The Press of Democracy

On January 3, 1829, Frances (Fanny) Wright began a series of lectures at Masonic Hall before a capacity crowd of more than fifteen hundred. In her hour-and-a-half-long speech, the rousing orator, garbed in a white muslin tunic, denounced evangelical clergymen for raising tremendous sums for tracts and missions while opposing reasonable efforts to improve people’s living conditions. Such ministers, she said, were intent on reconciling Americans to an unjust status quo, especially by working on “the minds of weak and deluded women” who had been “humbugged from their cradles.” Virtue was not something to be dictated by the clergy; it would follow naturally when people were happy and secure and free.

Using the class-conscious European feminism of Mary Wollstonecraft, with which the gentry had flirted in the 1790s, to denounce the cult of domesticity the bourgeoisie had more recently adopted, Wright shockingly demanded sexual equality for women. Sexual passion was among “the noblest of the human passions,” yet “ignorant laws, ignorant prejudices, ignorant codes of morals,” Wright argued, “condemn one portion of the female sex to vicious excess, another to as vicious restraint, and all to defenseless helplessness and slavery, and generally the whole of the male sex to debasing licentiousness, if not to loathsome brutality.” A marriage, she said, should last only as long as a couple’s emotional attachment. Addressing herself to plebeian males as well as gentlemen, she cried: “Fathers and husbands! Do you not see how, in the mental bondage of your wives and fair companions, ye yourselves are bound?”

Wright also weighed in on the debate over the educational system. As did the Public School Society (PSS), she favored inculcating republican virtue in pupils. She also agreed that schools had to counteract the time children spent on the streets “learning rudeness, impertinent language, vulgar manners, and vicious habits.” But Wright wanted schooling to produce egalitarian-minded citizens who would struggle against eco­nomic and social injustice. Such education was impossible in New York so long as the wealthy sent their children to private schools while the rest attended charity institutions run by the PSS.

The PSS gentry, Wright charged, condescendingly called working-class parents who kept their children at home ignorant, intemperate, and improvident. They refused to recognize that poor families could not dispense with their children’s earnings, especially with artisans’ wages being pummeled downward, nor could they even afford to clothe the youngsters decently enough to send to school. America had to live up to the promise of its revolution by providing full and equal education to all—including the poor, and slaves, and women. This required more than free day schools. Rather the state should provide free boarding schools to which all citizens would go and be treated equally, wearing the same plain clothing, eating the same food, receiving the same instruction. In the “State Guardianship Plan of Education” formulated by her comrade Robert Dale Owen, the state would assume educational responsibility for children starting at age two.

As Wright laid out these ideas, the crowds and the applause grew. At each lecture working-class freethinkers crushed into Masonic Hall to hear and hail the “female Tom Paine.” Paine’s ideas had undergone quite a revival since his death in Greenwich Village back in 1809 and its disturbing aftermath, when Paine’s body had been carried back to New Rochelle and no Christian graveyard would bury him. He had finally been laid to rest on his farm under a walnut tree, where he had remained until 1819, when William Cobbett got permission to dig him up and take his remains to a place where they would be more honored.

Cobbett, a radical English journalist, had fled to New York City in 1817 when the British government, responding to riots in depressed industrial and agricultural regions, suspended habeas corpus and drastically curbed the press. Facing incarceration, Cobbett chose exile, and for the next two years issued his paper from a basement in Wall Street. When he sailed back home, he took Paine’s bones with him, hoping to get English democrats to build a mausoleum for them. The project never came to pass, and Paine’s remains eventually went missing. His ideas, however, helped fuel a renaissance of deism and anticlericalism in 1820s England. Radical urban artisans argued that religion bolstered authoritarian regimes, crippled freedom of thought, and undermined the independent rationality essential to citizens of the republican society they longed to create. English radicals took to celebrating Paine’s birthday each year, and when many of them fled depression and repression in the late 1820s, they transplanted the custom to New York City. Joining forces with local freethinkers, they gathered at Harmony Hall on each anniversary and raised their glasses in toasts such as “Christianity and the Banks, on their last legs.” In 1827 a weekly lecture series on deism was regularly drawing three hundred people, and George Henry Evans, a journeyman printer of English parentage, had begun bringing out fresh editions of Paine, Elihu Palmer, and other freethought advocates.

Radicals hoped thus to inoculate New York’s workers against the tractarians who, they believed, threatened the separation of church and state, and thus reason and republicanism itself. When Sabbatarians tried in 1828 to prohibit mail deliveries on Sunday, radicals denounced them as a would-be Christian party in politics, intent on compelling the citizenry to their standards. Proving themselves as disciplined as the evangelicals, the freethinkers, aided by a still-widespread anticlericalism, helped beat back the Sabbatarian offensive. Not surprisingly, when Fanny Wright arrived, they hailed her as a spectacular champion of their cause.

At first, however, distinguished elites, men like Cadwallader Golden and Philip Hone, also came to hear Wright speak, in part because for all her radicalism Fanny had impeccable social credentials and was no stranger to Manhattan’s upper class. Wright’s father was a linen merchant who admired Tom Paine, and her mother a child of the British aristocracy. Born in Scotland in 1795, she had first visited New York in 1818, aged twenty-three, with her sister Camilla, to meet liberal thinkers and political exiles. Back in Europe in 1820, she published her Views of Society and Manners in America, an enthusiastic, prorepublican book that won her the attention and affection of Lafayette. With characteristic boldness, Wright suggested he either marry or adopt her.

In 1824 she followed Lafayette to the United States, and in New York her special relationship to the hero won her special attention. She returned yet again in 1828, to undertake a speaking tour of U.S. cities, and quickly became the most notorious orator of her age. In January 1829 Wright decided to “pitch [her] tent” in New York City. “All things considered,” she wrote, New York “is the most central spot both with respect to Europe and this country,” and whatever worked on the Hudson would soon “spread far and wide.”

Wright’s support from the likes of Golden evaporated even before her six-lecture series ended. Not only were the gentry unsettled that a woman was speaking to large sexually mixed audiences, they were appalled by what she was saying. William Leete Stone, editor of the Commercial Advertiser, championed many of the same causes Fanny stood for—he admired Lafayette and supported Greek independence—but Wright’s attacks on clergymen and Christianity drove him to near-pathological rage. Declaring that she had “unsexed herself,” he denounced “her pestilent doctrines” and labeled her a “bold blasphemer, and a voluptuous preacher of licentiousness.” Newspapers attacked her boarding-school idea as an infringement of parental rights and an assault on the family and refused to print letters written on her behalf. Old friends denounced her. Society refused to receive her. “Fanny Wrightism” became an epithet in gentry circles and would remain one for decades.

By the time Wright’s fifth lecture got underway, opponents had moved from words to deeds, setting a barrel full of oil of turpentine afire at the entrance door. Suffocating smoke billowed up the staircase into the hall above, touching off a panic-stricken race to escape. None of this daunted her followers, including a young Brooklyn carpenter and follower of the radical Quaker Elias Hicks, Walter Whitman. Heartened by this support, Wright dug in. She began publication of the Free Enquirer, printed by George Henry Evans, aimed at the city’s working class (Whitman became a subscriber). The Free Enquirer declared war on “priestcraft,” fought the Sabbatarians, attacked legal disabilities of women, and wrote respectfully of birth control.

