INDELIBLE INK

EXCERPT

Pages 20-35

 

Home    Excerpts

 

INDELIBLE INK                                                                          Pages 20-35

 

 

IV

 

 

Within a few months of her fearful and fatherless family’s arrival in the city, Johanna Zenger had made a suitable arrangement to improve her oldest child’s prospects in the world. For seventeen years, William Bradford had been the official royal printer for—and, in fact, the sole printer in—the colony of New York. Just recently his establishment on Hanover Square had issued the second version of the province’s laws and the American Almanack edition for 1711. Inquiries about the forty-seven-year-old proprietor would have revealed to Peter Zenger’s mother that Bradford, a leading vestryman at the Anglican Trinity Church, was regarded around town as a sober, hardworking, yet affable overseer, said to be a friend of the poor and needy, a category for which the Zengers fully qualified.

We can only guess what skills and aptitudes thirteen-year-old Peter might have had to offer the master printer. Even if the lad were quick-witted, he had probably heard English spoken only during the year or so that had passed since his family fled the Rhineland and would not likely have been fluent in it. But he must have seemed alert enough, and his mother was doubtlessly persistent in touting her boy’s obedient and resourceful character, for Bradford to have agreed on October 26, 1710, to sign official papers assigning the German boy to his charge as a shop apprentice for eight years. The printer was to provide him with “good, sufficient and wholesome meat, drink and clothing”—and lodging, too, probably, the better to tend to his chores as printer’s devil while allowing him to remain within brisk walking distance of his mother and younger siblings. In return, Peter pledged to serve his master “well and truly . . . not to absent or prolong himself” from Bradford’s service at any time, and “to behave in all things as a good and faithful servant.” In the event that their arrangement endured, the printer agreed to return Peter to the governor’s custody at its conclusion.

The anxious teenager could hardly have found a better or more understanding mentor, for William Bradford himself had not had an easy time of it on the way to becoming a leading citizen of New York and its only purveyor of words in print.

 

 

 

 

 

 

INDELIBLE INK                                                                          Pages 20-35

 

 

The son of a printer, Bradford was born into a Quaker family in Leicestershire in the middle of the English Midlands. As was customary in most societies, he took up his father’s trade and the family faith, apprenticed with the leading Quaker printer in London, and married his daughter. Given the competitive pressures of his strictly regulated trade, the twenty-two-year-old journeyman was pleased to accept the arrangement his father-in-law made for him to set up the first press to operate in the colony of Pennsylvania. William arrived in 1685, opening a shop in the outskirts of Philadelphia and enjoying the title (without salary) of official New World printer for the Society of Friends, the colony’s dominant sect and not a persecuted dissident denomination as in England. Even so, it was not long before Bradford found himself in trouble of the sort that had plagued his trade ever since Johannes Gutenberg’s 1439 invention of a printing press that used moving type.

A great irony had accompanied the arrival of one of civilization’s most important tools. Even as mechanical reproduction of type-set texts superseded hand-copied work and began to liberate the human mind from thralldom to secular and ecclesiastical authorities, so did it alert those rulers and arbiters of society to the likelihood that an increasingly curious laity might soon awaken to subversive ideas that could incite demands for fundamental changes in the social order and spiritual realm. As literacy spread beyond the chambers of government, religious sanctuaries, universities, and counting houses, anxious authorities devised means to stunt the creation, production, and distribution of printed material and began imposing penalties on all who would flout the new controls. Governments would charge violators with disturbing the peace and sedition, and those convicted met with fines or prolonged incarceration or bodily disfigurement (or a combination thereof); the clergy would brand preachments against orthodoxy as heresy and demand confession of error from objectors whose only options often were excommunication or extermination. This relentless vigil over printed matter as the potential catalyst for revolutionary thought and behavior was more than misplaced zealotry; it was accurate recognition that the handwriting of change was no longer on the wall—printed messages had taken its place. Thus, the pace of the Renaissance quickened with the arrival of mass communication by print. The medieval mind was further flushed free of conformity by Luther’s iconoclastic postings in 1517, leading to the Protestant Reformation and a yearning to contemplate one’s place in life and eternity free from the dictates of temporal and clerical authority. Sacred texts and other forms of moral instruction could now be consulted directly as guides to personal salvation. Indeed, literacy was understood to hold the key not only to reaching a state of grace but to almost every phase of human advancement. Accordingly, soon there were books—primers—to help propagate literacy, and the Age of Enlightenment followed, spawning in turn the industrial, scientific, and political revolutions that would come to define modernity.

