Social Media in the 1790s

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Jordan Taylor, a history professor at Smith College, writes, “Our familiar challenges with verification, fake news, irresponsible sharing, and partisan media would have been familiar  to those who lived through the tumultuous 1790s.”  She adds, “spend an hour with the newspapers of the 1790s and it will be easy to spot their similarities with our present media landscape.”

Read his entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Lawrence Kreiser

KreiserLawrence Kreiser is Associate Professor of History at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. This interview is based on his book Marketing the Blue and Gray: Newspaper Advertising and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Marketing the Blue and Gray?

LKA billboard in Alabama proclaiming a nationally distributed soft drink as a “Southern Original,” caused me, indirectly, to write a book on newspaper advertising and the Civil War.  I wondered whether the sign had increased sales in Tuscaloosa, where I teach?  Did it even run on the West Coast, or in the Northeast?  Did I, who grew up in the Midwest, and refer to soda as “pop,” somehow gain identity as a southerner if I purchased a two-liter

Those questions turned into a research project when I realized that one might ask similar questions about advertising and the Civil War.  Although historians make use of contemporary newspaper headlines and editorials to write many excellent studies on the Union and Confederacy, they all but ignore the advertisements.  Yet, between 1861 and 1865, merchants took advantage of the wide readership of newspapers to pitch everything from war bonds to biographies on military and political leaders, and from patent medicines that promised to cure any battlefield wound to “secession bonnets” and “Fort Sumter” cockades.  My book is the first full-length study on Union and Confederate newspaper advertising, and it’s a project that I thoroughly enjoyed researching and writing.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Marketing the Blue and Gray?

LKThe book argues that commercialism and patriotism became increasingly intertwined as Union and Confederate war aims evolved, with Yankees and Rebels believing that buying decisions were an important expression of their civic pride.  The notices also helped to expand American democracy by allowing their diverse readership to participate in almost every aspect of the Civil War, with readers perusing notices for, among others, the capture of deserters, the reunion of former slaves with their families, and the embalming, and transporting home, of family members and friends killed in battle. 

JF: Why do we need to read Marketing the Blue and Gray?

LK: Americans continue to debate the role of advertising and society.  Do words and images from clothing companies, restaurants, and political lobbying groups, to name just a few examples, exert too much influence?  My research helps to provide insight into the debate by exploring advertising while still in its early stages.

Still, although we live in a commercialized age, my study avoids using the nineteenth century to anticipate the twenty-first century. There are parallels between sales notices then and now, especially with lofty appeals mixed with low gimmickry; and a better life balanced against greater appetites. But throughout the book, my focus remains on how advertisements provide an understanding of mid-nineteenth-century Americans as a people and a nation modernizing even while they passed through a period of great peril and suffering. To view these notices as an idle curiosity would mean missing a window into how advertisers influenced their readers’ lives and society during the most turbulent domestic event in the nation’s history.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

LK: Great question!  The short answer is on the fourth-grade flag football fields, when I realized that I had not one iota of the athletic talent to become the quarterback of the Cleveland Browns, my hometown team!  The more serious answer is that history claimed me.  I have been very fortunate to do what I love—working with great students and colleagues at Stillman College and researching, to my mind, the pivotal moment in American history.  I know that it sounds cliché, but sometimes I can’t believe that I get paid to do what I do.  I hope that all of my students go onto careers where they have such rewarding opportunities and wonderful experiences.

JF: What is your next project?

LKI’m researching the role of newspaper and magazine advertising in national reconciliation during the late nineteenth century.  Almost as soon as the guns had fallen silent in 1865, publishing companies marketed their war-themed histories and memoirs as “objective” and “factual,” even though these works often were highly partisan.  Patent medicine dealers pitched their pills and potions as having saved the lives of almost countless numbers of soldiers, whether they had worn the blue or the gray.

While national advertisers attempted to find a profit in downplaying the results and causes of the war, local merchants pursued a different marketing strategy.  In the former Confederate states, store owners encouraged potential customers to “buy southern” to help the region regain its former economic clout.  In the black-owned press, salesmen encouraged readers to patronize their businesses as a blow for self-sufficiency and, ultimately, civil rights.  Whether in the North or South, veterans formed a new commercial market.  Merchants pitched their material wares and services based on why these men had fought and how they transitioned to peacetime.  The advertising pages offer a treasure trove of primary source materials on the memory and meaning of the Civil War during the Gilded Age.

As a closing note, and veering slightly off topic, thanks, John, for maintaining the “Way of Improvement” blog.  I find it fascinating, and appreciate the time you spend on its upkeep.