In April 1829, for seven thousand dollars, Wright bought the old Ebenezer Baptist Church on Broome Street near the Bowery, in the heart of an artisanal neighborhood. She remodeled it to include a Greek-columned facade and rechristened it the Hall of Science; its front window, which faced a Bible repository across the street, was cheekily festooned with pictures of radical heroes (Paine, Shelley, Godwin). On April 26 Wright gave an opening address dedicating the hall to promulgating “universal knowledge” and to helping working people apply rational standards to the problems of the age.

The Hall of Science, a radical counterpart of the gentry’s athenaeum and the evan­gelicals’ missions, offered a day school and a deist Sunday school where working-class youngsters could learn reading, writing, and arithmetic using texts shorn of biblical reference. Its main focus, however, was adult education. The Hall of Science had a bookstore and a circulating library, well stocked with editions of Wright’s pamphlets. It offered speeches and debates every Sunday—admission ten cents—and the twelvehundred-seat hall was regularly filled. Free lectures were offered as well on mathematics, anatomy, geometry, chemistry, natural history, and debating, all aimed at preparing workingmen to think, speak, and legislate for themselves.


Political activism was the more attractive to crowds at the Hall of Science because in the late 1820s remaining constraints on popular participation had just been dismantled. Even after the 1804 law had lowered suffrage requirements for city dwellers, large numbers of tenants, clerks, journeymen, and laborers had still lacked sufficient property to vote. Indeed the growth of propertylessness worsened the situation. As of 1821 threequarters of New York City’s male population could not vote for governor or state senator (women couldn’t vote at all), and even the less rigorous requirements for casting a ballot for assemblyman or congressman still barred roughly a third of the electorate. Popular participation was further circumscribed by the fact that power to select most state, county, and municipal officials—nearly fifteen thousand in all as of 1821, including the mayor of New York City—was still vested in the Council of Appointment consisting of the governor and four senators. The Council of Revision, yet another undemocratic body, retained the right to veto any act of the legislature.

The 1819 recession had quickened demands for political reform. Debtors petitioned the state legislature for assistance but were refused. Many believed this disregard for their interests was a function of the property qualifications that disfranchised them. A clamor went up for ending electoral restrictions, now characterized as undemocratic holdovers from the colonial era.

What finally battered down the old constraints was the thrust and parry of electoral politics. The Federalists’ opposition to the War of 1812 had been their undoing, and they did not long survive the truce. Their Democratic-Republican antagonists, however, soon divided into two factions: those who backed De Witt Clinton, and those who followed Tammany Hall and the upstate Bucktails led by Martin Van Buren, a successful country lawyer who had defended tenants and small landowners against the Hudson River manor lords.

Tammanyites and Bucktails denounced Clinton as an aristocrat. With his autocratic style and ruthless wielding of the Council of Appointment’s patronage power, Clinton, his enemies charged, was bent on perpetuating the eighteenth-century patrician system of family and personal factions. The Democrats, on the other hand, proclaimed themselves a modern political party whose very structure, which relied on open-to-all caucuses to select candidates and policies by majority vote, was responsive to the popular will.

Clintonians and Tammanyites competed for popular support. The governor focused on wooing the Irish, with the aid of his good friend Thomas Addis Emmet. Clinton had successfully sponsored the bill abolishing the Test Oath (something Catholics in Ireland would struggle for another two decades to achieve) and had let it be known, through the Shamrock Friendly Association, that jobs in canal construction awaited Irish immigrants.

Tammanyites’ initial response to the Clinton-Irish alliance was a knee-jerk nativism. Not only did they refuse to court the Irishmen crowding into the Sixth Ward, but in 1817 the Wigwam’s General Committee flatly refused to nominate Emmet for an Assembly position. On the night of April 24, two hundred Irishmen expressed their displeasure by breaking into Tammany Hall, destroying most of the furniture in the Long Room, and sending several Tammanyites to the hospital before the arrival of the mayor and police ended the brawl. Forcibly alerted to their self-destructive chauvinism, Tammany now began to woo the Protestant Irish. Eldad Holmes, prominent banker and sachem, gave a toast at the St. Patrick’s Day dinner of the Hibernian Provident Society, hitherto a Clintonian hotbed, and slowly the party began to make some inroads.

When the surge of popular sentiment for electoral reform came along, moreover, Tammanyites and Bucktails rushed to head it. They initiated and won a referendum—over Clinton’s ill-advised resistance—that decreed the holding of a constitutional convention in 1821. The convention laid an ax to the hated Council of Revision. It also abolished the Council of Appointment and transferred the choice of most local officials to local voters—though reserving selection of the mayor of New York to that city’s Common Council. These decisions were relatively easy. The suffrage issue proved more contentious.

The most radically democratic delegates demanded an immediate end to all constraints on white male suffrage. In response, the upstate landed gentry, led by Chancellor James Kent, mobilized forthrightly against the “evil genius of democracy.” In particular they pointed to “the growth of the city of New York,” which in itself should have been sufficient, Kent declared, to “startle and awaken those who are pursuing the ignis fatuus of universal suffrage.” New York, after all, was home both to “men of no property” and to “the crowds of dependents connected with great manufacturing and commercial establishments.” If the poor were enfranchised, they would seek to plunder the rich, debtors would try “to relax or avoid the obligation of contracts,” and factory workers would become the electoral adjutants of industrialists.

Many New York City delegates had their own reservations about total enfranchisement, given the rising numbers of impoverished residents against whom the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism was then inveighing. In the end, moderate forces led by Van Buren conferred the suffrage on all twenty-one-year-old white males who had lived in their district for six months and had either paid taxes, served in the militia, or worked on the roads.

The proposed constitution was impressively endorsed at the polls. In 1822 De Witt Clinton, facing clear defeat, retired from the governorship rather than run again. His good friend John Pintard reflected sourly that power had passed to those with “no stake in society” and that New York City would “hereafter be governed by a rank democracy.” In fact, Clinton would have one last hurrah. His triumphant opponents, unable to resist kicking him when down, removed him from the Canal Board, a patent injustice that won him instant martyrship and, in 1824, reelection as governor. By 1826, nevertheless, calls for total eradication of the remaining restrictions on voting had become irresistible, and a constitutional amendment completed the democratization of New York’s political system.

For white men. Suffrage for women was not on the agenda, and the same convention that emancipated poor whites disfranchised most blacks. Indeed ardent Democrats took the lead in drawing the color line, because African-American voters had long supported the Federalists. This was hardly surprising, given that the 1799 abolition law had been enacted by a Federalist legislature and signed by a Federalist governor, but Democrats chose to assume that Federalists (or their Clintonian successors) would continue to command black votes because the freedmen were dependent, illiterate, and easily manipulated by their former masters. “If we may judge of the future by the past,” one Democratic militant cautioned the 1821 convention, “I should suppose that there was some cause for alarm, when a few hundred Negroes of the city of New York, following the train of those who ride in their coaches, and whose shoes and boots they had so often blacked shall go to the polls of the election and change the political condition of the whole state.” Northern Democrats, moreover, had been moving toward an alliance with slaveholding southerners, a strategy that only enhanced their desire to bar blacks from the polls.

