CHAPTER FIVE: THE NATCHEZ PRESS: CULTURE, VALUES, ECONOMICS
"But for the Sir Walter disease, the character of the Southerner — or Southron, according to Sir Walter's starchier way of phrasing it — it would be wholly modern, in place of modern and mediæval mixed, and the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is . . . Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war." - Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, 1883
"Looked through Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Mrs. Beecher Stowe. That book is womanish & I am afraid absurdly unprincipled; written by a woman clearly. I feel like I am the man for times coming." - Henry Hughes, The Diary of Henry Hughes of Port Gibson, 1852
"I consider that you have impeached my character. I demand satisfaction." - Courier editor Milford Prewett, to Free Trader editor T.A.S. Doniphan, published in the Courier on October 18, 1843
"[T]he very things necessary to the overthrow of American slavery, were left undone, while those essential to its prosperity were continued in the most active operation; so that, now, after more than a thirty years' war, we may say, emphatically, COTTON IS KING, and his enemies are vanquished." - David Christy, Slavery in the Light of Political Economy, 1860
The newspapers of Natchez served a number of purposes beyond the political, and at times, the political functions of the newspapers played a very minor role. Any attempt to document or analyze all of the purposes of the antebellum press would require a much larger work than this paper. However, the material in the Natchez newspapers covered a variety of subjects and served a number of purposes beyond those that have been examined in previous chapters. Two of the topics chosen for further examination, values and economics, display distinct characteristics of the southern way of life. The stringent demands of southern honor burrowed into every aspect of southern life. The subject of values permeates almost every other topic under discussion. Every attitude and opinion became a personal badge of honor, disagreements led to insults, and affairs of honor resulted, in which southern gentlemen defended their honor on a dueling field. The southerner considered any attack on slavery as an attack on his way of life. Slavery had to be justified and defended by any and every rationalization possible. Slavery, culture, economics, politics and values became inextricably mixed, and this mix shows up in the Mississippi press in a number of ways.
However, to be clear, it should be pointed out that southerners had interests beyond honor, slavery and cotton. The southern press, to reach as many readers as possible, had to appeal to other interests beyond politics and economics. More than a frontier, party or slave press, southern newspapers also included a wide range of material on oddities, entertainment, and culture that did not reflect a particularly southern orientation. For example, the following story, taken from a New England newspaper, appeared in the Daily Courier in the summer of 1854:
"We learn from the Providence (R.I.) Journal, of the 6th inst., that the large elephant attached to the Broadway menagerie got loose from his keeper on the way from Pawtucket to Fall River, early yesterday morning. Before starting, his keeper made him lift the binder part of a wagon, loaded with 3500 pounds for the purpose of getting it into line. It is supposed that this, although not unusual, might have suggested to him the mode of attack which he adopted afterwards. When about seven miles from Pawtucket, he got free from the control of his keeper, and meeting a horse and wagon, belonging to Mr. Stafford Short, he thrust his tusk into the horse and lifted horse, wagon and rider into the air. He mangled the horse terribly and carried him about fifty feet, and threw the dead body into a pond. The wagon was broken to pieces, and Mr. Short considerably hurt. The elephant broke one of his enormous tusks in this encounter. A mile further the elephant, now grown more furious, attacked in the same manner a horse and wagon and wounded the horse, with Mr. Thomas W. Peck and his son. He broke the wagon and wounded the horse, which ran away. Mr. Peck was pretty badly hurt in the hip.
While the keepers were engaged in securing the smaller elephant, who had not, however, manifested any signs of insubordination, the larger one got off from them, and went on through Barneyville, when Mr. Mason Barney and another man mounted their horses and kept on the track as near to him as was prudent, giving warning of the danger to the passengers whom they met on the way. The elephant would occasionally turn to look at them, but did not attempt to molest them.
The next man in the path was Mr. Pearce, who was riding with his little son in a one-horse wagon. He was coming towards the elephant, and being warned by Mr. Barney, turned around and put the horse to his speed, but the elephant overtook him and seizing the wagon, threw it into the air, dashing it to pieces and breaking the collar bone and arm of Mr. Pearce. The horse, disengaged from the wagon, escaped with the fore wheels, and the elephant gave chase for eight miles, but did not catch him. The elephant came back from his unsuccessful pursuit and took up his march again on the main road, where he next encountered Mr. Jabez Eddy, with a horse and wagon. He threw up the whole establishment in the same way as before, smashing the wagon, killed the horse and wounded Mr. Eddy. He threw the horse twenty feet over a fence into the adjoining lot, then broke down the fence, went over and picked up the dead horse and deposited him in the road, where he had first met him.
He had killed one other horse and pursued another, who fled to a barn. The elephant followed, but at the door was met by a fierce bull dog, which bit his leg and drove him off.