 

 

 

 

 

INDELIBLE INK                                                                      Pages 600-603

 

 

In sixteenth-century England, secular and religious officials were sufficiently fearful of printed material as a goad to social unrest that they collaborated to construct a two-part regimen to ration it. Tudor monarchs, in tandem with Parliament, the high clergy, and local magistrates, issued formal decrees that aimed at censoring whatever texts might be composed for circulation among the public and severely restricting the operation of printing presses. To ensure the peace of the realm, its ruling elements mandated that all dissenting opinion had to be suppressed, and the crown, through its proclaimed royal prerogative, unhesitantly appointed itself as the only instrument capable of carrying through such a program. Official press control began in 1529 with Henry VIII’s issuing a list of 100 banned books. The next year the crown initiated a licensing system to certify who other than the royal printer had the right to operate a press and to import paper and ink from the Continent for that purpose. Censorship was similarly draconian: anything printed without the royal imprimatur was subject to prosecution. Because Henry was the head of both the state and the national church he established in his epochal quarrel with Rome, political and religious questions had become inseparably mingled, so all expressions of dissent or nonconformity were deemed to have the common effect of disturbing the king’s peace and were thus punishable as subversive or as even treasonable. Henry’s daughters, Queen Mary I and, more so, Elizabeth I, expanded the licensing system as literacy grew and the menace of dissident thought and expression rose with it. The Stationers’ Company, a crown-chartered guild of printers and publishers, was given two prime missions. Its first was to scrutinize all texts before publication to determine what was and wasn’t fit for public consumption—the latter being mostly anything that smacked of Catholic theology, disparaged as cant and superstition. The Stationers’ second duty was to restrict the issuing of licenses to printers and booksellers who, in return for their monopoly (limited early on to shops in London, York, and the university towns of Oxford and Cambridge), pledged full compliance with the crown’s dictates. Under the eyes of an ecclesiastical Court of High Commission, the Stationers’ wardens were directed to search out and seize propagators of objectionable material, who faced prosecution for their sins, particularly after the establishment of the Court of the Star Chamber. Under that demonic tribunal’s 1586 decree, Star Chamber judges were granted royal exemption from defendants’ common law right to a jury trial and freedom from giving self-incriminating testimony; the result was often predetermined and unappealable findings of what writings were iconoclastic, thus morally reprehensible—and harshly punishable.

The seventeenth-century expansion of British commerce and maritime power produced a newly vigorous mercantile class with accumulating wealth, expanding horizons, a yen for empire, and a hunger for practical information, fresh ideas, and news of happenings all over. Prominent among these was a nascent demand by commoners to share political power with the crown and end royal absolutism. One consequence of these developments was an outpouring of printed material, some of it illicit and placed in clandestine circulation, that was far different from the dry theological treaties, legal and commercial documents, and an occasional ancient classic that had been the standard output of print shops. Now pamphlets and books, often of a discursive or argumentative nature, appeared on a variety of subjects—philosophy, science, history; travel, literature (essays, poetry, and drama most often)—as well as broadsides and later the first so-called newsbook reports on foreign occurrences, although precious little about domestic events or the proceedings of Parliament. Journalism lay a century in the future.

This eruption of popular expression from below was decidedly unwelcome by the new Stuart dynasty and its first monarch, James I. He took the throne in 1603, openly disdainful of his subjects below the rank of nobility—“vulgar persons,” he called them, who, in their massive ignorance, deserved no information about or say in their government’s policies and ought to have contented themselves with mute allegiance to their rulers’ mandates. Printers were placed under renewed surveillance, and two years into James’s reign, the Star Chamber court reformulated the law of libel in a manner putting the realm on notice that any written or printed expression intended or serving to defame another’s reputation—whether the target was a public or private person, alive or dead—would be punishable by fine, imprisonment, and/or “the amputation of the ears.” By its very nature, libeling was defamatory and often contemptuous; it “robs a man of his good name, which ought to be the more precious to him than his life, and therefore when the offender is known, he ought to be severely punished.” And there was a further reason, the Star Chamber said, for not tolerating scandalous accusations: they incited the victims’ families, friends, and acquaintances to revenge and tended to produce quarrels, breaches of the peace, and even bloodshed. The court then extended its political outreach by holding that if the defamatory language was directed against a magistrate or other public person—from the king down to the humblest justice of the peace or municipal clerk— “it is a greater offense, for it concerneth not only the breach of the peace but also the scandal of government; for what greater scandal can . . . there be than to have corrupt or wicked magistrates to be appointed and constituted by the king to govern his subjects under him?” No worse sin could be attributed to the state than “to suffer such corrupt men to sit in the sacred seat of justice or to have any meddling in or concerning the administration of justice”—or, by implication, any other governmental function.