In the end, Peter A. Jay, an abolitionist like his father, John Jay, prevailed on the convention’s majority not to exclude all black men but only those who didn’t pay taxes on $250 worth of property. This proved acceptable, as Democrats were quite confident that the provision would effectively exclude African Americans. They were right. In 1826, of a total black population of 12,499 in New York County, only sixty were taxed at all, and of these only sixteen qualified to vote. New York was to remain a republic—or a democracy, as it was now increasingly called—of white males.


The Democratic Party, which now unequivocally defined all European immigrants as “white,” vigorously cultivated newcomers. It established a “naturalization bureau” to hurry new voters into being; held special meetings for Irish, French, and German immigrants; placed influential Irishmen on local tickets, and dispensed patronage to ethnic supporters. Within a few years, an estimated one-third of Democratic voters would be of foreign birth, and Philip Hone would be complaining that Irishmen “decide the elections in the city of New York.”

In 1828 Tammany solidified its position by helping make Andrew Jackson president. Jackson had received the largest number of electoral votes for the presidency in 1824. However, failing of a majority, he had been defeated in the House of Representatives, which elected John Quincy Adams in what Democrats charged was a “corrupt bargain.” Tammanyites itched to support the popular war hero in the 1828 rematch but were at first dissuaded by the fact that his biggest supporter in New York was De Witt Clinton. Eventually Martin Van Buren, his eyes on national prizes, made peace with Clinton and swung the Democrats behind Jackson. Clinton’s unexpected death that year removed any remaining reservations.

During the campaign, Tammanyites sponsored elaborate dinners to commemorate the Battle of New Orleans—packing sixteen hundred into the Long Room and holding smaller affairs in all the wards. They established Hickory Clubs throughout the city, which ceremonially planted hickory trees (Jackson was known as Old Hickory) and then retired to local taverns to toast the general’s health. They reminded Irish audiences that Jackson was their compatriot and had humiliated their British oppressors. New York (city and state) went for Jackson and also sent Martin Van Buren to the governor’s mansion, a position he soon resigned to become Jackson’s secretary of state.

Though Tammany trumpeted Jackson’s election as the triumph of democracy, some of the demos thought otherwise, pointing to the fact that the commanding heights of the Democratic Party were occupied by the mercantile elite itself. In truth, the Tammany Society, the party’s inner sanctum, embraced many well-connected attorneys, merchants, bankers, and entrepreneurial craftsmen. Such men often effectively dominated as well the ward committees and caucuses that chose candidates for the Common Council, as only they, or career politicians, could afford to undertake such time-consuming, unpaid political activity. Rich men remained vigorously involved in the electoral arena because they were determined to keep a firm hand on the public tiller. In 1829, when a convention to draw up a new city charter was proposed, Philip Hone and a large number of civic notables ran for delegate, lest others, as Hone put it, adopt “indiscreet measures”; 60 percent of those elected were wealthy men, many of them from prominent families.

As a result, in 1826 two-thirds of the Common Council were well-off or extremely wealthy men. (Across the river, 75 percent of Brooklyn’s identifiable trustees and aldermen hailed from rich families through most of the 1830s.) The mayors, when the council appointed—among them Cadwallader Golden, Walter Bowne, Philip Hone, and Gideon Lee—tended to be affluent as well.

The strong presence of elite gentlemen in the party’s leadership was one reason that, for all the Democrats’ rhetorical populism, when a nascent labor movement emerged in New York during the late 1820s, it insisted quite forcefully that Tammany did not speak for or address the issues about which its membership was concerned. Within a year of the Jacksonian Democrats’ victory, therefore, the city’s workingmen launched an independent political party that advanced a very different vision of New York’s future.


During the 1820s the transformation of the trades had accelerated. Craft work had grown more subdivided, less respected. In printing, entrepreneurs bought presses and hired “halfway journeymen” who had not completed full apprenticeship. In marine construction, nearly all shipwrights now worked as wage-earners for boatyard owners. In the building trades, speculative developers let out competitive bids to contractor-entrepreneurs who agreed to erect structures for a package price; they in turn subcontracted the actual work to builders, who subdivided the labor among crews of semiskilled carpenters and masons, thus circumventing experienced journeymen, whose status and pay eroded further.

Journeymen, recognizing that their employers were more often antagonists than craft-partners, began to draw sharper lines of demarcation within the trades. In 1816 journeyman printers banned employers from their meetings. Masons followed suit in 1819. Cabinetmakers, chair makers, ship carpenters, caulkers, cordwainers, coopers, house carpenters, and tailors—all established journeymen’s societies. Like the groups formed at the turn of the century, these remained primarily fraternal associations, which provided benefits to sick and elderly members, arranged recreational outings, and marched together in civic parades. Increasingly, however, they also operated as labor unions and began appealing to the public for support against capitalizing masters, whom they branded as self-seekers whose “only object is to accumulate money.”

Before 1825 journeymen’s associations rarely engaged in strikes. One reason for such caution was that the press uniformly and vehemently condemned such actions as unrepublican and cast participants as criminals consorting against the public interest, rather than as aggrieved members of the larger community. In addition, the state refused to grant such organizations charters unless they explicitly included provisions disavowing any intention of regulating work or wages.

Nor was it always clear who the enemy was. Many small masters were as badly squeezed as their journeymen. Many upheld the leather-aproned camaraderie of the Trades, refused to sweat more out of their workers, balked at hiring cheaper unskilled labor, and marched with their employees on civic occasions. But they faced sharp competition and grim choices. Either they struggled on as principled but ever poorer independents; or they became subcontractors to merchants and/or large manufacturers and thus accomplices in the degradation of their trade; or they themselves tumbled into permanent wage work. With the distinction between small master and journeyman fast disintegrating, New York’s working people began, as early as 1817, to employ a new term to describe their entrepreneur-employers: “boss,” derived from baas, the Dutch word for master.

In the 1820s laborers were more aggressive than skilled artisans, in part because wage differentials between unskilled and skilled workers kept rising sharply, in part because working conditions were particularly hard. The riggers and stevedores who fitted ships for sea and loaded or unloaded goods, for instance, faced long hours, low pay, and intermittent employment (winters were slack time, and the waterfront instantly registered any curtailment of trade).

In March 1825, accordingly, these waterfront workers (both white and black) marched along the wharves nearly a thousand strong, chanting, “Leave off work, leave off work.” Forcing all dockworkers to join them, they effectively shut down the port. Police arrested the leaders and dispersed the strikers. But 1828 brought additional protests; shipowners reduced wages during a trade slump, and hundreds of strikers rolled along the East River wharves, knocking down and beating up nonstriking workers, then crossed to the Hudson River docks, where they showered a Le Havre packet with ballast stones. The merchant community was not about to put up with anything that threatened its port’s new reputation for regularity and efficiency, and in short order the mayor, several magistrates, a posse of constables, and a troop of cavalry put the strikers down.

