"I am thankful that God in his providence has put into our hands these weapons prepared by the South herself, to destroy the Fell monster." - Sarah Grimké, 1839
When Sarah Grimké wrote these words in 1830s America, the abolitionists had just adopted a new tactic in the fight against slavery: they clipped and compiled items, mostly fugitive slave ads, from southern newspapers. Theodore Weld collected these damning exhibits and published them as American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses in 1839, recording, in the words of the slaveholding aristocracy of the South, the brutality of slavery.
It was an effective strategy, if the goal was to counter southern rationalizations that slave owners treated their slaves well, never (or rarely) split up families, and abolitionists were just an unruly mob of liars and provocateurs. The pamphlet enjoyed wide distribution, and even such notable writers as Charles Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe used excerpts from American Slavery As It Is for their own works. (1)
To the abolitionists, the newspapers were “weapons prepared by the South herself,” but to the historian, southern newspapers are tools and building materials, compasses for direction, mortar to fill in gaps in continuity, fountains of economic information, and sources for southern thinking and attitudes. It is difficult to conjure up a single aspect of southern history that can dismiss the newspapers as entirely irrelevant. The speeches and movements of any major personage figure prominently, even minutely at times, in newspaper coverage. Editorials offer insight into the thoughts of southerners on politics, culture, the economy, transportation, Indian affairs, crop diversification, the reliability of the northern Whigs, customs of faraway places, and international affairs. The newspapers recorded wars near and far, news from the expanding territories, deaths from yellow fever, gin fires, South American revolutions, the latest books from Europe, sea serpent sightings off Boston, and the deeds of presidents and kings and rogue elephants. (2)
Historian Barbara Tuchman once noted, “As to newspapers, I like them for period flavor perhaps more than for factual information. One must be wary in using them for facts.” (3) It is true, newspapers have their limitations. All sources have their own peculiar disadvantages and weaknesses, and the duty of the historian is not to disdain and exclude the hasty work of rowdy newspapermen and women in favor of diaries, letters, court documents and government reports. The historian, hopefully, realizes the liabilities and strengths of all his tools and building materials, just like any competent carpenter practicing his craft.
Nevertheless, the historian, in carefully appraising the tools of the craft, may find it difficult not to see newspapers much as Sarah Grimké saw them: as weapons. Comic Negro stories, fugitive slave ads, items proclaiming slave auctions, and proslavery propaganda crafted from the most transparent of rationalizations do not inspire much admiration for the subject. Weld experienced little trouble finding the material that he distributed in the North in American Slavery As It Is, and the researcher who peeks into the slavery press will quickly discover many similar items.
The antebellum South condemned itself. The southern newspapers, 140 years after the end of slavery, offer ample evidence of a foul and evil system aided and abetted by a whole series of necessary delusions that allowed the members of the ruling class to sleep at night. Trying to maintain a historian’s objectivity in the face of such overwhelming hypocrisy and brutality makes this historian’s head hurt. The only reason that the southern newspapers are no longer weapons is that the target, southern slavery, no longer exists, despite the rearguard revisionist rhetoric of southern apologists who want to pretend that the excesses of slavery have been exaggerated by historians.
On a personal note, I wandered into the wild and weird, and often wonderful, world of the Natchez press quite by accident. More interested in the journalism of the Wild West, I nonetheless decided to go to Natchez, Mississippi, in the summer of 2001, to participate in a month-long research program that included the processing of court records from the 1830s and tutoring in the evaluation and uses of many kinds of primary documents. Mostly, I wanted to get out of Los Angeles for a month.
Southern journalism became a passion, particularly in the period before the Civil War. I did not find much to admire in most of these people, but they were never boring. Andrew Marschalk, the “Father of Mississippi Journalism,” grew up in New York during the Revolution, barely escaped impressment in England, and served in the American military on the frontier in the 1790s, all before he started his thirty-year career as a journalist in Mississippi. Lorenzo Besançon found himself enmeshed in four affairs of honor in 1837; one of these ended in a duel in which he killed his opponent. That same year, he got into a fight on Election Day with John A. Quitman, one of Mississippi’s most famous statesmen. Giles Hillyer avoided physical violence but dished out verbal violence as well as he endured it throughout the tumultuous 1850s.
