The Press of the Young Republic, 1783-1833.

The Press of the Young Republic, 1783-1833. – book reviews

Andrew Cayton

The Press of the Young Republic, 1783-1833. By Carol Sue Humphrey. (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996. Pp. xvi, 182. $59.95.)

Newspapers were few and far between in the United States in the 1780s but their numbers had expanded to 1200 (including 88 dailies) by 1833. Technological and organizational improvements fueled much of this growth. More important was the rapidly growing demand for news and the burgeoning interest of ordinary people in the consumption of information. As America increased in population and Americans migrated to frontiers and cities in unprecedented numbers, many became more involved in long-distance commercial transactions and needed more and different kinds of information.

Carol Sue Humphrey carefully charts the transformation of newspaper concerns from one- or two-person operations serving partisan political purposes to managed organizations whose primary business was to provide “news and information to readers” (xiv). In the 1790s, editors were often little more than hired political hacks; by the 1830s, they were becoming professional managers whose goal was to transmit as much information as possible (much of it nonpartisan) to as many people as possible at the lowest possible cost.

Humphrey has read extensively in the newspapers and magazines of the period. People unfamiliar with politics and society in the early American republic will welcome her extensive quotations from editors on the great political events of the day, her discussions of the relationships between presidents and newspapermen, and her brief accounts of the careers of some of the more prominent figures. Her work is solid history.

It is also, alas, quite unimaginative history. Scholars who study the early republic will find much of Humphrey’s information familiar. Had she chosen to spend more time on the actual workings of a newspaper office or the role of the press in society as a whole, the book might have been more interesting. Unfortunately, she constructs her narrative around the major political events from the ratification of the Constitution to the election of Andrew Jackson and spends most of it discussing editors’ opinions of, or roles in, controversies over such important national issues as the Sedition Act. Rarely does she place the role of newspapers into larger contexts or discuss the significance of the press in the world beyond politics.

Admittedly, the early newspapers were driven by partisanship. But as Richard D. Brown, Richard John, and other scholars have suggested, their impact went well beyond the discourse of politics. Many newspapers published poetry, gothic stories, and sentimental tales. They were full of information about the weather and natural phenomena. Humphrey devotes no attention to these topics or to any consideration of audience. Most surprising is her silence on the subject of advertising, which was important not only financially but culturally.

Even in the 1790s, newspapers were more complex than Humphrey’s emphasis on politics would suggest. Her simple equation of newspapers in the early republic with partisan rhetoric unfortunately limits the significance of her book.

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