Labor violence also broke out that year in Greenwich Village, where handloom weavers, most of them British and Irish immigrants, struck for higher wages. In late June, employing a tactic used hundreds of times in England during that period, one anonymous weaver threw a note through the window of Alexander Knox, the city’s leading textile employer. Addressed to “Boss Nox,” the crudely lettered warning from “the Black Cat” advised him to “either Quit the Business Or else pay the price you ought to for if you don’t you will be fixed.” When several weavers continued to work for Knox at a lower wage, scores of angry journeymen stormed the shop and cut webs off looms.

Such outbursts received no support from skilled workers. Nor did the country’s first all-female strike, in 1825, when tailoresses turned out. Indeed male tailors refused to allow women in their organization and sought to drive them out of the trade altogether. Seamstresses had been garnering much of the slop work on which many tailors depended, and already in 1819 one journeyman had expostulated in print: “Is it reasonable that the best of workmen should be unemployed half of the year” because “mercenary” employers knew that “women work cheaper than men?” Ignoring women’s own survival needs, the men demanded a “family wage” for themselves—the “natural” breadwinners—which would enable them to keep their women at home, thus restricting labor competition while reaping the benefits of a wife’s housework. Faced with lack of male support, and possibly inspired by Fanny Wright’s Jacobin feminism, an independent Tailoresses Society emerged in 1831, asserting in a startling departure from conventional wisdom about female dependency: “Long have the poor tailoresses of this city borne their oppression in silence,” but “patience is no longer a virtue.” The women embarked on a months-long strike—“If we do not come forth in our own defence,” unionist Sarah Monroe asked, “what will become of us?”—but, cut off from male support, their effort withered and their group disbanded. Master and merchant tailors continued to hire ever larger numbers, for ever lower wages, until by the 1830s some employers had as many as five hundred women outworkers sewing coarse “Negro cottons” for export to the slave South.

The quiescence of New York’s skilled craftsmen was misleading, however, for their growing resentments were about to explode, but in the world of politics, not production. They would be galvanized, in part, by analyses advanced by two self-taught mechanic-intellectuals, which set workplace developments in the context of a larger and more menacing threat to the city, and to the republic itself.

In 1826 Langton Byllesby, a thirty-seven-year-old printer of English ancestry who had failed as an independent master, was doing wage-work as a proofreader at Harper Brothers, New York’s largest shop. In that same year he brought out Observations on the Sources and Effects of Unequal Wealth, a book in which he predicted that New York City would soon match London’s levels of crime, pauperism, and spending on prisons and welfare. Where Byllesby’s analysis differed from the equally gloomy reports of the gentry-run Society for the Prevention of Pauperism was in refusing to put the blame on working-class slatterns and slackards.

Instead Byllesby faulted the rich. It was they, he said, who were plunging the producing majority into “resourceless distress, and intense misery.” Merchant capitalists fostered rampant speculation. Auctioneers like Philip Hone got rich by drowning local industry in a flood of cheap British imports. The wealthy deployed new labor-saving machinery but harvested its benefits for themselves. Bankers monopolized credit and manipulated money for private gain. Landlords, having seized far more than their fair share of the soil in the old days, were now able to wax fat on levied rent-tribute.

Hard work, thrift, and the other practices recommended in the gentry’s book of virtues would never offset such class advantages, Byllesby said. Instead, city tradesmen should supplant the competitive production system with a cooperative one, by pooling their shops and tools, then offering equal pay for equal labor. Producers, moreover, should use their newly expanded political power to tackle the privileged position of parasitic merchants, bankers, lawyers, and bureaucrats. In particular, speculative uses of land should be forbidden, and land ownership restricted by need and use.

Thomas Skidmore had an even more incendiary analysis. The Connecticut-born Skidmore had been a peripatetic teacher up and down the eastern seaboard, then a tin­kerer-inventor seeking ways to improve the manufacture of gunpowder and paper. When he moved to New York City in 1819, he labored as a machinist, worked on an improved telescope, and read widely in radical political philosophy and political economy, including Byllesby and Robert Owen.

In 1829 Skidmore issued The Rights of Man to Property! This tract not only lengthened Paine’s title but also deepened his argument. Skidmore attacked existing property relations as the ill-gotten fruits of a corrupt, colonial-era disposition of vast grants to a few landed proprietors and the ensuing failure to recycle this property over time to the wider community. As long as property remained “so enormously unequal” in its distribution, Skidmore argued, “those who possess it will live on the labor of others.” In addition to private property, Skidmore said, private banks, privately owned factories, and private educational institutions also worked to replenish the wealthy while depleting the workers. The solution was not education, pace Wright and Owen. Maldistribution of wealth was not the effect of knowledge inequality but its cause. Instead, journeymen and small masters—the backbone of the producing class—should use their political power to force an equal division of property, achieving redistribution by changing inheritance practices. Banks and manufactories should be publicly run. Land, the basis of republican independence, should no longer be treated as a commodity. “Why not sell the winds of heaven,” Skidmore asked, “that man might not breathe without price?”

Skidmore’s goal was a patriarchal utopia of free and independent producers in which there would be “no lenders, no borrowers; no landlords, no tenants; no masters, no journeymen; no Wealth, no Want.” To achieve this, men of modest fortunes had to combine with the propertyless poor and take electoral control of the government.

Both Skidmore and Byllesby believed something had gone terribly wrong in city and country, that social inequality and privilege were on the rise, that the republic was being undermined from within, that the new industrial system was immoral in its promotion of a lust for quick riches, individualism over community, and speculation, gambling, and usury. Such propositions had deep roots in the republican tradition. So did the argument that nonproducing parasites were able to appropriate the wealth labor created because government had granted them monopolistic rights. This diagnosis came bundled with its own prescription: the producing classes should elect men who would abolish the monopolies that bred aristocrats.


In April 1829 a crowd of more than five thousand mechanics turned out for a meeting in the Bowery to protest a rumored scheme by employers to lengthen the ten-hour day. After resolving to fight any such move, the gathering appointed a Committee of Fifty and instructed it to prepare a report on “the causes of the present condition of the poor.” In setting up this counterpart of the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism “great care was taken to have no ‘Boss’ on the committee,” recalled George Henry Evans, one of the workingmen’s leaders and the party’s first historian. The committee labored over summer and fall, under the influence of member Thomas Skidmore.

On October 19 another mass meeting of “Mechanics and other Working Men” assembled, heard the Fifty’s report, and invited “all those of our fellow-citizens who live on their own labor, AND NONE OTHER,” to join them in supporting an independent slate of candidates in the upcoming November elections for the state assembly. The meeting also adopted a platform for what soon would be called the Workingmen’s Party (Brooklyn would form its own such organization). They unanimously endorsed the essence of Skidmore’s program, calling for “equal property to all adults.” They also backed Fanny Wright and Robert Dale Owen’s demand for equal educational opportunity and elected Owen himself secretary. Signaling their anticlerical bent, they called for an end to tax exemptions on ministers and church properties. They also briskly denounced government-created “chartered monopolies,” urging the wider community to “destroy banks altogether.” Banks flooded society with “rag money”—depreciated banknotes—that were often bought at steep discount by employers and used at face value to pay employees’ wages. The Workingmen advocated a purely metallic currency—so-called hard money—employing the sophisticated argument that bank-created inflation led to a rise in prices, a rise in imports, a fall in exports, an outflow of specie, and then an inevitable contraction and depression.

