1783-1815: Communications: Overview
1783-1815: Communications: Overview
Distances . When Thomas Jefferson became president in 1801, he described for the American people the particular blessings they enjoyed. They were “kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe,” and they “possessed a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation.” In 1801 the western boundary of this enormous country was on the Mississippi River, while its southern border did not reach the Gulf of Mexico. Most of this territory, however, was still in the hands of Native Americans, and the possibility that they might easily be forced out was remote. For Jefferson the distances and scale of the New World were magnificent, the forests and prairies filled with promise and possibilities. For others, though, the size of the country presented problems. During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, when a delegate suggested that the task at hand was to make a government that would last, Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts asked, “Can it be supposed that this vast Country including the Western territory will 150 years hence remain one nation?” It seemed impossible that a government could be formed over this large country, or that the people of the various states could join together to form one nation.
Speed. It took time to connect these vast distances. In 1789 it took twenty days for a letter to get from Savannah, Georgia, to Portland, Maine, and another twenty to get a reply. The fastest way to travel was by boat, since roads did not exist in many areas. When President Jefferson returned home each year to his estate at Monticello, the one-hundred-mile trip took him several days, and he had to cross five rivers which did not have bridges.
Spreading News . Benjamin Franklin had been the first postmaster general appointed by the Continental Congress. In 1792 Congress, under the new Constitution, changed the nature of the U.S. Post Office, and Thomas Jefferson pushed to have Thomas Paine appointed postmaster. The postal service was vital to communication in many ways. The Post Office delivered not only mail but also newspapers, and ready access to the latest news was vital to American businessmen. Stagecoach drivers were contracted to carry the mail, and in the 1790s the federal government began regulating stagecoach routes and schedules. The government contracts were lucrative; it was said in the nineteenth century that the postmaster general could put most American stagecoach companies out of business. By requiring that the mail be carried into the West and Southwest, the Post Office helped develop those regions, subsidizing stage companies to bring mail as well as people and goods to the frontier. Abraham Bradley, a postal clerk, drew a detailed map of stage routes in 1796 showing the arrival and departure times of stagecoaches. The Post Office itself experimented only briefly with running its own stage to carry the mail, using private contractors for most of its transportation.
Geography and Optical Telegraph . The expanding distances of the new nation made two things necessary: a knowledge of geography, and ways to cross the wide-open spaces. Bradley’s map was an important step. In the same period New England clergyman Jedidiah Morse wrote a geographical study, and in 1804 President Jefferson dispatched Lewis and Clark to explore the Louisiana Territory. In 1807 Congress considered constructing an “optical telegraph,” a system of towers running from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans. From each tower a watchman could send a signal of light—visible from the next tower—which then could be transmitted to the next tower, and so on. Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies had used a similar system in marching across Europe. Congress ultimately decided against the optical telegraph, but Morse’s son, Samuel F. B. Morse, would help to bridge distances with a different kind of telegraph in 1837.
Rise of the Press . The Post Office was crucial to spreading news. Some 70 percent of the mail’s weight was in newspapers, which were allowed to circulate for a very low rate. In the 1780s most newspapers had been trade sheets. They sold for about six cents a copy and were filled with advertisements, news of arriving ships, and accounts of foreign events that might influence markets. In the 1790s political papers developed, particularly in Philadelphia. The Gazette of the United States was launched in 1789 to present the American people with the Washington administration’s views and policies. The newspaper had competition from Benjamin Franklin Bache’s Philadelphia General Advertiser and from Philip Freneau’s National Gazette, which was subsidized by Jefferson and James Madison. During the “newspaper war” of 1792 these papers savagely attacked one another and the political figures they represented—not even George Washington was above criticism. These were national papers meant to circulate throughout the country, and local papers reprinted their views and stories. One Republican journalist, James Thomson Callender, suggested that all Republican papers share the same stories, which would be written in a central location. His idea did not take off at the time, but now most newspapers rely on shared “wire services” to fill their pages. These political papers did not entirely replace the business papers; by the early 1800s papers began covering both kinds of news. In most cases the news reported was national or international; these four-page papers did not usually give local news, since it was expected most people would learn about community affairs from their neighbors.
Constitutional Debate . James Madison had learned the value of public opinion in 1787. Jefferson in 1776 had written the Declaration of Independence with “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.” Madison in 1787 and 1788 had written with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay a series of essays to convince Americans to support the Constitution. Madison was a good writer, and his Federalist essays were convincing. The Constitutional debate, much more than the debate over independence, was a public, national debate, with people from across the country engaged in discussions on this important issue. The Federalist was just one of many voices ringing under a variety of pseudonyms: Americanus, An Old Whig, Philadelphiensis, Cato, Brutus, A Federal Farmer, A Columbian Patriot, Agrippa, An American. This public debate in the newspapers carried over into the state conventions. In fact, the state convention proceedings were covered by the local press, with daily debates reprinted in the papers of Philadelphia and Boston. This set the tone for coverage of proceedings in the new government when it met in New York. Accounts of debates in Congress filled the papers, and members of the government, such as John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, wrote essays for the press. Madison, too, in the 1790s contributed essays to the National Gazette. The U.S. government, Madison knew, rested on public opinion, and only by having an informed citizenry could the republic survive. The newspapers were not a perfect medium, but they were a useful one.