 

 

 

 

 

INDELIBLE INK                                                                          Pages 20-35

 

 

But what if the defamatory words were true? Were the targeted scoundrels nevertheless to remain in office, running the realm? Wasn’t that a far worse sin? Why criminalize and prosecute whoever publicly unmasked royal employees who abused their power and denied the king’s subjects knowledge of their malfeasance? No such irksome questions troubled the Star Chamber judges; near the beginning of their opinion in the case known as De Libellis Famosis, they wrote, “It is not material whether the libel be true or false.” They did not say why—only that publishing any words, true or false, that tended to disturb the peace by maligning the government, justly or not, and thus presumably destabilizing the state was a crime and duly punishable. But in so declaring, the despotic Stuarts’ pet court was ignoring a train of statutes, commonly referred to as Scandalum Magnatum, which ran back more than three centuries and were likewise intended to discourage aspersions on the crown, its retainers, and the nobility. All these laws took their cue from the first of them, passed in 1275 in the reign of Edward I, which stated, “From henceforth, none be so hardy to tell or publish any false news or tales whereby discord or occasion of discord or slander may grow between the king and his people or the great men of the realm.” Indeed, one of the principal characteristics of these early antilibel statutes, according to Fredrick S. Siebert’s Freedom of the Press in England, 1476–1776, was that “the matter objected to was false. . . which would lead to the conclusion that the falsity of the matter would have to be both alleged and proved by the prosecutor.” That truth was a defense to a libel action “under the statutes,” Siebert added, “is attested to by all the early seventeenth-century authorities.” The tyranny inherent in the Star Chamber’s condemnation of any and all criticism of the king’s or his retainers’ conduct of the realm—no matter how iniquitous that might be—had the desired chilling effect on writers and publishers. There was no outcry by the cowed masses; any protest against the regime would itself have been prosecutable before judges impaneled to quash it.

Under James’s son and successor, Charles I, the muzzling persisted. In 1637, four years before its dissolution, the Star Chamber decreed still more stringent vetting of all printed matter produced within the kingdom or shipped in from abroad. As a further disincentive to the open exchange of ideas, the government also began to tax all texts approved for publication. By the 1640s, though, the rise of the entrepreneurial class and the lesser landed gentry had begun to breed resentment of the crown’s obstinate hauteur as Charles embarked on a collision—and finally fatal—course with Parliament and its growing body of supporters. Subterranean opponents to the regime’s oppressive ways now began to breathe fresh air, the fanatic Star Chamber was closed down, and unlicensed writers issued screeds proclaiming liberty of speech and the press an essential right of a free people as well as a benefit to enlightened statecraft. Continued suppression was seen through as dictatorship masquerading as defender of law and order. Among the pleas infiltrating the now lively, if not yet clamorous, national dialogue was one from the Netherlands, Britain’s nearest Protestant neighbor, enjoying its heyday as the nexus of Western intellectual debate. To punish men’s words so long as they were based on reason and not on “fraud, anger, or hatred,” wrote philosopher Baruch Spinoza, served the interests of neither the wise ruler nor those he governed. Imprudent laws and unsound policies could be rectified by open discussion just as it would facilitate society’s arrival at higher truths and fresh insights in the spiritual and philosophical realms—even if, Spinoza conceded, flawed or misguided thinking was aired in the process. Diverse ideas need not be divisive, he implied; liberty of expression would nurture harmonious communal spirit, not unsettle it as authoritarian officials insisted.