The Workingmen also advocated a mechanic’s lien law, a plank that appealed greatly to the carpenters, masons, and stonecutters who were major supporters of the new party. In the 1820s boom, contractors bid low to get a job, then gave workmen only part of their pay (perhaps 25 percent), promising the balance later. Later never came. Instead, the contractor pocketed the remainder and declared insolvency, making it impossible to collect monies due. The Workingmen proposed a law giving a lien on the building to all those who had been employed in erecting it. The propertied fought this vigorously, saying it would discourage investment.

Proclaiming that “we have nothing to hope from the aristocratic orders of society” and that “our only course to pursue is, to send men of our own description, if we can, to the Legislature at Albany,” the Workingmen, using an elaborately democratic procedure, nominated eleven candidates: two carpenters, two machinists, a painter, a whitesmith, a brassfounder, a printer, a cooper, a grocer, and a physician.

The new party decided it needed a newspaper. George Henry Evans, who had brought out Wright and Owens’s Free Enquirer, now launched the Workingman’s Advo-cate from his office on Thames Street, where he served as editor, compiler, and printer. The first issue, on October 31, 1829, carried the slogan “All children are entitled to equal education; all adults to equal property; and all mankind, to equal privileges.” Only the second labor paper in the United States (the first having been started in Philadelphia the year before), the Workingman’s Advocate would be the voice of New York’s artisanal radicalism for the next fifteen years.

A brief but frenzied campaign followed. Bosses and the established mercantile press branded the Workies a “Fanny Wright ticket,” with editor Stone in the Commer-cial Advertiser calling them “poor and deluded followers of a crazy atheistical woman.” Tammany’s General Society disavowed any connection with the ticket, belittled its program, and called on “all sober, respectable mechanics of New York” to shun it.

The Workingmen lost, but they lost well. In an impressive debut they elected one candidate to the Assembly, placed a narrow second in six other races (including Skidmore’s), and won nearly one-third the total vote. The Democrats prevailed, but there was consternation in the Tammany camp.

As the Workingmen’s Party girded for the following year’s contest, however, it experienced tremendous internal upheavals. New recruits poured in, including many whose politics were quite different from those of the progenitors. One was Noah Cook. A commission agent for an Erie Canal boat line, Cook sold items ranging from cord­wood to country real estate. He had also been an active Adams supporter in 1828 and was an editor of the Evening Journal. Cook’s faction, which included employers, evangelicals, large-scale manufacturers, and residents of the “aristocratic” First Ward, hoped to transform the Workingmen into an anti-Jackson vehicle. Cook allied with Owen and Evans to drive Skidmore out of the party he had started, then turned on the Owen faction and ejected it too, denouncing its education plan as a plot to break up families and undermine religion. Some journeymen, too, including the New York Typographical Society, attacked the state guardianship plan as dangerously visionary, though the Workingmen still demanded education for all and wondered aloud “if many of the monopolists and aristocrats in our city would not consider it disgraceful to their noble children to have them placed in our public schools by the side of poor yet industrious mechanics.”

Even as the party quarreled and split, one demand remained constant: more democracy in New York City. In particular, the Workingmen pressed for direct election of the mayor. They also asked that aldermen and assistants be paid, because “poor men cannot afford to spend their time without receiving an equivalent for their labor,” and under the current system “none but large property holders can be elected.” Workies wanted an end to compulsory militia service, an obnoxious obligation for men who couldn’t afford to take time off from work, or to pay for substitutes as merchants did. They wanted smaller electoral districts, which would allow “all interests to be represented” and thus offset “the misrule of the dominant party in this state, and especially in this city”—a reference to Tammany, which they believed was under the corrupt control of “idlers, office holders, and office seekers.”

The Workies were of mixed mind as to what to do with city government should they get hold of it. Some advocated an activist policy of mechanic’s liens, aid to internal improvements, government funding of education, and an ongoing regulation of the municipal economy in the public interest. But a greater number denounced government intervention in the economy—both the grant of special corporate privileges and the maintenance of municipal regulations—as an unwarranted colonial holdover, a violation of democracy on a par with the now eliminated suffrage restrictions.

In 1828 the Common Council still appointed or licensed nearly seven thousand people, including butchers, grocers, tavern keepers, cartmen, hackney coachmen, pawnbrokers, and market clerks, together with platoons of inspectors, weighers, measurers, and gaugers of lumber, lime, coal, and flour. From the Workingmen’s perspective, licenses sheltered their privileged holders from competition that could lower prices. Regulations and fees indirectly taxed food and drink, as vendors passed on the costs they accrued in obtaining licenses, buying market stalls, paying fines, and bribing corrupt city inspectors. (Grocers, in particular, complained that inspectors had “a long Pocket for themselves.”) The whole system was kept in place, Workies suspected, less for the public’s convenience than to provide the government with revenue, which it could then share out with cronies and patronage recipients.

In an 1830 petition to the City Council, the Workingmen demanded an end to privileged monopolies in the local economy. They called for abolition of market laws and chartered licenses, the sale of all city-owned property in markets, an enhanced reliance on property taxes for revenue, the granting of permission to butchers and hucksters to sell anywhere in the city, the establishment of tax-free country markets (with adjacent taverns) that would entice farmers to the city, and the exemption of market produce from ferry or bridge tolls.

The closely watched trades—some of them well represented in the new party—were ambivalent about deregulation. Butchers, grocers, and tavern keepers were enticed by free enterprise but nervous about it. Some butchers came out for economic freedom: in 1829 one rebel, refusing to rent a market stall, opened New York City’s first private meat shop. But city protection had served butchers well, and most demanded more of it, not less, asking the city to clamp down on unlicensed (and overhead-free) hucksters. Grocers complained of being pestered by inspectors, yet griped that the city didn’t protect them from black, Irish, and female peddlers. Tavern keepers sought the freedom to sell alcohol on Sunday but also wanted authorities to crack down on unlicensed Irish groggeries. Bakers, after wobbling on the issue earlier in the century, had come out definitively against regulation in 1821. Calling themselves the “slave of corporation dictation,” they demanded that buyers and sellers be allowed to bargain freely and that bakers be freed from special responsibility for feeding the poor. The Common Council repealed the assize in 1821, abdicating its authority over prices, but continued to require that bread be sold in standard-weight loaves, to lessen the possibility of fraud.

Cartmen, on the other hand, definitely favored regulation. American-born carters complained to the city fathers that Irish immigrants, who had been licensed during the war while Anglo-Dutchmen were off soldiering, were undercutting established rates and stealing customers. Mayor Colden limited future alien licensing to dirt carting, a field the Irish quickly dominated. When they continued to challenge the Anglo-Americans in other areas, the Society of Cartmen petitioned the Common Council to reaffirm their “ancient privileges.” The municipal government agreed, rejecting calls for the decontrol of carting, as the business and trade of the city depended on it, and in 1826 the council banned aliens from carting, pawnbroking, and hackney-coach driving; soon all licensed trades were closed to them.

