History of American Newspapers, Part 1

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The history of American newspapers spans the history of the United States from 1700 till today.

Colonial PeriodEdit

(This section is based on The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I. Colonial Newspapers and Magazines, 1704–1775 by Elizabeth Christine Cook)

The New England CourantEdit

It was James Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s older brother, who first made a news sheet something more than a garbled mass of stale items, "taken from the Gazetts and other Publick Prints of London" some six months late. James Franklin, "encouraged by a number of respectable characters, who were desirous of having a paper of a different cast from those then published,…began the publication, at his own risk, of a third newspapers, entitled The New England Courant." These respectable characters were known as the Hell-Fire Club; they succeeded in publishing a paper "of a different cast," which, although it shocked New England orthodoxy pretty thoroughly, nevertheless proved vastly entertaining and established a kind of literary precedent. Instead of filling the first page of the Courant with the tedious conventionalities of governors’ addresses to provincial legislatures, James Franklin’s club wrote essays and satirical letters after the manner of The Spectator just ten years after the first appearance of The Spectator in London. As a result, the very look of an ordinary first page of the Courant is like that of a Spectator page. After the more formal introductory paper on some general topic, such as zeal or hypocrisy or honour or contentment, the facetious letters of imaginary correspondents commonly fill the remainder of the Courant’s first page. Timothy Turnstone addresses flippant jibes to Justice Nicholas Clodpate in the first extant number of the Courant Tom Pen-Shallow quickly follows, with his mischievous little postscript: "Pray inform me whether in your Province Criminals have the Privilege of a Jury." Tom Tram writes from the moon about a certain "villainous Post master" he has heard rumours of. (The Courant was always perilously close to legal difficulties and had, besides, a lasting feud with the town postmaster.) Ichabod Henroost complains of a gadding wife. Abigail Afterwit would like to know when the editor of the rival paper, the Gazette, "intends to have done printing the Carolina Addresses to their Governour, and give his Readers Something in the Room of them, that will be more entertaining." Homespun Jack deplores the fashions in general, and small waists in particular. Some of these papers represent native wit, with only a general approach to the model; others are little more than paraphrases of The Spectator. And sometimes a Spectator paper is inserted bodily, with no attempt at paraphrase whatever

Ben Franklin, JournalistEdit

When Benjamin Franklin established himself in Philadelphia, shortly before 1730, the town boasted two "wretched little" news sheets, Andrew Bradford’s American Mercury, and Keimer’s Universal Instructor in all Arts and Sciences, and Pennsylvania Gazette. This instruction in all arts and sciences consisted of weekly extracts from Chambers’s Universal Dictionary, actually commencing with A, and going steadily on towards Z, followed by instalments of Defoe’s Religious Courtship, called by the editor "a scarce and delightful piece of History." Franklin quickly did away with all this when he took over the Instructor, and made it The Pennsylvania Gazette. The Gazette soon became Franklin’s characteristic organ, which he freely used for satire, for the play of his wit, even for sheer excess of mischief or of fun. From the first he had a way of adapting his models to his own uses. The series of essays called The Busy-Body, which he wrote for Bradford’s American Mercury in 1729, followed the general Addisonian form, modified already to suit homelier conditions. The thrifty Patience, in her busy little shop, complaining of the useless visitors who waste her valuable time, is related to the ladies who address Mr. Spectator. The Busy-Body himself is a true Censor Morum, as Isaac Bickerstaff had been in the Tatler. And a number of the fictitious characters, Ridentius, Eugenius, Cato, and Cretico, represent traditional eighteenth-century classicism. Even this Franklin could use for contemporary satire, since Cretico, the "sowre Philosopher," is evidently a portrait of Franklin’s rival, Samuel Keimer. As time went on, Franklin depended less on his literary conventions, and more on his own native humour. In this there is a new spirit,—not suggested to him by the fine breeding of Addison, or the bitter irony of Swift, or the stinging completeness of Pope. The brilliant little pieces Franklin wrote for his Pennsylvania Gazette have an imperishable place in American literature. It is none the less true that they belong to colonial journalism. The Pennsylvania Gazette, like most other newspapers of the period was often poorly printed. Franklin was busy with a hundred matters outside of his printing office, and never seriously attempted to raise the standards of his trade. Nor did he ever properly edit or collate the chance medley of stale items which passed for news in the Gazette. His influence on the practical side of journalism was very small. On the other hand, his advertisements of books show his very great interest in popularizing secular literature. Undoubtedly his paper contributed to the broader culture which distinguished Pennsylvania from her neighbours before the Revolution. Starting with the custom of importing a stray volume or two along with stationer’s supplies, Franklin gradually developed a book shop in his printing office. There was nothing unusual in this fact, by itself.

