Speech Cobourg Historical Society
Jan. 25, 2011
Mr. Gregory, Mr. Strauss, members of the executive and, in particular, Ms. Rostetter-Saunders and ladies and gentlemen, I wish to start by thanking the Cobourg and District Historical Society for this incredible opportunity. This is an organization with a rich history of its own. While the most recent incarnation was formed in 1980, the society dates back to 1901. When I think about all the people who have stood where I am tonight, I am deeply honoured to be speaking.
My presentation this evening, “Hot off the Presses: The role of early Cobourg newspapers in creating community,” explores something rarely tackled by mainstream academia. If you review most studies done by historians and mass communications scholars, the tendency is to look at the mainstream media of the day. This tends to be large urban newspapers like George Brown’s Globe, Joseph Atkinson’s Toronto Star, or John Ross Robertson’s Evening Telegram. Even the Kingston Whig-Standard and the London Free Press are given more attention than many of the smaller rural papers that made up the backbone of the industry during the early years. Newspapers like the Midland Free-Press, the Owen Sound Comet, the Streetsville Review, or Picton Times should not be ignored.
Author J. George Johnston, in his book The Weeklies, made a compelling case for the importance of these newspapers in the fabric of the development of our country. But he begins the book with a quote from our own R. D Chatterton, the founding publisher of the Cobourg Star on January 11, 1831, from the Prospectus – a kind of declaration of principles for the publication:
“In the conduct of this paper, neither expense nor exertion will be spared to make it a source of usefulness and prosperity to the district and entitle it to be an esteemed friend and welcome guest at every fireside.”
When was the last time any of us thought of a newspaper as a friend or welcomed guest? Yet, it says volumes about the role of newspapers in a community during this period. It was not merely an instrument of information or a long list of headlines, but an intimate part of early life in British North America. Readers were to envision it as a companion to be invited into their homes and take up one of the most preferred spots in the home – a place at the fireside. It is truly different from the cold, hard place it takes up on our mobile phones or computers. And, I don’t think you would hear the CEOs of Sun Media or Transcontinental saying they would spare no “expense nor exertion” to create a newspaper today for a community like Cobourg.
Newspapers do more than disseminate information or try to sell us the latest product from a local retailer. A newspaper creates a space on its pages where opinions are expressed and debated. Its role facilitates the ability of people to engage in rational-critical discourse on political matters. Jurgen Habermas, in the Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, argues the importance of newspapers in forming a place for public debate during the the17th century. But it is when the mass-circulation press is created during the latter part of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century where Habermas argues the political function of newspapers begins to diminish, turning it into a commercial enterprise focused on consumerism rather than a forum for political debate. Over the 20th century and into our current times, the downward trend will continue. Political communication moves into a different sphere, and the role of the press is altered, as it becomes less and less effective in contributing to public discourse and watching its role in public service fade to black.
During the formative period in the early to mid-19th century, newspapers are filled with partisan rhetoric and become carriers of news, as well as leaders of public opinion. During these early days, we can watch the columns in the newspapers transform into space where private citizens could express themselves around the issues of the day. Through the deliberations found in editorials, letters, and other contributions, citizens were able to form opinions. In this context, public opinion should not be understood in its modern usage within the economic model of democracy, but instead, from its classical perspective where individuals sought to inform themselves and engage in the form of discursive decision-making as exemplified in deliberative democratic practices.
The social and political structure of Upper Canada following the War of 1812 is often characterized as tyrannical and corrupt (McNairn 2000). Before this, settlers were more focused on clearing land and setting up viable farms. Life was about survival rather than politics (Dunham, 1965). Still, the society was not completely bereft of political life. Two trends were at work during this period: one with its roots in Great Britain and the other based in the United States. British settlers were trying to hold on to the monarchy, its parliamentary traditions; and, the established Church of England as a dominant force in Upper Canada. Meanwhile, the American influence was based on the ideas of Andrew Jackson and democratic reform (Dunham 1965). TTheppress’s rolein this environment is crucial as it assists the early citizens of Upper Canada in mediating the tensions between these political trends. AAsmore immigrants arrive from other places, newspapers aid those individuals in understanding the communities where they live – not only in comprehending the politics of the day but also hin elping them fit into the social, cultural, and economic life. This results in stronger ties between people who might initially not feel a part of the society at large.