One deregulatory demand that nearly all Workingmen supported was abolition of imprisonment for debt. Attacks on the practice, which the Humane Society had begun making in the 1790s, had accelerated in New York just after the war, winning passage of an 1817 law ending incarceration for debtors owing less than twenty-five dollars. In 1828, nevertheless, more than a thousand defaulters served time in city jail, without bed, fuel, or food, other than a quart of soup every twenty-four hours. Most debtors, to be sure, spent only brief periods in actual custody, as “gaol limits” had been extended to the lower wards of the city. The Workingmen’s first demand was only that these prison boundaries be extended to the whole city, because most of those affected by the law lived and worked in the upper wards. By 1830, however, they (along with businessmen) were petitioning Albany for a complete abandonment of the practice.

Workingmen pressed their positions through a new paper, the Daily Sentinel, launched in February 1830 by Workie printer Benjamin Day and five other directors. But by the time of the fall elections, the party’s internal conflicts had torn it apart. Drubbed at the polls, finished as an electoral force, by 1831 the Workingmen’s Party had disintegrated.

The Workies’ collapse had many causes, including factional division, political ineptness, simple inexperience, a lack of funds, infiltration by the opposition, press hostility, the pull of regular party loyalty, and the arrival (with the 1830s) of a fevered pros­perity that turned attention from politics to trade unionism. Perhaps superb leadership could have offset these handicaps, and if Frances Wright had in fact been at the party’s helm she might have made a difference. But in June 1830 Wright had announced her return to Europe to a packed (and half-female) Bowery Theater crowd, and she departed on July i, to Philip Hone’s great delight, and that of his opposite political number, Tammanyite Mordecai Noah. Further sighs of relief attended Robert Dale Owen’s closure in 1831 of the Hall of Science and its sale to a Methodist congregation.

If the independent workingmen’s voice was stilled for the moment, their words had entered irreversibly into civic discourse. Fanny Wright’s “doctrines and opinions and philosophy,” Noah noted, “appear to have made much greater progress in the city, than we ever dreamt of.” And labor’s political awakening would have both immediate and long-term consequences for New York City. The short-term impact was registered in the Democrats’ decision to woo disaffected Workies by assuming their language and their issues. Rhetorically, they denounced banks and condemned monopolies. Symbolically, they took the lead in organizing the 1830 parade celebrating the overthrow of the French monarchy. Practically, they helped enact such Workingmen planks as were compatible with entrepreneurial agendas. In 1830 legislators passed a mechanic’s lien law. In 1831 the state abolished imprisonment for debt in all cases except where fraud was alleged. The same year brought support for direct mayoral elections, a reform effected two years later with an amendment to the city charter. Such concessions brought many artisans back to the Tammany fold, and the following year Workie wards voted Democratic.


A more long-term—and more indirect—legacy of the Workingmen’s Party was the creation of a popularly oriented commercial journalism. In the Free Enquirer, Workingmen’s Advocate, and Daily Sentinel, Workies and freethinkers had passionately protested the gentry’s monopolization of knowledge, insisting that equal access to education, culture, and information was vital to a democracy. Most of their fire had been directed at New York’s stratified school system, but they also blasted the city’s press as being of, by, and for the mercantile and political elite.

Only the affluent could afford the dailies, which sold for six cents each (annual subscriptions cost a hefty ten dollars), and only the affluent cared to read them. The papers featured ship arrivals and departures, market and financial conditions, importers’ offerings, legal notices, verbatim congressional speeches, and vitriolic editorials denouncing freethinkers and trade unions or proclaiming the current party line. Editors, paid to merchandise wares and politicians, paid attention to little else, certainly not to the daily life of most New Yorkers. The lack of interest was reciprocated, and as a result the average circulation of all seven daily papers in 1835 was a mere seventeen hundred, with Colonel Webb’s Courier and Enquirer, the largest, boasting only four thousand.

Working-class New Yorkers were not lacking in literacy or interest. For all the schools’ limitations, they had helped nurture a plebeian reading audience, which publishers readily reached with religious papers, tracts, Bibles, broadsides, pamphlets, ballads, gallows confessions, and adventure tales. Well aware of this, the youthful labor journalists of the 1820s had attempted to bypass the established press and to break its monopoly of information and perspective.

One of these media rebels was Benjamin Day, the twenty-year-old journeyman printer who had helped launch the Daily Sentinel in 1830, when he was twenty. Son of a Massachusetts hatter, Day had apprenticed on a Springfield paper. Drawn to New York City, he worked for the New York Evening Post, then opened his own job shop; like many young activist printers, he became part of the workingmen’s movement. During Day’s tenure, however, the Daily Sentinel did not adopt innovations in content, style, or pricing. It relied on politics to win readers and did not long survive the death of the Workingmen’s Party.

Day soon decided to start another mass circulation daily (in part to advertise his printing plant). He was encouraged in this by the example of London’s Penny Maga-zine. Published from 1832 by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, ostensibly to educate and improve the poor, the Penny Magazine was cheap and hugely successful. By 1833 its circulation was twenty thousand, and many copies were being sold in the United States.

On September 3, 1833, Day launched the New York Sun. Unlike the sixpenny papers, which were printed on mammoth-sized paper (some were known as “blanket” sheets), the Sun was a tiny affair of four tricolumned pages on SVz-by-II-inch paper. With job printing his only source of income—“Capital! Bless you, I hadn’t any capital,” he recalled later—Day started by imprinting two hundred copies an hour on a handcranked flatbed press. He experimented boldly, however, with pricing, distribution, format, and content. The Sun cost a penny, well within artisanal reach, and Day did not require prepayment of subscriptions. Instead, using a London plan, he sold bundles of a hundred Suns for sixty-seven cents, cash in advance, to newsboys drawn from the city’s pool of orphans and unemployed. If a newsboy sold all his papers, he pocketed thirty-three cents. Some plied regular routes, collecting six cents per customer each Saturday. Others hawked Suns on the street, adding their cries to the cacophony of oyster sellers and hot-corn girls.

The Sun’s slogan—“It Shines for All”—proclaimed Day’s intention of reaching a wide spectrum of New Yorkers. So did his assertions that the paper would be “vended at a price which the poorest laborer can afford,” while being “of a character (we hope) deserving the encouragement of all classes of society.” But if the popular classes were not the exclusive target, as had been the case with the Sentinel, the paper’s demotic thrust was obvious from what it did and did not cover.

Conspicuous by their absence were ponderous articles on national and world affairs. (Even had he wanted to, Day couldn’t compete with the Journal of Commerce and its twenty-four-horse express relays from Washington.) There were no announcements about pending arrivals of cargoes of bombazine; artisans didn’t care, and merchants could find out elsewhere. There was no partisan politics as traditionally understood—no vituperative harangues, no lengthy discussions of public affairs; though the Sun tended to support Democratic candidates, it was out of conviction, not patronage.

