Partisanship in the Antislavery Press: Teaching Exercises and Questions

Partisanship in the Antislavery Press during the 1844 Run of an Abolition Candidate for President
By Erika Pribanic-Smith

Pribanic-Smith relied solely on newspapers as the primary source material for Partisanship in the Antislavery Press during the 1844 Run of an Abolition Candidate for President. Not only are antislavery newspapers the most logical sources to answer questions about how antislavery newspapers behaved, but newspapers in general also are an excellent window into the politics and culture of the eras in which they were published. Pribanic-Smith considers herself an historian of the cultural school, which Wm. David Sloan defines as a group that focuses on the impact of society on the media rather than the media on society. Cultural historians believe the primary factors determining the nature of the newspaper are the conditions of the society in which it operated. As such, Pribanic-Smith sees newspapers of the antebellum era as a reflection of antebellum culture.

She also recognizes that newspapers were an integral component to that culture. Marshall McLuhan, Paul Starr, and others explain that print culture dominated American society during the nineteenth century, creating a public dependent on the printed word for information, communication, and entertainment, via books, pamphlets, broadsides, magazines, and most importantly, newspapers. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Bernard Bailyn set a precedent for discovering the ideas, beliefs, and attitudes defining a given culture by focusing on the dominant mode of publishing written argument in that culture when he used pamphlets to study the ideological origins of the American Revolution. Following his lead, Pribanic-Smith used antislavery newspapers to reveal the ideology of the different abolitionist factions. The partisan newspapers of the era also can be used to reveal the ideology of the various political parties at the time, and other special interest publications can be used to reveal the ideology of those involved in the occupations, organizations, and movements by whom and for whom they were published.

Sources:

Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992).

David Crowley and Paul Heyer, eds., Communication in History: Technology, Culture, Society, 2nd ed. (White Plains, NY: Longman, 1995).

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1994).

Wm. David Sloan, Perspectives on Mass Communication History (Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1991).

Paul Starr, The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communication (New York: Basic Books, 2004).

 

Questions for Discussion:

In reading Partisanship in the Antislavery Press during the 1844 Run of an Abolition Candidate for President, what did you learn about the ideology of the Garrisonians?

What did you learn about the ideology of the Liberty Party?

What ideas did the two factions have in common?

What were the major differences between them?

What, in general, do the abolitionist newspapers reveal about the society in which they were published? What conditions existed in that society that influenced the nature of those publications?

What conditions existed in that society that influenced the nature of the press in general?  In particular, what about antebellum culture created an emphasis on politics among its newspapers, including those that claimed they weren’t politically-oriented?

How is the media of today different? What conditions exist in our society that influence the nature of modern media?

 

Primary source exercises:

The following exercises encourage students to examine historical newspapers in order to learn more about the nature of the newspapers as well as the society in which they were produced. A number of databases, both those freely available online and those that can be accessed through academic institutions, contain newspaper content.

Following are some resources that would be useful for these exercises:

19th Century U.S. Newspapers – This academic access database contains a number of general interest and political newspapers of the antebellum era.

Accessible Archives – In addition to general interest and partisan newspapers and magazines, this academic access/subscription database includes a number of special interest publications, including The Liberator, National Anti-Slavery Standard, and other abolitionist publications.

American Periodicals – This academic access database contains periodicals published between 1740 and 1940, including political and special interest publications.

Chronicling America – Freely available through the Library of Congress website, this database allows users to search or browse partisan, general interest, and special interest newspapers by year and by state. Among its holdings are the abolitionist publications Anti-Slavery Bugle (Ohio), Green Mountain Freeman (Vermont), Herald of Freedom (Kansas), and Voice of Freedom (Vermont).

Friend of Man  – This antislavery newspaper is digitally archived and freely available through the Cornell University website.

NewspaperCat  – Freely available through the University of Florida website, this database allows users to locate digitized historical newspaper content by search or by browsing according to geographical location.

Slavery and Anti-Slavery: A Transnational Archive – This academic access database includes a massive collection of books, pamphlets, newspapers, magazines, legal documents, court records, monographs, manuscripts, and maps from several countries, all relating to the topic of slavery.

Locating non-digital sources:

Historians should not limit their research to materials that have been digitized. For Partisanship in the Antislavery Press during the 1844 Run of an Abolition Candidate for President, Pribanic-Smith made ample use of newspapers that have been preserved on microfilm, including several stored at institutions across the country that were delivered to her university via interlibrary loan.

WorldCat, an academic access database, is a useful tool for finding newspapers relevant to a particular study and determining whether the scholars’ institution holds the title or if it would need to be ordered via the institution’s interlibrary loan process.

