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Tarred, Feathered, and Speaking to the Nation:
Niles' Register and Political Thought, 1829-1849
Erika J. Pribanic-Smith
University of Alabama
Submitted to the History Division,
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
2006 National Convention
5100 Old Birmingham Hwy., Apt. 116
Tuscaloosa, Alabama 35404
[log in to unmask]
Tarred, Feathered, and Speaking to the Nation:
Niles' Register and Political Thought, 1829-1849
During the tariff and nullification debates of the late 1820s
and early 1830s, Hezekiah Niles received numerous death threats, and
was "several times tarred and feathered, hung, or burnt in effigy."1
Niles was neither a congressman who proposed or voted for the
protective measure that so riled the south, nor a South Carolina
nullifier who struck fear into the heart of all men in love with
constitution and union. He was a newspaper editor in Baltimore,
Maryland, but his newspaper held such influence that his words echoed
in all corners of the union, bringing praise from some and contempt
from others. Niles' Register dutifully covered some of the biggest
controversies of the antebellum era, making it a valuable window into
the mind of the nation in the decades leading up to the Civil War.
The intense state rights debate quieted by the Missouri
Compromise of 1820 began anew after Congress passed tariffs in 1824
and 1828 to encourage domestic manufacturing by discouraging the
importation of goods from Europe. While these tariffs served to
increase profits for northern industry, the agrarian southern states,
which had not established a manufacturing base, were forced to obtain
items from northern manufacturers at a higher cost than they had paid
for imports. Furthermore, the resulting decrease in British
importation led to a decreased exportation of raw cotton from
southern states. Southern states thus uniformly opposed the tariff,
and opposition arose in some northern states as well. Vice President
John C. Calhoun, a South Carolinian, attempted to solve the problem
by urging states to nullify offending laws. Instead, the suggestion
made matters worse. After the passage of another tariff bill in 1832
spurred South Carolina to pass a Nullification Ordinance, President
Andrew Jackson issued a proclamation calling the people of South
Carolina subversive and threatened the use of armed force to collect
customs duties. Tensions mounted throughout the nation, with a
minority siding with South Carolina in the fight for state rights,
and most of the nation, including many southerners, voicing their
support for the Union. Congress responded to the crisis by
negotiating a Compromise Tariff, and South Carolina repealed its
Nullification Ordinance in 1833.2
Truce was only temporary. A decade-long argument over the
admission of Texas to the Union as a slave state erupted into an
all-out war of words during the Mexican War, when adherents to
"manifest destiny" began to consider annexing California and New
Mexico. Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot offered a compromise,
known as the Wilmot Proviso, which stated that Texas could continue
as a slave state, but moved to exclude slavery from all lands
acquired from Mexico after the war. The last part of Wilmot's
suggestion violated the Missouri Compromise, which stated, in part,
that slavery would be allowed in all territory south of the line at
36 degrees, 30 minutes latitude. Debate over the issue, which never
passed, continued for four years between those who sought to prevent
the spread of slavery and those who saw the proviso as an
infringement on the rights of those who wished to move into the new
territory with slave property.3
As the dominant medium of the early to mid-nineteenth century,
newspapers served as a forum for editors and politicians to voice
their opinions about the state rights controversies of the time, and
as the populace's major source of information about the political
actions that instigated the debates. Tension between the newspaper
editors who adhered to the tenets of state rights and the editors who
believed in preserving the Union at all costs characterized the
antebellum press from 1829 to 1849. Whatever their bias, antebellum
editors were extremely influential in the politics of the
time.4 Although the penny press had begun to serve the independent
masses5, most newspapers, particularly in the south, remained
intensely partisan and served as mouthpieces for politicians seeking
to sway public opinion about the major issues of the day. As the
crisis wore on, however, northern newspapers grew more independent,
while southern newspapers grew more sectional.6
Despite the increasing publication of local letters and
editorial comment, many newspapers continued to clip most of their
political news content from national newspapers such as Niles'
Register.7 Published from 1811 to 1849, the Register was famous in
its day for its comprehensiveness and reliability. Devoted mostly to
politics, it routinely was cited as an authoritative source of
information in courtrooms and legislatures. Historians have heralded
the Register and its publisher, Hezekiah Niles, as major actors in
American politics of the Jacksonian era. Niles has been portrayed as
supportive of the protective tariffs and opposed to
nullification.8 Because Niles died in 1839, historians generally end
their histories of the Register at that time, prior to the Wilmot
Thus, no previous research has examined the position of Niles'
Register during debates over the Wilmot Proviso or compared it to the
newspaper's position during the Nullification crisis. Furthermore,
no prior scholarship has explored Niles' Register's position on both
of these issues in the context of the era's political ideology.
This paper attempts to answer the following questions: RQ1)
What was the position of Niles' Register during a) the Nullification
Crisis and b) the debate over the Wilmot Proviso? RQ2) Was there a
noticeable change between point a and point b? RQ3) How do the
Register's contents compare with public and political sentiment
during these two crucial controversies?
Searching with the keywords "nullification" and "Wilmot
Proviso" in American Periodicals Series yielded 234 articles relevant
to the nullification crisis (from the years 1829 to 1833) and 114
articles relevant to the Wilmot Proviso debate (from the years 1846
to 1849). These articles were coded using a Web-based content
analysis program, which the author created.
