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News, Technology, and National Progress

News, Technology, and National Progress

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Technology and Democracy . The technological development of American society in the first half of the nineteenth century inspired many newspapermen to idealize the role of communication and predict a new and glorious future for individuals as well as nations. New York editors such as James Gordon Bennett and Horace Greeley conceived of the newspaper as a force for good in America, promoting moral and civic virtue in its readers. In Massachusetts an idealistic editor also believed in the press, placing the newspaper and the rapid advancements in communication and transportation at the center of a new vision for humankind. Writing at the beginning of 1851, Samuel Bowles III, editor of the Springfield Republican, predicted a new community spirit based on new forms of human interaction. As Bowles put it, The railroad car, the steamboat, and the magnetic telegraph, have made neighborhood among widely severed States, and the Eastern Continent is but a few days journey away.These active and almost miraculous agencies have brought the whole civilized world in contact....

Bowless Vision . Bowles saw the powers of new communication and transportation as a liberalizing force promoting larger and more important issues over the petty interests, fuels, gossips and strifes of families and neighborhoods. A result of the new technologies, Bowles argued, would be a grand sense of oneness among all humanity. The wonderful extension of the field of vision; this compression of the human race into one great family, must tend to identify its interests, sympathies and motives. Not surprisingly for a newspaper editor, Bowles believed the newspaper was a chief instrument of this new, more humane vision of the world. His language was hyperbolic, but it was not unusual for a successful antebellum editor who had witnessed the ways electricity and steam power had transformed the American landscape. To Bowles and like-minded editors, newspapers were part of a more rational, more knowable world. The brilliant mission of the newspaper is not yet, and perhaps may never be, perfectly understood, he wrote. It is, and is to be, the high priest of History, the vitalizer of Society, the worlds great informer, the earths high censor, the medium of public thought and opinion, and the circulating life blood of the whole human mind. Echoing the libertarian ideology of European and American Enlightenment thinkers, Bowles also saw the press as a force for freedom and world peace. [The newspaper] is the great enemy of tyrants, and the right arm of liberty, and is destined, more than any other agency, to melt and mould the jarring and contending nations of the world into that one great brotherhood which, through long centuries, has been the ideal of the Christian and the philanthropist.

Every Abode . Bowles predicted that the popular dissemination of information and ideas would transform the average American. A few years more, he wrote, and a great thought uttered within sight of the Atlantic, will rise with the morrows sun and shine upon millions of minds by the side of the Pacific. The murmur of Asias multitudes will be heard at our doors; and laden with the fruit of all human thought and actions, the newspaper will be in every abode, and daily nourishment of every mind. For Bowles and many other nineteenth-century journalists, communication was powerful indeed, the very heart of a new and better human existence.

Source

Samuel Bowles, Springfield Republican, 4 January 1851, in Voices of the Past: Key Documents in the History of American Journalism, by Calder M. Pickett,(Columbus, Ohio: Grid, 1977), pp. 108109.

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