William Bradford

The American printer William Bradford (1663-1752) is often referred to as "the pioneer printer of the Middle colonies." He was involved in frequent controversies over freedom of the press.

William Bradford was born on May 20, 1663, in Leicestershire, England. His parents apprenticed him to Andrew Sowle, the foremost Quaker printer in London. The ambitious young man learned the trade, adopted Sowle's religion, and in 1685 married his master's daughter, Elizabeth. Bradford sailed to Pennsylvania in 1685. He carried a letter of recommendation from George Fox, the founder of the Quakers.

Bradford wasted little time in setting up shop. By the end of the year the first printing in the Middle colonies had appeared. It was an almanac, the Kalendarium Pennsilvaniense, by Samuel Atkins. In it Bradford asked forgiveness for some errors caused by haste and the disorders of travel. But he hoped his readers would be cheered that "after great Charge and Trouble" he had brought "that great Art and Mystery of Printing to this part of America."

The almanac got an unexpected reception. Printing in the New World was often a precarious business. Governor William Penn may have been uneasy about the establishment of a press in his colony; in any case, he took offense at one slight reference to him in the almanac. Atkins was swiftly reprimanded, and Bradford was ordered to print nothing without license from the Pennsylvania Council. In 1687 Bradford was told that nothing could be printed about the Quakers without their formal approval. In 1689 trouble arose between a new governor and the populace. The governor officially reprimanded Bradford for issuing Penn's original charter for the colony, in spite of the printer's plea that it was his business to print whatever was brought him by any party. For a time Bradford resigned his business and went to England, returning in 1690 to what he thought were better prospects. He was involved with William Rittenhouse in opening the first paper mill in British America. But trouble came again a few years later when Bradford took the minority side in a conflict among Quakers. His property was seized and he was arrested, though he escaped conviction.

In April 1693 the New York Council invited Bradford to become their public printer. His first New York production, called New-England's Spirit of Persecution Transmitted to Pennsilvania, discussed his own case. His New York business was wide and varied, including the printing of books, tracts, paper money, and the laws of the colony.

Bradford has numerous "firsts" to his credit in the history of American printing. From 1725 to 1744 he published the New York Gazette, the colony's first newspaper. After 1733 it had a rival, the Weekly Journal, published by Bradford's former apprentice and partner, John Peter Zenger. Bradford, as public printer, supported the government. Zenger was sponsored by a faction opposed to the government. When attempts were made to suppress Zenger, Bradford took a new side, against the government, in the famous freedom-of-press controversy.

Bradford's business, which included bookselling, grew lucrative. After 1723 he also did printing for New Jersey. He retired at the age of 80 and died on May 23, 1752. His son Andrew and his grandson William were also important early American printers and journalists.

Further Reading on William Bradford

A brief and interesting portrait of Bradford is in John T. Winterich, Early American Books and Printing (1935). The standard book on printing in the Colonies, Laurence C. Wroth, The Colonial Printer (1931; 2d ed. 1938), considers Bradford at length. For the background of freedom of the press, the most important book is Leonard W. Levy, Legacy of Suppression: Freedom of Speech and Press in Early American History (1960).