 

 

 

 

 

INDELIBLE INK                                                                          Pages 20-35

 

 

As government control over nonconformist thought was eased or averted, a passionate cry for uninhibited free speech and print was raised by Richard Overton, a leader of the English Levellers movement, dissidents who called on Parliament and the nation to embrace popular sovereignty through broadened suffrage, universal equality before the law, and religious tolerance in place of the schismatic turmoil wrenching society apart. To the privileged oligarchy in command of the realm, such demands were anathema, if no longer entirely unutterable. A more soaring anthem to free expression as the only pathway to ultimate wisdom and righteousness was John Milton’s 1644 treatise, Areopagitica, justly celebrated by posterity though scarcely noted by his contemporaries. “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to my conscience, above all liberties,” he beseeched. For all its fervor, Milton’s luminous language was partially betrayed on closer examination by the conditional nature of his avowal of free expression—it did not extend, he allowed, to the beliefs of Catholics or atheists, whose convictions he loathed and whose utterances he would proscribe. Like many professed advocates of free expression, past and present, the immortal poet failed to grasp that its essence resides precisely in protecting the right to be read and heard of those whose words are repugnant to the listener as well as those whose words are in accord with one’s own. Admiration for Milton’s libertarian zeal must be tempered as well by his service, after the king’s 1649 beheading, as an official censor during the Cromwell interregnum. His puritanical advocacy of free expression, furthermore, did not extend to what he regarded as licentious—in particular, obscenity and impiety.

During the English Civil War of the 1650s, both sides had more on their minds than curbing contentious speech and writing, but relaxation of control ended with the military dictatorship and the restoration of the Stuart dynasty. The realm, after enduring two decades of ceaseless religious and constitutional strife, had wearied of controversy. In the reactionary social climate of the second half of the seventeenth century, virtually all writing once again had to undergo prepublication screening lest it spread incendiary ideas that might, in the estimate of royal and church officials, lead to renewed domestic chaos. Crown officers snooped all over, violating without warrants the premises of writers, printers, publishers, and booksellers in an ongoing hunt for objectionable texts. Parliament, while striving to curb Charles II’s genetically authoritarian impulses, connived with his regime to stymie social protest; in 1662, to cite an instance of such collaboration, Commons forced printers to affix their names to every item that went through their presses; violators risked the loss of their licenses. Champions of free expression, long out of season, had to find underground routes to the perilous marketplace of ideas, and some, like the defiant republican advocate Algernon Sidney, paid dearly for committing subversive words to paper even if retained within the confines of his own home. Sidney, while in his study, had the temerity to make notes suggesting that bad rulers deserved removal from office. When his private quarters were violated by crown agents and his musings discovered, he was tried for plotting the king’s death, convicted of treason, and executed not for any act he had committed or words of incitement he had shared with others but for the indiscretion of writing down an idea. Could royal mind readers, ordered to club every suspect thought into submission, be far behind?

Five years after Sidney’s martyrdom, the autocratic, cavalier line of Stuart kings was—as Sidney had prescribed—forcibly ended (though James II, unlike his father, managed to retain his head), and Parliament’s long struggle for ascendancy was crowned by the realm’s consensual embrace of Prince William of Orange and the establishment of constitutional monarchy. While the accompanying Bill of Rights that spelled out clear limitations on the crown’s power was silent on the people’s liberty to express displeasure with their government, it did allow members of Parliament to speak their minds with impunity as long as any derogatory words were delivered within the legislative chambers at Westminster. This “parliamentary privilege” was extended to the right of members to deny outsiders permission to report or comment on either house’s proceedings and to prosecute those who dared to do so—and without a jury trial since the membership as a whole was supposedly to function as a jury. What the crown had surrendered in setting itself above the law and answerability to popular grievances Parliament seized up to make itself a sanctuary inviolable by criticism from any quarter.

