First English Newspaper in the America, Check—First Censorship, Double Check
Back in the days when I was in school one of the
little factoids that I learned that stuck with me was the first newspaper in
the Colonies was Publick
Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick which was issued on September 25,
1690 in Boston.
What I was not told in school was that within days
of first appearing and before any second addition could be printed, it was
suppressed by the Governor and Council of
the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
It was also, depending how you define it, not really
the first newspaper. Single page broadsides containing local news and reports
picked up from merchant ships about affairs in the Motherland and in Europe,
were sporadically printed earlier. What
differentiated this effort, which was printed by Richard Pierce and edited by
Benjamin Harris, was that it contained multiple pages and was meant
to be issued regularly under the same title—monthly or “or, if any Glut of
Occurrences happen, oftener.”
The paper had four six by ten inch pages. Editor Harris could, however, only find
enough news for to fill three of them.
Perhaps the need to pad the paper is what got it in trouble. In addition to local gossip, like the
grieving widower who hung himself, epidemics of “fevers and agues” as well as small pox, and a fire that had consumed
much of the city, the big news of the day was the war with the French—King
Williams War and attempts by colonial forces and their native allies to invade Canada.
Harris had to rely on word gathered from travelers and
rumor, including reports that native allies of the colonists had abused French
soldiers taken prisoner. The editor was
outraged and suggested that colonial forces should abandon the use of native
allies—“if Almighty God will have Canada ſubdu'd without the aſſiſtance
of thoſe miſerable Salvages.”
Since it was virtually impossible for a European
army to effectively fight in the wilderness without native auxiliaries, this
report undoubtedly irked authorities.
There were several other reports of skirmishes,
ships taken and the like gleaned from visiting ships. And big news of a victory by William of
Orange in Ireland. To this report was
amended a juicy bit of gossip—that the son of the King of France might ally
himself with the Huguenots and rise
against his father because “the Father used to lie with the Son’s Wife.”
That bit of scandal was too shocking for
authorities. Just four days after the
journal hit the streets, on September 29, the Council issued the following
Whereas some have lately presumed to Print and
Disperse a Pamphlet, Entitled, Publick Occurrences, both Forreign and
Domestick: Boston, Thursday, and September 25th, 1690. Without the least
Privity and Countenace of Authority. The Governour and Council having had the perusal
of said Pamphlet, and finding that therein contained Reflections of a very high
nature: As also sundry doubtful and uncertain Reports, do hereby manifest and
declare their high Resentment and Disallowance of said Pamphlet, and Order that
the same be Suppressed and called in; strickly forbidden any person or persons
for the future to Set forth any thing in Print without License first obtained
from those that are or shall be appointed by the Government to grant the same.
The paper became the first ever to be banned in Boston.
Some of my friends in Unitarian Universalist history circles are highly protective of the
reputation of our Puritan forbearers. They will
tell you that the Puritan are misunderstood and misrepresented. If you suggest that the Massachusetts Bay
Colony at this late date—three generations from the founding in 1630—that the
colony was still essentially a theocracy they
will react as if you had laced their morning coffee with molten lead.
These historians will point out that the powerful clerics of the Standing Order had long since surrendered their
role in civic administration of the colony, that voting and meetings of Towns
were strictly separate from the Churches.
Church membership was no longer required for participation in government,
although attendance at approved services was compulsory as was support of the
Church through taxes. But whether they
held office or not, the clergy of Boston were the power behind any
government. Their relationship was much
the same as the council of Mullahs on the Iranian government today.
I will go ahead and call that Theocracy and blame
the first act of public censorship of the press squarely on the shoulder of the
The action by the Council understandably deterred
others from founding newspapers. It took
14 years for a newspaper to finally be successfully established. The Boston News-Letter, a
single, double sided sheet, finally made its appearance on April 3, 1704. It continued publishing under variations of
the News-Letter name until February
1776. Because of its Tory sympathies, it was suppressed when the British evacuated Boston and George Washington new Continental Army moved in.
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