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Convention: A Daily Journal

Center for Civics Education

Convention: A Daily Journal

Convention: A Daily Journal is a day-by-day journal of the 1787 Constitutional Convention convened by twelve of the original thirteen states to amend the Articles of Confederation and create a “more perfect union.” It chronicles the daily activities of the Convention, profiles the delegates and their interactions with each other, and looks back to life in America in the 1780s. Writing in the first person, the story is told from an “observer” hearing events as told in contemporary newspaper accounts and delegates’ personal notes and letters.

Sunday, August 5, 1787

August 05, 2020 - 4 minute read

New England Primer and Benjamin Harris First Journalist

Newspapers throughout the United States have published what little they know of the Constitutional Convention. Media coverage began in February as soon as the Continental Congress approved the resolution to hold a Convention and escalated as each State appointed its delegates. Most newspapers have insisted the convention act quickly, citing various reasons for such urgency. Most have offered their own opinions, well aware of their ability to influence public opinion. David Humphreys, an aide to George Washington during the war and his private secretary after the war, noted that “judicious and well-timed publications have great efficacy in ripening the judgment of men.”

There are approximately sixty weekly newspapers in the United States, a dozen by-weeklies, and half that many dailies. It is difficult to determine their circulation: many papers pass through several hands before being discarded as well as being found in taverns, inns, and coffee houses. A majority of newspapers are openly partisan, and some politicians are actually connected with specific newspapers. For example, Alexander Hamilton is a founder of the New York Post. Benjamin Franklin, on the other hand, resisted making his Pennsylvania Gazette partisan until the days leading up to the Revolution.

The first newspaper in America was Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick, published in Boston on September 25, 1690, by Benjamin Harris and printer Richard Pierce. Unfortunately, it was suppressed after its first edition. The colonial governor and council, having “perused” the paper and “finding that therein is contained reflections of a very high nature,” ordered copies of the paper destroyed and “strictly forbade any person or persons for the future to set forth anything in print without license first obtained” from the government.

Benjamin Harris was not a novice in the newspaper business when he emigrated from England to America in 1686. In London, he had been a publisher of books, pamphlets, and a newspaper, much of it anti-Catholic. In 1679, after publishing Charles Blount’s tract opposing the succession of James, Duke of York, and painting a lurid picture of what life might be under a Catholic king, Harris’s printer was seized, and he was convicted and fined for seditious libel. The pamphlet was burned by the common hangman (a symbolic execution). Unable to pay the fine, Harris was sent to prison, but when released resumed his attacks on the government and finally left England with his family to avoid persecution.

In Boston, Harris opened the London Coffee House where both men and women had access to foreign books and newspapers. In the first and only edition of Publick Occurrences, Harris promised his readers a monthly account of events, “or if any glut of occurrences happen oftener,” so that “people everywhere may better understand the circumstances of public affairs, both abroad and at home.” He also pledged to “obtain a faithful relation of all such things,” to print only “what we have reason to believe is true,” and to pursue “curing, or at the least the charming of that spirit of lying which prevails amongst us.”

Although no specific excerpts of Publick Occurrences were cited in the governor’s order to cease publishing, the objectional content included criticism of British military treatment of French prisoners during the first French and Indian War as well as rumors of immorality in the French royal family. In spite of being forced to shut down Publick Occurrences, Harris continued to run the coffee shop and even received contracts to print some government materials. Before returning to England in 1685 to begin publishing The London Post, Harris published his greatest American legacy, The New England Primer.

The New England Primer was the first reading primer written for the American colonies and remained the most popular until Noah Webster’s Bluebook Speller a hundred years later. Employing traditional grammatical tools, the Primer also used the alphabet and rhymes to teach moral lessons such as, “In Adam’s Fall, we sinned all,” and “Thy life to mend, This Book attend.” His most famous verse is, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take.”

No other newspaper appeared in the colonies until 1704 when the Boston News-Letter was published. However, the paper was heavily subsidized by the government and its contents approved by the governor. Unsurprisingly, the paper ceased to exist when the British evacuated Boston in 1776. It wasn’t until 1735 that the first serious blow was struck against government censorship. In New York, John Peter Zenger had published editorials in the New York Weekly Journal criticizing the government and was thrown into prison by the colonial governor on the charge of libel. While in prison and during his trial, he continued to edit his paper, exciting public interest throughout the colonies. His attorney, Andrew Hamilton, advanced the novel idea that the statements printed by Zenger were true and, therefore, could not be libelous. The jury deliberated for only ten minutes to find Zenger not guilty, laying the groundwork for freedom of the press in America.

During the revolutionary period, attempts were made by both loyalists and colonial forces to control or suppress opposition newspapers in areas under their control, but the major difficulties they faced were shortages of paper and irreplaceable worn out type. Mail service was poorer than ever, interrupting distribution, while the availability of foreign newspapers was acute. Nevertheless, rhetorical combat was a critical tool fostering independence and collaboration among the colonies. In recent years, leading up to 1787, the number and quality of newspapers have increased; they will undoubtedly engage vigorously in the debate sure to arise when the Convention presents a plan for a new national government.

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