Missing also was the radical language, the incendiary tone, of the workingmen’s press; Day well remembered the Sentinel’s failure. Instead he proclaimed his mission in language acceptable to an elite eager to educate the disorderly classes so as to improve their behavior and productivity. In an early issue, Day stressed (echoing his London predecessors) that the Sun was “effecting the march of intelligence” by “diffusing useful knowledge among the operative classes of society.” Yet Day would firmly back unions, strikes, and the ten-hour day. The Sun, said its founder, helped produce a “decided change in the condition of the laboring classes” by enabling them to “under­stand their own interest, and feel that they have numbers and strength to pursue it.”

What the Sun did have was local news that would interest an audience of artisans. Breezy, brightly written pieces sketched the daily life of ordinary New Yorkers. Snappy, even sensational stories covered unusual events—“fires, theatrical performances, elephants escaping from circus, women trampled by hogs.”

Crime news was made to order for Day. There wasn’t any competition—the blanket sheets found such stories embarrassing and bad for business—and it was cheap and easy to gather. For four dollars a week, Day dispatched unemployed printer George Wisner to record the vivid dramas of police court. With coarse humor and flippant style, the Sun offered accounts of domestic tribulation and drunkenness (husband beats and chokes wife to death in drunken rage), scandals (reverend arrested for rape), tales of thieves, whores, and arsonists. Chronicles of crime were not new, but crime news was.

“Police Reports” became the Sun’s most popular section for many reasons. Sex and violence were titillating. The narratives were familiar to readers accustomed to sensational street literature. They comfortably incorporated everyday speech, the kind of dialect, colloquialisms, and slang never found in elite papers. They provided New Yorkers with useful and important information about the way their city worked. They often contained a sharp-edged, critical component—reminiscent of the radical papers—in holding up instances of gentry pretension, hypocrisy, favoritism, violations of equal justice, abuse of state power, corruption. In one instance—the provision of gruesomely detailed accounts of executions, which had been recently privatized—crime news served to reassure a populace that remained highly suspicious of such closed-door dealings.

Crime stories were paralleled in popularity by the occasional hoaxes the paper concocted. In August 1835 Day began publishing a series of articles recounting life on the moon—spherical amphibians rolling about—as supposedly revealed by a powerful new telescope. These good-humored impostures, together with reports of curiosities and monstrosities, resembled crime reports in offering readers a chance to play detective and decide their truth or falsity. Both were forms of voyeurism at a distance, dependent for their impact on the fact that some parts of the city were now as little known as the surface of the moon.

The Sun was a runaway success. Within four months its circulation of four thousand brought it abreast of Webb’s Courier and Enquirer. By 1834 Day had made enough money to install a machine press with a capacity of a thousand copies per hour, equal to the demands of his paper’s now ten thousand purchasers. A year later, with readership at fifteen thousand, he switched to a steam press with an hourly capacity of fifty-five hundred. During the moon hoax, daily circulation hit twenty thousand: four times that of the most successful sixpenny, more than the Methodists’ weekly Christian Advocateand Journal, and more than the London Times. The Sun had become, for the moment, the biggest-selling paper in the world.

Day had promised that the Sun would be an “advantageous medium for advertising,” and circulation figures like these brought advertisers flocking. Ads were not new, of course. The mercantile and political sheets had long filled six or eight columns of a page with tiny ten-line squares of text that, in minuscule typeface, called the attention of a select audience to goods and services. Day sold space on a cash, not an annual, basis and included “Help Wanted” notices for cooks, maids, coachmen, bricklayers, and men to open oysters in restaurant kitchens. These increased the paper’s popularity with readers looking for jobs—or for servants—and though many of the elite denounced the Sun for pandering to the vulgar mob, businessmen were not about to pass up the opportunity to purvey their wares to the enormous local market it had revealed.

Success bred competition. In 1834 two former colleagues of Day’s started the New York Transcript, placing it under the editorial control of Asa Greene. A native of western Massachusetts, Greene, a printer, had come to New York in 1829 at the relatively advanced age of forty and edited a comic weekly for several years. The Transcript offered his lighthearted commentaries, in the form of a letter written by a recent arrival to his country friend back home, which sensitively detailed urban manners and customs.

Like the Sun, the Transcript was a working-class-friendly paper. Not only did it support workers’ right to organize unions, but one of the owners was himself a printer’s delegate to a trade union body. Greene reported on local boardinghouse price increases, theater and sporting events, and the Mechanic’s Fair, along with meetings of the Common Council and sessions of the police court, which were humorously recounted and spiced with dialogue between magistrate and accused. Soon the paper was selling nearly as well as its penny rival within Manhattan, and even better in nearby cities and towns. Dozens of penny dailies now entered the field—some lasting but a few weeks—and flourishing imitations were started in Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore (several by veterans of Day’s shop).


One of the newcomers—the New York Herald—soon surpassed all others, including the Sun. Its proprietor, a gaunt Scotsman named James Gordon Bennett, was born in a Highlands hamlet in 1795 to a Catholic family. After study in a seminary in Aberdeen, Bennett broke with the Church and adopted the laissez-faire classics as his new sacred texts. In 1819 inspired by Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, he sailed for the United States, becoming part of a resurgent Scottish migration. Bennett spent three years in Boston clerking for a bookseller and proofreading; then he worked for ten months in South Carolina on the Charleston Courier, one of the best papers in America, honing his writing skills and absorbing white supremacist views.

In 1823 Bennett settled down in New York City, where he did free-lance writing for party papers, specializing in economic analysis. His 1825-26 exposure of stock speculations drew considerable attention, and in 1826 Mordecai Noah hired him to report on Washington politics and society for the New York Enquirer. Bennett’s informed, irreverent reportage, written in a flamboyant but authoritative style, won him considerable standing in the trade. When party pressure forced the merger of Noah’s Enquirer and James Watson Webb’s Courier in 1829, Bennett became associate editor of the new Courier and Enquirer. His steady rise through the world of party newspapers was halted in 1832: when the Courier and Enquirer, encouraged by money from Biddle’s Bank, switched its allegiance to Jackson’s opponents and muzzled the pro-Jackson Bennett, he quit. Bennett started his own Democratic paper in 1833, but the party, considering him too unpredictable, gave him skimpy support, and he finally abandoned the partisan press altogether.

Bennett applied, unsuccessfully, for jobs at the Sun and Transcript, then decided to start his own penny paper. Never having set type or operated a press, Bennett needed a partner. He turned to a twenty-two-year-old printer named Horace Greeley.

Greeley, born to struggling New Hampshire farm folk, had arrived in New York in 1831, with ten dollars and a small sack of belongings, fresh from an apprenticeship in a small-town printshop. An earnest, downy-haired beanpole of a man, Greeley first found work setting type on projects ranging from an annotated Bible to William T. Porter’s Spirit of the Times, a new weekly devoted particularly to racing news. Then he set up a printshop, purchased type on credit, and looked about for business. In 1832, approached by a physician with a yen to publish, Greeley agreed to collaborate on a twopenny paper, the New York Morning Post. The first issue appeared January 1, 1833, eight months before the Sun saw the light of day, but the doctor was a ponderous writer, and the paper went belly up within three weeks. When Bennett showed up, asking if he’d like to launch a penny paper, Greeley declined.

