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Fanatics and Fire-Eaters: Newspapers and the Coming of the Civil War

Fanatics and Fire-Eaters: Newspapers and the Coming of the Civil War

by Lorman A. Ratner, Dwight L. Teeter Jr.

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The Civil War was a turning point not only in U.S. history but also in the history of newspapers. Ratner (Powederkeg) and Teeter (coauthor, Voices of a Nation: A History of the Mass Media in the United States) here discuss the role of newspapers during this tumultuous conflict. In particular, they show how this burgeoning medium covered the issues and events leading up to the war in terms of the principles of the American Republic, arguing that the issue of slavery was placed in the context of these principles. Thus, newspapers in the North and in the South focused on the opposition to or proponence of slavery, respectively. Before illustrating how newspapers covered some of the major events that deal with the question of slavery, like the Dred Scott decision, Lincoln's election, and the battle at Fort Sumter, they outline the technological advances that contributed to the growth of the newspaper industry. For example, steam-driven presses, the telegraph, and the railroad all helped to increase the circulation of many papers as well as the influence they had on public opinion across the nation. Overall, the authors have adequately researched the historical confluence of the newspapers as a true mass medium with this devastating war. Although Brayton Harris's Blue & Gray in Black & White: Newspapers in the Civil War is a more comprehensive study of the subject, offering general audiences an illustrated, lively look at the influence of the press during such an important time in history, Lorman and Teeter's study is still recommended as a supplementary title to all university and journalism school libraries, as well as large public libraries with Civil War collections.-Donna Marie Smith, Palm Beach Cty. Lib. Syst., FL Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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University of Illinois Press
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The History of Communication Series
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)

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Fanatics and Fire-eaters

By Lorman A. Ratner Dwight L. Teeter Jr.


Copyright © 2003 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-07221-5

Chapter One

The Emergence of a Democratic Press

The years from the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828 to the start of the American Civil War in 1861 saw extraordinary changes in all aspects of American life. Not long before, in 1803, the Louisiana Purchase added more than eight hundred thousand square miles of territory, doubling the land controlled by the United States. Much of this land-wealth, however, was inaccessible until steamboats, canals, and then railroads allowed Americans to begin to solve the riddle of how to explore the vastness of their nation. 1 In effect, this transportation revolution helped change what seemed to some a negative in the form of too few people dispersed over vast spaces into a positive—more than enough land for a burgeoning population. Transportation advances provided people who made their livings in the 830,000 square miles provided by the Louisiana Purchase with vast potential markets for all sorts of goods.

Rapid growth in population and changes in where people lived and how they earned their livings brought both opportunity and difficulty. This booming society was a world of ups and downs, opportunities and disappointments, a world fluid enough to allow winners to become losers and losers to become winners.

The history of American newspapers in the three decades after the election of Andrew Jackson also provides dramatic evidence of how the nation was changing. When Jackson took office, newspapers generally were sold by subscription to a relative handful of men interested in government and politics or looking to newspapers for commercial information. By the time Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, the major newspapers had changed from relatively expensive, small-output products of printing shops into cash-and-carry commodities that were cheap, readily available, and widely read in America's ever-growing urban centers, smaller cities, and towns. In roughly thirty years the newspaper business underwent a revolution equivalent to and making use of the transportation revolution.

By 1856, the year that begins this book's narrative of events preceding the Civil War, leading newspapers had been propelled into a new era by a technological revolution, which for the first time made American newspapers into truly mass media, with the power that term now implies. Newspapers came to be read widely, both in places of publication and, thanks to the railroads, farther away. Because of the telegraph, they carried news of events that could be, more nearly than ever before, described at almost the time they happened.

In larger cities—and even in mid-sized cities—competition among newspapers was intense. No longer did publishers wait for news and comment to come to them, passively clipping and pasting and printing news lifted from exchange newspapers. By the 1830s, reporting—the active gathering of news—began to be a trade, and reporters, editors, and publishers strove to present news that would interest, entertain, excite, and please a mass audience. Catering to readers' tastes as well as to their prejudices and opinions made newspapers a vital force, both shaping and reflecting the attitudes of the reading audience.

By 1850 the three characteristics of modern mass media were in place and accelerating: availability of steam-driven presses for reproduction, growing railroad networks for distribution, and rapid development of near-instantaneous communication via telegraph lines for gathering and disseminating the most important news. Together they added up to newspapers that had more outreach and the power to portray—and distort—events and to amplify, often exacerbate, political arguments.

Dramatic growth in population and even more startling growth in the number and competitive zeal of leading newspapers meant more readers as well as more competition for those readers. The development of high-speed presses meant that it was feasible for two circulation leaders among major big-city daily newspapers—which also offered weekly editions to outlying areas—to reach and influence many people. By 1850 all these changes and more multiplied business opportunities of American newspapers, transformed a trade into a burgeoning industry, and revolutionized communication in American society. For the first time the public was exposed to, benefited from, and was victimized by mass media. Circulations and power grew accordingly. The largest newspapers became exemplars of an innovative major industry because of their newfound ability to sell large numbers of newspapers and thus attract substantial advertising revenue.