Tonight, I wish to look at the contributions of three Cobourg newspapers in the formation of the community as a social, cultural, political, and economic entity. I will examine the Cobourg Star (1831), the Cobourg Sentinel (1861), and the Cobourg World (1864). To focus on this enormous task, I wish to look specifically at the prospectus, editorials, and letters during the first year of publication. These are the main forums where editors and the public were able to converse in a public forum. BItwill provide a snapshot of the evolution of public discourse and the roles newspaper play in the community. by exploring these three publications
The Cobourg Star’s first year will give insight into the period prior to the Rebellion of 1837, a major political event in Upper Canada. It is a time when Reformers were gathering momentum and political tensions were high. It is also a time of local prosperity in Cobourg.
The Sentinel begins publishing just prior to the provincial election of 1861, again a time of great political discourse, but it is also shortly after the town suffers its greatest setback with the failure of a regional railway financed by the town.
The Cobourg World begins publishing in 1864 when the town is slowly beginning to make a comeback from its financial woes, and plans for renewal are underway. It is also an election year, and the local slate is hotly contested. So, there is plenty of rich material for people to debate.
As we have seen, Cobourg’s political life was lively. Into this bustling hive of economic, political, and social activity, Richard Dover (R.D.) Chatterton started publishing the Cobourg Star on January 11, 1831. It was a weekly newspaper in quarto form at the modest price of 12 shillings per annum. There is no clear record if this was the first newspaper in Cobourg. The records for this period are poor, but there is a reference to Mr. Radcliffe, father-in-law of Judge Boswell, who publishes a small weekly newspaper called the Reformer (McAllister 1903). And, Sammy Hart, who had a printing office just off the main street, published another publication called the Weevil. It was published until 1839. (McAllister 1903) (Guillet 1976) But it seems Chatterton’s paper would survive the longest and continues to be published today. One of the earliest settlers in Cobourg, Chatterton, came from England, where he apprenticed in the publishing industry (McAllister 1903). He acquired the plant and rights of the Newcastle District Gazette, which he amalgamated under the name Cobourg Star and Newcastle General Advertiser.
The Cobourg Star focused on local affairs despite being delivered to agents in Belleville, Port Hope, Whitby, Colborne, Haldimand, Peterborough, Otonabee, Ancaster, and Guelph. Of the 22 editorials written in the first year, 12 were of local interest, mainly provincial or Cobourg issues, while the remaining 10 were on foreign affairs. Chatterton appears to be obsessed with reform movements around the world as he repeatedly writes about revolutions in Great Britain, Poland, and the United States. With the rise of the Reform movement in Upper Canada, he was obviously searching for parallels. Despite the geographic distance between Upper Canada and these countries, the editorials inferred a connection, although it was never directly argued. Clearly, he was concerned, mainly about the uncertain outcome and the challenges to established authority, but at no time did he openly say the same thing could happen with the Reform movement in Upper Canada.
Letters to the editor were not overly concerned with politics and rarely addressed local subjects. Again, the focus is on the homeland. There were letters on editorials related to the British reform movement (Cobourg Star and Newcastle General Advertiser, May 3, 1831) or the state of the railway in Britain (Cobourg Star and Newcastle General Advertiser, March 29, 1831). There were a few on local subjects like the one on the vandalizing of Trent River Bridge (Cobourg Star and Newcastle General Advertiser, May 10, 1831) or the tirade against the idyll nature of people walking down the main street of Peterborough, since the author wanted to know why they were not working (Cobourg Star and Newcastle General Advertiser, Oct. 11, 1831). There was also a letter praising the beauty of women in France Cobourg Star and Newcastle General Advertiser (Cobourg Star and Newcastle General Advertiser, Nov. 8, 1831). Letters usually did not have proper names, as writers used pseudonyms such as “Concerned Citizen” or “British farmer” or “Trent Bridge.”