In May 1835, therefore, Bennett went ahead on his own. He rented a basement apartment on Wall Street, stretched some pine boards between a set of flour barrels for a desk, and began singlehandedly to produce the Herald. Like his penny predecessors, Bennett set out to reach a mass audience, but not because he had a message to convey. He had no prior association with the Workingmen’s Party, no ties to New York City’s laboring class, no particular interest in its welfare. He just wanted to make a lot of money, and Day’s success had made clear that the road to riches ran through a mass market.

The Herald’s proprietor also wanted to reach the city’s elites for whom he was accustomed to writing. Besides, combining gentry with plebeian audiences would boost revenues. Bennett accordingly set out to combine the zest and local identification of the Sunand Transcript with the broader news coverage of the Courier and Enquirer and Journal of Commerce.

In the Herald’s first issue, on May 6, 1835, Bennett announced his intention to transcend existing boundaries of class. His new four-page sheet was “equally intended for the great masses of the community—the merchant, mechanic, working people—the private family as well as the public hotel—the journeyman and his employer—the clerk and his principal.” Aware that a penny paper would be automatically suspected of working-class proclivities, Bennett ingratiated himself with the mercantile elite by denouncing Day as a “Fanny Wright infidel.” The Herald offered not radicalism but relief from the “dull business air” of the large morning papers. It would “exhilarate the breakfast table.”

As promised, Bennett delivered “brevity, variety, point, piquancy, and cheapness.” His prose was fresh, pointed, and zestful. And he offered far more for a penny than did the Sun. Bennett entered the national news race. In short order, his express relays were outpacing those of the Courierand the Journal by three hours, and by 1837 his news boats rivaled those of the mercantile press. Bennett also went after New York news, even more assiduously than Day. The Herald covered City Hall and the police, court trials and executions, sports and theater, docks and coffeehouses, and sermons and church meetings to boot.

Bennett investigated Wall Street with unprecedented accuracy and acumen. Many sixpenny editors had entered into secret and lucrative collaborations with brokers, hyping or disparaging stocks to their mutual advantage. Bennett savaged them for “catering to speculators, hypocrites, stock-jobbers, bankers, brokers, and political and moral rascals of all kinds.” He, Bennett, would deal “justly, honestly and fearlessly with every institution in Wall Street—every broker—every bank—every capitalist.” Again, he delivered. His first “Money Markets” column demonstrated that a recent “uncommon rise in the stock market [was] not produced by accident,” and he repeatedly blasted stock speculations as a “secret conspiracy of our large capitalists.”

Bennett’s stance won artisanal applause. His exposes of chicaneries shrouded from the general public echoed the old labor press’s attack on privileged monopolies. Yet the bulls and bears themselves pored over his daily column, so accurate were his analyses, and so poorly did the plungers understand the market. The result was precisely the one Bennett sought: where the Sun and Transcript didn’t penetrate the downtown financial world, and the Courier and Enquirer and Journal of Commerce were “never seen in the crowd,” the Herald reached all parts of town.

The same breadth of appeal marked the pioneering coverage of society he would develop over next few years. Converting gossip into news, and private lives into public commodities, Bennett reported on the doings at Broadway mansions and the social season at Saratoga Springs, often with a whiff of mockery. Ordinary New Yorkers delighted at this peek behind the curtains. With classes segueing off to different parts of town, elite lives had become less accessible to the curious, the critical, and the covetous alike.

Patricians loathed Bennett’s violations of their newly prized privacy. But they too bought the penny press, as fascinated as the plebeians with its revelations about personalities. “Everybody wonders how people can buy these receptacles of scandal, the penny papers,” Philip Hone wrote in 1837, “and yet everybody does encourage them; and the very man who blames his neighbors for setting so bad an example, occasionally puts one in his pocket to carry home to his family for their and his own edification.”

Even the Herald’s advertisements were bright, shocking, useful, and broadly appealing. Where the blanket press might run the same ad for a year, Bennett demanded fresh copy every two weeks, eventually every day. He also opened his pages promiscuously to anyone who would pay. He started a “Personals” column that included communiques from women looking for husbands, mothers searching for lost children, prostitutes soliciting clients, abortionists seeking customers.

Caveat emptor was Bennett’s guiding principle; complaints about advertisers were briskly dismissed. When one correspondent denounced Dr. Brandreth’s Pills as a quack nostrum, Bennett replied: “Send us more advertisements than Dr. Brandreth does—give us higher prices—we’ll cut Dr. Brandreth dead—or at least curtail his space. Business is business—money is money. . . . We permit no blockhead to interfere with our business.”

And business was phenomenal. Within fifteen months, the Herald claimed a circulation of twenty thousand. Bennett plowed profits back into a new steam press (from Hoe and Company), a new building at the corner of Nassau and Beekman, a bureau in Washington, and a network of European correspondents, making the Herald the first American paper to offer systematic foreign coverage. Within four years of its founding, it surpassed the Sun—and the Times of London, assuming first place in the global circulation sweepstakes.


In 1836 a Philadelphia journalist exploring New York and Brooklyn found people reading penny papers in virtually every street, lane, and alley. “Almost every porter and drayman, while not engaged in his occupation, may be seen with a paper in his hands.” The penny press offered New Yorkers a broadly encompassing look at the range of groups that had clambered into visibility during the previous democratizing decades. It did not speak to or for any one of them in particular. It did not reflect, and help shape, a single constituency, as did the era’s many religious, ethnic, racial, and radical papers. It was not limited by eighteenth-century print culture’s pinched definition of urbanity and restrictive repertoire of urban types and settings. Instead, it addressed something that had never quite existed before except in republican theory: a “public” at large, a civic demos. In doing so, it offered New York’s citizenry the technical and textual means to grasp their city’s growing miscellaneity.

In 1837 this new way of seeing the city was transferred to urban guidebooks, when Asa Greene, editor of the Transcript, authored A Glance at ‘New York. Greene’s style was far livelier than his predecessors’. He included anecdotes, dialogue, and personal musings, described people and places with flair, and presented arguments illustrated with everyday events and characters.

Glance was the first critical guide to New York City. Greene felt no need to present the urban milieu in an unambivalently positive light, as his forebears had. Indeed he gently mocked New Yorkers for their insatiable need to proclaim their city biggest and best. Noting the negatives in sharp but jovial language, Greene cited corrupt municipal politics, inadequate public services (poor water and sparse parks), rampant hucksterism, superficial values, and, particularly, class stratification. Greene conveyed a sympathy for the city’s working classes that had never appeared in any previous guide. Glance had a political edge: it attacked the greed and opportunism of those in power while twitting fatuous nouveau riches.

Not content to rattle off a list of worthy civic institutions—hotels, theaters, churches, jails—Greene set out to capture the panorama of city life, embracing such novel subjects as rogues, mobs, monopolies, and hoaxes. This comprehensive way of seeing turned powerful floodlights on all corners of the civic stage. Its arrival, during the tumultuous decade of the 1830s, meant that these years of fevered prosperity and riotous contention would be the first in the city’s history to receive instant amplification in a mass medium. From that day to this, New York, communications capital, would be the most closely watched city in the world.

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