individuals who opposed the war for independence. Despite abuses of power, the penalties were usually invoked to bring dissenters into the patriot camp. Compared to the violent excesses of the French Revolution, and the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, the censorship of the American Revolution was moderate; it was ironic, however, that such measures were taken in defense of freedom.

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