JF: Thanks, Lawrence!

You Never Know What You Will Find at Goodwill

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For example, you may find an issue of the Pennsylvania Journal and the Weekly Advertiser from 1774.  Here is a taste of Marielle Mondon’s article at the Philadelphia Voice:

A rare copy of a Philadelphia newspaper from 1774, emblazoned with the iconic “Unite or Die” snake, was discovered at a Goodwill center in New Jersey.

The 244-year-old issue of the Pennsylvania Journal and the Weekly Advertiser was published Dec. 28, 1774, predating the start of the Revolutionary War by just a few months when the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord in on April 19, 1775.

The copy is also one of few papers from the Revolutionary Era that had a “Unite or Die” snake masthead – a variation of Benjamin Franklin’s “Join, or Die” emblem first published in 1754 (long before it became inspiration for the Sixers). The only other known copies of the paper with that date are at Illinois State University, the University of Chicago, and Yale University.

The paper was reportedly brought to a Goodwill collection center in Woodbury, Gloucester County, framed and under glass, according to NJ Pen. The donor is unknown.

Read the rest here.

 

The Morning Headlines are Back!

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The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog intern Devon Hearn is back in the saddle after spending the summer in Kenya.  This means that our “Morning Headlines” feature is also back.  Check in every morning to see daily headlines from The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Wall Street Journal, the BBC, CNN, and Fox News.  And for those who are local, we also post the daily headline from The Harrisburg Patriot News.

We have found that teachers have found these headlines useful not only for getting up to speed with current events, but also for teaching their students how to detect bias in various news sources.

Partisanship and Publishing the Declaration of Independence

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Over at Age of Revolution blog, Emily Sneff of the Declaration Resources Project writes about the partisan fights over the publication of the Declaration of Independence in the early republic.  Here is a taste of her piece:

The tradition of publishing the Declaration annually on July 4 dates much further back, however. In fact, it appears that the first printer to republish the Declaration of Independence on July 4 with the intention of marking the anniversary was also the first printer ever to publish the Declaration: John Dunlap. He and David C. Claypoole included the text on the front page of The Pennsylvania Packet, and Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia, PA) on July 4, 1786, the tenth anniversary. By 1801, republishing the Declaration of Independence in newspapers on or around July 4 was a trend on the verge of becoming a tradition and an expectation. The Telegraphe and Daily Advertiser (Baltimore, MD), for example, first included the Declaration by request on July 4, 1799, and republished the text annually through 1806. Before 1801, only a handful of newspapers printed the Declaration in any given year. In 1801, at least twelve newspapers printed the text in late June or early July; by 1806, that number more than doubled. As the individual who requested that the Telegraphe print the Declaration in 1799 wrote to the printer, “you have it in your power to gratify all without displeasing any, by giving it a place…” But, as last year’s tweets proved, even a text as intrinsic to our national identity as the Declaration can become polarizing. The 1801 uptick in July 4 newspaper printings, for example, coincided with a tense moment of political transition, and crystallized in part because of the association between the new President and the Declaration.

Read the entire post here.

How *Believe Me* Can Help You With Your Religion Tourism

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Bill Tammeus, the former “Faith” columnist at The Kansas City Startook a copy of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump on a recent visit to the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists in Cincinnati.

I will let him take it from here:

CINCINNATI — While I was here this past weekend for the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, I had with me a book that I’m reading for review, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, by John Fea. (I’ll publish my review here on the blog a bit later.)

And in it I ran across the name of a divinity school in Cincinnati of which I’d never heard — Lane Theological Seminary. Fea, in describing the many fears that have plagued evangelicals across American history, notes that “Lyman Beecher, a well-known New England Congregationalist minister, became the first president of Lane. . .”

So I started hunting around (first online; later on the ground) and discovered — first on the Wikipedia entry on Lane to which I’ve linked you above and then on this Ohio History Connection site — that Lane was founded in 1830 and operated for 102 years before, finally, being merged into McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.

Read the rest here.  I am looking forward to Tammeus’s review!

Printers, Information, and the American Revolution

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Early in my career I was very interested in the communication of information in early America.  One of the first pieces I ever published was an essay on the way letters were used to spread the First Great Awakening in New England.  One of my favorite reads in graduate school was Richard D. Brown’s Knowledge is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America.  I remember how thrilled I was when Brown agreed to chair a panel I put together for one of the early Omohundro Institute conferences in Worcester. I continued to explore the spread of information into the New Jersey countryside in my Stony Brook doctoral dissertation and some of this research found its way into my first book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.

