September 25

“It is designed, that the Countrey shall be furnished once a moneth (or if any Glut of Occurrences happen, oftener,) with an Account of such considerable thaings as have arrived unto our Notice.”

Thus, bravely, did Numb. 1 of Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestic, appear on the streets of Boston on Thursday, September 25th in the year 1690. A four-page newspaper with a type page just 4-⁷/₈ x 8-⁵/₈ inches, Publick Occurrences can claim the distinction of being the first American newspaper. The sheet also may be listed as competing for the title of being the shortestlived paper to appear on this continent. Unfortunately, its publisher, Benjamin Harris, had neglected to check out his operation with the local authorities.

On September 29 the Governor and Council of Massachusetts issued a statement to the effect that the newspaper had published “Without the least Privity or Countenance of Authority.” They further expressed their “high Resentment and Disallowance of said Pamphlet,” and forthwith ordered “that the same be Suppressed and called in; strictly forbidding any person or persons for the future to Set forth any thing in Print without License first obtained!’

Quite possibly the authorities were not at all amused by the sprightly handling of the news by Editor Harris, as his sheet was better written than many of the officially accredited newspapers which began to appear about fifteen years later. In their suppression statement they had hinted “that therein is contained Reflections of a very high nature: As also sundry doubtful and uncertain Reports!’ Such a reflection was perhaps the gossip concerning the immoralities of the King of France, in addition to some irreligious remarks about the recently completed French and Indian War.

Ben Harris, the publisher of America’s first newspaper, was an English bookseller who had come to Boston four years earlier after serving a prison sentence for his connection with the Popish Plot, a supposed conspiracy of English Catholics to bum London and kill off all the Protestants. A contemporary account says of Harris:

“He was a brisk asserter of English liberties, and once printed a book with that very title. He sold A Protestant Petition, in King Charles’s reign, for which they fined him £500 and set him once in the pillory; but his wife, (like a kind rib,) stood by him to defend her husband against the mob. After this [having a deal of mercury in his natural temper,] he travelled to New England, where he followed bookselling, and then coffee selling, and then printing, but continued Ben Harris still; and is now both bookseller and printer, in Gracechurch-street, as we find by his London Post; so that his conversation is general, (but never impertinent,) and his wit pliable to all invention. But yet his vanity, (if he has any,) gives no allay to his wit, and is no more than might justly spring from conscious virtue; and I do him but justice in this part of his character, but in once travelling with him from Bury fair, I found him to be the most ingenuous and innocent companion that I had ever met with.”

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