History of Journalism: Before 1861

Berrin A Beasley. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publication. 2009.

During the 400 years between the introduction of Johann Gutenberg’s moveable type printing press around 1455 and the beginning of the American Civil War in 1861, news reporting experienced significant philosophical, legal, and technical changes that set the stage for the practice of modern journalism. Although written and printed communication did not originate in Western Europe, most American journalism scholars begin their discussion of journalism history with Gutenberg because of the United States’ origin as a British colony. Gutenberg’s press was brought to England in 1476 by Englishman William Caxton, who proceeded to publish the first book printed in English, a history of Troy. Caxton’s other printed English works helped unify England under a common language. As a British colony, Americans were subject to English law, which included the licensing of publishers and charges of seditious libel whenever someone criticized the crown or royally appointed officials. These legal restraints on freedom of the press and speech paved the way for the establishment of the First Amendment in 1791, the lively political debates that ensued during the party press of the 1820s, the sensational news stories of the penny press beginning in the 1830s, and the barely cloaked sectional hostility of the antebellum press leading to the Civil War.

Western European Heritage, 1455-1630

The process of moving from very ornate, hand-lettered and illustrated books to newsletters and then moveable type printing presses in fifteenth-century Europe slowly revolutionized life by making printed information available to more readers. Eventual results of the introduction of moveable type printing included growing education and thus a rise in literacy rates, the scientific revolution, and the Protestant Reformation and Renaissance. Before the printing press, information was primarily exchanged orally or in the written form of personal letters, and only the very wealthy or the clergy had access to (or could read) the elaborately handcrafted illustrated books. In 1568, the Fugger German banking family hired correspondents to gather and report political and economic news from across the continent in the form of handwritten newsletters. These “Fugger newsletters” became the leading news source across Europe through the late 1500s. Early forms of the modern newspaper appeared in Holland in the 1620s and were known as Corantos, which translates as “currents of news.” These were published irregularly in different cities and featured very little of timely news value.

British Journalism, 1509-1702

King Henry VIII in the early 1500s instituted a system of licensing printers that lasted until 1695. To publish legally in England, one had to have a license from the crown, and only those who published information favorable to the crown were granted licenses, making licensing an early form of censorship. Henry VIII used the Court of the Star Chamber to prosecute those who published without a license or published information deemed inappropriate. Taken together, licensing and the Star Chamber formed the basis of governmental prior restraint (control prior to publication), the first press philosophy practiced in England.

Mary I and Elizabeth I continued their father’s practice. During her 45-year reign, Elizabeth controlled the press via the Stationer’s Company, which had originated in the 1400s as a guild for printers, booksellers, and publishers. Under Elizabeth’s control, Stationer’s Company members had the power to search and seize all unauthorized publications, and the Star Chamber court enforced laws against such publications. Penalties were severe and could include torture, maiming, imprisonment, or execution.

Throughout the 1600s, the monarchy and Parliament struggled for control of the government, and typically some form of press control as well. In 1641 the Court of the Star Chamber was abolished by the Puritan-controlled Parliament, and three years later poet John Milton issued his call for the end of licensing through his seminal essay, Areopagitica, a call that failed. The first English semi-weekly newspaper (printed on both sides of one sheet) appeared in 1665 in Oxford, when printer Henry Muddiman founded the Oxford (later the London) Gazette. It was little more than a propaganda sheet for the government, as it was the only newspaper allowed to publish while the Licensing Act was in place. Illegal publications existed in pamphlets, broadsides, and books, but publishers of such materials lived in fear of search and seizure by members of the Stationer’s Company. Licensing of printing and publishing finally ended in 1695.

Publication of the first English daily newspaper in the modern sense is credited to Elizabeth Mallett, who in 1702 began the Daily Courant. Samuel Buckley took over the paper two weeks after Mallett started it, and the paper lasted 33 years. It is historically important in that it established several practices still used by journalists today: the use of a dateline to indicate the location of a news story, and the separation of opinion from advertising, among other things.

American Colonial Press to 1765

The first printing press arrived in colonial America in 1638 and was installed at Harvard College, founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just two years earlier. Licensing was still practiced at this time, however, and the first colonial newspaper, Publick Occurrences, Both Foreign and Domestick, immediately fell victim to the law. Printer Benjamin Harris published his first issue in Boston on September 25, 1690, but it was immediately banned because it was published without permission of the royal governor and contained two stories critical of the governor. The first continuous newspaper published in the colonies was Boston postmaster John Campbell’s Boston News-Letter, which appeared April 24, 1704, and because it was published with authority, or government approval (as prominently stated on the masthead), it lasted 72 years. It emphasized foreign news and regularly contained stories copied from other newspapers, but it too functioned primarily as a government mouthpiece. Typical of most newspapers published from this period through the penny press era, content was text-driven—woodcut illustrations were used sparingly and photography had yet to be invented.

