The American Historian

A Message from the King: Revolutionary Print Culture and its Afterlife

Trish Loughran

When Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton imagines the arrival of a speech by King George III in the Revolutionary colonies, it does so with predictable theatrical flair: two royal minions in flaming red courtier costumes step onto the stage in the middle of some classic Hamiltonian banter, abruptly announcing, with trumpets, the arrival of “A Message from the King!” The king then immediately appears in person, floating frictionlessly onto the stage in a spotlight that illuminates only his immobilized upper body, and proceeds to belt out a wounded love song, accusing his beloved (colonies) of violating the intimate bonds of empire: “You say our love is draining and you can’t go on,” he petulantly croons, but “you’ll be the one complaining when I am gone...”[1]

“The message from the king” depicted here is based on two likely sources: first, George III’s “Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition” (issued from court on August 23, 1775) and second, the expanded version of that document, usually called “The Speech from the Throne,” which was delivered by the king (in person) at the opening of Parliament on October 27, 1775, and then published in London soon after under the title “His Majesty's most gracious speech to both houses of Parliament.” The Speech from the Throne became particularly notorious in the American colonies, where it was reprinted some months later in 1776 (after some predictable delays, occasioned by transatlantic wintertime travel) in Annapolis, New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, usually in broadside form but sometimes in the pages of newspapers. In perhaps its most infamous American incarnation, for example, the text of the speech appeared on January 9, 1776, in Benjamin Towne’s Pennsylvania Evening Post, not as front page ‘news’ (since it likely arrived while that day’s edition of the Post was already half composed in type) but inserted rather nondescriptly in the middle of the issue, on the same page as the first known advertisement for Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (“This day was published…”)—a coincidence I will return to in a moment.

Among the musical Hamilton’s many pleasures is the way it distills the entire scene of Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary history into a tidy two-act package, a feat that often involves compressing the greatest hits of Revolutionary print culture into pithy song and dance numbers. Just before the king makes his entrance, for example, the Tory Samuel Seabury and the patriot Hamilton trade insults on what we presume is a New York street while a crowd watches them debate. But the pamphlet war between Seabury and Hamilton on which this musical number is based actually played out in a much more protracted way, in print, across many months in 1774 and 1775, starting with Seabury’s loyalist pamphlet Free Thoughts on the Proceedings of the Continental Congress (published in November 1774), followed by Hamilton’s first retort, titled Full Vindication of the Measures of Congress (in December 1774), followed again by Seabury’s own rejoinder, titled A View of the Controversy (in January 1775), and then brought to a close by Hamilton, who got the last word in with The Farmer Refuted (in February 1775). It’s unlikely the two men ever met and argued in person during this set of exchanges (Seabury was a Westchester minister; Hamilton a Manhattan lawyer). Yet in the play this print debate is imagined happening in a single meeting, on a street corner, as Seabury stands on a box like some latter-day town crier (his old-fogey bit beginning with the anachronistic words, “Hear ye! Hear ye!”) while the younger, hipper (and hotheaded) Hamilton acts every bit the twenty-first century troll, interrupting Seabury and heaping personal abuse on him, much like anonymous online users might do today in an internet comment box, on Reddit, or on Twitter—discursive contexts that are anachronistic to the scene of eighteenth century print culture but that certainly inform Miranda’s take on that culture in Hamilton.

But perhaps the most thrilling thing about this scene is the king’s physical entrance in the middle of the argument. Notable here is the ease with which the sovereign moves, the weird and wonderful way that George III, ensconced at court across the Atlantic Ocean, slides on and off the stage to deliver his message in person, inserting himself directly into a distant colonial debate by interrupting Hamilton and Seabury. Miranda is once again taking theatrical license here—and not just because the speech was only spoken in London while it was printed in New York (in 1776, a year after Hamilton and Seabury had completed their print exchange). No, the remarkable thing here is that the King deigns to speak to his subjects at all--and that comes and goes as he pleases in order to do so, despite the vast geographical distance that lies between them. This gesture consolidates an idea that is likewise intimated by both the historical and the adapted version of the Seabury-Hamilton pamphlet war: the idea of the eighteenth century public sphere as a conversation, a scene of debate amongst individuals called authors (and readers) in which one party speaks directly to another despite a range of mediating circumstances, from the paper on which such texts circulated to the many miles they had to traverse to get to their readers to the time that travel took.

“This fantasy of a well-oiled revolutionary network was common in the eighteenth century and has been passed down to us as one of the great canards of the Revolution...”