So needless to say, I have been taking a walk down memory lane reading the recent series at Age of Revolutions blog on information networks.

The latest installment is Joe Adelman’s piece on printers.  Here is a taste of ” ‘Meer Mechanics’ No More: How Printers Shaped Information in the Revolutionary Age”:

The men and women who physically produced the texts lauded as key to the American Revolution rarely get their due. Their absence from the story of print and the American Revolution is not by accident, nor is it because scholars have a nefarious agenda to ignore the role of printers. On the contrary, it’s exactly how most, if not all, American colonial printers portrayed themselves and their careers. In so doing, they drew on a long tradition exemplified by Benjamin Franklin’s “Apology for Printers,” published in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1731. Franklin declared that he and the Gazette were merely conveyances for the opinions of others, and that his only editorial judgment was to stay within the legal bounds of libel, opened a space for him to publish political essays and news items without claiming responsibility for them. In Franklin’s case, that decision was intentional. That characterization, it turns out, obscures the work printers were doing in their shops and along postal routes. 

Prior to the past ten years, most scholars dismissed printers as manual laborers — men and women who set type and pulled the press, but did not intervene to shape the content of the texts they brought to life. The scholarship of Robert Darnton, however, invites us to think carefully about the full range of people who contributed to printed works: authors and readers, to be sure, but also the intermediaries who brought printed materials to light, including printers, publishers, wholesalers, post riders, and others.  Though his archival research focused on the ancien régime and revolutionary France, Darnton’s methodological interventions have encouraged scholars working on other regions (including British colonial North America, for example) to consider how the processes of production, circulation, and consumption have shaped not only texts but also historical events. Scholars in the past decade have paid more attention to printers and their activities, most notably with the publication of work by Robert Parkinson, Russ Castronovo, and others.  But more broadly it remains a truism that printers were not active participants in the intellectual production of news and arguments about the Revolution.

Read the rest here.

Trump’s War on the Press in Historical Context

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Over at “Made by History,” a history blog at The Washington Post, University of Alabama history professor Joshua Rothman offers some historical context for the Trump administration’s attacks on the news media.

Here is a taste:

Accused of being purveyors of “fake news,” journalists who write stories critical of the Trump administration regularly receive warnings on social media that they or members of their family will be killed. The Twitter feeds of Jewish reporters are bombarded with images of gas chambers and ovens. Female reporters get emails telling them they will be raped. Black reporters are assailed by racial epithets and threats of lynching.

In some measure, the public’s antagonism toward the press is not new, and presidents going back to John Adams have expressed frustration with and pursued action against media coverage they believe biased or unfair. But sustained rage directed at reporters has not reached the current level of ferocity since the 1820s and 1830s, when members of the anti-slavery press faced violence and suppression as a matter of course.

Then, as now, reactionary forces aimed their vitriol and hostility at the wrong targets. Many white Americans believed that the increasingly loud voices calling for the abolition of slavery were destabilizing the United States and imperiling white lives. In reality, the problems were the injustices and distortions of democracy wrought by slavery itself. Abolitionists claimed that slaveholders and their supporters ruthlessly stifled opposition to preserve their own power. Trying to intimidate and terrorize reporters who revealed slavery for what it was only proved the point.

Read the entire piece here.

The Last Great Newspaper War?

PostCheck out James Warren’s Vanity Fair piece, “Is The New York Times Vs. The Washington Post Vs. Trump The Last Great Great Newspaper War?

The answer to Warren’s question just might be “yes.”  Here is a taste:

The financial models at the two newspapers are different, and so is what they are selling. The Post, whose coverage is Washington-driven, can never hope to match the Times’s range across culture, business, and international affairs, and the Times, whose total revenues are less today than they were a dozen years ago, cannot hope to match the deep pockets of Jeff Bezos, who sometimes earns more in a few hours, if Amazon stock goes up, than he paid for his newspaper to begin with. (Bezos made $2.5 billion—10 times what he had paid for the Post—in the two hours after Amazon’s takeover of Whole Foods was announced.) The Post is more advanced technologically than the Times and seems to recognize that the true competition, as publisher Fred Ryan Jr. put it, is “anything that engages you in your non-sleeping hours.” But both papers are ultimately built on people paying for quality.

You can argue that Trump has bought both newspapers some time—which makes you wonder if their success will continue once Trump is no longer an irresistible and unsettling object of scrutiny. Will even the world’s second-richest man lose his passion somewhere down the road? Will the fifth generation of a newspaper family be done in by what is, essentially, their one and only revenue stream? The leaders of both newspapers say they will continue to double down on content. The Times is now available in Spanish and Mandarin, with big plans in places as diverse as Mexico and Canada, Hong Kong and Australia. On the margins it hopes to generate additional revenue with gimmicky ventures such as around-the-world trips by private jet (for $135,000 a person) in the company of Times journalists.