To gain a full understanding about the position of Niles'
Register on the issues in question, each article was coded according
to degree of unionism, position on slavery, regional bias, and
position on political power, the four main issues identified in
readings on the era's politics.9 Each category also contained a
neutral option, in the case that an article did not specifically
support one side or another, or if both sides received equal support.
1) Unionism. Unconditional Unionists called for preservation
of the Union at all costs. Conditional Unionists exhibited the
belief that the Union should be preserved, unless extreme
circumstances warranted its dissolution. Secessionists ardently
supported breaking apart the Union for the benefit of individual states.
2) Slavery. Pro-slavery sentiments are those that extol the
benefits of the institution and advocate for its continuation and
spread. Anti-slavery articles advocated for its containment in the
regions where it currently was allowed, whereas abolitionists called
for the extinction of slavery everywhere in the United States.
3) Regional bias. Sentiments expressed specifically in favor
of the north or the south (or specifically opposed to the opposite
section) were coded as such. Additionally, articles were coded as
biased toward the north if they adhered to values of free labor and
industrialism, whereas sentiments advocating the maintenance of an
agrarian society were coded as biased toward the south.
4) Political power. Articles advocating federal control in all
matters were coded as federalist, whereas those advocating
sovereignty in each state were coded as state rights.
Each article also was coded based on the source of
information: pure editorial comment (an editorial with no information
included from other sources), letter (either directly to the
newspaper/editor or personal correspondence submitted to the
newspaper), speech (at a non-political event, such as a church or
social function), southern newspaper (published in a future
confederate state), northern newspaper (published in a future union
state), national newspaper, local political meeting/legislation
(government proceedings, town meetings, political dinners), or
Source of article.11 Of the 234 articles coded during the
nullification crisis, 65 (27.8 percent) were clipped from southern
newspapers, 53 (22.7 percent) detailed proceedings of local (city,
county, or state) political meetings, and 47 (20 percent) contained
purely editorial comment. Letters, speeches, articles from northern
and national newspapers, and congressional proceedings each accounted
for less than 10 percent of the articles, with congressional records
serving as the least used source (3 percent).
Conversely, congressional records accounted for nearly half
(N=47, 41.2 percent) of the articles coded during the Wilmot Proviso
debate, whereas pure editorial comment appeared in only 3 (2.6
percent) of the articles. Articles clipped from northern newspapers
increased to 17.6 percent (N=20), while use of southern newspapers
dropped to 7.9 percent (N=9). Local political meetings still
accounted for roughly the same proportion of the articles (19.3
percent, N=22), and use of letters, speeches, and national newspapers
remained under 10 percent.
Unionism.12 During the Nullification crisis, a majority of the
articles (156; 66.7 percent) exhibited an unconditional unionist
tone. Thirty-seven (15.8 percent) proclaimed conditional unionist
tendencies, and 30 articles (12.8 percent; mostly from southern
newspapers) advocated secession. Eleven articles (4.7 percent)
remained neutral on the subject. Neutrality increased to 41.2
percent (N=47) during the Wilmot Proviso debate. Of the remaining
articles, unconditional unionism maintained the majority (41; 36
percent). Twenty-two percent of the articles (25) exhibited
conditional unionist sentiments, and only one (0.8 percent, from a
northern newspaper) advocated secession.
Regional bias.13 Neutrality regarding regional bias prevailed
during the Nullification Crisis, when 103 articles (44 percent)
specifically supported neither the north nor the south. Southern
bias was evident in 73 articles (31.2 percent), with most of those
coming from southern newspapers and local political
meetings. Fifty-eight articles (24.8 percent), originating
predominantly from the pen of editor Niles, displayed a northern
bias. During the Wilmot Proviso debate, neutrality remained the
order of the day (N=65, 57 percent). The articles showing a regional
bias were nearly split between pro-northern (25, 21.9 percent) and
pro-southern (24, 21.1 percent).
Position on slavery.14 Articles during the Nullification
crisis made almost no mention of slavery, resulting in the coding of
225 (96.2 percent) as neutral. None that did mention slavery
advocated its containment. Five (2.1 percent, four written by Niles)
had an abolitionist tone. The remaining four (1.7 percent) supported
slavery. Slavery became a much bigger issue during the Wilmot
Proviso debate. More than half (60, 52.6 percent) still were coded
as neutral, but the congressional records in which both pro-slavery
and anti-slavery sentiments were expressed account for much of this
number. Pro-slavery arguments dominated the remaining articles (24,
21.1 percent), coming primarily from southern newspapers and local
political meetings. Anti-slavery sentiments accounted for 21 (18.4
percent) of the articles, while abolitionist arguments appeared in
nine (7.9 percent).
Political power.15 A large majority (163, 69.7 percent) of
the nullification articles advocated ultimate political power by the
federal government, whereas 61 (26.1 percent) supported the state
rights doctrine. Only 10 articles (4.2 percent) remained neutral on
the issue. Political power remained an issue during the Wilmot
Proviso debate. Although 62 articles (54.4 percent) were coded as
neutral, many of them were congressional records containing arguments
for both sides. State rights advocates accounted for 25.4 percent of
the articles (N=29), roughly the same as during the nullification
crisis. Federalist arguments, however, decreased to 20.2 percent (N=23).
