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Read, Listen, Inform: Government Publications in Action (August 2018): American Government Print History to 1860

By Aimée C. Quinn

American Government Print History to 1860

GPO’s series entitled Keeping America Informed comprises historical works about the agency and the people who made it thrive. They do not focus solely on the leaders but include the employees who spent their lives toiling at their jobs, frequently working overtime and with little extra compensation, in order to meet backbreaking deadlines. Although the phrase “Keeping America Informed” was coined in the latter half of the twentieth century, these histories illustrate it was the spirit and creed of the GPO from its inception. This work, appearing in both digital and print formats, reflects the transformation of the information world (and the role GPO needed to take with Congressional approval) to move with the times. Most private publishers were far ahead of the GPO in digital publication, yet the GPO already began its transformation with electronic publication in the 1990s. “Keeping America Informed” became GPO’s mission and focus, regardless of technological changes and trends. Through the Office of the Superintendent of Documents (SuDocs), this mission was extended to the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP), which was established by the Printing Act of 1895, a pivotal change in government print history.

Newspaper printing and government printing in early America were one and the same, since the majority of printing presses were owned by families who also owned the newspapers. The most successful newspaper during the revolution was the Philadelphia Gazette, owned by Benjamin Franklin and Hugh Meredith. The full chaos of early government printing is captured extraordinarily well in J. H. Powell’s Books of a New Nation, in his discussion regarding the printing and publishing of the Declaration of Independence, first by John Dunlap without signatures and without the express order by Congress. It is interesting that in all his discussion about who neglected to give either Julian Boyd or John Dunlap the correct Congressional order to print, Powell neglects to discuss the likelihood that it was Mary Katherine Goddard who supervised the typeset for the broadsides that became the now famous Declaration of Independence that included all the signatories.

This oversight is remarkable given how detailed his book on the history of government publication is. Powell further discusses the famed works of Ames and Poore as good bibliographies of their day. As famous as these early works were, even more impressive and thorough are the five volumes in A History of the Book in America series. Each volume is meticulously detailed in its history, and each covers a specific theme where government printing is examined in context with the times. In the first volume of the series, The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World, there is more detail about the different kinds of printers (English, German, Dutch, for example) and what each brought to their colony and thereby added to government publication (previous work with printing legal pamphlets or laws). This overall examination was lacking in previous studies on early American government printing.

As American appetites for reading increased, publishers proliferated, which gave Congress more choices with respect to purveyors of “official” government products. This often led to an inconsistent level of quality. A compelling and extensive history of government publication is John S. Walters’s U.S. Government Publication: Ideological Development and Institutional Politics from the Founding to 1970. Walters discusses the parallels between the British parliament elite to those revolutionaries who argued how the American government should be formed: democracy versus republic (“The Anti-Federalist Papers” versus “The Federalist Papers”), although neither side could completely align the public’s right to know with centralized government publication. Once the Constitution of the United States was ratified, the debates began about how to publish. Arguments about which publisher to use continued to roar in Congress while it moved around from Philadelphia to Baltimore to Lancaster, PA, to York, PA, to Princeton to Annapolis to Trenton to New York and finally to Washington, DC. Printers followed the Congress because there was steady money in becoming the “official” printer for the new government. It was not unheard of for a state delegate or official to go to his favorite printer and have his own version of a law printed to send to his supporters before the secretary of the Senate or the house clerk had an “official” version printed. Over the course of the next few decades, an elaborate system of patronage developed. The printers who profited the most were the Bradfords, Isaiah Thomas, then Gale and Seaton. By the 1850s, this patronage system had gotten out of hand, and it was time for Congress to take action.