Essay: The history of newspapers in the US

The United States political structure transformed from loosely organized states to a strong central government with a strong constitution. In America’s early years of independence, the two dominant political parties that contested for power were Federalism and Republicanism. Federalists advocated a strong central government while Republicans favored less centralization and more power for states. Federalist and the country’s second President, John Adams, pushed for the Alien and Sedition Acts to silence newspapers that opposed the Federalist Administration. It embodies the notion of ‘patriotism to write in favor of our government; it is sedition to write against it’ (Copeland, 151). Newspapers could help or hurt people in an office since it had a great influence on the public. Literacy rates surpassed ninety percent in some regions of the United States by 1800. The popularity of newspapers and other forms of print reflected the attractiveness of public debate. However, writers faced certain risks when publishing their work because it may land them in trouble with certain groups. As a result, writers resorted to anonymity, which protected writers from defamation charges and reflected a pledge to a cause, rather than an appeal to a personal agenda (Copeland, 141). Interestingly, the author points out that certain news were published to avoid controversy in the colonies (Copeland, 142). I agree with the claim to a degree because the extensive circulation of the newspaper gave way to debate and discussion, people would discuss what was on the news. However, if the state or whoever controls the press, they can choose what contents can be printed to control the debates in public spheres. The 1750s was engulfed by the French and Indian War, and it lead newspapers to increase coverage of local, trans-colonial and international events that had an effect on America. Also, the debate concerning the enactment of the Constitution and Bill of Rights between 1787 and 1791 drove the growth of newspapers farther. To obtain news people in the colonies would attend taverns to borrow newspapers that recently arrived in a town or listen to someone read the paper out loud (Copeland, 143). Congress authorized the Secretary of the Sate to select newspapers to publish the latest resolutions it passed. By 1799, it ordered that at least one newspaper in each state. Newspapers allowed individuals at all levels of society to become part of the public sphere and ‘join in debate of issues bearing on state authority’ (Copeland, 144). People wrote letters to publishers regarding an article or any topic of discussion and sometimes their letters were published in the newspaper. Copeland also mentions that in colonial America the phrase ‘Printed by Authority’ appeared in the paper’s nameplate indicated that newspapers needed a license from the colonial government to publish news. However, this licensing never stopped those without permits from printing. By 1760, increases in sales meant that printers did not need a government contract to produce a profitable newspaper. The daily newspaper made its debut in the colonies in 1783. Before that, most papers were published on a weekly basis. As America’s population grew, and the economy strengthened, political issues became the central focus of opinion in newspapers (Copeland, 145). The press sought to influence the country’s managing of its international affairs by supporting causes and urging adoption of political action. It was then considered as an architect of political culture and an agenda-setter for public debate (Copeland, 146). As the number of newspapers thrived during the early nineteenth century, so did their level of political affiliation. For example, in 1808, out of 329 newspapers in the United States, only fifty-six were not aligned with a political party (Copeland, 149). Affiliation to a political party in power meant that newspapers could incentives from the party in power. Some of those incentives include government printing contracts and political office. Patronage was a hefty source of income for newspapers.
Furthermore, the establishment of institutions of learning and a printing press were objectives of the settlers (Thomas, 4). Presses and printers in the colonies were sent over from England but for religious purposes, which was spreading the gospel among the Native American in the colonies (Thomas, 5). Similar to Copeland’s discussion of licensing to print newspapers. Thomas takes a more in-depth analysis, where he gives the reader a specific state (Massachusetts). According to the author, in 1664, Massachusetts passed a law concerning the publication of contents. “No printing should be allowed in any towns within the jurisdiction, expect in Cambridge; nor should anything be printed but what the government permitted’ (Thomas, 6). The author also mentions that offenders against the 1664 law were to forfeit their presses to the country and to be stripped of the privilege of printing. What is eye-opening in Thomas’s work is how colonial authorities chose to keep people in ignorance. For example, in the colony of Virginia decided it was best not to allow public schools, nor to allow the use of the press. In doing so, they kept the people unaware, so they can be more obedient to the laws, to prevent them from causing political unrest, and prevent heresy (Thomas, 7).
Indeed Uribe’s The Birth of a Public Sphere claims that the development of a legitimate public sphere in New Spain was obstructed by the absence of printed news and the lack of a literate population (Uribe, 425). From 1760 to 1800 a new feeling of equity emerged, and the rejection of public powers based on privilege, status, or tradition became the dominant paradigm. ‘Capitalists’ and ‘scholars’ were groups that developed new institutions of sociability which made it possible for individuals to gather, critique, and ultimately mold ‘public opinion’ to influence State policies. Members of such societies were more knowledgeable about American and French revolutionary events, intellectual debates, enlightened ideas, and modern scientific doctrines. In addition, some men launched scientific expeditions, academic and literary groups, and newspapers in the colonies (Uribe, 437). Interestingly, Venezuelan Francisco Miranda organized a secret society of Spanish Americans in London to promote the independence of the Spanish colonies. Individuals later active in the liberation movements in the Americas were initiated in Masonic groups during their time in the European continent. For example, General Simon Bolivar joined the French Masons in 1804. With that, the public sphere was created and expanded New Spain. Colonial regimes in Spanish and Portuguese America tried hinder any open discussion of or participation in politics and policymaking. Such efforts made possible by eliminating printing presses and political organizations (Uribe, 427). As with Freemasonry, tertulias were accused of heresy where they questioned the divine right of monarchs and charged with advocating popular sovereignty and the need to free the colony from Spanish tyranny (Uribe, 430).
Therefore, in Guerra’s work, An Alternative to Modernity, societies are presented as a place to think and share ideas; to arrive at a collective opinion (Guerra, 6). Most importantly, the author discusses tertulias. They were the first form of modern sociability similar to the ‘salon’ in France. Nobles, officials or the bourgeoisie assembled at such places to discuss an array of topics such as literature, science, or religious issue (Guerra, 9). Additionally, Guerra does talk about other societies that are somewhat similar to the tertulias. The numbers of such societies were about one hundred in Spain and a dozen in the Americas. Interestingly, several of the peninsular economic societies were connected to the Spanish Crown. Spain promoted some of the societies to exemplify enlightened despotism and show that such societies can coincide with the Crown and not result in an all-out overthrow of rule like in France. In a way, the authorities wanted to show that such societies did not pose a threat to the state. However, Guerra mentions that in America, the role of the State as a supportive motor was missing (Guerra, 21). The absence of support was interpreted by many people in New Spain as a sign that the crown was uninterested in them (Guerra, 22). Guerra points out that in Mexico, the extent of literacy due to an abundant circulation of printed sources facilitated for progressive ideas of the elite to travel faster to the masses and provoke very strong reactions of rejection. However, from my understanding, Mexico did not have numerous newspapers or high literacy. In Copeland’s America 1750, he mentions that America experienced an expansion of newspaper circulation and publishing along with high literacy rates. With that, the spread of progressive ideas is much easier and faster than in a place that lacked such qualities. Guerra explains that the spread of liberal ideas in Mexico is demonstrated by the Independence of Mexico and Father Hidalgo, who he was able to mobilize indigenous communities (Guerra, 27). According to Guerra, public space was formed not just by the press, but also by the abundance of books, and enlightened practices.

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