Editorial policy.16 A large change in editorial policy is
evident from the nullification crisis, when Niles was editor, to the
Wilmot Proviso debate. His successors remained 100 percent neutral
on all issues coded. Although Niles remained primarily neutral on
the issue of slavery, promoting abolition in only four (8.5 percent)
of the articles attributed solely to his pen, he had clear opinions
on the other issues. He advocated both unconditional unionism and
federal control of power 93.6 percent of the time. Sixty percent of
his articles demonstrated a northern bias; the rest were neutral.
Readers nationwide clearly respected Hezekiah Niles, some
admiringly and some fearfully. Examples of the former are found
frequently in the Register, as Niles recognizes compliments paid him
in various newspapers and at political meetings. A common practice
in the nineteenth century was the public dinner, at which attendees
made toasts to various important people, God and country, and
political measures that met their approval. Niles frequently
published such toasts, as well as the number of cheers each elicited
from the audience. Toasts to Niles were common, including one given
in honor of Niles and Philadelphia publisher Mathew Carey at an 1831
dinner for a Maryland senator. A guest proclaimed, "Posterity will
do justice to their talents, patriotism and perseverance in
advocating that system best calculated to support the
republic."17 Both the compliments paid and the thanks Niles
published in response made clear the side on which he stood. In
response to praise given to him during a convention of New York
manufacturers, Niles declared that he would "endeavor to deserve it,
by increased efforts to preserve and extend the whole 'American
System,' in a renewed belief that its full and perfect establishment
is indispensable to the welfare of the whole American people."18
Clearly well wishes sprang from the lips and pens of those who
shared Niles' ideology. Those who opposed his opinions showed equal
respect, but in a different way. Niles was prone to clip articles
from other newspapers in which he was lambasted for positions he took
either in the Register or in public appearances, and to argue against
them point by point in the columns of his paper. Just as Niles gave
hearty thanks for the high compliments paid by his supporters, he was
quick to shoot barbs right back at his detractors. His editorial
comments appended to a Charleston Mercury article that, among other
things, accused Niles of abusing the protective system for his own
profit, include a rebuttal that "the anti-tariff writers and editors
are so much accustomed to the use of hard terms against all who do
not think and speak as they do, that it seems almost natural for them
to vomit expressions unbecoming liberal and decent men."19
From such examples, and the number of editorials in which he
avoided a neutral stance, it becomes obvious that Niles had no fear
of expressing his opinion. He did so clearly and eloquently
throughout the nullification crisis about his love for the union and
constitution, his support of industry and policies that protect it,
and, on occasion, his disdain for slavery.
Niles' editorials on nullification blend wit with sharp
tongue-lashings. He often uses the word nullification and
derivatives of it in jest, such as in his announcement that the
summer arrangement of the mails "was 'nullified' by a severe
snow-storm and frost."20 He also calls nullification a "foul
doctrine" and "the most strange idea that ever entered into the head
of a sane man."21 Part of Niles' objection to nullification rests in
his support of regulated trade. In response to the call for a free
trade convention, Niles expresses hope that "we shall not only learn
what 'free trade' is, but obtain information where it may be found–if
existing among civilized nations." He proceeds to write a farcical
resolution promising rewards of oysters and wine for proof of such a
thing.22 His other reason for opposing the measure is the temper of
South Carolina in proposing and carrying out the doctrine. He refers
to the South Carolina politicians as "demagogues," "mad-caps," and
"madmen, lusting for power," accuses them of whipping up the people
of that state "into acts of treason against the United States," and
labels the nullification craze in that state as a "disease."23
Furthermore, he claims their purposes for nullifying the tariff are
ludicrous, because he sees it as neither unconstitutional nor
oppressive.24 Finally, he denies that the right exists for a state
to nullify federal law. For, he declares, "if such sovereignty
pertains to the states, the union is dissolved. Nullification is civil war."25
Despite his disdain for the opposition, Niles did not hesitate
to publish their opinions on the Register's pages, both with and
without his comment added. Niles frequently proclaims his desire to
"give place to as much matter on 'the other side'" as to his own and
declares that he has no fear of letting his readers see "more than
one side of the question."26 He expresses desire not only for his
readers to be well-informed, but that his newspaper will preserve the
words of his contemporaries and provide a sound historical
record. He calls his full and unbiased coverage "necessary to the
political history of our times."27
Necessity and probably some amount of personal preference
dictated the types of sources on which Niles most relied regarding
the nullification question. Items from northern newspapers (all but
two of which were from New York) typically support the tariff system,
question whether it is oppressive to the south, and denounce the
doctrine of nullification, but their comments are few and usually
quite mild. For instance, a New York newspaper correspondent,
complaining that the compromise tariff congress passed to end the
nullification controversy left open the possibility for future
malcontents "to relieve themselves from all laws which they may
imagine to operate injuriously against their peculiar interests,"
avoids the nasty nick-names and angry treatises against nullification
common in Niles' anti-nullification articles.28
Perhaps Niles chose fewer northern articles because fewer were
available. Northern newspapers may have contained less coverage on
the crisis because they were geographically located further from the
center of the storm. The real debate occurred on the pages of the
southern papers. A handful of newspapers in South Carolina and
Georgia, the most prolific of which were the Charleston Mercury and
Columbia Telegraph, were alone in advocating nullification. Thus,
inclusion of their articles was necessary if Niles intended to show
both sides of the story. Due to their proximity to the activities in
South Carolina and balancing voice, articles from anti-nullification
newspapers in that state (such as the Charleston City Gazette and
Charleston Courier) were a practical choice as well. Another large
portion of southern articles came from Virginia, most likely because
of that state's place in American history and the reverence paid to
it by patriots of the early nineteenth century. Of the Virginia
papers, Niles clipped most frequently from the Richmond Enquirer.
