Understanding Frederick Douglass: Toward a New Synthesis Approach to the Birth of Modern American Journalism

Article excerpt

Toward a New Synthesis Approach to the Birth of Modern American Journalism

To discover how much the field of journalism history is in need of a fundamental revision, thumb through the indices of all the usual suspects and look up references to Frederick Douglass. It is no exaggeration to say that you will find that nearly all the standard journalism histories fail to place him in the context of nineteenth century political reality.1 The corollary is true, too: mainstream histories can help us understand his politics but fail to explain his journalism. This article argues that a synthesis of journalism and mainstream histories can bring Douglass in particular, and the field of antebellum journalism in general, to a more intellectually challenging and historically relevant plane. This is to say that we need to develop a new approach to the journalism of the Jacksonian age and that this approach must be rooted in the strengths of both journalism history and American history.

To this end, I have looked at how Douglass in particular and nonpartisanship in general are viewed in the synthesis studies of journalism and mainstream history. I have also surveyed many smaller works in article and monograph form, which I refer to in the course of this study, but my main focus will be on the synthesis histories.

The first time Douglass was mentioned in a book about American journalism was probably in Frederic Hudson's Journalism in the United States, from 1690 to 1872. Hudson's single mention of Douglass was, "the New Era . . . is edited by Frederick Douglass."2 In 1920, George Payne noted that "it was not the white man alone" who practiced journalism, and mentioned "Frederick Douglas [sic]."3 Though these early references were scant, Douglass fared worse in later histories: Willard Bleyer (Main Currents in the History of American Journalism) and Michael Schudson (Discovering the News) did not mention Douglass at all.4 The first assessment of Douglass' work in a journalism textbook may have been a brief mention by Mott in 1962: "The ablest of all [`Negro publications'] was Frederick Douglass' North Star, founded in Rochester, New York, in 1847."5

Four recent journalism history books went further than the rest in their coverage of Douglass. The eighth edition of Emery, Emery, and Roberts' The Press and America cited Douglass as a "symbol of black achievement and inspiration" and recounted the various adversities that he had to overcome.6 Mitchell Stephens, in his second edition of A History of News, took a similar approach. Stephens told how Douglass' house was destroyed and his papers burned by mobs, how he taught himself to read, and how he rose to greatness. Douglass "became an eloquent crusader against slavery," wrote Stephens.7 Douglass' life and work were discussed in more detail in the latest edition of Folkerts and Teeters Voices ofa Nation and in William Huntzicker's The Popular Press: 1833-1865. These two went into greater depth on Douglass' life than any other journalism history synthesis read for this study.8 I will discuss these books again later in this article.

The broad outline of the above historiography suggests that our understanding of Douglass has gone through two stages and may be entering a third. The first stage was simply neglect. Douglass was not viewed as important in the history of American journalism. We may explain some of the earlier sins of omission by placing them in the context of their time, as did Arthur Schlesinger Jr. when he looked back at his own Age of Jackson, published in the 1940s: "When I wrote The Age of Jackson," said Schlesinger, "the predicament of women, of blacks, or Indians was shamefully out of mind."9 Douglass was nowhere to be found in Schlesinger's book either.

The second phase, in which most journalism histories are firmly planted, is that of inclusion and accommodation. If Douglass, as I will argue, is useful in understanding the history of his day and is a central figure in nineteenth century journalism, then he should certainly be included in our histories. …