Worcester in The American Revolution, Part III: Isaiah Thomas & the Worcester Spy

By Timothy Jarvis

The Worcester Spy, originally called the Massachusetts Spy, was a newspaper officially founded in 1770 in Boston by Isaiah Thomas. The purpose of this paper was for the revolutionary cause against the British, and later in the 19th century, it became a publication dedicated to the Abolitionist Movement.

Upon the start of the American Revolution, The Massachusetts Spy was under constant threat from the British in Boston. By 1781, Thomas decided it would be best to move the newspaper to Worcester, motivating the title change from The Massachusetts Spy to The Worcester Spy

The re-branded Worcester Spy, now more than ever, was dedicated to fighting the War of Independence. Therefore, a fitting motto was established for the publication that read: “The noble Efforts of a Virtuous, Free and United People, shall extirpate Tyranny, and establish Liberty and Peace.”

On a related note, The Worcester Spy was the first thing printed in Worcester. Newspaper publishing in the city originated from the ideas of political protest and treason. The newspaper called attention to the wrongdoings of the British regulars; branding them murderers and enemies of liberty. The Worcester Spy served as a call to action for the people of Massachusetts.

The Worcester Spy officially undertook this role on May 3, 1775. The publication was the first to report the accounts of the battles of Lexington and Concord; the violent start to the Revolution with the “shot heard around the world”.

Isaiah Thomas not only established The Worcester Spy, but he also wrote for the publication. A historian of sorts, Thomas was passionate about documenting the events of his day. Some argue the work of Thomas helped the American Revolution gain momentum, and his vision of preserving history makes for a clear understanding of those events.

When Thomas moved his operation to Worcester in 1781, the process was not an easy one. This adds more merit to Thomas’ work as he could have abandoned the whole project, but felt preseveration of history was far more important than any other trivial concerns.

John Hancock, and other revolutionaries, desperately urged Thomas to move his printing press to Worcester. The concern was that Thomas could be imprisoned and the Spy eliminated by the crown’s authority. The Spy had already been sanctioned by the royal authority several times when it was housed in Boston.

Thomas, along with Timothy Bigelow and Joseph Warren, transported the press under cover of darkness. Worcester was Bigelow’s home town so getting the publication to the city was as smooth as it could be for him. Bigelow is a notable Worcester patriot who was involved in the Worcester Revolution of 1774, and Worcester’s public reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 14, 1776.

Thomas used his network of post riders to warn the minutemen all across the Commonwealth about troop movement advancing towards Lexington and Concord on April 18, 1775. Some historians argue that this was a strategic advantage for the patriots fighting in this battle, and when the post riders finally got back to Thomas in early May, he wrote of the eye accounts of the dramatic battle.

Thomas was only about 26 years old when he did all of this. Others described Thomas as tall, handsome, charming, vain, and not well-tempered. All of his success, which was even significant at the time, he owed only to himself. Thomas was a self-made man relying on his own institution: The Worcester Spy.

The Worcester Spy’s primary audience was the middle class. This was quite uncommon at the time as reading and education was mostly reserved for the elite, but Thomas wanted his message to resonate with the common man. This was Thomas’ original intention when he established The Massachusetts Spy back in 1770, and, for the most part, it stayed that way.

The impact of The Worcester Spy was unprecedented in America. During the Revolutionary War, it was the most popular newspaper in the American colonies. The Spy had a circulation of 3,500, ran 16 printing presses, and 150 employees at its height – seven times the average newspaper publishing at that time.

As for Thomas’ personal life, he was a descendant of a wealthy merchant family in Boston, but he did not reap the benefits of this wealth at all. Thomas’ father abandoned the family to find prosperity in the South, but died shortly thereafter. This left Thomas’ mother widowed with five children. Thomas was then put under the care of the Overseers of the Poor, an archaic form of social welfare.

The Overseers of the Poor used a bidding system to masters of any given trade. This was to ensure the child had a place to live and could find employment later in life. Isaiah Thomas was selected by Zechariah Fowle, a printer, to learn the trade. Thomas was only six years old at the time he undertook the apprenticeship.

The printing shops were the closest thing Thomas ever had to a formal education. He learned and excelled at reading and writing, and also became skilled at using the printing press. Thomas proved his intelligence through his work, and mastered the “art and mystery” of the printing trade.

By the time he was 16, Thomas and decided to leave the apprenticeship of Fowle. He continued his works in print and writing until he founded The Massachusetts Spy.

Thomas also founded the American Antiquarian Society, perhaps the most relevant achievement of his to the modern day. This historical society is still dedicated to the original vision of Thomas to create and preserve history, and the American Antiquarian Society is the oldest historical society in America with a national focus and is a beacon for the safeguard of history.

The impact Isaiah Thomas had in Worcester is still felt today as his legacy is honored by the devoted historians of the city. Many of the revolutionary movements in Worcester and the surrounding area would not have come to fruition without this man.

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