Title Reviewed:
A History of the National Intelligencer

Author Reviewed:
William E. Ames

Donald F. Carmony


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 68, Issue 4, pp 340-341

Article Type:
Book Review

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A History of the National Intelligencer. By William E. Ames. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1972. Pp. xi, 376. Notes, bibliography, index. $11.95.)

Few American newspapers have ever approximated the influence exerted by the WashingtonNational Intelligencer during the first two thirds of the nineteenth century. Founded at the national capital by Samuel Harrison Smith, the Intelligencer was during most of its distinguished career edited and published by Joseph Gales, Jr., and his brother-in-law William Winston Seaton. These gentlemen devoted their paper to politics in a broad sense, and in their hands it became a product of a very personal sort of journalism. Expressions of their editorial opinions were frequent and normally forthright.

Generally staunchly devoted to Jeffersonian Republicanism in its early years, the paper sided with the National Republicans against the Jacksonians when new parties surfaced in the 1820s. Nevertheless, it maintained an independence and consistency of editorial viewpoint which occasionally found it disagreeing with friends or supporting opponents. At times it merely chose the lesser of two evils, as in the 1840 presidential campaign when it advocated the election of Harrison more out of dislike for Van Buren than from any fondness for "Old Tipp." Under such circumstances the Intelligencer developed a character truly its own and many read it as much for its opinions as for the information it published.

A major contribution of the National Intelligencer was the extensive publication in its columns of public documents concerning the operation of the federal government. The high editorial standards employed in presenting the texts of documents was one of the paper's hallmarks, and those standards were generally matched in attendant commentary which put the documents in perspective. Newspapers throughout the country quoted the commentaries almost as faithfully as they did the documents themselves.

The National Intelligencer was in financial straits for most of its existence, despite the large sums it took in as printer to the federal government. During a twenty-six year period when Washington newspapers almost monopolized federal printing contracts, the Intelligencer received at least $1,000,000 in revenue therefrom. This was in addition to $650,000 Gales and Seaton received for the printing of the Annuals of Congress and the American State Papers before 1845, at which time major portions of both series remained incomplete (p. 282). Notwithstanding this welcome federal largess, the editors maintained their high degree of political independence.

Ames has written an informative book about a newspaper whose story amply deserved the telling. His account is well organized and interestingly presented, and the history of the Intelligencer is effectively interwoven with that of the country. The volume is based upon substantial research, and many readers will be happy to find that the numerous citations are on the same pages as the text to which they refer.

Indiana University, Bloomington

Donald F. Carmony

Published by theĀ Indiana University Department of History.