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Article updated: 1/2/2013 9:05 PM

Newspapers help to tell story of American Revolution

By Susan Dibble

Before the American Revolution was history, it was news -- reported in colonial newspapers up and down the East Coast and in papers on the other side of the Atlantic.

The growing tensions between the colonies and the Mother Country, the opening shots of the Revolutionary War, the reports of battlefield victories and defeats -- some written by George Washington himself -- were all avidly read by the American public.

Without newspapers, the American War for Independence might not have happened at all, said Todd Andrlik, whose new book, "Reporting the Revolutionary War: Before It Was History, It Was News," recently was named one of the top books of 2012 by Barnes and Noble.

"This is what fanned the flames of rebellion. This is what provided the critical correspondence of the colonies," Andrlik said. "This was the only mass media of the day."

Roughly 40 colonial newspapers existed at the start of the American Revolution, most with a circulation between 600 and 1,000, Andrlik said. Much like social media helped ignite the Arab Spring in the Middle East, newspapers helped unite the colonies and set them on a course that led to independence, Andrlik said.

When the citizens of Boston rioted against the hated Stamp Act of 1765 and caused the stamp distributors to resign, the report of what happened reached other colonial cities and inspired similar action.

"Boston set the tone for all the other colonies," Andrlik said. "The Boston papers served almost as a to-do list of exactly what you should do and how you should do it."

As the fighting shifted south, newspapers -- which often were read publicly -- apprised Americans of what was happening.

History firsthand

Andrlik, an authority on 18th century newspapers, said he has acquired nearly 500 newspapers spanning the period of 1763 to 1783 that tell the story of the American Revolution and form the basis of his book. In addition to newspaper accounts of the events of the day, the volume includes 37 essays by historians to guide the reader and Andrlik's own tips for reading colonial-era newspapers.

Newspapers of the period were published weekly with the news derived mostly from private correspondence, after-action battlefield reports from commanders in the field and extracts of articles published in other newspapers.

Before 1770, colonial papers were sharply divided between those with patriot and loyalist leanings. They carried no headlines, only datelines. Standard English didn't exist at the time, so run-on sentences and deviant spellings are common. For the modern reader, the language can be daunting, Andrlik said.

"You may be squinting a little when you read it, but it's worth the effort because this is what transports you back in time," he said. "This is the type of stuff that makes history come alive."

Take Washington's report of the crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas Day 1776 and the battle of Trenton that took place the next day. In an account written to the Continental Congress and reprinted in newspapers, Washington says the British-hired Hessian troops agreed to lay down their arms knowing that otherwise "they must inevitably be cut to pieces."

While Washington's account was accurate in what he reported, it also was designed to gain support for his army and encourage more patriots to enlist, Andrlik said.

"He was a PR person," he said. "Every military officer back then had to know how to spin the news in their favor."

A far different account of the battle of Trenton appeared in the London Chronicle, which acknowledged that Washington had defeated the Hessians, but asserted that many members of Washington's rebel army were deserting while the British Army was marching through New Jersey with nothing more to fear.

Since no photography existed at the time of the Revolutionary War, newspaper accounts are the closest we have to a visual report, Andrlik said. One eyewitness description of the Battle of Breed's Hill was so detailed, the publisher of the Virginia Gazette was able to put together the only known newspaper illustration of a current event during the American Revolution.

Consuming project

Andrlik's own interest in 18th-century newspapers was sparked by a trip to Galena five years ago when he stopped in a rare book and manuscript shop. In a container by the cash register, he picked up an 1865 New York Times reporting the award being offered for the capture of Lincoln's assassins.

"A switch went off. It just triggered in me this intense enthusiasm for history that I previously didn't have," he said.

Deciding that his own interest was in the Revolutionary War period, Andrlik put out word that he was interested in old newspapers. They came in from attics, behind the walls of old houses on the East Coast, eBay, bookstores, auction houses and European document dealers.

"You set it in motion and it just kind of happens automatically," said Andrlik, who lives in Oswego with his wife and two children.

To afford the old newspapers, Andrlik -- the head of marketing and media operations for a large construction and real estate development firm -- sometimes traded his services in Web design, video production and marketing. He sold old newspapers from other eras to private collectors and institutions, including the Library of Congress.

Three years into the project, Andrlik realized the newspapers were something to be shared and conceived the idea of a book. Taking samples of his original materials to Sourcebooks in Naperville, he readily found a publisher. He contacted historians to ask them to contribute essays and many signed on quickly.

"These historians understand these newspapers are treasures," he said.

The book was published Nov. 1.

"It's exceeding my expectations. I didn't know what to expect," Andrlik said.

Up to now, the newspaper accounts of the Revolutionary War mostly have been footnotes in history books. His account brings the newspapers into the spotlight.

"This book inverts the traditional history book," he said.

With 13 chapters and 384 pages, Andrlik's book is a coffee table piece, but he was not content to stop with that.

"It was very important to me that we use modern technology to showcase the material because this is how today's learners learn," he said.

Andrlik's website, beforehistory.com, includes a mini-archive of materials that includes colonial newspapers in their entirety, lesson plans written by a high school teacher, and some of the more than 100 videos he produced during the project. An enhanced e-book includes an interactive timeline and the majority of videos of interviews with the contributors. Barnes and Noble carries a limited edition of the book that includes replicas of the front pages of newspapers in the back.

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