Newspapers for Free: The Economies of Newspaper Circulation in the Early Republic

By Steffen, Charles G. | Journal of the Early Republic, October 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Newspapers for Free: The Economies of Newspaper Circulation in the Early Republic


Steffen, Charles G., Journal of the Early Republic


In a manner that astounded foreign observers and citizens alike, newspapers defined the new republic of the United States as did no other institution. By the 182Os roughly six hundred newspapers, including sixty big-city dailies, were being pulled off the nation's presses, a quantitative accomplishment in which editors took understandable pride.1 In 1814 Nathan Hale of the Boston Daily Advertiser wrote, "if we have any striking traits of national character, their origin may be clearly discerned in our universal relish for newspaper reading, and in the general character of the newspapers we read."2 While the London press could boast of its superiority in terms of "literary talent and mechanical execution," Hale and his brother printers countered by pointing to America's numerical preeminence: more newspapers, more subscribers, and more readers could be found in their nation than in any other.3 In 1810 Isaiah Thomas, the first historian of American journalism and a former editor, estimated that the United States published about twenty-two million papers annually, compared to twenty-one million for Great Britain and Ireland.4 Eleven years later the Essex Register of Salem, Massachusetts, put the number for the United States at eighty million, substantially above the fifty-six million papers produced in England, Scotland, and Ireland. In 1824 William Coleman of the New York Evening Post reported that the annual production of newspapers in his state exceeded that for all of England. He believed there were two newspapers published in the United States for every one in England, Scotland, and Ireland combined. If the number of newspapers published drew editorial comment, so too did the number of newspapers read. In 1821 Joseph Gales of the quasi-official Daily National Intelligencer guessed that the United States had 350,000 newspaper subscribers and 1.5 million newspaper readers.5 In other words, one of seven Americans read a newspaper for free. These nonpaying readers were both agents and beneficiaries of a massive giveaway that helped democratize the culture of print. This essay addresses a central question implicit in Gales's numbers: how were newspapers transformed from everyday commodities into a form of public property?

The quantitative explosion of newspaper circulation at the opening of the nineteenth century signaled a major transformation in the relationship between the public and the news. With an intensity that would have astounded their colonial forebears, Americans of the early national period came to believe that access to the news, and therefore to newspapers, was their birthright. This new sense of entitlement sprang from the confluence of two ideological currents that have often been treated as if they ran in opposite directions. The ideology of republicanism stressed the importance of a well-informed citizenry.6 Because newspapers had no rival as an instrument of general enlightenment and a primer of civic values, didactic republicans had special reason to regard them as "the book of the people." The ideology of liberalism attached equal significance to the well-informed consumer.7 Newspapers contained information that Americans needed in order to make intelligent decisions about the enticing new world of consumer goods opening before them. Recent scholars have demonstrated that republican and liberal impulses, far from working at cross purposes, could produce a shared political vocabulary of sufficient flexibility to blur differences in meaning. Thus the "virtue" required to sustain a liberal republic might be understood as either the citizen's capacity to sacrifice for the common good or the "economic self-restraint" that consumers were called upon to exercise in the ultimate den of temptations, the marketplace.8 Whether legitimated by republican representations of the enlightened citizen or by liberal constructions of the enlightened consumer, newspapers came to be seen as an indispensable entre to modern, democratic life. …

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