Once on the route, the keeper being ahead of him, saw him plunge over a wall and make for a house. The keeper got into the house first, hurried the frightened people within to the upper story, and providing himself with an axe, succeeded in driving off the furious beast.
The elephant finally exhausted his strength, and laid himself down in the bushes, about two miles from Slade’s Ferry. Here he was secured with chains and carried over the ferry to Fall River. A part of the time he ran at the rate of a mile in three minutes." (1)
This story fascinates modern audiences as it must have sparked the interest of the Rhode Island editor who originally included it in his paper and, later, the Natchez editor who reprinted it. Nothing particularly southern characterizes this story, and many other items from this period simply convey interesting tales of other nations, extraordinary people and exotic animals. Throughout the period being studied, newspaper editors often included unusual stories, such as the "Monstrous Negro" mentioned in the Weekly Courier and Journal in 1843. This four-year-old male slave had died in Louisville. The article claimed that the boy had achieved a height of four feet, one inch. At the age of one year, "he began developing in a manner that excited the astonishment of all who saw him. His hair grew with surprising rapidity over his entire body and face, giving him whiskers and beard, as luxuriant as an adult." He could lift 200 pounds. (2) Another oddity rated several articles in the fall of 1817 when the Washington Republican reported a sea serpent had been sighted near Boston, and the paper even reprinted a poem dedicated to the creature in a Boston paper. (3)
Another story that reads like it came from a modern supermarket tabloid claims that mammoths may have lived in North America until the middle of the 1700s. Titled "MAMMOTH," the 1818 article claimed to be from a letter written by an Indian agent at Fort Wayne in Indiana. "This country affords more recent remains of the Mammoth than any other . . . If any reliance can be placed upon the reports or traditions of the Indians, it is not more than 70 or 80 years since they last existed." The author claimed that Indians had brought molars to him with food still on them, and they offered to take him to the rest of the skeleton. The Indians claimed to know the habits of the creature: ". . . he did not lie down . . . he rested leaning against a tree. His food soft wood, of which he eats the whole tree." (4)
The general newspaper-reading public must have been interested in less lurid accounts of the world, as newspaper editors certainly devoted space to science and history. On January 5, 1838, the Free Trader printed a lecture on the "Great Superiority of the Ancients" about Pompeii. In the 1840s, Natchez newspapers published many short articles about the exploration of the Arctic, including many articles about the tragic Franklin expedition of 1845 and the long and dramatic search for survivors. (5)
In June 1843, the Free Trader devoted two full columns to John Lloyd Stephens's Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, discussing some of Stephens's conclusions about the history of the many ancient and ruined Mayan cities he visited in southeastern Mexico: "They were the creation of the races who inhabited the country at the time of the Spanish conquest or of their not very remote progenitors." (6) The article then expanded on this theme, explaining Stephens's evidence: writings of the Spaniards; wooden artifacts that remained in good shape, indicating a comparatively recent date for the civilizations; the indigenous people identified the cities as the homes of their ancestors; and the use of symbols associated with the ruins all across North America. "Passing by all the other evidences of the identity of the race of those who built these wonderful cities . . . with the wandering and degraded beings who now serve the Spaniards as menials, we come to one which is certainly sufficient of itself to convince the most skeptical. It is the print of the red hand upon the wall of almost every house or palace in every town, city or village explored. This the Indians said was the hand of the master of the house." The article claimed that Stephens confirmed that the red hand symbol could be found among many of the tribes of North America "and the red hand is seen constantly upon the buffalo robes and skins of wild animals brought in from the rocky mountains, and, in fact, it is a symbol recognized and in common use among the North American Indians of the present day." The author of the Free Trader analysis concluded that Stephens had successfully presented his case "that the builders of these cities were the immediate progenitors of the inhabitants of the country at the time of the Spanish conquest, and the forefathers of the present degraded race that now inhabits that country." (7)
Advertising in Natchez newspapers also provides clues to some of the diversions and entertainments of the people of the area. The newspapers distributed information about plays, races and clubs, as well as other uncommon entertainment. The Mississippi Herald of 1806 advertised Mr. Rannie, a ventriloquist from Europe who "will give a display of his various and unparalleled performances of extraordinary powers of ventriloquism . . . Mr. Rannie will imitate almost every kind of Birds and Beasts, in a manner that words cannot express." Mr. Rannie performed at the City Tavern and admittance cost one dollar. (8)
The same issue advertised an African lion, which could be viewed on a boat at Natchez-Under-the-Hill. The animal could not be viewed in Natchez proper because "the Den of the Lion is so particularly constructed that it would be absolutely necessary to take the boat entirely to pieces to remove him." Within a few years, the newspapers advertised whole menageries and circuses to entertain the people of Natchez. In 1837, the Free Trader printed a large ad with tempting graphics, promising elephants, hyenas, zebras, camels, llamas, quaggas, buffaloes and "THE UNICORN, OR ONE HORNED RHINOCEROS." In December the following year, the Free Trader announced the imminent arrival of H. Ludington's circus, which included the 12-piece Lafayette Band in addition to bears, camels, panthers, jaguars, lions, badgers, a Bengal tiger and an elephant. An ad page from November 1851 announced two circuses, Dan Rice's Circus and Spalding, Rogers & Orden's People's Circus, "Equestrian, Dramatic and Zoological, Circus, Theatre and Menagerie!"
