Antebellum and Civil War America, 1784-1865
Journalismby Mark Canada, professor, University of North Carolina at Pembroke
American journalism experienced dramatic growth and development in the antebellum period. Newspapers had existed in the American colonies since the early part of the 18th century and were fairly common by the time Americans had defeated the British in the American Revolution and were setting up their new nation. In 1800, America had more 200 newspapers, including 24 dailies. In general, however, these publications were primarily mouthpieces for political parties rather than independent, objective entities. The Gazette of the United States, for example, promoted the ideas of Alexander Hamilton and the other Federalists, and the National Gazette spoke for the Thomas Jefferson and his Democratic-Republicans. The centerpiece of a typical newspaper published between 1784 and 1830 was its political reporting, which often consisted of harsh, satirical, and sometimes false recriminations. "If ever a nation was debauched by a man," Aurora editor Benjamin Franklin Bache wrote of the country's first president, "the American nation has been debauched by Washington" (qtd. in Tebbel 66). The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 punished some journalists for their bold reporting, but by and large even early American reporters enjoyed the freedom promised by the First Amendment to the Constitution, which says that "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." The number of publications increased in these early decades of independence so that in 1820 America had 512 newspapers. The nature of the press in America remained much the same, however, until the 1830s. John Tebbel, author of The Compact History of the American Newspaper, explains: "From its use as a revolutionary propaganda machine to its hardly concealed official position as a private organ of a President, it had encompassed the range of partisan expression at the expense of truth and responsibility. As a tool of party and politicians, it had not attained any particular distinction except in the excellence of writing which the best statesmen and editors brought to it" (89).
The most important development of antebellum American journalism came in the 1830s, when New York journalists Benjamin Day and James Gordon Bennett began appealing to mass audiences. As Tebbel notes, immigration and improvements in printing technology, which eventually included a steam-powered cylinder press, both set the stage for this new era, which came to be known as the age of the "penny press." Unlike contemporary papers, which sold for 6 cents, Day's New York Sun and Bennett's New York Herald at first sold for a penny and were peddled in the streets. In addition to the increased circulations, which would reach 77,000 for the Herald shortly before the Civil War, this period was noteworthy for the change in the content of newspapers. Bennett, in particular, was a pioneer in broadening the scope and sharpening the appeal of newspaper reporting. Whereas the early political papers were distinctive in their lively denunciations of opponents, the highlight of the Herald was its sensationalistic coverage of crime and other lurid subject matter. Meanwhile, women's magazines also had huge audiences, including some 150,000 subscribers for Godey's Lady's Book, published in Philadelphia. In another important development of this period, reporters such as Joseph B. McCullagh gave newspaper readers intimate accounts of the Civil War. Indeed, in American Journalism: A History: 1690-1960, Frank Luther Mott writes: "Probably no great war has ever been so thoroughly covered by eye-witness correspondents as the American Civil War" (329).
Events1787: Bradford founds Kentucky Gazette
1789: Gazette of the United States founded
1791: National Gazette appears
1798: Alien and Sedition Acts
1801: New York Evening Post appears
1830: Washington Globe appears
1833: Day founds New York Sun
1835: Bennett founds New York Herald
1847: Philadelphia Public Ledger installs first real cylinder press
1851: New York Daily Times appears