For the 89th episode of the Journalism History podcast, hosted by Ken Ward, Mary Lamonica describes the editorial battles waged among American West newspaper editors during the Civil War and the impact that pro-Union support for press suppression had on defining the boundaries of free speech.
Mary Lamonica: But it was very, very easy to just use this labeling tactic and say you’re disloyal and, you know, it’s something we see in the press today that one side claims they’re more patriotic than the other side. It’s just — it’s a very easy thing to do.
Ken Ward: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told.
Teri Finneman: I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports media.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
And together we’re professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History. Transcripts of the show are available online at journalism-history.org/podcast.
As the popular saying goes, the Civil War turned brother against brother, and this sentiment certainly rang true in the American West, where Northerners and Southerners had become neighbors, co-workers, and friends as they moved to that part of the country. Amid this tangle of Yankees and Rebels were newspaper editors practicing a very different form of journalism than their counterparts back East. In the West, journalism was personal, and editorial attacks between competing newspapers vicious. As Dr. Mary Lamonica of New Mexico State University explains, once accusations of treason came into play with the outbreak of war, editors were quick to use questions of loyalty against other editors, sometimes out of patriotism but often for competitive advantage. In this episode, Lamonica, who also publishes research as Mary Cronin, shares how fluid the definition of the American conception of free speech could be to editors in the western US. Mary, welcome to the show. So describe for us how news worked out on the American West as opposed to –
what we may be more familiar with in the eastern United States during this era.
Mary Lamonica: Well, we had, in the 1800s we had a — almost a throwback to what the East Coast was at the turn of the century. We tended to have one strong editor who was very opinionated, and newspapers certainly followed Western settlers. Some editors actually moved out before settlements were very big and were largely booster sheets that encouraged people to move West. But by and large, we see that there was this, this earlier very partisan model: the strong editor with the strong opinions. And as towns grew, they could occasionally hire a local reporter to cover some local news, but they largely used the exchange system where editors could mail each other’s newspapers for free, and they largely –
cut and reprinted news from all over the country prior to the Civil War.
Ken Ward: So as the Civil War gets closer and maybe even as we spill over into the Civil War, what sorts of things are these editors doing in terms of posturing toward what side they may represent in the coming Civil War? Are they, are they talking about certain things? Are, are they talking about other newspapers in the other side in another way already in the lead-up to the Civil War?
Mary Lamonica: You know, that’s a great question because when I started this project, this project is actually part of a book with Debra Reddin van Tuyll that’s coming out this summer on the Western press and the Civil War with Peter Lang publishers. We got very curious because we never saw much on the Western press, and indeed there’s probably less than two dozen articles out there, mostly journal articles, on the Western press at the time of the Civil War. And what we found was a very partisan environment –
where loyalty was, first and foremost, took precedence over freedom of speech. But what we have to remember that’s really interesting is that unlike the North-South divide and the partisanship that led to the Civil War, we see that the West was settled by both Northerners and Southerners, as well as, of course, people coming in from Europe, and so you didn’t just have North versus South. You had Northerners and Southerners living side by side. So we had newspapers in the West, some of which were Northern Democratic supporters, some of which were Southern Democratic supporters, and then some were old-time Whig newspapers, some proclaimed independence and others were newer Republican newspapers. So what’s interesting about the Civil War is that when you think of the West –
and you think, wow, people out there were very far away from a lot of the conflict, we have to remember that actually from a partisan standpoint, they weren’t far from the conflict and that militia units were formed in the West. Many men went either North or South, and there also, of course, were battles in New Mexico and there were skirmishes and there was a great deal of fear about would the Confederacy manage to gain a nation that went coast to coast because they really had their eye on the gold fields of New Mexico and Colorado, and the Confederacy, if they could get it, really wanted to gain seaports in southern California. So there was a lot of partisanship in the press and a lot of issues about loyalty.
Ken Ward: So I want to get here in a minute to talking about how these editors then start going after each other in the war –
but before we get to Northern versus Southern supporters in terms of editors, how did these editors tend to talk about one another generally? You know, you talked about that personal model that these editors followed. So when we’re talking about how editors converse about one another in their own pages, what was the tone editors tended to take toward one another, especially maybe if they’re in the same market? Right? They, that, that may set the stage I think for understanding how they’re talking about once another — once we step into the Civil War.
