Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 2. Philadelphia in the Eighteenth Century

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXIX. Book Publishers and Publishing

§ 2. Philadelphia in the Eighteenth Century

Clearly the pioneer position in American publication belongs to Cambridge and Boston, and the latter city was to hold first place as a publishing centre until about 1765, when Philadelphia was to eclipse it, an eclipse from which it was not to emerge until about the fourth decade of the nineteenth century. William Bradford in 1682 landed in Pennsylvania, and by 1685 was printer and publisher of The Kalendarium Pennsilvaniense. Bradford’s career in Pennsylvania was far from happy, however. Twice he was summoned before the governor, once put under heavy bond, and once thrown into jail; so that in 1693 he departed in wrath for New York. For the next six years there appears to be no record of printing in the colony.

But Philadelphia was too highly favoured in the eighteenth century by geographical situation and by political, financial, and social currents not to begin soon to assert herself. Already as early as 1740 a would-be magazine publisher had stated in a few words the dominant reasons for the leadership of Philadelphia during its some sixty years of hegemony:

  • As the City of Philadelphia lies in the Center of the British Plantations, and is the Middle Stage of the Post, from Boston in New England Northwards, down to Charlestown in Carolina Southwards, and as that City, besides its frequent Intercourse with Europe, derives a continued Trade with the West India Islands, and also has a considerable Commerce with the rest of the Colonies on the Continent; We Therefore fixed upon it as the properest Place, and more commodiously situated than any other, for carrying on the various correspondences, which the Nature of the Work renders necessary.
  • What the writer says of magazines applies equally well to books at an early period, even in the reference to the West Indies, which in colonial days received a considerable part of their publications from this country.

    Bradford, then, was succeeded by a long line of illustrious printers and publishers; for after the famous trial of Peter Zenger at New York in 1734–35 (the Brief Narrative of which became the most famous publication issued in America before the Farmer’s Letters), a trial which virtually decided the freedom of the press in America, there was no more necessity for such cases as his. By 1770 Robert Bell had gained the reputation of being the most progressive publisher in the colonies. Then came the Revolution, the sum total of its effects being a powerful factor in the rise to leadership of Philadelphia. Bell was ably succeeded by Robert Aitken. When Jeremy Belknap of Massachusetts was seeking a publisher in 1782, Ebenezer Hazard, an authority for the period, pronounced Aitken the best publisher in America. He was followed by Mathew Carey, one of the greatest publishers, all things considered in their true historical perspective, yet produced by this country.