What made them, and their many contemporaries, tick? What juicy nuggets of information could be gleaned from secondary sources, the newspapers, court documents, property records, census reports and other sources? Would a study of southern newspapers and journalists reveal anything about the nature of southern society as a whole? I soon discovered that I would have to do most of the digging myself if I wanted answers to any of my questions about the journalists of antebellum Natchez. And what can we learn about the place, the time, and the people that will help us to understand a world rooted in slavery as the foundation of all that was southern, antebellum, and Natchez?
I have compiled my facts and sources, and I have tried to tell the story of Natchez journalism and its practitioners. By the very nature of the profession, thousands of articles and millions of words remain behind, penned, selected, and edited by the subjects. It seems only natural to let the journalists tell their own story in their own words as much as possible. Like Theodore Weld, I let the South speak for itself.
Southern journalism gets the short end of the stick in histories of the American press with most of the attention focused on New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and general trends in other northern cities. General histories of mass media have room for only a few paragraphs on newspapers in New Orleans and Baltimore before they discuss the role of the newspapers in the era of sectional tensions that preceded the Civil War. At any given time, specific newspapers in different regions experienced different purposes and rates of development. When press history begins in Natchez (around 1800), the small struggling territorial newspapers of the region could not be compared to the newspapers of the major cities of the North, a few of which had been around for close to a century.
A general press history, with the immense span of time and the various forms of media that must be discussed, can hardly be expected to recite the mundane details of every community and how the press differed from one hamlet to the next. Press historian Michael Emery describes frontier journalism of the early republic and, in the decades preceding the Civil War, southern journalism of the era. The press in Natchez presents characteristics of both frontier and southern journalism of the era.
The Press and America, by Michael Emery, Edwin Emery, and Nancy L. Roberts, describes the late 18th-century development of the political press in America, after the colonies became the United States of America and political factions funded party organs to attract and inform the citizens of the new nation. The book also comments on westward expansion in the early 1800s and the rapid appearance of newspapers in recently settled areas. Early Natchez newspapers displayed the characteristics of both the political press and the frontier press. In 1800, the American government designated Natchez as the capital of the Mississippi Territory, recently acquired from Spain. Far from the settled regions of North America, Natchez was the center of administration for the new territory. Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans competed for power and influence, and almost overnight, Natchez required political newspapers despite its remote frontier location. (4)
The Press and America also provides a brief summary of the rise of the abolitionists in the 1830s. William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator appeared in 1831 and became a major organ of the abolitionist movement. Other anti-slavery newspapers followed, and the abolitionists took advantage of improving press technology (and low postage rates for many kinds of printed material) to flood the nation, North and South, with anti-slavery publications.
From the 1830s to the outbreak of the Civil War, sectional tension over slavery increased, and the newspapers certainly played a major role in inflaming or attempting to quash the growing divide between North and South. The “fire-eaters,” southerners who denounced abolition in the most forceful terms, used the southern newspapers, the legislature and the stump to attack the anti-slavery movement of the North, and to urge secession if the two sections could not come to an agreement favorable to southern slaveholding interests. (5)
In News for All, Thomas Leonard discusses the effects of the abolitionist press in greater detail. Abolitionist literature ended up in flames in many areas of the South, postmasters refused to distribute it, and legislatures passed laws prohibiting incendiary literature. Anti-abolitionist mobs also harassed activist foes of slavery in the North.(6) Violence in the North subsided in the late 1830s, perhaps as a response to the publication and wide distribution of American Slavery As It Is. Was it harder to provoke mob conditions if the South condemned itself with fugitive slave ads and other damning evidence? Perhaps, or maybe fierce anti-abolitionist sentiment had burnt out of its own accord after a few years.