Other letters took a more educational tone. Under the headline “Correspondence,” the paper ran letters about cures for sand cracks (Cobourg Star and Newcastle General Advertiser, Jan 25, 1831), flying squirrels (Cobourg Star and Newcastle General Advertiser, May 17, 1831), the American Lynx (Cobourg Star and Newcastle General Advertiser, Dec. 31, 1831), the condition of roads (Cobourg Star and Newcastle General Advertiser, Dec. 27, 1831) and a speech on the benefits of growing hemp (Cobourg Star and Newcastle General Advertiser, May 31, 1831). While some of the authors used pen names like Atticus, many more gave full, proper names for this type of letter. This is not surprising considering the uncontentious nature of the subject matter.
Letters also took the form of informational items. Under the same headline of Correspondence, minutes of the Cobourg Harbour Commission appeared (Cobourg Star and Newcastle General Advertiser, Feb. 8), a list of import and exports (Cobourg Star and Newcastle General Advertiser, March 22), militia training schedule, and list of participants (Cobourg Star and Newcastle General Advertiser, June 14, 1831) and a review of a violin concert (Cobourg Star and Newcastle General Advertiser, June 14, 1831).
While these letters tended to be short in nature, usually around a couple of hundred words, there were others that ran over several columns and even continued into the next edition. And rather than using a rhetorical form normally associated with letters to the editor, these long letters were more literary. In an eloquent description of a trip to Mud Lake, north of Peterborough, Thomas Carr tells about the Scugag (sic) Indians and the work of the church in this Aboriginal community (Cobourg Star and Newcastle General Advertiser, Feb. 15, 1831). He refers to concerns about the local natives, even though there are no news items describing a problem. Then, he goes on to give a detailed history of the First Nations people on Rice Lake. His journey continues up the Otonabee River to Peterborough. He stays overnight at Mud Lake and leaves to come home the next morning (Cobourg Star and Newcastle General Advertiser, Feb. 22, 1831).
Two similar letters appear in October. The first is another piece about the native people when they help on a hunting trip up the Otonabee River near T.C. Gilchrist’s Mill. (Cobourg Star and Newcastle General Advertiser, Oct. 18, 1831) and the other is a lengthy description of the interior of Newcastle District running over two issues (Cobourg Star and Newcastle General Advertiser, Oct. 25 and Nov. 1, 1831).
But, it is a letter from John M. Flindall, from Murray Township, in the most eastern border of the district, which provides a stirring account of his first night in Upper Canada. He describes his arrival in his new home 16 years ago. It is a beautiful description of intimate moments as he describes his wife and children sighing as they go to sleep, and he is able to look up and see stars through the chinks between the logs in the roof. He listens to the bullfrogs and sees fireflies. (Cobourg Star and Newcastle General Advertiser, Dec. 20, 1831)
The non-partisan nature of the editorials should not imply the content was not heated, or there was a lack of debate. In the most intensive exchange during the first year of publication, Chatterton defends a local minister, Rev. A. N. Bethune, against an editorial appearing in the Christian Guardian, a Toronto-based newspaper published by the Methodist Church. There is no detailed news report regarding the story, and the editorial fails to give adequate background. However, Chatterton scolds the editor, Egerton Ryerson, for printing anything that would “question the character” of such a “fine man.” (Cobourg Star and Newcastle General Advertiser, May 24, 1831). He calls on the sheriff to arrest Ryerson. Then, several weeks later, he demands a full retraction from the Guardian. (Cobourg Star and Newcastle General Advertiser, July 19, 1831)
The only other time Chatterton is this animated is when William Lyon Mackenzie is expelled from the local Assembly Hall in December 1831. In two flaming editorials, he calls on the Attorney General Henry John Boulton to reinstate Mackenzie and allow him to speak. (Cobourg Star and Newcastle General Advertiser, Dec.13, 1831).
The notion of a newspaper as a forum for discursive democracy was not fully developed in the pages of the Cobourg Star. Only six letters were about issues, and only one focused on a local issue. Six other letters involved storytelling, while the remaining nine were educational.