 

 

 

 

 

INDELIBLE INK                                                                          Pages 20-35

 

 

Yet by a series of votes culminating in 1694, Parliament started to clear away the thicket of official suppression confronting all who wished to express their beliefs, wherever the chips might fall. The long-standing licensing acts that required a government or church permit prior to publication for any printed matter were allowed to lapse. Henceforth, all who could command a press or pay for its use were free to publish what they wished. The milestone seemed, momentarily, to mark an epochal advance in the liberty and dignity of every crown subject. But there was a barbed catch that accompanied the lifting of censorship. The action was not tantamount to a waiver of liability from prosecution for libel if freely published words of protest or vilification offended the sensibilities or reputations of those against whom they were directed, justly or not. And who was to determine if the defamation was merited, the courts or the public as represented by juries? The courts claimed that power, but the question was repeatedly contested over the next half-century. Either way, one still had to face the consequences of choosing to characterize villainy for what it was. Defamation of private persons could come at a high cost even if the writer was blackening the name of a blackguard. And the price could climb even higher if the writer chose to assail government officials, regardless of the validity of the accusation. In the view of most scholars and the barristers at London’s Inns of Court, the doctrine of seditious libel as framed nearly a century earlier by the long-since-discredited Star Chamber had not in the least eroded, and Parliament exhibited no intention of granting statutory relief to libertarians who might then besiege the government with incessant protests over alleged abuses of power or acts of folly. Writers and printers remained subject to fine, jail time, and bodily insult for any defamatory words aimed at the keepers of the kingdom. Instead of a cause for celebration, the demise of official press censorship before publication was rather like winning the right to obtain a key to the lion’s cage at the local zoo without first having to demonstrate the skill to tame the beast. Problematic or encumbered freedom of the press was no freedom at all, as William Bradford soon discovered upon transplanting his trade from England to Pennsylvania.

 

 

V

 

To understate the matter, the printing trade was not much encouraged in colonial America. Literacy was higher there, studies have suggested, than in Britain or on the Continent, but such demand as there was for reading material in a frontier setting, where survival was the prime concern and not intellectual development, could be largely satisfied by publications shipped in from the mother country. Books, moreover, were manufactured products, and Britain’s mercantile system did not encourage manufacturing in the colonies, whose main function was to enrich the kingdom by sending home crops and raw commodities at a cheap price while serving as a captive market for items made in Britain.

Books and pamphlets fell into the category of luxury goods in America, and those most sought were of a practical nature—teaching primers, prayer books, instructive manuals, and almanacs containing vital information on seasonal weather and the tides, dates for court sessions, routes and schedules for postal riders—along with occasional snippets of wisdom from sages of the ages. Works of literature or of a reflective nature were less in demand; the colonists, after all, were busy making history, not contemplating it.

 

 

 

 

 

INDELIBLE INK                                                                          Pages 20-35

 

 

The overseers of the realm, moreover, were no more eager to promote the dissemination of provocative writing, casting doubt on the entrenched social order, in their overseas outposts than at home. American printers, too, had to be licensed and their numbers were restricted, and what they produced throughout most of the first century of British colonization required crown approval. Indeed, seditious thoughts planted among their offspring far away from hovering parents might take root more easily and resist weeding more fiercely. The government’s prevailing attitude may be judged from a 1671 remark by William Berkeley, long-time governor of Virginia, the most populous of the thirteen colonies: “I thank God there are no schools and printing [here], and I hope we shall not have these [for a] hundred years, for learning has brought disobedience and heresy and sects to the world, and printing has divulged them. . . . God keep us from both.” Fifteen years later, King James II’s written instructions to Edmund Andros, on becoming governor of the newly designated Dominion of New England, were of like sentiment: “For [in]asmuch as great inconvenience may arise by the liberty of printing within our said territory under your government, you are to provide by all necessary orders that no person keep any printing press. . . nor that any book, pamphlet or other matters whatever be printed without your especial leave and license first obtained.” Even after Parliament voided its licensing act following the Glorious Revolution, such repressive instructions remained standard in the American colonies. In New York prior to 1719, every governor was told that no press, book, pamphlet, or other printed matter was permitted without a license obtained from him or his office.

Given the risks of censure and punishment for attracting the displeasure of colonial officials—and the threat of prosecution for committing seditious libel, a crime as reprehensible in the eyes of the royal authorities in the colonies as in England—what few printers there were in America took pains to give as little offense as possible. And in fairness, the colonists by and large had little to complain about for the way the crown treated them. Their land cost them a relative pittance or nothing at all to obtain, food was plentiful, work was available for all willing to bestir themselves, taxes were low, nobody was pressed into military service, and the small garrisons of soldiers posted among them rarely if ever menaced the civilian population or had cause to. In truth, the colonial governments kept the crown’s subjects under as light a rein, probably, as any imperial masters in recorded history. Nonetheless, colonial printers did not chance roiling still waters. Their staple printed items for most of the seventeenth century were government laws and proclamations, commercial and legal forms, orthodox theological tracts, moralizing sermons, hymnals, calling cards and stationery, and posters. Books were cheaper to import than produce in the colonies, so printers supplemented their incomes by selling imported titles.

