How fake foreign news fed political fervor and led to the American Revolution
Published in News & Features
A politically prominent London printer named William Strahan often found himself perplexed by American newspapers’ reporting about British politics.
As he explained in letter after letter written to his friend David Hall, who printed the Pennsylvania Gazette in Philadelphia, these accounts of the unpopularity of the British leadership – and the popularity of the colonists’ cause – were figments of the opposition’s imagination.
The British government members, he wrote in 1772, not only “stand their Ground,” but “gather strength every day.” The next month, he wrote to Hall that the opposition had “melted away.” He insisted that if the colonists declared independence, “this Country will oppose [the colonists] to the last Extremity.” Because his newspaper was aligned with the Patriot cause, Hall did not republish the letters he received from Strahan and continued to share, instead, sources from the British opposition.
Strahan was correct: The people of Britain broadly supported their leaders in Parliament against the upstart colonists. When voters had a chance to register their dissent against Prime Minister Frederick North in an election in 1774, they instead strengthened his hand with a larger majority.
Yet despite this evidence, up until the moment that they declared independence, the Patriot coalition that drove the American Revolution insisted that it had earned the hearts and minds of the British people. They asserted that Prime Minister North’s unpopular leadership would soon collapse like a sandcastle in a hurricane.
Strahan did his best to correct his American contacts. In 1775, he explained to his friend Benjamin Franklin, “your Countrymen may have in many Instances mistaken the Voice of Faction for the real Sense of the Nation at large.”
On another occasion, Strahan wrote to Franklin, “All our Murmerings and Opposition to Government appear only in our Newspapers.”
Seeking political advantage, the British opposition party attempted to portray the government as illegitimate. But the American Patriots mistook these electioneering tactics for the facts.
This disagreement seems to have driven the two friends apart. By late 1775, with the beginnings of war underway, Strahan broached the subject a final time. With great care, he wrote to Franklin, “I shall not trouble you farther upon the Subject than just to tell you once more” that “this unnatural Civil War has been chiefly, if not wholly, occasioned by our wicked Factions” in Britain spreading lies.
Surrounded with news and people who agreed with them, Patriots found it impossible to believe that the sentiments of the British people ran against them. Unchecked by polling or other deliberate efforts to measure public opinion – which did not exist in early America – it was impossible for the Patriots to believe that they were a minority.
Today’s election deniers similarly surround themselves with like-minded people and either use polling selectively or dismiss it as illegitimate. They ignore fact-checks from authoritative sources and trust only congenial sources. Rejecting election results is undoubtedly dangerous, and the American public’s repudiation of election-deniers in the midterms is a victory for American democracy.
But American democracy has long faced such movements. Indeed, in the late 18th century, denying the legitimacy of an elected government was how American democracy came into being.
This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Jordan Taylor, Indiana University. Like this article? subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
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Jordan Taylor does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.