Niles also may have chosen to balance the nullification press
more with southern articles than northern ones because the contents
of the southern sheets come closer to Niles' writing in wit and
vitriolic punch. Niles appears to have a predilection not only for
informing his readers but also for entertaining him, and the style of
the southern newspaper articles adds interest. From the southern
papers came items such as one from the Macon Telegraph on the killing
of a rattlesnake called nullification, slain by "the Charleston
Courier with his dressing knife, the Irishman with his shelulah
[sic], the Georgetown Union with his rise-flail, the Camden Journal
with his devil's claws, and the Greenville Mountaineer with his rifle."29
Niles' ample use of proceedings from political meetings likely
occurred for the same reason that he clipped so often from southern
newspapers: they were prolific, and they often were quite fiery in
their language. State legislatures frequently passed resolutions in
favor of protection and against nullification; against protection but
against nullification as the course of redress; or against protection
and in favor of nullification. Niles often published the
resolutions, and their preambles, verbatim. In addition, town
meetings on the topics of protection and nullification were common,
as were public political dinners, at which toasts were given
referring to the issues at hand.
From the political meetings as from the newspapers, Niles
selected items that exhibited verbal flair. For example, a
resolution passed by the state of Indiana calls nullification a
"heretical and dangerous doctrine," carrying with it "evidence of
[South Carolina's] impracticability, absurdity, and treasonable
tendency."30 A speech from a town meeting in Chester, South Carolina,
ridicules the nullifiers for seeking military aid from "the
degenerate and corrupt government" of England, "a government which,
in its unrighteous and unhallowed lust for domination, has shed the
blood of men from the snows of Scandinavia to the plains of
Hindustan." The speaker avers that the town of Chester will support
the stars and stripes, even if "other districts prefer the black, and
piratical, and traitorous banner of nullification, and the bloody
flag of Old England."31
Although Niles expresses a desire to give all sides a fair
hearing, results of the content analysis show that the sides were not
equally represented. Particularly in terms of the degree of unionism
and position on political power, a majority of the articles (more
than 65 percent in both cases) fall into one category. The fact that
Niles' personal opinion, and thus his editorials, fall into those
very categories provides a partial explanation. Results for each of
the issues coded, however, mirror the political atmosphere of the time.
The regional bias perfectly reflects public opinion regarding
the tariff. Because articles were coded based on support of industry
or agriculture, those that expressed support for the tariff and its
protection of domestic manufactures fell on the pro-northern side,
whereas articles expressing opposition to the protective measure
because of its effects on agriculture were considered
pro-southern. The south stood nearly unanimously against the tariff,
and many in the north opposed it as well. Therefore, it makes sense
that of the articles that express a regional bias, a majority would
lean toward the south.
Only a small minority, however, favored nullification as a
means to combat the tariff. Wrapped up in the nullification question
are the issues of unionism and political power, explaining the
results on those issues. Throughout the nation, politicians,
newspaper editors, and citizens concurred with Niles' belief that
nullification was unconstitutional, and that it would lead to
disunion and civil war. Fervor either for or against nullification
far outweighed that exhibited in the tariff debate, accounting for
the small number of articles neutral on unionism and political power.
An overwhelming majority, Niles included, expressed belief
that the union should be protected at all costs, and that
nullification therefore should be put down. These sentiments existed
both in the south and the north. A small segment of the anti-tariff
population proclaimed disunion as a solution if the situation was
extreme enough to warrant it, but they did not believe that the
tariff presented such a situation. An even smaller segment,
consisting of the nullifiers, declared the tariff so oppressive that
only a break from the union would combat the policy.
Debate over nullification also included debate over who had
the power to make and veto laws. A majority of those opposed to
nullification contended that only the federal government could decide
the laws of the land, and any state that tried to exercise a veto
power over federal laws trampled the constitution. The nullifiers
unanimously asserted that the nation's forefathers had granted
sovereignty to each state, and that the state was well within her
constitutional rights to declare null and void any law that adversely
affected her people. Many of the anti-nullifiers who fell into the
conditional unionist group also advocated state rights; their
opposition to nullification sprung from their belief that the act
would lead to civil war. Therefore, all of the secessionist and most
of the conditional unionist articles also fell into the category of
state rights. The rest of the conditional unionists joined the
unconditional unionists in a federalist stance.
