July 8

‘Towne was not deficient in intellect and was a decent workman. He was a bon vivant, but he did not possess the art of accumulating and retaining wealth.” So wrote Isaiah Thomas, the American printing historian of Benjamin Towne, who died on July 8, 1793.

That statement is practically the only decent remark concerning printer Towne that can be found in the record. But he must necessarily be a part of the history of the American newspaper, as he happened to be the publisher of the first daily newspaper to appear on this continent, even if it was, as Mott has written, “from first to last a sorry looking, poverty-stricken sheet—shabby forerunner of the great American daily newspaper.” And of course, Mott was thinking about the New York Times rather than, say, the late New York Graphic.

Towne had learned the printer’s trade in his native England, and his first work in the Colonies was with the well-known printer-publisher, William Goddard. In 1769 he became a partner with Goddard in the publication of the Pennsylvania Chronicle, but the two men within a short time were in violent disagreement. In 1774 Towne began his own paper in Philadelphia, the Evening Post, as an organ representing the patriot’s interests. This newspaper was the first to put into print the Declaration of Independence in its issue of July 6, 1776. During the British occupation of Philadelphia, Editor Towne changed his colors and became a Royalist. When the occupation ceased it apparently bothered Towne very little as he again changed hats and returned to his “patriotic” views. Although he was not particularly popular, he managed to continue his paper until 1784.

It was on May 30, 1783 that Towne published the Evening Post as a daily. It was printed on a half sheet of paper and contained four two-column pages. Ben Towne probably did all the printing himself, setting the type and pulling the impressions. He also found it necessary to peddle it in the streets. He was for long remembered in Philadelphia for crying in the streets, “All the news for two coppers.” For the seventeen months of its existence as a daily the Evening Post was not very consistent in its publication schedule, sometimes appearing five or less times a week. Advertising revenue was very low, as was the list of subscribers. This situation was not surprising considering the ‘turncoat” policies of its publisher.

In order to boost his circulation, Towne asked the influential Dr. John Witherspoon, President of Princeton College and member of Congress, to write for his sheet. Witherspoon agreed if Towne would print “a Confession, Recantation and Apology,” which he, Witherspoon, would write. But Towne refused. Possibly his reason was that the statement bad him say, “Instead of being suffered to print, I ought to be hanged as a traitor to my country.” The “confession” was widely published in other papers, to the discomfiture of the printer, but he should have known better than to lock horns with a manlike Witherspoon, who was so ardent a patriot that he had coined the term “Americanism.”

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