TimesBut an existential threat is already apparent: many Americans won’t believe a thing either newspaper says, no matter how great the accuracy, attention to detail, or fair-mindedness. The sharp uptick in Times and Post readership may obscure a larger cultural change. The unequivocal evidence of Russian involvement in the presidential campaign exemplifies the state of play. In June, a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll showed that more than half of those surveyed believe that the Russians interfered in the presidential election, with about one-third believing it influenced the outcome, and more Americans buying Comey’s explanation of his dismissal than Trump’s. But half think the press has been overly dramatic and irresponsible in its Russia-related coverage, with two-thirds of Republicans simply not believing that the Russians interfered at all, despite evidence assessed by four different U.S. intelligence services. Dig deeper and you find that, while 89 percent of Democrats believe in the importance of the media’s “watchdog” role, only 42 percent of Republicans do, according to the Pew Research Center. It is the widest gap that Pew has ever seen. What’s astonishing is that in early 2016, according to Pew, Democrats and Republicans essentially agreed on the role of the press, with Republicans (77 percent) actually outpacing Democrats (74 percent) in their support.

Read the entire piece here.

 

Morning Headlines

I was talking about early national newspapers in my U.S. survey class yesterday so, for whatever reason, I felt the need to share today’s headlines.  Maybe this will become a thing.

New York Times: The Road to Nowhere” (Niger refugees)

Washington Post: “Facing Economic Pressures, N.C. lawmakers agree to repeal ‘bathroom bill.’

Wall Street Journal: “Trump’s Hoe for Rapid Reset With Russia Fades”

CNN: “It Look’s Like It’s Going to Get Even Worse for Trump”

MSNBC: “Schiff Presses for Public Hearing for Yates”

FOX News: “Down the Drain?: NC Lawmakers to Vote on Repeal of ‘Bathroom Bill'”

My Latest Piece in the Harrisburg *Patriot News*

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Here is a taste of my “The Press Was Way More Political in Jefferson’s Day–But He Defended It Anyway.”

President Trump has made a habit of attacking the press as being a promoter of “fake news,” part of a “corrupt system,” and the propagator of “lies.” His administration has made enemies of certain outlets, even locking them out of briefings.

In a speech in Melbourne, Fla., he made an appeal to American history to defend his stance, saying presidents Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln “fought with the media and called them out oftentimes on their lies. 

Trump even quoted a June 14, 1807, letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell in which Jefferson wrote “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

The President was correct about Jefferson. The Founding Father had his problems with the press. But what he didn’t note was that despite his agitation with the press, he defended a much more biased press as a necessary part of free speech.

In 1803, during his first term as President, Jefferson wrote to Pennsylvania Governor Thomas McKean suggesting that the editors of a newspaper critical of his administration should be prosecuted for “pushing its licentiousness and its lying to such a degree of prostitution as to deprive it of all credit.”

This is but one of many examples of Jefferson’s harsh words against a negative press.

But Jefferson also knew the press served an important role.

Read the rest here.

The Press Was More Political In Jefferson’s Day Than It Is Today. Yet He Defended It.

pasleyEarlier today, while speaking to a crowd in Florida, Donald Trump referenced Thomas Jefferson in a rant condemning the press and the media.  Here is what he said:

I also want to speak to you without the filter of the fake news. The dishonest media which has published one false story after another with no sources, even though they pretend they have them, they make them up in many cases, they just don’t want to report the truth and they’ve been calling us wrong now for two years. They don’t get it. By they’re starting to get it. I can tell you that. They’ve become a big part of the problem. They are part of the corrupt system. Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln and many of our greatest presidents fought with the media and called them out often times on their lies. When the media lies to people, I will never, ever let them get away with it. I will do whatever I can that. They don’t get away with it.

They have their own agenda and their agenda is not your agenda. In fact, Thomas Jefferson said, “nothing can be believed which is seen in a newspaper.” “Truth itself,” he said, “becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle,” that was June 14, my birthday, 1807….

Trump is correct about Jefferson.  The founding father had his problems with the press. Here are some more Jefferson quotes to prove it:

“I deplore… the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them… These ordures are rapidly depraving the public taste and lessening its relish for sound food. As vehicles of information and a curb on our funtionaries, they have rendered themselves useless by forfeiting all title to belief… This has, in a great degree, been produced by the violence and malignity of party spirit.” –Thomas Jefferson to Walter Jones, 1814. Read the letter and get the larger context here.

