The History of New York State
Book 12 Chapter 21, Part 1

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam

 

CHAPTER XXI
THE NEW YORK PRESS AND ITS EDITORS

Journalism in its earliest form was merely letter writing in which the author reported in somewhat less intimate style than if he had been addressing an individual, such information of a political or mercantile nature, with comment, as seemed of interest to him, and should therefore be of interest to others. Before the word new was invented, such letters were issued from several points in Europe, gradually assumed regular periodicity, and came to be depended upon, as the writer established a reputation for honesty and veracity. Such a writer was Abraham Verhoeven, of Antwerp, whose "Niewe Tijdinghen" appeared regularly from 1605, antedating the first of the English "news letters," which were similar in style and content. In such publications appeared the first information regarding the Dutch settlements in North America, but in 1656 the "Haarlemsche Courant" was begun in what is now called tabloid form, and is still one of the leading journals of Holland. The arrival of these primitive news sheets on every ship must have been eagerly awaited by the colonists, both in Fort Orange, and in New Amsterdam, but as the population of Manhattan consisted of only 270 men, women, and children in 1628, there was no need of a printing press to tell them what was going on, huddled together behind their stockades, and as the population increased it became more cosmopolitan in character. Thus the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, in 1685, drove many Huguenots to seek their fortunes in the New World. The Dutch and the French continued to receive the news from home in their own languages, and it was not until twenty years after the establishment of a newspaper in Boston, and two others were being printed in Massachusetts and one in Philadelphia that William Bradford began the publication of the "New York Gazette" in October, 1725.

Bradford had published a news sheet in Philadelphia, but the Society of Friends in that city had condemned certain doctrines maintained by one George Keith, and when Keith issued an appeal to the general meeting of the Society of Friends, Bradford printed his address. The paper was denounced by the authorities as seditious, and Bradford was arrested and imprisoned for printing it. Both civil and ecclesiastical courts condemned Keith without a hearing, and one of the judges having declared that the court could judge of the matter of fact without testimony, directed the town crier "to proclaim, in the market place, the accused a seditious person and an enemy to the King's and Queen's Government." Bradford and Macomb, an associate, were charged with printing and circulating an offensive pamphlet, and they demanded a speedy trial as a right secured to them by Magan Charta.

Being Quakers, they appeared in court with their hats on. Justice Cooke, before whom they were arraigned, inquired" "What bold and confident men are these to stand thus confidently before the court?" Bradford replied: "We are here only to desire that which is the right of every free-born British subject, which is speedy justice; and it is strange that that should be accounted impudence." "If thou hadst been in England, thou wouldst have had thy back lashed before now," the justice retorted. As the prisoners continued to press for a speedy trial, Justice Cooke said: "A trial thou shalt have, and that to your cost, it may be." When the trial opened, Bradford asked to have a copy of the presentment, and to be informed under what law he was prosecuted; but this request was denied. Notwithstanding a one-sided and insolent charge by Justice Cooke, full of personalities against the prisoners at the bar, the jury, after being out sixty hours, disagreed, and the prisoners were released.

On his arrival in New York Bradford was appointed printer to the Government by Governor Burnet, and held this post many years. Although his was the first New York newspaper, it may be recalled that a copy of the "London Gazette" was issued in New York in 1896, being reprinted by order of Governor Fletcher, technically, the first newspaper publication in the Americas; and that Boston's two early newspapers were quickly suppressed by the Government.

Commencing on Bradford's work and character, William H. Seward said; "Such is the infirmity of our nature that, at a later period, when the only rival press in the colony of New York had assumed an attitude unfriendly to the local government, and it was sought to crush it by prosecution and imprisonment, he was found on the side of power and privilege, and against the enfranchisement of speech, for which he had previously contended in Philadelphia."

Bradford's "Gazette" was printed on a half sheet of foolscap size, and there is a large volume of the "Gazette" in a good state of preservation in the New York Society Library, and s smaller file in the New York Historical Society Library. These copies will outlast many volumes of later and more pretentious newspapers printed on "pulp paper." The advertisements do not average more than three or four q week, and deal chiefly with runaway slaves. The ship news records the arrival and departure of half a dozen sloops in the course of a week, and now and then a ship.