Leonard notes that the printing capacity of the North overwhelmed that of the South, calling it a superweapon for the anti-slavery movement. The slave states produced a fraction of the printed material of the South. The deluge of hostile anti-slavery tracts flooding Dixie must have seemed anti-southern to many white southerners, encouraging a wave of paranoia and accusations of an anti-southern conspiracy. In truth, northern presses published more proslavery material than the South. And DeBow’s Review, the prominent southern journal that provided a forum for many of slavery’s defenders, came out of northern print shops for distribution in the South, a fact that its publishers tried to keep secret. (7)
Leonard notes that the abolitionist movement outmaneuvered the South by using media advances to distribute an effective anti-slavery message. Proslavery arguments remained in the South, in southern journals and newspapers, seldom venturing out of Dixie’s echo chamber in an accessible pamphlet form to influence opinion in the North. George Fitzhugh, author of Cannibals All!, condemned the northern exploitation of immigrant labor as much worse than black slavery, but he never reached a wide audience. No one in the South ever compiled northern news items to embarrass the free states in the way that American Slavery As It Is showed the hollowness of the South’s defense of a paternalistic slave system. (8)
Most general histories of the press do not delve this far into the differences between northern and southern journalism, and more in-depth studies of the southern press are few and far between. Some press histories specialize on a specific newspaper or region, with New York understandably getting the most attention. Aspects of southern press history appear in some studies. For example, Clement Eaton’s Freedom of Thought in the Old South contains a few chapters on the press, although it focuses on the Upper South. Many states passed laws suppressing expressions of anti-slavery sentiments, and Eaton suggests that the sporadic use of these laws and the frequent implementation of lenient penalties indicated that the South respected the freedom of the press. (9) A comprehensive treatment of the southern press has yet to appear.
Fortunately for my purposes, the historically important community of Natchez stimulates the interest of many historians and writers, and secondary sources on Natchez often cite the newspapers, summarize press history for specific newspapers, and describe incidents involving area journalists. In Antebellum Natchez, Clayton James uses newspaper articles to make a number of points about Natchez politics, culture and economics. William Davis’s A Way Through the Wilderness briefly describes the press in Natchez (and other parts of the Old Southwest) during the Territorial period.
Biographies can also be a source for useful material. Mack Buckley Swearingen’s The Early Life of George Poindexter discusses an early feud between an editor and a local political figure that resulted in libel suits, a beating, and charges of cowardice in battle during the Battle of New Orleans. (10) Robert May’s biography of John Quitman, one of Mississippi’s most prominent antebellum political operators, provides a few details on Quitman’s fistfight with Free Trader editor Lorenzo Besançon as well as Quitman’s successful campaign against Natchez Courier editor Giles Hillyer for a congressional seat. (11) With the appropriate dates in hand, I was able to find the right newspapers where I uncovered a mountain of material on these incidents and many others.
Articles from historical journals yield helpful information. A 1972 article examines seven major newspapers in the state and speculates on the influence of newspapers on the final outcome of the election of 1860. (12) Two journal articles on the role of the Mississippi press in the 1850s contend that it enforced “intellectual isolation” by excluding and repressing ideas that threatened the comfortable southern view of slavery, and inflamed the South by sensationalizing John Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry. These articles cite newspapers from across the state, including quotes from Natchez newspapers, and provide some perspective on the state as whole. (13) A very useful article from 1957, “The Mississippi Press in the Jackson Era, 1926-1841” by Nelson Miles, details the status of the state’s newspapers in the 1820s, when supporters of Andrew Jackson started a number of newspapers to counter the large number of sheets that favored John Quincy Adams. The article covers the entire state, with special attention to events in Natchez like the conflict and cooperation of the town papers. (14)
Diaries are not only fun, they are useful, especially with background and color. William Johnson’s diary, a great asset for anyone studying Natchez from 1835 to 1851, presented some bits of information on several Natchez editors. (15) Land records, marriage records, court documents, census reports and other official papers also provide valuable information, and some of it is a lot more interesting than it sounds.