Magazines. Magazines were less successful than newspapers in reaching a broad audience. Publishers liked magazines because they were issued less frequently, included more material, and sold for a higher price. But the high price cut down on sales, and the Post Office Act of 1792, which allowed newspapers into the mail at a low price, required magazines to pay more, and this put some magazines out of business. Many magazines were begun in this period, but just as quickly as they began they disappeared. Magazines tended to contain a variety of material: some were religious, scientific, or historical, but most magazines presented a collection of seemingly unrelated themes, articles, and issues, as well as a mixture of prose and poetry, fiction and nonfiction. Their eclectic nature may have prevented their success.
Sedition Act . In 1798 the Federalist Congress, smarting under criticism from papers, passed the Sedition Act, making it a crime to criticize the president or Congress. Fourteen journalists were convicted of sedition and sent to jail for up to a year; this did not stop the criticism, however. Vice President Thomas Jefferson and James Madison secretly drafted resolutions passed by the Kentucky and Virginia legislatures calling the Sedition Act unconstitutional, both for violating the First Amendment and for assuming power in the federal government. Only the states could punish libel, Jefferson and Madison argued; a federal libel law was unconstitutional. Their view did not prevail at the time. However, the Sedition Act expired on 3 March 1801, the day before Jefferson became president. Under his administration the federal government would not punish libelers, but Jefferson did encourage the states to prosecute publishers who criticized the administration. Madison’s ideas on the role of newspapers were less restrictive.
Election of 1800 . Despite the Sedition Act, under which they were threatened with prosecution for criticizing the Adams administration, Republicans mobilized in 1800 to prepare for the election. James Madison was the key architect of the Republican victory, but he received crucial help from an unlikely source. Alexander Hamilton, the Federalists’ intellectual leader, had become dissatisfied with President John Adams. Hamilton was angry that Adams, who did not trust him, had fired two of Hamilton’s allies in the cabinet and was preparing to end the “Quasi War” with France. In the fall of 1800 Hamilton circulated a letter to influential Federalists, and possible presidential electors, arguing that Adams was not fit to be president and that instead of casting their electoral votes for Adams they should vote for Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. Adams, according to Hamilton, was too temperamental and emotional for the office. This private letter circulated among influential Federalists with minimal effect. In October Republican vice-presidential candidate Aaron Burr obtained a copy. Burr immediately saw the political value of a letter from the Federalists’ chief intellect denouncing the Federalist president, and saw that the letter was published in the newspapers and as a pamphlet. It created a sensation, but whether it influenced the election is hard to tell. The episode does reveal the different attitudes of the two political parties. For the Federalists political decisions were made by influential men; by circulating a letter to several dozen individuals, Hamilton planned to alter the course of history. For the Republicans political decisions were made by the people at large, and they could best be reached through the newspapers and through public debate.
War of 1812 . Communications were a crucial factor in the War of 1812. President Madison asked Congress to declare war against England because the British government insisted on impressing American sailors; five days after the United States declared war, England reversed its policy. By then it was too late; by the time news of the decision reached the United States the British and their Native American allies had captured Detroit, Fort Dearborn (present-day Chicago), and Michilimackinac Island, Michigan. Poor communication hindered the American war effort, as did a failure to set realistic goals. Many in New England opposed the war, particularly after the British blockaded the coast. In the late fall of 1814 England sent a large army to New Orleans. Meanwhile, delegates from the New England states met in Hartford, Connecticut, to discuss seceding from the union. On 5 January 1815 the delegates concluded their meeting and sent representatives to Washington, D.C., with a list of grievances and suggested changes to the Constitution. They reached the capital in February, but the New England delegates did not bring the only news to arrive that day. From Ghent, Belgium, came astonishing news that the war was over: on 24 December American negotiators and their British counterparts had agreed to a peace treaty on remarkable terms—neither side would lose any territory. Even more astonishing was the news that day from New Orleans: on 8 January the British army had been defeated by Gen. Andrew Jackson and a force of Kentucky and Tennessee militiamen, Choctaw and Cherokee warriors, New Orleans creoles, and Caribbean pirates. More than two thousand British soldiers were killed or wounded, while the Americans suffered only twenty-one casualties. It was an astounding victory, not less for coming after the war was over. The New England delegates quietly went home.
Changes. Madison recognized that the country needed a more sophisticated communication network. In his annual message at the end of 1815 he suggested that Congress consider building roads, canals, and other parts of a transportation infrastructure. Madison did not believe the Constitution gave Congress the power to do these things, but he advised Congress to propose an amendment that would allow the federal government to improve transportation and communication. On his last day in office, 4 March 1817, Madison was presented with an ambitious plan by Congress to build roads, bridges, and canals. But Congress had not amended the Constitution to allow it to do these things. Madison vetoed the bill. He believed in transportation, and knew the value of improved communication, but he feared the expansion of federal power. Nevertheless Madison left office marveling at the great changes in travel since he arrived at the scene of national government, then Philadelphia, in 1780 on a coach driven by a slave. In 1787 Madison and the other delegates to the Constitutional Convention had watched John Fitch demonstrate his prototype steamboat on the Delaware River. Fitch could not make a safe and efficient steamboat, but in the first decade of the nineteenth century other American inventors worked on the problem, and in 1817 James Madison left the presidency riding on a steamboat. This invention would cut the magnificent distances of the new republic and help keep Americans together as one nation.