Abolition and the Press: The Moral Struggle against Slavery/Horace Greeley's New-York Tribune: Civil War-Era Socialism and the Crisis of Free Labor

By Dell'Orto, Giovanna | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Abolition and the Press: The Moral Struggle against Slavery/Horace Greeley's New-York Tribune: Civil War-Era Socialism and the Crisis of Free Labor


Dell'Orto, Giovanna, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


* Comparative Essay: The Editors

Abolition and the Press: The Moral Struggle Against Slavery. Ford Risley. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2008. 248 pp. $24.95 pbk.

Horace Greeley's New- York Tribune: Civil War-Era Socialism and the Crisis of Free Labor. Adam Tuchinsky. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009. 336 pp. $59.95 hbk.

The Civil War era continues to be one of the most prolific fields of study in journalism history. These two books significantly advance scholarship and teaching - one with a compact survey of the abolitionist press, a crucial early success in the history of American advocacy journalism, and the other with a detailed research monograph about Horace Greeley's socialism, an often glossed-over facet of one of the most influential U.S. editors.

Risley's survey, like many other volumes in the excellent Visions of the American Press series by the Medili School of Journalism, could be used as a textbook in an undergraduate or graduate class about the history of American journalism and of the advocacy press. Tuchinsky' s specialized subject is more appropriate for a graduate seminar, but it is a must-read for nineteenth-century media historians.

Despite their very different subject matter and approaches, both books at their core illuminate an essential aspect of nineteenth-century journalism: the role of editors in promoting social change and radical reforms, often against paralyzing odds. The journalists profiled in these volumes, working from either the fringes or the epicenter of the booming media landscape, firmly believed in shaping American public opinion, and in some essential cases, they unquestionably did. Reading these books in the twenty-first century, at a time of growing criticism of the relevance and independence of journalism as a social institution, readers can be inspired by finding evidence of the press' transformative power.

Risley has created an eminently readable survey of the abolitionist press from the 1820s to the 1860s, providing both page-turning detailed narratives and a broader feel for the complexity and diversity of this often-neglected journalistic activism.

As aptly summarized in Risley's conclusion, abolitionist editors, along with most of their counterparts in the commercial mainstream and the nascent African American presses, "believed passionately in the power of the printed word." Journalists as different as firebrand William Lloyd Garrison, colonization proponent Benjamin Lundy, and black rights activist Frederick Douglass all bet their life work, and often their very lives, on this belief and the related assumption that a rational informed citizenry is the best bulwark of democracy. If only Americans could be made to see - in print - how evil slavery was, they reasoned, they would revolt against it and the government would be forced to eradicate it. While Southern and Northern supporters of the slave system attacked the abolitionists as agitators aiming to overthrow the government, the editors kept beating their drums, firmly believing that, on the contrary, the right to criticize policies was fundamentally American.

Quoting heavily from the most influential of the approximately three dozen abolitionist newspapers founded in the Civil War era, Risley paints a compelling portrait of the editors' fight. He reminds the modern reader of just how radical their stance against slavery was in a country that then had "the most formidable slave economy in the Western world," and where the immediate emancipation of slaves was broadly considered "sheer fanaticism." From the humble beginnings of the Genius of Universal Emancipation in 1821 to the 1865 closing of the movement's iconic Liberator, Risley traces how the abolitionist press helped change American public opinion on slavery and, therefore, significantly shaped the country's future.

Risley, the head of the journaUsm department at Perm State University and a scholar of the Civil War press, manages to delve into minute portraits of compelling figures Uke Garrison - who "with his own hands proudly set the type" for the Emancipation Proclamation news - without losing track of that larger story. …

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