By the time of the Civil War, three decades of innovations, some incremental, some startling in uses of new technology, changed American newspapers forever. Some big-city newspapers became veritable manufacturers; news was their commodity. Most, of course, were not major forces commercially, either in news or commentary, on either the national scene or regionally. A small minority of urban newspapers had the greatest political, social, and economic impacts. Dailies clustered heavily in major cities, and both their numbers and circulations grew mightily during the last two antebellum decades. By the late 1850s a dozen daily newspapers were published in Philadelphia, ten in Cincinnati and St. Louis, and eleven in Chicago. The great growth in competition—including newspapers costing a penny or two pennies—ushered in a time of sensationalism in some circulation-leading urban dailies and no doubt had a democratizing effect on readership, putting the working classes more and more into the habit of reading "the news."

Circulations soared far faster than population growth. In 1840 a nation with a population of 17,069,000 was served by 1,404 newspapers, of which only 138 were dailies. By 1860 the nation's population had increased by 84 percent, to 31,443,000, but the number of newspapers had increased by 265 percent, to 3,725. The number of dailies reached 387, an increase of 276 percent. In 1840 the annual circulation of newspapers (from known circulations) was just under 186.5 million (10.9 copies per capita annually). By 1860 newspapers' annual circulation reached nearly 888 million copies (28.2 copies per capita annually).

The boom in circulation required more than an increase in population. It also relied on the invention of the steam-powered press. When Benjamin H. Day began the New York Sun ("It Shines for All") in September 1833, he had one compositor and a youth to help print perhaps a thousand copies of the small (7 5/8 by 10¼ inches) four-page publication. Printing was laborious; the Sun could not have been printed at a rate of more than 250 sheets an hour, on one side and then on the other. By 1837 the Public Ledger, a Philadelphia penny paper, was using a Napier press "propelled by steam" and capable of printing three thousand sheets an hour. A decade later, that same newspaper was using a Hoe Rotary Lightning Press, which could turn out five to ten thousand copies of a four-page newspaper in an hour. (In a remarkable moment in 1837, rotary press inventor Richard Hoe witnessed some of Samuel F. B. Morse's early experiments with telegraphy at New York University. Once the telegraph was used successfully in 1844, Hoe directed his efforts toward creating a rapid press that could deal with the coming communication revolution.)

By 1850 newspapers in major cities outside New York had adopted the Hoe press. This remarkably expanded printing capacity meant that big cities had a larger share of newspaper circulation than smaller cities. Allan Pred has noted that twelve of the twenty-nine major cities he studied for Urban Growth and City Systems in the United States, 1840–1860 "were together responsible for about 60 percent of the total 1850 circulation, or eight times more than would be expected as a combined share of the nation's population."

In just a few years, big-city newspapering became big business, with increasing needs for capitalization, expensive equipment, and skilled labor. In the 1830s, a printer could start a small-town newspaper if he could scrape together $500.11 Even in New York City in 1835—then a city of roughly three hundred thousand—James Gordon Bennett, with only $500 in capital and a basement "office" consisting of planks placed atop packing crates, founded the New York Herald. Costs of founding a newspaper escalated rapidly. Editor Charles A. Dana of the New York Sun said that starting a daily in New York City in 1840 would have cost between $5,000 and $10,000, but the amount was as much as $100,000 by 1850. That meant that large metropolitan newspapers needed extensive capital and dependable cash flow and operating income; governmental patronage no longer was sufficient. Advertising and circulation revenue became more reliable sources of funding in a growing, mass-market economy. Market economics, involving pleasing a broader spectrum of readers instead of trying to please ever-shifting party organizations or political supporters who might or might not pay their subscriptions, were a critical factor in commercializing the press.

Particularly in the two decades before the Civil War, the meaning of news changed. As Gerald Baldasty has observed, until then "editors had been relatively passive in news gathering, producing political essays and extracting political news from exchange newspapers." In the decades before the Civil War, news ceased to be whatever accounts came to hand and came to mean "news is what's new." In competitive terms, it might have been expressed as "my news is newer than your news." Moreover, the news was not given in what modern readers might regard as that elusive and illusive quality "objectivity." News and commentary, taken together, gave newspapers qualities that attracted some readers but not others. By early 1858, when editor James Gordon Bennett was claiming a circulation of a hundred thousand a day for his New York Herald, he saw it as "'about the only Northern journal that has unfailingly vindicated the constitutional rights of the South.'" The Springfield Republican's Samuel Bowles agreed with Bennett's assessment. "'It is amusing,'" he wrote, "'to see the greed with which the Herald is snatched up and devoured on its earliest arrival here in the evening, and what is worse, to see the simplicity of these Southern fellows who seem to pin their whole faith upon it. Where Northern men look at it only for amusement, as they look at Punch or Frank Leslie [Leslie's Illustrated Magazine], Southern men swallow it gravely with a sign and a knowing shake of the head.'"

