Author: David Rawson

an adjunct professor of history at Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Printing in Colonial Virginia

Printing came to Virginia relatively late in its colonial development. For more than a century after its founding, the colony’s governors deemed printing a destabilizing influence to the standing order and actively opposed introducing printing into their dominion. Often that resistance came at the order of their superiors in London. Thus when William Parks was finally authorized to produce imprints for the government in 1728, his commission was limited. He could produce little more than what the government required. Still, the availability of the few allowed imprints, such as his Virginia Gazette and Virginia Almanack, created a growing market for imprints produced in Williamsburg. That growth wrought a conflict for Virginia’s solitary press between the demands of that new market and the needs of the government. After 1750, Parks’s successors—William Hunter and Joseph Royle—faced these diverging interests with increasing difficulty. Hunter was able to maintain the governor’s control of the press only by replacing his office staff, while Royle was facing the imminent arrival of a competitor when he died in 1766. Royle’s passing marked the end of the colonial printing monopoly. Multiple press offices would become the norm in Virginia, just as resistance to imperial authority sparked a revolution.


William Parks (d. 1750)

William Parks was the first authorized printer in Virginia, the first “public printer” for the colonial government (1730–1750), publisher of the first authoritative collection of Virginia’s laws (1733), and proprietor of its first newspaper, the Virginia Gazette (1736–1750). Born in England, Parks began producing official documents for the Maryland colony in 1726 and became its official printer the next year, with responsibility for all government publishing. In 1728, he expanded his business to Virginia, working as the public printer for both colonies from 1730 until 1737, when Maryland authorities accused him of neglecting his work and terminated his contract. In Virginia, his work was praised and it often flattered the local gentry. More importantly, it marked a shift by the colonial government from manuscript to print media while also enabling the growth of a public sphere in Virginia, especially through the publication of the Virginia Gazette. Responding to a story in that newspaper, a member of the House of Burgesses accused Parks of libel in 1742, but the General Assembly determined the story was true and so dismissed the charges. In the meantime, Parks published the Virginia Almanack, served as Williamsburg’s postmaster, and built a large estate of property in Maryland and Virginia. His paper mill was the first south of Pennsylvania. Parks died in 1750 aboard a ship bound for England, where he was buried.


William Hunter (d. 1761)

William Hunter was official printer to the Virginia colony (1750–1761), publisher of the Virginia Gazette (1751–1761), deputy postmaster general for the British North American colonies (1753–1761), and justice of the peace on the York County Court (1759–1761). Born in Yorktown, Hunter apprenticed to Virginia’s first public printer, William Parks, and upon the latter’s death in 1750, took over the position at a higher salary. His tenure was arguably the pinnacle of the colonial-era printing monopoly, with Hunter providing faithful service to the colonial administration. In 1753, he and his friend Benjamin Franklin won appointment as deputy postmasters of the colonies, with Hunter responsible for areas south of Annapolis, Maryland. The next year, Hunter became ill while inspecting postal routes with Franklin, and remained ill for several years, spending some of that time in England. In his absence, the printing office was run by John Stretch, whose loyalties seemed to lean away from the lieutenant governor and toward the General Assembly, creating royal pressure for Hunter to return to Virginia. Hunter’s business flourished, but he died suddenly in 1761. His life has been seen as an exemplar of the role of familial connections in Virginia, in that his brother’s merchant connections and associates gained through his sisters’ marriages proved essential to his success and his legacy.


Augustine Davis (ca. 1752 or 1753–1825)

Augustine Davis was a prominent printer in Virginia during the Revolutionary War (1775–1783) and the Early Republic period. The Yorktown native entered the publishing trade at one of two versions of the Virginia Gazette in Williamsburg, becoming co-owner in 1779. He eventually followed the state government’s relocation to Richmond and in 1786 established the Virginia Independent Chronicle, later named the Virginia Gazette, and General Advertiser. A supporter of a strong federal government, he reprinted essays from The Federalist and supported ratification of what became the U.S. Constitution. Davis became prosperous in the 1790s, investing well and receiving government printing contracts. Despite Virginia’s growing population his printing volume remained unchanged, leading to complaints about the scarcity of documents in the western region of the state. The General Assembly removed him as public printer in 1798. Davis supported the Federalist Party in 1800 and advocated the prosecution of James Thomson Callendar and other Jeffersonian editors under the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798). Eleven months after Thomas Jefferson became president, Davis lost his position as Richmond’s postmaster. Although declining in political influence, he continued to publish his newspaper under various titles until 1821 before retiring comfortably. He died in 1825.