Political Parties and the Press

views updated

Political Parties and the Press

While it became common in the late century to complain about the news media inserting itself into the political process rather than just observing it, this complaint would have been nonsensical in the early American Republic. From the 1790s through the Civil War and after, the press was in the thick of politics, not just influencing the party system through its coverage habits, but acting as a basic working component of that system, directly accountable for its outcomes. To a very large degree, party politics in this period was newspaper based.

the press's institutional role: filling the party system's gaps

One reason for this is obvious: party politics requires communication with the electorate, and newspapers and other products of the printing press were the most significant means available technologically in this period. Another reason may be less obvious: the uneven development of the antebellum party system. In one sense, nineteenth-century political parties were far more popular than today's models—voter turnouts were huge, campaign events were a major form of popular entertainment, and people identified with their parties to the point of regularly naming children after presidents, Speakers of the House, and even failed candidates. On a more concrete level, the antebellum parties were almost non-existent, despite the fact that they competed fiercely in every town, county, and state. Parties were not legally recognized by government, meaning there were no voter registrations, official ballots, national party offices, or formal party leaders in Congress. The parties possessed no permanent institutional structures, to say nothing of the large office buildings, permanent staffs, and wads of money that they acquired later. Formal party institutions like national conventions and committees were late innovations. National, state, and local campaign committees might be formed for a particular campaign, but these tended to go dormant or disappear once the campaign was over and so were unable to shape the party's response to events as they unfolded between elections. Partly because of their institutional insubstantiality, antebellum parties came, went, and radically transformed themselves with alarming frequency.

Newspapers filled the party system's many gaps, providing a fabric that held the parties together between elections and conventions, connected voters and activists to the larger party, and linked the different political levels and geographic regions of the country. Outside of election time, the party organizations themselves consisted of little more than the citizens, politicians, and newspapers that supported them. In this situation, the local party newspapers were the only corporeal or institutional form that the parties had in many communities. A subscription to a partisan newspaper, or regular readership of one in a tavern or reading room, was the only real form of party membership that existed in this age long before voter registration. Newspaper offices often served as the unofficial clubhouses and reading rooms of local parties, and newspaper columns were the major source of party doctrine and strategy for activists and voters alike. No politician, party, or faction believed that they could accomplish anything without a newspaper, and the first sign of a factional split in a party was usually the founding of a new newspaper. Similar observations could be made not just about parties, but about political associations of all kinds, including religious groups, moral reform movements, ethnic communities, and even the Cherokee Nation. Thus, one should think of the early political parties and the political press as not just intimately associated, but fused together as constituent elements of the same system.

The use of newspapers to accomplish political ends had roots in America going as far back as the 1730s, but the press gained its reputation for tremendous political efficacy during the American Revolution. The leading Revolutionaries firmly believed that newspapers were a crucial tool in their efforts to build opposition to the British in the 1760s and 1770s. After the war, the press was crucial in the selling of the new Constitution to the nation in 1787 and 1788. The pro-Constitution newspaper articles by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay became famous as the Federalist Papers. The early Congresses wrote the founders' reliance on newspapers into national policy when they created favorable postage rates for newspapers, arranged to pay certain newspapers to reprint the laws of the United States, and codified the long-standing custom of allowing newspaper printers to exchange newspapers with each other through the mail without charge. This latter practice allowed a host of small weekly newspapers, each with a circulation from a few hundred to a few thousand, to form together a kind of national network. Each printer needed to supply relatively little original material himself, but anything he did originate had a potentially large audience extending far beyond his local area. When newspapers began to identify with the Democratic Republicans or Federalists, what was in essence a subsidized national system of political communication sprang into being, with each party, and often each faction within each party, eventually gaining outlets in almost all significant places.

the origins of the party press: the 1790s

Though the founders set in place many of the policies that made it possible, they certainly did not intend to create a system of partisan journalism. (In fact, they were opposed to political parties in general.) They knew, as George Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights put it, that "the freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty," but the particulars of how such a bulwark should function were hazy or nonexistent. John Adams, Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and others had made heavy and often sensationalistic use of the press in the movement for independence from Great Britain. Yet despite their experience rousing the rabble with newspapers and pamphlets, the founders do not seem to have envisioned agitprop as the future of the American press.

