Social Movements: Press Agency and the Century of Revolution

What do 18th century press agents have to do with your current political beliefs?

Statue of George Washington, who led the American Revolution in 1775-83 and became the first US president in 1789, in Boston, Massachusetts. 

A lot! Much of the way news information is given to you got its start with the press agency model that served to publicize revolutionary activity.

Just as you sit at your computer or read the highlights from your cell, the people of this century got their information from the earliest form of the newspaper. Just as you read facts, information, and yes spin, American colonists and French revolutionaries did so as well.

Why was the eighteenth century so pivotal for communications media?

The popularity of media would not be seen for a few centuries after the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. Two pivotal events happening oceans a part transformed the way in which press was used to disseminate information—the American and French Revolutions.

The press burgeoned in the face of revolution….

By the time of the American and French Revolutions, public opinion had been a part of the public discourse for centuries. However, in the case of both Revolutions, the press became the catalysts by which revolutionary platforms were spread among the people.

How did revolutionary thought become a movement?

By various means of communication, citizens seeking redress from their governments protested, and in many cases, the press influenced public thought. While both countries achieved the goal of independence and democratic governments similarly, ideas were expressed primarily through press agency.

What exactly is press agency and why would be of import?

Press agency is simply press or publicity. Through the press agency model, French and American organizations engaged with their publics in one-way relationships where information was disseminated for public consumption.

In the revolutionary era, it was the only means by which political information was given to the public.

In America….

Media had been around since Jamestown in the 1600s. In fact, many of the reasons Britons migrated to the colonies were because, through advertisement, they were promised freedom from religious persecution, in addition to the freedom to forge out a new existence.

By the early 1700s, though, media had become an important part of the American landscape. As early as the latter part of the seventeenth century, thinkers and leaders of the time promoted opinion as a right and demanded free press in a free land.

America’s first papers….

The first issue of the Boston News Letter. (Wikipedia Commons)

In 1704, the first American newspaper, the Boston News Letter, printed articles about local and foreign events. Subsequently, the American Weekly Mercury and New England Courant followed, publishing similar types of articles. By 1745, more than twenty-two papers cropped up in and around colonies, everywhere except New Jersey and Delaware. By the beginnings of the revolution, the press had been firmly entrenched on the scene.

Up until 1750, these papers consisted of poems, essays, and article reprints, but sentiment in the press took on a more political tone where political articles, sensational events and articles from the elite filled the papers. The main types of articles appearing in the paper were propagandist material in support of American independence. In the New England Courant, for example, propagandist material appeared which encouraged revolution and independence from the Crown.

By the revolution, American newspapers….

The Crown reacted to revolutionaries by either licensing them or censoring the press, which provoked the colonists to take action, as central to their platform is the whole idea of a free press. In fact, the one event solidifying the media in the American mind set was the libel case brought against John Peter Zenger whose New York Weekly Journal had published information criticizing the British army. Consequently, Zenger was arrested, tried and acquitted of all charges.

The Zenger case became the foundation for establishing the press as the platform through which revolutionary ideas could be expressed. As word of Zenger’s acquittal spread throughout the colonies and with every retelling of the trial, colonists were mobilized into a movement that supported freedom of expression.

And the news in France….

The cause for revolution was disseminated in France differently. For one, newspapers were only luxuries for the elite before the Revolution. However, by the Revolution, mass media had advanced in France to the point that mass productions of newspapers could be made cheaply, and more importantly, made accessible to the masses.

However, the press was definitely a catalyst in the French Revolution by promoting ideas through both through oral, written and visual messages.

French Revolutionary media was spurred by….

Through song, speeches and public festival, the monarchy was criticized, but in combination with the written press, these actions mobilized French citizens into action. Of the different types of press employed to move French citizens into action, the pamphlet was used to influence public thought. Close to 40,000 pamphlets were printed that were political in nature, mostly focusing on the old aristocracy.

Popular newspapers included….

Copies of Ami du Peuple (translates to Friend of the People) stained with the blood of Marat. (BnF Gallica)

Newspapers also came to the forefront of not only being a platform of public opinion but also spurring citizens into action. During the Revolution, almost 1600 papers were established to quench the public’s need to know of the monarchy’s actions. Papers such as the Revolutions de France, Ami du Peuple (translates to 'Friend of the People') and the royalist Ami du Roi (translates to 'Friend of the King') focused solely on the events surrounding the Revolution. By 1797, Parisian newspaper circulation was almost 150,000 readers.

Why would all of this be of import in its day and in ours?

All of this is important because this press functioned in two ways:

  • It kept the public aware of key events, which influenced public opinion and morale.
  • More significantly, it became the beacon by which the revolutionary movement was mobilized into action.

Press agency in France mobilized collective thought around the political issues of the time and moved people into action. More importantly, French press agency established a method by which movements get momentum in their time and in ours!

What these events did for public relations was….

The revolutions that took place in France and America established that press could play a role in being a catalyst for a social movement. More importantly, while there was not a two-way relationship at play, these revolutions established a historical pattern in which whole groups of people were influenced by press, were invested in a cause and were moved to action.

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