“Our printers raven on the agonies of their victims, as wolves do on the blood of the lamb.” –Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1811.  Read the letter and get the larger context here.

From 40. years experience of the wretched guesswork of the newspapers of what is not done in open day light, and of their falsehood even as to that, I rarely think them worth reading, & almost never worth notice. a ray therefore now & then from the fountain of light is like sight restored to the blind. –Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1816. Read the letter and get the larger context here.

Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day. –Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell, 1807. Read the letter and get some context here.

As for what is not true, you will always find abundance in the newspapers. –Thomas Jefferson to Barnabas Bidwell, 1806. Read the entire letter and get some context here.

So as you can see Jefferson did have his moments with the press.

But Trump is only partially correct.  These quotes need to be considered in context with Jefferson’s other remarks about the press.  Here are a few more Jefferson quotes about the relationship between a free press and the success of the American Republic.  (These are from an earlier post on the subject):

…a hereditary chief strictly limited, the right of war vested in the legislative body, a rigid economy of the public contributions, and absolute interdiction of all useless expences, will go far towards keeping the government honest and unoppressive. But the only security of all is in a free press. the force of public opinion cannot be resisted, when permitted freely to be expressed. the agitation it produces must be submitted to. it is necessary to keep the waters pure. we are all, for example in agitation even in our peaceful country. for in peace as well as in war the mind must be kept in motion.  —Thomas Jefferson to Marquis de Lafayette, November 4, 1823

The most effectual engines for [pacifying a nation] are the public papers… [A despotic] government always [keeps] a kind of standing army of newswriters who, without any regard to truth or to what should be like truth, [invent] and put into the papers whatever might serve the ministers. This suffices with the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper.  Thomas Jefferson to G.K. Van Hogendorp, October 13, 1785

Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, January 25, 1786.

When faced with this second set of quotes, Trump supporters will probably agree that a free press is important. It is hard to reject the First Amendment.

But Trump supporters would also respond by saying that today’s press is politically biased against the POTUS.  Today’s press “is liberal.”  It is a “problem.”  It is “corrupt.”  Trump supporters would say that Trump’s new “enemy” is not a free press per se, but a free press that he believes to be tainted by opposition politics.

If Trump and his followers want to make such an argument against the press, and use Jefferson to do it, I think it is important for them to realize that today’s mainstream press (CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, the network news, etc…) is far closer to being objective than the press in Thomas Jefferson’s day.  The members of the press in the early American republic were openly political and they made no bones about it.

Read Jeffrey Pasley’s excellent The Tyranny of the Printers: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic.  Here is the jacket summary:

Although frequently attacked for their partisanship and undue political influence, the American media of today are objective and relatively ineffectual compared to their counterparts of two hundred years ago. From the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth century, newspapers were the republic’s central political institutions, working components of the party system rather than commentators on it.

The lesson:  The press was actually MORE political in Jefferson’s age than it is today. Jefferson was often frustrated by it.  Yet he still found it indispensable to the success of the republic and was willing on more than one occasion to dogmatically defend it.

The Author’s Corner with Brian Gabrial

thepressandslaveryinamericaBrian Gabrial is Associate Professor and Chair of Journalism at Concordia University. This interview is based on his new book, The Press and Slavery in America 1791-1859: The Melancholy Effect of Popular Excitement (University of South Carolina Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Press and Slavery in America 1791-1859?

BG: I am a journalism historian who has long been interested in how we come to think about people or groups and how the press influences those perceptions. In particular, I was concerned with how the “mainstream” press marginalizes or silences people. My earlier research focused on the American Indian and their mistreatment in the 19th-century press. Following that, I turned my attention to the African American slave.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Press and Slavery in America 1791-1859? 

BG: The book demonstrates that slavery was the critical political issue in the three decades before the Civil War and that political intransigence over it caused the war. It importantly illustrates how white Americans’ ideas about race and racial problems had their roots in the past and have sad, contemporary resonance. 

JF: Why do we need to read The Press and Slavery in America 1791-1859?

BG: The book shows how the press was complicit partner with powerful political structures that maintained a horrific labor system. It reveals how many Americans were informed about slaves who were never a happy, docile group content with their lot. Instead these black Americans faced enormous obstacles that kept them in figurative and literal chains and yet fought for freedom when facing certain death as a result.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

BG: I have always a strong interest in history, but I didn’t want to become a historian until graduate school and had an incredible mentor and advisor who gave me the intellectual freedom explore ideas about cultural history and the press’s place and role in that history.