The South Carolina GazetteEdit

Franklin’s influence in journalism was not confined to Pennsylvania. He often assisted young journeymen in the establishment of newspapers in distant towns. Thomas Whitemarsh, for instance, went to Charleston, South Carolina, in 1731, as Franklin’s partner in a new enterprise, which soon included a new paper, The South Carolina Gazette. Naturally, Whitemarsh filled his front page with essays, sometimes reprinted from The Spectator, but often original, with a facetious quality suggesting Franklin. Essays of one sort or another were always popular in The South Carolina Gazette. Here may be found interesting notices of the various performances (probably professional) of Otway’s Orphan, Farquhar’s Recruiting Officer, and other popular plays of the period which were given at the Charleston theatres for twenty or thirty years before the first wandering professional companies began to play in the Northern colonies. fed ex

The Virginia GazetteEdit

Early theatrical notices may also be followed in The Virginia Gazette, a paper of unusual excellence, edited by William Parks in Williamsburg, the old capital of Virginia. Here The Busy-Body, The Recruiting Officer, and The Beaux-Stratagem were all performed, often by amateurs, though professionals were known as early as 1716 in Williamsburg. Life in Williamsburg in 1736 had a more cosmopolitan quality than in other towns. A sprightly essay-serial called The Monitor, which fills the first page of The Virginia Gazette for twenty-two numbers, probably reflects not only the social life of the capital, but also the newer fashion in such periodical work. It is dramatic in method, with vividly realized characters who gossip and chat over games of piquet or at the theatre. The Beaux-Stratagem, which had been played in Williamsburg three weeks before, is mentioned as delightful enough to make one of the ladies commit the indiscretion of giggling. The Monitor represents a kind of light social satire unusual in the colonies.

Politics in the Later NewspapersEdit

After 1750, general news became accessible, and the newspapers show more and more interest in public affairs. The literary first page was no longer necessary, though occasionally used to cover a dull period. A new type of vigorous polemic gradually superseded the older essay. A few of the well-known conventions were retained, however. We still find the fictitious letter, with the fanciful signature, or a series of papers under a common title, such as The Virginia-Centinel, or Livingston’s Watch-Tower. The former is a flaming appeal to arms, running through The Virginia Gazette in 1756, and copied into Northern papers to rouse patriotism against the French enemy. The expression of the sentiment, even thus early, seems national. Livingston’s well-known Watch-Tower, a continuation of his pamphlet-magazine The Independent Reflector, has already the keen edge of the Revolutionary writings of fifteen and twenty years later. The fifty-second number even has one of the popular phrases of the Revolution: "Had I not sounded the Alarm, Bigotry would e’er now have triumphed over the natural Rights of British Subjects." [Gaine’s Mercury in 1754–1755]

Revolutionary Epoch and Early National Era: 1770-1820Edit

(This section is based on Newspapers, 1775–1860 by Frank W. Scott)

The Massachusetts SpyEdit

Isaiah Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy was constantly on the verge of being suppressed, from its establishment in 1770 to the American Revolution, it carried radicalism to its logical conclusion. When the Spy began to be reprinted in other papers, as "the most daring production ever published in America," the country as a whole was ready for Tom Paine's Common Sense (1775). The turbulent years between 1775 and 1783 were a time of great trial and disturbance among newspapers. Interruption, suppression, and lack of support checked their growth substantially. Although there were forty-three newspapers in the United States when the treaty of peace was signed (1783), as compared with thirty-seven on the date of the battle of Lexington (1775), only a dozen remained in continuous operation between the two events, and most of those had experienced delays and difficulties through lack of paper, type, and patronage. Not one newspaper in the principal cities, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, continued publication throughout the war. When the colonial forces were in possession, royalist papers were suppressed, and at times of British occupation Revolutionary papers moved away, or were discontinued, or they became royalist, only to suffer at the next turn of military fortunes. Thus there was an exodus of papers from the cities along the coast to smaller inland places, where alone it was possible for them to continue without interruption. Scarcity of paper was acute; type worn out could not be replaced. The appearance of the newspapers deteriorated, and issues sometimes failed to appear at all. Mail service, never good, was poorer than ever; foreign newspapers, an important source of information, could be obtained but rarely; many of the ablest writers who had filled the columns with dissertations upon colonial rights and government were now otherwise occupied.