In larger cities, rapid change was driven by competition for circulation. The race to get more news faster took larger staff sizes; no longer could scissors-and-paste copies from other publications by themselves make for a competitive newspaper. Alfred McClung Lee reported that by 1845 Bennett's Herald employed thirteen newshands—editors and reporters—plus twenty compositors and sixteen pressmen. Weekly expenses ran between $1,400 and $1,600. In the 1850s Horace Greeley's New York Tribune had 130 employees as well as out-of-town "special correspondents." By 1853 the newspaper circulated more than fifteen thousand copies; the Weekly Tribune's circulation had grown from fifty-one thousand in 1853 to more than two hundred thousand by 1860, circulating Greeley's antislavery views while entertaining readers with human-interest stories. Greeley also identified staff writers, urging them to sign their articles. This mid-1850s innovation was noteworthy because bylines were not common in newspapers until military commanders north and south required them once the Civil War was underway, the better to keep track of military correspondents and threaten them if they criticized a general or revealed information of use to the enemy.

Before the telegraph, transportation, especially transporting the mail, was communication. Whatever the means by which newspapers, magazines, and letters traveled, the mails remained of great importance during the 1850s. Thanks to federal policies and statutory support for free exchanges between newspapers dating back to the eighteenth century, the influence of newspapers extended far and wide. Merrill Jensen's observation about eighteenth-century American newspapers borrowing from each other was true throughout the nineteenth century: "Editors ... made constant use of the scissors so that the same news item or political essay often appears in newspapers all the way from New Hampshire to Georgia, sometimes with acknowledgment and sometimes not."

Even after the appearance of the telegraph, the mail mattered a great deal in moving information. "In short," Richard Kielbowicz has written, "the post office and the press together constituted the most important mechanism for the dissemination of public information until the Civil War." Furthermore, printed material in the two decades before the war made up the majority of the weight of material sent through the mail. Newspapers' dependence on the mail and supportive laws and policies promulgated by both Congress and the post office is difficult to overemphasize. Not only were there massive free exchanges of newspapers among editors, but there was also free delivery in counties of publication and the ability to mail publications at minimal postage rates.

In some degree these policies favoring newspapers pushed them far beyond local impact, making some large-city dailies newspapers for the continent. The most sizable example was Greeley's New York Tribune, which was said to have a daily circulation of eleven thousand in 1847 but a weekly edition circulation—with newspapers sent great distances to subscribers—of fifteen thousand. By 1860 the New York Weekly Tribune's circulation—reprinting articles from the daily—reached two hundred thousand, which made it the world's most widely circulated newspaper. The Boston Evening Transcript also published widely circulated weekly and semiweekly editions aimed at readers in smaller cities or towns and rural areas. The largest city-area daily newspaper circulation in the United States evidently belonged to the flamboyant James Gordon Bennett's highly criticized but widely read New York Herald. Even his most caustic critics had to give that devil Bennett his due. An observant contemporary, Lambert A. Wilmer, wrote in 1859 that Bennett's newspaper was "read by people of all classes, and its power and influence are universally acknowledged. Although the Herald is denounced from one end of the country to the other as the most corrupt and profligate in existence, its opinions on almost every subject are often quoted as indisputable authority, and hundreds of other newspapers adopt its views and republish its statements without the least reservation."

James Ford Rhodes called Greeley's Weekly Tribune the "'greatest single journalistic influence," with 112,000 subscribers in 1854 and many more readers. For Rhodes, its "readers were of the thorough kind, reading all the news, all the printed speeches and addresses, and all the editorials, and pondering as they read. The questions were discussed in their family circles and with their neighbors.... There being few popular magazines during this decade, the weekly newspaper, in some degree, took their place; and, through this medium, Greeley and his able co-adjutors spoke to the people of New York and of the West, where New England ideas predominated, with a power never before or since known in this country.'"

Circulation relied increasingly on the postal service, which was a complex operation in the decade before the Civil War. The postal service attempted to serve hamlets as well as big cities, using whatever means of transportation that was fast, relatively inexpensive, and reliable. Until the telegraph reached California in 1861, steamships, stagecoaches, and, for a time, even the legendary pony expresses moved news across the continent, although the pony express, for reasons of bulk and weight, usually did not carry complete newspapers but rather half-ounce slips that were digests of telegraphic news. Private, for-profit mail or shipping services also sprang up as entrepreneurs saw opportunities.


Excerpted from Fanatics and Fire-eaters by Lorman A. Ratner Dwight L. Teeter Jr. Copyright © 2003 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois . Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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