This would completely change over the next three decades, as we shall see inside the pages of the first year of publication for the Cobourg Sentinel. Out of the 21 editorials written by publisher/editor Douglas McAllister, 13 would be local, and eight would be about foreign news. Of these, seven were related to the American Civil War, which started only a few weeks before he began publishing on May 18. Like many other Upper Canadians, he worried about the war expanding north.
McAllister loved politics. The prospectus makes it clear the paper will maintain liberal, independent, with neutral content, encouraging a “freewheeling, temperate discussion of local matters” (Cobourg Sentinel May 18, 1861). The remainder promises to support local business and not wade into the controversial topic of religion, in an effort not to offend advertisers more than placating readers. The entire document is no more than 300 words long. But, in his inaugural editorial, he expands on the themes, repeating his commitment to neutrality and non-partisanship. Finally, he makes a commitment to integrity by saying: “Truth will always stand scrutiny, and by it, we shall be ruled” (Cobourg Sentinel, May 18, 1861).
Neutrality should not be mistaken for a disinterest in politics. The paper was launched six weeks before the 1861 provincial election, which was being hotly contested. Letters arrive almost immediately. In one signed by Enquirer, it asks if the Cobourg Sentinel will be supporting George Brown, the leading reformer in Upper Canada (Cobourg Sentinel June 1, 1861). By the following issue, another writer, A. Subscriber, scolds McAllister for running the letter from the previous week. It is accusing the publisher of taking sides by merely publishing a letter deemed pro-Reform. McAllister defends himself in the editorial, repeating his pledge to be open to discussion. These related letters and editorial mark a significant difference between the 1831 Star and the Sentinel. Within a 30-year period, the newspaper becomes a forum for debate. This will be the first of many exchanges taking place. Another would happen in April 1862, when A. Ratepayer writes in to complain about the town spending $244 on uniforms for firefighters. The author also blasts the town for even having a fire department, saying it should be up to the insurance companies to provide the service since they have a vested interest. By the next week, Firefighter H.J. Bradbeer writes a spirited response saying Mr. Ratepayer needs to rethink his position since the municipal fire department does a good job and the cost for a uniform is negligible. Then, he challenges the author by asking why he felt it necessary to be anonymous. This level of accountability between citizens is the type of rational-critical discourse Habermas envisions within the public sphere.
But, there are other indications of a healthy deliberative democracy within the Sentinel. When the provincial elections draw nearer, the coverage intensifies. The nomination meetings are covered in-depth, along with nearly eight columns of speeches delivered by the two local candidates (Cobourg Sentinel, June 22, 1861). This is not the news coverage we might see today during an election. These are almost verbatim reports. There are also letters to the editor from both candidates detailing their respective positions on the issues. The paper endorses the Tory candidate, something Chatterton would never do. Full details of the election results appear in the next issue (Cobourg Sentinel, June 29, 1861) with poll-by-poll results. James Cockburn, a local lawyer who declared himself an independent, won by 27 votes. Stinging from his poor call, McAllister makes sure there is good, supportive coverage of Cockburn’s victory in the next edition, along with an editorial making peace with the winner (Cobourg Sentinel, July 6, 1861).
The editorials would be highly localized and more topical for readers. McAllister would criticize the things like representation by population, decry protesters in Belleville for burning the effigy of a politician, attack Cobourg municipal council for holding a budget meeting behind closed doors; and, chastise local politicians for the debt of council after the failed railway.
The letters to the editor also evolve as writers reach out to the community at large. Rather than telling stories or be educational, as was the practice in the earlier editions of the Star, the authors use the letters to speak to their fellow citizens. These are highly personalized messages where the author uses an actual name instead of a pseudonym. William Richardson, the captain of the Garibaldi, a ship involved in the rescue of a ship named the Slug, just off Cobourg harbour, writes in some detail about the event in a letter. He was quelling rumours about the response and defended his actions saying, “As for myself, I do not think there is a man in Cobourg who would charge me with not trying to save a fellow being if I had it in my power to do so” (Cobourg Sentinel, Aug 10, 1861). In a similar manner, there are two letters of thanks extended to the community, one from H. Stewart, thanking several students who helped the fire department put out a serious fire (Cobourg Sentinel Nov. 16, 1861); and another from M. Timlin, treasurer of the Irish Relief Fund, thanking residents for their generous donations (Cobourg Sentinel, Feb. 22, 1862).