Instead, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and his "aegis," President George Washington, began their government under the new Constitution in 1789 with the assumption that all they needed to do regarding newspapers was provide the people with basic information about the government's activities such as laws that had been passed and a presidential speech or two. Thus, it seemed more than enough when Boston businessman John Fenno showed up in the national capital and started the Gazette of the United States, a would-be national newspaper intended to "endear the general government to the people" by printing documents and congressional proceedings, along with letters, essays, and even poetry hailing President Washington and Vice President John Adams as gods among men.

Anyone who remembered the vicious newspaper wars of the Revolution, the kind that still occasionally broke out in local politics, might have predicted that the U.S. political press would not remain so gauzy and one-sided. When fundamental disagreements broke out among the leading members of the cabinet, it was only natural that the combatants reached for journalistic weapons. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson became convinced that Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was leading the administration in a dangerously pro-British and antidemocratic direction. Jefferson, however, could not lead the opposition himself and still remain within the administration or retain his status as a respectable statesman. He needed a surrogate, so he and James Madison helped create a newspaper, Philip Freneau's National Gazette, to lead the public charge against Hamilton's policies. It was in the National Gazette's pages that the idea of an opposition political party was first floated; when exposed as the National Gazette's sponsor and confronted by President Washington, Jefferson claimed that Freneau's paper had "saved our constitution" from Hamilton.

The National Gazette, which folded in 1793, set a precedent that would be followed again and again in the following century as politicians and parties looked to newspapers as their primary public champions in the bruising battles that followed the Jefferson-Hamilton split. The Philadelphia Aurora, founded by Benjamin Franklin Bache, grandson of Benjamin Franklin, took over as the leading Jeffersonian paper and around it developed a loose national network of local newspapers that spread the opposition movement's ideas around the country by copying from each other. The Adams administration tried to crush this network with the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, but the attempt backfired. So many printers, politicians, and citizens were outraged by this blatant attempt to destroy press freedom for political gain that the Jeffersonian newspaper network got even bigger, despite the fact that all the most prominent opposition papers were hit and numerous editors jailed or ruined.

Unlike the media of the late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first centuries, early American newspapers usually did not claim to be "fair and balanced," especially after the Alien and Sedition Acts. Firmly believing that their political beliefs were right and the other party's was wrong, editors refused to run their newspapers as though those differences did not matter: the press was too powerful a medium to allow evil ideas to pass through it unchallenged. The New York American Citizen, one of the new papers that appeared in the wake of the Sedition Act, editorialized that it could not be impartial in the battle between Adams's Federalists and Jefferson's Republicans: "If by impartiality, it is intended to convey an idea of equal attachment to aristocracy as to republicanism, then this paper rejects an impartiality so ruinous to the best interests of mankind."

newspapers and politics after 1800

Jefferson's victory in the election of 1800, by some measures the first peaceful transfer of power between ideologically opposed parties in world history, was a watershed in the growth of press-based politics. People at the time were deeply impressed with what the Republican press network was able to accomplish, often flatly attributing to the newspapers not only Jefferson's victory, but also some kind of deeper democratic awakening of the people to the defense and exercise of their rights. "Had it not been for the patriotic exertions … of Republican Papers," declared the Trenton True American, "the People would have indulged their love of peace and quiet, until the yoke of tyranny would have been insidiously fixed on their necks." From 1800 on, it was more or less accepted that no serious political movement or candidacy could afford to be without a newspaper network like Jefferson's. Without newspapers, a group of politicians or activists were nothing but "uninfluential atoms," one of Aaron Burr's supporters wrote, with "no rallying point" or visible public presence.

As valuable as newspaper networks were, financing them was always a problem, since the basic purpose of seriously partisan newspapers was building political support rather than making money. Party supporters were urged to buy subscriptions (the main way that most newspapers were sold), but this was rarely enough to keep outlets going in every small town. The difference was made up by politicizing the process of printing government documents. There were no public printing agencies, so the work was contracted out—often at generous rates—by party officeholders to allied newspaper publishers.

After the election of 1800, the first business of any party, faction, candidate, or movement was to establish newspapers or recruit existing ones. For instance, when the New York City mayor DeWitt Clinton sought control of New York state politics (with designs on the presidency), he raised $27,000 to start Clintonian newspapers all over the state. Martin Van Buren's Bucktail faction eventually won the state back, partly through assiduous efforts to develop a Bucktail newspaper network. Within a few years, the Bucktails had forty-nine journals in their camp.