Even while sticking to products devoid of politics or controversy, printers struggled to make ends meet, in part because production materials were hard to come by. The British government strictly limited the number of foundries that could make type, how much of it each could sell, and the variety of type fonts a print shop could own—hardly a subtle means to discourage the trade—and so the type available for export to colonial printers was often used long after it became old and broken. Paper, too, was in short supply and costly, and the locally produced kind was likely to be of inferior quality. One of William Bradford’s better business decisions a few years after opening his own shop was to join in a venture creating the first paper mill in Pennsylvania. Ink was also a scarce commodity—lampblack and varnish, its chief ingredients, generally had to be imported—and printing presses themselves, complex devices to build, were as yet beyond the capability of colonial mechanics.

 

 

 

 

 

INDELIBLE INK                                                                          Pages 20-35

 

 

It is not surprising, then, in view of the obstacles to solvent operation, that by 1710, when Peter Zenger began his apprenticeship in William Bradford’s shop, only fifteen printing establishments had opened throughout Britain’s Atlantic seaboard colonies during their first century of settlement. That Bradford had survived as a printer for twenty-five years by then, considering the grief visited upon him for what, to modern observers, seem like entirely innocuous infractions, was a tribute to his sturdy backbone and unflagging industry.

One of his first undertakings in Philadelphia had been to offer the public an almanac for the year 1686—it was a product that would prove a popular seller for Bradford over his career—but soon after its appearance, the printer suffered a stinging official rebuke for no graver sin than naming in print the proprietary governor of the colony, William Penn. A pious enough Quaker himself (or he would surely not have been invited to open his shop under the sect’s auspices), Bradford had not supposed that a passing reference to “Lord Penn” was contrary to the Society of Friends’ tenet against any form of self-aggrandizement. He was told otherwise by the Provincial Council, Penn’s pawns, and ordered to reprint the almanac with the proprietor’s name omitted and not to print anything else without the consent of the council—especially nothing about the Quakers unless they agreed to it. The caveat seems to have slipped Bradford’s mind—or he chose to risk defying it—for the Friends censured as well the 1688 edition of his almanac because it contained some playful passages offensive to the society’s sense of rectitude, and they demanded that the publisher recall all copies thus far sold and destroy them. Bradford was paid £24 for his troubles and likely considered himself fortunate not to have been expelled from the sect.

A year later Bradford was at odds with the Provincial Council after one of its members had contracted with him to publish Penn’s original charter of the colony along with the councilman’s commentary, titled “The Frame of Government” and intended to let Pennsylvania citizens know their rights and privileges under a proprietary ruler—presumably a constructive purpose. Bradford was apparently unaware (or knew and disapproved) of an earlier vote by the council, perhaps in private, not to make the charter public knowledge in order to forestall any objections to their oligarchic rule over the colony. The councilman who engaged Bradford for the job was summoned before Penn’s surrogate governor, John Blackwell, and the council to explain why the charter was published in violation of the rule against issuing printed material “of a dangerous nature” without benefit of an official license. The councilman remained mum except for invoking his common-law right not to testify against himself. Governor Blackwell, aware that Bradford’s press was the only one operating in colonial America south of New England, hauled the printer before him but was unable to elicit self-incriminating testimony from him either. Angered, the governor bellowed that he had been empowered by Lord Penn himself to shut down the printing trade in the colony whenever he wished, so if the defiant Bradford cared to remain in business, he would have to post a heavy bond—reportedly as much as £500—to ensure his future printing of “nothing but what I allow.” Bradford argued back that as a businessman he ought to be free to take on whatever jobs came through the door, adding boldly, “Printing is a manufacture of the nation, and therefore ought rather to be encouraged than suppressed.”