Still another use of letters, not found in the Star, was for advocacy. One calls for lighting along the main streets in the downtown signed by More Light (Cobourg Sentinel, Nov. 16, 1861). Two others challenged racist attitudes, defending Catholics against bitter Protestant attacks found in the Globe (Cobourg Sentinel, July 27, 1861). The other praises local Irish Catholics in the face of comments heard around town (June 11, 1861). Finally, one author, called “O,” demands to know why women are not allowed to vote for municipal councillors. Giving an account during the recent election, the author says a woman tried to vote for a councillor but was rejected (Cobourg Sentinel, Feb. 1, 1862). This is more than 16 years before the suffrage movement in Canada got its formal beginnings under Dr. Emily Howard Stowe in 1878.
Before going any further, it is important to realize there were a lot of newspapers starting and closing at this time. James McCarroll would resurrect the Cobourg Reformer in 1846, creating a newspaper that was clearly an organ of the Reform Party to replace the Weevil. A year later, Professor W. Kingston established the Provincialist, an independent journal about politics and religion. It folded within a year. In 1853, Anson N. Striker decided to move his printing office and paper, The Picton Sun, to Cobourg after being run out of town for his radical political writing. The Cobourg Sun was an organ of the Liberal Party but was not very successful. Thomas McNaughton purchased it from Striker but struggled to keep it running until 1865. He tried to sell the newspaper to Henry Hough, but the deal went sour. Hough, who had studied at Victoria College in Cobourg, came from his hometown in Guelph to take over the operation. When he discovered McNaughton walked away from the deal, Hough decided to publish his own newspaper, the Cobourg World, a staunchly Reform newspaper with deep roots in Methodist values.
Three years after the Sentinel began, the Cobourg World is launched, representing the most sophisticated and advanced newspaper in this study. It immediately establishes the paper’s intent to be more didactic just from reading the headline and the deck: “Prospectus of a New Reform Family Journal: Devoted to The News, Politics, Science, Commerce, Agriculture, Education, Morality and General Literature” (Cobourg Sentinel, April 8).
The prospectus is just over 1,000 words (three times longer than the Star or the Sentinel), as Hough promises to create a good literary newspaper that will allow the “moderate expression of opinion” (Cobourg Sentinel, April 8, 1862). It reads like a political philosophy essay, boldly supporting the Reform Party yet vowing to transcend degrading name-calling. His strategy is to take positions that will “fully serve the Reform cause” and make a “strong impression upon our enemy” using fair and open discussion, hoping the sheer logic and righteousness of the rhetoric will win over Cobourg residents.
The political purpose of the newspaper is reinforced by its appearance one week before the nomination meeting for the 1864 provincial elections. The local Reformers are angry with Northumberland MPP James Cockburn because he recently supported Sir John A. Macdonald and his Militia Bill, which was considered by many to be far too expensive a response to a perceived threat of invasion by the Americans. The newspaper openly criticizes Cockburn and attacks him in an editorial (Cobourg Sentinel, April 19, 1862). There is even detailed coverage in a separate news story of a Reform meeting in Grafton where the motion to no longer support Cockburn is passed. In another story, an election debate is given expansive coverage over an entire five-column page of the newspaper with details including crowd reactions like “hear, hear” (Cobourg Sentinel, April 19, 1862). However, a week later, Hough is quick to smooth over relations with the incumbent after he was victorious by a whopping 416 votes (Cobourg Sentinel, April 22, 1862). A week goes by without an editorial, although there is more election coverage with a list of all the ridings and the winners. The election coverage demonstrates how the newspaper content changes from the previous two newspapers with its more extensive news coverage (despite its partisanship) and editorializing.
