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Race, slavery and the national media

February 9, 2012

Seated portrait of Abraham Lincoln, Mathew Brady, 9 February 1864. Source: Wikipedia.

On this day in 1864, Mathew Brady (and/or representatives of his studio) took several seated photos of Abraham Lincoln, including the one posted here that was used for the president’s likeness on the old U.S. $5 bill.

That in itself is notable enough, but it also serves as an entry point to today’s post. A site called Toward Racial Equality: Harper’s Weekly Reports on Black America, 1857-1874, has assembled a remarkable archive of news articles, advertisements, images, broadsides, and political cartoons published in Harper’s in order to give, as the site says,”a true historical picture of the leading 19th century newspaper’s view of black Americans.”

All well and good, but what’s the connection to this image of Lincoln? Read below the cut to find out.

Browsing through this collection gives a fascinating glimpse into the contours of the national conversation over race and slavery across two tumultuous decades of the 19th century. Some other things of note:

  • An illustration of the execution of the slave trader Nathaniel Gordon in New York City, 21 February 1862. Gordon was the only person ever tried, convicted, and executed for engaging in the slave trade, which the U.S. had declared to be piracy (i.e., a capital crime) in 1820. Gordon’s ship was captured by a U.S. Navy vessel patrolling off Africa in 1860, and found to contain nearly 900 captured men, women and (mostly) children.
  • An illustration of an “instrument of torture used by slaveholders.” This famous image has been reprinted many times. The correspondent who sent the illustration and wrote a brief letter reprinted in the newspaper, notes that the slaveholder who used this tool is “awaiting the punishment due his crime; and if he does not receive it at an earthly tribunal he certainly will at the tribunal of an outraged conscience.”
  • A political cartoon showing two Union soldiers, one black and one white, and each with an amputated leg, shaking hands, with the caption “A Man Knows A Man.”

An 1865 broadside from Harper's, in which the text of the Emancipation Proclamation forms a picture of Lincoln based on a Brady studio portrait taken 9 February 1864.

And then there’s this striking broadside that depicts a portrait of Lincoln formed from the text of the Emancipation Proclamation. The image was based on one of the portraits taken 9 February 1864, about which Lincoln reportedly said:

“I don’t know that I have any favorite portrait of myself; but I have thought that if I looked like any of the likenesses of me that have been taken, I look most like that one.”

A common claim of those opposed to the Civil War, articulated by Confederates and Northern Democrats alike, is that the war wasn’t ever intended to free enslaved Africans. By my reading, the Harper’s illustrator was clearly striking against that line, or at least celebrating that outcome.

Now, Harper’s is interesting because it was one of, if not the first, truly nationwide newspaper. Launched in 1857, it circulated 120,000 copies a week to subscribers by the end of the decade, and claimed five readers per paper, for an estimated weekly readership of over a half-million people.  That’s at a time when 2,000 copies was considered a good newspaper circulation. By 1871, when it was taking on Boss Tweed’s New York machine, it grew to 300,000 subscribers.

Because of that mass circulation, though, Harper’s was editorially fairly conservative (some things never change, do they?) It didn’t want to alienate readers in the South, or Southern sympathizers in the North. The paper was not a firebreathing abolitionist organ, or known for radical stances on social issues. So it’s striking how much it devoted to issues of race and slavery. You can read its coverage as an indicator of the preoccupation of U.S. culture and politics with “the slavery question.”

All in all, this is a great collection of documents that shows the pulse of the nation at a time of great conflict and social change. Go through it chronologically, and you get a real sense of the contributors’ growing outrage toward racial inequality that’s even more striking when you consider the paper fancied itself as walking a fine, nonpartisan line. The lesson that perhaps there are some things too important, and too evil, to try to approach with “balance,” is one that today’s media might do well to consider.

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