Lawrence A. Kreiser Jr. Marketing the Blue and Gray: Newspaper Advertising and the American Civil War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2019. 256 pp. $47.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8071-7082-3.
Reviewed by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)
Published on Jhistory (June, 2021)
Commissioned by Robert A. Rabe
Historians have frequently noted the proliferation of newspapers in the nineteenth-century United States and the important role newspapers played in the nation’s political culture. The two volumes examined in this review, Stephen W. Campbell’s The Bank War and the Partisan Press: Newspapers, Financial Institutions, and the Post Office in Jacksonian America and Lawrence A. Kreiser’s Marketing the Blue and Gray: Newspaper Advertising and the American Civil War, contribute to a lively historiography as well as offer important insights on the nineteenth-century United States.
Historians have traditionally, although not exclusively, portrayed the Bank War as a fight between President Andrew Jackson, a fervent opponent of the Second Bank of the United States (BUS) and the bank’s strong-willed president, Nicholas Biddle. Senators Henry Clay and Daniel Webster usually lurk behind the scenes and whisper bad advice into Biddle’s ears. Stephen W. Campbell, currently a lecturer in the History Department at Cal Poly Pomona, offers a new interpretation of this conflict by examining how “newspaper editors mixed public and private sources of capital to fund their businesses” (p. 6). Focusing on the partisan press, he asserts, offers a broader view of the Bank War, one that does not reduce everything to a fight between Jackson and Biddle.
The Bank War and the Partisan Press begins by analyzing “the ways in which appointments to federal office, and political patronage more generally, provided a means of economic security and social advancement for partisan newspaper editors” (p. 15). Newspaper editors did not usually have high profit margins and often relied on political patronage to ensure success. Jacksonians saw advantages in mouthing shibboleths about wasteful and inefficient government and railed with considerable fervor against the alleged corruption of John Quincy Adams. Once in power, however, Jacksonians wasted no time in claiming the spoils of office for themselves. This is not an incidental point. Newspaper editors, with considerable assistance from state subsidies, helped broadcast the Bank War throughout the states. Thus, “for at least some white men of humble origins, state and federal governments could provide opportunities for social advancement and material prosperity” (p. 32). Campbell offers an excellent case study of this point by examining Amos Kendall and Francis Preston Blair’s anti-BUS Globe. Most editors combined public and private funding to start a newspaper. Kendall and Blair, who secured patronage in the amount of $4,000 initially—a sum that later rose to $10,000—were “unique in relying to such a significant degree on state funds to start a major party newspaper” (p. 37). Jackson directed “financial resources from the federal government to give the Globe a wide circulation,” and, by pushing Jacksonians to subscribe to the Globe, established “a litmus test for loyalty to the party that bore his name” (p. 39). Kendall and Blair thus depended on Jackson loyalists who “used their power, resources, political connections, and built-in constituencies to find new subscribers” (p. 44). Here and elsewhere Campbell deftly illustrates the tensions and hypocrisies within Jacksonian ideology.
Nicholas Biddle initially attempted to keep the BUS separate from politics in 1828 and 1829. However, in response to attacks from ignorant Jacksonian demagogues (as he saw them), Biddle’s attitude evolved. He launched a publicity campaign—“one of the earliest business lobbies conducted on a nationwide scale in the United States” (p. 48)—that utilized articles, essays, pamphlets, philosophical treatises, stockholders’ reports, congressional debates, and petitions to spread pro-BUS ideas. Like Jackson, Biddle generously distributed financial assistance to newspaper editors “for circulating BUS reports, internal documents, letters, balance sheets, and editorials” (p. 59). Biddle was not the first person to employ these tactics, but the scale and degree of his campaign was striking. Campbell notes that Biddle spent and lent somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000 in printing orders, $150,000 to $200,000 in loans to members of Congress, and $100,000 in loans to editors. Jacksonians were correct when they complained about Biddle’s use of BUS resources, but Jacksonians themselves spent a considerable amount of public money to subsidize their own friendly press.
In contrast to many portrayals of the Bank War, which emphasize backroom dealings and angry debates in Congress, Campbell analyzes how the conflict played out in the states and his findings are noteworthy. As he explains, “the Bank War is typically conceptualized as a political war of words and deeds, as opposed to an actual armed conflict. But a broader and deeper view of the Bank War shows that the political crossfire could and did lead to deadly, weaponized crossfire, including the loss of human life” (p. 76). Anti-BUS resistance often took ugly forms. The pro-BUS side did not always play fair either; Biddle’s policies, after all, produced a mild economic contraction, the Panic of 1833-34. By foregrounding the dark and disturbing elements of the Bank War, Campbell illustrates how everyday people interpreted the controversy in ways “that were deeply personal, unanticipated, and expressive of an overall environment of uncertainty, anxiety, and tumult” (p. 112). Editors, to a large extent, made this possible because they spread their pro-BUS and anti-BUS sentiments throughout communities and inflamed people’s passions. The Bank War ended with Jackson successfully killing the BUS and priming the pump for the Panic of 1837, but the role of editors in partisan politics did not. Campbell concludes with a discussion of editors and another important government institution: the Post Office. Here as well Jacksonians ruthlessly utilized state resources to build a political party. This included rampant abuse of the franking privilege, liberal distribution of patronage, and the employment of editors to deliver the mail. At a time when US politics suffer from much of the same disorder and viciousness as in Jackson and Biddle’s day, the contemporary relevance of much of the material in this book is hard to miss.