The best sources are the newspapers themselves. Not always the most reliable source for historical accuracy, the newspapers represented the voice and opinions of the society they served and influenced. They tell the modern researcher what Natchez newspaper readers wanted to hear (and what the editors wanted them to hear), and these views had to be supported by all of white society. Similarly, mainstream views on women, Native Americans and northerners can be examined and analyzed.
Newspapers also provide clues to how newspaper establishments operated, with a statement of purpose, an editorial on the importance of newspapers, and notices containing mundane information such as an apology for errors that might explain that the paper is understaffed because of a yellow fever epidemic. When newspapers changed hands, editorial notices often explained the motives of both the outgoing and the incoming editors. The departing journalist might be moving to another state, changing professions, retiring, or getting married. The new owner often offered a few details of his past experience. These, and many other items in the newspapers, provide welcome scraps of information about these men as they shaped public opinion and responded to the needs of the public they served.
This study employs frequent and lengthy passages from the newspapers of Natchez from the antebellum period. More than just quaint and interesting passages from America’s past, these quotes often provide a useful glimpse into the character of the southern press and the society it served and influenced. A simple summary of these views would fail to provide the proper context in which these views developed and propagated. The editorial style of the 19th century tended to be combative, flowery and even pompous at times. The journalistic principles of balance and objectivity had not yet become a part of American newspaper practice, and the era’s newspapermen and women plied their trade with a creative ear for sarcasm, hyperbole, distortion and other literary adornments.
Southern journalists wrote forcefully partly because of rigid views of honor that demanded a strong commitment to a position and the desire to go to great lengths to defend these viewpoints. The newspapers provided a very important forum for southern views, and newspapermen and women used the medium to full advantage, revealing much about the time and place. Using lengthy quotes lets the Natchez editors speak for themselves and reveals much about the character of the southern press.
After the United States acquired the Mississippi Territory from Spain in the 1790s, Natchez soon became the focus of the region’s political and economic life. Political maneuvering moved the capital to nearby Washington for several years before the capital moved to Jackson in the center of the state when Mississippi achieved statehood in 1819. Nevertheless, Natchez remained an important city, politically and economically, until the Civil War.
The rich cotton planters of the Mississippi River Valley congregated in Natchez, maintained palatial homes in the area, and conducted various forms of business there. The wealthy elite often kept their families on remote plantation homes during the unhealthy season, and then gathered in Natchez for the winter, the social season. Politicians and statesmen valued the opinions and support of these wealthy planters, and the political leaders of Mississippi realized the importance of Natchez as a meeting place for the most influential people in the southern part of the state. The newspapers of Natchez became an important part of the network of influence and information that directed Mississippi politics. Operating under varying degrees of independence, Natchez editors strived to attract the attention and patronage of state leaders at the same time they tried to appeal to the political and cultural tastes of as many potential newspaper readers as possible.
Newspapers started in territorial Natchez as marginal but vital expressions of a frontier community, providing basic information on the acts of the territorial legislature, commerce, and the news of the world. The frontier press acted as a window to the world, and a central depository for community information in an isolated region. The role of political press appeared very quickly, first in the conflict between the Federalists and the Jeffersonians at the end of the 1790s, then in the guise of factions among the Jeffersonians from 1800 to the War of 1812. Both sides supported newspapers to distribute and argue their views. This role of party press remained long after the Natchez region had outgrown its frontier character as a result of a growing population, a developing network of transportation and communication, and a frontier that continually moved west. After 1830, to counter a growing perception of an abolitionist threat, the southern press increasingly took on the appearance of a slavery press, and Natchez newspapers devoted more space to slavery and slavery-related issues, justifying the institution, denigrating blacks and abolitionists, and warning of a coming northern threat to the southern way of life.
