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From the Editor's Desk to the Corridors of Power
Jeffrey L. Pasley. "The Tyranny of Printers": Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001. xviii + 517 pp. Maps, figures, appendixes, notes, bibliography, and index. $37.50.
Without press coverage, a modern American politician might as well be stranded on a desert island. For some, to be sure, such a fate might be preferable to relentlessly negative coverage, but for most, the key to managing their message is the careful and regular calibration of their relationship to the press. Politicians court members of the press even as they hold them at arm's length. This complicated dynamic, according to Jeffrey L. Pasley's fascinating study, "The Tyranny of Printers": Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic, has its roots in the party politics of the early republic.
Currently an historian at the University of Missouri, Pasley used to be a political staffer, speechwriter, and journalist, experience that clearly informs his narrative about the convergence of party politics and political publishing. A central theme of his study is that American party politics was built on the backs of largely unsung political underlings, the early republican newspaper printers and editors. Coming from humble origins, armed with artisanal pride, and inspired by the republican strains of the Revolution, these printers used their presses to fashion and disseminate the ideology of an emerging opposition party politics in the 1790s. Without them, politics would have remained business-as-usual, with elites ruling the roost, offering only token crumbs of autonomy to a deferential public. Expecting relatively little in return, the printers inserted themselves and their presses into the process, energizing popular interest in politics and creating party platforms. Pasley traces the fate of these activists and those who followed them into political newspaper publishing in the early decades of the nineteenth century.
There has been much scholarly work on political newspapers and their editors, but it is often difficult for historians of the press to avoid a particular kind of whiggish narrative: Along with geographic expansion, and the transportation and industrial revolutions, the press grew increasingly influential and this progress led, ultimately, to the neutral reporting from which [End Page 220] we benefit today. This neutrality has, perhaps ironically, led to an extraordinarily powerful news media. Pasley argues that this is oversimplified because neutrality was not a goal of early national newspaper editing, even when editors disingenuously stated that their papers were intended to tell all sides of a story. Rather, the intensely partisan ideologies represented in newspapers of the early republic led to a clear demarkation between traditional and republican values, and the editors responsible for the papers' content—especially those with republican agendas—began to see themselves as central figures in the development of American political consciousness.
However, Pasley's great contribution comes not so much in his reading of the rise of political newspaper politics, as is suggested by his book's subtitle, but in the way he evokes the political landscape of the early republic. In this sense, it belongs on a reading list with Gordon Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1993) and Joyce Appleby's Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans (2000), both of which consider the transformative effects of the Revolution on American society and politics. It has always been difficult for American historians to demonstrate to a complacent public just how much politics mattered in the early republic. Pasley's interpretation makes clear that the stakes were high and that American political ideologies grew from the early struggles between political editors, their political patrons, and their opponents.
Pasley's basic narrative goes like this: in the colonial period, newspaper printers had little power or inclination to express their political views in the pages of their papers. Limited by a colonial market that could only support so many newspapers, printers worked hard not to alienate precious subscribers and advertisers, and not to draw negative (and sometimes...