Of the other newspapers to publish in colonial America, none was more challenging of English rule than James Franklin’s New-England Courant, first published in 1721. It covered foreign and domestic news, but added editorials, and in June 1772 Franklin criticized the government for not doing more to stop pirates in the area from preying on commercial ships. He was jailed for three weeks but quickly returned to his criticisms of the government upon his release. This time, government officials ordered him to cease publication, so he arranged for his younger brother, Benjamin, to be listed as publisher of the Courant while James continued secretly to run it. Benjamin Franklin soon moved to Pennsylvania, where he started his own paper, the Pennsylvania Gazette. James’s paper folded three years after Benjamin’s departure, having made its mark in colonial newspaper history as a controversial paper that drew readers to its focus on local issues.

The most important newspaper in colonial America appeared November 5, 1733. German immigrant John Peter Zenger was hired by a group of wealthy New Yorkers to establish the colonies’ first paper started for overtly political reasons, the New-York Weekly Journal. It gave voice to the many citizens who were unhappy with the rule of New York’s royal governor. Lawyer James Alexander wrote most of the paper’s articles using pen names, but as Zenger was listed as publisher, he was imprisoned by the New York authorities on the charge of seditious libel (criticism of the government). Zenger’s case was brought to trial, and under British common law, the more accurate the criticisms of the government were, the graver the libel. But Alexander hired famous Philadelphia attorney Andrew Hamilton to defend Zenger, and Hamilton argued that truth should be a defense against libel. A runaway jury broke with the law of the time and acquitted Zenger, and though his case did not legally make truth a defense for libel, it did send a message to royal governors that the charge of seditious libel could no longer control criticism of government.

Revolutionary Press, 1765-1783

Perhaps the most important role journalism played during the Revolutionary era was one of consolidation. Newspapers and many pamphlets urged independence from or loyalty to England, depending on the publisher’s political beliefs. One catalyst for independence lay in the Stamp Act of 1765, where Parliament required colonial newspaper publishers to print only on stamped paper (a kind of tax) and to pay a further tax on each advertisement printed. These taxes meant many editors would make little if any profit. Many newspapers stopped publishing as a result, but vigorously protested the Act, as did lawyers who were equally affected by the law’s requirement to print legal documents on stamped paper. Protests were so successful that Parliament repealed the Act the following year. Encouraged by the success of their protests, and angry over England’s acts of “taxation without representation,” some colonists began to clamor for independent rule. Three of the most prolific writers in support of independence were Samuel Dickinson, whose 12 “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania” earned him the nickname of the penman of the revolution; Samuel Adams, a prolific writer who used at least 25 different pen names when signing his essays on independence to keep British authorities guessing as to his identity; and Thomas Paine, whose 1776 pamphlet “Common Sense” became one of the most widely read essays on the need for independence.

Once the Revolution began in 1775, newspaper editors took sides, becoming either Patriots, who supported independence, or Loyalists. Neutrality was not an option. Radical patriot groups regularly practiced mob censorship, or the destroying of printing presses and offices of any newspaper editor who took the British side. One such editor was James Rivington, who in 1773 began publishing the New York Gazetteer. At first he published both Patriot and Loyalist pieces, but because he dared print Loyalist views, critics hanged him in effigy and damaged his print shop. After that his paper became a staunch supporter of the Loyalist cause, even going so far as to print a letter critical of George Washington. The most prominent Patriot editor of the Revolutionary period was Isaiah Thomas, who on November 14, 1771, began publishing his incendiary Massachusetts Spy. He revived the “Join or Die” woodcut editorial cartoon first fashioned by Benjamin Franklin during the French and Indian War in the 1760s and used it as a symbol of the need for colonists to unite in their fight for independence. After the revolution, Thomas became a successful printer and author of the first history of printing in the colonies.

Party Press, 1783-1833

Given the system of licensing they had long suffered, Americans were more than ready to guarantee their freedom of expression with the First Amendment in 1791. The newly independent American press was partisan in its presentation of news, and played an important role in influencing the decision to adopt a strong central government in the Constitution as opposed to strong states’ rights and a weak central government as advocated by Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Party. Stirring debates on the merits of the proposed Constitution were widely printed in American newspapers, as were essays against a strong central government. Historians recognize that the most influential essays supporting adoption of the Constitution were the series of “Federalist Papers,” written by Alexander Hamilton (leader of the Federalist party), James Madison, and John Jay, under the common pseudonym of “Publius.” These 85 essays, which appeared in the New York Independent Journal from October 1787 to April 1788, and were widely reprinted elsewhere, explained the political philosophy behind the Constitution and are considered among the most important contributions to American government ever published.