Throughout the transition from frontier press to party press to slavery press, Natchez journalism consistently displayed an element of conflict, often spurred by exaggerated southern views of honor. Beatings, fights, duels and challenges to duels highlight the relations of the press to the community. This penchant for conflict can also be viewed in non-physical manifestations, in a number of lawsuits and, especially, in accounts printed in the newspapers about ongoing debates on issues and personalities.
The differing strategies of the slavery press demonstrate this conflict very well. In the 1850s, the Democratic press, represented by the Mississippi Free Trader, usually expressed an extreme view that the North made excessive and unrealistic demands on the South on issues involving slavery and the status of slavery in the new western territories. They often denied the accusations that they advocated secession and disunion, but the inflammatory nature of much Democratic rhetoric made secession seem the obvious goal. The opposition, representing a succession of different parties from the Whigs to the Know Nothings to the Union Party, adopted a more moderate tone in the pages of the Natchez Courier. Compromises offered by the North, numerous Courier articles assured its readers, represented real and sincere efforts to heal the breach between the two sections, and the extremists flirted dangerously with secession, heedless of the potential risk of civil war.
These varying strategies of the slavery press never disagreed on slavery or abolition, however. Slavery, an institution blessed by god, benefited white and black alike as loving white masters Christianized the inferior black man, and directed his primitive energies to useful work. Abolitionists, funded and misled by malicious leaders and British agitators, refused to understand southern reality, and projected their own unhappiness and discontent on the South.
This study supports these statements with examples from the newspapers and the analysis of events recreated as well as possible from historical documents. The general history of the press in Natchez and the lives of Natchez journalists are examined and analyzed in the first two chapters to supply some background information and context necessary for a better understanding of the place and the times. Chapter Three explores specific incidents involving Natchez journalists to illustrate the different forms of conflict they faced and the long-term nature of these conflicts. Chapter Four provides examples of the political nature of the Natchez press, focusing on slavery and southern perceptions of the increasing sectional tension of national politics from 1848 to the Civil War. To provide a more complete view of the Natchez press, the final chapter briefly examines a few aspects of Natchez newspapers that do not reflect specifically southern values. Most of the chapter, however, explores the ways in which southern views affected values and economics, as a contrast to the previous chapter’s focus on politics. Again, many examples of conflict are illustrated to support the thesis.
An understanding of Natchez, its society, its press and its journalists may furnish some insight into the minds of men and women who so valued their perceived right to human property that the risks of secession and civil war seemed like a great and worthy adventure instead of folly and madness.
(1) Thomas C. Leonard, News for All: America’s Coming of Age with the Press (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 75-79.
(2) The newspapers that Sarah Grimké and Theodore Weld found so useful have much to tell beyond the purposes of abolitionist activists. Researchers feel blessed upon encountering these newspapers in their original form and thereby experiencing a momentary connection with the southern folk who spread out and perused these same pages on the street, in the coffee houses, and at the race track. Most often, the researcher must be content with the photographic impressions of these journals on microfilm, using the capricious microfilm-reading machines that often seem to have been specifically designed to test the stamina and ingenuity of historians.
(3) Barbara Tuchman, Practicing History: Selected Essays by Barbara Tuchman (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1981), p. 42. This quotation is from an essay titled “History by the Ounce,” originally published in Harper’s Magazine, July 1965.
