The hardest part of doing research in the newspaper library of the State Historical Society of Missouri in Columbia is staying on task. Every newspaper is full of distractions. While scouring The Missouri Intelligencer and Boon’s Lick Advertiser looking for something about the Missouri legislature in 1830, this newspaper archaeologist came across a couple of letters reprinted from the Jackson Gazette in Tennessee. Reading letters such as these reminds us of the elegant style of expression and courtesy that was common in many letters of the time. And more.
Getting a contract to print the federal laws was important in the early days of newspapering. It was a basic income when newspapers were small operations in small frontier towns. When the Gazette was notified by Secretary of State Martin Van Buren that its contract would be given to a rival paper, the editor asked his congressman to change Van Buren’s mind—even though the newspaper losing the contract had been a strong opponent of the Congressman. But like all things governmental, you can be against it until you need it.
The congressman told Van Buren his constituent learned “without knowing why or wherefore, the printing of the laws of the United States have been taken from him and bestowed upon another.” He felt “authorized to enter my protest against the manner in which your authority has been exercised.” He was not going to compare the merits of the two editors involved. “No, sir,” he said, “I should blush to find myself drawing distinctions upon mere party grounds. If I were to do so, I should be compelled to approve your choice.” The defrocked editor had not supported him while the new publisher had, but fairness was more important than partisanship: “The editor upon whom you have conferred the trust has been uniformly my friend, and to him I acknowledge myself under many political obligations. But to witness so uncertain a state of things is to weaken the confidence of the citizen in his government, or the consistency of those who administer it.
“For corruption and crime, or for either, an officer should be removed. But, Sir, is the doctrine to be established that for either a former or an anticipated difference of opinion, a man is to be proscribed? If so, the triumph of virtue is wholly doubtful and the range of favoritism may be made as wide as the universe.
“Sir, I had supposed that before you would make material changes in my district, you would, according to custom, condescend to consult me. I surely have more opportunities of understanding the interests of the people of the Western District of Tennessee than yourself; I hope that I am sufficiently devoted to those interests not to misrepresent them.”
He complained the losing editor had been the first editor in the town and was a great friend of President Jackson, who the Congressman considered a “firm and undeviating friend.” He considered Van Buren’s actions a “great interference” in his district.
He wrote to the Jackson Gazette editor two days later, March 5, 1830, that he heard of the change “with great astonishment” and he had not written his critical letter to Van Buren to gain favor with the editor. “It is because I wish justice done to every man and under all circumstances.” But he doubted he would get a response.
The Congressman was a firm Jacksonian. “I have fought under his command—and am proud to own that he has been my commander. I have loved him, and in the sincerity of my heart I say that I still love him; but to be compelled to love everyone who, for purposes of aggrandizement pretend to rally round the ‘Jackson Standard’ is what I can never submit to.”
He underlined that profession by saying, “I am a party man in the true sense of the word; but God forbid that I should ever become so much a party man as obsequiously to stoop to answer a Party purpose.”
He assured the editor he had nothing to do with Van Buren’s “unjustifiable business” of taking away the printing contract. “I am indignant at seeing a set of men, whether in elevated or humble status, pursuing with such madness the very course of intolerance and proscription which they have so long and so loudly (and as they informed me so justly) condemned elsewhere.”
We don’t know if the Gazette ever got the government printing contract back, but later that year it changed names and eventually merged with another paper that winked out well before the end of the decade.
The Congressman’s career reflected his antipathy to being a “party man.” Despite his professed affection for Jackson in his letter, he had become an ANTI-Jacksonian Democrat by the time he was elected to his second term, during which he was dealing with the editor at home. He had lost his bid for a third term in the months before the correspondence but two years later was elected to his third and final term before being defeated in a bid for a fourth.
Exactly six years to the day Congressman David Crockett wrote of wishing for “justice done to every man and under all circumstances” and who proclaimed he would not accept demands to be a “party man,” nor would he support those who pursued intolerance after “so long and so loudly” opposing it, he watched from the fortified San Antonio de Valero mission as Santa Anna’s massive army moved into position for an attack. The courageous former congressman died the next morning, 181 years ago today.