Niles' Register, 1811-1849: Window On The World

An article by W.H. Earle

[A version of the following essay appeared in Journal of the War of 1812 and the Era 1800 to 1840, Fall, 1996 (volume I, no. 5).]

The national and international newsweekly Niles' Register is well known today only to those historians and genealogists who have sampled its treasures. But in the first half of the 19th century, the Register was as well known as the New York Times and Washington Post are known today. From 1811 to 1849, it was the principal window through which many Americans looked out on their country and the world. The scope of the work was immense, its circulation was large (the largest in the United States, by some accounts) [1], and its influence was reflected in generous compliments from such readers of the publication as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson.

The Register was founded by Hezekiah Niles in Baltimore in 1811. A printer and journalist of Quaker background from the Wilmington-Brandywine-Philadelphia area, Niles had worked in Philadelphia and Wilmington before moving to Baltimore in 1805 as editor of the Baltimore Evening Post. When that paper was sold in 1811, he launched The Weekly Register [2].

The editor had large ambitions: he intended to be "an honest chronicler" who "registered" events not just for his contemporaries but for posterity as well. Although politics would be covered extensively, the Register would eschew any partisan slant -- "electioneering," as the editor called it. Furthermore, the paper would ignore local news in favor of national and international news. The paper would be issued every Saturday, and it would cost $5 per annum, a premium price in an era when a dollar might constitute a generous day's wages.

Niles had secured some subscribers before his first issue appeared on September 7, 1811, but those initial subscribers would be able to cancel after 13 weeks if the work did not meet their expectations. After six months, however, Niles was able to boast that few initial subscribers had withdrawn. Furthermore, so many new subscribers had signed on that the editor had had to produce three printings of some early issues to supply those who wanted complete sets of the new publication. Niles would never get rich producing the Register -- his published complaints about slow subscription payments are a recurring theme throughout his years at the Register -- but the paper was clearly well established almost from the outset.

The value that subscribers saw in the publication is easy to understand. It was exceptionally dense with material: there was no advertising, and only a handful of illustrations ever appeared; consequently, the pages were packed with text. Furthermore, Niles frequently added extra value to the basic publication: he would occasionally reduce the type size if momentous events left him with important material that he needed to "get in," or he would extend the regular 16-page length of the paper by adding extra pages. On a number of occasions, special supplemental volumes on topics of particular interest -- occasionally amounting to hundreds of pages -- were sent gratis to subscribers.

In addition to the sheer volume of material, there were two other outstanding aspects of the Register which recommended it.

First was its scope. While the Register emphasized political, commercial, agricultural, and industrial news, and paid only limited attention to cultural or social issues, it reported on events worldwide. Foreign coverage was more abbreviated than domestic reporting, but major events abroad were routinely summarized. Furthermore, Niles drew both domestic and foreign news from a host of sources -- his own reporting and extensive correspondence, foreign newspapers and domestic "exchange papers," commercial correspondence received in the major international port of Baltimore, and private correspondence passed on to him by friends and acquaintances. Finally, he emphasized "getting in" texts of major documents -- texts of treaties, laws, and court decisions, transcripts of speeches, official reports, and records of Congressional proceedings (perhaps a quarter of the 30,000 pages that the Register eventually contained were given over to proceedings in Congress).

Second was its evenhandedness. Niles' pledge in the first issue of the Register to avoid party politics distinguished the paper from much of the American journalism of the era. Many newspapers in that day represented parties, or factions within parties, or even particular candidates, and political reportage was usually one-sided and strident. The Register, however, ignored the petty disputes between "the ins and the outs." Niles' own politics were clearly and repeatedly stated: he was a Whig of the Henry Clay school, committed to the American System of protective tariff, industrial development, and internal improvements; he was also pro-American and anti-British, pro-republican and anti-royalist, and a rationalist who opposed "superstition" in religion or in public affairs. His own views were always identified as such, however, and he advanced them as logical arguments, not partisan invective. As a result, there is a balanced quality to the Register that gave it an authority no other publication of its time could match.

One other great advantage favored the Register: the richness of events in the era. The Napoleonic Wars were still going on when the Register first appeared, and its pages were soon thereafter crowded with the events of the War of 1812. Indian wars and foreign revolutions erupted periodically, and the war between Mexico and the United States occurred late in the period. Domestic debates about major national issues -- the tariff, public land policy, slavery, internal improvements -- continued ceaselessly. Industrial and technological developments abounded (the steam engine, the building of canals and railroads, introduction of the telegraph), and an ample cast of larger-than-life characters was readily available -- Napoleon Bonaparte, Tsar Alexander, the Duke of Wellington, Queen Victoria, Andrew Jackson, Davy Crockett, Sam Houston, John C. Calhoun.... It was an accident of history that the Register had all these fascinating developments and personalities to cover, but Niles made the most of it.

Hezekiah Niles' editorship of the Register lasted 25 years. In 1836, advancing age and declining health obliged him to turn the paper over to his son, William Ogden Niles.

