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News for the Capital and the Nation: Politics and Washington’s Daily Newspapers

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By Matthew B. Gilmore*

In August of 1800, Samuel Harrison Smith wrote to James Madison confirming Smith’s intention of publishing a newspaper in the new capital city (and requesting Madison’s help):

“To James Madison

“From Samuel Harrison Smith, 27 August 1800

“Philada. Aug. 27. 1800


“Mr. Gallatin, some time since, had the goodness to apprise you of my intention to conduct at the seat of the General Govt. a Newspaper on a plan, calculated, in my opinion, to advance the best interests of the Country. Having since matured my ideas, I now do myself the pleasure of addressing you, enclosing the within sketch of my plan.

“It is my wish, and will be my effort to collect into a focus those talents, whose ascendancy, generally speaking, only requires concentration and a correct adaptation to existing circumstances. And if to the number of those who have offered the assistance of their talents, I be permitted to add yourself, you will confer not only an obligation on me, but one also on you[r] Country. The dignified and moderate principles by which I design to regulate my professional deportment induce me with the less hesitation to invite your co-operation. I am with the sincerest Esteem Yr. obt. sert.

“Sam. H. Smith” [1]

Thomas Jefferson, campaigning for the presidency, had encouraged Philadelphian Smith to move his newspaper, the Universal Gazette, to the capital, in anticipation of his electoral success. In an era of very rough-and-tumble journalism, Jefferson understandably was anxious for the creation of a news outlet to reliably support him. Smith’s wife, Margaret Bayard Smith, was also a great admirer of Jefferson, despite her Federalist family heritage. Writing glowingly, she provides an anecdote of Jefferson as President. About Baron Alexander von Humboldt visiting Jefferson in the Executive Mansion, she wrote:

“[von Humboldt] perceived one [newspaper], that was always filled with the most virulent abuse of Mr. Jefferson, calumnies the most offensive, personal as well as political. ‘Why are these libels allowed?’ asked the Baron taking up the paper, ‘why is not this libelous journal suppressed, or its Editor at least, fined and imprisoned?’ Mr. Jefferson smiled, saying, ‘Put that paper in your pocket Baron, and should you hear the reality of our liberty, the freedom of our press, questioned, show this paper, and tell where you found it.’” [2]

Smith’s account of early years of Washington is a compilation of her letters, edited by her grandson, are the go-to source for historians of early Washington but are disappointingly barren of references to her husband’s newspaper, the National Intelligencer, first published on October 31, 1800.

Masthead of the first issue of Samuel Harrison Smith's National Intelligencer. (image--Library of Congress.)

Masthead of the first issue of Samuel Harrison Smith’s National Intelligencer. (image–Library of Congress.)

Portrait of Samuel Harrison Smith, from Margaret Bayard Smith's "The First Forty Years of Washington Society. . . ." (see footnote #2.)

Portrait of Samuel Harrison Smith, from Margaret Bayard Smith’s “The First Forty Years of Washington Society. . . .” (see footnote #2.)

The 19th Century

The typical narrative of newspapering in Washington, DC has a familiar, simple arc — starting with the National Intelligencer, published for nearly 70 years beginning in 1800, superseded in 1852 by the Evening Star and lasting nearly twice a long, expiring in 1981; and then the Washington Post, begun in 1877 and grimly hanging on yet today. Washington has had, and has still, a vigorous ethnic and neighborhood press (a story for another column). But that slender narrative arc conceals the abundant (and over-abundant) heritage of the daily press which Washington has passed through the capital.