Eight years after the establishment of Bradford's "Gazette" the New York "Weekly Journal" was begun by John Peter Zenger, and soon distinguished itself by the raciness of its advertisements, of which the following is a specimen: "Whereas, the wife of Peter Smith has left his bed and board, the public are cautioned against trusting her, as he will pay no debts of her contracting, N. B.---The best of Garden Seeds sold by the said Peter Smith at the Sign of the Golden Hammer."

In 1734 Zenger was imprisoned in the first important libel suit in New York. The Governor and Council issued a warrant in which the House of Representatives was invited to, but declined to concur, and the newspapers containing the libel were ordered to be burned by the hangman or "shipper" near the pillory. They declined to obey, but a deputy sheriff performed the incineration. The grand jury declined to indict Zenger, but he was kept in jail until the next term of court. Then the court excluded Smith and Alexander, his counsel, from the bar, and Zenger engaged John chambers and Andrew Hamilton of Philadelphia, to appear for him. Hamilton won an acquittal from the jury, and the corporation voted him the freedom of the city "for the remarkable service done to the inhabitants of this city and colony by his defense of the rights of mankind and the liberty of the press."

In 1743, soon after Bradford had relinquished the "Gazette" its publication was resumed by James Parker, as "The New York Gazette and Weekly Post Boy." William Wayman joined him as a partner ten years later, and having published an article reflecting upon the people of Ulster and Orange counties in March, 1756, the Assembly directed its sergeant-at-arms to take both editors into custody. What the precise nature of the insult upon the people of those counties was, does not appear from the record, but the editors acknowledged their fault, begged pardon of the House, n paid the costs of the proceedings, and gave the name of the author of the article. Hr proved to be the Rev. Hezekiah Watkins, a missionary to the county of Ulster, residing at Newburgh. He was arrested and brought to New York, and voted guilty of high misdemeanor and contempt of the authority of the House. The clergyman also begged the Hose's pardon, stood to receive its reprimand, and on paying the fees and promising not to offend again, received his discharge from custody.

The fourth newspaper published in New York was called the "Evening Post." It was begun by Henry de Forest in 1746, and was remarkable for stupidity, poor grammar and worse spelling. Thus it resembled in name only a later publication distinguished as a literary organ. In 1752 the "New York Mercury" was founded by Hugh Gaine, on Hanover Square at the sign of the "Bible and Crown," ands became the best newspaper of the colonies. In 1763 its title was changed to "The New York Gazette and Weekly Mercury," and in the same year its editor was arraigned before the Assembly for having inaccurately, and without permission, published its proceedings. He apologized, was reprimanded, and then discharged. In 1775, with the approach of the American Revolution, Gaine published a series of patriotic articles under the signature of "Watch Tower," but his ardor cooled as the British strengthened their forces in New York; and during the war his "Mercury" by its ups and downs, furnished accurate indications of the course of the contest. When with the Whigs Gaine was a Whig; when with the Royalists,. He was loyal; when the contest seemed doubtful, equally doubtful were the politics of the editor. On the arrival of the British Army he removed to Newark, but soon returned to New York, where he published a paper devoted to the cause of the British crown. His zig-zag course was a fruitful theme for the wags of the day, and at peace, a poetical petition from Gaine to the State Senate setting forth his life and deeds, was written with a good deal of humor. His publication was discontinued at the end of the war.

Another paper, called the "New York Gazette," was begun by Wayman, the former associate of Parker. In 1766 Wayman was arrested and imprisoned for contempt of the Assembly, because of two typographical errors in printing the speech of Sir Henry Moore, at that time the Governor of the colony. One of these errors substituted the work never for ever, by reason of which the meaning was reversed. The Assembly was indignant in this case, from the suspicion entertained that the error was intentional.

Eighteenth Century Journal.--As the eighteenth century progressed newspapers of one kind and another began to spring up with frequency in New York. The "New York Chronicle" as published during the years 1751-52, and then died. The "New York Packet and American Advertiser," was established in 1763, and published by Samuel Loudon. Soon after its publication it was changed from a weekly to a daily, and was continued for several years. It was in existence as late as 1793 under the name of "The Daily, or Loudon's Register." Another paper, called the "New York Gazetteer," published and edited by Shepard Kollock, was started prior to the Revolution, and lasted till 1784. In 1766 Holt established the "New York Journal, or General Advertiser," which in the course of the same year was united with "Parker's Gazette."

