What is propaganda, and how was it used during the American Revolution?

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According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, propaganda is "the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person." The American Historical Association provides more details in its description of war propaganda, which is utilized by opposing forces to unify the...

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According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, propaganda is "the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person." The American Historical Association provides more details in its description of war propaganda, which is utilized by opposing forces to unify the citizens of a nation, demoralize the enemy, and maintain good will among allies. During the American Revolution, both the Americans and the British used propaganda extensively to further their causes.

For the Americans, for instance, one of the main means of spreading propaganda about the war was newspapers. Circulations were much lower than they are now, of course, but when new editions of newspapers were printed, men would gather together in taverns, meeting houses, and private homes to read them together. George Washington understood the power of the printed word and had Congress authorize the New-Jersey Journal, an official army-controlled paper that could oppose the negative propaganda of loyalist newspapers being distributed by British sympathizers in Philadelphia and New York. Other newspapers that stirred up opposition to the British were the Providence Gazette and the Boston Gazette.

Americans also spread anti-British and pro-revolutionary propaganda through pamphlets, letters, speeches, songs, posters, demonstrations, church meetings, and assemblies. Benjamin Franklin in particular created artwork, cartoons, and articles, sometimes exaggerated, about the savagery of the British, the honor of service under Washington, and the risk to freedom of capitulation to the British. Franklin also spread propaganda of British war atrocities overseas, which helped to strengthen the American alliance with the French.

Prominent in America's propaganda campaign was the righteousness of the struggle for freedom. Slogans such as "No Taxation Without Representation" and "Liberty or Death" served to incite people to rebel against the British.

There was also widespread propaganda on the British side. As mentioned above, some newspapers in America were loyalist and represented the British cause as righteous. London newspapers twisted facts to show that the British were victorious in battles that were actually won by Americans. American naval commander John Paul Jones was depicted in British newspapers as a pirate.

We can see, then, that during the American Revolution propaganda was used extensively by both sides to promote their disparate viewpoints.

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Propaganda is the spreading of information in order to influence someone's opinion. Often, the information that is spread is one-sided and biased. It has a negative connotation in the United States, as Americans see propaganda as untruthful and essentially un-American, but in reality Americans have been using propaganda for as long as there has been a United States. Paul Revere's silver engraving of the Boston Massacre depicts the British soldiers firing on a Boston crowd, but it fails to depict the crowd's incitement against the British soldiers guarding the customs house. The Declaration of Independence also contains phrases that make Parliament look like they had treated the American colonists as conquered people, but it fails to mention that the colonists had been dodging taxes for decades before the French and Indian War. There was also the American claim of "No taxation without representation," when in reality Parliament was not really a representative body—its members claimed to speak for the good of the British empire. There are also the various sermons issued by New England ministers who claimed that it was a Christian duty to fight against the British army.

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Propaganda is something that is very hard to define.  In a sense, it is simply the process of putting out information that is meant to convince people to believe in a certain point of view.  However, we typically use the term in a somewhat pejorative way.  We typically use it to refer only to misleading information that is put out to convince people.  People rarely talk about “propaganda” being put out by their own side.  Instead, they identify with their own side and think that the other side’s information is propaganda.

What this means is that Americans do not typically talk about propaganda being used in the American Revolution.  However, if we are going to say that it was used, we can say that it was used to encourage Americans to fight the British.  It was used to convince them that they ought to side with the cause of independent.  It was also used to convince them that the British were bad and should be opposed.

Let us look at two examples of propaganda.  One is Paul Revere’s famous engraving of the Boston Massacre.  This engraving makes it look as if an organized group of British soldiers fired on innocent civilians.  This was, at the very least, an exaggeration.  We can say that this is propaganda because it somewhat misleadingly seeks to tell a story in which the British are the evil aggressors and the Americans are innocent victims.  A second example is the Declaration of Independence.  That document lists a number of allegations about what the British king had done.  It says that all of the allegations proved that the King’s actions had “in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”  Again, this is an exaggerated statement that is made to try to turn people against Britain and towards the cause of liberty.

Thus, propaganda was used in the American Revolution to try to persuade people to side with the Americans.

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