Although sectional strife pitting industry against agriculture
factored heavily into the tariff and nullification debates, slavery
was not a major issue. Therefore, more than 95 percent of the
articles relating to these debates failed to mention slavery at
all. A vast majority of southern anti-tariffites saw the protective
bill as an attack more on their constitutional rights than on the
plantation system. Only a few included slavery in their argument for
protecting the agricultural way of life. On the other side, Niles
and one other writer blamed slavery and "cotton culture" for the
Taken in total, the 234 articles Niles' Register published
regarding the Nullification crisis provide an accurate and balanced
view of history, supplemented with a healthy dose of Nilesean
ideology. After Niles' death, his widow sold the paper to Jeremiah
Hughes, former editor of the Maryland Republican. Hughes served as
editor for most of the Wilmot Proviso controversy. Upon Hughes'
death, in 1848, George Beatty took over the helm. Publication of the
Register was sporadic during the year of Beatty's editorship, and it
ceased publication in September 1849, before the Wilmot Proviso
debate ended with the Compromise of 1850.32
The complexion of the Register changed dramatically after
Niles' death. The name of the paper changed from Niles' Weekly
Register to Niles' National Register. It moved from Baltimore to
Washington, D.C., where it remained through Hughes' tenure. Beatty
moved the paper to Philadelphia for its final year.33 These changes
in personnel and location are apparent in the Register's pages. The
most notable differences are in the editorial policy and sources of material.
Whereas Niles editorialized frequently on the major issues of
the day, neither Beatty nor Hughes injected much comment into the
newspaper's pages. Not only did they not pen many articles featuring
pure editorial comment (only three of the 114 Wilmot Proviso
articles), but they also shied away from adding editorial comment to
articles drawn from other sources–a practice Niles engaged in
frequently. Articles Beatty and Hughes did write about the proviso
were completely objective and bland, compared to Niles'
editorials. The editors remained neutral on all issues coded. Their
articles provide simple comment on the happenings of the day, such as
one during the 1848 presidential election that notes the large number
of candidates before the people and attributes the borage to "the
several contradictory issues at hand," but takes no stance on those
issues and endorses none of the candidates.34 Specific to the Wilmot
Proviso, Hughes briefly explains "the delicate question" and declares
that the "slave states and the free states are at issues so radically
on the subject, that the prospect of any adjustment of the difficulty
appears very gloomy." Although he laments that the ongoing debate
prolongs the Mexican War, he does not express how he would like the
situation to be resolved.35
Because editorial comment makes up so little of the Register's
material, it is not the editors' objective stance that accounts for
the overwhelming neutrality of the paper on the coded issues. The
type of material the editors relied on explains that. During the
nullification debate, articles coded as neutral tended to express no
opinion whatsoever on the issues, much like the Register's editors
during the Wilmot Proviso debate. Most of the articles coded as
neutral during the latter controversy, however, were considered as
such because they argued both sides equally. This type of article
consisted primarily of congressional records.
During Niles' editorship, when the Register published from
Baltimore, congressional matters made up the smallest percentage of
material in the newspaper. After the newspaper moved to Washington,
D.C., and was renamed the National Register, congressional
proceedings comprised the largest percentage of material in the
newspaper. At 41.2 percent of the articles, the proportion of
congressional records to other types of material in the National
Register far exceeds the percentage of each of the three most-used
sources in the Weekly Register.
Hughes and Beatty published two types of articles from
congress. The most common was complete summaries of legislative
proceedings, in which both sides were equally represented. The other
type consisted of lengthy speeches made on the floor of congress and
published verbatim in the Register. Of the latter type, the editors
selected articles that generally balanced each other. Of the seven
congressional speeches coded, three advocated federalism, while four
promoted state rights; two were abolitionist, two were anti-slavery,
and two, pro-slavery (one was neutral); and three each were
pro-northern and pro-southern (one, neutral). The speeches were
overwhelmingly unconditional unionist; only one was conditional unionist.
The remaining sources expressed definite opinions on the
issues of the day. Local political meetings remained common during
the proviso debate, and use of them for source material remained
steady under the Register's new editorship (19.3 percent, compared to
22.7 percent under Niles). Local legislatures commonly passed
resolutions either opposing or supporting the proviso, and this time,
the sentiment was fairly well split along sectional
boundaries. Exclusive of abolitionists and slave-holding northern
states, northern political events voiced support for the proviso,
whereas southern political proceedings uniformly resulted in
resolutions opposing the measure. Virginia produced a famous set of
resolutions contesting the proviso,36 and many other southern states
passed resolutions agreeing with them rather than crafting
resolutions of their own.
Hughes and Beatty's overall use of newspapers decreased
slightly (from 39.4 percent to 29.9 percent), and the appearance of
articles from southern newspapers in particular dropped from 27.8
percent (the highest proportion of sources under Niles) to 7.9
percent. The Charleston Mercury remained the most-quoted southern
newspaper by a slim margin. Hughes and Beatty also selected from a
variety of other newspapers in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana,
Mississippi, and Virginia. They only referred to the Richmond
Enquirer once during the Wilmot Proviso controversy, but the national
newspaper articles coded consisted almost entirely of clips from the
Washington Union, edited by former Enquirer editor Thomas Ritchie.
Considering the fact that the Wilmot Proviso debate engulfed
the entire nation, the reduction in use of southern newspapers is
curious. It is not surprising, however, that articles from northern
newspapers increased to 17.6 percent (from 5.6 percent). New York
newspapers contributed a majority of the northern articles, though
not by as great a margin as during Niles' editorship. Furthermore,
the New York articles came not only from New York City, as they had
during the nullification crisis, but also from Albany and
Rochester. Other northern articles came from Cincinnati, Columbus
(Ohio), St. Louis, Baltimore, and Montpelier.
