All posts by Geoffrey Cole

Research Journal – Newspapers 1868

The Election of 1868 

Fake news is not just a 21st century term. 19th century papers sensationalized every aspect of human life from accounts of robberies to political elections. The existence of fake news in 19th century papers is important to acknowledge when researching them, without it you could be suckered into believing the ludicrous stories printed within them everyday.

Newspapers of this era of American history were not concerned with, what the modern reader might call, “hard facts.” Instead, utilizing the hook-factor of fake news and inflammatory writing, the effort of the editor and writers to support the paper’s political party affiliation was much more important and ultimately was what lead to major success for the paper.

With this information in mind, it became very important to me to examine the style of political discourse in papers in the year I was studying, 1868. For most people familiar with the course of American history there were several key events in and around this year that  were discussed in papers: the end of the Civil War, the division between political party as well as the remaining tensions between Northern and Southern States, the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment (granting citizenship to freed slaves)  and the Election of 1868. To do this research I examined The American Volunteer, a local Carlisle Weekly paper and utilized the 19th Century Newspaper Database that lead me to The New Hampshire Statesman.

MicroFilm Research

I initially chose to focus on the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment and its reception in Carlisle. Through resources provided by my Professor I knew it was ratified in July of 1868 and, upon arrival at the College Library, the Microfilm I looked at was in search of articles in The Volunteer regarding that amendment in the months preceding and immediately following its passing.

Interestingly enough, the process of finding the necessary information was very easy (once I summited the learning curve required with microfilm research) because, unlike a diary entry or a subject’s personal papers, there was no bad handwriting or unrelated texts to get through. Utilizing what I learned to be the standard layout of The American Volunteer and the titles of various articles it was easy to both find my place in time (i.e. proximity to certain know historical events) as well as the articles that would be relevant and where they would be placed in the paper.

Unfortunately, I did not find anything about the Fourteenth Amendment. After just a quick scan of the months surrounding the passing of it I noticed a dedication of column inches devoted to the discussion of the Election of 1868 rather than a discussion of what we now consider a landmark of the civil rights and reconstruction movements. And so, that is where I let the papers take me. In this discovery I found out very early on that in the struggle for the presidency of that year the paper strongly supported the Democratic Nominee the Honorable. Horatio Seymour and, with all the contempt available, despised the Republican candidate Ulysses S. Grant. A realization supported by the fact that I knew the paper was historically affiliated with the Democratic party.

A blatant attack on “Why Grant Should Not Be Elected” published before the election in The American Volunteer

Within the paper I found a political climate many would say our modern system mirrors. But, unlike our system, the pundits do not hide behind impartiality and a presentation of facts as fixed things. Both the articles I will describe here represent two different ways of attacking political opponents presented in The American Volunteer. Scanning through the Microfilm pages of these papers it is clear that both these styles of articles, and their subject matter were a consistent feature of The Volunteer.

This first article looks, reads and seems like something we would all recognize as “news.” Really what this type of article stood as was what we would call an op-ed. A political explanation (tinged with personal opinion) of “Why Grant Should Not Be Elected.” Presented as a piece of news, the readers that agreed with this viewpoint would see it as a rallying call to their cause as well as an argument to add to their political negotiation tool chest. A little dry, a little standard lambasting, there is nothing overwhelmingly out of the ordinary here when it comes to a news article, even in todays standards. [1] What it represents though is a valuable insight into one of the ways political information was shared and that was, as I have explained, through personal and often greatly biased articles and insights presented as just the news.

A poem telling Ulysses (and making fun of his middle name, a common past time for his opponents) to “go home” to his dad instead of running for President.

