- Words not Bullets: The Literary Career of James Redpath
In his 1994 inspection of the newspaper industry of the late nineteenth century, The Press Gang: Newspapers and Politics, 1863–1878. Mark Summers charts the sometimes volatile relationship between politics and the press. Complicating that relationship was the attempt by many papers to become “independent” news sources as opposed to the party rags that existed before the Civil War. This move toward “professionalization” came in fits and spurts because journalists did not just report, but tried to make, the news. They also held government jobs, organized campaigns, participated in conventions, and, in some cases, acted as lobbyists. In the end, Summers concludes that despite the fact that ultimately the public did gain better information, true independence would not come to the newspaper industry until reporters “acted as spectators rather than gladiators” (p. 318). Published seven years later, Jeffrey Pasley’s The Tyranny of Printers (2001), which examined newspapers, those party rags, in the Early Republic, actually placed printers in the forefront of political action by contending that editors drove issues that resulted in the formation of political parties. As illuminating as these works are, they do not, as Summers notes, reveal the action of the many “reporters” that stood at the intersection of publishers, politics, and the public.
John R. McKivigan’s biography of James Redpath confirms, perhaps unintentionally, Summers’s conclusions concerning the roles of reporter-gladiators and tries to put one of those reporters at that intersection. An emigrant from Scotland to Michigan, Redpath began his career, after a short stint at the Detroit Advertiser, as a “roving editor” for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. Far from just a reporter, Redpath’s resume included that of abolitionist, publisher, politician, school administrator, entertainment agent, and ghost writer. Still, throughout this trajectory, Redpath remained wedded to print media and political activism. Just prior to his death in 1891, as he worked with former Confederate president Jefferson Davis—ironic given his earlier position in the [End Page 35] abolition movement—Redpath attempted to get the Confederate’s views of such dramatic and significant issues as Andersonville prison and the South’s military leadership during the war. Because, at the end, he was increasingly willing to allow Davis speak for himself, Redpath, though still committed to his abolitionist principles, had begun to make the transition from gladiator to spectator.
Redpath’s first role as “gladiator” began in late March 1854, when, as a traveling reporter for Greeley’s Tribune, he composed a series of essays entitled “The Facts of Slavery.” Written following visits to southern cities including Richmond, Virginia; Wilmington, North Carolina; and Savannah, Georgia, these articles—which contained first-hand accounts concerning the treatment of bondsmen—revealed Redpath’s growing distaste of the region’s slave regime. Magnifying this contempt were the various political conventions that the northern reporter witnessed while in the South. In Charleston, for example, Redpath attended the Southern Commercial Convention. Though supposedly a discussion of economic diversification, the convention, Redpath wrote, focused on southern nationalism and the interests of slaveholders. Redpath augmented his work for the Tribune by contributing to the Savannah Daily Morning News. Using the pseudonym “Berwick,” Redpath introduced the ideas of northern reformers to the southern press. Upon his return to New York, Redpath contributed a number of “letters” to William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator and the National Anti-Slavery Standard. Published after Redpath had begun his second southern tour, these letters, which appeared under the name of John Ball, Jr. (interestingly named after John Ball, a fourteenth-century English priest who encouraged a peasant insurrection against King Richard II and because Redpath had to secretly guard his identity while in the South), contained interviews with slaves and, perhaps more than any other event in the reporter’s early career placed him on the path to “Revolution” (p. 11). He hoped the John Ball letters would justify “slaves’ rights to violent rebellion” (p. 16).
Redpath’s desire to be part of, rather than...