News from a distance was less full and regular than before; yet when great events happened reports spread over the country with great rapidity, through messengers in the service of patriotic organizations. The newspapers made use of such assistance, and did service in further spreading the tidings, though they seldom overtook the flying word of mouth. Naturally, reporting was still imperfect. The Salem Gazette printed a full but coloured account of the battle of Lexington, giving details of the burning, pillage, and barbarities charged to the British, and praising the militia who were filled with "higher sentiments of humanity." The Declaration of Independence was published by Congress, 6 July, 1776, in the Philadelphia Evening Post, from which it was copied by most of the papers; but some of them did not mention it until two weeks later, and even then found room for only a synopsis. When they were permitted to do so they printed fairly full accounts of the proceedings of provincial assemblies and of Congress, which were copied widely, as were all official reports and proclamations. On the whole, however, a relatively small proportion of such material and an inadequate account of the progress of the war is found in the contemporaneous newspapers.

The general spirit of the time found fuller utterance in mottoes, editorials, letters, and poems. In the beginning both editorials and communications urged united resistance to oppression, praised patriotism, and denounced tyranny; as events and public sentiment developed these grew more vigorous, often a little more radical than the populace. Later, the idea of independence took form, and theories of government were discussed. More interesting and valuable as specimens of literature than these discussions were the poems inspired by the stirring events of the time. Long narratives of battles and of heroic deaths were mingled with eulogies of departed heroes. Songs meant to inspire and thrill were not lacking. Humour, pathos, and satire sought to stir the feelings of the public. Much of the poetry of the Revolution is to be found in the columns of dingy newspapers, from the vivid and popular satires and narratives of Philip Freneau to the saddest effusions of the most commonplace schoolmaster.

The newspapers of the Revolution were an effective force working towards the unification of sentiment, the awakening of a consciousness of a common purpose, interest, and destiny among the separate colonies, and of a determination to see the war through to a successful issue. They were more single-minded than the people themselves, and they bore no small share of the burden of arousing and supporting the often discouraged and indifferent public spirit. Many of the papers, however, which were kept alive or brought to life during the war could not adapt themselves to the new conditions of peace.

Perhaps a dozen of the survivors held their own in the new time, notably the Boston Gazette, which declined rapidly in the following decade, The Connecticut Courant of Hartford, The Providence Gazette, and The Pennsylvania Packet of Philadelphia, to which may be added such representative papers as The Massachusetts Spy, the Boston Independent Chronicle, the New York Journal and Packet, the Newport Mercury, The Maryland Gazette of Annapolis, The Pennsylvania Gazette and The Pennsylvania Journal, both of Philadelphia. Practically all were of four small pages, each of three or four columns, issued weekly. The Pennsylvania Packet, which appeared three times a week, became in 1784 the first daily paper. In the same year the New York Journal was published twice a week, as were several of the papers begun in that year. There was a notable extension to new fields. In Vermont, where the first paper, established in 1781, had soon died, another arose in 1783; in Maine two were started in 1785. In 1786 the first one west of the Alleghanies appeared at Pittsburg, and following the westward tide of immigration The Kentucky Gazette was begun at Lexington in 1787.

Conditions were hardly more favourable to newspapers than during the recent conflict. The sources of news were much the same; the means of communication and the postal system were little improved. Newspapers were not carried in the mails but by favour of the postmen, and the money of one state was of dubious value in another. Consequently circulations were small, rarely reaching a thousand; subscribers were slow in paying; and advertisements were not plentiful. Newspapers remained subject to provincial laws of libel, in accordance with the old common law, and were, as in Massachusetts for a short time in 1785, subject to special state taxes on paper or on advertisements. But public sentiment was growing strongly against all legal restrictions, and in general the papers practised freedom, not to say license, of utterance.

With independence had come the consciousness of a great destiny. The collective spirit aroused by the war, though clouded by conflicting local difficulties, was intense, and the principal interest of the newspapers was to create a nation out of the loose confederation. Business and commerce were their next care; but in an effort to be all things to all men, the small page included a little of whatever might "interest, instruct, or amuse." Political intelligence occupied first place; news, in the modern sense, was subordinated. A new idea, quite as much as a fire, a murder, or a prodigy, was a matter of news moment. There were always a few items of local interest, usually placed with paragraphs of editorial miscellany. Correspondents, in return for the paper, sent items; private letters, often no doubt written with a view to such use, were a fruitful source of news; but the chief resource was the newspapers which every office received as exchanges, carried in the post free of charge, and the newspapers from abroad.

