Monday, March 27, 2006


Natchez experienced great changes in the years between the American acquisition of the Mississippi Territory and the devastating years of the Civil War. Natchez, a small and isolated frontier town in 1800, grew into a thriving economic center by 1860. Though surpassed by Vicksburg and especially New Orleans, Natchez remained an important town on the Lower Mississippi throughout the antebellum period. With the addition of the Louisiana Territory in 1803, the annexation of Texas in 1845, and the cession of most of northern Mexico in 1848, Natchez lost its frontier status and became a growing and settled city in the center of a communication and transportation revolution. The steamboat and the railroad encouraged population and economic growth. In addition to the changes prompted by these general improvements, advances in printing technology also affected the newspapers, increasing circulation and transforming the way they looked. The transformation from territorial capital to cotton boom town took place in only sixty years. In the transition from frontier press to party press to slavery press, Natchez journalists knew that residents wanted the news, and the editors, eager and ambitious, strived to satisfy these customers.

The men who operated the presses, wrote the editorials, kept track of subscribers and collected articles came from many backgrounds and ran their newspapers with motives of generating a little profit and perhaps employing a little political influence. The lean days of the early decades of the 1800s — when Natchez was a newspaper graveyard — gave way to prosperous and more stable times in the 1820s and 1830s. Supported by the growing cotton economy, Natchez supported two newspapers for nearly thirty years, and the rivalry of the Democratic Free Trader and the Courier provides an informative record of the political rhetoric, the issues and the party conflicts of the decades before the Civil War. The Natchez Courier's uneasy transition from Whig to Know-Nothing to Union demonstrates the problems for moderate white southerners who shunned the extreme positions of the secessionists so firmly entrenched among southern Democrats.

Southern society paid a very high price for the prosperity derived from King Cotton. The growth of the profitable cotton business revived and transformed the slave system, dying in the North and declining in the South in 1800. By 1830, southern slaveholders raking in huge profits from slavery could no longer tolerate the disparagement of slavery, the growth of the abolitionist movement, and the challenges to their Christian view of themselves. If slaveholding was evil, then a society that tolerated, permitted and promoted slavery must be evil as well. Therefore, slavery was a positive good, the slaves must be happy and well-cared for, and southerners felt that the white man was the real victim of slavery, acting out God's plan by taking care of the helpless black man and providing him with useful work.

The story told is largely within the larger transformation of Natchez from territorial capital in 1800 to a center of the Cotton Kingdom in 1860, and the changing role of the press in the region. The press was the creation of a vibrant set of individuals who showed common traits. They were ambitious, literate men, seeking fame and fortune in the world of Natchez journalism. The nature of the profession attracted men who had little reason to challenge the existing slave system. (1) An editor who had his doubts about the peculiar institution either quit or kept his doubts to himself, especially after 1830 and an increasing number of incidents of violence against suspected abolitionists. Most Natchez journalists eagerly became part of the system, purchasing land and slaves as they embraced ideals of southern honor, white mastery, and black inferiority.

The journalists slanted the contents of their publications to support views of black inferiority and the paternal benefits of slavery. Slavery's defenders rationalized the superiority of southern culture by pointing out Biblical precedent for slavery, presenting pseudoscientific observations that claimed biological proof of mental and moral failing among Africans, attacking abolitionist extremism, and other dubious justifications. Even as competing Natchez newspapers sniped at each other over local and state issues, they joined together to condemn and sensationalize the actions of abolitionists, northerners and Republicans. Every national incident became a crisis as northerners sought to limit the extent of slavery and to minimize the power of the slave states. Slave state politicians, desperate to retain their power, exploited the gains of the Mexican War, the secession crisis of 1850, Bleeding Kansas, the Dred Scott case, Harper's Ferry and other events. The newspapers supported the slave power by printing inflammatory and often erroneous interpretations of events.

Although always political and always combative, the Natchez press was also entertaining and reflective of the values, culture, and economy of slavery. The newspapers reported on the events and motivations of duels, feuds and other conflicts, and have become a record of many details of southern honor and how it affected newspapers and the society at large. Southern reflections on national culture also provide many proofs of the southern devotion to their infallibility and they lengths they went to preserve their view of themselves. Economic information centered on cotton markets, although the newspapers did offer articles on other issues, such as transportation and crop diversification.

The Cotton Kingdom thrived on slavery, and southern leaders did not have the vision to face the real problems of slavery and the inequalities in Dixie. The southerner's view of himself and his society could not endure abolitionist attacks on the realistic excesses of the slave system and the basic moral arguments against the institution of slavery in any form. Southerners became defensive, sensitive and intolerant on the subject of slavery. The press played its role, supporting southern prejudices, distributing justifications for slavery and promoting white supremacy for the mollification of the southern planter. By the election of 1860, the rigors of southern honor demanded a capitulation so audacious and unreasonable that the North could not acquiesce. Secession and Civil War must have seemed inevitable, to any critical reader of the Natchez press, long before Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter.


(1) Abolitionist newspapers existed in slave states, but they were very rare and subject to life-threatening harassment. Cassius Clay, of Louisville, Kentucky, is probably the most famous of the southern abolitionist editors. Several attempts were made to drive Clay out of business or assassinate him.


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