Mary Lamonica: Oh, absolutely, that’s very important. There was tremendous partisan rivalries. Sometimes, you know, if you had two newspaper editors of the same party, they would go at it with tremendous poison penmanship. Um, I mean look at for, for instance the Rocky Mountain News in Denver that you’re, you’re very familiar with with your Colorado research, and when William Byers came out, he literally wanted to be, so to speak, the top dog of the town and he brought out –
an editor with him named Thomas Gibson. Well, Byers had almost a toddler meltdown when Gibson went off and started a rival newspaper. And the two of them just engaged in all sorts of poison penmanship at each other even before the war began but then once the war began it became an issue of, “I’m more loyal than you are.” And, and we see that throughout the West that this, this model of the strong editor who wants to be the voice of the community, who wants to influence the community, was looking for a real economic hold. And a lot of the poison penmanship was to try to bring readers in to one paper or the other in town, and then of course when the war started if somebody was viewed as –
disloyal for not being a total supporter of President Lincoln and his plans for the war, they would then use the term “disloyalty” as a labeling tactic to try and drive the other publisher out of business, and in some cases they were successful.
Ken Ward: So what distinguishes a loyal editor from a treasonous one or a traitor? You mentioned that not fully supporting Lincoln’s policies could be something that could get you labeled as a traitor, but what are some of the other things that distinguish loyal from treasonous editors and, and what does treason even mean in this context?
Mary Lamonica: You know, that’s one thing that I really was looking at because some people just bandied about the term, and there’s been quite a — quite a few studies that have looked at suppression of the press, and we know that there were at least 300 newspapers in the North that were suppressed, editors arrested, you know –
in some cases offices locked up, equipment sold. So what I got really interested in for my study was, okay, we know that, but how did editors feel about this? Did they support freedom of the press or not? And so first I looked at the fact that, well, what was the environment at the time, and of course we had — we didn’t have a well-developed sense of the First Amendment at the time. In the 1800s, there were less than 24 cases that hit the U.S. Supreme Court that involved press freedom and the Supreme Court said very, very little. And so there was this general sense that there was press freedom, but there wasn’t a lot of precedent to support it. But what I found was that very few of the editors actually defined what they meant by treasonous speech. Very, very few. I looked at newspapers all over the West starting with the Great Plains –
and working my way out to the Pacific coast, so the Dakotas Nebraska, Kansas, and then out into, you know, all the way across the country. And what I discovered was that what they were talking about, even though most didn’t define disloyalty, was that they used a British concept that is called constructive treason, and what that means is that the government can punish people, whether it be public speakers or publishers, for literally saying or printing things that merely express disloyalty. So in this case, we have editors — we didn’t have many editors in the West that actually spoke out against the draft because treason is very clearly defined in the U.S. Constitution, but what we have is a lot of sophomoric jabs –
at President Lincoln questioning his intelligence, calling him mentally ill, laughing essentially at Union troops when, when they lost battles badly to Southern troops. And, and in some cases — as in a case in Kansas, an editor merely was critical that a Union general wasn’t moving fast enough to contain the South and other editors referred to him as disloyal. Um, so we really had this concept of constructive treason, and it did not fit the constitutional definition of treason, but most editors just really didn’t define it, and the few that did used an early [Supreme Court] Justice Joseph Story’s concept that you could say what you wanted to say –
but there would be post-publication punishment after the fact, but you had the right to speak so there shouldn’t be any sort of upfront suppression but, boy, you could be punished afterwards.
Ken Ward: So how does an editor criticize another editor or label them as treasonous? How did they go about that in their pages? And, and a follow up, what kinds of repercussions could the treasonous editor or whoever’s been sort of labeled as being a traitor, what consequences did they face? What can happen to them?