John Holt and the First Whig Paper.--John Holt edited the first Whig newspaper published in New York City, and managed it with considerable ability and courage. Differing from the case of Gaine, his patriotism did not rise and fall as danger approached or receded from the city. In 1774 Holt discarded the king's arms from the heading of his paper, substituting the design of a serpent cut in pieces, with the expressive motto, "Unite or die." In January, 1775, the snake w as untied and coiled with the tail in its mouth, forming a double ring. On the body of the snake, beginning at the head, were the following lines:

United now, alive and free--
Firm on this basis Liberty shall stand:
And thus supported, ever bless our land,
Till time becomes Eternity.

Holt maintained his policy of fidelity tot his country to the last, tempering his stand with prudence. When the British forces took possession of New York he removed to Esopus, later to Kingston, and there revived his paper. On the burning of that village in 1777 by General John Vaughan, under the orders of Sir Henry Clinton, he removed to Poughkeepsie, and published his "Journal" there until the peace of 1783, when he returned to New York and resumed the publication of his paper, under the title of the "Independent Gazette of the New York Journal Revived." Holt did not long survive the achievement of his country's freedom--a result for which he had long labored. He fell a victim of the yellow fever in 1784. The paper was continued by his widow, Elizabeth Holt. Soon after his death she printed a memorial of him on cards, for distribution among her friends. It reads as follows:

A due tribute to the memory of JOHN HOLT, printer to this State; a native of Virginia; who patiently obeyed Death's awful summons, on the 30th of January, 1784, in the 64th year of his age. To say that his family lament him is needless; that his friends bewail him, useless; to all regret him, unnecessary, for that ht merited every esteem is certain. The tongue of slander cannot say less, though justice might say more. In token of sincere affection, his disconsolate widow hath caused this memorial to be erected.

Mrs. Holt continued her husband's paper until 1785, publishing it, however, only once a week. Eleazer Oswald, her kinsman, who had been a colonel in the American Army, took charge of the paper for her from 1785 to 1786, after which he printed it in his own name, Mrs. Holt receiving a proportion of the profits. In January, 1787, Mrs. Holt and Oswald sold the paper together with their printing office to Thomas Greenleaf, who soon after this change of proprietorship established two papers. The one intended for city circulation was called "The New York Journal and Daily Patriotic Register"; the other with the same title, was published weekly, on Thursday, for the country. The titles of these papers were afterwards changed--the daily being called the "Argus," or "Greenleaf's New Daily Advertiser"; and "Greenleaf's New York Journal and Patriotic Register," which was published twice a week. "When," says Hudson, in his "Journalism in the United States," "the two great political parties were forming, the measures of Washington's administration were attacked with virulence in Greenleaf's paper." It was, in fact, the fist Democratic organ in the country.

Cheetham's "American Citizen".--Mrs. Greenleaf, after her husband's death, published both the daily and the semi-weekly papers for some time, but finally disposed of them and of her entire printing establishment to James Cheetham, an Englishman, who at once altered the titles of both papers--the daily to the "American Citizen," and the semi-weekly to the "American Watchman." These papers flourished from 1801 to 1810. They were edited with marked ability by Cheetham, who acted with that portion of the Democratic party of which George Clinton, DeWitt Clinton, and Judge Ambrose Spencer were leaders, in opposition to Colonel Aaron Burr. Cheetham was not a professional printer, but he was an able editor, and acquired great distinction as a writer. Occasionally the vigor and pungency of his style caused his productions to be compared with the letter of Junius. But Junius was not along his model. Dr. Francis, who was with him when he died, thus described his death-bed scene:

"He had removed wit his family to country residence some three miles from the city, in the summer of 1809. Within a few days after he exposed himself to malaria, by walking uncovered through the fields under a burning September sun. He was struck with a complication of ills; fever and congestion of the brain. The malignancy of the case soon foretold to his physicians the impossibly of his recovery. Being at that time a student of medicine, I was requested to watch him. On the night of the third day raving mania set it. incoherently he called his family around him, addressed his sons as to their peculiar avocations for life--giving advice to one ever to be temperate in all things; upon another urging the importance of knowledge. At midnight, with Herculean strength, he raised himself from his pillow, with eyes of meteoric fierceness he grasped his bed covering, and in a most vehement but rapid articulation exclaimed to his sons: ‘Boys, study Bolingbroke for style, and Locke for sentiment.' He spoke no more. In a moment life had departed."

Cheetham was often involved in political disputes. One of these leafing him, in 1794, to challenge William Coleman, then editor of the "Evening Post."