 

 Exercise 1: The Partisan Press

Arguing that a partisan style of newspapers dominated during the antebellum era, Pribanic-Smith determined that even the abolitionist press behaved like the partisan press during the 1844 election. During much of the antebellum era, the two major political parties were the Whigs and the Democrats; consequently, a majority of partisan newspapers at the time were Whig or Democrat.

For this exercise, students should locate and examine at least one Whig newspaper and at least one antebellum Democratic newspaper from the same time frame. Though they don’t have to be from the same year, it would be most helpful for comparison to locate newspapers published within five years of each other.

Answer the following questions:

  • What was the ratio of news content to opinion?
  • Did they contain any news content that was not political? If so, what?
  • How objective was the news reporting?
  • How would you describe the opinion items? What type of language was used?
  • How much of the content focused on individuals versus general party politics?
  • How much of the content promoted party policies, philosophies, and candidates in a positive way? What methods did editors use in such promotion?
  • How much of the content defended the party, its candidates, and/or the newspapers’ editors against attacks from other newspapers? What methods did editors use in such defenses?
  • How much of the content attacked the opposing party, its candidates, and/or newspaper editors? What methods did editors use in such attacks?
  • What do the parties’ newspapers tell you about the ideology of the Whig and Democratic parties?
  • What similarities existed between the two parties? What were their major differences?

 

Exercise 2: Covering Elections in the Nineteenth Century

This article argues that Liberty Party newspapers covered the 1844 election by promoting their candidate James Birney and the Liberty Party’s platform while defending against attacks by Whigs, Democrats, and Garrisonians and attacking all three of those entities in return. Garrisonian newspapers promoted and defended their ideals, especially non-voting, while attacking the Liberty, Whig, and Democratic parties. Pribanic-Smith noted that such coverage was typical of the partisan press and that Whig and Democratic newspapers behaved the same way during the election.

The primary function of a true partisan newspaper during 1844 election was to campaign on behalf of its selected candidate, but that purpose eventually changed. For this exercise, students should explore newspapers’ role in elections during the rest of nineteenth century by looking at newspapers in 20-year increments (1864 and 1884). Newspapers published in 1824 are more difficult to find but would be interesting for comparison if students can locate them.

To get a good sense of the election coverage, students should examine at least three newspaper issues during each election; they could be from the same newspaper or different newspapers. Issues published close to election day would be most useful.

For each election, answer the following questions:

  • How much of the newspapers’ overall content is devoted to the election?
  • What is the ratio of opinion to news items?
  • What type of news items relate to the election?
  • What are the topics covered, and how are they reported?
  • How objective are the news items?
  • What is the focus of opinion items relating to the election?
  • What type of language is used in opinion pieces?
  • How much of the election coverage focuses on a particular issue (like the 1844 coverage focused on annexation and slavery)?
  • How would you characterize the newspapers’ role in this election?
  • What conditions of society at the time may have influenced the way newspapers covered the election?

Once students have answered the above for each election, they should answer the following:

  • Overall, how would you compare the way newspapers handled elections in 1844, 1864, and 1884 (and 1824, if you found newspapers from that time)?
    • What differences do you see?
    • What are the similarities?
    • How would you explain the differences?

 

Exercise 3: The Abolitionist Press

This article focuses on the abolitionist press, noting that they professed to be singularly devoted to the cause of freeing slaves but that they engaged in a great deal of political debate during the 1844 election. For this exercise, students should examine antislavery newspapers published at any time during the antebellum era to answer the following questions:

  • What kind of news items did abolitionist newspapers publish?
  • Why do you think they published the news items they did?
  • How much of the content was opinion?
  • What arguments did the writers make for abolishing slavery?
  • What kind of language did the writers use?
  • Do the arguments differ among different newspapers? How so? How would you explain any differences?

 

Exercise 4: The Special Interest Press

Pribanic-Smith emphasizes that the antislavery newspapers were a subset of publications that fall under the category of “special interest.” Looking at other types of special interest publications of the nineteenth century provides useful insight on the culture of that era. Temperance newspapers were common, as were agricultural, religious, and suffragist publications, among others. Some combined multiple interests, such as The Lily, which was a temperance and abolitionist newspaper for women.

One option to study special interest publications would be to find a variety of special interest newspapers and answer the following questions:

  • What is the ratio of news to opinion?
  • What type of information do these newspapers provide on the specific special interest? How is the information presented?
  • Do they contain any news items outside of the special interest?
  • How objectively is news reported in special interest newspapers?
  • What kind of language do the editors use in opinion pieces?
  • What can you learn about the ideology of the various special interest proponents from reading their newspapers?

Another option would be for students to find out what type of special interest publications were most common during the antebellum era in the state where their institution is located and discuss what conditions existed in that time and place to create an audience for that type of publication.