The Thirst for Knowledge

Depiction of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 1790s.

Throughout the development of early civil society in America, the familiar infrastructure to contemporary Americans rapidly developed. For example, as a result of new postal roads and turnpikes throughout the country, the postal system was able to achieve remarkable speeds for the time. For example, in 1790, “it had taken more than a month for news to travel from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia . . . .” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 479. Just four years later, the time was reduced to ten days. Id.

This improvement in the postal system would have a resulting effect on the proliferation of newspapers throughout America. Congress’s Post Office Act of 1792 ensured low rates for the mailing of newspapers, by virtue of letter-writers effectively subsidizing the postage for newspapers. Id.

This proliferation of newspapers created a widespread access to information, from small towns to big cities, and it did so rather quickly. For example, “[i]n 1800 the postal system transmitted 1.9 million newspapers a year; by 1820 it was transmitting 6 million a year.” Id. citing Richard R. John, Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (Cambridge, MA, 1995), 36-42.

Newspapers became an American obsession. During George Washington’s presidency, the entire country had 92 newspapers, but by 1810, there were sales in excess of 22 million copies of 376 newspapers annually, the “largest aggregate circulation of newspapers of any country in the world.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 479 citing Alfred M. Lee, The Daily Newspaper in America (New York, 1937), 715-17; Frank Luther Mott, American Journalism: A History of American Newspapers in the United States Through 250 Years, 1690-1940 (New York, 1941), 159, 167; Merle Curti, The Growth of American Thought, 3rd ed. (New York, 1964), 209; Donald H. Stewart, The Opposition Press of the Federalist Period (Albany, 1969), 15, 624.

The fear that many of the Founding Fathers held that Americans would become as ignorant as their English counterparts, leading to all of the plaguing problems of government and society that ignorance brings, quickly proved to be an unfounded fear. Americans had a thirst for knowledge and were eager to get access to the crucial medium of the newspaper.

This thirst for knowledge has continued to today. As discussed in The Newspaper Revolution, Americans now enjoy the privilege of accessing many forms of media, all of which contain a volume of information that cannot all be feasibly read and understood. Setting aside the allegations of bias that many have about modern media, which surely has always permeated media to varying extents, this access to knowledge is undoubtedly crucial for the continuation of the Republic and the health of the democracy of America.

It allows any individual to learn what is happening in the world and to adopt positions regarding both domestic and foreign policy, which presumably will lead to a more informed decision in elections and more active participation in politics and discourse of issues.

The thirst of the early Americans for knowledge and information about what was happening in the world, combined with the early government’s understanding that a robust infrastructure was necessary for the dissemination of information (and travel), allowed for the development of the society we recognize today. As is clear from modern society, Americans are certainly obsessed with media, whether they enjoy it, attack it, or just simply listen to it.

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