For as long as the United States has existed, propaganda has existed in America.  Propaganda was used extensively leading up to and during the American Revolutionary War, and the subsequent Declaration of Independence and Constitution.  Through books, pamphlets, cartoons, paintings and even needlework propaganda was created to influence the American public and shape what would occur in these critical years of American history.

The ideological movement known as the American Enlightenment was of important influence on the American Revolution. Critical ideals involved were liberalism, democracy, republicanism, and religious tolerance. Collectively, the belief in these concepts by American colonists would result in a new intellectual environment  of political and social identity.  One of the most famous texts regarding these ideals was Thomas Paine’s Common Sense which was first published anonymously on January 10, 1776, during the American Revolution.  In relation to the population of the Colonies at that time, it had the largest sale and circulation of any book in American history.  As one of the most circulated propaganda texts in history, it called for the colonists’ freedom from British rule.  Common Sense was published at a time in United States history when the colonists were still very much split over the question of independence from the British.

On one side, the Loyalists were American colonists who remained loyal to the Kingdom of Great Britain; on the other were the Patriots who were colonists who rebelled against the British rule in the colonies and desired revolution.  Before the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, and before the publication of Common Sense, these two groups struggled in opposition to each other for the public’s support.  Both groups made extensive use of propaganda to achieve this aim.

Two acts, the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act, played crucial roles in the escalation of the American Revolution.  The Sugar Act occurred in 1764, it was a revision by George Grenville of the Molasses Act which raised taxes paid on sugar.  This sparked some criticism, but not nearly as much as the next tax raise that would be enacted less than a year later.

Newspaper article by James Gillray shows King George III and Queen Charlotte enjoying a cup of tea with sugar. The several women in the background also drinking tea portray a sad facial expression because they could not afford the high price of sugar.
Newspaper article by James Gillray shows King George III and Queen Charlotte enjoying a cup of tea with sugar. The several women in the background also drinking tea portray a sad facial expression because they could not afford the high price of sugar [1].

 The Stamp Act 1765  was a direct tax imposed by the British Parliament specifically on the colonies of British America. The act required that many printed materials in the colonies be produced on stamped paper produced in London, carrying an embossed revenue stamp.  These printed materials were legal documents, magazines, newspapers and many other types of paper used throughout the colonies [2].  The purpose of the tax was to help pay for troops stationed in North America after the British victory in the Seven Years’ War. The British government felt that the colonies were the primary beneficiaries of this military presence, and should pay at least a portion of the expense.  The Stamp Act was met with extreme disapproval by the colonists as “The British Constitution accorded Englishmen the right of being taxed only by representatives of their own choosing. The colonists had no such representation in Parliament; therefore the Stamp Act was unconstitutional.  With this act, the colonists’ anger reached the boiling point. The frustration was now to take the form of overt rebellion” [3].  It is from this act that the now popularly remembered slogan “No taxation without representation” derives from.  Many colonists and their establishments began to outright boycott use of the stamp.  The following image is an image that was used by Pennsylvania newspaper that reflects many colonists’ opinion of this tax.

A Pennsylvania newspaper expresses the colonists' disapproval toward the Stamp Act [1].

      Out of the lash-back from the Stamp Act the Sons of Liberty were born.  In the popular imagination, the Sons of Liberty was a formal underground organization with recognized members and leaders. More likely, the name was an underground term for any men resisting new Crown taxes and laws [4].  Through various forms of protest, direct action and violence the Sons of Liberty sought the repeal of the Stamp Act (for example, they were famous for the tarring and feathering of opponents as well as outright killings of stamp distributors and the like [5].  And although small at first, groups identifying themselves as Sons of Liberty eventually existed in almost every colony. The organization spread month by month, after independent starts in several different colonies [6].  In addition to pamphlets and newspaper articles, the Sons of Liberty made extensive use of visual propaganda to incite public rage against the British in regards to the Stamp Act.

