Why We’re American: The History of Print

Why We’re American: The History of Print

Fireworks, barbecues, flags fluttering in the breeze—when we think of American independence, a plethora of images come to mind. And if you’re like me, you’ll see a big printing press along with them.  That’s right; while it didn’t lead the charge against the British, printed media played a vital role in the American Revolution. There is real power in the written word. Only so many people could attend a lecture, but anyone with reading ability could delve into a political pamphlet; what better way to incite patriotic passion than to mass-print your message and watch your ideas spread like wildfire?


Printing Origins


Printing in mass production originated in the 15th century in Germany, when a man named Johann Gutenburg invented a moveable type designed to print on a wooden press. As the idea evolved, spread throughout Europe and over to the Colonies, printing presses popped up all over the world. Newspapers and magazines were only issued about once every month or so, but it was a great step forward for print media.


Ben Franklin


On our own shores, the multi-talented Benjamin Franklin began playing around with the printing press. Fascinated with the power of words, he started out writing politically-charged letters under a pseudonym for his brother’s newspaper. Everywhere he traveled, from London to Philadelphia, he dabbled in the printing business, finally starting up a printing press of his own. He even published the first American political cartoon.


Common Sense


We all learned of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” in History class. It was the brochure that sparked the Revolution, voicing the opinions and frustrations of the Colonies. Copies sold as fast as they were printed; as word spread, so did the desire for independence. Imagine a new America without the blessing of print: although word-of-mouth is powerful, would it have rallied 13 colonies to its cause?


It may seem insignificant over 200 years later, but print media was paramount to our cause. Being able to communicate a clear message to people across all walks of life is what really cemented our American solidarity. This year, while I’m tending my barbecue and watching fireworks explode across the sky, I’m going to take pride in the fact that the pen—or in this case, the moveable type—is mightier than the sword.