Informing a Nation: The Newspaper Presidency of Thomas Jefferson, Mel Laracey
Thomas Jefferson famously understood his election to the presidency in 1800 “as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 76, was in it's form.” But revolutions are meaningful only if they endure—otherwise history consigns them to the status of “revolts” and moves on. The “Revolution of 1800” required a way of embedding and unpacking its principles following Jefferson's election. Mel Laracey's new book Informing a Nation explores how that embedding and unpacking took place, despite a dearth of official public statements from Jefferson. Laracey argues that meager official communications were supplemented by the establishment and anointing of a Washington, DC newspaper, the National Intelligencer, as a semiofficial mouthpiece of the administration. Through the Intelligencer, Jefferson and his political allies sought to construct for Americans “a communal understanding of what being a Jeffersonian Republican meant” (p. 192) and, in doing so, invigorated the Republican Party as a national institution and transformed American political life.
Laracey's Informing the Nation seeks to understand that project and, by extension, the first administration of Thomas Jefferson, from the perspective of the content of the Intelligencer. The result is a rich and broad retelling of the Jefferson presidency, in which the stakes of particular moments are cast anew and the motif of a president above the fray is called into doubt. To give but one instance, Laracey shows that far from losing interest in the impeachment trial of Justice Samuel Chase, Jefferson, through the Intelligencer, sought to instruct the American people of the vital importance of the former, raising the trial's conclusion above Jefferson's own inauguration in terms of significance (p. 146).
One of the signal strengths of the book is its situating of such moments of revision within a deep systematization of a Jeffersonian philosophy of governance that enriches existing accounts of Jeffersonian republicanism. Laracey argues that the Intelligencer served two distinct roles within the Jeffersonian imagination—the first was to provide the public with the “correct” principles of republicanism, but the second was to provide the public with the information necessary to pass judgment upon and, if necessary, hold elected officials to account. In this sense, the newspaper offered a response to a more fundamental challenge to the Jeffersonian view of politics: how to anchor governmental legitimacy in a “public opinion” that is liable to be misled by passion or demagoguery. The response embodied in the Intelligencer and its contents was the cultivation of a rational and sober democratic people who could fulfill the demands placed upon them by republican governance.
Laracey's account is detailed and analytically powerful, and it raises central questions about the possibilities of democratic governance. But there is space here to follow through on the tensions that the Intelligencer's project gives rise to. In the quest to aid the public in recognizing the affinity between themselves and their president, a series of contradictions are generated— Jefferson is both raised up as the ideal of republican citizenship, while the idea of personality is deprecated; newspapers seek to inform the public but excise entire difficult topics of discussion (i.e. slavery); public opinion is given authoritative status while consent is manufactured by planted stories and the disparaging of opponents. The story presented here is one that complicates Jeffersonianism as political practice but also as an ideological project, and there is scope to dwell longer on the implications of the tensions associated with the latter, especially as we have come to live in the long aftermath of the successful Revolution of 1800.
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