Saturday, September 25, 2010

September 25, 1690 – Publick Occurrences begins its Eternal Publication

The oldest multi-page newspaper in North America, Publick Occurrences both Forreign and Domestick, began its life as a humble four pages of six inch by ten inch paper (one page blank for readers to write their own news and hand around). Printed by Richard Pierce, the newspaper was published by Benjamin Harris, a well known publisher who had also done a paper in London but England in 1686 with the uprising of the Catholics under James II. Shortly after settling in America, Harris opened a coffeehouse and published the New England Primer, the Colonies' first textbook.

Single-sided newspapers had been printed for some time in Massachusetts, and Harris decided a new business venture in newspapers would be profitable. He would publish monthly, commenting on the significant happenings i.e., the news, though the early journalism was nearly gossip. One news article told of atrocities performed by Indians who were political allies of Britain, which became treated as seditious libel despite its truth. Shortly after its first edition, the government stepped in with a proclamation:

“Whereas some have lately presumed to Print and Disperse a Pamphlet, Entitled, Publick Occurrences, both Forreign and Domestick: Boston, Thursday, Septemb. 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.”

Harris was shut down and briefly jailed. Everyone that knew him assumed he would turn back to the safer business of textbooks, but something had pushed Harris too far. He had fled England fearing government, and yet government had found him in Boston as well. If he backed down his whole life, he may be outwardly successful, but he could not call it a life well lived. Overtly, he continued his publication of the Primer and maintained a good life. Covertly, he prepared the second edition of Publick Occurrences.

Printed in late October and handed out on the street, the paper contained editorials as well as selections from John Locke's Two Treatises of Government, emphasizing the social contract and stating that men gave rights to the government and not the government to men. Further pages quoted John Milton's Aeropagitica, a tract against censorship written in 1644, with lines like “as good almost kill a man as kill a good book. Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye.” The newspaper ended with another blank page excepting a line at the top from Milton, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

Though Harris had printed secretly and at a loss, the paper spread quickly through Boston and spilled into the rest of Massachusetts Colony. Furor arose from the liberty-minded colonists, especially as Publick Occurrences became known in Rhode Island where religious suppression had hurt many. The government hurried to destroy what copies they could find and jailed Harris again, though they had no proof that it was his paper.

Harris was acquitted when a third edition of Publick Occurrences was printed in November, quoting John 8:32, “The truth will set you free.” The press had gone underground, as Harris had planned knowing that he would be arrested again, where it funded by donations from colonists who picked up the free copies. Unable to stop the paper, the government cracked down upon those who hated it, which caused uproar from even those who did not approve of printing without a license. After years of investigations and fruitless arrests, the colony finally removed its requirement for license in 1694.

Having won freedom of the press, Massachusetts went through a newspaper boom and bust. Harris made and lost a great fortune, returning to comfortable income with his coffee shop, textbooks, almanacs, and Publick Occurrences. He decided to stay in Boston, where he died in 1716. While most of his estate went to his son, he purchased a farm that he bequeathed to what would become the Publick Occurrences Foundation to maintain printing the newspaper for “aeternal publickation” with its harvests.

Publick Occurrences continued to report on all of the news of the day, helping to spark the American Revolution in 1775. It remained something of a “subversive” newspaper, speaking out against the War of 1812 as well as the Mexican War as outright imperialism. A new golden age broke out for the paper during and after the Civil War, but then it became largely drowned out by papers during the turn-of-the-century wars between Pulitzer and Hearst. The paper nearly folded during the 1930s, printing only a handful of copies per month. However, as American mood changed to oppose the Nazis, the strong words of Publick Occurrences began the war cry. Its popularity would fade again as the radicalism of the Sixties subsided.

In 1990, to celebrate the beginning of its fourth century, Publick Occurrences launched online the developing Information Superhighway. The re-branded PO quickly added electronic forums to its digital publication, allowing for the voice of all. Other newspapers and websites emulated the system, soon beginning a craze for individuals “pubbing” short articles with observations, opinions, and links to sites, photos, and video.

In reality, Harris did not publish a second edition. He returned to London in 1695 where he published several newspapers before having the successful London Post 1699 to 1706, which sold freely out of his own shop.

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