America's First Newspaper

Copyright 2011-2023 John N. Lupia, III


"The First Newspaper," Perrysburg Journal, Saturday 29 April 1854, page 4

        The first colonial newspaper in British North America was an illegal one and it was titled : Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick, published on September 25, 1690 by Benjamin Harris, a bookseller of Boston, and his printer, Richard Pierce. Pierce apparently emigrated to Boston from a London print shop sometime after 1679 and it seems to be about 1684 since Isaiah Thomas in his History of Printing in America tells us his publications date 1684 to 1690 and nothing found before or after those dates.  It was blatantly illegal for Harris to have Pierce set up a press in his London Coffee-House since under British law, "no person [was to] keep any printing-press for printing, nor [was] any book, pamphlet or other matter whatsoever" to be printed without the governor's "especial leave and license first obtained." This was the equivalent of legal formalities for any newspaper today required to be legally incorporated within its state of operation and legally establishing accounts and lines of credit with banks, and keeping accurate accounting records for taxation in accordance to law. In short, it was illegal to publish without the government's authorization by Royal patent, and Harris had flagrantly broken the law by avoiding to obtain it as any racketeering outlaw tax evader would. Harris sold his newspapers at his London Coffee House, Boston, the home of his bookselling business where he without license set up a press to become a publisher/printer. None of his newspapers had the embossed revenue stamps required by law since 1684 since he flagrantly operated outside the law as a tax evader. There he also had prepared to publish an Almanack. Even this Almanack violated copyright law reprinting Edward Draper's New-England Primer, which we know dates to the time Harris was publishing and was advertised in its second edition in 1691 in Henry Newman's Almanack of that date, without intending to pay royalties or get permission. 

Above : Ira Webster's reproduction of 1843 of Harris's Almanack, 1690. The Advertisement of Henry Newman's Almanck of 1691 was inserted by Webster for his 1844 reproduction. Courtesy of the Lupia Philatelic and Numismatic Library and Museum Collections.

        He apparently never intended to be a legitimate press in compliance with English law and custom. He was of the theological persuasion "Do not give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar but only give to God what belongs to God." We're all familiar with the joke about the men who take up the collection basket at church toss the money into the air saying: "God take as much as you wish!" To a schismatic mentality to pay taxes is to give to the Crown of England who is head of the church, a church and king to whom he had no allegiance. The very germ of religious rebellion is the assertion and fight for one's individual rights and consequently rebel and protest anything that gets in your way of doing your own free will. This mentality that leads to anarchy was the very driving force that seventy-five years later fomented into the Revolutionary War. It is what Isaiah Thomas in his History of Printing in America recounts for us in something said by John Dunton, a bookseller, who in his reminiscences of Benjamin Harris characterized him as "a brisk asserter of English Liberties." He continues telling us that Harris even printed a book with that title. Harris was a known rebel against the Crown and had a track record to prove it. He printed the protestant Petition in King Charles reign, for which he was fined five Pounds, for example.  

        Once the governor and council learned of the existence of Harris's press they outlawed it by court order since they knew no one neither applied for such a patent nor paid any fees for such and they were keenly aware that they had not issued one. The authorities immediately confiscated and destroyed every copy of his publications except one that was probably sent to London as evidence in the complaint to the Crown and is now in the British Library.

The above piece is taken from my book manuscript on the history of paper in North America which I intend to publish as an eBook. - John N. Lupia, III