Democracy and Idealism in an Expanding Nation

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Democracy and Idealism in an Expanding Nation


The Press and the Public Good . The role of the newspapers in a democratic society was an important issue in the antebellum era, when the American experiment was new and the institutions of popular democracy were not yet fully formed. The press was one of these institutions, a private undertaking that had public responsibilities. How would the press use its power? Would it help or hinder the growth of democracy? No less than Alexis de Tocqueville, the French observer of early-nineteenth-century America, realized that newspapers did more than simply report the news. In Tocquevilles analysis the press was an effective instrument of democracy, providing individual citizens with a way to organize and make their voices heard. Thus newspapers, along with the voluntary associations Americans seemed so fond of organizing, worked together to address social problems and create a more responsive government. This was especially true in an expanding nation organized around local governments; a steady stream of newly organized towns, cities, and counties were both a challenge and an opportunity for enterprising journalists.

New York Tribune, 18 February 1854

Horace Greeley, popular editor of the New York Tribune, was a leading supporter of the Homestead Act (1862), which Greeley believed would offer land and hope for the urban poor:

Make the Public Lands free in quarter-sections to Actual Settlers and deny them to all others, and earths landless millions will no longer be orphans and mendicants; they can work for the wealthy, relieved from the degrading terror of being turned adrift to starve. When employment fails or wages are inadequate, they may pack up and strike westward to enter upon the possession and culture of their own lands on the banks of the Wisconsin, the Des Moines, or the Platte, which have been patiently awaiting their advent since creation. Strikes to stand still will be glaringly absurd when every citizen is offered the alternative to work for others or for himself, as to him shall seem most advantageous. The mechanic or labor who works for another will do so only because he can thus secure a more liberal and satisfactory recompense than he could by working for himself.

Tocquevilles View of the Press. Tocqueville was amazed at the zeal with which Americans organized themselves into voluntary, nongovernmental associations. In the United States, he wrote, associations are established to promote the public safety, commerce, industry, morality, and religion. There is no end which the human will despairs of attaining through the combined power of individuals united in a society. In a society without an aristocracy and where individual equality was the ideal, newspapers allowed private citizens to come

together for the public good. Newspapers make associations and associations make newspapers, Tocqueville wrote, recognizing the partisan and varied nature of the antebellum press. A newspaper therefore always represents an association whose members are its regular readers. This association may be more or less strictly defined, more or less closed, more or less numerous, but there must at least be the seed of it in mens minds, or otherwise the paper would not survive, he wrote. In a new country, in an expanding nation, Tocqueville concluded, democracy needed newspapers: We should underrate their importance if we thought they just guaranteed liberty; they maintain civilization.

Principles versus Profits . Tocquevilles view of the press was too idealistic. Newspapers did allow people to organize and act together to build an effective local democracy, but not all editors were as interested in democracy as Tocqueville; some were quite a bit more practical and self-serving, using their papers to boost their communities and enrich themselves even as they justified their profits in the name of high ideals. In short, antebellum journalism attracted both idealists and capitalists though these categories were often intermingled in the journalistic philosophy of individual editors. One such contradictory figure was James Gordon Bennett, the ambitious and controversial founder of the New York Herald. Bennett brought a new editorial energy to New York journalism in the 1830s, a drive for news that influenced many an enterprising editor. Bennett was outlandish and often crudequalities that made the New York Herald sensational and enormously popular with readersbut his journalistic vision was lofty. My ambition is to make the newspaper Press the great organ and pivot of government, society, commerce, finance, religion, and all human civilization. Following that philosophy, Bennett was an apostle of a greater America, using his editorial voice to push for Western expansion and the subjugation of Indians, Mexicans, and others who threatened the dominance of the United States in North America. For Bennett and many other nineteenth-century editors and readers, there was no contradiction between imperialism and democratic idealism. To these Americans, Western expansion meant the extension of liberty across the continent, the spread of Enlightenment values and progressive ideas to more primitive and less fortunate peoples. In this nation-building process American journalists believed they were serving the greater good by proclaiming the virtues of civilization and justifying the dispossession of those people and forces who stood in the path of progress. And if such positions attracted readers and helped the New York Herald prosper, so much the better. Bennett, far more than Tocqueville, made clear that journalism best served those people already committed to the dominant ideas of early-nineteenth-century America.

The Liberator. If Bennett was more interested in profit than principles, William Lloyd Garrison represented the other end of the journalistic spectrum. Garrison was a man with a missionthe abolition of slaveryand journalism was his weapon of choice. Garrison founded The Liberator in 1831, using the first issue to thank God for the ability to speak his truth in its simplicity and power. Like Tocqueville, Garrison was idealistic about the role of journalism, believing that through discussion and debate the truth would conquer error, and slavery would fall. To this end Garrison opened the pages of The Liberator to his opponents, confident that Gods ideas would triumph over falsity. For Garrison, then, the purpose of journalism extended well beyond the pursuit of profits and a superficial commitment to democratic ideals. Garrison believed that the public exchange of ideas was the essence of journalism. The Liberator, in fact, was at the center of an ongoing conversation among readers about abolition and slavery, including ideas Garrison himself found abominable. Yet Garrison never lost faith, publishing The Liberator for thirty-five years, long enough to see the end of slavery. In the end Garrisons career fulfilled Tocquevilles vision of democratic journalism. The core audience of The Liberator formed a loose association of like-minded individuals, people intent on ridding America of its most evil institution. In this noble calling, Gods truth was the editors goal, and it could be reached, Garrison believed, through free inquiry. Yet in the first half of the nineteenth century most journalists followed Bennetts path, not Garrisons. Perhaps the fact that they did so is not so surprising. After all, American newspapers operated in a free-market economy. They were businesses first, crusaders second. Moral crusades in newspapers, if they came at all, came when editors could please readers or turn a profit. In an industrializing market economy where growth and expansion were hallmarks of the age, even Garrison and other crusading editors could not eliminate widespread prejudice and discrimination.


David Paul Nord, Tocqueville, Garrison and the Perfection of Journalism, Journalism History, 13 (Summer 1986): 5663.

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Democracy and Idealism in an Expanding Nation

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