The Natchez newspapers also kept readers informed of the latest developments in literature, and frequently printed poems and fiction. Local poetry appeared occasionally. Motivated by patriotism as well as literary interest, the Washington Republican published the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner" on October 26, 1814, a few weeks after Francis Scott Key composed it. The editors of these newspapers also printed the latest news on the most recent works of writers such as Washington Irving, Charles Dickens and Sir Walter Scott. (9) Editors sometimes published selections from prominent writers. The Mississippi Republican printed Irving's "Tale of Rip Van Winkle" in two parts in the winter of 1820, and the Free Trader printed selections from The Pickwick Papers in January 1838.
Discussions of literature could assume an unfavorable or political tone. An article in the Courier of August 9, 1843, expressed anger at Charles Dickens for sections of Martin Chuzzlewit, which portrayed Americans as loud, ignorant and vulgar. Southern commentators subjected Uncle Tom's Cabin to scathing criticism. The Concordia Intelligencer of Vidalia, Louisiana, across the river from Natchez, wrote an unfavorable review in 1853, ridiculing Harriet Beecher Stowe's situations as unrealistic and accusing her of advocating miscegenation. (10) The Free Trader objected to a version of the book written for children, titled Pictures and Stories from Uncle Tom's Cabin. The article characterized abolitionism as "crafty, false and base . . . casting its firebrands into the community to create a political conflagration" as it "denounces the Constitution, libels Washington, desecrates the flag of our country and threatens to apply the torch of the incendiary to the national capitol." The Free Trader argued that the juvenile version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, was "calculated to produce a lasting impression on the minds of children too young to reason . . . and it would be perhaps impossible to impress in maturer years, a true view of negro slavery on the mind of one who in his earliest years had been taught abolitionism, with all the fascinating charms of fanciful poetry and pictures adapted to the capacity and appealing to the sensibilities of a child." (11)
The newspapers reflected southern values, influencing and reinforcing attitudes towards slavery, women and honor. Just as the Natchez press defended slavery and trivialized blacks through pseudo-scientific jargon, Biblical justifications and ridicule, it also revealed condescending and dismissive attitudes about gender, when gender issues received any attention at all. Demure, timid women like those of the South were obediently enacting God's intended role for women. Loud, opinionated women like the females who seemed to fill the abolitionist ranks were defiant in the eyes of God and disrupting the peace of the nation.
Natchez readers occasionally found articles that claimed to examine women's attitudes across the nation, such as an item titled "Kissing Customs" in an 1837 issue of the Free Trader. For example, a girl from Alabama, the recipient of an impudent kiss, reportedly remarked, "'I reckon it is my turn now,' and gives him a box on the ear that he didn't forget until next week!" (12) A similar article, titled "How the Girls of the U.S. Kiss — By Region," appeared a decade later in the Courier.
A glance at the titles of articles pertaining to women and male-female relationships confirms that an omnipresent paternalism clouds the attitudes of the southern readership: "Woman's Ample Temper," (13) "How to Wed a Woman," (14) and "Can't Please Old Maids." (15) In October 1829, the Southern Galaxy printed a number of articles that offered advice on "Courtship," "Rules for Husbands," "Rules for Wives," and even a number of "Reasons for Not Marrying." (16) A Free Trader article of 1858 discussed "When Ladies Should Be Looked At":
"Nature and custom would no doubt agree in conceding to all males the right of at least two distinct looks at every comely female countenance, without any infraction of the rules of courtesy or the sentiment of respect . . . It is astonishing how morbidly sensitive some vulgar beauties are to the slightest demonstration of this kind. When a lady walks the streets she leaves her virtuous indignation countenance at home; she knows well enough that the street is a picture gallery, where pretty faces framed in pretty bonnets [are] meant to be seen, and everybody has a right to see them." (17)
The newspapers seldom mentioned women involved in politics except, occasionally, to ridicule the idea in general or to launch a specific attack on abolitionists because of the prominent role of northern women in the movement. An 1838 item mentioned women while complaining of 500 anti-slavery petitions hindering the real business of the House of Representatives: "It is worthy to note that more than half of the petitions of this character are from the female sex. They were all laid upon the table without further discussion. No other business of importance was attended to. Thus it is that the time of congress is worse than wasted by the infatuated policy of fanatics and knaves." (18)
Southern values, founded on exaggerated ideas of honor and class, demanded a very rigid view of the world, a perspective that had to be defended with guns, if necessary. This inflated attachment to the idea of personal honor gradually transformed slavery the necessary evil to slavery the positive good. This sense of honor also created a class of gentlemen who felt it necessary to defend every perceived slight and insult on a field of honor. (19) Dueling is included as a topic because of several incidents carefully recorded in the newspapers that supplied sufficient material for analysis and comment. By the time of the Besançon-Armat unpleasantness of 1837, dueling had died out in the North, but its appeal still attracted self-styled southern gentlemen to the dueling grounds of the South, even New York natives like Besançon. As late as 1857, James W. McDonald staunchly defended his decision to duel on the Sabbath. The cult of the duel and its worship of southern honor remained a particularly southern phenomenon all through the period under consideration, and the press illustrates the importance of southern honor and provides many examples of how it operated.