JF: What is your next project?

BG: I am currently working on another long-term media discourse study that I call “Manifest Destiny north.” It concerns the 19th-century relationship between the United States and Canada (British North America) before Canada’s 1867 confederation. The focus is how the American press reflected an idea that Canada rightfully belonged to the United States. To counter this, the Canadian press reflected its own ideas about Canadian nationality and identity. Like the Press and Slavery book, it may show how these ideas retain contemporary resonance.

JF: Thanks, Brian!

Eric Foner on the *New York Daily News*

Growing-up as a working-class kid in North Jersey my family subscribed to two daily newspapers: The Morristown Daily Record and the Newark Star-Ledger.   In addition, my father would always bring home his worn and coffee-stained copy of the New York Daily News.  On the weekends we got the Sunday Daily News.  (I never remember seeing a copy of The New York Times in my house).

I always read the Daily News the same way. Since I was a New York sports fanatic I would always start with the back of the paper and work my way toward the middle.  I was a big fan of the cartoons of Bill Gallo. When I got to the end of the sports section I would  flip to the front page and start reading the non-sports-related news.  I always read Jimmy Breslin’s column, but I am not quite sure why.  

Needless to say, I was thrilled back in 2010 when I wrote my first piece for the Daily News.  

I thought about those days in the 1970s reading the New York Daily News when I ran across historian Eric Foner‘s letter to the editor published in the October 6, 2015 issue of The New York Times.  Here it is:

Your article about the transformation of The Daily News (“Layoffs and Digital Shift at The Daily News May Signal the Tabloid Era’s End,” news article, Sept. 28) brings back memories of my days as a young City College history professor in the 1970s at the time of open admissions.

The students hailed from every conceivable racial and national background, and had widely differing degrees of preparation for college. In addition to history courses, I was assigned to teach remedial reading (a subject in which I had no training whatever).

I told the students at the outset to bring The New York Times to class each day; we would work on reading comprehension and vocabulary and also discuss what was going on in the world. The next day only a handful of students arrived with the paper. It turned out that The Times was simply not for sale in the neighborhoods where they lived. So we switched to The Daily News, available at every newsstand in New York.

Their reading improved during the term. Equally important, they learned a heck of a lot about the city in which they lived.

ERIC FONER

Pennsylvania History Wrap-Up

Yesterday was the last day of classes for the Spring 2015  semester at Messiah College.  It was also the last day of my Pennsylvania History course.  Teaching this course at Messiah has been an interesting challenge.  Pennsylvania History is taken by a cross-section of students: history majors, history majors with a public history concentration, and general education students pursuing a “pluralism” distribution requirement.  In other words, some of the students get pretty fired up about the study of the past, while others are just enduring the course in order to get their pluralism credits “out of the way.”

The History Department at Messiah hopes to achieve multiple goals and purposes with this course. First, we hope that our students will gain content knowledge and learn how to think like historians. Second, we want them to develop an appreciation for the state in which they live or are attending college.  Third, we want to teach them practical skills for “doing” history.  These include digital history, local history, and oral history.

So how did this all work out?

In terms of delivering content, we read all of Pencak and Miller’s Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth.  Students had a quiz on every chapter, exposing them to content from native Americans prior to the arrival of William Penn all the way up to the turn of the 21st century.  Most of the lectures in the class played off of my strengths in early American history.  We covered Pennsylvania history up to the Civil War.  These lectures focused on the  native American-European contact, William Penn and the Quakers, the connections between religious freedom and liberalism in the colonial era, the Paxton Boys Riots, the Enlightenment in Philadelphia, the American Revolution, the Whiskey Rebellion, early republican politics, and the Civil War in Pennsylvania..

Early in the semester the students did some work on the 1900 census for the city of Harrisburg.  They matched the names on the census records with the names on the 1900 membership rolls of the Market Square Presbyterian Church.  We were then able to begin identifying the religious commitments of the people on the census and, with the help of Digital Harrisburg guru David Pettegrew, were able to mark the Presbyterians on a 1900 map of the city.  As might be expected, Presbyterians lived in some of the most high-end neighborhoods of Harrisburg, especially those neighborhoods situated along the Susquehanna River.  Thanks to some ethnic mapping done by the Digital Harrisburg project, we were also able to compare the places where Presbyterians tended to live in 1900 with the  places where Germans (mostly Lutherans and Catholics), Irish (mostly Catholics), Greeks (mostly Orthodox), and African Americans (most AME or Baptist) lived.

