On Saturday, Americans will celebrate the 244th anniversary of the founding of our nation. On Monday, they should celebrate another milestone — the day that a newspaper first shared the Declaration of Independence with the public. That day, the declaration became the people’s document.
Democracy’s health and the free press have been inextricably intertwined since the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
In the years leading up to the American Revolution, newspapers were the forum in which patriots debated the merits of independence and urged action.
The Massachusetts Spy, a Boston newspaper, published anonymous patriotic essays on its front pages. Newspapers across the colonies reprinted many of them, stoking revolutionary fervor.
On July 4, 1776, only a handful of people knew that the Continental Congress had approved the final draft of the Declaration of Independence. No internet. No television. No radio. It took days and weeks for the news to spread, and it spread primarily in local newspapers.
The very first appearance of the declaration in the press was on the front page of The Pennsylvania Evening Post on July 6, 1776. Within two weeks, two dozen more papers throughout the colonies had printed it.
America doesn’t commemorate that publication. July 6 isn’t a holiday. It doesn’t get fireworks. It shouldn’t. But Americans shouldn’t forget that it was the day the declaration was shared in a newspaper. Two days after the colonies declared their independence, the people of America started finding out. The great experiment in democracy had begun, and it would inspire the world.
Local newspapers remained a forum for independence during the Revolution. They reported on far-off battles, both wins and setbacks. They urged the people to take up arms and support the fight against the British.
At least many of them did. There were loyalist newspapers, too.
And the free press struggled during the war. When the British took control of a city with a pro-independence newspaper, they’d often shut it down. The American revolutionaries did the same to loyalist papers. Even then, both sides knew that controlling the media, even the slow-moving press that took two days to print the Declaration of Independence, was a powerful tool of politics and war.
After the war, something peculiar happened. The Founders realized that controlling the press was counterproductive. Independent newspapers and a free press are an essential means of communicating the actions of government to the people. Only informed voters could hold their elected officials accountable, and they would be informed only if trusted independent watchdogs kept them that way.
“The public papers will be expeditious messengers of intelligence to the most remote inhabitants of the Union,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist Paper No. 84.
The Founders codified the preeminent role of a free press in the First Amendment. Congress went even further. Not only would the government not interfere with a free press, it also would support it. When lawmakers created the U.S. Post Office, they included an exemption for newspapers and other periodicals that guaranteed a cheap means of distribution.
Modern readers might not recognize those early publications as newspapers. The concept of unbiased reporting arose more than a century later. In the early days, newspapers had political agendas. Much of the feud between Hamilton and Aaron Burr, which culminated in their famous duel, played out in the pages of partisan papers.
Eventually newspapers evolved into something better. Their credibility made them the go-to source for information. Founded in 1896, The Seattle Times was founded late enough that it provided independent reporting on local and state government from its early days.
But new threats have emerged. Corporate ownership has empowered oligarchs to control the messages and water down reporting that should hold the powerful accountable. Large tech platforms control advertising and profit off the hard work of local reporters by recirculating content.
These are grave dangers to the model that the Founders envisioned, but they are not insurmountable. If Americans do not act, though, the free press will diminish and democracy with it.
In the coming weeks, I hope you will join me in a conversation about why a free press remains as essential today as it was in 1776. We’ll be looking at what the free press is, why it matters and, most important, how to save it at this critical historic juncture.
And if you do only one thing this holiday weekend, go buy a newspaper to commemorate July 6 and the first printing of the Declaration of Independence.