Thursday, March 9, 2017

The County Capital & The St. John News

Ad from the County Capital
For those of you who follow this blog, you have frequently seen references to The County Capital.  It was the newspaper to which Isaac Werner subscribed and for which he occasionally wrote.  It was the newspaper of the progressive movement, and it unabashedly supported populist ideas.

The St. John News was the Republican newspaper.  Its bias was equally obvious, for which they made no apologies.  That was the practice of that era, and people subscribed to the paper with which they agreed.

The community of Stafford had the Stafford Democrat, which declared its perspective in its name, so it appears that if you lived in Stafford County in the 1880s, you were able to subscribe to a newspaper that printed the news with the bias that allowed you to read the news from the perspective you wanted to read.  

Just as I have often quoted from one of President Bush's advisors, "People read to be affirmed, not to be informed," and that was true in Isaac's time, just as it is today.  While it might be thought that the internet, which makes access to information so easily available, would make people more broadly informed, that has not appeared to be the case.

Political cartoon re wealthy control of the press
Freedom of the press is one of our most valued promises, alongside freedom of speech.  They are really just two sides of the same coin, for one is a form of speech published widely and the other is speech which may or may not be more limited.  Our first President, George Washington, said:  "If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter."  But what if that freedom is used to protect misinformation and propaganda as well as factual information?

Americans are generous in protecting these freedoms.  As lawyer Alan Dershowitz has said:  "Freedom of speech means freedom for those who you despise, and freedom to express the most despicable views.  It also means that the government cannot pick and choose which expressions to authorize and which to prevent. 

Clearly, in Isaac's time the use of newspapers for political purposes was commonplace.  Political parties even endorsed specific newspapers as their official organ.  The St. John News made a joke of having lost subscribers due to the popularity of the populist movement in their area, saying 'now our former subscribers have to borrow a copy to read the News.'

The importance of free speech is not just an American ideal, however. French novelist, Marcel Proust, who lived from 1871 to 1922, wrote:  "As long as men are free to ask what they must, free to say what they think, free to think what they will, freedom can never be lost and science can never regress."

Ad from the County Capital
Even earlier, French lawyer and member of the Committee of Public Safety, Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794) wrote:  "The secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant."  That enlightened quote must be considered, however, with awareness that he is perhaps best known for his role in the French Revolution's Reign of Terror and his support for political killings.

In researching the populist movement that swept the nation in the 1880s and 1890s, and which found such acceptance in Kansas, newspapers were a valuable source for my research.  Even small towns had multiple newspapers.  Without radio, television or the internet, people got their news from the newspapers and from orators that traveled the country to speak at large mass rallies.  It was an exciting time in Kansas.  Next week I will share more history about balancing freedom of speech and the press with the delivery of information for an informed public.

The ads and the political cartoon are from the County Capital newspaper during the late 1880s and early 1890s.

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