J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Clues to the Constitutional Telegraphe

Yesterday I quoted an obituary from a Boston newspaper titled the Constitutional Telegraphe in 1800. At the time, Samuel F. B. Morse (1791-1872) was a schoolboy in Charlestown. He didn’t invent the telegraph as we know it until 1832. So where, I wondered, did that newspaper get its name? And what did that name signify?

The first clue is that there were other newspapers called the Telegraphe around the same time:
  • the American Telegraphe of Newfield (later Bridgeport), Connecticut, which published April 1795 to October 1800.
  • the Baltimore Telegraphe of 1795 to 1800, with a special broadside of 1803.
  • the Greenfield Gazette, or, Massachusetts and Vermont Telegraphe of 1795-97.
  • Massachusetts’s Moral and Political Telegraphe, or, Brookfield Advertiser of Massachusetts, 1795-96.
  • the Telegraphe of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, also 1795-96.
  • the Telegraphe, and Charleston Daily Advertiser from South Carolina, known for a single week of publication in 1795.
All those newspapers were founded and published in a very brief period—from George Washington’s second term as President through the 1800 Presidential race.

The second clue is that most of those papers appear to have leaned toward the Jeffersonian party. In fact, in the mid-1800s Joseph T. Buckingham wrote about how Dr. Samuel Stillman Parker, son of a physician and Baptist minister out in Harvard, founded Boston’s Constitutional Telegraphe:
Common rumor said that the editor was instigated to the enterprize by a belief that the [Independent] Chronicle did not quite satisfy the wishes and expectations of some of the most ultra of the republican party. . . .

[Printer] Jonathan S. Copp…was a native of New-London, and though he served his apprenticeship with a decided federal printer, he was a bitter reviler of every thing that had the odor of federalism.

At the end of the first volume, September 27, 1800, Parker gave notice that he had “sold out his proprietorship” to John S. Lillie, “who had agreed to carry it on in support of the republican interest, for which it was sincerely instituted.”
Lillie was a dry-goods merchant, educated in the Boston public schools in the 1770s. Buckingham wrote:
He was an invincible disciple of the Jeffersonian school of politics, and endured the reproaches of his federal contemporaries with a firmness and perseverance, which his most inveterate opponents could not but admire. . . .

Mr. Lillie began his editorial career with a pledge to conduct the Telegraphe on the principles adopted by his predecessor, and a promise that nothing should be admitted, in opposition to the equal rights of man. The political paragraphs were more numerous, and more severe in their tone, and as the presidential election soon after terminated in favor of Mr. Jefferson, the writers in the Telegraphe assumed a more triumphant and defiant style towards their political opponents.
In September 1800, Lillie even named a son after Thomas Jefferson. (The Columbian Minerva of Dedham reported that alongside the baptism of another child named after John Adams.)

COMING UP: The Federalists strike back.

BUT FIRST: Yeah, yeah, what does this all have to do with a “telegraphe”?


Charles Bahne said...

In the early 1800s, the term "telegraph" referred to a system of visual signals, such as flags or semaphores, by which information could be transmitted over distance. After state government moved out of the building, the tower of Boston's Old State House was used as the final station of such a system, which announced the arrival of local merchants' ships in Boston Harbor.

Byron DeLear said...

Fascinating! For those interested, "What hath God wrought" (Numbers 23:23:) was the message Samuel Morse had sent on May 24, 1844 to demonstrate the working telegraph. Evidently, members of Congress were witness to this new tech.

Kristine A. L. Tomlinson said...

Great series of articles on The Constitutional Telegraphe and the contemporary meaning behind the name. Your research seems to quite literally underscore Jeffrey Pasley's (2001) thesis of political newspapers and emergent political parties as a communication network. Dr. Samuel Stillman Parker was originally from Harvard, Mass., not Harvard College as the current hypertext link indicates.

J. L. Bell said...

I think the link is correct, but some postings about "Harvard College" have snuck into the "Harvard" stack. Thanks for the alert.