Printed Materials by Susan McGowan
"People "in the know" command powers that the ignorant lack," a thought taken from Francis Bacon, 1597. And from Samuel Johnson, c.1770, "society is held together by communication and information."
The transformation of society, from colonial to national, was a cumulative phenomenon. The population of the country in 1700 was 250,000, but by 1865 it was 36 million. Colonial society was a face-to-face culture in a time of relative scarcity of information with limited topical range. Most New Englanders were literate, driven by their Protestantism to read the Bible, but the majority of people at that time conversed, read, and attended public gatherings to satisfy personal needs and to express their sociable natures or to feed their spirituality by weekly church attendance. Word of mouth and personal correspondence were the major means of gathering information.
The rank or social stature of persons determined who would be the purveyors of information; those in power talked mainly to each other and were the ones who then made the decisions. Common folk spent their days at labor and joined in conversation with family members and neighbors of similar backgrounds. The rural poor, white or black, had little time or occasion for reading, except for the Bible and perhaps an almanac. Visits to the local tavern might bring news of a more global nature, if it were a place also frequented by travelers or tradesmen.
Even though diversified, colonial society was essentially a collection of local societies in which a coherent Christian culture was perpetuated. Both reading and oratory were dominated by religious messages; the themes of order and stability that were expressed by church and state were mutually subordinate to cooperation in both community and commercial life. As the nineteenth-century republic developed, competition began to replace coherence in public life.
Clergymen and politicians who could win the largest audiences, lyceum...