By the 1890s it was a standard cliché that Washington was a “graveyard of newspapers.” In this case the cliché rings true — Washington has seen hundreds of daily newspapers (perhaps as many as 250) over the past 200 years. This number may seem incredible, but some years Washington had up to six daily newspapers (some published in the morning and others in the evening). [3]

In 1800 Jefferson and Smith were not the only ones planning newspapers for the capital. Summer and fall of 1800 saw several newspapers appear. William Alexander Rind began the Washington Federalist, with its first issue on September 25th. Federalist Rind, son of William and Clementina Rind (both Republican printers), had been a Loyalist and printer in Charlottetown on Canada’s Prince Edward Island. (His sons would continue to publish or write for newspapers of various titles for the next 30 years.)

Masthead of the first issue of the Washington Federalist, Sep. 25, 1800; competitor to the National Intelligencer. (image--America's Historic Newspapers).

Masthead of the first issue of the Washington Federalist, Sep. 25, 1800; competitor to the National Intelligencer. (image–America’s Historic Newspapers).

Masthead of first issue of the Washington Advertiser, Nov. 20, 1800. (image--America's Historic Newspapers).

Masthead of first issue of the Washington Advertiser, Nov. 20, 1800. (image–America’s Historic Newspapers).

This joined a flurry of other papers in Georgetown and the new city. Already on the scene in 1800, and published since 1796, was the Centinel of Liberty and George-Town Advertiser, but the last issue seems to have been November 14, 1800. Then, on November 18th the Museum and Washington and George-Town Advertiser appears. Two days later, on the 20th, the Washington Advertiser began publication, which proclaimed that “the principles of the editors shall be correct and strictly federal. . . .” Three months earlier, the Cabinet; a National Paper began August 26, 1800.

Masthead of the first issue of The Museum and Washington and George-Town Daily Advertiser, Nov. 18, 1800. (image--America's Historic Newspapers).

Masthead of the first issue of The Museum and Washington and George-Town Daily Advertiser, Nov. 18, 1800. (image–America’s Historic Newspapers).

Publication frequency of these papers varied — daily during Congressional sessions, otherwise, three days a week (and not at all on Sunday). Newspapers were a smaller venture then than now, though still requiring substantial investment in equipment and supplies.

The first American newspaper — Publick Occurences Both Forreign And Domestick — was published just once as a single broadsheet in Boston on Thursday, September 25, 1690.

A century later in Washington newspapers were one large sheet folded in half, making four-pages. Capacity of the printing press and size of the paper offered distinct limitations to what could be produced and how much information could be included. The physical item itself and how it would be read led to how the content was organized.

Imagine leafing through a four-page paper. The most prominent location was the front page (above the fold if the paper was large enough to fold). Then (perhaps) the reverse side — page four. The third page — the right-hand side of the sheet when opened — was the next most prominent, and page two the last.

Content came to be distributed across the four pages in a standard fashion. Advertising (and literary material) competed with news across all pages and often made up much of the front page, unlike today. Most current news would be on the front page above the fold. Editorial content and local news landed on page three — the masthead in the upper left with editorial opinion below. Marriage and death notices landed toward the middle and bottom of the page. Readers could start on the front page with the most national and international news then flip inside to see local happenings and the editors’ opinions.

The single-sheet-folded format restricted the expansion in size of the paper; paper size itself could grow (and did), but the next sizing up would be to two sheets folded — or eight pages. This would require twice as much news, editorial, and advertising content. An interim size of six pages made no sense — the page would have to be half the size of the other sheet, hence printed differently, and inserted into the folded first sheet. A half sheet would also tend to slip out. Physical size of pages is obscured when these papers are accessed digitally today but it is useful to understand some of the physical constraints of the actual newspaper trade.

The federal government came to a Washington hungry for news and ambitious to publish it for the city and the nation. “Nation” or “National” more often led newspaper’s masthead than did “Washington” and the newspapers frequently also published separate weekly (or “for the country”) editions for national distribution, once tri-weeklies went daily.

With Jefferson’s encouragement Samuel Harrison Smith had established the National Intelligencer to support his administration. William Rind published the Washington Federalist which had an editorial line in opposition. Subsequent presidents would also favor a particular newspaper which became, as the term of art goes, the “administration organ,” a reliable editorial source and support.