James Rivington, The "Royal Gazette".--James Rivington began his newspaper in 1773, under the rather formidable title of Rivington's New York Gazette, or the Connecticut, New Jersey, Hudson's river and Quebec Weekly Advertiser." The imprint read as follows: "Printed at his ever open and uninfluenced press, Hanover Square." Rivington was the royal printer during the Revolutionary War, and it is amusing to trace the degrees by which the Toryism manifested itself as the clouds of war gathered over the country. The title of the paper originally contained the cut of large ship under full sail. In 1774 the ship sailed out of sight, and the King's Arms appeared in its place; and in 1775 the words "ever open and uninfluenced" were withdrawn from the imprint. These symptoms were greatly disliked by the patriots of the country; and in November, 1773, a party of armed men from Connecticut entered the city on horseback, attacked his dwelling, broke into his printing office, destroyed his presses, and carrying away his type, melted it and cast it into bullets. Rivington's paper was thus effectively stopped, and its publication was discontinued until the British army took possession of the city. Rivington himself, in the meantime, had been to England, where he procured a new printing outfit, and returning, established the "New York Royal Gazette" "published by James Rivington, Printer to the King's Most Excellent Majesty." During the remaining five years of the war, Rivington's paper was the most distinguished for its mendacities and its disloyalty to America of all the journals in the colonies. It was published twice a week, and four other newspapers were also published in the city at the same time, under the sanction of the British military command--one arranged for each day, thus affording the advantage of a daily newspaper. It has been said and believed that Rivington, after all, was a secret traitor to the crown, and in fact the secret spy for General Washington. As the war drew to a close and the prospect of the King's arms began to darken, Rivington's loyalty began to cool down; and by 1787, when the King's arms had disappeared, the ship again hailed insight, and the title of the paper had become simply "Rivington's New York Gazette and Universal Advertiser."

Rivington remained distrusted and his paper was abandoned in the course of that year. Previous to coming to America he had be a printer and bookseller in London, where he made $50,000, which was lost in over-generous living, and he came to New York with the hope of making up his losses. Major Andre was a contributor to Rivington's Journal, and some of his poetry was printed in it on the very day of his capture. The wit of "Rivington's Gazette" was very offensive to some of the Americans. Rivington graphically tells a story of an interview he once had with General Ethan Allen, the hero of Ticonderoga, who paid him a visit for the purpose of administering a licking. He says:

I was sitting alone after a good dinner, with a bottle of Madeira before me, when I head an unusual noise in the street and a huzzah from the boys. I was in the second story and, stepping to the window, I saw a tall figure in tarnished regimentals, with a large cocked hat and an enormous long sword followed y a crowd of boys, who occasionally cheered him with huzzahs of which he seemed insensible. He came up to my door and stopped. I could see no more; my heart told me it was Allen! I shut my window and retired behind my table and my bottle. I was certain that the hour of reckoning had come. There was no retreat. Mr. Staples, my clerk, came in paler than ever, and clasping his hands, said; Master, he ash come." "I know it." "He entered the store and asked if James Rivington lived there. I answered, 'Yes, sir.' 'Is he at home?' 'I will go and see, sir,' I said; and now, master, what to thee be done? There he is at this very moment in the store, and the boys are peeping at him from the street."

I mad made up my mind. I looked at the Madeira--possibly took a glass. "Show him up," said I, "and if such Madeira cannot mollify him, he must be harder than adamant." There was a fearful moment of suspense. I heard him on the stairs. His long sword clanking at every step. He stalked. "Is your name James Rivington?" "It is, Sir, and no man can be more happy to see Colonel Ethan Allen." "Sir, I have come--." "Not another word, colonel, until you have taken a seat and a glass of old Madeira." "But, sir, I don't think it proper----." "Not another work, colonel, taste this wine; I have had it in glass ten years. Old wine, you know, unless it is originally sound, never improves with age." He took the glass, swallowed the wine, smacked his lips and shook his head approvingly. "Sir, I come----." "Not another word, until you have taken another glass and the, my dear colonel, we will talk of the old affairs; and I have some queer events to detail." In short, says Rivington, we finished two bottles of Madeira, and parted as good friend as if we never had had cause to be otherwise.

