BOOK REVIEW: Informing a Nation: The Newspaper Presidency of Thomas Jefferson by Mel Laracey (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2021)
In Informing a Nation: The Newspaper Presidency of Thomas Jefferson, Mel Laracey examines Jefferson’s relationship with the National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser and the way Jefferson used the newspaper to exert influence during his presidency. Although a proponent of liberty, Jefferson feared the consequences of freedom in the hands of an uneducated populace. Enter the Intelligencer, which Laracey contends was widely understood by Jefferson’s contemporaries as a newspaper that spoke on his behalf (page 1). Through a close study of the paper, Laracey contends that Jefferson tied himself intimately with the contents and shows the extent to which Jefferson sought to both groom his followers through the paper as well as build up a defense for his actions as president.
The book consists of ten chapters that focus on Jefferson’s first term as president, which allows Laracey to go deeply into the Intelligencer’s contents while keeping the study relatively short. Further, as Laracey asserts, the first term of Jefferson’s presidency contains most of the drama and high-action events, therefore rendering plenty of rich material, with which to work. The topical contents of the chapters first lay the groundwork for Jefferson’s direct involvement in the contents of the paper and then move into an analysis of the major events of Jefferson’s first term, including the coverage of the 1800 election, the defense of Jefferson’s appointments and removals, Jefferson’s mixed approach to judicial review, the impeachment of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, the Louisiana Purchase, and finally the campaign to re-elect Jefferson in 1804.
As Laracey notes, by the time of Jefferson’s first election, newspapers already occupied a central place in influencing public opinion. Additionally, as the number of papers ballooned in the young nation, the number of partisan papers flourished as well. Just five years prior to Jefferson’s presidency, one hundred and fifty newspapers were published in the United States, operated for the most part by Federalists. By 1800, this number had jumped to two hundred and sixty, eighty-five of which were Republican operated papers (p. 18). In addition to a Republican paper operating in nearly every major city, the usual distribution and sharing of materials ensured that the contents of the Intelligencer would reach far and wide, thereby making the paper a suitable means of communication and education of the American people.
Jefferson directly involved himself in the contents of the paper through its editor, the socially well-connected Samuel Harrison Smith. Jefferson spent a great deal of time socially with the Smiths and also used his allies in Congress to provide Smith with government printing contracts that allowed the paper to survive financially. Smith’s paper depended upon Jefferson’s support, and in turn, Jefferson depended upon the Intelligencer to be his voice, a task that the paper accomplished immediately by publishing an advance copy of Jefferson’s inaugural address (p. 23). Laracey points once again to the close relationship between Smith and Jefferson in an 1804 account in the paper in which Smith defended Jefferson’s authorship of the Declaration of Independence by providing details of a visit, in which Jefferson presented him with his original copy—a highly notable public claim of authorship (p. 24). This method of employing the Intelligencer to make public claims on behalf of Jefferson surfaces repeatedly throughout the contents of the newspaper to assure the public of Jefferson’s position on issues such as Samuel Chase’s impeachment or the Louisiana Purchase.
By considering Jefferson’s personal involvement with the Intelligencer, Laracey shows how Jefferson employed the paper as an avenue to communicate directly with the people without directly making public statements, a finding that contradicts several conclusions drawn by previous scholars. For example, Laracey repeatedly notes how the findings from the Intelligencer’s contents contradict conclusions made in Jeffrey Tulis’s 1987 work, The Rhetorical Presidency. A notable departure from previous scholarly understandings of Jefferson’s presidential conduct is Laracey’s analysis of Jefferson’s decision to deliver messages to Congress in writing rather than deliver them in person. Previously, scholars interpreted this practice as a way through which Jefferson sought to dispense with extravagant ceremonies that accompanied speeches. Tulis’s work argued that Jefferson’s practice was his response to constitutional principles. However, Laracey finds evidence in the Intelligencerthat directly speaks to the purpose of Jefferson providing his addresses in writing as his wish to spare Congress from the need to respond to his address with immediate answers based upon incomplete information. Laracey backs this commentary with personal correspondence between Jefferson and Benjamin Rush in which Jefferson affirms that his issuance of addresses in writing prevented conflicts in Congress over having to deliver an answer (p. 90-92).
The idea of partisan media is one with which modern readers are well familiar and Laracey’s examination of the Intelligencer takes an interesting look into its growth and development in early national America. A valuable resource for examining the newspaper with which Jefferson personally involved himself during his presidency, this book opens new ways of thinking about his presidential conduct. Fitting in well with other recent works that place an increasing emphasis on newspaper and print culture surrounding various aspects of the Revolution and early national America, the commentaries utilized from the Intelligencerare aptly supported by claims in personal correspondence and Laracey deftly draws connections between events that occurred behind the scenes and the way the Intelligencervoiced them. Informing a Nation is a fairly concise yet thorough volume that will especially appeal to readers with an interest in Jefferson’s presidency, print culture, and partisan warfare in the press.
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