isaiah thomas

So here is a “42 Historical People” winner whom I know pretty well. Not personally, of course–Isaiah Thomas died over 140 years before I was born–but through his writings. His diaries, which are extensive, have proven to be very useful in my academic research for my dissertation, Ten Years of Winter. I’ve gotten to know at least his later life very well, on a day-to-day basis, by reading his journal entries which are preserved in the archives of the historical library he founded, the American Antiquarian Society.

Before all that, Isaiah Thomas was one of the most prominent newspaper publishers of the American Revolution era. Born in Boston in 1749, he was apprenticed to a printer of that city, and surprisingly by the young age of 21 he was publishing his own weekly newspaper, called the Massachusetts Spy. When you think about the press of this era, forget any silly notions of “impartiality” or “journalistic ethics.” Newspapers were explicitly and aggressively political–like today’s Fox News without the pretense of “Fair and Balanced.” The British, who were still in charge of Massachusetts in 1770, didn’t much care for the Massachusetts Spy and Thomas’s political editorials that trashed British policies and King George III in nearly every issue. The Massachusetts royal government tried to prosecute him but the grand jury wouldn’t indict. Finally, as the American Revolution became a shooting war in 1775-76, Thomas got out while the going was good and took his printing press to nearby Worcester, where he remained the rest of his life.

After publishing newspapers, almanacs and many books for nearly 40 years, up through the Revolution and its aftermath, making himself a rich and well-respected man of letters in the process, Thomas turned over the running of his publishing businesses to his son in 1802. Then he began working on a book about the history of printing and publishing in America. He amassed so much material for this project that he decided he needed an archive to store it all–so he started one. In November 1812, Thomas and friends founded the American Antiquarian Society, one of the earliest historical societies in the new United States. His library of material went into its archives, including eventually the diaries that he kept, chronicling nearly every day from 1805 to 1828, with the mysterious exception of the year 1808. In these diaries Thomas documented the trials and tribulations of his family, political life in Worcester, the development and growth of the Society, weather conditions and climate, and eventually his own failing health. He died in 1831.

Isaiah Thomas was a prime example of the patrician New England gentleman of the Revolution and post-Revolution era. His contributions to print and literary culture in America are considerable, but arguably his greatest legacy was the Antiquarian Society. It remains a vitally important institution and repository of American historical knowledge to this day, 203 years after its founding. Knowing Thomas as I hope I do, I think he would have found that very gratifying.