In the chaotic race to succeed President James Monroe in 1824, all five major hopefuls banked on newspaper support. Secretary of War John C. Calhoun had an "understanding" with the Washington Republican, while Secretary of State John Quincy Adams looked to the National Journal. Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford had the Washington Gazette in his camp, in addition to several of the most widely read papers in other regions, including the New York National Advocate and Thomas Ritchie's Richmond Enquirer, the "national" newspaper of the South. Speaker of the House Henry Clay tried to start his own Washington paper but failed, relying instead on a network of papers back home in the Ohio Valley and the partial support of the National Intelligencer, the major organ of the Jefferson and Madison administrations.

a media-made president

If there was ever a media-made president, it had to be Andrew Jackson. A popular biography and song ("The Hunters of Kentucky") about his war exploits first brought Jackson to prominence, and Pennsylvania newspaper editors John McFarland and Stephen Simpson invented Jackson as a serious presidential candidate in 1823. When Adams won the election of 1824 over Jackson through an alleged corrupt bargain in Congress, Jackson supporters mounted a newspaper campaign that surpassed even what had been done for Jefferson. Thomas Ritchie's Enquirer threw in its support, and a new Jackson journal, the United States Telegraph, appeared in Washington. By 1828 every major city and town had a Jacksonian paper, and many new journals appeared, even in obscure places like Easton, Pennsylvania, and Vevay, Indiana, especially for the campaign.

Jackson's presidency marked a major turning point in the history of media politics. Understanding exactly the role that newspaper editors played in his campaigns, Jackson publicly expressed his gratitude to the newspapers that supported him by appointing at least seventy journalists to federal offices and allowing several key editors to play crucial roles in his administration. Among the leading members of Jackson's Kitchen Cabinet, the group of unofficial advisers that some historians have called the first White House staff, were three newspaper editors, including Kentucky editor Amos Kendall, who wrote many of Jackson's speeches and later became postmaster general, and Francis Preston Blair, a Kentuckian brought in to edit a new administration paper, the Washington Globe, when the Telegraph's loyalty came into question. Blair became one of nineteenth-century Washington's preeminent political figures, spanning decades and administrations much like the lawyer-lobbyist-fixers of the twentieth century.

After Jackson, more and more newspapers became involved in each succeeding campaign, and more and more editors in each succeeding administration, with similar trends occurring in most states. By the 1830s, journalists were starting to run for office in their own right. Hundreds would serve in Congress, and thousands more in positions from postmaster and state legislator to the highest posts in the land. This convergence of parties and the press was most evident between the turn of the nineteenth century and the Civil War, but it remained strong in many rural locations until the twentieth century.

Though always remaining close, the media-politics relationship nevertheless changed a great deal over that period. Like everything else in American life, newspaper politics was severely affected by the industrial and corporate revolution that began during the 1830s and 1840s and reached its peak at the turn of the twentieth century. Vast amounts of money flowed into the political system as campaigning expanded and businessmen sought the myriad benefits that government had to offer. Banks, real estate speculators, and transportation companies (especially railroads) led the way, seeking land grants, financial aid, lenient laws, and favorable decisions on their interests.

The new campaign money flowed especially into the newspaper business. It became increasingly common for local party leaders to publish special newspapers that were wholly devoted to politics and existed only for the duration of the campaign, typically from the early summer to November of a presidential election year. The practice began in 1828 with a few pro- and anti-Jackson papers, including Truth's Advocate and Monthly Anti-Jackson Expositor, which spread the tale of Jackson's allegedly bigamous marriage that the president believed killed his wife. The trend exploded during the infamous "Log Cabin Campaign" of 1840, when the new Whig Party, armed with generous funds from the business interests that tended to favor it over the Democrats, created nearly one hundred campaign newspapers across the country as part of their effort to give their candidate, Virginia-born aristocrat William Henry Harrison, the image of a hard-drinking, hard-fighting frontier Indian fighter like Andrew Jackson.