The newspapers provide some interesting and not entirely unexpected insight into the importance of dueling, the manner in which duels came about, and changing attitudes towards dueling. Natchez newspapers documented many duels. Commodore Stephen Decatur, the naval hero of the war against the Barbary States of Tripoli and the War of 1812, died after a duel with another naval officer in 1820. The Mississippi Republican, knowing what interested its readers, devoted three columns to the correspondence between Decatur, Commodore James Barron and their friends as they unsuccessfully sought to find a way to avert the duel. (20)
Newspaper editors, publishing political views in such a public manner on a weekly basis, found themselves the target of many challenges. Some of the editors issued these challenges themselves. And newspaper editors sometimes printed these challenges and the ensuing correspondence to counteract "much misapprehension," as one editor explained in 1837, when the Free Trader devoted more than half a page to the correspondence that passed between Lorenzo Besançon, Thomas Armat, and ten other Natchez residents as they successfully clarified that the alleged insult resulted from a misunderstanding, negating the need for an exchange of fire.
The Free Trader had mistakenly identified Natchez lawyer and politician Thomas Armat as the author of an article titled "Rules" that appeared in the Courier on May 25, 1837. The article listed seven rules that explained how "the most insignificant man may bring himself into pretty considerable notice" by pretending to be "'undecided as to whether he is an administration man or a whig' until interest regulates his 'principles.'" The article also noted that a man could be appointed a commissioner just by hanging around and pestering the legislature. Besançon interpreted the "Rules" article as a personal attack against himself — and not without reason. The New Yorker had arrived in Natchez two years previously and started his career in the city by working for the Courier, the Whig newspaper. By the end of 1835, Besançon started a Democratic newspaper, the Free Trader. He had also been appointed to the position of state bank commissioner. These and other hints convinced Besançon that the article targeted him.
Besançon suspected Armat and published a snide reference to the article in the Free Trader on May 27, identifying the author as someone who "lately got into the legislature to fill a vacancy." Armat, knowing he had been identified as the author of "Rules," wrote to Besançon the same day and asked "whether or not you alluded, or intended to allude to me." Besançon dashed off a note to Armat, asking point blank if he had written the article. Armat eventually denied he had written "Rules," but he refused to answer the question directly in his earliest communications with Besançon. Several letters passed, and the tone became more severe and unyielding. Before the end of May 28, Armat claimed that Besançon's "evasive note" added "insult to injury" and left him "no other alternative than a meeting."
Both parties designated friends to arrange a meeting, and a series of notes passed between Besançon, Armat, A.S. Thurston, Thomas Johnston, James Edward, J.M. Duffield, G.S. Cook, John Quitman, R.M. Gaines, E. Garnett Howell, C. Rawlings, A.E. Addison and Samuel H.B. Black. Nearly 20 letters circulated before the principals decided on "Rules to govern the meeting to take place between Thos. Armat and L.A. Besançon." The duel would take place on June 1, 1837, across the river in Louisiana "on the levee opposite Natchez." A surgeon and two friends would attend both duelists. Separated by thirty paces, each duelist would have four pistols, one in each hand and two "fastened to the body by an ordinary belt not exceeding three inches in breadth, and to be made of material not to obstruct the entrance of a ball." They did not just start blasting away at each other. The letter lists thirteen rules for this engagement, written by Col. G.S. Cook for his friend Besançon and approved by Mr. Duffield on behalf of Armat. The duelists could advance on each other after the order to "Fire" was given, but they had to advance in a straight line; zigzagging was not allowed. The final article shows the seriousness of this duel: "The fight to close after either or both parties shall have been killed, or so badly wounded as to be unable to proceed in the fight, and not before."