Washington throughout the early 19th century offered many newspaper choices. A sampling on the decade mark shows six in 1800, three in 1810, four in 1820, nine in 1830, five in 1840, again five in 1850, and five in 1860. William E. Smith, writing of Francis Preston Blair and the Globe newspaper remarked on eight daily newspapers existing in the mid-1850s.

Eminent publisher (and later City of Washington mayor) Peter Force began the National Journal in 1823, supporting John Quincy Adams. Despite its editorial line, Andrew Jackson paid off a two-and-a-half-year subscription in 1827.

First three pages of Peter Force's prospectus for a new newspaper, the National Journal. (image--Library of Congress).

First three pages of Peter Force’s prospectus for a new newspaper, the National Journal. (image–Library of Congress).

Receipt for payment from Andrew Jackson for $13.00 for a subscription to the National Journal. (image--Library of Congress, Manuscript Div., Andrew Jackson Papers, Series 1, General Correspondence & Related Items, 1775-1885.

Receipt for payment from Andrew Jackson for $13.00 for a subscription to the National Journal. (image–Library of Congress, Manuscript Div., Andrew Jackson Papers, Series 1, General Correspondence & Related Items, 1775-1885.

Andrew Jackson, initially supported by Duff Green’s United States Telegraph, brought Francis Preston Blair from Kentucky to Washington for editorial support; Blair published the Globe which carried the slogan, “The world is governed too much”). [4]

The Madisonian became the supporting newspaper for the administration of President Tyler. The Washington Union took over the Globe printing infrastructure and the role as administration organ for President James K. Polk. Almost-presidents had their newspapers too — Washington Republican (1822-‘24) supported John C. Calhoun, Washington Union fought for Samuel Tilden in 1876-‘77.

Abraham Lincoln ended the “administration organ” relationship, although the supportive National Republican newspaper was begun in Washington after his election. Wisely, having been so narrowly elected, he sought wider support for his policies; it has been suggested he leaned heavily on John W. Forney’s Philadelphia Press as the equivalent means of communicating policy. Forney would come to publish, first, a Sunday Chronicle, then a daily Chronicle in the capital for the next 20 years.[5]

Newspapers were even specially created for presidential campaigns. In 1848 the Battery  appeared to support Taylor and Fillmore; the Campaign supported Lewis Cass; another Campaign was the Democratic paper in 1852; and Republicans published Campaign Constitution in 1860.

The 20th Century

The 20th century saw the decline of such vigorously politically-affiliated newspapering, and Walter Lippman’s more objective journalistic principles held sway (although in serious decline today). The Evening Star, leader of the four daily newspapers (Star, Post, Morning Times, and Evening Times) was led by editor Theodore Noyes, a tremendous civic leader as well well-respected newspaperman. A few years after Theodore Noyes’ death, nephew Crosby S. Noyes, of the Evening Star, riffed in the Star’s 50th anniversary supplement under the title “Newspapers in Washington fifty-six years ago.” “There were, properly speaking, no newspapers in Washington at that time. They were vigorous party organs, devoted to politics and depending for their support on party patronage. They expended nothing for news.” [6]

Theodore W. Noyes served as editor of the Evening Star during its late 19th and early 20th centuries heydays. (undated photo--Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div., Harris & Ewing Coll.).

Theodore W. Noyes served as editor of the Evening Star during its late 19th and early 20th centuries heydays. (undated photo–Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div., Harris & Ewing Coll.).

Portion of front page of the first issue of The Daily Evening Star Dec. 16, 1852. (image--reproduced in the Evening Star’s Dec. 16, 1902 50th anniversary supplement).

Portion of front page of the first issue of The Daily Evening Star Dec. 16, 1852. (image–reproduced in the Evening Star’s Dec. 16, 1902 50th anniversary supplement).