In contrast to the ‘traditional-ness” of the first, this second piece provides something wholly new, a poem. A poem for political gain and point-scoring. If today we saw a poem in the middle of a paper we would assume we were either reading the New Yorker, an ad or a joke. But, positioned squarely under the heading “Political” (just above the title on in this image) this poem is another attempt to slam the enemy (Grant) and confer a Republican message, but this time through rhyme! While it seems like a silly joke, this style of poems for political points was an incredibly popular mode of storytelling in Carlisle newspapers and specifically The Volunteer. [2] In my research I found, on average, 1 per publication and, when it was a good week, 2. Often with one jovial and non-politically motivated (an example of which can be found here) [3] and one much more clearly politically driven (an example of which can be found from a paper published in August of 1868, here). [4] Clearly, the people of Carlisle were much more willing to represent political opinions in this way and willing to read it this way as well. I think this provides a valuable insight to a population and era we generally would describe as serious, conservative or austere. Instead, it is clear that even in the most serious of circumstances, an election, levity was not far out of reach.

New Hampshire Statesman and the 19th Century Newspaper Database

A republican paper out of Concord New Hampshire, The New Hampshire Statesman had a drastically different slant than The Volunteer. In addition to its strongly Grant-leaning politics, a result of its Republican affiliation, it did not seem to take such a hard line position on most subjects and contextualized their work regarding the election in terms of “peace’, rather than the more hostile terms The Volunteer used to describe the contest or its contestants.

This underhanded article, (included as a hyperlink because not all databases making downloading images easy) written October 2, 1868, states that given the context of American History at that moment there need not be mention of how important this election is. Instead, the focus should be on allowing the people to discern who will provide the most “peace” and, the writer argues, “Gen. Grant is presented to the people as the instrument by which to aid in restoring [it].” [5]

I found both the research required to find this document and the document itself much more “normal.” By which I mean the process of refining a search was, since I knew my timeframe and subject of interest (a key even in database work), quite simple. The difficulty for me was finding a good contrast to the Volunteer that, albeit not uncommonly for the time, was pretty hard handed in their language. Many of the papers I saw regarding this election from the New York Herald to the Bangor Daily Whig & Courier carried the same politically agressive language, while The New Hampshire Statesman was, as the name would suggest, rather stately. Polite in their words providing a good view at the differences between even major publications and the ways the readers of differnt states preferred to absorb the news.

The research I did revealed to me three important things:

  • First is that because I went into the project with a crystal clear timeframe for research I was able to quickly narrow my focus so that I did not spend my time looking through a full year’s worth of Microfilm documents with no idea what my end goal was.
    • Specificity in Microfilm and Archival research is hugely helpful no matter your level of expertise or  subject matter or source material.
  • The second observation I made was that Microfilm itself is a fascinating experience. the anachronism of viewing 19th century papers on a 2016 18-inch Dell PC Monitor in high resolution with the ability to crop and capture different portions of the screen was fun, distracting, and a totally new way of researching that I loved and I think should be appreciated by most people.
  • Thirdly and arguably most importantly was that I was wrong. In papers dating from June through November of 1868 there was more discussion of “Dr. Boyle’s Remedies” (presumably a doctor in the area with a standing ad in the local Carlisle Papers) than  about one of the major moments in American Civil Rights history, the ratification of the fourteenth amendment. But that did not deter my work, instead I let it be okay that I needed to take a different path and discovered something fascinating as a result.

If nothing else this project taught me to be flexible, to expect nothing of my research and to go where the sources take me. If you force a source to conform to a question it does not answer than you have denied it the opportunity to teach you what it can. And, perhaps (in the vein of 19th century papers), we should be willing to bring a little levity to even what we deem as the most important moments in our nation. Or at the very least, in our own lives.

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[1] “Why Grant Should not be Elected,” American Volunteer, July 30, 1868.

[2] “Col. and Grant – Fax,” American Volunteer, August 20, 1868.

[3] “I’d Die For You.” American Volunteer, January 7, 1869.

[4]”For Every State a State,” American Volunteer, August 13, 1868.

[5]”Republican Success a National Necessity,” New Hampshire Statesman, October 2, 1868.