(4) Michael Emery, Edwin Emery, and Nancy L. Roberts, The Press and America: An Interpretive History of the Mass Media (Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 1996), pp. 80-83, 61-74, 99-109. The frontier press is characterized by limitations imposed by a small staff and a small readership. These newspapers served the expanding West, they were located in small towns but generally provided information to a larger trading area. Advertising revenues were small, and frontier newspapers often struggled financially. However, they provided basic political, financial and community news. According to Emery, the frontier editors “knit the communities into organizations that could begin to bring civilization to the remote areas.” As one of the most important centers on the Mississippi River, Natchez developed quickly enough that it was not a frontier community by 1815 or so. The political press, in contrast to the commercial press of the 18th century, developed from the political conflict between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists in the 1790s. Both sides in the conflict funded newspapers to push their political perspectives, and most newspapers became highly politicized in this environment. As political coalitions changed, collapsed and reformed, the political press remained largely intact throughout the antebellum era. The Natchez press was a frontier press only to 1815, but it displayed characteristics of the political press from 1800 to 1860. Large cities, such as New York and Baltimore, also hosted large-circulation dailies known as the popular press, sometimes known as the penny press. Beginning in the 1830s, these newspapers took advantage of large metropolitan populations and advances in printing technology to reach an increasing number of readers. (For example, the New York Herald had a circulation of nearly 80,000 in 1860 when it was the largest daily in the world. The circulation for a Natchez newspaper in this period seldom numbered much above 1000.) Natchez, like most Southern cities (except New Orleans and Baltimore), lacked a population large enough to take advantage of the technology that made the popular press possible. It is mentioned here to complete the discussion of all the manifestations of the press in the United States before the Civil War.
(5) Emery, Emery, and Roberts, The Press and America, pp. 121-126.
(6) Leonard, News for All, pp. 67-71.
(7) Ibid., pp. 72-75.
(8) It is unlikely that the South could have come up with proslavery material that would have any dramatic effect in the North. Slavery As It Is very effectively refuted a number of southern beliefs about slavery as a benign institution, beneficial to blacks and whites alike. Northerners were aware of the conditions of immigrant labor because of a free, sensationalist press in New York and other large cities. Southern attempts to expose northern exploitation of the work force would not have been a surprise to anyone. Conversely, a virtual southern embargo of incendiary material effectively muzzled most frank discussion among southerners of the real consequences of slavery.
(9) Easton’s book is useful for descriptions of these laws and the manner in which they were enforced but it is arguable that the community enforced the spirit of these laws through intimidation and vigilante action. Law enforcement seldom got involved because abolitionists and other dissenters, well aware of the fate of those who defied the community, seldom challenged the laws. Clement Eaton, Freedom of Thought in the Old South (New York: Peter Smith, 1951 ).
(10) Mack Buckley Swearingen, The Early Life of George Poindexter (Chicago: University of Chicago Libraries, 1934), pp. 125-137.
(11) John Quitman, a native of New York who moved to Mississippi as a young man, eventually became one of Mississippi’s most illustrious statesmen. He served as governor of the state (twice), as congressman, and in several state offices. His service in the Mexican-American War earned him a reputation as a war hero. Some southern historians claim that Quitman, an ardent secessionist, might have been the first president of the Confederacy if he had not died after a lingering illness in 1857.
(12) Only two of the newspapers surveyed supported John Bell for the presidency in 1860. John Breckinridge won the state, but Bell won in the two counties that had newspapers supporting him, despite the fact that both counties also had newspapers that supported Breckinridge. One of these counties was Adams, home of the Natchez Courier. The other county was Warren, the location of Vicksburg. David L. Potter, “The Mississippi Press and the Election of 1860,” Journal of Mississippi History XXXIV (February 1972): 247-252.
(13) See Donald Brooks Kelley, “Harper’s Ferry: Prelude to Crisis in Mississippi,” Journal of Mississippi History XXVII (February 1965): 351-372; and Donald Brooks Kelley, “Intellectual Isolation: Gateway to Secession in Mississippi,” Journal of Mississippi History XXXVI (February 1974): 17-37.
(14) Edwin A. Miles, “The Mississippi Press in the Jackson Era, 1824-1841,” Journal of Mississippi History XIX (January 1957): 1-20.
(15) William Johnson was a free black man in Natchez who operated a lucrative and popular barbershop and other business ventures. From 1835 to his untimely death in 1851, he kept a diary that has proven valuable to historians because of the many details it provides of the social, economic and political life of Natchez.