Since Armat had not written the offending article, friends of the two men interceded and, after a further flurry of notes and letters, both men were satisfied that their honor could be preserved without a duel. Word had gotten around that Armat and Besançon might engage in a battle, so Besançon, on June 1, published a notice that the difficulty between himself and Armat had been resolved but he would continue to seek the name of the author of "Rules" from the Courier editor. (21) On June 3, the Free Trader published all the correspondence, as well as the original Courier article.
In the fall of 1843, the opposing editors of the two Natchez newspapers exchanged notes, but the matter did not end in a duel. The editor of the Free Trader, T.A.S. Doniphan, claimed that he was morally opposed to dueling. Courier editor Milford Prewett objected to an article in the Free Trader that claimed that the unnamed editor of the Courier had "repudiated his own honest debts" and fled Texas "to escape the gallows on which his companions had expiated their crimes." Letters passed between Doniphan and Prewett, but the Free Trader editor's answers did not satisfy Prewett, who issued this challenge on October 7, 1843: "SIR — I consider that you have impeached my character. I demand satisfaction."
Doniphan responded the same day: "I have received your call for satisfaction. It is well known that I am principled against dueling — being an invasion of the laws both of my country and my god, all of which I wish to obey and respect as a good citizen. I cannot therefore accept your polite invitation."
Prewett printed all of the preceding notes in the Courier on October 18 and attacked Doniphan's character for refusing the challenge:
"So it seems Mr. Doniphan is willing to 'damn by insinuation,' to stab the character of a fellow being without making any reparation, whatever. He would vilify and abuse in the most outrageous and scurrilous manner, and then seek refuge, not behind 'the laws of my country and my God,' for which he hypocritically intimates that he entertains the most Christian-like reverence; but by pitifully sneaking out of responsibility for his own deliberate and malicious acts."
Whatever public disapproval Doniphan may have suffered for refusing to duel did not affect his ability to run a newspaper as he continued as editor of the Free Trader until 1848.
The case came to the attention of the authorities and Prewett was charged with issuing a challenge to a duel. Court documents characterized Prewett as "a person of a turbulent and quarrelsome temper and disposition and contriving and intending only to vex, infuse and disquiet" Doniphan. The case was thrown out of court and Prewett was never tried. (22)
Two Mississippi editors fought a duel in 1857 but, in contrast to Besançon's penchant for full disclosure, the court documents and the scant coverage in the newspapers provide few details. James W. McDonald, editor of the Mississippi Free Trader, fought a duel with R.H. Purdom of the Port Gibson Herald on April 10, 1857, for causes undetermined. McDonald was arrested in December and charged with "leaving the state to fight a duel and fighting a duel out of this state." Purdom issued the challenge on a Saturday, and McDonald chose the next morning as the date for the duel. The participants crossed the river at Grand Gulf and fought the duel in Louisiana. The proceedings culminated in further violence the same day among members of the dueling party as one of the seconds, William H. Wood, was charged with trying to kill John W. Inge.
McDonald's case was dismissed in May 1858, and Wood's case attracted the attention of Governor John McRae who, in a letter from September 1857, suggested that Wood should not be prosecuted if the prosecutor was of the opinion that "Wood acted in self-defense or ... a conviction is doubtful." The governor suggested that Wood should be able "to prosecute his intention of going out in the Nicaragua Expedition." (23)
McDonald shed a little light on this murky affair in the Free Trader while responding to a critical notice in the True Witness, a Presbyterian newspaper, which attacked McDonald because he fought a duel on a Sunday. McDonald defended the Sabbath duel by saying he wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. He "wanted to give [satisfaction] at the earliest moment; he therefore named the next morning, without in fact, thinking that it was Sunday." McDonald wrote at length, attacking the True Witness and its "ungentlemanly notice." McDonald felt particularly insulted at the characterization of the practice of dueling as "cowardly." He also criticized the True Witness as a supporter of Know Nothing politics, asking "whether a man professing christian is worthy of confidence who will stealthily slip into a Know Nothing den, for the purpose of assisting in putting into power a political party whose object and inevitable result would have been the establishment of a religious test in this land of religious freedom?" (24)
Dueling remained popular in the South until the Civil War, long after it had died out in the North. (25) Public sentiment against dueling developed in the later decades of this period, and Doniphan displayed no unusual views with his antipathy to dueling. (26) Natchez newspapers advertised anti-dueling societies and occasionally reported the tragedy of dueling, such as an article from Doniphan's Free Trader titled "Another Duel and Another Editor Killed." Two editors of Vicksburg exchanged four rounds and a Mr. Ryan fell dead. "We know nothing of the circumstances that led to the meeting, and only regret, that in what is called a Christian country, persons should be misled to settle difficulties in this summary monstrous manner." (27)
Economic information, a consistently important feature of newspapers, always took up a large amount of space in the Natchez newspapers. Southern businessmen needed information on advertising, domestic and international markets, prices on commodities, especially cotton, and economic news on a regular basis, as quickly as possible. Through the antebellum period, newspaper editors regularly checked other newspapers, the mail and almanacs for the latest economic information. As transportation and communication technology improved, news arrived from steamboats, the telegraph and the railroad, and Natchez editors had to compete with each other and with newspapers across the region to report economic news as quickly as possible. Representative of the kind of timely news presented by Natchez editors for interested businessmen, newspapers of the 1850s often published a "Telegraphic" section of very short news summaries. For example, the Free Trader devoted a whole column to single-line notices. Along with international news on a treaty with China, Queen Victoria's visit to Germany, and a fire on the steamer Agamemnon, the Free Trader also reported that, on the foreign markets, "Flour is quiet, Wheat steady. Coffee dull." Further, the European exchanges, particularly Paris, were "very firm." The telegraphic news reported on Liverpool markets, the New York Weekly Bank Statement, New York Markets, the New Orleans Cotton Market and the Cincinnati Market.
