In early 2017, the Washington Post added the phrase “Democracy Dies in Darkness” to its masthead. This addition appeared to be a response to the new Trump administration and its often less-than-scrupulous approach to truth.
Whether they knew it or not, the Post was joining in a tradition of responding to the politics of the day in newspaper mastheads that stretches back to the era of the American Revolution. For most of the eighteenth century, newspapers printed in British North America published without a masthead motto, or copied either the London Gazette’s “Published by Authority” or the popular “Freshest Advices, Foreign and Domestic.” But over the course of the Anglo-American imperial crisis and revolutionary war, this changed significantly.
Consider, for example, printer Isaiah Thomas’s stark masthead from the paper’s first issue in 1770:
Compare that with the paper’s first issue for the year 1772:
This masthead communicates much more than the 1770 one did. It contains two images: to the left, a woman (probably representing Liberty herself) holding a liberty cap on a pole, and to the right, a pair of children plucking flowers with the caption (hard to make out in this screenshot) “They cull the choicest.”
It also contains two “mottoes” that suggest its political orientation: “Open to ALL Parties, but Influenced by None,” and “Do Thou Great Liberty Inspire our Souls, — And make our Lives in Thy Possession happy, — Or, our Deaths glorious in Thy Just Defence.” The latter quote, along with the image featuring a liberty cap, signaled that Thomas was aligning himself with a “Defence” of the great cause of liberty.
The first of these quotes requires a bit more context to unpack. In 1766, Virginia printer William Rind chose the motto “Open to All Parties, but Influenced by None” for his anti-Stamp Act newspaper. He probably took it from the London Public Ledger, a paper that was somewhat more sympathetic to the colonists’ complaints than other papers aligned with the ministry. In adopting this motto, Rind was implicitly identifying his rival printer, Joseph Royle, as acting under the influence or a party. In this context, he was likely suggesting that Royle was too friendly toward the colonial government or the ministry. In adopting this motto, Thomas was subtly signaling his paper’s sympathy with the coalescing Patriot movement.
These mottoes have much to tell us about the relationship between print and politics in the early modern world. In the second chapter of my dissertation, I use data from these mottoes to suggest that printers’ attitudes toward information was becoming more politicized during the revolutionary period. One example of this is the upper-right image on Isaiah Thomas’s masthead, promising “They cull the choicest,” suggesting that Thomas took care to choose the best news items.
I’ve collected a rough dataset of eighteenth-cenutry mottoes and published them, by decade, below.
A few notes about the limitations of this dataset:
- I assembled this from the America’s Historical Newspapers database published by Readex. To the extent that that database is incomplete, so is this dataset. I do not include Canadian or Caribbean newspapers, which are not regularly digitized, in this dataset.
- I examined the first issue (usually in early January) of each newspaper for each calendar year it was published. If a printer changed mottoes in March and changed again in August of the same year, for example, this dataset would not capture that.
- This dataset does not focus on the visual culture of mastheads. As a result, I only mention some of the most significant devices. This should not be seen as a definitive list of masthead devices.
- Some of the Latin phrases used in mastheads are well-known, but others are not. For those which I could not find an available translation, I have either attempted a rough translation of my own (not having studied Latin since age 13, these are likely quite rough) or left them untranslated.