But the debate surrounding the adoption of the Constitution and the formation of the new government was complex. The leaders of both the Republican and Federalist groups recognized that they needed dedicated political organs to express the party line, and thus each began its own newspaper. The first was the Federalists’ Gazette of the United States, originally published by John Fenno in 1789. The Republican’s leading political machine was The National Gazette, which debuted in 1791, edited by Frenchman Philip Freneau. Other newspapers supported specific party allegiances during the crucial Constitutional debates, but Fenno and Freneau were the first editors tapped to lead official party organs.

In addition to the partisan debate, another type of discourse was common in newspapers during this period: the abusive personal attack. Two editors stand as examples of the personal attacks practiced: Federalist William Cobbett of Porcupine’s Gazette and Daily Advertiser, and Republican Benjamin Franklin Bache, who was Ben Franklin’s grandson and published the General Advertiser or the Aurora. The two battled over whether the country needed the Constitution, whether George Washington was a good leader, and whether the United States should support France during its own revolution. They attacked each other, trading insults about personal attributes such as appearance and honor, which eventually led to a street fight.

The second party era began in 1816 following the demise of the Federalist Party. Membership of the remaining Republican Party began splitting into factions. By 1828 there were two recognizable parties, the Jacksonian Democrats, which appealed to the masses, and the Whigs, which were typically former members of the Federalist Party and hardline Republicans. Just as in the first party system, members of each group established official party newspapers to express the party line. For the Whigs, that paper was the Evening Journal, begun in 1830 by editor Thurlow Weed. The Jacksonian Democrats’ official party paper was the Argus of Western America, published by Amos Kendall from 1824 to 1829. While each party utilized other newspapers, these two are recognized as the first political organs patronized by party leaders to build support among their few readers.

Editors of the Party Press era also witnessed the first major technological development in printing since the Gutenberg press: the rotary press, also known as the Hoe cylinder press. In the early 1820s Richard Hoe devised a machine that used a curved cylinder rather than a flat bed to print on continuous roles of paper, a process that significantly increased the number of pages one could print per hour.

Penny Press, 1833-1861

Starting in the 1830s, newspapers were sold on the streets for a penny a copy, which made their purchase possible for more Americans. With their sensational stories written in everyday language and printed in great numbers, circulation figures grew from hundreds into thousands of copies. The first successful penny paper was the New York Sun, published by Benjamin Day starting September 3, 1833. Day’s paper was far cheaper than the existing business and political papers that sold for six cents a copy, and with its new emphasis on local, police, sports, and society news (and occasional made up stories designed to spike circulation), Day’s paper quickly became the best-selling newspaper of the time.

Day’s success was followed by James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald, which debuted May 6, 1835. The Herald‘s straightforward language shocked and titillated many readers, as did its detailed coverage of crime and the courts. Bennett instigated many of modern journalism’s topics and techniques, including coverage of Wall Street and religion, personals columns, and his emphasis on getting timely information published. Bennett also made extensive use of domestic and foreign news correspondents, and pioneered coverage of sports and society. He hired Jane Cunningham Croly, who published under the pen name of Jenny June, to write about fashion, social gatherings, and beauty. Unfortunately, a number of readers did not care for Bennett’s use of frank language and sensational news topics, and in 1840 a “Moral War” against his publication began. Other New York editors attacked Bennett’s Herald and urged their readers to withdraw business from the paper. While the “War” did cause the Herald to lose some of its circulation, and Bennett to reign in some of his worst excesses, his publication remained the second most successful paper of the period.

The third important editor of this period was Horace Greeley, who on April 10, 1841, began publishing the New York Tribune. At this time there were already a dozen daily newspapers publishing in New York City, and Greeley decided there was room for a cheap, politically oriented paper. He hired Charles Dana as his city editor and Margaret Fuller to work as America’s first female news correspondent. Greeley published a little of everything, including poetry, book reviews, and lectures, but he refused to cover police courts, murder trials, or the theater, which earned his newspaper the nickname the “Great Moral Organ.” Also contributing to that nickname was Greeley’s heavy use of the editorial to support his personal political positions. He was a strong supporter of prohibition, socialism, abolition, labor unions, and westward expansion and an equally ardent opponent of capital punishment.

In 1851, Henry Raymond, who had worked for Greeley during the first two years of the New York Tribune‘s existence, decided the readers of New York needed a middle-of-the-road paper that provided fair and accurate reporting of foreign and domestic news (unlike Bennett and Day’s papers) without overpowering readers with opinion (like Greeley’s paper). His approach worked, and by 1860 The New York Times‘ circulation made it the fourth largest of the penny press era.

One other important development of this period was the illustrated weekly, a tabloid-sized newspaper that made liberal use of illustrations and sparing use of text. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly (debuting December 15, 1855) and Harper’s Weekly (January 3, 1857) are two of the more famous of these papers that used extensive woodcut illustrations based on drawings and, during the American Civil War, photographs, to tell “pictoral” stories.

