Debating the Issues in the Antebellum Press: Primary Documents on Events from 1820 to 1860

Debating the Issues in the Antebellum Press: Primary Documents on Events from 1820 to 1860

Debating the Issues in the Antebellum Press: Primary Documents on Events from 1820 to 1860

Debating the Issues in the Antebellum Press: Primary Documents on Events from 1820 to 1860


Firsthand accounts offer students, scholars, or anyone interested in the pivotal period preceding the Civil War a look at how America's press covered important national issues and events of the day, from the passage of the Missouri Compromise through John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. Using editorials, letters, essays, and news reports that appeared throughout the country, Copeland reveals how editors, politicians, and other Americans used the press to influence opinion. These are the primary documents that displayed the pulse of the nation.

Issues such as abolition, education, and women's rights are discussed along with important events such as the nullification crisis of 1832, the Mexican War, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Each of the 29 chapters introduces an event or issue and includes news articles that represented various American opinions. These introductory essays and primary-source documents illustrate how newspapers and magazines presented matters of great national import, in an age when the opinions of the press frequently in influenced broad American sentiment and action.


As the eighteenth century was giving way to the nineteenth, the Columbian Centinel of Boston, quoting a wise judge in its January 1, 1799, issue said, “Give to any set men the command of the press, and you give them the command of the country, for you give them the command of public opinion, which commands everything.” One month later, Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison with a similar insight. “We are sensible,” Jefferson said of the efforts it would take to put their party-the Republicans—in power, “The engine is the press.”

Both writers were correct in their assessment of the role the press would play in American life in the years ahead. The press was already helping to shape the opinions and direction of America. It had been doing so for decades, but its influence would erupt following the Revolutionary War and would continue into the 1920s and farther. From less than forty newspapers in 1783—each with circulations of around 500—the number of papers gready increased in the United States. By 1860, newspaper circulation exceeded 1 million, and in 1898, Joseph Pulitzer’s World alone had a daily circulation of 1.3 million. By the beginning of World War I, about 16,600 daily and weekly newspapers were published, and circulation figures surpassed 22.5 million copies per day, with no slowdown in circulation in sight. Magazines grew even more impressively. From around five at the end of the Revolution, journalism historian Frank Luther Mott counted 600 in 1860, and a phenomenal 3,300 by 1885. Some circulations surpassed 1 million, and the number of magazines continued to grow into the twentieth century.

The amazing growth of the press happened because the printed page of periodicals assumed a critical role in the United States. Newspapers and magazines became the place where Americans discussed and debated the issues that affected them. Newspapers, editors, and citizens took sides, and they used the press as the conduit for discussion. The Debating Historical Issues in the Media of the Time series offers a glimpse into how the press was used by Americans to shape and influence the major events and issues fac-

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