All of the newspaper articles selected were far more subdued
during the Wilmot Proviso debate than during the nullification
crisis. At a time when the nation was most at odds, discussion in
the Register could not have been less heated. Perhaps the Register's
new owners preferred a quieter, less controversial paper than their
predecessor had published. That may explain the reduction in the use
of southern newspapers, which, particularly in the case of the
Charleston Mercury, typically were filled with fiery rhetoric at this
time. The most passionate article clipped from the Mercury during
the proviso debate was a rather tame treatise on the abolitionists'
attempts to hem the south in on all sides, which it claimed would
result in total annihilation of the black race.37
Despite the crooked ratio of northern to southern newspapers,
Hughes and Beatty managed a balanced view and a reflection of the
era's political atmosphere on most of the issues coded. The changes
in positions on slavery and political power and in regional bias are
most telling of the shift in focus and public sentiment from the
Nullification crisis to the Wilmot Proviso.
Because of the very nature of the proviso as a measure to
limit slavery, the institution was a much larger factor in this
debate than it was during the Nullification crisis. Pro-slavery and
anti-extension sentiments dominated the articles that expressed a
definite opinion on slavery, each receiving fairly equal play. This
distribution makes sense, considering the main thrust of the debate
centered on whether or not slavery should be extended. A smaller
percentage of the articles expressed the belief that slavery should
be abolished. The proportion of these articles is larger than the
percentage of abolitionist articles during the nullification crisis,
and their sentiments are expressed much more strongly. This reflects
the growth of an organized abolitionist movement during the 1840s.
Regional bias is nearly even among the Wilmot Proviso
articles, with 21.9 percent favoring the north and 21.1 percent
favoring the south. This reflects the unification of each section in
their aim to protect that region's way of life. State rights and
federalist sentiments also are more even in the proviso debate than
they had been during nullification, and far fewer articles exhibited
federalist tendencies than those published during the previous
controversy. The increase in state rights sentiments can be
attributed to two facts. One is that the former nullifiers
maintained their state rights doctrine, and many other southerners
moved to that point of view during the proviso debate. The second is
that many proviso detractors, including those who wished to curb the
extension of slavery, advocated for congress to leave to the
newly-acquired territories the decision about whether slavery would
be allowed. Only the proviso adherents who argued that congress had
the power to regulate slavery maintained a federalist stance.
The degree of unionism exhibited in the Register's articles is
slightly less reflective of the political atmosphere. It does make
sense that the union fervor plummeted on the newspaper's pages (from
66.7 percent to 36 percent), because it had done so in the public
sentiment. Far more people, particularly in the south, began to the
see secession as a viable option under extreme circumstances, which
is reflected in the increase in conditional unionist articles from
15.8 percent during nullification to 22 percent in the proviso
debate. What is surprising is the fact that only one article
advocates immediate secession, because many fire-eaters in the south
saw the proviso as such an aggressive policy that the union should be
disbanded. It may be more surprising that the lone article comes
from a northern newspaper were it not from the St. Louis
Republican. Considering the fact that Missouri was a slave-holding
state, and the strife that later occurred there during the secession
crisis, it is not surprising that one of its newspapers would
"present the alternative of dissolution of the Union in case the
Northern people do not conduct themselves better on the Slavery
question!"38 The lack of secession sentiment in the Register likely
is due to the dearth of southern newspaper articles, particularly
those containing the passionate language most fire-eaters used when
Thanks to its founder and first editor, Hezekiah Niles, Niles'
Register was one of the most influential newspapers of the antebellum
era and serves now as a valuable record of both the political events
of that time and the public sentiment surrounding those events. With
that in mind, this study aimed to determine the newspaper's position
during two highly-charged debates leading up to the Civil War, and to
place the newspaper in context with the political atmosphere of the time.
RQ1) What was the position of Niles' Register during a) the
Nullification Crisis and b) the debate over the Wilmot Proviso?
Thanks to the active pen of Hezekiah Niles, the Register's position
on the tariff and nullification is easy to ascertain. Niles was an
avid supporter of the protective system and violently opposed to
nullification, and his newspaper mirrored those views. Conversely,
later editors remained quiet on the issues surrounding the Wilmot
Proviso, and the Register maintained a neutral stance.
RQ2) Was there a noticeable change between point a and point
b? Niles name appears to be the only common thread between Niles'
Weekly Register and Niles' National Register. With the change in
editors and location came not only a change in attitude from highly
opinionated to completely neutral, but also a change in
content. Whereas Niles filled his paper primarily with his own
editorials, articles from southern newspapers, and coverage of
various local political meetings, his successors relied heavily on
congressional records for information on political issues. The style
of the newspaper changed dramatically as well. Niles' editorials and
the articles he selected from other sources used passionate language,
wit, and entertaining metaphors. Articles in the National Register
are calm, bland, and uncontroversial.
RQ3) How do the Register's contents compare with public and
political sentiment during these two crucial controversies? Both
under Niles and his successors, the Register to a large degree
reflected the atmosphere of the time. The other articles Niles
selected provided enough balance to his opinionated stance that the
paper as a whole mirrored the public views on unionism, slavery,
political power, and regional bias. Hughes and Beatty selected
articles that provided a picture consistent with public opinion on
regional bias, slavery, and political power, but a lack of
secessionist sentiment skews the balance of unionist views.
Hughes and Beatty managed to carry on Niles' legacy for a
decade following his death. It continued until its final issue to
keep readers well-informed. Thereafter, it has preserved the words of
antebellum Americans and provided a sound record of the political
history of its time.
