Wednesday, June 29, 2005

BOOKS: The Tyranny of Printers

I just finished a fascinating history book, The Tyranny of Printers: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic, by Jeffrey Pasley (a history prof at Univ of Missouri Columbia, and a former staff writer at the New Republic). The book traces the evolution from a relatively apolitical printing trade to a highly politicized press, from the founding of the republic up through the Jackson administration. While the book is a solid contribution to historical scholarship, it is written in a highly accessible style, providing plenty of context for those of us who have forgotten many of the details of high school US History class. But what makes the book most readable is Pasley's style of substantiating his general accounts of demographic and political trends with numerous engaging mini-biographies of specific printers, a colorful lot of characters, to illustrate his points. For me, the book also went beyond forgotten high school history to explain things I never knew about the development of party politics, about the "Federalists" (who stood for the opposite of what is called "federalism" today) and the "Republicans" (the precursor of the modern Democratic party). Given today's highly polarized political climate, it is especially interesting to read about the founding fathers' fears of party politics. In the earliest American elections, it was considered quite unseemly for a candidate to campaign or promote himself in any way. Thomas Jefferson was conflicted in his views of the press, working behind the scenes to encourage a pro-Republican press, while making every effort to personally disassociate himself from newspapers.

This book first came to my attention in the course of my family history research, as it turns out that my great-great-great-great-grandfather Charles Holt is one of the printers given biographical treatment in the book. Holt served as an example of printers who became politicized by the infamous Sedition Act under John Adams' presidency. He started publishing his newspaper intending to be neutral, printing all viewpoints, but quickly discovered that the Federalists who utterly dominated Connecticut would not countenance a newspaper that published any viewpoints other than their own. Just for publishing diverse views, he was labeled "a Jacobin, a Frenchman, a disorganizer, and one who would sell his country." (Sound familiar?) Frustrated in his attempts to be a neutral printer, he dug in, editorializing:
There are generally two sides to every subject. To the public opinion, in a free country, there ever will and should be. And it is the duty of an impartial printer to communicate to the public on both sides freely. But nine tenths of the newspapers in Connecticut are decidedly partial to one side, and keep the other totally out of sight. This is not fair.... The public may therefore rest assured that so long as my brethren in this state print on one side only, so long will I print on the other.
(In other words, Holt anticipated by a couple of centuries Rush Limbaugh's quip that "I am equal time.") Eventually, Holt was convicted under the Sedition Act, heavily fined, and jailed for six months. But as Pasley shows through Holt's example and many others, the Sedition Act, which criminalized criticism of the government, and which intended to stifle the much-feared evils of a politicized press, instead had the opposite effect. A whole generation of printers became more politicized than ever before, and The Sedition Act was not only repealed, but a newly energized explicitly Republican press put Thomas Jefferson into office.

It is amazing how timely and relevant some of the issues of 200 years ago seem, with parallels to today's politically divided climate. (Just as one example, I was struck by Pasley's comment on a trend in the wake of Jefferson's election: "there was a sudden awakening of libertarianism among some Federalists now that some of the weapons of state were in Republican hands." Not unlike our present-day Democrats who are rediscovering federalism, and our Republicans who think government should be small except when they're in control of it.) I also enjoyed getting to know the many colorful characters who illustrated this history book. I think anyone who enjoys politics and history will greatly enjoy this book.

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