The Bostonian Paying the Excise-Man, 1774 British propaganda print referring to the tarring and feathering of Boston Commissioner of Customs John Malcolm four weeks after the Boston Tea Party. The men also poured hot tea down Malcolm's throat, as can be seen. Note the noose hanging on the Liberty Tree, and the Stamp Act posted upside-down

The Bostonian Paying the Excise-Man, 1774 British propaganda print referring to the tarring and feathering of Boston Commissioner of Customs John Malcolm four weeks after the Boston Tea Party. The men also poured hot tea down Malcolm's throat, as can be seen. Note the noose hanging on the Liberty Tree, and the Stamp Act posted upside-down

The group attracted larger and larger public support.  Historian Gary B. Nash wrote:  “Whether stimulated externally or ignited internally, ferment during the years from 1761 to 1766 changed the dynamics of social and political relations in the colonies and set in motion currents of reformist sentiment with the force of a mountain wind. Critical to this half decade was the colonial response to England’s Stamp Act, more the reaction of common colonists than that of their presumed leaders. […]Both loyal supporters of English authority and well-established colonial protest leaders underestimated the self-activating capacity of ordinary colonists. By the end of 1765 … people in the streets had astounded, dismayed, and frightened their social superiors” [7].  By February 21, 1766 a resolution to repeal the Stamp Act was introduced and passed due to weakened relations from social unrest.

Benjamin Franklin designed and distributed a cartoon urging the repeal of the Stamp ActOn March 5th, 1770 an event dubbed the Boston Massacre occurred.  The event is widely viewed as foreshadowing the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War five years later.  Boston, the capital of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, was a major center of resistance to unpopular acts of taxation by the British Parliament in the 1760s [8].  At this time in Boston, a resistance movement was growing in particular opposition to the Townshend Acts, and given the unstable state of affairs in Massachusetts, Hillsborough (the Colonial Secretary) instructed General Thomas Gage, Commander-in-Chief, North America, to send “such Force as You shall think necessary to Boston” [9].  On March 5th an arguments broke out between colonists and some of the British soldiers stationed there.  Eventually a fight broke out and as arguments grew more heated throughout the evening eventually roughly 50 Bostonians had gathered and had begun yelling insults and some throwing stones.  Runners alerted the nearby barracks and Captain Thomas Preston, the officer of the watch.  According to his report, Preston dispatched a non-commissioned officer and six privates of the 29th Regiment of Foot, with fixed bayonets.  Preston shouted at the crowd, estimated to number between three and four hundred, to disperse [10].  Eventually, after several fights broke out and several of the soldiers were injured from fighting and thrown objects, a ragged series of shots was fired, which hit eleven men and killed 5 [11].

“In the days and weeks following the incident, a propaganda battle was waged between Boston’s radicals and supporters of the government. Both sides published pamphlets that told strikingly different stories, which were principally published in London in a bid to influence opinion there. The Boston Gazette‘s version of events, for example, characterized the massacre as part of an ongoing scheme to “quell a Spirit of Liberty”, and harped on the negative consequences of quartering troops in the city” [12].  Several pamphlets and written descriptions of the event were subsequently published and were hardly more than caricatures of the event made to inspire anti-British sentiment amongst the colonists (The most famous of these documents likely being A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre).  Many prints and political cartoons were also made by Patriots.  The most famous image dubbed The Bloody Massacre was most popularized by Paul Revere.  It was based on a drawing by Henry Pelham, colored by Christian Remick, and printed by Benjamin Edes and published in the Boston Gazette.  In order to further public outrage, the engraving contained several inflammatory details. Captain Preston is shown ordering his men to fire, and a musket is seen shooting out of the window of the customs office, which is labeled “Butcher’s Hall” [13].  Despite this event being now considered a riot, in Revere’s engraving the British troop is seen firing in an ordered straight line synchronously into an unarmed and seemingly helpless crowd (which is exactly as the story was portrayed in text as well).  Produced in a hurry, Revere used very little color in his prints choosing instead to focus on the use of just a few – the color most used being red.  The most vivid and most used color was red, and the red of blood pouring from colonists and the red of the British’s coats stand out dramatically.  “The other colors—blue, green, brown and black—all contribute to make this print what is arguably the most famous in America” [14].

