Troy O. Bickham. Making Headlines: The American Revolution as Seen through the British Press. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2009. xiii + 303 pp. $38.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-87580-393-7.
Reviewed by Carol Sue Humphrey (Oklahoma Baptist University)
Published on Jhistory (March, 2009)
Commissioned by Donna Harrington-Lueker
What They Saw at the Revolution
In Making Headlines, Troy O. Bickham capably presents how the press functioned in Great Britain during the years of the American Revolution, emphasizing how “the press kept the British public informed of all angles of the war” (p. 3). Using newspapers as sources, Bickham argues that what Americans refer to as their revolution became much more than that to citizens of Great Britain. For the British, the American Revolution developed into a world war that was the latest chapter in the ongoing conflict with France. The widespread availability of newspapers made the press a major source of information about the war for British citizens.
Bickham begins with a well-written consideration of how the press worked in Great Britain. Using various records from the era, he explores how newspapers were organized, how they were distributed, and who read them. By the time of the American Revolution, publications had become widespread and thus “part of a daily or weekly retreat for many Britons” (p. 21). Bickham goes on to discuss the interaction between newspaper producers and politicians, showing that these people sometimes worked together to accomplish common goals. But they also often disagreed about what direction the British government should take about a particular issue. Bickham concludes that the press in Britain was able to “report freely on national affairs” and thus the publications provide a good picture of public opinion during the war (p. 43).
In part 2, Bickham discusses how the revolt in the American colonies developed into a world war. Beginning with press coverage of the arguments that led up to the war, he capably shows that British newspapers initially debated whether the war in the colonies was worth fighting, but they clearly rallied to the cause once the conflict developed into a world war with France. Once France entered the war, “the language in the press, both from editors and readers, became decidedly more nationalistic in tone” (p. 135). Bickham maintains that newspaper writers in Great Britain did not greatly mourn the loss of the colonies because these writers thought that the most important outcome of the conflict was that France did not really gain anything as a result of the American victory. Ultimately, “Britain had bloodied its ancient European rivals and preserved the bulk of its empire” (p. 159).
Bickham continues his consideration of the British press through an analysis of several particular issues that were discussed during the war. He begins with an overview of the reaction of the press to George Washington. Most newspaper writers admired Washington because of his character as presented in his actions as commander in chief of the American Continental Army, and they considered him a noble figure, even though he commanded the army of the enemy. Washington thus “personified the dilemma that faced many Britons during the conflict: he was a quintessential English-American gentleman, despite being the enemy” (p. 185). British newspapers also spilled a lot of ink discussing and debating how British officials chose to fight the war. Of particular interest were debates over the use of African slaves, American Indians, and German mercenaries. The use of all of these groups could have been perceived as barbaric and uncivilized, but some people perceived the practice as necessary to win the war. As Bickham shows, a number of newspaper writers debated these issues throughout the course of the war. These discussions help to show how the British “understood the conflict to be inherently different” from previous wars (p. 232). Finally, newspaper writers debated what would happen to America once the war ended. The press had clearly concluded that the colonies were lost, so writers spent much of their time debating the future. These debates indicated that the press assumed that the American colonies would remain tied to Great Britain even after they won their independence, primarily through increasing trade across the Atlantic.
Bickham ends with a discussion of how the press reflected British opinion on both the war and the empire, and concludes that the press “reveals how globally minded British reading audiences had become” (p. 250). The American Revolution combined with the global war with France helped turn British readers into thoughtful citizens who would increasingly question and criticize some of the directions taken by British officials. The press during the American Revolution thus helped lay the groundwork for future criticisms that would shape the British Empire in the nineteenth century.
Bickham’s work is well constructed and presents a thoughtful study of the role and content of the British press during the American Revolution. In doing so, he fills a gap in the history of the late eighteenth century. Most previous studies of the press during the American Revolution have focused on American publications. Making Headlines pushes readers to look at the war from the opposite side and thus broadens our understanding of the role and impact of the press not only during the Revolutionary era, but also potentially during wartime in general.
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Carol Sue Humphrey. Review of Bickham, Troy O., Making Headlines: The American Revolution as Seen through the British Press.
Jhistory, H-Net Reviews.
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