Americana in Eighteenth-Century Newspapers

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Header to the Wiener Zeitung

For many historians newspapers are an indispensable method for illuminating the past and for chroniclers of the Early American Republic they have been a frequent source. However, my own research into Habsburg-American relations in the late eighteenth century has made clear to me the voluminous and sometimes incendiary comments, features, and correspondence printed within the newspapers of Central Europe.

Whilst no Central European publisher maintained a direct correspondent in North America, they did have their indirect method of copying foreign presses which did and sometimes gathering information first-hand from diplomats or in the case of the Viennese presses, directly from passed-on reports from the Habsburg representative in the United States, Baron von Beelen-Bertholf.

From my doctoral research so far twelve newspapers primarily interest me in the Habsburg Monarchy for their inclusion and discussion of Americana throughout the eighteenth century. They are as follows:

  1. Wienerisches Diarium / Wiener Zeitung (1703-present) Vienna, Austria
  2. Provinzialnachrichten aus den k.k. Staaten u. Erbländern (1782-1789) Vienna, Austria
  3. Das Wienerblättchen (1783-1793) Vienna, Austria
  4. Gazette de Vienne (1757-1769) Vienna, Austria
  5. Klagenfurter Zeitung (1784-1951) Klagenfurt, Austria
  6. Brünner Zeitung der k.k. priv. mähr. Lehenbank (1779-1848) Brno, Czech Rep.
  7. Preßburgische Zeitung (1764-1929) Bratislava, Slovakia
  8. Der Siebenbürger Bote (1785-1862) Sibiu, Romania
  9. Magyar Hírmondó (1780-1803) Bratislava, Slovakia
  10. Magyar Kurir (1786-present) Vienna, Austria
  11. Gazette van Gend (1723-1809) Ghent, Beligum
  12. Gazette van Antwerpen (1719-1804) Antwerp, Belgium

For years I have been compiling a personal database of the editions and articles which refer to the events in North America throughout the course of the eighteenth century. I am interested to broaden this with comparisons to other well-known and contemporary newspapers across Europe. I think this would open up an interesting view into how Americana disseminated across the continent and how journalistic tastes differed from region to region, editor to editor. I already know and work with Anna Vincenzi, PhD candidate at the University of Notre Dame, who does superb work on the Italian newspapers and I would be keen for wider collaborative ventures.

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The obituary of Benjamin Franklin in the Bratislava-based Preßburgische Zeitung (July 1790)

These newspapers are a rich and largely underused source of Americana by European and American historians in general. Despite this the most frequent reports featured in the semi-official Wienerisches Diarium (later renamed the Wiener Zeitung) which featured news on the North American situation from throughout this period from the first rumblings in the American colonies to the ratification process around the new Constitution to the death of George Washington.

Although the newspaper called Americans ‘rebels’ early-on, the newspaper eventually published new developments under the separate Nordamerikanische Staaten section, which perhaps in deference to convention always came last in the international series. This did not mean the editors were anti-American, however. Their commentary was often limited to just the facts but their actions spoke louder than words in the beginning.

In Autumn 1776, for example, the newspaper published a translation of the American Declaration of Independence, word for word. Such an act inflamed the Habsburg monarchs since the newspaper had also included the radical charges against King George III which Maria Theresa thought “would bread incivility.” Later on the editors would repeat the similar act of publishing the US Constitution followed by a more liberal discussion.

If the editors of the Wiener Zeitung were American, they would have published the Federalist Papers since nothing but outstanding praise followed in coverage of the “New York Convention under the presidency of General Washington” which “gives the best indication for the continuance of the American Union.” Although they also tempered their views with the disturbing reports of Shay’s Rebellion and the “scarcity of coin currency” in the new republic.

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In the early 1780s, the only existing Hungarian-language newspaper, the Magyar Hírmondo, greatly diffused news of the American situation across Hungary. The fact that the newspaper was printed in Hungarian rather than the German-language Pressburger Zeitung meant it reached a greater swathe of the Hungarian population and therefore transmitted Americana more widely than before.

The editor was the talented Mátyás Rát who studied like many Hungarian intellectuals at Göttingen, a place with an anti-American atmosphere but one which at least still buzzed with the latest news of the unfolding Revolution. His mentor, the renowned historian August Ludwig von Schlözer held an anti-American bias, but this must have washed off on Rát as he left Göttingen and arrived in Pressburg in 1779 and took up control of the Hírmondo.

His editorship, much in the style of Schlözer however, focused on commentaries as well as translations of the foreign news. Thus, Americana sampled from England became more diluted in the Hungarian press and the situation in America more muddier and sympathetic than in the German presses in the Habsburg Monarchy. Rát’s Hírmondo covered in detail the events in North America from 1779-1782 with a strong pro-American bias.

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His analyses presented Hungarians with some of the most astute predications during the revolutionary age. In early 1780, Rát proclaimed in one his articles entitled “Warfare and Appeasement,” the American victory represented a new dawn for the whole continent and that the Spanish rule in the Americas would not last much longer. Rát noticed the brilliance of Washington’s campaigns as they filtered in and in 1781 remarked, “America may be said to be invincible.” A testament to his legacy was his successors editorial note made on July 3rd 1784, when he publicly remarked, “A few short years ago, our Magyar Hírmondo’s coverage of the newly established American Commonwealth was comprehensive nearly on a daily basis; let us not forget this.”


Header to the Magyar Hírmondó newspaper.

These are small selections from just two of the most prominent newspapers, the other ten listed above also contain their own oddities and unique commentaries. Some of my favourites are to be found in the Provinzialnachrichten aus den k.k. Staaten u. Erbländern which focused on more daily and practical news for merchants and laypeople.

Although the newspaper featured close contenders for the ‘most obscure American factoids’ prize, such as ‘The History of Vampire Bats Found in North America,” the winner must be an article which described the arrival of an American merchant who arrived in Vienna to sell “a sheep with two legs and a head like a bird at the Rosamarkt.” These sometimes amusing features exemplify the richness of Americana in the not-so-familiar presses across Europe.

Please feel free to contact me about any potential research enquiries, leads, or collaboration with this project or any other of my projects and research interests.

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