- "The Soft Answer":The National Era's Network of Understanding
In January 1847, shortly after shutting down operations of his Cincinnati-based Weekly Herald and Philanthropist, well-respected editor Dr. Gamaliel Bailey launched the National Era, a gradualist anti-slavery newspaper compiled and printed in Washington, D.C. The sprawling seven-column, four-page weekly was the first major anti-slavery periodical to be published in the city since the departure of Benjamin Lundy's Genius of Universal Emancipation in 1833, but it managed to achieve rapid success, which it sustained throughout much of its thirteen-year run.1 According to original publisher Limmaeus Noble, the paper would pay "due attention . . . to Current Events, Congressional Proceedings, General Politics and Literature," but its "great aim [was] a complete discussion of the Question of Slavery, and an exhibition of the Duties of the Citizen in relation to it."2 Providing a vehicle for such discussion was undoubtedly daring in pro-slavery territory—Kentucky mobs had attacked Cassius M. Clay's True American less than two years earlier—but the Era's prospectus also staked out other uncertain terrain for its content.3 Namely, it added "Literature" to an otherwise familiar journalistic grouping of "Current Events, Congressional Proceedings, [and] General Politics."
The Era's inclusion of literature did not, in itself, differentiate it from other popular or abolitionist papers of the period; Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, for example, resolved to "devote all the space that can be spared from the topics of the day" to "Literature, Poetry, and Art" while the North Star frequently included poetry on the far left column of its back page.4 Even in this brief comparison, however, we see that the National Era, unlike the New York Tribune or the North Star, regularly incorporated literature as more than an afterthought, ranking it with the "topics of the day" in importance and editorial prominence, rather than as a second-rate alternative. The conspicuous position of literature in the National Era's coverage and the paper's high ratio of literary offerings to journalistic pieces, particularly given its controversial subject [End Page 125] matter, therefore marked it as a standout among mainstream newspapers and somewhat anomalous among anti-slavery publications.
At the close of 1848, Bailey reiterated much of Noble's position but, as if registering the newspaper's unusual format, supplemented his prospectus with a defense of the National Era's literary content.5 "It is a difficult task," he wrote, "in a weekly Anti-Slavery newspaper, to mingle literature with politics, so as to provide entertainment for lovers of the former, without interfering with the thorough discussion of the latter; and to keep both subordinate to the presentation and advocacy of the Great Movement in behalf of Human Liberty, to sustain which the paper was established."6 Two years after the National Era's first issue, Bailey saw the newspaper's literary contributions as, on one hand, a mechanism for appealing to alternate audiences, specifically those craving "entertainment," and, on the other, a potential threat to its political purpose. While Bailey proved up to the "difficult task" of balancing the newspaper's content around the anti-slavery movement, he did not yet recognize the importance of literature to its project, except in terms of circulation. By the end of 1851, which included much of the National Era's serial publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Bailey's thoughts about the role of literature had changed: "The National Era is an Anti-Slavery, Literary, and Political newspaper, published weekly. . . . The Literary Department of the Era speaks for itself."7 In the span of a few years, the literary had supplanted politics in the list of the National Era's priorities (appearing before, not after, "Politics"), and its inclusion required no explanation, instead speaking "for itself." Any concerns about the relation of literature to anti-slavery had been answered during the course of the National Era's publication by the very literature in question.
But what allowed for such a change in perception among Bailey's rapidly growing list of subscribers, or for such a metamorphosis in Bailey's understanding of his own publication? This...