John Hancock performs his patriotic duty by…acquiring paper?

There’s no shortage of celebrations here in Massachusetts for today’s holiday, even if it is a holiday that almost nobody from any other state (with the exception of Maine and Wisconsin) has ever heard of. But for a native of Massachusetts who likes history, Patriots’ Day is about as good as it gets. After all, if it weren’t for Massachusetts we probably wouldn’t exist as an independent nation at all (at least this is what we like to tell everyone who will listen—or won’t listen, for that matter).

The press Isaiah smuggled out of Boston, known as Old No. 1.
The press Isaiah smuggled out of Boston, known as Old No. 1.

Patriots’ Day is near and dear to our hearts at AAS as well, because the Battles of Lexington and Concord mark the arrival of the Society’s founder in Worcester. It’s an oft-told tale that our founder, Isaiah Thomas, was a rabble-rousing twenty-six-year-old printer in Boston who, with the encouragement of John Hancock and help of Joseph Warren, smuggled his printing press out of the city on April 16, 1775, before it could be impounded by the British authorities. Three days later he was an eyewitness to the Battles of Lexington and Concord. After setting up his press in the basement of Worcester blacksmith and patriot leader Timothy Bigelow, he waited for paper to arrive so he could continue printing his popular newspaper, the Massachusetts Spy.

It may seem odd that a lack of paper was the holdup for Isaiah being able to print his version of the British soldiers’ atrocities at Lexington and Concord, but at this period paper was difficult to get. Most paper was still being imported from British sources (hence the outrage of printers at the Stamp Act in 1765, which taxed almost everything printed), and between the British blockade enacted by the Boston Port Act of 1774 and the colonists’ own non-importation agreements, keeping a supply of paper was becoming a significant hurdle.

The alternative was to produce paper in the colonies, but this was still difficult as well. In the eighteenth century paper was made out of rags, which meant that not only did enough rags need to be available, but those shreds of cloth also had to make it to one of the very few paper mills established in the colony (in 1769 there were only two). As an advertisement on the back cover of Thomas’s Massachusetts, New-Hampshire, and Connecticut Almanack for the Year of our Lord Christ 1779 attests, paper was both scarce and instrumental to the colonists’ cause:

IMG_0807R             A             G             S.

                A good price will be given for clean cotton and linen rags, and paid either in money or good writing paper, at the Printing Office in Worcester.

                It is earnestly requested that the fair daughters of Liberty in this extensive County, would not neglect to serve their country, by saving for the paper mill in Sutton, all linen and cotton and linen rags, be they ever so small, as they are equally good for the purpose of making paper, as those that are larger. A bag hung up at one corner of a room, would be the means of saving many which would be otherwise lost. If the ladies should not make a fortune by this piece of economy, they will at least have the satisfaction of knowing they are doing an essential service to the community, which with 6d. per pound, the price now given for clean white rags, they must be sensible will be a sufficient reward.

By 1778, when this was printed, a paper mill had been set up in Sutton, Massachusetts, part of a rash of mills established after the outbreak of war (there were six in Massachusetts by 1779). But in April 1775 in Worcester—where there had not even been a press before Isaiah arrived, never mind a paper mill—how was one to get paper? With the help of John Hancock, it turns out.

In a letter from Worcester dated April 26, 1775, and addressed to Dr. Joseph Warren and “the other Gentlemen of the Committee of Safety &c &c,” Hancock asks his fellow rebels to please get Isaiah some paper so that he can continue his “Publick Service.” (Or, in other words, print the horrifying things that need to be said about the conduct of the British at Lexington and Concord). The letter, complete with the soon-to-be famous Hancock signature, reads as follows:

                Mr. Thomas the Printer is here, fix’d his Press & Ready to go on with Business but is in want of Paper. I undertake for him to Desire you will order the undermention’d Quantity to be Sent him from Milton, his being Supplied with it will answer Publick Service. We are not like to have even a Single Person to attend us. Mr Paine is here, his Townsmen who Came with him are Return’d home. My Servants house furniture is in Boston. I should not like to be Demolish’d by a Tory, but I must Submit to be unnoticed – God Bless you,

I am Gentn
Your Sincere Friend
John Hancock

Paper for Mr Thomas
50 Ream Crown Printing
40 do. Demy do.
20 do Fools Cap do.
5 do. Writing —

JohnHancock_0001The “Mr. Paine” Hancock mentions is Robert Treat Paine, who joined Hancock in Worcester to start their journey down to Philadelphia to act as delegates to the Second Continental Congress, which was slated to begin on May 10. Hancock, unsure of how the other colonies would react to the news of Lexington and Concord, was hoping for a military escort, but was now worried that they would not have anyone to accompany them. His fears would soon be quelled when they were joined by local militia and celebrating colonists along their route in Connecticut.

JohnHancock_0002Within a week, paper had arrived and Isaiah resumed business. That paper arrived so quickly was a good bit of luck, considering that Hancock apparently wasn’t even sure of the whereabouts of Warren or the rest of the Committee. Hancock’s letter is vaguely directed to “Cambridge Or Elsewhere,” which makes some sense given the current situation. On the evening of April 18, it was Joseph Warren that sent Paul Revere and William Dawes on their famous “midnight ride” to warn Hancock and Samuel Adams, who were currently in Lexington, that the regulars were heading to Concord and probably had orders to arrest them as well. They were able to elude capture while Warren, accompanied by Isaiah Thomas, slipped out of Boston the next morning. After the battle, the members of the Committee of Safety were scattered, either avoiding arrest or figuring out the Americans’ next move. But a large contingent of the Committee, headed by Warren, was stationed in Cambridge and continued its work by releasing a circular urging men to enlist in the provincial army and commissioning depositions concerning Lexington and Concord. Cambridge was therefore Hancock’s best guess, but given how quickly events were developing he couldn’t be sure.

Mass Spy 2 cropDespite this lack of geographical direction, Hancock’s courier found Warren or another member of the Committee without too much trouble, and they carried out Hancock’s directions to get paper from Milton, where one of the three paper mills in the colony was located. On May 3 the first Worcester issue of Isaiah’s Massachusetts Spy appeared, complete with a scathing eyewitness account of the action at Lexington and Concord that claimed the British troops had “wantonly, and in a most inhuman manner fired upon and killed a number of our countrymen, then robbed them of their provisions, ransacked, plundered and burnt their houses!”  Even worse, “nor could the tears of defenseless women, some of whom were in the pains of childbirth, the cries of helpless, babes, nor the prayers of old age, confined to beds of sickness, appease their thirst for blood!—or divert them from their DESIGN of MURDER and ROBBERY!” Isaiah was obviously a very nonpartisan observer.

Narrative of the Excursion 1With this same delivery of paper, Isaiah would also print his first (and only) official commission from the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, the series of depositions compiled by the congress called A Narrative, of the Excursion and Ravages of the King’s Troops. Copies were sent to King George, the provincial governors, and other influential personages who could possibly be swayed by this “official” version of events.

It’s difficult to overemphasize the importance of paper and printing in sparking and carrying out the American Revolution. From printers’ opposition to the Stamp Act in their newspapers to Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense to a simple ad for rags on which to print the incendiary words, paper and ink were just as vital to revolution as guns and gunpowder. That Hancock made acquiring paper a priority while he was evading arrest by British troops offers pretty telling proof of that.

This letter resides in the Hancock Family Papers at AAS. More about the importance of news and print in the Battle of Lexington and Concord is among the topics covered in our online exhibition News Media and the Making of America, 1730-1865.

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Kayla Haveles

Outreach Coordinator, American Antiquarian Society

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