Known as the "News Magazine of the Nineteenth Century" to later generations, Niles' Weekly Register was one of the first periodicals in America to systematically gather and organize all the major news of the week. As such, it was widely read by the opinion leaders of its time and became a valuable source for later historians, especially on politics, government, and the economy.
Considerably longer than the newspapers of its era at sixteen pages, the Register was the brainchild of Hezekiah Niles (1777–1839), a Quaker printer from Pennsylvania. Having previously tried his hand at several types of publications, including a conventional Democratic Republican newspaper, the Baltimore Evening Post, Niles promised readers "Something New" in his 1811 prospectus for the Register, and for the most part he delivered. While the Register employed no reporters and printed the same basic types of material as all the newspapers of this period—political essays, texts of speeches, letters, official documents, and extracts from other newspapers—Niles made his selections much more carefully, comparing various accounts for accuracy and often summarizing the information or setting the reports and documents in context with commentary of his own. Niles also distinguished the Register by refusing to use it for "electioneering purposes," banning the anonymous contributions and personal attacks that dominated many party journals and printing material on both sides of many issues.
While Niles was indeed the "honest chronicler" that the Shakespeare quotation on his masthead seemed to promise, the Register was far from nonpartisan. Setting a pattern for later advances in news reporting, the Register rose to prominence by chronicling a major war, the War of 1812 (1812–1815), to which it was deeply committed. Niles was ferociously anti-British and bitterly critical of the war's many domestic opponents. As he saw it, the United States was fighting the "most profligate and corrupt government in the universe, administered by the most finished villains in the world, who make a boast of bribery, laugh at fraud, and cherish all sorts of whoredoms." Niles also became one of the most influential exponents of the American System of fostering domestic industry through internal transportation improvements and protective tariffs. He stuffed the Register with arguments and data in support of protectionism and did not shrink from bitter political invective on the topic. The "free trade party" (code for the Jacksonian Democrats) was full of "British agents" and wanted to "send the laborer 'supperless to bed,'" Niles warned in 1831. Given that the American System was the signature policy agenda of Henry Clay and the Whig Party, Niles' Register should be counted as a vociferous fellow traveler of that party even if the editor technically kept his promise not to promote candidates in his pages.
A judicious editor, skilled writer, and confirmed workaholic, Niles produced the Register until his health failed in 1836. He then turned the reins over to his son, William Ogden Niles, who moved the paper from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., and changed the name to Niles' National Register. William's tenure as editor was cut short in 1839 when his widowed stepmother sold the paper out from under him. The publication ended up in the hands of Hezekiah's old friend Jeremiah Hughes, longtime editor of the Annapolis Maryland Republican, who ran the Register until his retirement in 1848. Hughes sold out to novice editor George Beatty, who moved the office to Philadelphia and tried selling advertising in it for the first time, but mismanaged the famous publication to an early death in 1849.
Brigham, Clarence S. History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690–1820. Worcester, Mass.: American Antiquarian Society, 1947.
Luxon, Norval Neil. Niles' Weekly Register: News Magazine of the Nineteenth Century. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1947.
Mott, Frank Luther. American Journalism: A History, 1690–1960. 3rd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1960.
Niles' Weekly Register, 1811–1835.
Jeffrey L. Pasley