William Ogden Niles had been raised as a printer/journalist, and was involved with other newspapers both before and after his term at the Register. His first editorial showed him to be his father's son: he expressed himself determined to "maintain the well-earned reputation of the Register" and to "record facts and events without fear or favor, partiality or affection, -- in brief, to preserve its national character." However, he quickly showed that he had his own ideas, too: his first issue expanded the traditional format of the paper, he changed the paper's name to Niles' National Register, and he soon moved the paper to Washington, DC -- evidently hoping to extend the paper's national political influence.

However, the move to Washington failed: the paper returned to Baltimore in 1839 -- and William Ogden's tenure as editor ended that same year. During his editorship, legal title to the Register apparently remained with Hezekiah. When Hezekiah died in 1839, William Ogden's step-mother, Hezekiah's second wife, sold the property, and William Ogden was out.

Jeremiah Hughes bought the franchise. A long-time resident of Annapolis (he was in his mid-fifties when he acquired the Register), Hughes was cut from the same cloth as his long-time friend, Hezekiah Niles. Both had served in the militia in the War of 1812. Both were advocates of public improvements, and Hughes was credited with improvement of Annapolis harbor and construction of many of the buildings built in that small city during his lifetime. Like Niles, Hughes was a Whig, and he had served in the Maryland legislature and as state printer. Most importantly, however, Hughes was a journalist, having been publisher of the Maryland Republican at Annapolis for many years. Thus, although the Whig partisanship of the Register increased notably during Hughes' tenure, its essential news-reporting function was unimpaired.

Hughes' editorship lasted until 1848, when business difficulties and declining health persuaded him that he could no longer publish the Register. It was suspended in March.

The cause of the Register's suspension is not clear. It may have resulted from nothing more than the ordinary ebb and flow of fortune in the publishing business. In a broader sense, however, the Register was clearly losing its special place in American journalism. The paper's cachet had always been two-fold -- its concise news summaries from around the United States and the world, and the relatively non-partisan tone of its political coverage -- but the uniqueness of both these characteristics was being eroded by the late 1840s.

First, improved communications were making it easier for daily newspapers to offer the coverage from elsewhere that Hezekiah Niles had originally had to cull out of ship letters and exchange papers. By the 1840s, faster mail service via steamboats and railroads, as well as spreading telegraph lines, had deprived the Register of its exclusive franchise on this kind of reportage.

Second, partisanship in American journalism was declining. By the 1840s, the newspaper business was established as an industry in its own right. Rising literacy rates were giving the newspapers a growing market at the same time that improved printing processes were yielding a more affordable product to that market. As a result, the newspapers' dependence on remunerative political contracts for public printing and legal publishing was diminishing. The newly independent newspapers began to replace their former dependence on political ideology with a developing journalistic ideology -- "objective" journalism, journalism without an obvious partisan slant. It is ironic that the Register missed this development in journalistic style. Hezekiah Niles had pioneered "objective" journalism -- indeed, he is sometimes called its progenitor -- but Jeremiah Hughes' Register of the 1840s was much more clearly a partisan Whig publication than it had been in earlier years. Any partisan alliance would have hurt a paper such as Niles' Register at a time when partisan journalism was waning, but an alliance with the divided and dying Whigs was particularly unfortunate.

Whatever caused the paper's decline, it remained suspended until July, 1848. It then reappeared under the editorship of George Beatty from new headquarters in Philadelphia. Little is known about Beatty, but he apparently was a novice at publishing when the opportunity to acquire the Register arose. However, he made a serious effort to revive the franchise, and ran it for a year -- but it was too little, too late. Beatty's journalistic inexperience showed too clearly in the paper's pages, and the Register's place in the marketplace disappeared. The last regular issue appeared in June, 1849. Three abbreviated issues appeared in September, 1849, but they were the last.

In one sense, however, the publication never died. The full 38 years of the Register's run is a common holding in libraries (either in paper or in 20th-century-produced microform), and bound volumes are so common that they turn up even today in used bookstores. Consequently, it remains a standard source for historians, genealogists, and others interested in the times that Hezekiah Niles and his successors "registered." As one historian has said, "Probably no day passes without some researcher digging into the information supplied with so much care and responsibility by Hezekiah Niles." [3] The statement was made several decades ago -- and Niles would be delighted to know it is still true.


[1] "At a time of partisan journalism, this generally unbiased record of events [i.e., the Register] had a national and international circulation surpassing that of any other American paper of its day...." Thomas H. Johnson (in consultation with Harvey Wish), The Oxford Companion to American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 583.

[2] The paper was called The Weekly Register at its founding in 1811, but the name became Niles' Weekly Register in 1814. In 1837 it became Niles' National Register, the name that survived until the paper died in 1849. Curiously enough, the name almost invariably used today -- Niles' Register -- is one name that the paper never actually bore.

[3] Edwin Emery, The Press in America, second edition (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1954, 1962), p. 189.