Mary Lamonica: Well, we saw a lot of the use of treason. We saw editors like editor John Roberts of the Oskaloosa Independent saying free speech isn’t treasonous speech, but he never defined what he meant by treasonable. Or Solomon Miller of the White Cloud Kansas Chief in Kansas also said that newspapers were treasonous that were Democratic and that they shouldn’t –
be allowed to shield themselves arguing freedom of press, but he didn’t define treason. Um, and we saw a lot of just sniping at each other. We actually saw quite a few editors encouraging the military to shut down the press, and we saw what I found was over three dozen cases of press suppression, either legal or extralegal. We saw — we saw generals, such as Brigadier General Edward Canby in New Mexico, that shut down a couple of newspapers for criticizing the military. General George Wright, who was the commander of the Pacific, shut down a bunch of Southern Democratic newspapers in California, and he also shut down every single Democratic newspaper in Oregon –
and it was at the behest actually of strong Unionists, including editors, who kept writing to him or speaking with him and demanding that newspapers be shut down. But he didn’t have too many of these editors arrested, so what would happen is that many of them would get a paper shut down and then they would move to another city and start a new one. Um, there were a few editors, such as the very outspoken Henry Hamilton in Los Angeles, who got put in Alcatraz for ten days, but then he was released when General Wright realized maybe that just seemed too despotic. The bigger issue was the extralegal, and we had a great many editors whose newspapers were literally torched, press equipment sledgehammered. We had people run out of town.
And so we had, we had essentially mob violence. We saw it in Kansas and California, in New Mexico, in Oregon, California and sometimes we saw the reverse. There was an editor in, in Idaho who simply hoisted the American flag in front of his newspaper in Lewiston, Idaho, which was then part of Washington Territory, and he also, you know, announced his support for President Lincoln, and about 12 Confederate miners came along and fired guns into his office. And he quickly sold the newspaper and took the first boat out of town. He was that afraid. And he just said, “That’s it. Not worth doing.” We had editors beaten in California. We had people tarred and feathered.
And more newspapers were silenced by the extralegal means than by — than by either generals in the West or, in a couple of cases –Mayor Daniel Anthony, who was Susan B. Anthony’s brother, he shut down one paper and he shot another editor to death.
Ken Ward: Wow. Goodness. Uh, so, so I think one of the most interesting things there is how different it is for us to think about these, these editors being supportive, not necessarily of all those extralegal measures that were taken, but definitely being supportive of some level of suppression against whatever the opposite side of the issue was. That’s definitely a different conception of free speech than what we might have now. What are some of the other reasons an editor might have been in favor of some extra scrutiny or some action taken against a competitor in town or in the area? You know, this is an interesting era in U.S. journalism history because of what was going on out in the American West, and some of those things that we’ve talked about.
So what are some of those competitive pressures these editors may have been facing, and other reasons why they may have been using terms like “treason” to get other types or, or results that, that didn’t have to do with the war necessarily? What were some of those other advantages editors might get?
Mary Lamonica: You know, the main one was economic because a lot of these Western newspapers [were] a small town paper, and a lot of them were very small town. If they printed 500 to 700 copies, that, that was a lot of copies. And, you know, that sounds miniscule today, but most of this was economic. Certainly there was a wave of loyalty, Northern or Southern depending upon where the editor was born or who they aligned with, and there was real fear going on when we see Confederates having noisy rallies –
in California, gathering up guns in Colorado to ship south, and even a case of a bunch of Confederate supporters trying to outfit a ship in California to basically be privateers and go rob gold ships to grab the gold for the Confederacy. There was real fear. Um, and then there were the loyalty issues, but a lot of this was economic of, “Let’s drive the other guy out of town and be the only voice.” And you know, in some cases, circulations did, did rise tremendously, but what’s also interesting is, is, if I may, is the response to this because the Democrats uniformly – and, and there were Democratic newspapers that were, were not silenced during the war in the West, but they uniformly argued –
freedom of speech, freedom of press, that it was enshrined in the Constitution, and Republican supporting editors largely said, “Not during wartime. We shouldn’t have that.” But when Republican newspapers were suppressed in places like Kansas and New Mexico for speaking out that a battle was, was badly waged, that a general did a bad job, if those fellow Republican newspapers were suppressed, they argued that this was the government being very heavy-handed, but ironically and rather hypocritically when Democratic newspapers did the same thing and said, “Oh, this battle was waged poorly,” even if a northern Democratic paper didn’t, you know, chide Lincoln but just said the generals did a bad job and, and said the same thing, um –
the Republican editors were uniformly, “That’s treasonous speech. That needs to be stopped.”
Ken Ward: An interesting double standard.
Mary Lamonica: It’s a very double standard.
