The National Intelligencer - Early American Political Journalism

Thu, 11/03/2016 - 2:07pm -- lwhite

With the presidential election drawing to a close next week, political journalists who have been covering it for over a year are finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Of course, political happenings are relevant beyond the election season and political coverage will continue, much as it always has. In the early nineteenth century, the dominant source of political news in Washington was the National Intelligencer. Founded in D.C. in 1800 by Samuel Harrison Smith as the National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser, the paper became known for its political content. Smith published the Intelligencer as a supporter of the Jefferson and Madison administrations until 1810 when he sold it to Joseph Gales, Jr. (1786-1860). The portrait collection at the Redwood includes a portrait of Gales by Charles Bird King.


Joseph Gales, Jr. was born in Sheffield, England in 1786 and came to America in 1795 because of his father Joseph Gales, Sr. The elder Gales was compelled to leave England because of his republican principles and the family settled in Philadelphia for a few years before moving to North Carolina. Joseph Gales, Jr. moved to Washington D.C. in 1807. After gaining full ownership of the Intelligencer, he took on his brother-in-law William Winston Seaton (1785-1866) as his publishing partner in 1812. Gales and Seaton turned the Intelligencer into a daily newspaper, known as the Daily National Intelligencer, and it ran under this name from 1813 until 1867, outliving both of its publishers. Taken over by a new firm in 1865 and officially suspended in 1869, the Intelligencer was not able to thrive without its two most important publishers at its helm.


1830's edition of the Intelligencer

The Intelligencer under Samuel Harrison Smith had a strong connection to Thomas Jefferson, who encouraged its founding and supported it as President. It became the official newspaper of the Republican government and a source for information directly from the elected officials in Washington. It was also the first newspaper in Washington to provide detailed reports of congressional proceedings. The accounts of the debates taking place in Congress that were reported in the Intelligencer are the only record of the actual debates that occurred, as the government only kept records of the official proceedings. Gales and Seaton continued this extensive coverage of Congress in the daily edition of the paper and it acted as a spokesman for the governments of Madison and Monroe, following Jefferson’s presidency. Congress awarded the paper a printing contract in 1819, which it lost under Andrew Jackson in 1829, and then regained in subsequent Whig administrations. Gales and Seaton also published the Annals of Congress, a record of debates beginning with the first Congress until 1824, which was largely taken from reports of the National Intelligencer and the American State Papers. The newspaper and assorted other works published by Gales and Seaton made accessible the realm of Washington politics to people across the country, especially the debates that were held in the Congress away from the gaze of the public.


There is also a portrait in our collection by Charles Bird King of Margaret Bayard Smith (1778-1844). The wife of Samuel Harrison Smith, she is well known in her own right as a successful novelist, journalist, and social diarist. A collection of her letters and notebooks from 1800-1841 were published in 1906 as The First Forty Years of Washington Society. These writings provide insight into Jefferson’s social life as President, as well as the rest of Washington society. She had nearly unlimited access to political figures, which made her an authority on Washington politics.  Smith often wrote for her husband’s paper and other publications, sometimes under her own name and sometimes anonymously. Her insight into the social world of Washington politics had a strong influence on the way Americans viewed these politicians, by providing access, insight, and her own opinions.


The National Intelligencer may no longer exist, but the effort to provide detailed accounts of the proceedings of government and the lives of politicians survives in a way that is difficult to ignore in November during an election season. Joseph Gales, Jr. and Margaret Bayard Smith spent their lives in the political world of Washington D.C., covering the stories, the people, and archiving the history of it all for future generations to study and learn from, not only during an election, but on a daily basis.