Partisan newspapersEdit

The editor, usually reflecting the sentiment of a group or a faction, began to emerge as a distinct power. He closely followed the drift of events and expressed vigorous opinions. But as yet the principal discussions were contributed not by the editors but by "the master minds of the country." The growing importance of the newspaper was shown in the discussions preceding the Federal Convention, and notably in the countrywide debate on the adoption of the Constitution, in which the newspaper largely displaced the pamphlet. When Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay united to produce the Federalist essays, they chose to publish them in The Independent Journal and The Daily Advertiser, from which they were copied by practically every paper in America long before they were made into a book.

When the first Congress assembled 4 March, 1789, the administration felt the need of a paper, and, under the influence of Hamilton, John Fenno issued at New York, 15 April, the first number of The Gazette of the United States, the earliest of a series of administration organs. The seat of government became the journalistic centre of the country, and as long as party politics remained the staple news interest the administration organs and their opponents were the chief sources of news for the papers of the country.

Partisan bitterness increased during the last decade of the century as the First Party System took shape. The parties needed newspapers to communicate with their voters. New England papers were generally Federalist; in Pennsylvania there was a balance; in the West and South the Republican press predominated. Though the Federalists were vigorously supported by such able papers as Russell’s Columbian Centinel in Boston, Isaiah Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy, The Connecticut Courant, and, after 1793, Noah Webster’s daily Minerva (soon renamed Commercial Advertiser) in New York, The Gazette of the United States, which in 1790 followed Congress and the capital to Philadelphia, was at the centre of conflict, "a paper of pure Toryism," as Thomas Jefferson said, "disseminating the doctrines of monarchy, aristocracy, and the exclusion of the people." To offset the influence of this, Jefferson and Madison induced Philip Freneau, who had been editing The Daily Advertiser in New York, to set up a "half weekly," to "go through the states and furnish a Whig vehicle of intelligence." Freneau’s National Gazette, which first appeared 31 October, 1791, soon became the most outspoken critic of the administration of Adams, Hamilton, and Washington, and an ardent advocate of the French Revolution. Fenno and Freneau, in The Gazette of the United States and The National Gazette, at once came to grips, and the campaign of personal and party abuse in partisan news reports, in virulent editorials, in poems and skits of every kind, was echoed from one end of the country to the other.

Noah Webster, strapped for money accepted an offer in late 1793 from Alexander Hamilton of $1500 to move to New York City and edit a Federalist newspaper. In December he founded New York's first daily newspaper, American Minerva (later known as The Commercial Advertiser). He edited it for four years writing the equivalent of 20 volumes of articles and editorials. He also published the semi-weekly publication, The Herald, A Gazette for the country (later known as The New York Spectator). As a partisan he soon was denounced by the Jeffersonian Republicans as "a pusillanimous, half-begotten, self-dubbed patriot," "an incurable lunatic," and "a deceitful newsmonger ... Pedagogue and Quack." Fellow Federalist Cobbett labeled him "a traitor to the cause of Federalism", calling him "a toad in the service of sans-cullottism," "a prostitute wretch," "a great fool, and a barefaced liar," "a spiteful viper," and "a maniacal pedant." The master of words was distressed. Even the use of words like "the people," "democracy," and "equality" in public debate, bothered him for such words were "metaphysical abstractions that either have no meaning, or at least none that mere mortals can comprehend."

The first party newspapers were full of vituperation. As one historian comments,

It was with the newspaper editors, however, on both sides that a climax of rancorous and venomous abuse was reached. Of the Federalist editors, the most voluminous masters of scurrility were William Cobbett of Porcupine's Gazette and John Ward Fenno of the United States Gazette, at Philadelphia; Noah Webster of the American Minerva, at New York; and at Boston, Benjamin Russell of the Columbian Centinel, Thomas Paine of the Federal Orrery, and John Russell of the Boston Gazette. Chief of these was Cobbett, whose control of abusive epithet and invective may be judged from the following terms applied by him to his political foes, the Jacobins: "refuse of nations"; "yelper of the Democratic kennels"; "vile old wretch"; "tool of a baboon"; "frog-eating, man-eating, blooddrinking cannibals"; "I say, beware, ye under-strapping cut-throats who walk in rags and sleep amidst filth and vermin; for if once the halter gets round your flea-bitten necks, howling and confessing will come too late." He wrote of the "base and hellish calumnies" propagated by the Jacobins, and of "tearing the mask from the artful and ferocious villains who, owing to the infatuation of the poor, and the supineness of the rich, have made such fearful progress in the destruction of all that is amiable and good and sacred among men." Among the milder examples of his description of Jacobins was the following:

