Although the National Intelligencer began as a party newspaper, the talents, principles, and government connections of its editors soon helped it to develop into one of the nation's most influential periodicals, a position it maintained for much of its early history. In the summer of 1800 Thomas Jefferson and Albert Gallatin encouraged the Philadelphia printer Samuel Harrison Smith to follow the federal government to Washington to start a Republican newspaper. Smith, a strong Jefferson supporter, readily complied, and on 31 October 1800 the first issue of the tri-weekly National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser appeared.
After Jefferson's 4 March 1801 inauguration, Smith and his wife, Margaret Bayard Smith, became members of the Republican government social circle, dining with the president and members of the cabinet and Congress. Smith's political and social access to Congress and the administration led to profitable contracts for government printing as well as insights into the views of the president and the department heads. The National Intelligencer was soon known as the "court paper" of the Jefferson administration. Smith supported administration policies but avoided the strident tone of many of his contemporaries, striving for a moderate and balanced presentation of domestic and international affairs. Because of this evenhanded approach, the National Intelligencer's detailed reports of congressional debates and executive activity quickly became source material for editors across the country.
After Jefferson's retirement to Monticello in 1809, Smith left publishing for finance, selling the Intelligencer in 1810 to his employee Joseph Gales, Jr. Two years later Gales entered into a partnership agreement with his brother-in-law, William Seaton. Gales and Seaton continued Smith's policy of high-minded editorial comment combined with detailed reports of congressional happenings and maintained amiable relations with the Madison and Monroe administrations. Because of the Intelligencer's support for President James Madison and the War of 1812, the British destroyed the newspaper's offices on 25 August 1814 during the invasion of Washington, dealing a severe blow to the partners' finances. To improve their still unstable financial situation, they began publication in 1825 of the Register of Congressional Debates, a detailed compilation in book form of the debates of each congressional session. Gales and Seaton's support for the Bank of the United States, to which they were deeply indebted, and for Henry Clay's "American System" led to estrangement from Andrew Jackson and his supporters.
After Jackson's election to the presidency in 1828 they no longer enjoyed close relationships with the administration and received far fewer government contracts. In 1834 they began publication of the American State Papers, followed by the Annals of Congress, two editions that not only preserved the executive, administrative, and legislative history of the early Republic but also contributed to the prestige of the Intelligencer. As the nation became more polarized politically in the decades leading to the Civil War, Gales and Seaton's moderate, compromising style fell out of favor. The paper came to be regarded as respectable but stodgy, and readers drifted away. Gales died in 1860, and in 1864 Seaton sold the National Intelligencer to a firm that moved the paper to New York, where it expired.
Ames, William E. A History of the National Intelligencer. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972.
Ritchie, Donald A. Press Gallery: Congress and the Washington Correspondents. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.
Smith, Culver H. The Press, Politics, and Patronage: The American Government's Use of Newspapers, 1789–1875. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1977.
Mary A. Hackett