His is an exaggeration but understandable, having looked back from a professionalized 20th century press to a very different antebellum Washington. But his era does indeed seem as alien to us today. He noted the ability of an afternoon paper (such as the Star to be first out with news:

“Washington is peculiarly a field for a successful afternoon newspaper. In the first place, most of the executive business of the departments is practically over by 2 o’clock; the decisions are made, the letters are written and in the mails. When Congress is in session the committees meet by 10 o’clock, are through by 12 o’clock, the two Houses meet at 12 o’clock and have transacted much of their most important business in the a few hours afterwards, the substance of which is transmitted at once to The Star office by its special wire service. Twenty-five thousand people are released from their duties at approximately 4 o’clock and this s the time when The Star is being sold on the streets.” (Noyes, p.9-10)

A Post reader, it goes without saying, would have to wait over 12 hours for the same news in their morning newspaper. It’s not quite the “sleepy, Southern town” of caricature but not much like today’s 24-hour media circus.

The story of Washington’s great daily papers in the 20th century has been but slenderly told. Chalmers Roberts provided a vigorous triumphalist narrative of the ups and downs of the Washington Post.

Masthead of the second issue of The Washington Post, Dec. 7, 1877. (image--Proquest Washington Post).

Masthead of the second issue of The Washington Post, Dec. 7, 1877. (image–Proquest Washington Post).

Roberts chronicles the Post’s history from its beginnings as a Democratic newspaper in 1877 by Stilson Hutchins, the rolling back of that position with the acquisition of the National Republican in 1888, the more sensationalist coverage by the McLean editorial regime at the turn of the 20th century. The paper was rescued by Eugene Meyer in 1933, and began its path to dominating Washington newspaperdom with the acquisition of the much larger Washington Times-Herald in 1954. The struggles of the Post since Roberts’ book, published in 1989, remain to be told.

The story of the Evening Star is lamentably even less documented. The Star itself (or editors thereof) have anecdotally recounted the history into the mid-20th century. What archives exist are held untapped by the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library. The 50-years story of the Scripps-Howard Daily News (1921-1972) remains unexplored, while that of the Times-Herald is chiefly rendered through biographies of its idiosyncratic owners, including Eleanor Medill (“Cissy”) Patterson. Other unique stores remain even more hidden. David Lawrence defied conventional newspapering and conducted a unique experiment in the 1920s and 1930s with the United States Daily, devoted solely to news with no editorial content. US News and World Report is its successor.

David Lawrence, publisher of the United States Daily. (undated photo--Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div., Harris & Ewing Coll.).

David Lawrence, publisher of the United States Daily. (undated photo–Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div., Harris & Ewing Coll.).

Recent past newspaper attempts follow a pattern similar to those early days of a graveyard of newspapers. Philip Anschutz’s free tabloid Washington Examiner newspaper (2005-2013) may have seemed a new, quixotic attempt to bring another editorial view to Washington but O. Roy Chalk had tried much the same in the 1960s.

Chalk’s D.C. Examiner was launched in September of 1967 and expired quietly in 1970. [7] Chalk owned a quixotic array of enterprises — from El Diario-La Prensa Spanish-language New York daily paper to Trans Caribbean Airways to Washington, DC’s D.C Transit Company. His Examiner included some famous names — Walter Winchell, Damon Runyon (son of the famous writer), and Maryland McCormick (member of the McCormick newspaper family which had published the Chicago Tribune and Washington Times-Herald). High hopes and free distribution could not sustain the paper.

The most recent attempt to create a new daily newspaper in Washington is barely more than a few years gone. In 2005 Philip Anschutz began the Washington Examiner. In the naming Anschutz was echoing the San Francisco Examiner which he also owned, but faired but marginally better than Chalk’s attempt (or the four previous Examiner attempts in 1822, 1833, 1859, and 1947).  Anschutz’s Examiner, published for over eight years, had the longest life of its name (it is now published as a glossy weekly magazine).