The Bloody Massacre, Paul Revere

The Bloody Massacre, Paul Revere

Finally, the Townsend Duties on all goods, except tea, were repealed.  The British East India Company had controlled all tea trading between India and the British colonies and this tea was being taxed by the British. The colonists boycotted this tea and instead they smuggled tea in from Holland. This left the British East India Company in danger of going out of business. In May 1773, Prime Minister North and the British parliament passed the Tea Act. The Tea Act allowed the British East India Company to sell tea directly to the colonists, bypassing the colonial wholesale merchants. This allowed the company to sell their tea cheaper than the colonial merchants who were selling smuggled tea from Holland.  This act revived the colonial issue of taxation without representation. The colonies once again demanded that the British government remove the tax on tea. In addition, the dockworkers began refusing to unload the tea from ships [15].  On December 16, 1773,  the Sons of Liberty went to the Boston Harbor, dressed as Mohawk Indians.  They boarded three British ships, and cheered on by a crowd of five thousand which watched from the wharves, they threw more than £10000 worth of tea into the harbor.

Whether or not Samuel Adams helped plan the Boston Tea Party is unknown, but he immediately worked to publicize and defend it.  He argued that the Tea Party was not the act of a lawless mob, but was instead a principled protest and the only remaining option the people had to defend their constitutional rights [16].  Images and accounts celebrating what was then referred to as the “Destruction of the Tea” appeared in numerous papers and prints were available for sale.  The Prime Minister Lord North said, “Whatever may be the consequence, we must risk something; if we do not, all is over” [17].The British government felt this action could not remain unpunished, and responded by closing the port of Boston and putting in place other laws known as the “Coercive Acts”.  The Boston Tea Party is considered today to be one of the most influential events in escalating anti-British fervor amongst the colonists, and being a critical event leading up to the Revolutionary War.

This iconic 1846 lithograph by Nathaniel Currier was entitled "The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor"

This iconic 1846 lithograph by Nathaniel Currier was entitled "The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor"

On May 9, 1754 Benjamin Franklin published what is now considered the first ever American political cartoon in his Pennsylvania Gazette [19].  Published before the Revolutionary War, the cartoon originally urged colonial unity against a different threat (in what came to be known as the French and Indian War).  It wasn’t until around 1765-1766, during the Stamp Act Congress, that Franklin’s “Join, or Die” was used as an urge of colonial unity against the British.  In many places during the Revolutionary War that slogan “Join, or Die” transformed into “Unite, or Die” such as in New York and Pennsylvania.  Not long after being published there, it began spreading through various publications state by state where eventually the cartoon gained such popularity that it continued to be published week after week for over a year [20].  On July 7, 1774 Paul Revere altered the cartoon to fit the masthead of the Massachusetts Spy[21].  Continental Colonel Christopher Gadsden presented a copy of what would become one of the oldest and most important and  flags in US history, predating Old Glory, to the Congress of South Carolina in 1776. This was recorded in the South Carolina congressional journals:  “Col. Gadsden presented to the Congress an elegant standard, such as is to be used by the commander in chief of the American navy; being a yellow field, with a lively representation of a rattle-snake in the middle in the attitude of going to strike and these words underneath, ‘Don’t Tread on Me!'” [23].  It resurfaced again during the American Civil War, redrawn for both Union and Confederate forces. Since the Revolution, what became known as the Gadsden flag has lived on as a popular symbol of American patriotism, a symbol of disagreement with government, and even as a symbol of support of civil liberties.

Join, or Die. Benjamin Franklin Cartoon in the Pennsylvania Gazette May 9, 1754.Paul Revere's Massachusetts Spy (Boston), July 7, 1774 adots Franklin's "Join, or Die" [23].

