Such an inflammatory headline would doubtless draw more than a few clicks on social media today. In the 18th century, the Colonial American public got their information from the contemporary version of the internet – newspapers. Colonists might get some news from talking with neighbors or serving on local and state committees, but the major source of information was from the multitude of papers printed across the colonies and imported by ship from Europe.
Imagine then a colonist picking up the February 15, 1777 edition of the respected and reliable Philadelphia-based Durand’s Pennsylvania Packet and seeing the entire front page dominated by harrowing dispatches from London, under the headline “The IMPARTIAL CHRONICLE, or the INFALLIBLE INTELLIGENCER; upon the plan, and after the manner of, the NEW-YORK MERCURY.” Founded in 1771, the Pennsylvania Packet was widely read and by 1784, it became the first successful daily newspaper published in the United States. The Packet was an ancestor of the current Philadelphia Inquirer.
With the Declaration of Independence only about seven months old and blood already shed on battlefields, readers of The Packet were eager for news from the recently estranged Mother county. Imagine the shock when they read on its pages that King George III was ignoring rules of civilized warfare and preparing to send tens of thousands of brutish foreign mercenaries to invade the colony of New York.
These soldiers of fortune didn’t care about liberty, representation, or the rights of Englishmen (or women), they were lured only by gold, plunder, and foreign influence from malevolent despots. King George III, who had never ONCE visited a foreign court (he never even went to Scotland, and that was on the same bloody island…), according to the newspaper, was now entertaining troop offers from around the world in some kind of global outsourcing of villainy.
And the breathless accounts ranged from the reality of German mercenaries who were already fighting in the colonies on behalf of the British to the terrifying spectacles of an amphibious invasion of Japanese samurai on the Pacific Coast and rampaging war elephants being shipped over from an Asian potentate.
The news was shocking – but it was also absolutely fake. The whole thing was a hoax — a hit piece against His Majesty King George III — slipped into a very real colonial newspaper by William Livingston (1723-1790), the son of one of New York’s most powerful families.
Like any good purveyor of “fake news,” Livingston used some kernels of half-truth. German mercenaries were already fighting in America, but the IMPARTIAL CHRONICLE reported that thousands more depraved warriors were on their way from India, Japan, Central Europe, the Ottoman Empire, and Scandinavia — faraway places full of people who had been deemed “savage” by the racial classifications of 18th century America.
Livingston was the embodiment of the educated, upper-class, white male who dominated colonial America. Governor of New Jersey at this time, he was rich, and by rich, I mean “really rich.” His father, Philip, was, literally, Lord of the Manor as proprietor of a massive estate in modern-day Columbia County.
William was well connected to the elite. His brother, also Philip, was known throughout the Colonies as the “the signer” for signing the Declaration of the Independence; and his sister, Sarah, was married to Lord Stirling, one of George Washington’s most trusted generals. William’s daughter, also Sarah, was one of the most well-known and influential women of the entire Revolution — her marriage to John Jay created a partnership of intellectualism and effectiveness that rivaled John and Abigail Adams.
William was a cousin to another famous and powerful Colonial New Yorker, Robert R. Livingston, who grew up near William at Clermont State Historic Site, and was a high-ranking member of New York State Government and the Committee of Five who wrote the Declaration of Independence. In that document, colonists included a list of grievances against King George III, including the charge he was “transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries [the so-called “Hessians” from the state of Hesse in Germany] to complete “the works of death, desolation and tyranny.”
George Washington had achieved a stunning victory over these hated Hessians in his famous crossing of the Delaware River into Trenton, N.J. in late December 1776, but support for the war overall was lagging early on as some Americans questioned whether reconciliation with England might be the best response. Just two months after Trenton, William Livingston used his well-known writing skills to inflame rebel resentment against the King and toward the cause of revolution and liberty.
It was the colonists’ fear of foreign mercenaries (especially the mislabeled and misunderstood German Hessians) that William was amplifying and preying upon in his 1777 IMPARTIAL CHRONICLE hoax.
Livingston was smart. He crafted his hoax in way that was obvious satire and clearly fake, at least to discerning readers, but was also outrageous enough to get people talking about it. His approach allowed him to provoke a laugh at the expense of King George III, all the while stoking primal fears of foreign mercenaries and a frontier war with Native Americans allied with those foreigners.
Livingston began his IMPARTIAL CHRONICLE piece by claiming the Emperor of India had offered King George III “five hundred Elephants out of his own stables” to dispatch against the rebellious Colonials but the King had politely refused because it would cost too much to feed them.
The IMPARTIAL CHRONICLE went on to claim, however, that King George’s advisors, mindful of a potential alliance opportunity with the Indian Emperor, recommended that the king offer his son the Prince of Wales in marriage to the potentate’s eldest daughter. The scheme failed because it was believed the 15-year-old prince could not “close with the overture” (so to speak) with the Indian Princess unless he submitted to circumcision; even that last bit had a racial subtext. Englishmen of that time considered circumcision a dangerous practice, only done by non-Christians — in short, it was 18th century code for barbaric.