Presbyterians in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, circa 1900

The students were also required to complete an oral history project.  They interviewed someone who experienced a significant event in Pennsylvania History, prepared a transcript of the interview, and then used the transcript to write an eight-page paper on that particular event, using the interview as their only primary source.  Popular topics included rural Pennsylvania and the World War II homefront, the Three Mile Island meltdown of 1979, agricultural and family life in Pennsylvania, and the history of various religious organizations and denominations.  Students were held to professional standards of oral history practice.  One student loved the assignment so much that she wants to pursue an M.A. in history with a concentration in oral history.

Finally, students were asked to contribute to the Digital Harrisburg Project through an exploration of Catholicism in the city during the years 1900-1910.  Each student was given a ten-month period from a Harrisburg newspaper (thanks Newspapers.com) and told to write a five page history of Catholicism in Harrisburg during that period.  We then spent a couple of class periods trying to redact their various reports into some kind of narrative.  We never did decide on one overarching theme that defined Harrisburg Catholicism in this period, but we did spend a lot of time talking about the relationship between Catholicism and ethnic identity, immigration in the city, the Harrisburg Catholic response to the assassination of McKinley, Protestant-Catholic relations in Harrisburg, the local response to the death of Pope Leo XIII, and the building of the Cathedral of St. Patrick.

I am not sure all of my students were thrilled about doing these assignments.  Some didn’t really care about history.  Others wanted more content and fewer skills-based assignments. Some had no interested in Harrisburg.  But in general, like all diligent Messiah College students, they did the assignments with little complaint and perhaps even a bit of good cheer.  For a lot of them this was their first exposure to a history course and how historians think differently than nurses, engineers, or business professionals.

Keep your eye on the Digital Harrisburg Project website.  Some of the stuff that the class produced this semester may eventually find its way there.

Liz Covart on "The Art of the Obituary"

I am so glad to have Liz Covart on our team for the 2014 AHA.  Liz’s blog Uncommonplace Book is must reading for independent historians or any historian who wants to develop a writing platform and speak to public audiences.  Yesterday Liz attended a session entitled “Historians, Journalists, and the Challenges of Getting It Right: The Art and Craft of the Obituary.”  Here is her report:

On Thursday January 2, 2014, I attended “Historians, Journalists, and the Challenges of Getting it Right: The Art and Craft of the Obituary.” Sponsored by the National History Center, this roundtable panel included Journalism professor Janice R. Hume (University of Georgia), Adam Bernstein, Editor at The Washington Post, New York Times reporter Adam Clymer, and panel chair, Martin H. Kaplan (University of Southern California). Kaplan posed questions to each panelist and allowed the other panelists to chime in with their thoughts afterwards.

The panel imparted fun and informative information about obituaries, their history, and the ethics involved in writing them.

Janet R. Hume provided historical information and contextualized the panelists’ discussion. Hume wrote the book on early obituaries. Obituaries in American Culture surveys more than 8,000 newspaper obituaries between 1818 and 1930.

According to Hume, obituaries in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America reported on the qualities that people admired about the deceased. They tended to be sentimental pieces written by editors who used familial accounts as source information. (Prior to the Civil War newspapers did not have reporters to conduct interviews with people who knew the deceased.) As a result of this source material and a strong Christian influence, early obituaries tended to be overly polite; they tried to fit people into categories that they did not fit into because they wanted to highlight the deceased’s moral goodness.

Hume also remarked on how early American obituaries discussed dying in metaphorical and poetic terms. People did not die. Instead, they were “scathed by the wing of the angel of death.”

Finally, Hume discussed the obituary as a historical source. Early obituaries reflect the cultural resonance of death stories with nineteenth- and twentieth-century Americans. Hume cautioned historians to be careful with how they use obituaries as obituary writers have a cultural filter that they impose on their writing. She also stated that online obituary message boards and comment threads offer scholars a new view on how our contemporaries participate in the bereavement process by interacting with obituaries.

Adam Bernstein discussed the logistics of being a modern-day obituary writer. First and foremost, obituaries are news stories. They impart the news that someone has died and function as an “accountability” story for the life and accomplishments of the deceased.

The Washington Post publishes approximately 2,000 obituaries a year and has about 400 advance obituaries on file. Newspapers keep obituaries on file for the President and other famous and important national and world leaders in case something happens. These advance copies give the obituary reporter a draft that they can quickly update, which in turn helps the writers keep their publications on top of the news cycle.

Bernstein also noted that modern-day newspapers are more egalitarian about who gets an obituary. Prior to the 1980s, a person who read obituaries may have thought that few women and African-Americans died. Newspapers often printed obituaries for white men, but rarely for women and African-Americans.