the myth of the penny press

Despite their focus on news reporting, the new mass-circulation papers that emerged in the 1830s—the so-called penny press—were just as partisan as the party journals, and often much more so because their financial independence from party politics relieved their publishers of any real accountability for their editorial policies. These new journals were sold on the street rather than only by subscription, at a much lower price point that allowed sales of hundreds of thousands copies. Print runs of this magnitude were made possible only by new steam-driven presses. Outrageous political rhetoric became one more way to entertain readers and boost circulation, and the political independence that penny press lords like James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald preened themselves over often amounted only to the ability to support violently a president or policy one week and then turn around and bash it just as hard the next. The New York penny press also spawned a crop of millionaire celebrity editors who were considerably better known than most of the high-ranking political officeholders of the day. Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, a printer, U.S. representative, and presidential candidate as well as the country's most influential publisher, is the best remembered of these celebrity editors.

The new mass-circulation papers bragged that they had opened up newspaper reading to the masses for the first time and made the press a greater force for political and cultural democracy than ever before. But there was one important way in which this was not true at all: the role of money. Local weekly newspapers were relatively cheap and easy to start; with a one-room shop and some basic equipment, a lone printer and one or two boy apprentices could manage it, and start-up costs could stay in three figures, within reach of an ordinary workman who saved a little money or borrowed from local politicians. The local partisan press thus could be an avenue for relatively ordinary young men to pursue their political beliefs and ambitions. Mass-circulation newspapers, on the other hand, required millions of dollars to start, and that meant banks, investors, and a fundamentally profit-oriented mentality. Though the press was still the only means that the government and politicians had to communicate with the mass of voters, at the highest levels this political role was no longer its reason for being. Grassroots democracy probably suffered as a result.

See alsoAlien and Sedition Acts; Democratic Republicans; Federalist Papers; Federalists; Newspapers; Printers .


Alexander, John K. The Selling of the Constitutional Convention: A History of News Coverage. Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1990.

Bailyn, Bernard, and John B. Hench, eds. The Press and the American Revolution. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1981.

Baldasty, Gerald J. The Commercialization of News in the Nineteenth Century. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.

Cole, Donald B. A Jackson Man: Amos Kendall and the Rise of American Democracy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004.

Davidson, Philip. Propaganda and the American Revolution, 1763–1783. New York: Norton, 1973.

Humphrey, Carol Sue. The Press of the Young Republic, 1783–1833. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.

John, Richard R. Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Knudson, Jerry W. "Political Journalism in the Age of Jefferson." Journalism History 1 (1974): 20–23.

Leary, Lewis. That Rascal Freneau: A Study in Literary Failure. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1941.

Leonard, Thomas C. The Power of the Press: The Birth of American Political Reporting. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

——. News for All: America's Coming-of-Age with the Press. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Miles, William, comp. The People's Voice: An Annotated Bibliography of American Presidential Campaign Newspapers, 1828–1984. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.

Nerone, John. "The Mythology of the Penny Press." Critical Studies in Mass Communication 4 (1987): 376–422.

Pasley, Jeffrey L. "The Tyranny of Printers": Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001.

——. "1800 as a Revolution in Political Culture: Newspapers, Celebrations, Democratization, and Voting in the Early Republic." In The Revolution of 1800: Democracy, Race, and the New Republic. Edited by James Horn, Jan Ellen Lewis, and Peter S. Onuf. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002.

Phillips, Kim Tousley. William Duane, Radical Journalist in the Age of Jefferson. New York: Garland, 1989.

Schlesinger, Arthur M. Prelude to Independence: The Newspaper War on Britain, 1764–1776. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1980.

Schudson, Michael. Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers. New York: Basic Books, 1978.

Sloan, William David. "'Purse and Pen': Party-Press Relationships, 1789–1816." American Journalism 6 (1989): 103–127.

Smith, Culver H. The Press, Politics, and Patronage: The American Government's Use of Newspapers, 1789–1875. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1977.

Smith, Elbert B. Francis Preston Blair. New York: Free Press, 1980.

Smith, James Morton. Freedom's Fetters: The Alien and Sedition Laws and American Civil Liberties. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1956.

Stewart, Donald H. The Opposition Press of the Federalist Period. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1969.

Tagg, James D. Benjamin Franklin Bache and the Philadelphia"Aurora." Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Jeffrey L. Pasley

About this article

Political Parties and the Press

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article