Why were European visitors to the United States in the nineteenth century so often astonished—and sometimes appalled—by the American press?
The astonishment was clear—there were just so many newspapers! And they could be found not only in urban areas far from political capitals but even in very small towns. Why so many? A large part of the answer is that the American founders acted to encourage the establishment of papers. The federal government established post offices throughout the country. By 1830 the US had four times as many post offices per 100,000 people as Britain, fifteen times as many as France. The government also subsidized newspaper circulation by providing discounted postal rates to newspapers and free circulation in the mails for newspapers mailed to other newspapers. The latter was a significant boost for newsgathering since papers freely reprinted news items from other papers to make up a large proportion of their content.
Another factor in the establishment of newspapers was the sense people had that the newspaper was an emblem of a community, not so much a newsgatherer as a chamber of commerce that advertised the glories of its city or town to others beyond it. In the mid-nineteenth century, as the frontier was pushed westward and as new communities of small populations and limited economic resources sought to grow by attracting new settlers, the towns promoted the establishment of colleges, "grand hotels," and newspapers to boost their economic prospects.
What was appalling to visitors was the arrogance, vitriol, and hyperbole of the partisan papers of the nineteenth century. The most famous of the European admirers of American newspapers was the young French civil servant and public intellectual, Alexis de Tocqueville. He visited in 1830-1831, and wrote glowingly of newspapers, "We should underrate their importance if we thought they just guaranteed liberty; they maintain civilization." At the same time, he complained of the violence and vulgarity of the language of American newspapers. In fact, he found it a saving grace that the newspapers were dispersed around the country rather than concentrated in a capital city—this way they could do less harm. It was for him a virtue of the press that it "makes political life circulate in every corner" but the power of the press nonetheless worried him. Individually, he thought, the newspapers were powerless but collectively the press was "the first of powers" after the people themselves.