The last paper to start prior to the Revolutionary War was the "New York Independent Journal, or the General Advertiser." This paper, which bitterly opposed the administration of President Washington, changed its title in 1788 to the "New York Gazette." It was first published by McLean and Webster, but was afterwards bought out by John Lang, Turner & Co. It continued as late as 1840, having been edited in turn by John Lang, and subsequently by his son, John Lang, Jr. In 1840 its subscription list was purchased by the "New York Journal of Commerce" in which year the "Gazette" ceased to exist. John Lang, Jr., had died in March, 1836, in New York City.

First Post-Revolution Dailies.--The first daily newspaper to be established in New York after the Revolution was the "Minerva," first issued on December 9, 1793. Is founder was Noah Webster, afterwards the eminent lexicographer, who, in entering upon his career as a journalist, announced that his paper was to be "the friend of Government, of freedom, of virtue and of every species of improvement." A weekly edition of the paper, published for circulation in the country, was called the "Herald." It was not long, however, before the names of "Minerva" and "Herald" were changed to those of the "Commercial Advertiser" and "New York Spectator." The publishers were George Bunce & Co., until May, 1796, when they gave place to Hopkins, Webster & Co. On July 1, 1799, Webster separated from Hopkins & Co., and published the paper in the name of his nephew, Ebenezer Belden, until 1803, when he sold out to Zachariah Lewis. Mr. Lewis continued to be the chief editor until April, 1820, when he sold out the paper to Colonel William L. Stone and Francis Hall--the former assuming the editorship, and the latter becoming the publisher. Colonel Stone at this time was an associate editor of the "New York Evening Post," having previously been successively the editor and part owner of the "Herkimer American,' the "Northern Whig," at Hudson, New York, the Albany "Daily Advertiser" and the "Hartford Mirror." Associated with Colonel Stone for many years s his assistant editor was John Inman, the brother of the artist, the first president of the Academy of Design. During the earlier part of colonel Stone's connection with the "Commercial," that paper was enriched with many poetical gems from the pens of Lucretia and Margaret Davidson, and of Percival and Sands, the latter being for some years a regular contributor to the paper, though not, as Hudson has asserted, holding the position of associate editor the last finished composition of Sands was a poem in the :Commercial Advertiser" entitled "The Dead of 1832," which appeared but a few days before his death. "By a singular coincidence" observes Gulian C. Verplanck, in his sketch of the poet, "he chose for his theme the triumphs of death and time over the illustrious men who had died in the year just closing--Goethe, Cuvier, Spursheim, Bentham, and Watler Scott; Champollion, who read the mystic lore of the Pharaohs; Crabbe, the poet of poverty; Adam Clarke, the learned Methodist--a goodly company, whom he himself was destined to join before the year has passed away."

The "Commercial Advertiser," which, under Webster and Lewis had always been a prominent organ of the Federalists, became, under Stone's management, a staunch upholder of the principles of the Clintonians in advocating the building of the Erie Canal. With the completion of that project, the chief element of cohesion which had held the Clintonians together was dissolved and the party, as a strong political organization, ceased to exist, most of its members, including the editor of the "Commercial Advertiser,' becoming the warm supporters of Mr. Adams in his contest with General Jackson for the presidency in 1828. Jackson's election did not diminish the "Commercial Advertiser's" opposition, nor blunt the keenness of the shafts that it aimed unsparingly at the administration till its close. It was at this period that the Morgan tragedy, enacted on the northwestern border of New York State, tore society asunder and gave birth to a new political party, composed chiefly of the old followers of DeWitt Clinton and a considerable portion of the Bucktails. At his point the editor of the "Commercial Advertiser,' who was a "high Mason," stepped forth as a mediator, and addressed, through his paper, a series of letters on "Masonry and Anti-Masonry" to John Quincy Adams, who, in his retirement at Quincy, Massachusetts, had taken considerable interest in the Anti-Masonic movement, carrying his antipathy to secret societies so far as to exert himself to procure the abolition of certain secret passwords, which formed a part of the ceremonies of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. Upon the removal of the government deposits from the United States Bank by President Jackson in 1834, the Adams party, which had taken the name of National Republicans, became Whigs, and thenceforth until the date of the death of its editor, the "Commercial Advertiser" gave an unqualified and consistent support to the measure of that party. It took an active part in the great presidential campaign of 1840, a work which was not unappreciated by the successful candidate, who, on entering upon the duties of office, tendered its editor the appointment of minister to The Hague. While the matter was in abeyance, President Harrison died, and Tyler succeeding, the offer was not repeated.

 

The History of New York State, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1927

This book is owned by Pam Rietsch and is a part of the Mardos Memorial Library

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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