Table 1 (Data for Nullification)
Pure Editorial Comment (ED)
Southern Newspaper (SNP)
Northern Newspaper (NNP)
National Newspaper (ANP)
Local Political Meeting/Legislation (LNP)
Congressional Record/Legislation (CR)
Degree of Unionism:
Position on Slavery:
Anti-slavery (contain in present location)
Position on power:
Table 2 (Data for Wilmot Proviso)
Pure Editorial Comment (ED)
Southern Newspaper (SNP)
Northern Newspaper (NNP)
National Newspaper (ANP)
Local Political Meeting/Legislation (LNP)
Congressional Record/Legislation (CR)
Degree of Unionism:
Position on Slavery:
Anti-slavery (contain in present location)
Position on power:
Table 3 (Sources of Articles, Nullification vs. Wilmot Proviso)
Wilmot Proviso (N=114)
Pure Editorial Content
Local Political Meeting/
Congressional Record/ Legislation
Table 4 (Degree of Unionism, Nullification vs. Wilmot Proviso)
Degree of Unionism
Wilmot Proviso (N=114)
156 (66.7 %)
Table 5 (Regional Bias, Nullification vs. Wilmot Proviso)
Wilmot Proviso (N=114)
Table 6 (Position on Slavery, Nullification vs. Wilmot Proviso)
Position on Slavery
Wilmot Proviso (N=114)
Table 7 (Position on Power, Nullification vs. Wilmot Proviso)
Position on Power
Wilmot Proviso (N=114)
Table 8 (Editorial Policy, Niles vs. Hughes/Beatty)
*Remaining % neutral
Wilmot Proviso (Hughes/Beatty)
Degree of unionism
*93.6% Uncond. Unionist
Position on slavery
Position on power
1 Niles' Weekly Register, 14 February 1835, p. 409.
2 Frederic Bancroft, Calhoun and the South Carolina Nullification
Movement (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1966); Paul H. Bergeron,
"Tennessee's Response to the Nullification Crisis," Journal of
Southern History 39 (1973): 23-44; Chauncey Samuel Boucher, The
Nullification Controversy in South Carolina (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1916); Lucie Robertson Bridgeforth, "Mississippi's
Response to Nullification," Journal of Mississippi History, 45
(1983): 1-21; Richard Ellis, The Union at Risk: Jacksonian Democracy,
States Rights, and the Nullification Crisis (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1987); David F. Ericson, "The Nullification Crisis,
American Republicanism, and the Force Bill Debate," Journal of
Southern History 61 (1995): 249-270; David F. Ericson, The Shaping of
American Liberalism: The Debates Over Ratification, Nullification,
and Slavery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); William W.
Freehling, Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in
South Carolina, 1816-1836 (New York: Harper & Row, 1966); David F.
Houston, A Critical Study of Nullification in South Carolina (New
York: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1896); Merrill D. Peterson, Olive
Branch and Sword: The Compromise of 1833 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana
State University, 1982); Edward Payson Powell, Nullification and
Secession in the United States: A History of Six Attempts During the
First Century of the Republic (New York: Putnam, 1897); Donald J.
Ratcliffe, "The Nullification Crisis, Southern Discontents, and the
American Political Process," American Nineteenth Century History 1, 2
(2000): 1-30; David J. Schroeder, "Nullification in South Carolina: A
Revitalization," PhD Dissertation, University of Alabama, 1999; W.
Kirk Wood, "In Defense of the Republic: John C. Calhoun and State
Interposition in South Carolina, 1776-1833," Southern Studies 10 (2003): 9-48.
3 John R. Collins, "The Mexican War: A Study in Fragmentation,"
Journal of the West 11 (1972): 225-234; Mike Dunning, "Manifest
Destiny and the South Beyond Mississippi: Natural Law and the
Extension of Slavery Toward Mexico," Secuencia 56 (2003): 74-93; Don
E. Fehrenbacher, Sectional Crisis and Southern Constitutionalism
(Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1995); Eric Foner, "The
Wilmot Proviso Revisited," Journal of American History 56 (1969):
262-279; Charles B. Going, David Wilmot, Free Soiler: A Biography of
the Great Advocate of the Wilmot Proviso (New York: D. Appleton and
Co., 1924); Norman Graebner, "1848: Southern Politics at the
Crossroads," Historian 25 (1962-1963): 14-35; Michael F. Holt, The
Fate of their Country: Politicians, Slavery Extension, and the Coming
of the Civil War (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001); Archie P. McDonald,
The Mexican War: Crisis for American Democracy (Lexington, Mass.:
Heath, 1969); Chaplain W. Morrison, Democratic Politics and
Sectionalism: The Wilmot Proviso Controversy (Chapel Hill: University
of North Carolina Press, 1967); Joseph G. Rayback, "The Wilmot
Proviso," chapter 2 in Free Soil: The Election of 1848 (Lexington:
University Press of Kentucky, 1970): 23-33.
