American Elections and Campaigns – 1800 to 1865: Politics in the Antebellum Press

Through the constant changes in American party politics, newspapers remained the preeminent medium of communicating complex thoughts in the 19th century. At the time, the majority of newspapers were either run by private businesses or political organizations. One of the earlier newspapers that was designed to support one specific president was the National Intelligencer. Established by Samuel Harrison Smith in 1800, the newspaper was the leading source of journalism about Thomas Jefferson’s administration in Washington, D.C., the newly-built capital city of the United States. The National Intelligencer went through several rebrandings over the decades after Jefferson left office, but its political affiliation remained largely unchanged. A major innovation of the newspaper at its height was that it was the first of its kind to publish complete transcripts of meetings held in Congress. Certain news groups with the same publishing goals would sometimes form corporate and political alliances, so as to have a wider range of prospective customers. The “Albany Regency” was one such example of this, as it was an early American political machine that featured several politicians and newspapers in the state of New York, all with the shared goal of supporting the presidential administration of Martin Van Buren.

Headline of October 1800 issue of “The National Intelligencer.” (Library of Congress)
Portrait photograph of Martin Van Buren, the eighth president of the United States and the founder of the “Albany Regency,” c. 1855. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

As newspapers became more powerful instruments of spreading political messages, the inner workings of the American press changed to reflect the times. While newer and more mechanized printing presses were producing newspapers faster than ever before, the pertinent challenge was making the mass-produced content engaging to read. James Gordon Bennet Sr. founded the New-York Herald in 1835. Bennet believed that the majority of newspapers were too formal in tone, and that their singular focus on politics alienated casual readers. In response to this observation, Bennet filled the Herald with sensationalized stories about life, sports, local events, and scandals of varying degrees of seriousness. While there never was any content that was explicitly political in the passages, the Herald was heavily in favor of Andrew Jackson’s presidential administration. The frequent praise of Jackson’s Bank of the United States, stories of Wall Street scandals, and the increasing reflections of anti-immigrant sentiments made the Herald feel more immediate and relevant to the general reading public. Bennet made the additional effort to use direct observations and quotations from witnesses to the reported events. This was meant to give a more romantic edge to the stories, rather than being strictly rooted in documentary evidence. The New-York Herald proved to be a massive success, and its sale for a single cent per copy helped establish the nickname of “penny press” in the American lexicon. More “penny press” publishers emerged out of the sudden success of Bennet’s Herald. The Picayune – founded in New Orleans in 1837 –  featured child-friendly reading materials and was the first major American newspaper to prominently feature content sections designed for women’s advice. Horace Greely’s The New York Tribune was introduced in 1841, its most popular features being its editorial sections, its political advocacy for both the Whig Party and the newly-formed Republican Party, and being one of the first major press organizations to openly condemn slavery and call for its abolition.

Group daguerreotype of the “New York Tribune” editorial staff, c. 1844. Horace Greeley is the man seated second from the right. (Library of Congress)

In the mid-19th century, American newspapers began to take a more sophisticated approach to reporting. George Jones and Henry Jarvis Raymond – the latter often called the “godfather of the Republican Party” – co-founded The New York Daily Times in 1851. Taking inspiration from The Times of London, Jones and Raymond’s new paper sought to combine the sophisticated writing style of British newspapers with the rigorous journalism and personal witness testimony of American newspapers. At the time of its inception, The New York Daily Times had the highest quality standards in reporting and writing. What also set the Times apart from others of the era was its promise to avoid sensationalist news reporting. Raymond specifically wrote in his debut issue that there were “few things in this world which it is worth while to get angry about,” and that they were “just the very things that anger will not improve.” The New York Daily Times was later rebranded as The New York Times, and is presently still in operation. Another New York-based newspaper company established around the same time was the Associated Press. Commencing its operations in 1846, the Associated Press was the result of a merger of several major news companies in New York City. These companies would collaborate to find and publish stories under the same overarching brand name to larger audiences, eliminating the need to rely on their smaller companies to find content. The Associated Press broke new ground for newspaper journalism by using the telegraph for faster communications, and using its own “pony express” network to deliver newspapers across the country. With these two new innovations being used, the Associated Press was able to cut the then-average news delivery time of weeks down to days, and even in some cases mere hours.

Debut issue of “The New York Daily Times” from September 1851. (Public Domain)
Portrait photograph of Henry Jarvis Raymond, co-founder of “The New York Daily Times.” (Library of Congress)
Painting of Abraham Lincoln speaking at the Old Main building at Knox College in Illinois, c. 1858. (Public Domain)

The increasing popularity and influence of newspaper companies in New York had a major impact on politics in the years before and during the American Civil War. Throughout the year 1858, Republican and Democratic presidential candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas engaged each other in debates on their prospective policy approaches. Specifically, the most pertinent issue of the debates was the proposed expansion of slavery into newly-acquired American lands in the Midwest and the Southwest. Douglas asserted that it should be a choice made by the new states to either allow or outlaw slavery within their borders, while Lincoln argued that the institution should not expand any further beyond the states in which it is already legal. Lincoln’s position on slavery was something that has been extensively scrutinized and interpreted by historians and political analysts for centuries, and was equally considered controversial for the time period. While Lincoln made efforts to clarify that he was not calling for the immediate emancipation of every slave living in the United States, his membership to the Republican Party – and close alliances with politicians and popular figures with views on slavery ranging from containment to full-scale abolition – made him a popular, if not polarizing, figure. As it related to the popular media of the time period, the Lincoln-Douglas debates were heavily-covered by the major news companies. Through the increased production of newspapers, the telegraph, and the expanding railroad networks, the most topical updates from the debates could be relayed from the stenographers at the debate site to the typesetters in the printing offices within a matter of hours. Lincoln’s popularity and national-recognition for the debates allowed him to earn the Republican Party’s nomination for president in the 1860 election cycle, whereupon he won the election and saw the Civil War break out in April 1861. From 1861 to 1865, support for Abraham Lincoln’s presidency – as well as the Union’s war effort against the secessionist Confederacy – was reflected in newspapers such as The New York Daily Times and The New York Tribune. The newly-formed Republican Party enjoyed support throughout the majority of the northern states, where a primary motivation was to expand further westward across the continent for farmland and industry. A more topical motivation of the war-time era was the containment of slavery, that being the desire to prevent its spread from branching any further beyond the southern states. Motivations for this position ranged from the “anti-slavery” goal of keeping the institution and its controllers out of the new American frontier lands, to the “abolitionist” desire to free the slaves and extend the Constitution’s rights and protections for them. These complex views on the future of slavery were all reflected in the Republican Party’s first generation of leaders, ranging from more moderate Republicans such as Abraham Lincoln, to “Radical Republicans” who demanded immediate emancipation such as Thaddeus Stevens. Newspapers in the northern states reflected these Republican views accordingly, where they would call for public support of the war effort, rally against slavery, and promote Lincoln’s re-election campaign in 1864. With the Civil War’s end in April 1865 – as well as the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery in December that same year – newspaper companies in the post-war United States were heavily entrenched in four years-worth of partisan divides. These divides would prove to be long lasting, going so far as to affect the electoral campaigns of both the Democratic and Republican parties through the remainder of the 19th century, and even into the early 20th century.

Thomas Nast political cartoon criticizing the Democratic Party’s platform in the 1864 election season, published in “Harper’s Weekly.” (University of Delaware)
Political poster from the National Union Party (war-time name for Republican Party) calling for Abraham Lincoln’s re-election, 1864. (Library of Congress)

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

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