Hamilton, then, might be on to something in the way it telescopes “conversations” that originally occurred in print and recasts them as theatrical throwdowns. The eighteenth century “pamphlet war” aspired to a similar form of compression, creating legible pockets of argument within the larger cacophony of the war’s many debates. And newspapers too (as Benedict Anderson has famously argued) were similar engines of compression, placing side-by-side far-flung authors and events, consolidating them in one place in a way that made the miles between them seem to disappear.[2] One spectacular such moment of time-space compression, in fact, can be found in the coincidence described above: the appearance of the king’s speech in Philadelphia on the same day Common Sense was published. For colonial subjects living on the fringe of empire (and complaining loudly about the distinction this distance produced for them politically and economically), this must have been a satisfying moment of imperial integration, despite the sting of their sovereign’s displeasure. Paine himself never tired of pointing out the oracular quality of this coincidence. As he wrote in an appendix to later editions of Common Sense, “Had the spirit of prophecy directed the birth of this production, it could not have brought it forth, at a more seasonable juncture, or a more necessary time. The bloody-mindedness of the one, show the necessity of pursuing the doctrine of the other.”[3] Thus in Paine’s mind, a chance collision of texts was immediately recast as something like logic—or political fate.

However fanciful Paine’s account of this coincidence might be, it points to something important about both the British Empire and the Revolution that sundered it—and our own ongoing investment in the print public sphere it putatively produced. Put simply, the question of mediation—of degrees of separation (between England and America, the Parliament, and the colonies)—was at the heart of colonial debates and the decision to separate, in particular powering an extended debate about the difference between “actual” and “virtual” representation. The famous slogan “no taxation without representation” points directly back to this debate—proclaiming the righteous desire of colonists to name their own colonial representatives rather than have their economic interests “virtually” represented by Parliament as a whole.

This colonial desire to be seen and heard “on the spot” (in England) marks a number of important documents form this period, including a series of direct petitions to the king himself. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that colonial representatives longed to speak directly to George III in the months and years leading up to separation. Much of the First Continental Congress’ strategy in 1774 was to try to contain the growing conflict with England by pretending their only enemy was Parliament and otherwise playing the part of loyal subjects to the crown. To this end, they repeatedly tried to go around their legislators, whom they insisted did not “actually” represent them, and attempt to speak directly to the sovereign, opening a conversation with him about how their grievances (with Parliament) might be redressed (by him) if His Majesty would only reign in the abuse of parliamentary misrepresentation. Indeed, one of the first things the Continental Congress did upon convening in Philadelphia in 1774 was to appoint a committee to draft a petition addressed directly to the king calling for the repeal of the Intolerable Acts—a strategy that was, at the time, considered a moderate path, championed by “pacific” Quakers like John Dickinson, who sought redress without war, and by strategists such as Benjamin Franklin, who believed that “the ministers and Parliament were obstructions preventing communication between the king and the colonists . . . If only the mail were delivered [without the intercession of these other entities], the king would reply favorably.”[4]

But despite this fantasy of a potentially unspoiled or unmediated path to the Crown, nothing circulated with ease on the eve of Revolution, and this 1774 petition is a case in point. Indeed, like any piece of writing, it was subject to the vagaries of time and imperial travel in ways that made its hoped for outcome—pure interface with the king, followed by reconciliation—highly unlikely if not materially quite impossible. This quite urgent petition, after all, was solicited on October 3, 1774, took about month to be completed in committee (after three significantly different drafts emerged), and upon adoption in late October was promptly sent aboard a ship headed for London only to be returned to Philadelphia a few days later—not just delayed but damaged by a storm at sea. A second copy was then quickly sent aboard a second ship, finally leaving port on November 6 but arriving in London so close to the government’s Christmas recess that it was put off, according to Edwin Wolf, until after the holiday, despite Benjamin Franklin’s valiant efforts to act on it (as he put it) “immediately upon receipt.”[5] When the petition was finally formally received in January 1775 (by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Dartmouth), it was simply read into the parliamentary record with dozens of other documents, and there is no reason to imagine it ever reached the ears of the king, or even most of Parliament. As Benjamin Franklin, who was on hand in London at the time, noted, “it came down among a great Heap of letters of Intelligence from Governors and officers in America, Newspapers, Pamphlets, Handbills, etc., from that Country, the last in the List, and was laid upon the Table with them, undistinguished by any particular Recommendation of it to the Notice of either House; and I do not find, that it has had any further notice taken of it as yet, than that it has been read as well as the other Papers.”[6]

This, of course, was the fate of many transatlantic missives at this highly charged moment, for, as Christopher Looby has said, “there was, in the eighteenth century, no other way” for such documents to circulate “except by the protracted and uncertain means of messages sent on ships across oceans. Such messages were long in transit, dangerously susceptible to diversion, and equally susceptible to misconstruction when they reached their destination.”[7] Indeed, just a few months later, in July 1775, a similar petition (now called the Olive Branch Petition) was sent by the Second Continental Congress—again, addressed directly to the sovereign—affirming loyalty to the Crown in the most obsequious terms. But George III had, as Pauline Maier notes, “already answered” it, refusing delivery and instead declaring the colonies in open rebellion in his Proclamation of August 23, 1775.[8] He made it very clear in both this document and in the later Speech from the Throne that it was not, as these petitions would have it, Parliament who had “misrepresented” the colonies (by refusing to allow colonial subjects to choose their own legislative representatives) but the colonists who were misrepresenting to themselves and each other their place in the empire, and he ironically called for the interruption and seizure of all “traitorous correspondence” in order to “suppress” the rebellion, which he seemed to believe was flourishing via mail.[9]

“It was in the spaces, lags, deferrals, and delays of eighteenth century communication that the possibility of Revolution emerged.”