Unchastened but wearying of harassment, Bradford accepted his father-in-law’s offer to take over his press back in London, but the Friends Society, unwilling to lose their printer’s skills, offered him a modest salary and, more important, a pledge to subscribe for 200 copies of any book they approved of his printing. The newly cordial relationship lasted two years until Bradford sided with a separatist faction of Quakers led by the master of the Friends’ Philadelphia school. The teacher had dared to voice his dissenting views at meetings and with a collaborator expressed them in several pamphlets Bradford agreed to issue; in doing so, he omitted his name as printer, a thirty-year-old requirement by Parliament that applied in the colonies as well as in England. One of the pamphlets, moreover, accused the deputy governor of exceeding his magisterial powers. The co-authors and Bradford as their accomplice were charged with circulating “a malicious and seditious paper . . . tending to the disturbance of the peace and subversion of the present government.” Summarily tried, without a hearing, by a provincial court packed with the deputy governor and other magistrates whom the offending tract had accused of abusing their power, the defendants were convicted—Bradford additionally for failing to list his name as the printer of the pamphlets—and fined the modern equivalent of $1,000 each. For good measure, the perpetrators were further humiliated in the public marketplace, where the town crier denounced them as subverters of the government and enemies of the king. Afterward, they were jailed until they agreed to recant their offenses.

 

 

 

 

 

INDELIBLE INK                                                                          Pages 20-35

 

 

But they would not. Bradford, for whose sins his printing equipment had been impounded by the government, demanded his Magna Carta right to a jury trial and, after being held four months in prison, was granted his wish. The prosecutor insisted at the outset that the jury could decide only whether Bradford had printed the pamphlets and, if so, it was then up to the judges to determine whether the publications amounted to seditious libel tending to cause a breach of the peace. Bradford, serving as his own lawyer, insisted the jurors were entitled to act as arbiters of the law as well as finders of the facts, so it was the jury’s place, not the court’s, to rule whether the pamphlets were an incitement to public unrest or merely an expression of the authors’ personal opinions. The court ruled against the printer.

Bradford was left with only one defense—that, even though the sheriff’s officers had entered his shop and seized the printing form containing the type for the pamphlets at issue, there was no hard evidence that the defendant himself had either set the type or printed the pamphlets. It may have seemed a lame argument, given the overwhelming circumstantial evidence against the shop owner, but it suddenly grew stronger. As the jurors were passing around the printing chase that held the schoolmaster’s article, offered by the prosecutor as Exhibit A, the quoins securing the type within its frame loosened, scattering the letters all over the courtroom floor and ruining the only solid evidence against Bradford. After two days of deliberation, the jury was deadlocked nine-to-three in favor of conviction and was dismissed.

Bradford asked for release from custody and the return of his printing equipment while awaiting retrial, but his request was denied. Months passed until the anguished prisoner finally won a reversal of fortune. A year after his original arrest, Bradford was rescued by the intervention of the new governor of New York, Benjamin Fletcher, who had also been named temporary governor of Pennsylvania after Penn’s charter had been suspended. Fletcher persuaded the Provincial Council that judging the libelous content of the pamphlets was really a theological matter, best settled among the Quakers themselves. Bradford was let out of prison and, his equipment restored to him, accepted Fletcher’s invitation to quit Pennsylvania, with its press-baiting officials and forever-querulous Quaker elders, and become the royal printer for New York colony.

William Bradford may not have been a perfect craftsman—indeed, his publications often revealed poor design, broken type, uneven inking, muddled pagination, and lax proofreading—but he was hardworking, plucky in his dealings with the authorities, and notably innovative in certain aspects of his trade, such as type styles, bookbinding, and papermaking. In New York City, where he enjoyed the governor’s sponsorship and greater social and religious tolerance than prevailed in any other crown colony, Bradford’s business immediately flourished. His records for 1693 show that he issued thirty-eight publications, among them the laws and acts of the New York General Assembly and the ordinances of New York City’s Common Council. It was likely more than happenstance that the first book he brought out was titled New England’s Spirit of Persecution Transmitted to Pennsylvania. And when Governor Fletcher presided over the dedication ceremonies of the first Trinity Church on lower Broadway in 1698, among the newly welcomed Anglican congregants was the colony’s lapsed Quaker printer.

Bradford’s success was surely bolstered by being the colony’s only printer for thirty-two years after moving there. His monopoly would be broken when a far smaller shop was opened by a struggling rival whom he had taken on as an apprentice fifteen years earlier.

 

 

 

Home    Excerpts