Ken Ward: We talked about these editors in the West and that personal mode of journalism going at each other before the Civil War using certain language, so now coding those conflicts with these terms like “loyalist” or “traitor,” are they doing the same things they had been doing before just using different language or is, is there something truly unique about what they’re doing during the Civil War? Is this, is this something 100 percent unique that they’re doing, or are they just continuing the spats that they had had, editor between editor, that they’d had before, just with a couple new words thrown in, a couple new weapons?
Mary Lamonica: I think that’s it, honestly. There, there was so much poison penmanship between each other to try and drive one editor out of town, you know, for competitive reasons that prior to the war they really couldn’t do that because you did have Democrats –
living next door to Republicans and people wanted those newspapers. Um, but it was very, very easy to just use this labeling tactic and say you’re disloyal. And you know, it’s something we see in the press today, that one side claims they’re more patriotic than the other side. It’s just — it’s a very easy thing to do. And but what we did see was largely a groundswell of patriotism after the war began, and even a lot of the Northern Democratic papers made very strong statements in the West that they were going to put aside a lot of their partisanship and support Lincoln. But a few of them, such as the two brothers that edited the Walla Walla, Washington, newspaper, said that they were going to remain independent, and that independent didn’t mean disloyal, and that even during wartime they should have the right to criticize if they thought something was wrong.
But we did see a lot of this continuation during wartime of one editor did not like the competition, and if the competition was Democratic, this allowed the Republican editor an, sort of an in to say, oh, look, they’re disloyal.
Ken Ward: So what effect did all of this have on press conduct in the American West after the war, or, or to extend that just a little bit, on the conception of journalists in this era in terms of what freedom of speech actually meant? If, if they’re sort of defining it during this era, how did that definition shake out in the years after the Civil War?
Mary Lamonica: Well, after the war, we still saw a continuation of the sort of very strong publisher or editor that was the outspoken voice, and of course the West after the war gave rise to some very important post-war people who still remained very political, very strong voices, such as Alden Blethen out in Seattle.
Um, we saw, you know, we saw a number of people rising in the West after the war and, and they remained, even in big cities, they remained very, very political for quite a long time. Um, and but what we did see is after the war ended, the Democratic press came back very strongly and once they couldn’t be suppressed anymore and once their papers weren’t being burned down and their presses being broken, so we did see that. As far as press suppression and views of freedom of the press, it seems to have died down quite a bit. It didn’t become a big public issue for a while again until really World War I when we — when the whole issue of disloyalty roared right back, especially with Socialists and Communists.
The Abrams [and] Gitlow [Supreme Court cases] a little bit later, but, but the Abrams case and Eugene Debs, the Socialist labor leader who was, who was jailed. Um, but it, it sort of went away for a while and we really didn’t develop a strong sense of freedom of the press.
Ken Ward: Gotcha. So we’re short on time, but I do have one last question we like to ask all of our guests. In your opinion, why does journalism history matter?
Mary Lamonica: Oh, goodness. So many reasons. So many reasons. I guess one thing that sticks out to me is, is sort of the social-cultural impact of the press. When we think about — oftentimes people hear of their news, especially in the — in the 1800s, but even today, many people get their news from the press or today from social media.
And they develop, as Walter Lippmann once said, pictures in their heads about how things are. Um, it affects, you know, how they respond based on their beliefs and values. And so I think it’s very important to study the press and to study journalism history to see how is the public reacting to this? What is the press saying? How are they framing issues? And then how is the press responding to all of this? What do they think? Because in my study, I found a lot of letters and diaries that have been digitized where people were agreeing with the press. Either they were glad that the Southern supporting press was, was there if they were Southern supporters themselves, or those that were pro-Union were very, very pleased that newspapers were reporting on important battles –
newspapers were speaking up to say those traitorous Democrats, let’s get rid of them. And so the public very much helps form its opinions based on what they see in media.
Ken Ward: All right. Well, Mary, I want to thank you very much for being on the show. This was a great conversation. Thank, thank you so much.
Mary Lamonica: Thank you.
Ken Ward: Well, that’s it for this episode. Thanks for tuning in, and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter @JHistoryJournal. That’s all one word. Until next time I’m your host, Ken Ward, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow: “Good night, and good luck.”