This fantasy of a well-oiled revolutionary network was common in the eighteenth century and has been passed down to us as one of the great canards of the Revolution, jealously guarded on the left and right alike—and it still appears regularly today in scholarship.[10] Thomas Paine, as we have already seen, was one of the most ardent promoters of this liberal myth of a rational, well-modulated, materially integrated public sphere. He greatly contributed, for example, to our contemporary sense of the Revolution as a series of “discussions” or “debates” that follow discernible trajectories—a belief most forcefully articulated in his enormously popular (but unproveable) account of a universally diffused Common Sense, a pamphlet that, he liked to claim, was everywhere at once in January 1776 (when, in fact, it wasn’t and couldn't have been). Within weeks of the original printing, Paine was trumpeting his own pamphlet’s circulation in the pages of the Pennsylvania Evening Post (January 25, 1776), stating that “several hundreds are already bespoke, one thousand for Virginia.” Less than three months later, on April 8, 1776, he claimed a circulation of 120,000—a number that is still often cited today but was never based on an intimate knowledge of actual reprints.[11]

Paine’s belief in his own pamphlet’s universal diffusion was largely a projection, and the king, too, was wrong in thinking that the disruption of revolutionary “correspondence” would strengthen the empire’s hold on its colonies. As I argue at more length in The Republic in Print, the continental conspiracy the king feared—and the new national community that Paine lobbied for—finally came to pass not because people, texts, or ideas were in perfect correspondence. It was instead in the spaces, lags, deferrals, and delays of eighteenth century communication that the possibility of Revolution emerged—the proclamations that were issued before petitions were read, the letters that never reached their intended recipients (or that took many weeks or months to do so), and the newspapers that sometimes chose to reprint an important text (and sometimes didn't).

To return finally to the afterlife of such debates, as they continue to play out today, in the republic of 2018: it has become a truism of media studies to emphasize the distinction rather than the continuity between the liberal print public sphere of 1776 and the age of electronic mediation in which we now find ourselves. As McKenzie Wark has argued, our current “era of communicative capitalism” is antithetical to the culture of print because electronic communication (like Twitter and Snapchat) “resists recombination into longer threads of argument” (of the sort we see in “books”). Because of the eruption of textual material this engenders (the posts, texts, Instagrams, DMs, and blogs that are dashed off in a moment and then added to the pile of accumulating debris we call contemporary media), there is a growing sense of the “impossibility of anchoring meaning or totalizing it”—except, he ruefully notes, through the use of “force.”[12] Perhaps this is why the sitting U.S. president encourages his followers (on Twitter but also in person, at theatrical rallies) to “forget the press” and “read the internet.” The news once packaged information “into longer threads of argument” after the fact while the internet seems to be a container of everything that is (being) thought and said, as it unfolds. It is a radical encounter with plenitude and apparent im-mediacy. But we would do well to remember that this desire to have everything at once does not run counter to the spirit of the Revolution. It is the legacy of a Revolution that we still do not understand, made possible because it never got what it most wished for (a here, a now, an impossible everything).


Trish Loughran is Associate Professor of English and Affiliate Faculty in History and the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her first book, The Republic in Print: Print Culture in the Age of U.S. Nation-Building (2008), focused on American state formation in the years 1770-1870, with special attention to how print culture did and did not create imagined communities across time and space. Her current research interests include eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century culture (both visual and literary); the construction of spatial imaginaries; old and new media (print and virtual); and the history of the present.


[1]Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, Hamilton: The Revolution (2016), 57.

[2]Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (2006)

[3]Thomas Paine, Common Sense; addressed to the inhabitants of America (1776), 77.

[4]Christopher Looby, “Franklin’s Purloined Letters,” Arizona Quarterly, 46 (Summer 1990), p. 6–10.

[5]Edwin Wolf, “The Authorship of the 1774 Address to the King Restudied,” The William and Mary Quarterly 22 (issue 2, 1965), 189–224. Benjamin Franklin to Charles Thomson, February 5, 1775, in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin Vol. 21:475a.

[6]Benjamin Franklin to Charles Thomson, February 5, 1775.

[7]Looby, “Franklin’s Purloined Letters,” 1.

[8]Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (1997), 25.

[9]“A Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition”(1775)

[10]See, for example, William B. Warner, Protocols of Liberty: Communication, Innovation, and the American Revolution (2013).

[11]Trish Loughran, The Republic in Print: Print Culture in the Age of U.S. Nation-Building (2007), 37–58.

[12]McKenzie Wark, General Intellects: Twenty-One Thinkers for the Twenty-First Century (2017), 145–146.