With such a vast universe of titles, most histories of Washington DC newspapering can do (or have done) not much more than glance at the gravestones marking the birth and passing of newspapers and marvel at very complex genealogies connecting their editorial lineages. The task of mining the content to illuminate and understand over 200 years of Washington’s history and that of the country remains to be done.

Digitizing the Past

Access to newspaper content has improved radically in the past decade. The Library of Congress is the holder of the vast majority of Washington, DC newspapers and did a salutary job in preserving them though microfilm. Without indexing, this microfilm was intellectually inaccessible except by expensive effort.

Now, through the Chronicling America website the intellectual content is searchable. Chronicling America is available everywhere through the Library of Congress’s website. Some newspapers are curiously omitted from Chronicling America but many of these can be found in Newsbank’s Historic American Newspapers, (available onsite at the Library of Congress). Newsbank draws upon the collections of the American Antiquarian Society, another rich resource for Washington DC newspapers through its searchable database.

The Evening Star is accessible through Newsbank and along with the Washington Post (separately through ProQuest) is accessible from home to DC Public Library cardholders. Obviously, sleuthing through digital newspapers takes a measure of patience and creativity.

The limitations on preservation and access to historic newspapers have been lifted; consulting the wider range will give a richer and more nuanced depiction of Washington’s past.


[1] “To James Madison from Samuel Harrison Smith, 27 August 1800.” National Archives, Founders Online.

“From Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Harrison Smith, 24 June 1800.” National Archives, Founders Online.

Mel Laracey, “The Presidential Newspaper as an Engine of Early American Political Development: The Case of Thomas Jefferson and the Election of 1800.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs, vol. 11, no. 1 (Spring 2008), pp. 12-13.

[2] Margaret Bayard Smith (ed., Gaillard Hunt), The first forty years of Washington society, portrayed by the family letters of Mrs. Samuel Harrison Smith (Margaret Bayard) from the collection of her grandson, J. Henley Smith.(New York, C. Scribner’s Sons, 1906; pg. 397).

[3] An exact number of newspapers published in Washington is impossible to determine. The National Newspaper Project records over 800 titles, many of those not daily newspapers but weekly, bi-weekly, or (a few) monthly. The number is additionally vastly inflated by the quirkiness of newspaper cataloging practice. Librarians catalog each title change as a separate title. For example, the Evening Star which ran from 1852 to 1981, is recorded under Evening Star, Evening Star and Daily News, Washington Star, etc. The Washington Post is cataloged as Washington Post, Washington Post and Times Herald, etc. Readers would hardly recognize these as separate newspapers (nor does issue numbering restart). In addition, the digital versions of these titles are now being separately listed by the NNP. So, 800 is far over the mark — winnowing out the cataloging artifacts one can suggest about 250 newspaper titles, daily and other frequencies. [Ed. Note: Matthew Gilmore managed the DC Newspaper Project for a number of years.]

[4] Fred A. Emery. “Washington Newspapers.” Records of the Columbia Historical Society. Vol. 37/38 (1937), p.50-1.

[5] Elwyn Burns Robinson, “The Press: President Lincoln’s Philadelphia Organ.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography pp. 157-‘70 (Apr. 1941).

[6] Crosby S. Noyes, Evening Star Fiftieth Anniversary supplement, December 16, 1902, p.4

[7] David Stout, “O. Roy Chalk, 88, entrepreneur with diverse holdings is dead.” New York Times, Dec. 2, 1995; Timothy S. Robinson, “‘Chalk’s Paper On the Buses’: Americana.” Washington Post-Times Herald, Feb. 12, 1970.


Thanks to librarians in the Serials Division at the Library of Congress for their helpful assistance.

References & Resources

See resource list published on author’s Washington DC History blog.

*Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at Previously, he was a reference librarian at the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library for a number of years and chaired the Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies for four years.

© 2018 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gilmore. All rights reserved.