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  • Joseph Dennie, the Value of the Editor, and the Creation of the Port Folio
  • Tim Lanzendörfer (bio)

The business correspondence between editors, publishers, and printers can be a treasure-trove of information concerning the running of a periodical. The letters selected here were all addressed to Joseph Dennie (1768-1812), chiefly known as the editor of the Walpole, New Hampshire paper the Farmer's Weekly Museum and of the Philadelphia Port Folio.1 The letters offer a number of remarkable insights into the interactions governing the publication of periodicals in the Early Republic. They lend depth to our knowledge of the reasons and process of Dennie's move from Walpole to Philadelphia and the beginnings of the Port Folio. While Dennie's departure from Walpole is often conceived of in terms of a wish to further Federalist political interests, here we can read it as a project grounded essentially in monetary concerns.2

The letters reveal aspects of the periodical business which have hitherto not been emphasized. One of these aspects is the extent to which printers around the country solicited Dennie for his services. John Russell's letter informs us that Dennie's friends let it be known that he was not satisfied in his current position. That Dennie started complaining to his Boston friends in 1798 about his position in Walpole is not surprising. The failure of his printer David Carlisle had caused a change in ownership which left Dennie at a salary he considered too low,3 and consequently it appears from the incoming correspondence that he was actively seeking employment elsewhere. We do not know how he reacted to John Russell's proposal, but the letters of William Brown indicate that he had considered the latter's offer, if not at conditions Brown was willing to fulfill, and Lewis Morris's missive suggests that the community of printers was well aware of each other's business ventures: "I find that proposals have been made you by Brown," Morris writes, before offering Dennie a proposal by John Ward Fenno for yet another editorial position. Fenno's high salary offer may well be related to the sense that he and Brown were in competition for Dennie's services, services which could increase the commercial value of their product. [End Page 94]

Dennie would end up running his own magazine in Philadelphia, and from Hugh Maxwell, a Philadelphia printer, and William Cobbett, the New York newspaper editor, we glean information on the process by which this magazine, the Port Folio, was created. Maxwell's February 1800 letter to Dennie shows how far advanced the planning must already have been at this very early point. Maxwell's position in the printing business in Philadelphia allows him to offer Dennie a host of well-meant suggestions for his new paper, including a calculation of costs and suggestions for possible contributors. This is perhaps the single most interesting letter in this collage of writings to Dennie. Maxwell would be Dennie's printer for the Port Folio from 1801 to 1806 and, from September 1803 to December 1805, also the magazine's publisher. Maxwell offers Dennie a rational plan for the establishment of his magazine: not only the steps with which he should start out—find subscribers first, then use those to make your paper reputable—but also suggestions on the content.

The letters are especially interesting to read for the judgments they reveal both implicitly and explicitly about the role of the editor in the periodical business. The attempts to acquire Dennie's services or partnership, resting as they do on his "character, abilities, and industry," as John Russell notes in his letter, are an implicit acknowledgment of the value of a proven and successful editor. There are also some rather explicit doubts. That William Brown backs off on hiring Dennie on the latter's apparently rather extraordinary terms is owed to Brown's belief that "no acquisition of talents can operate so powerfully upon the profits of this paper, as to make them of primary importance to its circulation or nature." Proprietors of newspapers and magazines, then, recognized both the possibilities and the limits of the men they hired to...


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