The Gadsden Flag

The Gadsden Flag

Between the mid-1700s and the full out American Revolutionary War that occurred between 1775 and 1783, a pattern of escalation of anti-British sentiment can be traced amongst the colonists.  This sentiment was driven by American Patriots who favored revolution against the British, as opposed to those colonists who desired to remain loyal to the British crown.  Patriots caused events to occur in their favor, but just as importantly they used events that had occurred in their favor – that is to say, they ardently framed and depicted events to their suiting.  Rarely was an opportunity missed by the Patriots, who worked to ensure that popular public opinion was anti-British and this was done through highly effective propaganda campaigns.  By consistently and effectively distributing and printing pamphlets, news articles, art prints, and political cartoons the Patriots were able to win the battle of public favor against the Loyalists and eventually secure the  Declaration of Independence and American Revolution from British rule.

Within this propaganda such elements can be found as inaccurate and misleading information, seeking to coerce the public in matters regarding the British.  Much of the propaganda produced  sought to portray the British as negatively as possible through fabrication and exaggeration of the grievances held by the Patriots with the intent to sway public opinion to that of prop-revolution.  Extensive elements of hard propaganda can be found both in the images and writing of the time, and was ultimately highly influential catalyst for the Revolutionary War and formation of the United States.

[1] “The Accomplishments of the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act.” Social-Science-Soapbox. Web. <,+The>.

[2] “The Stamp Act of 1765 – A Serendipitous Find” by Hermann Ivester in The Revenue Journal, The Revenue Society, Vol.XX, No.3, December 2009, pp.87-89.

[3] “Stamp Act.” American History Documents. Indiana University. Web. 07 Feb. 2012. <>.

[4] Gregory Fremont-Barnes, Encyclopedia of the Age of Political Revolutions and New Ideologies, 2007 1:688

[5] Kindig, Thomas. “The Sons of Liberty.” Independence Hall Association. Web. 07 Feb. 2012. <>.

[6] Miller, Origins of the American Revolution pp. 121, 129-130

[7]  Nash, Gary B. The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America, 2005. 59.  Print.

[8] Knollenberg, Bernhard. Growth of the American Revolution: 1766-1775. New York: Free, 1975. 54. Print.

[9] Knollenberg, Bernhard. Growth of the American Revolution: 1766-1775. New York: Free, 1975. 75. Print.

[10] Zobel, Hiller B. The Boston Massacre,. New York: W.W. Norton, 1970. 196. Print.

[11] Zobel, Hiller B. The Boston Massacre,. New York: W.W. Norton, 1970. 198-200. Print.

[12] York, Neil. Rival Truths, Political Accommodation, and the Boston “Massacre” Massachusetts Historical Review, 2009. 68. Print.

[13] Triber, Jayne E. A True Republican: The Life of Paul Revere. Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1998. 80. Print.

[14] “The Boston Massacre: A Behind-the-Scenes Look At Paul Revere’s Most Famous Engraving.” Teaching American History. Web. 7 Feb. 2012. <>.

[15] “The Boston Tea Party.” Kidport Reference Library. Kidport. Web. 07 Feb. 2012. <>.

[16] Alexander, John K. Samuel Adams: America’s Revolutionary Politician. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. 126-29. Print.

[17] Cobbett, Parliamentary History of England, XVII, pg. 1280-1281

[18] “Britannia Reduc’d.” The Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary. Franklin & Marshall College, The Phillips Museum of Art. Web. <>.

[19]  Margolin, Victor. “Rebellion, Reform, and Revolution: American Graphic Design for Social Change.” Design Issues Vol. 5, No. 1, 1988

[20]  Olson, Lester C. Benjamin Franklin’sGeorge Washington Vision of American Community. University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, 2004

[21] “A More Perfect Union: Symbolizing the National Union of States.” The United States Capitol Exhibit. Library of Congress, 23 July 2010. Web. 07 Feb. 2012. <>.

[22] Franklin, Benjamin. “Join or Die.” Cartoon. Pennsylvania Gazette, 1754. Print.

[23] Hicks, Frederick C. The Flag of the United States. Washington, D.C.: Priv. Print., 1926. 23. Print.

One comment

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