Aside from these timely reports of vital economic information, Natchez newspapers also analyzed economic trends, and editors often included editorials on new crops and techniques, warnings that the South needed to diversify its agriculture, commentary on banking and the railroad, and miscellaneous items of a commercial nature.
"Cotton is King," from an 1854 Free Trader, reprinted the statistics from a Philadelphia Enquirer article, showing the growth of cotton exports, expanding from 570,000 bales in 1824 to well over three million bales in 1853. Another Philadelphia newspaper added this commentary about the nature of the cotton trade: "It dictates the whole course of foreign and domestic policy, appoints men to office and dismisses them, teaches wisdom to Congressmen, and furnishes judges with learning and ingenuity to construe constitutions and laws. Cotton directs the movements of armies and navies, negotiates treaties, organizes Territories, and erects sovereign states. Yes, friend Enquirer, Cotton is King!" (28)
From time to time, the newspapers warned the Natchez planters of the dangers of the monoculture economy and the economic system that had developed around slavery and cotton. The Courier reprinted an article from the Vicksburg Whig that encouraged the southern business interests to develop manufacturing in the region. "We fear that the South will wait for the worst teachings of bitter experience, before she will make an attempt towards that diversification of industry which is known to be the great secret of success in every prosperous community …. When her planters have worn out noble lands and have broken up old associations in removing from these to others which must be reclaimed from the wilderness of nature at vast expense — when this has been done, we say, through a few more generations, then some voice crying in the wilderness may awake the South to the necessity of completing the circle of industry." (29)
The same issue featured an article from the New York Journal of Commerce, reporting on the efforts of Dr. Junius Smith, who had acquired seven cases of black and green tea plants and hoped to "proceed to the South, soon, with a view of forming a plantation." The article goes on to suggest that "we have now the means in hand of extending tea plantations throughout such sections of our country as may be found adapted to their culture."
In the summer of 1851, the Courier reprinted an article from the New Orleans Bulletin: "To the Cotton Planters of the United States." It took up two full columns and warned cotton growers about the dangers of glutting the market, picking the cotton too early just to get it to market first, and selling too low. Imprudent business practices on the part of southern planters enabled the cotton buyers in the North and in England to buy cotton cheaply every season. "Planters knowing how easily and to what extent prices are affected by an over supply, should … keep at home one-fourth or one-third of their respective crops, which would correct the evil. The better remedy, however, would be to plant less cotton, and raise more corn, oats, hay, peas, mules, sheep and hogs; make more of articles for home use and buy less …. So long as planters strive to make so much more cotton than is wanted, strive to hurry a few bales to market earlier than his neighbor, talk very loudly of their growing crop, and publish in the newspapers the first blossom on the first boll of cotton open, with a view to precedence of their neighbors …. they must expect ruinously low prices …. Will the cotton planters never learn to be wise, and only supply the demand." (30)
By the 1830s, railroads and canals transformed the Northeast, and a larger proportion of the upper Mississippi Valley's trade — that had formerly been transported down the Mississippi — turned to the east via northern railroads and the Erie Canal. At first Natchez leaders seemed to be dragging their heels in formulating a plan to take advantage of the new technology, but eventually some Natchez civic and political leaders considered the transportation revolution and wondered how to bring its benefits to the Lower Mississippi Valley and to Natchez. City leaders got serious when a railroad from Vicksburg to Jackson began to lure business away from Natchez, and a Louisiana consortium proposed a route between New Orleans and Nashville that bypassed Natchez and went through Jackson.
