The Penny Press as an Articulation of Class/Labor/Race Distinctions

The significance of the Penny Press can best be understood by juxtaposing it to its precursor—the “blanket sheet.” The newspapers the Penny Press replaced were called “blanket sheets.” Their cost—six cents a copy—was indicative of the fact that their readership represented a different socioeconomic group from those the Penny Press would want to attract. Even the physical structure of the “blanket sheets” was an indicator of socioeconomic differentiation. The audience for the “blanket sheets” appeared to be a group with more financial resources than the readers of the Penny Press.

Selling for six cents a copy and described as “blanket sheets” (35 inches by 24, they unfolded to a four-foot width), such papers obviously were intended to be spread out on the library table at home, or across the counting-house desk. Circulation was by subscription, and subscriptions cost ten dollars a year, the equivalent of a week’s wages for a skilled journeyman (Saxton 2003: 95).

Saxton argues that the initial success of the Penny Press came from changes in format, price, distribution, and content (97). The Penny Press papers were much smaller than the blanket sheets. Printed on 8XA by 11 inch sheets; they sold for a penny a copy; they were sold by street vendors rather than subscription; and they reported on crime, violence, humor, and sex, which was not politically neutral (97—98). Thus the development of the Penny Press with its new advertising sys?tem suggests, at the very least, the amassing of a new group of people with its own distinguishing features, one of which was less financial means.

In post-revolutionary America the population that was able to take advantage of the cheaper price of this news was the new groups of European descendants who were gaining power in the society: landless whites who could benefit from westward expansion; urban whites who found new opportunities in the growing free market economy and the entrepreneurism it spawned—the emergent wage laborers. Urban labor sectors experienced an expansion as new types of laborers gained acceptance (Roediger 1999; Saxton 2003). The agricultural sector also experienced an expansion as the number of independent farmers grew, bolstered by migration of whites from the South to the West (Du Bois 1935).

This new audience was also being shaped by the social, economic, and political events that were unfolding simultaneously. Besides the conflict over slavery; there were regional clashes with Native Americans that resulted in land-grabs by Southern states. These issues were, in part, manifestations of growing demands from the expanding group of middle-income people of European descent. This period also experienced the rise of the abolitionist movement, which began its period of militancy as the Penny Press emerged (Franklin 1980). The abolitionist cause contributed many newspapers to the U.S. media during this time. While the abolitionist press did not experience the same success as the Penny Press, the topics it covered contributed to the subjects addressed in the Penny Press (Rhodes 1994). The Penny Press audience appeared to be distinct from that of the abolitionist press, despite the fact that many supported abolition. Some of the Penny Press readership were pro-something else that trumped their beliefs about slavery.

The beliefs of the new Penny Press audience were being molded in a cauldron reflective of the time period. The populace in general had to reconcile or not the significance of an independent state based on an independent, rational electorate using slavery as the foundation of its existence (Davis 1975; Roediger 1999). Whites, especially the emergent middle-income independent workers, had to reconcile their existence with slaves and free black labor (Du Bois 1935; Roediger 1999). Their social status was higher than that of slaves, but was it equal to that of free blacks, many of whom were also urban laborers? And, what was their status in relation to other European descendants? People of European descent were not culturally one group even in post-revolutionary America.

It is important to note some of the specific happenings that shaped the tenor of the nation and distinguished the concerns of some Penny Press readers—this growing group of moderate-income “whites.” They were divided over the rights free blacks should have in the union as citizens and what areas should be incorporated into the nation as slave states to prevent the domination of the slavocracy.

Davis notes some of the events that showed how Americans resolved the dilemmas of that era:

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 “enacts the Northwest Ordinance, prohibiting slavery in the territories north of the Ohio and east of the Mississippi Rivers... . [And 33 years later in 1820] the House and Senate are deadlocked over the question of admitting Missouri as a slave state, and there is some fear of civil war. As a compromise, Congress adopts an amendment that there shall be no restriction on slavery in Missouri, but that the institution will be prohibited from the unorganized Louisiana Territory north of 36o30' latitude. There is continuing agitation to refuse Missouri admission unless the state provides for gradual emancipation” (1975: 26—35).

In 1820, at the time of this heated congressional debate over Missouri, “there are already 10,000 slaves in Missouri and 69,000 in Louisiana” (60). The following year, Missouri is admitted. Not only does its state constitution leave out the antislavery clause some wanted, it includes a clause that bars free blacks (35).

The debates over slavery and its expansion were not only moral debates; they reflected divisions among the white population. The opening of Missouri was a nod to the landless whites. Du Bois (1935) notes that

poor whites left the South in large numbers. In 1860, 399,700 Virginians were living out of their native state. From Tennessee, 344,765 emigrated; from North Carolina, 272,606, and from South Carolina, 256,868. The majority of Southern states sent as many settlers to the West as the Northeastern states, and while the Northeast demanded free soil, the Southerners demanded not only free soil but the exclusion of Negroes from work and the franchise. They had a very vivid fear of the Negro as a competitor in labor, whether slave or free (28).

These disputes made clear that there was no hegemonic “white-race” stance in the society at this time. The more salient concern was the creation of a distinction between white and black labor. From its coverage of these issues the Penny Press had the opportunity to articulate superior positions in society for low- and middle-income whites, for example, the right to exercise the privileges citizenship brought them. Only later in the nation’s history would events transpire and legal codes be established that led to the creation of white hegemony.

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