Synopsis of

Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic

by Jeffrey L. Pasley

This work attempts to break new ground in both political and journalism history by treating the partisan press as integral to the American political system, rather than simply a distasteful precursor to modern, news-oriented, "objective" journalism or a tool that party politicians corrupted to their own purposes.

I argue that party politics and a sector of the newspaper industry converged in the late eighteenth century to form a kind of newspaper-based political system. Newspapers became the nascent parties' chief means of speaking to the electorate, and newspaper editors became not only spokesmen for the competing coalitions but actual organizers and campaigners as well. Thomas Jefferson's victory in the election of 1800 was largely attributed to the network of Republican newspapers that had grown up in the late 1790s. After that point, newspaper support was considered by all politicians as absolutely essential to accomplishing any object or winning over any area. Since American political parties lacked any permanent institutional structures before the 1850s, party newspapers and their editors came to embody and run the parties as no other institutions or actors could. Even after national party committees were created and national party newspapers were done away with during the Civil War era, newspaper-based politics remained the rule in many locales (especially the South and Midwest) into the early twentieth century, as shown by the fact that both major party presidential candidates in 1920 were party newspaper editors from Ohio.

The manuscript describes and analyzes the origins and development of this system of newspaper politics from colonial times to the early Jacksonian period. While providing plenty of aggregate data and even maps showing the growth of newspaper politics, much of the narrative follows the careers of individual editors and newspapers. This not only humanizes the subject and shows party politics as the lived experience that it was and is, but also brings out a number of other important historical themes.

Newspaper editors turn out to be the first really professional politicians in American history, in the sense of actually working in party politics for a living. Hence the manuscript meets a long-standing need for a careful, explicit study of what Ronald Formisano has called "the much heralded replacement of traditional notables by a `new class' of professional politicians." The rise of newspaper editors also constitutes one of the most important and tangible aspects of the democratization of American political leadership. The manuscript chronicles and analyzes the rise of these early political spokesmen, managers, and aides from the status of disdained henchmen of high leaders in the 1790s, to a decisive, even dominant role in American political life by the 1830s.

Here is a summary of the narrative. Though generally printers by training and thus clearly "working class" in their social identity, newspaper editors became the principal spokesmen for the first American political parties. This happened because traditional political morality prohibited gentleman statesmen from organizing parties or openly soliciting political support. When Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton decided to actively oppose each other in the public arena, they needed surrogates. They found them in the form of the newspaper editors John Fenno and Philip Freneau. This began a tradition of newspaper-based politics that took shape even more fully in the work of editors who were more closely connected to the emerging parties, such as Benjamin F. Bache and William Duane of the Philadelphia Aurora. The Federalists tried to wipe out the Republican press with the Alien and Sedition Acts, but they badly miscalculated. Federalist repression actually attracted politically and ideologically ambitious young men into the ranks of the political printers and forced many commercial printers into becoming editor-politicians themselves. The combined pressures of the sedition prosecutions and the 1800 campaign fostered the consolidation of a highly effective national network of Republican newspapers.

By the time Jefferson took office in 1801, newspapers had become the acknowledged loci of American politics, and newspaper editors the most visible public spokesmen and campaigners that the Republican party had. Editors had also become virtually the only people in the country who worked in partisan politics (as opposed to political office) for a living. The Federalists struggled to catch up, but never succeeded, in part because they tried to rely on educated lawyers and men of letters rather than printers. The financial rewards of running a partisan newspaper were so meager and uncertain that only a person with few other prospects kept it up for long.

Despite their success, Jefferson and the other Republican leaders failed to reward the editors with offices or a share of power. The editors were mostly artisans by background, rarely educated, often recent immigrants, and almost always lacking in the social polish and unquestioned respectability that Jefferson demanded in his appointees. Some editors achieved great political power in any case. In doing so, they often pursued a more radically democratic agenda than high Republican leaders favored. Some editors became local party "bosses" with their own base of power, and a few even became members of Congress. These developments inspired many genteel Republicans with second thoughts about the prominent role of their newspaper editors in politics, and the period 1800-1820 saw many attempts to gentrify the political press by finding nonprinters to man it or otherwise bring printer-editors more firmly under the control of party elites.

Despite these misgivings, newspapers and newspaper editors became ever more important in politics during the early 19th century. Printer-editors (along with a growing number of lawyer-editors) were heavily involved in the state democratization movements of the 1810s and 1820s, in the reconstruction of the Republican party that took place during the 1820s, and finally in the elevation of Andrew Jackson to the presidency. In contrast to his predecessors, Jackson legitimated the editors' longstanding role in political campaigning by appointing some 60 of them to offices in his administration. At the same time, several editors were leading members of Jackson's "Kitchen Cabinet." This was the beginning of a trend that intensified throughout the 19th century, as newspaper editors were appointed and elected to office in ever-larger numbers. In 1837, there were six former newspaper editors in the U.S. Senate, making journalists by far the most disproportionately represented group in Congress besides lawyers.

While some elements of this story have been told before -- most notably in scattered biographies of individual figures and newspapers -- the rise of the editors has never been foregrounded or depicted as the major event in American political development that I believe it was. There has also never been an extended treatment of the growth of political professionalism. In general, little has been written on the inner workings of early American public life. We know a great deal about what various statesmen thought and said, and how voters voted, but relatively little about the mid-level political campaigners, spokesmen, and organizers who mediated between the two.

2000 by Jeffrey L. Pasley