Founding fathers used fake news, racial fear-mongering to unite colonies during American Revolution, new book reveals

2017-01-31

BINGHAMTON, NY – Fake news and fear-based political dialogue are nothing new to politics. In fact, the Founding Fathers of the United States used these types of tactics to unite the 13 colonies during the American Revolution, according to a new book from Robert Parkinson, assistant professor of history at Binghamton University, State University of New York.

Fifteen years in the making, The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (University of North Carolina Press) argues that political leaders, with an assist from newspaper printers, connected British aggression to the stereotypes and fears of Native Americans and blacks in an effort to unite the colonies. Following the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775, the patriots needed more than "the British are coming" to unify colonists up and down the coast and keep the war momentum going, said Parkinson. So they targeted black slaves, Indians and (for a short time) Hessian mercenaries as "proxies" of the British who were just as much a violent threat.

"The (patriots) reached into their toolbox and pulled out their most effective weapon," said Parkinson. "They were in emergency mode. … The 13 colonies didn’t like each other and didn’t know anything about each other. If they didn’t stick together, they were in big trouble."

Parkinson read every newspaper that is still available from the Revolutionary War era, and supplemented those 14 months of work by examining documents highlighting British tyranny from the time at the Boston Public Library and South Carolina Historical Association. He noticed that the front page of newspapers usually featured political essays stressing natural rights and liberties, while the back page offered local advertisements. The middle of the newspapers, however, featured the same dark stories about British tyranny.

"I would drive home and be astounded about how much news there was about African Americans and the potential threats of Native Americans, especially early in the war," said Parkinson. The fear tactics against blacks and Indians came when thousands of the minorities were fighting with the colonists. Six to 10 percent of the Continental Army was comprised of African Americans. Nevertheless, "blacks were always seen in the press as helping the British," Parkinson said. "They were portrayed constantly as aiding and abetting the enemy."

Although there were no reporters at the time, "people interested in the Revolution wanted (colonists) to know what they were doing," Parkinson said. Over time, newspapers were able to share not only resolutions from the Continental Congress, but "stories" issuing warnings about the potential of violence from British allies.

The Founding Fathers also were not shy about fabricating a story. In 1782, Benjamin Franklin—concerned about a potential reconciliation with Britain—reported that American forces had discovered packages containing the scalps of women and children taken by Seneca Indians. Franklin then wrote a fake letter from naval great John Paul Jones urging the importance of independence because the king "engages savages to murder their defenseless farmers, women and children."

By the war’s end, the colonies gained their independence. But the "common cause" contributed to racial prejudice becoming ingrained in American society.

"We often give the founders a pass," Parkinson said. "We say: ‘Look at all of the things they changed.’ It’s more complicated than that. Hamilton, Jefferson and all of the (founders)—despite all of their qualms about slavery—participated in the hardening and deepening of it."

The results of the "common cause" are still resonating today more than 230 years after the end of the Revolutionary War, said Parkinson.

"At the very heart of the republic is the idea of exclusion," said Parkinson. "It’s the idea that some people are Americans and some people just don’t belong. Those notions persist today. There are people who are automatically seen as outsiders. It is so deeply interwoven into the history of the United States. In many ways, it’s what originally united the states."

"When somebody is always seen as a threat or suspicious, that’s something that has evolved over the 19th and 20th centuries. But it is right there at the founding of the republic, and these are the men who buried those notions there."

Last Updated: 9/17/13