Antebellum Press, 1820-1861

Cries for the end of slavery began appearing in American newspapers as early as 1817 and were especially pronounced in those of Benjamin Lundy and William Lloyd Garrison, two editors who advocated tirelessly for abolition. Lundy began publishing the Genius of Universal Emancipation in 1821, now recognized as one of the most influential early abolitionist papers. He traveled most northern states, carrying his newspaper equipment on his back, lecturing about the evils of slavery, and producing an issue of his newspaper whenever local printers would share their facilities. He would then mail the completed issue to subscribers. Eventually, he found that he needed a home office for regular publication and hired William Lloyd Garrison to be his editor. Although both were ardent supporters of abolition, they differed in their opinions on how to achieve this goal and eventually parted ways.

Garrison started his own abolition paper, the Liberator, which first appeared January 31, 1831, in Boston. He was a radical, supporting immediate emancipation for all slaves and their enfranchisement, positions which earned him numerous enemies. In 1835, a Boston mob attacked Garrison and he was jailed for his own protection, but despite threats to his paper and his life, Garrison continued to print the Liberator for 35 years, making it one of the most influential newspapers of its time.

The earliest black newspapers also sought to bring about the end of slavery. Two of the most influential black editors were Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm, who together in 1827 began publishing Freedom’s Journal. Cornish was a Presbyterian minister and Russwurm was one of the first blacks to earn a college degree in America. Together the two committed to publishing a newspaper that would give blacks a voice in the debate over slavery. Unfortunately, like Lundy and Garrison, Cornish and Russwurm disagreed over how to bring about the end of slave holding and in 1829 parted ways. Cornish renamed the paper Rights of All and continued to publish it until 1830 when financial troubles caused its closure.

Perhaps the most influential black editor was Frederick Douglass, a runaway slave who started his work as a journalist with Garrison and later published his own newspaper. Douglass escaped slavery in 1838, traveling to relative safety in Massachusetts where he began to lecture about his experiences as a slave and to publish accounts of his experiences in Garrison’s Liberator. In 1845, afraid his fame would lead to his recapture and return to slavery, Douglass fled to Great Britain where he spent two years traveling and speaking until supporters raised enough money to buy his freedom. Upon his return to the United States as a free black, Douglass began publishing the North Star on November 1, 1847. Four years later he merged his paper with another under the new title of Frederick Douglass’ Paper, which continued publication until 1860 and the eve of the Civil War.

As dedicated as these and other abolitionist editors were to their cause of ending slavery, so were southern newspaper editors dedicated to the cause of maintaining the southern way of life, including slavery. One of the most influential southern editors was “Fire-Eater” Robert Barnwell Rhett, who owned the Charleston Mercury and forcefully advocated slavery and secession in his news pages. James DeBow, founder of DeBow’s Review, and Ethelbert Barksdale, editor of the Weekly Mississippian in Jackson, vigorously defended slavery on moral grounds. Other influential southern newspapers of the time included the New Orleans Picayune, the Nashville Republican Banner, and the Louisville Journal.

The American Civil War was also known as the first visual war, meaning that images of soldiers, camp life, battles, and their aftermath were made available to the average citizen for the first time through the use of printed illustrations based on sketches of war scenes and engravings of photographs. Photography was in its infancy at this time, and the newspaper industry had not yet developed the technology necessary to reproduce photographs. One new technology that newspapers made extensive use of before and during the Civil War was the telegraph, which was patented by Samuel F. B. Morse in 1844 and used electricity to send signals over wires. Using the telegraph, reporters covering far-off battles could send stories back to their editors in mere minutes, as opposed to the days or even weeks it had taken to get news back to their editors in the past, a development that made news timelier for readers.


In the year before the start of the American Civil War, the newspaper industry was thriving. There were 3,725 newspapers being published, a 60 percent increase from just 20 years earlier. of those, 387 were daily publications. Overall, daily and weekly newspapers combined had a total annual circulation of more than 885 million among a population of 31.4 million Americans, which translated into 28.2 annual newspaper copies per capita.

By the start of the Civil War in April 1861, American journalism had instituted a number of practices still associated with modern journalism: the use of domestic and foreign news correspondents; an emphasis on timeliness as an important news value (greatly aided by the appearance of the electric telegraph in the 1840s); coverage of business, sports, and society news; detailed coverage of crime, the courts, and religion; and a wider variety of advertising messages to support continued publication. By 1861, newspaper publishing was widespread and hotly competitive (major cities had numerous dailies), serving a growing readership. The Associated Press was pioneering the syndication of national and regional news for local papers. Newspapers were on the front line of growing North-South tensions over states, rights. They also backed the expansion of railways and other technology, encouraged business, and supported expanding education and other social change. But the most important contribution by the early American press to the modern practice of the journalism is our legal expectation of freedom of the press and speech, as guaranteed in the First Amendment.