In addition to the 500 Indian War Elephants, the IMPARTIAL CHRONICLE claimed offers of troops were pouring in from across the globe to form a gathering barbarian horde.
The King of Denmark was sending 4,000 elite warriors in reindeer-drawn sleds to fight Americans in the snow. In Persia (modern-day Iran), the king was sending 3,500 horse archers to join His Majesty’s light cavalry units. From the Hapsburgh monarchy in central Europe, 5,500 Hungarian Hussars, Pandurs, and Croats were being sent to “cut [Americans] down with their sabers” before their victims even saw them.
In perhaps the largest whopper of them all, Japan was going to amphibiously land 12,000 troops on the coast of California (yes, really, California) and march all the way to New York. The reason for the overland march was twofold, William explained to readers. First, it would save the Japanese fleet from a “circuitous voyage” around the southern tip of South America. Second, the Japanese would gather Native Warriors all the way from “the South Sea and the river Ohio” as allies by convincing the Indigenous Americans that “their ancestors having emigrated from Japan,” and so they should fight for the Japanese Emperor.
The humor is somewhat lost on us modern readers of course, but in the 18th century, it was outrageously funny, so much so that it even made George Washington offer up a LOL. Afterward, the general wrote to William (a personal friend of his): “I heartily thank you for the Impartial Chronicle: Fraught with the most poignant Satire, it afforded me real pleasure.” If you’ve ever read anything written by George Washington, you’d know that’s about as high as his praise gets.
Other bits of news from the IMPARTIAL CHRONICLE hoax were thankfully less about fear-mongering propaganda, and more about plain old mockery. An ad claimed that a runaway servant named “Common-Sense and Honesty” had left the palace of King George III, and offered a £5,000 reward (a considerable fortune at the time) for anyone who could bring him back:
Perhaps the best bit in the IMPARTIAL CHRONICLE was a “correction” which apologized for previously reporting “that the King and Queen were both with child” (the Queen was in fact pregnant at the time). The paper noted the lie apparently had been invented by Americans with “malicious hopes” the King would die in childbirth.
Speaking of the Queen, another salacious story in the IMPARTIAL CHRONICLE indicated she had vetoed a plan to offset the losses from the war and repopulate England. As the story went, a foreign Emperor, noting that the *ahem* “common mode of procreation” usually practiced in England was inadequate, offered to send five female concubines to every Member of Parliament and to provide “his Majesty himself with a score…of amiable blooming breeders.” Parliament, it was reported, had “gratefully accepted” but the offer was scuttled because “our most gracious Queen cannot be fully convinced of the necessity of the measure.”
So why did Livingston venture into the realm of fake news? Well, muck-raking and sensationalized journalism were already established New York traditions by 1777.
Robert Livingston, William’s own grandfather, once claimed in a newspaper account decades earlier that former New York Governor Edward Cornbury walked around daily in “womens cloths.” Newspaper publisher John Peter Zenger famously took it a step too far when he had the audacity to publish mean things about Colonial Governor William Crosby that were actually true (Governor Crosby had him arrested for libel, but Zenger was acquitted in one of America’s foundational cases for press freedom from government repression).
Maybe William Livingston did it to insult the King and those loyal to him. Maybe he did to instill a sense of camaraderie among Americans by creating an “Us versus Them” dynamic. Maybe he even did it to convince those on the fence about independence that today it might be Germans sticking bayonets in your belly, but tomorrow it could be War Elephants trampling your wife and children. Or maybe he did it to be funny (well, at least 18th century funny).
Before he was a General and Governor, Livingston was famous for his satirical writings and political commentary. Livingston’s well-known pen and wit weren’t only used against his enemies, either. A few months after his fake news operation, when William learned that the British had burned Kingston in October 1777, he feared for the safety of his brother Philip “the signer.” Philip was serving a term in the New York State Senate, which had relocated to Kingston and had been forced to evacuate just ahead of the British army taking the city.
Upon finally hearing his brother was okay, William sent a letter to Henry Laurens (father of John, from the musical Hamilton fame):
“If my Brother be with you, pray make him my Compliments, and tell him, that considering his size, I was under great apprehensions that he would not have been brisk enough to escape the Firing of Kingston. Sure I am that if any one had done him the kind office that Aeneas did Anchises of bearing him on his Shoulders to avoid the Conflagration, both the bearer & the burden, (or as the Merchants would say, both the Carrier & the freight) would have run the risque [risk] of perishing in the Flames. 5 February 1778.”
In other words, William was calling his little brother fat. A real card, huh?
In Part II of New York’s history with “fake news,” we’ll examine a nineteenth century newspaper hoax that wasn’t so obvious, unless you were really looking…
Cover Shot: Portrait of Samuel Johnson (“Blinking Sam”), Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of Frances and Loren Rothschild.
Post by Travis Bowman, Historic Preservation Program Coordinator (Collections), Bureau of Historic Sites