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  • "Americans as They Really Are": The Colored American and the Illustratation of Natational Identity
  • Benjamin Fagan (bio)

On January 7, 1837, a new journal appeared on the streets of New York City. Entitled the Weekly Advocate, the newspaper explained in its masthead that it was "Established for, and Devoted to the Moral, Mental, and Political Improvement of the People of Color." On the back page of that inaugural issue appeared the first installment of "A Brief Description of the United States," a two-part piece where the paper's printer, Robert Sears, compiled detailed information on each state's population, terrain, and history. In his introduction, Sears lauded the United States' governmental structure, writing, "Her political system has survived the tender period of infancy, and outlived the prophecies of its downfall. It has born the nation triumphantly through a period of domestic difficulties and external danger; it has been found serviceable in peace and in war; and may well claim from the nation it has saved and honored, the votive benediction of esto perpetua." 1 Sears specifically invoked the role of the Federal government in the article's second installment through the use of an illustration (see Figure 1).

Set off above the sections on the states is a "Description of the Capitol," giving the measurements of the Capitol building. Dominating the page is an image of the building itself, which is then surrounded by the descriptions of individual states. Reading the page as an image, the separate states are visually bound together by the federal government, as metonymically represented in the Capitol building. 2 The paper's front page serves, then, as a literal illustration of the theory of federalism, whereby states and by extension citizens retain a level of autonomy from each other, with their connection mediated through a central, representative government. Such a system theoretically allowed disparate populations to live in harmony despite vast differences in geography, ideology, and culture, so long as they shared a commitment to republican ideals and institutions. 3 Unsurprisingly, this political organization appealed to the staff of a newspaper devoted to the cause of black Americans. [End Page 97]

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Figure 1.

Weekly Advocate, January 14, 1837.

[End Page 98]

Philip A. Bell, a black New Yorker who had previously worked as an agent for William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist Liberator, edited the Weekly Advocate for roughly three months. In its March 4, 1837 number, the paper announced as its new editor Samuel Cornish, former co-editor of Freedom's Journal, the United States' first African American newspaper. Immediately upon assuming control of the paper, Cornish renamed it the Colored American. Over the next year, Cornish was joined on the paper's staff by Bell, James McCune Smith, and Charles B. Ray, all leading members of New York City's black activist communities. Cornish would remain at the paper's helm until 1839. Ray was installed as sole editor for the Colored American's first issue in 1840, a post he would retain for the duration of the paper's run. 4 At the start of its second year, the Colored American estimated a subscriber list of "at least eighteen hundred," with an actual readership of "more than ten thousand," and the paper had earlier concluded that of its readers, "more than three-fourths of the whole number are from our own people." 5 In addition to its direct subscribers, the Colored American maintained "an exchange list of fifty papers." 6 That is, the Colored American's staff sent and received free issues to and from other newspapers, in order that the papers might excerpt and reprint articles appearing in each other's pages. Hence, a paper's message could be spread to readers who never saw an original issue. While the paper may very well have exaggerated its readership and reach—a common journalistic practice—it garnered enough support to continue operations until 1842. 7

The one constant presence at the Colored American from its inception in 1837 through its cessation in 1842 was its printer, Robert Sears. In addition to his work at the newspaper, Sears, a white Canadian, built a successful career as...


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