Isaiah Thomas, America’s first great publisher, spent several years during the American Revolution just scraping to get by.
Thomas’s years of struggle were brightened by one glorious moment, when he read the Declaration of Independence on the steps of South Church in Worcester, Mass.
Isaiah Thomas was born in Boston on Jan. 19, 1749 (N.S. Jan. 30, 1750). He was apprenticed at age six to Zachariah Fowle. In 1770 he started the wildly radical Massachusetts Spy, a weekly newspaper described as ‘rabid, yellow and very successful.’ His high-minded motto of “Open to all parties, but influenced by none,” described an impartiality he couldn’t sustain. Soon the Spy supported the cause of American liberty. It quickly got under Loyalist skin.
He was hanged in effigy in North Carolina, wrote Marcus McCorison. “The British troops in Boston paraded before the Spy office and threatened Thomas with a tarring. By 1773 he was fully involved in the radical cause. In his autobiographical notes he stated that he secretly printed handbills at night for the Sons of Liberty. Thomas established a schedule of post riders to the south for the delivery of the Spy and other papers…”
Gov. Thomas Hutchinson ordered the attorney general to prosecute Isaiah Thomas, but the grand jury found no cause for indictment.
By April 1775, it was obvious armed conflict was inevitable. He learned General Gage planned to seize his press and arrest him for treason. On April 16, 1775, two days before the Battle of Lexington, Isaiah Thomas fled Boston. He hurriedly packed his press, his fonts of type and his scarce paper and got ready to flee. The next night, he smuggled his equipment out of Boston with the help of Gen. Joseph Warren and Col. Timothy Bigelow. They ferried him across the Charles River to Charlestown in the dead of night, and he made his way to Worcester. Two days later, he fought in the Battles of Lexington and Concord – then published the first report of the skirmish and sent post riders through the colonies to spread the word.
Thomas was on a list of 12 people, including Sam Adams and John Hancock, who were to be summarily executed when taken.
The outbreak of the Revolution was less drama and more a grind for Thomas. He had little money. His two apprentices slept on printers’ rags in a garret. All three frequently dined on bread and m ilk in the printer’s office.
In the spring of 1776, Thomas leased his press and newspaper to two other printers. He went to Salem, Mass., to try to make a living, but Loyalists attached his press and type and he had to sell them to pay his debts. He moved his family to Londonderry, N.H. “They must have been dark years,” wrote his grandson and biographer Benjamin Franklin Thomas. “Somehow he got through them and supported his family.”
During those years, there was one bright day for Isaiah Thomas: July 24, 1776, when he became the first person in Massachusetts to read the Declaration of Independence. The stage from Philadelphia stopped in Worcester on its way to Boston with the news. Thomas stood on the steps of the South Church and read the declaration to the entire population of Worcester and adjoining towns. “The declaration was received with every demonstration of joy and confidence,” wrote his grandson.
The King’s arms on the courthouse were burned to ashes. The sign was taken off the King’s Arms tavern, and the townsfolk celebrated inside with 21 patriotic toasts. They gave full vent to their patriotic feelings and were surprised to find the next morning that a dozen of them had joined the Continental Army – including Isaiah Thomas’s apprentice. Thomas got him excused on the grounds he was less than 16 years old.
In the spring of 1778, Isaiah Thomas resumed printing the Spy. He would remain in Worcester, printing until the end of his life. He would also found the American Antiquarian Society and achieve his life’s major goal: publish a history of the printing industry. He died on April 4, 1831.