In Marketing the Blue and Gray, Lawrence A. Kreiser Jr., currently associate professor of history and chair of social sciences at Stillman College, examines a part of the newspaper that scholars often ignore: advertisements. Indeed, advertisements can be fun to read, but many scholars consider them either fluff or ephemeral. However, Kreiser’s analysis of newspaper advertisements during the US Civil War demonstrates that advertisements are just as important as the contents of the editorial page. Advertisers “marketed the Civil War to sell everything from biographies on Abraham Lincoln to ‘secession cloaks’ and other politically themed fashions; from patent medicines that promised to cure almost any battlefield wound to dioramas on the fighting at Gettysburg” (p. 3). Furthermore, advertisements “helped to expand American democracy by offering their readership access to almost every aspect of the Civil War” (p. 13). Kreiser utilizes advertisements from a diverse array of 550 newspapers (North and South, urban and rural, White and African American, and Democrat and Republican). The ultimate objective of this book is to discover how advertisements “provide an understanding of mid-nineteenth-century Americans as a people and a nation modernizing even while they passed through a period of great peril and suffering” (p. 16).
Kreiser opens by exploring how wartime headlines helped sell goods. Unsurprisingly, advertisers exploited the public’s demand for news and, consequently, “created war-themed headlines that had little, if anything, to do with their products and services” (p. 17). Where the Confederates emphasized military exploits (at least until mid- and late 1863), Union advertisements tended to emphasize patriotism. Scholars have long debated the existence or the power of Confederate nationalism, and advertisers, who “acted upon the assumption that white southerners perceived themselves as a distinct people” (p. 43), speak to this important debate. Widespread circulation of newspapers helped advertisers peddle their wares across the nation during the antebellum period and this trend continued during the Civil War. Books, maps, and images “allowed readers to keep current with the names and places they read about in the newspaper” (p. 53). Patent medicines, on the other hand, proved more controversial. Some editors would not accept advertisements from quacks, but other editors refused to ignore what they saw as a valuable source of advertising revenue. Advertisers offered readers both knowledge and misinformation about the war. Indeed, they “hyped a humbug as much as a product, one of the more unwanted and unintended legacies of the nation’s largest and bloodiest war” (p. 66).
The final four chapters in the volume examine how advertising influenced aspects of the Civil War. Political advertisements helped rally support during the presidential elections of 1860 and 1864 by invoking a general patriotism and facilitating political gatherings. Merchants helped commercialize elections and, when Lincoln ran for reelection in 1864, newspaper editors “touted the political importance of their advertising columns, which for pennies a line reached a large number of readers” (p. 77). Merchants used advertisements to sell goods and parties used them to mobilize voters. Consequently, advertising helped political parties “reduce their platforms to easily remembered slogans and to build a sense of political community” (p. 87). Advertisements also helped raise armies. The federal government recognized the widespread newspaper readership and encouraged recruiters to place advertisements in newspapers. Editors, in turn, “often referenced the recruiting notices and added their own reasons why men should fight” (p. 95). Advertising columns, Kreiser contends, “proved to be one of the most important tools held by the Union and Confederacy to field the mass armies of citizen-soldiers” (p. 115). Although he understates the amount of attention scholars have devoted to post-1861 recruiting, Kreiser is correct to note the importance of advertisements in recruiting. He also examines the marketing of slavery and perceptions of race. Wartime slave advertisements “did not reflect the level of paternalism that characterized the antebellum years” (p. 119). Unsurprisingly, “antislavery writers continued to turn the announcements run by slave owners against them” (p. 120). Importantly, advertisements delivered mixed messages about emancipation and race and, “for the experiences of actual slaves, potential customers had to turn to the abolitionist and black press” (p. 138). The final chapter analyzes the blurring of the line between the battlefield and the home front, specifically how “merchants attempted to find profit in a unified experience that emphasized common bonds and national loyalty” (p. 163).
“Often overshadowed in the popular memory by the creation of a consumer culture during the late nineteenth century,” Kreiser concludes, “Union and Confederate advertisers had influenced, and commercialized, the most turbulent domestic crisis in the nation’s history” (p. 172). This conclusion, like the rest of the book, is a good reminder to scholars of the need to read all parts of the newspaper, not just the editorials.
Campbell and Kreiser both illustrate some of the repercussions of the proliferation of newspapers in the nineteenth-century United States. In addition, both studies also clearly demonstrate how newspapers can help scholars rethink aspects of US history. Campbell is quite correct that the Bank War, from the viewpoint of partisan editors, looks more complicated and more dangerous than in traditional portrayals. Kreiser’s argument that the Civil War both influenced and was influenced by advertisements is spot-on. In sum, both books make important contributions to our understanding of US history and both deserve to be widely read.
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Evan C. Rothera. Review of Kreiser Jr., Lawrence A., Marketing the Blue and Gray: Newspaper Advertising and the American Civil War.
Jhistory, H-Net Reviews.
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