The Press

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The practice of leaking information to the press was an old one even then, and the President was furious when portions of the Jay Treaty leading to the evacuation of British forts in American territory appeared in newspapers before it could be ratified. Washington’s opinion on leaking changed when he was in control of the spout. He slipped a copy of his Farewell Address to a friendly newspaper, Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser .

There were no wealthy press barons in the eighteenth century. For all their troublesome fervor, editors frequently led lives of not very quiet desperation. John Zenger, the son of John Peter Zenger, who had gone to jail in the service of journalism, struggled to keep his father’s paper going, but it was difficult. Some of his readers were seven years behind in paying for their subscriptions. On March 18, 1751, he literally begged for money from readers of the Weekly Journal , saying his clothes were worn out and asking them to “send the poor Printer a few Gammons [dried pork], or some Meal, some Butter, Cheese, Poultry. ...” Apparently they did not. That was the last issue of the Journal.

Following the Revolution, American newspapers fell into a sleazy decline. They had, however, become a political necessity. Martin Van Buren said if his followers did not have control of some newspapers, they might as well “hang our harps on the willows.” Political leaders eagerly took on the role of publisher. Office seekers rarely make good journalists, and their newspapers resorted to the worst kind of political savagery. Thomas Jefferson, a master manipulator of the press who was not above simply buying a newspaper to ensure good coverage, suffered more grievously than most. The New-England Palladium and Commercial Advertiser , a Boston Federalist paper, said this of Jefferson’s candidacy in 1802: “Should the Infidel Jefferson be elected to the Presidency, the seal of death is that moment set on our holy religion, our churches will be prostrated, and some infamous prostitute, under the title of the Goddess of Reason, will preside in the Sanctuaries now devoted to the Most High.”

There was genuine concern that good men might shun public office in the face of a voracious popular press. In 1821 John Quincy Adams dismissed the possibility of trying for the Presidency, saying, “If that office is to be the prize of cabal and intrigue, or purchasing newspapers, bribing by appointments, or bargaining for foreign missions, I have no ticket in that lottery.” But the lure of high office was too potent for Adams to resist, and three years later he successfully ran for President.

Newspapers cannot conduct themselves much differently from the society in which they exist or no one will buy them. If the press was frequently scurrilous in the early nineteenth century, it reflected a time given to intemperate political speech. Reviewing his eight years as Chief Executive, Andrew Jackson said the two greatest disappointments of his administration were that he had neither shot Henry Clay nor hanged John C. Calhoun.

Although the press can rarely provide more than what Woodrow Wilson called “the atmosphere of events,” that is frequently enough. For all their imperfections, papers did the job of getting out the word to a young republic eager for news. Hurried by teams of horses, dispatches from the Atlantic shore could be read in St. Louis within a week. The unhanged Calhoun did not always like newspapers, but he marveled that “a citizen of the West will read the news of Boston still moist from the press. The mail and the press are the nerves of the body politic.”

Several factors contributed to the development of the modern American newspaper as it began to emerge in the 1830s. Instead of laboriously cranking out a few hundred papers during the night, cylinder presses could now produce fifteen hundred copies in an hour. As America became increasingly urbanized, publishers could get at new readers profitably instead of chasing circulation in remote rural areas. It had once been a mark of social distinction to be able to afford to subscribe to a newspaper. Now newspapers cost pennies a day. Most important, a new generation of brilliant, often quixotic, editors came on the scene with something interesting to say, and now they could get rich saying it.