"Where the voice of the people has the most weight in public affairs, there it is most easy to introduce novel and subversive doctrines. In such States too, there generally, not to say always, exists a party who, from the long habit of hating those who administer the Government, become the enemies of the Government itself, and are ready to sell their treacherous services to the first bidder. To these descriptions of men, the sect of the Jacobins have attached themselves in every country they have been suffered to enter. They are a sort of flies, that naturally settle on the excremental and corrupted parts of the body politic. . . . The persons who composed this opposition, and who thence took the name of Anti-Federalists, were not equal to the Federalists, either in point of riches or respectability. They were in general, men of bad moral characters embarrassed in their private affairs, or the tools of such as were. Men of this caste naturally feared the operation of a Government imbued with sufficient strength to make itself respected, and with sufficient wisdom to exclude the ignorant and wicked from a share in its administration." [Jacobin and Junto by Charles Warren (1931) pp 90-91.

This decade, of violence was nevertheless one of development in both the quality and the power of newspapers. News reporting was extended to new fields of local affairs, and the intense rivalry of all too numerous competitors awoke the beginnings of that rush for the earliest reports which was to become the dominant trait in American journalism. The editor evolved into a new type. As a man of literary skill, or a politician, or a lawyer with a gift for polemical writing, he began to supersede the contributors of essays as the strongest writer on the paper. Much of the best writing, and of the rankest scurrility, be it said, was produced by editors born and trained abroad, like Bache of the Aurora, Cobbett, Cooper, Gales, Cheetham, Callender, Lyon, and Holt. Of the whole number of papers in the country towards the end of the decade, more than one hundred and fifty, at least twenty opposed to the administration were conducted by aliens. The power wielded by these anti-administration editors impressed John Adams, who in 1801 wrote: "If we had been blessed with common sense, we should not have been overthrown by Philip Freneau, Duane, Callender, Cooper, and Lyon, or their great patron and protector. A group of foreign liars encouraged by a few ambitious native gentlemen have discomfited the education, the talents, the virtues, and the prosperity of the country."

The most obvious example of that Federalist lack of common sense was the passage of the Alien and Sedition laws in 1798 to protect the government from the libels of editors. The result was a dozen convictions and a storm of outraged public opinion that threw the party from power and gave the Jeffersonian Republican press renewed confidence and the material benefit of patronage when the Republicans took control of the government in 1800. The Republican party was especially effective in building a network of newspapers in major cities to broadcast its statements and editorialize in its favor. Fisher Ames, a leading Federalist, blamed the newspapers for electing Jefferson: they were "an overmatch for any Government.... The Jacobins owe their triumph to the unceasing use of this engine; not so much to skill in use of it as by repetition." [Cunningham The Jeffersonian Republicans: 1789-1801 1957 p 167]

The newspapers continued primarily party organs; the tone remained strongly partisan, though it gradually gained poise and attained a degree of literary excellence and professional dignity. The typical newspaper, a weekly, had a paid circulation of 500. The growth of the postal system, with the free transportation of newspapers locally and statewide, allowed the emergence of powerful state newspapers that closely reflected, and shaped, party views.


Growth in newspapers

The number and geographical distribution of newspapers grew apace. In 1800 there were between 150 and 200; by 1810 there were 366, and during the next two decades the increase was at least equally rapid. With astonishing promptness the press followed the sparse population as it trickled westward and down the Ohio or penetrated the more northerly forests. By 1835 papers had spread to the Mississippi River and beyond, from Texas to St. Louis, throughout Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and into Wisconsin. These pioneer papers, poorly written, poorly printed, and partisan often beyond all reason, served a greater than a merely local purpose in sending weekly to the seat of government their hundreds of messages of good and evil report, of politics and trade, of weather and crops, that helped immeasurably to bind the farflung population into a nation. Every congressman wrote regularly to his own local paper; other correspondents were called upon for like service, and in some instances the country editors established extensive and reliable lines of intelligence; but most of them depended on the bundle of exchanges from Washington, Philadelphia, and New York, and reciprocally the city papers made good use of their country exchanges.

Meanwhile the daily newspapers were increasing in number. The first had appeared in Philadelphia and New York in 1784 and 1785; in 1796 one appeared in Boston. By 1810 there were twenty-seven in the country—one in the city of Washington, five in Maryland, seven in New York, nine in Pennsylvania, three in South Carolina, and two in Louisiana. As early as 1835 the Detroit Free Press began its long career.

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