James Rivington: Transatlantic Bookseller, Entrepreneur, and Bankrupt

Date: 31 July 2017
Time: 5:30 p.m.
Location: UVA Special Collections
Lecturer: Christine Ferdinand - Emeritus Fellow Librarian, Magdalen College, Oxford

James Rivington was an instrument of change for the transatlantic book trade, whose methods were unconventional, sometime illegal. He was never afraid to take risks. Before 1760, when he was in London, he sold off his shares in books and then ordered pirated copies to be printed in Scotland, which he then used to undersell his London competitors (including his brother) for the colonial trade. He undercut their reputation too, sowing suspicion amongst the colonials that other London booksellers were deliberately overcharging them. He probably manipulated a bankruptcy in 1760 to clear the way for a new career in America. Once there, he denigrated the colonial booksellers and promoted his own London credentials. He set up “London” bookshops in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and possibly Bermuda, before settling down in New York. He invested in a lottery designed to sell off land and his own excess stock: it failed. He started a newspaper in 1773 that became more royalist as the Revolutionary War developed, spreading fake news to cheer the loyalists and confuse the rebels. Failure sometimes loomed, but he managed to avoid it—once probably by marrying a wealthy widow, another time by spying for George Washington—until late in life, when his risks caught up with him and he spent a few years in New York’s debtors prison. Rivington Street in Lower Manhattan is named after him.