Rivington was one of the sons of the bookseller and publisher Charles Rivington and inherited a share of his father's business, which he lost at the Newmarket races. In 1760 he sailed to North America and resumed his occupation in Philadelphia and in the next year opened a print-shop at the foot of Wall Street, New York. In 1773 he began to publish a newspaper "at his ever open and uninfluenced press, Hanover Square". The first number of a newspaper, The New York Gazetteer or the Connecticut, New Jersey, Hudson's River, and Quebec Weekly Advertiser was issued in April 1773.
His initially impartial stance shifted as a revolution loomed and public opinion polarized, until by late 1774 he was advocating the restrictive measures of the British government with such great zeal and attacking the patriots so severely, that in 1775 the Whigs of Newport, Rhode Island, resolved to hold no further communication with him. The Sons of Liberty hanged Rivington in effigy, and the patriot poet Philip Freneau published a mock speech of Rivington's supposed contrition at his execution, which Rivington reprinted. He infuriated Captain Isaac Sears, the prominent patriot and Son of Liberty.
"He would appear as a leading man amongst us, without perceiving that he is enlisted under a party as a tool of the lowest order; a political cracker, sent abroad to alarm and terrify, sure to do mischief to the cause he means to support, and generally finishing his career in an explosion that often bespatters his friends
On May 10, 1775, immediately after the opening of hostilities, the Sons of Liberty gathered and mobbed Rivington’s home and press. Rivington fled to the harbor and boarded the British man-of-war Kingfisher. Assistants continued to publish the Gazetteer, but in spite of a public assurance of Rivington's personal safety from the Committee-Chamber of New York, Isaac Sears and other New York radicals entered Rivington's office, destroyed his press and converted the lead type into bullets. Another mob that day burned Rivington's house to the ground. Rivington and his family sailed for England, where he was appointed King's printer for New York, at £100 per year.
In 1777, after the secure British occupation of that city, he returned with a new press and resumed the publication of his paper under the title of Rivington's New York Loyal Gazette, which he changed on 13 December 1777, to The Royal Gazette, with the legend "“Printer to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty”. On the day when Major John André was taken prisoner his poem "Cow Chase" was published by Rivington.
Culper Spy Ring
Rivington, who opened a coffee-shop adjacent to his printing-house, would have been the last New Yorker suspected of playing the part of a spy for the Continentals, but he furnished General George Washington with important information. His communications were written on thin paper, bound in the covers of books, and conveyed to the American camp by agents that were ignorant of their service.
The date of Rivington's secret change of heart is disputed but when New York was evacuated in November 1783, Rivington remained in the city, much to the general surprise. Removing the royal arms from his masthead, he changed its title to Rivington's New York Gazette and Universal Advertiser. But his business rapidly declined, his paper ceased to exist at the end of 1783, and he passed the remainder of his life in comparative poverty.
After the war
A complete set of his journal is conserved by the New-York Historical Society. Rivington offended his readers by the false statements that appeared in his paper, which was called by the people The Lying Gazette, and which was even censured by the Royalists for its utter disregard of truth. The journal was well supplied with news from abroad and replenished with squibs and poems against the leaders of the Revolution and their French allies. Governor William Livingston in particular was attacked, and he wrote about 1780: "If Rivington is taken, I must have one of his ears; Governor Clinton is entitled to the other; and General Washington, if he pleases, may take his head."
Rivington provoked many clever satires from Francis Hopkinson, Philip Freneau, and John Witherspoon. Freneau wrote several epigrams at his expense, the best of which was "Rivington's Last Will and Testament," including the stanza: "Provided, however, and nevertheless, That whatever estate I enjoy and possess At the time of my death (if it be not then sold) Shall remain to the Tories, to have and to hold." Alexander Graydon, in his "Memoirs," says of Rivington: "This gentleman's manners and appearance were sufficiently dignified; and he kept the best company, He was an everlasting dabbler in theatrical heroics. Othello was the character in which he liked best to appear." Ashbel Green speaks of Rivington as "the greatest sycophant imaginable; very little under the influence of any principle but self-interest, yet of the most courteous manners to all with whom he had intercourse." His portrait, painted by Gilbert Stuart, was formerly in the possession of William H. Appleton, New York.
Family and legacy
His son James was born in 1771 and was commissioned an Ensign in the 42nd or Royal Highland Regiment in 1783. (ref. UK National Archives at WO25/772/139.)
- Intelligence in the American Revolutionary War
- Intelligence operations in the American Revolutionary War
- Proposal, 15 February 1773, first issue 22 April 1773 (Charles R. Hildeburn, Sketches of Printers and Printing in Colonial New York (New York: Dodd, Mead, & Company], 1895).
- James Sullivan, ed. The History of New York State book XII, ch. 21, part 1.
- Kara Pierce, A Revolutionary Masquerade: the Chronicles of James Rivington
- Catherine Snell Crary, “The Tory and the Spy: the double life of James Rivington,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Series, 16.1 (January 1959), 61-72.
- Hildeburn[who?] Hildeburn notes a handbill circulated in New York 25 July 1774, which read: "It is the Purpose of Lord North to offer one of your Printers Five Hundred Pounds, as an Inducement to undertake and promote, Ministerial Measures."
- Rivington's unflattering remarks occasioned sharp correspondence with the patriot printer John Holt and his publication, The New-York Journal, “...a receptacle for every inflammatory piece that is published throughout the continent", according to Rivington’s New-York Gazetteer, August 11, 1774, noted by Pierce.
- Rivington’s New York Gazetteer, August 18, 1774, quoted in Pierce."
- Morton Pennypacker, (1939) General Washington’s Spies on Long Island and in New York, Brooklyn NY: Long Island Historical Society, p. 5.
- Recalled in George Washington Parke Custis's, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, ed. Benson J. Lossing, (New York, 1860), noted by Pierce.
- See Pierce."The Historical Debate: When and Why".
- Its last inumber was that of 31 December 1783 (Hildeburn).
- Ashbel Green (1849), The Life of Ashbel Green, ed. Joseph H. Jones. New York: R. Carter & Bros, p. 44.
- A copy is preserved by the New-York Historical Society
- James Rivington, by Gilbert Stuart
- "The Rabid Pen Wielded by James Rivington": "Probably very few persons in New York know that in the name of Rivington Street is perpetuated the memory of the man who in his day published the most rabid Tory newspaper that was ever printed in the Colonies", The New York Times, 1 March 1896.
- Slave for sale ad Rivington's The Royal Gazette, July 19, 1783