4 This conclusion derives from numerous biographies treating editors
of antebellum newspapers. Among them are Charles Henry Ambler,
Thomas Ritchie: A Study in Virginia Politics (Richmond, Va.: Bell
Book & Stationary, 1913); Ellis Merton Coulter, William G. Brownlow:
Fighting Parson of the Southern Highlands (Chapel Hill: University of
North Carolina Press, 1937); William C. Davis, Rhett: The Turbulent
Life and Times of a Fire-Eater (Columbia: University of South
Carolina Press, 2001); George S. Merriam, The Life and Times of
Samuel Bowles, 2 vols. (New York: Century, 1885); Elbert B. Smith,
Francis Preston Bliar (New York: Free Press, 1980); Henry L Stoddard,
Horace Greeley: Printer, Editor, Crusader (New York, G.P. Putnam's
Sons, 1946); and William P. Trent, William Gilmore Simms (Boston:
Houghton, Mifflin, 1892).
5 See Susan Thompson, The Penny Press: The Origins of the Modern News
Media, 1833-1861 (Northport, Al.: Vision Press, 2004).
6 Carl R. Osthaus, Partisans of the Southern Press: Editorial
Spokesmen of the Nineteenth Century (Lexington: University Press of
Kentucky, 1994); see also Richard B. Kielbowicz, "Party Press
Cohesiveness: Jacksonian Newspapers, 1832," Journalism Quarterly 60
7 Gerald Baldasty, "The Charleston, South Carolina, Press and
National News, 1808-47," Journalism Quarterly 55 (1978): 519-526.
8 Ronald T. Farrar, "Hezekiah Niles," in Perry J. Ashley, ed.,
American Newspaper Journalists, 1690-1872, vol. 43, Dictionary of
Literary Biography (Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1985): 325-330; James
L. Fisher, "Niles' Register and Western Reactions to Jacksonian
Policies," Master's Thesis, Illinois State Normal University, 1957;
John T. Guertler, "The Early Career of Hezekiah Niles," Master's
Thesis, University of Delaware, 1975; John T. Guertler, "Hezekiah
Niles: Wilmington Printer and Editor," Delaware History 17 (1976):
37-53; Bill Kovarik, "To Avoid the Coming Storm: Hezekiah Niles'
Weekly Register as a Voice of North-South Moderation, 1811-1839,"
American Journalism 9, 3-4 (1992): 20-43; Norval Neil Luxon, "H.
Niles, the Man and the Editor," Mississippi Valley Historical
Quarterly 28 (1941): 27-40; Norval Neil Luxon, Niles' Weekly
Register: News Magazine of the Nineteenth Century (Baton Rouge:
Louisiana State University Press, 1947); Jeffrey B. Morris, "'No
Other Herald': Niles' Register and the Supreme Court," Supreme Court
Historical Society Yearbook (1978): 50-60; Robert D. Page, "A Life
Active and Vigilant: The Republicanism of Hezekiah Niles," PhD
Dissertation, Georgia State University, 1996; Philip R. Schmidt,
"Hezekiah Niles and American Economic Nationalism: A Political
Biography," PhD Dissertation, University of Kansas, 1982; Richard G.
Stone, Hezekiah Niles as Economist (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1933).
9 See footnotes 2 and 3.
10 See Tables 1 and 2 for full numerical results of the coding.
11 See Table 3.
12 See Table 4.
13 See Table 5.
14 See Table 6.
15 See Table 7.
16 See Table 8.
17 "Mr. Verplanck," Niles' Weekly Register, 7 May 1831, p. 166.
18 "It is Said," Niles' Weekly Register, 4 June 1831, p. 233.
19 "Southern Views," Niles' Weekly Register, 16 April 1833, p. 114.
20 "The Mails," Niles' Weekly Register, 9 March 1833, p. 17.
21 "Mr. Madison," Niles' Weekly Register, 29 September 1832, p. 66;
Niles' Weekly Register, 30 June 1832, p. 321.
22 "Anti-Tariff Convention," Niles' Weekly Register, 2 July 1831, p. 305.
23 Niles' Weekly Register, 11 August 1832, p. 417; "Georgia," Niles'
Weekly Register, 29 September 1832, p. 66; "Flour," Niles' Weekly
Register, 28 August 1830, p. 1; Niles' Weekly Register, 1 September
1832, p. 2.
24 "Patriotic Resolutions," Niles' Weekly Register, 3 September 1831, p. 12.
25 "Editorial and Miscellaneous," Niles' Weekly Register, 10 November
1832, p. 167.
26 Niles' Weekly Register, 30 June 1832, p. 321; "Anti-Tariff
Convention," Niles' Weekly Register, 23 July 1831, p. 368.
27 Niles' Weekly Register, 12 January 1833, p. 323; Niles' Weekly
Register, 6 October 1832, p. 81.
28 Niles' Weekly Register, 16 March 1833, p. 33.
29 "Nullifications in South Carolina," Niles' Weekly Register, 27
August 1831, p. 462.
30 John W. Davis, "Legislature of Indiana," Niles' Weekly Register, 9
February 1833, p. 400.
31 "Anti-Nullification," Niles' Weekly Register, 7 April 1832, p. 90.
32 Luxon, "Other Editors of the Register," chapter 3 in Niles' Weekly
Register: News Magazine of the Nineteenth Century, 66-74.
34 "Presidency, 1848," Niles' National Register, 15 January 1848, p. 320.
35 "Chronicle," Niles' National Register, 20 February 1847, p. 400.
36 See "The States," Niles' National Register, 31 January 1849, p. 70.
37 Niles' National Register, 28 August 1848, p. 408.
38 "Chronicle," Niles' National Register, 2 May 1849, p. 288.