As we celebrate Revere’s legacy today, we should remember that political movements rely on more than leadership. They also need communication networks to unify different groups and rally them to a common cause. During the Revolutionary War, printers and editors did the physical work of producing pamphlets, broadsides and newspapers, but they also engaged in a great deal of intellectual work to shape the news and intelligence regarding protests during the crisis. Their work made the press a central component of national politics from the start and cemented freedom of the press as integral to the success of America.
It took only 10 weeks from when the “shot heard ’round the world” was fired on the town common in Lexington, Mass., until the establishment of the Continental Army in Massachusetts that summer.
How did disparate town militias gather together and transform so quickly into a single entity? They had access to all the necessary information.
That information ranged from anti-British tracts to local news to information on organizing across the colonies. During the 1760s and 1770s, a group of printers who supported the anti-imperial cause began to collaborate with political leaders to use their communications networks to spread arguments against British policies.
In Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston, printers took on leadership roles within the Sons of Liberty. Then they organized committees of correspondence that shared intelligence and news about activities across the colonies. Revere, after all, previously served as a courier. When protesters threw shipments of tea into Boston Harbor in 1773, he delivered the news to New York and Philadelphia. He also warned the town of Portsmouth, N.H., of a possible British incursion in 1774.
Patriots relied on sophisticated communications networks during this time that both allowed them to stay connected across the colonies and evade British eyes and ears. They built these networks on the existing infrastructure newspaper editors and their connections created as part of the ordinary course of business. Perpetually in search of news from London and other colonies, newspaper editors maintained ties with as many other printers and editors as they could. They circulated their newspapers to one another through the post office, which provided free postage for “exchange copies” sent between printing offices.