Before and during the American Revolution, the British and the colonists made extensive use of propaganda to build support for their causes. Years before the first shot was fired, newspapers and pamphlets distributed throughout the colonies argued support for colonial independence from the British crown. Famous patriots such as Benjamin Franklin and Paul Revere also published newspapers, and their propaganda defined basic ideals of American patriotism that carried through to modern times.
The Makings of a Massacre
Five years before the first revolutionary shots were fired, American patriots made use of an incident in the streets of Boston to promote the cause of independence. Great Britain had stationed troops in the city, much to the annoyance of many Bostonians. On March 5, 1770, a crowd gathered in a square began taunting some of the British soldiers. Growing tired of the harassment, the soldiers fired their muskets at the crowd, killing five colonists. Paul Revere created an engraving of the incident describing it as a "massacre." Revere's drawing depicts well-appointed British soldiers in bright red military uniforms, firing on unarmed colonists. The piece stirred up anti-British sentiment by demanding that Great Britain cease its military occupation of the city.
Join or Die
Hailed as the first political cartoon ever printed in an American newspaper, Benjamin Franklin's depiction of the colonies as a broken snake first appeared in his newspaper, the ''Pennsylvania Gazette,'' on May 9, 1754. The drawing of the snake's body approximates the coast line of the 13 colonies, with each piece of the snake representing a colony. Under the snake, the caption read "Join, or Die." The cartoon's original intent had nothing to do with American independence, however. Great Britain and France had been arguing over their respective North American territories for years, and Franklin meant the cartoon to encourage American colonists to unite against the further expansion of French territories on the continent. However, patriots soon adopted the cartoon to advance the cause of independence, and it was copied and reprinted numerous times. For example, Paul Revere used the image as the masthead for his paper, ''The Massachusetts Spy.''
Rallying Revolutionary Support
In the colonial era, newspapers were the only thing approaching "mass media," and although their circulation only numbered in the hundreds, they were frequently shared and read aloud in taverns and meeting houses. The patriot propaganda campaign began well before troops were amassed or battles waged. For example, Samuel Adams published pieces in Boston newspapers that focused the anti-tax resentment of colonists in the direction of revolution. During the war, colonial newspapers continued to rally support with battle reports. Despite the fact the news might be several days old, it was often the only news colonists had on the war's progress. Typically taken from eyewitness accounts, the patriot papers used the tactic of inflating the number of British soldiers while at the same time minimizing the number of revolutionary forces.
Across the Pond
American patriots weren't the only ones using propaganda during the revolution -- British newspapers used the same techniques as those in the colonies. A 1774 print from Great Britain depicts a British official being tarred and feathered by smiling revolutionaries who appear almost gleeful. London newspapers frequently skewed accounts of battles, painting even decisive American victories in such a way that the average reader might think the British had won. Loyalists published newspapers in territories still occupied by Great Britain as well. Some of these were so popular that American general George Washington sought funding from the Continental Congress to start his own paper. When he received the funds, he started the ''New-Jersey Journal,'' a newspaper controlled by the American revolutionary army that published military reports from the battlefield.
- George Washington's Mount Vernon: Reporting the Revolutionary War
- Business Insider: See the Intricate Revolutionary War Prints that Inspired the Fight for America's Independence
- Sam Adams: Pioneer in Propaganda; John C. Miller
- The Library of Congress: America's Library: The Boston Massacre
- The Colonial Williamsburg Official History & Citizenship Site: Primary Source -- 'Join, or Die' Snake
- Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images