Picturing a Revolution: Engravings in the American Colonies

View of the Battle of Lexington
View of the Battle of Lexington

by William Parrow, U.S. Park Guide

1763 dawned on British North America like no other. Coming to terms with the end of the French and Indian War and a depressed economy, American colonists protested mightily newly enforced trade and tax policies by the British Parliament. Beginning with the 1764 Sugar Act, and then the 1765 Stamp Act, opposition grew steadily throughout the thirteen colonies.

Colonists used the major medium of the day – the printing press – to express their discontent. Both text and pictures could be shared among many people and across great distances. While some pictures were included in newspapers and other publications such as almanacs and broadsides, others were printed as sheets that could be sold individually.

Having had the first printing press (1638) and the first newspaper (1704) in British North America, the Boston area had the first pictures of protest starting in 1765.

By today’s standards these images seem crude, but engraving was still a developing technology in the American colonies, and the urgency of the conflict between Great Britain and her colonies could not wait for refinement. The propaganda could not be denied; pictures enlivened a political conversation that text alone could not.

Silversmiths were often the first engravers in the colonies, so it is no surprise that Boston’s Paul Revere created the first protest pictures in the colonies. While some engravings were done on wood, most were copper engravings.

Revere’s first political engraving was inspired from one printed in London. The effigy of Andrew Oliver, Boston’s designated stamp-master, hanging from Boston’s Liberty Tree is the most provocative scene from Revere’s “A View of the Year 1765”; Revere sold copies of this engraving himself.

The Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser offered its own scorn of the official Parliamentary Stamp Act seal with this picture, which was copied by many other newspapers who felt the tax on numerous legal and maritime documents would kill their businesses.

Engraving of Stamp protests

After the Stamp Act was repealed and then replaced by the Townshend Acts in 1767, the Massachusetts legislature issued a Circular Letter to other colonial legislatures recommending cooperation in opposing the Acts. A conflict over the circular ended with a showdown with Massachusetts’s Royal Governor Francis Bernard; 92 of the Massachusetts legislators reaffirmed it while 17 voted to rescind the circular. Paul Revere had a place for those 17: “A Warm Place – Hell”. Revere’s engraving, above, was well-known in Boston and printed in a broadside.

In 1768, the King’s Troops arrived at Boston to enforce the Townshend Acts. Animosity over the British military presence exploded in the Boston Massacre in March of 1770, and the most memorable and well-known engraving of the time was Revere’s "The Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street." Revere printed 200 copies and it was seen throughout the colonies and in London.

Another Revere engraving of the massacre victims accompanied a March 12 news article in the Boston-Gazette (a fifth person died later).

Relative peace came to the colonies after the repeal of the Townshend Acts in 1770, but it was clear from some publications that the enthusiasm for protest had not ended. For example, in his 1772 almanac, Boston's Nathaniel Ames featured a portrait of John Dickinson. Dickinson was one of the most popular opposition leaders during the Townshend Act crisis.

Killing of Christopher Seider
Killing of Christopher Seider

In "The Killing of Christopher Seider," above, a woodcut depicts a Boston shooting in February of 1770. This woodcut was revived in a 1772 Philadelphia broadside because the pardoned-murderer Ebenezer Richardson might relocate to that town.

A tea tax and a tea monopoly granted to the East India Company extended the crisis in the colonies, especially in Boston, where demonstrators dispensed with the detested tea in their own way in December of 1773.

The passing and enforcement of the Coercive Acts that followed the Tea Party brought sympathy for Boston, even from London engravers, which Revere was eager to copy in his “The Able Doctor," seen in 1,000 copies of a Boston's Royal American Magazine in June 1774.

Finally, in about a year’s time, the confrontation at Lexington and Concord in April 1775 brought an end to the political resistance and the beginning of military resistance. A militiaman from Connecticut, Amos Doolittle, engraved scenes of Lexington and Concord, top of article, acting as a kind of reporter who then sold his engravings.

With the start of military action, Americans responded to a 1754 engraving by Benjamin Franklin labeled "Join, or Die." It dates to an earlier colonial crisis, the French and Indian War, but was revived for the current crisis since the message was the same.

A political and economic crisis hit the American colonists starting in 1763 and they had very few ways of sharing their discontent with each other and with the world. The printing press provided a solution, and the colonists maximized this technology in text and pictures.

We will never really know the impact that these picture engravings had on people’s thinking, but more people would have seen such pictures than would have been possible with any other method at the time.

Sources & Further Reading:

  • Charles Harper Walsh, The Earliest Copper Engraving Executed in the American Colonies, vol. 15 (Washington, D.C.: Records of the Columbia Historical Society, 1912), 54-72.
  • Clarence S. Brigham, Paul Revere's Engravings (Worcester, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 1954).
  • Elizabeth L. Roark, Artists of Colonial America (Artists of an Era) (Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press, 2003).
  • Nicolas Lampert, A People’s Art History of the US (New York: The New Press, 2013).
  • Wendy J. Shadwell, American Printmaking: The First 150 Years (New York: Museum of Graphic Art, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1969).
  • Amos Doolittle, A View of the Part South of Lexington, Courtesy The Connecticut Historical Society.
  • Paul Revere, A Warm Place – Hell, Courtesy The John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.
  • On colonial printing, click here; On Bernard Romans' engraving, click here; On Boston Massacre engraving in London, click here; On Stamp Act Skull and Crossbones, click here; On Nathaniel Ames' almanac, click here

Last updated: October 28, 2016

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