A group of investors formed The Mississippi Railroad Company to finance and build a line from Natchez to Jackson to connect with the longer route. However, the Panic of 1837 hindered all attempts to get financing or credit to finish building the line. John Quitman's trip to Europe to tap sources in England, France and Germany proved fruitless during the 1837 worldwide depression. Critics accused the directors of company of mismanagement, and by the early 1840s, the Mississippi Railroad Company declared bankruptcy. Only twenty-five miles of track had been constructed before the abandonment of the project. The newspapers participated in this drama, editorializing on the importance of the railroad, criticizing or praising civic leaders, reporting on the meetings of the board of directors, and repeating rumors of corruption. (31)
After the failure of the Mississippi Railroad Company, newspaper editors realized the potential economic calamity to the future of the region if the railroads bypassed Natchez. Both the Free Trader and the Courier advocated resumption of railroad construction to connect Natchez with Jackson, one of the few things both newspapers agreed on during their long rivalry. An 1843 Free Trader article referred to the pseudonymous Courier author of a pro-railroad article as "an able writer" and commended him for being "industriously engaged in remonstrating against the surrender of the railroad." The article argued that the expense to finish the line would be worth it in the long run: "Mississippi is not rich enough to throw away the hundreds of thousands of dollars already expended on the road. Works of this kind are always to be numbered among those which it is more economical to keep on good repair than to permit to go to ruin by neglect — or by the most foolish of all delays — waiting for better times. The only 'better times' which Mississippi, or any other agricultural State will ever know, must come from an energetic cultivation of its never-failing soil, and by affording every facility for the transportation and exchange of its staple productions for those of other parts of this country and foreign climes. The railway is the only great measure for this facilitation in southern Mississippi." (32)
A few weeks later, the Courier responded to "some wiseacres" who had asserted "that the railroad from Vicksburg to Jackson, had proved an injury to the trade of Vicksburg, and consequently a railroad from Natchez to the interior, would prove injurious to Natchez." The author disputed this assertion, differentiating between the economic possibilities experienced at a trading point and a shipping point. Vicksburg, a shipping point, enjoyed very little of the robust trade that characterized economic relations in Natchez. Vicksburg planters relied on New Orleans merchants for their goods and, when the Panic of 1837 destroyed credit relations, Vicksburg planters suffered more from the ensuing chaos than Natchez planters. "I therefore contend," continued the article in the Courier, "that Vicksburg never enjoyed a trade susceptible of being affected injuriously by the railroad . . . it was fondly hoped that the completion of the railroad to Jackson would concentrate the whole trade of the interior to Vicksburg. This hope, however, proved fallacious." The article espoused the differing circumstances of Natchez, and explained that these conditions exactly corresponded to all the elements that would benefit from a railroad to the interior of the state. "[T]he people of Vicksburg have now learned, that to create a home market, it requires not only the facilities of transportation to their city afforded by a railroad; but a healthy location, a cash capital sufficient to purchase the commodity offered by the planter, a supply of goods and merchandise commensurate with the trade, rendered cheap by direct importation and active competition, together with a command of shipping equal to the commerce of the place — a facility for exportation, essentially requisite to the merchant, to render trade mutually advantageous to both parties. But will any one affirm that these requisites are not possessed by Natchez? Is not this the most healthy location for a commercial mart in the whole southwest?" (33)
From these examples, it is clear that the economic role of the newspaper extended far beyond advertising and market reports. Raw data had to be analyzed and interpreted, and the best businessmen looked into the future, seeking visionary ideas for development and investment. Natchez newspapers supplemented specialized journals, such as DeBow’s Review, in providing information on trends and opportunities.
Newspaper readers of antebellum Natchez, like newspaper readers everywhere, wanted a variety of reading material and information. A large number of desired customers preferred economic information on a regular basis and political material almost as often. During elections, political material dominated, but the rest of the time, newspapers provided a greater variety to attract as many potential customers as possible. Natchez editors knew that the potential readership had interests beyond economics and politics. They included many items of general interest, poetry, international news, philosophical musings, literary criticisms, travel reports, lectures, club announcements and other subjects.
An attempt to record and analyze every important trend in the Natchez newspapers would require a work much larger than this one. This chapter documents a sampling of non-political roles of the press in Natchez. The existence of so much material and such a variety of items make it easy to find interesting topics to expand on but difficult to make choices and devote adequate attention to any single topic. It would be easy to write this chapter with completely different topics and completely different examples and still convey the same general idea.
Fitting some of the random items on popular culture into the framework of southern beliefs proved to be a largely pointless task in regards to most of the material. Southerners loved plays, books and circuses as much as northerners. But critics savaged books like Uncle Tom's Cabin, a major and glaring exception to any attempt to generalize about the South and popular culture as a whole. Attitudes expressed in the Natchez newspapers generally reflected popular opinions. Each particular newspaper advocated the policies and personalities of a specific party, but editors generally hoped to attract a larger readership by supporting, in general, the basic ideas and beliefs of the population.