In contrast with The Washington Post, Adam Clymer noted that The New York Times does not print obituaries for local people and the NYT has approximately 1500 advance obituaries on file. Clymer also discussed the art of interviewing people for an advance obituary. Clymer calls the person and tells them that he is a reporter with The New York Times and that he would like to interview them about the story of their political career. Often his subjects do not realize who he is or what he is writing. Most assume that “it is about time” that The New York Times has called for their story. Some of his interviewees figure out his purpose, but most do not know that they are recording their thoughts and achievements for posterity.

The audience question and answer session started several interesting, brief discussions about the differences between American obituaries and their British counterparts, how obituary writers need to stick to the “public” facts of a person’s life while historians remain free to probe into the personal details of a deceased person’s life, and recognized that poets like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Walt Whitman wrote some of the most interesting early obituaries in verse.

Thanks, Liz.  Stay tuned for Liz’s next post on a session on writing history for public audiences.

My Hometown Paper Retracts Its 1863 Editorial on the Gettysburg Address

In case you have not heard, the Harrisburg (PA) Patriot-News, known in 1863 as the Patriot & Union, did not like Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  In light of tomorrow’s 150th anniversary of the address, the newspaper has decided to retract its editorial.  Here is the editorial:

A Voice from the Dead We have read the oration of Mr. Everett. We have read the little speechesof President Lincoln, as reported for and published in his party press, and we have read the remarks of the Hon. Secretary of State, Wm. H. Seward,all delivered on the occasion of dedicating the National Cemetery, a plot ofground set apart for the burial of the dead who fell at Gettysburg in thememorable strife which occurred there between the forces of the FederalGovernment and the troops of the Confederacy of seceded States.To say of Mr. Everett’s oration that it rose to the height which the occasiondemanded, or to say of the President’s remarks that they fell below ourexpectations, would be alike false. Neither the orator nor the jestersurprised or deceived us. Whatever may be Mr. Everett’s failings he doesnot lack sense – whatever may be the President’s virtues, he does notpossess sense. Mr. Everett failed as an orator, because the occasion was amockery, and he knew it, and the President succeeded, because he actednaturally, without sense and without constraint, in a panorama which wasgotten up more for his benefit and the benefit of his party than for the gloryof the nation and the honor of the dead. We can readily conceive that the thousands who went there went asmourners, to view the burial place of their dead, to consecrate, so far ashuman agency could, the ground in which the slain heroes of the nation,standing in relationship to them of fathers, husbands, brothers, orconnected by even remoter ties of marriage or consanguinity, were to beinterred. To them the occasion was solemn; with them the motive washonest, earnest and honorable. But how was it with the chief actors in thepageant, who had no dead buried, or to be buried there; from none of whoseloins had sprung a solitary hero, living or dead, of this war which was begotten of their fanaticism and has been ruled by their whims?They stood there, upon that ground, not with hearts stricken with grief orelated by ideas of true glory, but coldly calculating the political advantages which might be derived from the solemn ceremonies of the dedication. We will not include in this category of heartless men the orator of the day; but evidently he was paralyzed by the knowledge that he was surrounded by unfeeling, mercenary men, ready to sacrifice their country and theliberties of their countrymen for the base purpose of retaining power and

accumulating wealth. Hi oration was therefore cold, insipid, unworthy theoccasion and the man. We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and thatthey shall be no more repeated or thought of.But the Secretary of State is a man of note. He it was who first fulminatedthe doctrine of the irrepressible conflict; and on the battle field and burialground of Gettysburg he did not hesitate to re-open the bleeding wound,and proclaim anew the fearful doctrine that we are fighting all these bloody battles, which have drenched our land in gore, to upset the Constitution,emancipate the negro and bind the white man in the chains of despotism.On that ground which should have been sacred from the pollution ofpolitics, even the highest magnate in the land, next to the Presidenthimself, did not hesitate to proclaim the political policy and fixed purposeof the administration; a policy which if adhered to will require more groundthan Gettysburg to hold our dead, and which must end in the ruin of thenation. The dead of Gettysburg will speak from their tombs; they will raisetheir voices against this great wickedness and implore our rulers todiscard from their councils the folly which is destroying us, and return tothe wise doctrines of the Fathers, to the pleadings of Christianity, to thecompromises of the Constitution, which can alone save us. Let our rulershearken to the dead, if they will not to the living – for from every tomb which covers a dead soldier, if they listen attentively they will hear asolemn sound invoking them to renounce partisanship for patriotism, andto save the country from the misery and desolation which, under theirpresent policy, is inevitable.