Natchez newspapers also expressed economic attitudes unique to the Deep South. Whenever an editorial justified slavery, or characterized slavery as a positive good, it also defended an economic system, as well as political and cultural beliefs. I included several articles about cotton to show how completely this crop dominated the culture of the South, demanded the justifications of slavery, and dictated the rigid devotion to honor rampant in the South. By the 1850s, planters — set in their ways and dedicated to extracting as much profit out of their investment as possible — found it difficult to transform southern agriculture, despite warnings in the press. The Natchez press reflected southern culture, with its stubborn reliance on slavery, and unconsciously demonstrated the dangers of intolerance and isolationism that eventually led to the Civil War.
(1) Natchez Daily Courier , June 17, 1854.
(2) Natchez Weekly Courier and Journal, September 5, 1843.
(3) Washington Republican, September 20 and December 6, 1817.
(4) Mississippi Republican, April 9, 1818.
(5) John Franklin was the leader of a polar expedition to the Arctic planned by the Royal Navy. The expedition disappeared in the 1840s, prompting many expeditions to search for Franklin and his crew, including the efforts of several American expeditions. Remains of the ships, expedition equipment, and a few graves were found, but the real story of what happened to the Franklin expedition remains a mystery.
(6) The article in the Free Trader, mentions that Stephens had concluded in an earlier book that the cities of the Yucatan had been built by an ancient race of the Old World. By 1843, Stephens had done more research and changed his conclusions.
(7) Mississippi Free Trader, June 21, 1843.
(8) Mississippi Herald, several issues in January 1806.
(9) Scott wrote many of his novels anonymously until the mid-1820s when the secret got out, but his poetry was well-known in the South long before he was publicly identified as the author of the Waverly novels and Ivanhoe.
(10) Concordia Intelligencer, April 16, 1853.
(11) Mississippi Free Trader, September 15, 1854.
(12) Mississippi Free Trader, November 9, 1837.
(13) Natchez Cutter, May 18, 1841.
(14) Mississippi Free Trader, September 6, 1858.
(15) Mississippi Free Trader, September 6, 1858.
(16) Southern Galaxy, October 22, 1829.
(17) Mississippi Free Trader, September 6, 1858.
(18) Natchez Courier and Journal, January 5, 1838.
(19) Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor, pp. 25-114, 362-401.
(20) Mississippi Republican, May 9, 1820.
(21) William Johnson mentioned it in a diary entry for May 30, 1837. "Whilst I was Down at the Landing to day I was told that those Gentleman that had Crossed the River was then about to fight a Duel. It was thot to be Besancon and Armat that had gone across but it was a mistake for they had not gone over … Mr Besancon told me this morning that he had been very much abused by the other party, and that he would fight the whole Concern of them, but what, he would be Satisfied or Revenged He seemed to have a good Strong Disposition to whale Mr Mellen if he met him anywhere and said also that Mr Black would get a fall through the course of the day." William R. Hogan and Edwin A Davis, editors, William Johnson's Natchez: The Antebellum Diary of a Free Negro (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1951), p. 179.
(22) State of Mississippi v. Milford N. Prewett, 1843, Natchez Historical Foundation, Natchez, Mississippi.
(23) The Nicaragua Expedition refers to a filibustering mission then being organized by William Walker to invade and conquer Nicaragua. Walker led one expedition to take over northern Mexico and several expeditions to Central America before he was executed by the Honduran government in 1860.
(24) The State of Mississippi v. James W. McDonald, 1857; The State of Mississippi v. William H. Wood, 1857, Natchez Historical Foundation, Natchez, Mississippi; Mississippi Free Trader, April 28, 1857.
(25) For a comparison of northern and southern views on honor and how these views changed in the 19th century, see Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor, pp. 15-22 and 360-367.
(26) Doniphan did get into a few fights and scuffles that are mentioned in William Johnson's diary. He also turned down a challenge to a duel on at least one other occasion, chronicled by Johnson on April 20, 1841.
(27) Mississippi Free Trader, March 6, 1844.
(28) Mississippi Free Trader, September 15, 1854.
(29) Natchez Courier, November 28, 1848.
(30) Natchez Courier, August 15, 1851.
(31) See James, Antebellum Natchez, pp. 190-192 and 215-216, and May, John A. Quitman: Old South Crusader, pp. 99-106, for more information on the troubles of the Mississippi Railroad Company. These include many citations from a number of Mississippi newspaper articles commenting on the railroad.
(32) Mississippi Free Trader, August 2, 1843.
(33) Natchez Weekly Courier and Journal, September 6, 1843.