In an ironic twist, The World is far more local in its editorials and letters than the other two papers. Of the 16 editorials run over the first year, only two are about foreign topics. What is also markedly different is the interaction between editorials and letters. Unlike the other two papers, the World creates a dialectic between itself and the audience, particularly on two topics: the future of the railroad and temperance. Notably, the first is political and the second a moral question.
By the time the World begins publishing, the railroad from Cobourg to Peterborough stopped running. Local politicians are unsuccessfully battling with the province to forgive the loans. The town is suffering economically, and people are leaving (Guillet 1948). Hough worries in an editorial about the economic future, calling on political leaders to come up with a plan (Cobourg World, June 10, 1864). In a bold editorial, he outlines a detailed proposal arguing the need for a new “public enterprise.” He calls for a rail line from Cobourg to the Marmora Iron mine, north of Belleville, using the existing rails to Rice Lake and a steamer to carry the ore across the lake from the northeast corner (Cobourg World, May 13, 1864). A second editorial appears the week after, pushing his proposal, saying Cobourg could be the “Athens of Canada” (Cobourg World, May 20, 1864). This is followed by a spirited reply to an editorial in the Sentinel, which attacked the World’s proposal. In the Sentinel, McAllister accuses Hough of hurting the reputation of the town by writing about the poor local economy and the subsequent need for a new plan like the revitalized railway (Cobourg World, May 20, 1864). Hough responds bluntly, saying the Sun also drew attention to the same poor financial picture without any scorn from the Sentinel. Obviously, there is some spirited competition going on. But what is more significant is now two papers are debating each other. The public sphere is alive, well, and thriving.
Then, in the fall, a series of letters from various authors beginning in October. Each one complains about the lack of action regarding the railroad, including the suggestion to use the abandoned line for some purpose (Cobourg World, Oct 7, 1864). Another accuses one of the board members of being corrupt (Cobourg World, Oct. 21, 1864). Yet another warns against any plans to try and build another bridge across the lake (Cobourg World, Nov. 18, 1864). In total, five of the 22 letters received by the World that year address the railroad. Hough becomes inspired by the letters, and in an editorial, he reiterates his calls for the Marmora project (Cobourg World, Nov. 8, 1864). Yet another letter to be written in January, which is followed by another editorial demanding action. Hough calls on the railroad company to hold a public board meeting to deal with the issue, including the appointment of an oversight committee (Cobourg World, Feb. 10, 1865). The next week a story appears with the motion creating a special committee.
The temperance issue is very similar. Early in 1865, the province introduces a motion for a temperance bill, giving powers to the municipalities to decide if they will allow liquor sales. This causes a series of public meetings, led by municipal politicians, to decide what to do. Temperance was a central issue for the community. In one letter, the author asks a series of questions about the legality of a tavern in Cold Spring, north of Cobourg, selling liquor. (Cobourg World, Aug 19, 1864). The World takes up the cause on all levels with a series of stories about ratepayer meetings and temperance society meetings in Cobourg, Hamilton, and Haldimand townships over January and February. Five letters will be published during this time, along with a lengthy editorial stretching over three columns. (Cobourg World, Jan 20, 1865).
This type of integrated discourse between the editor and the audience (and in some cases between the various newspapers) is played out. Editorials and then letters follow news stories in terms of coverage of the temperance debates. Certainly, these are all pro-temperance, as it would be expected from the moral tone of the paper. But it is the varied content that aims to inform, as well as comment, that makes this stand out.
It is very easy to see the evolution of a public sphere within these three newspapers. These are places where open discussions about important issues to the community are aired. The Cobourg Star is a place where all eyes are cast back to the motherland. News and opinion are barely separated. Everyday people, not a staff person, write educational letters and travelogues. Discursive democracy was not fully developed in its pages. This is not the true public sphere, so what is happening that makes the Cobourg Star significant in the development of a community.
For this, we can turn to Benedict Anderson’s ideas surrounding the development of nationalism in his book Imagined Communities. Here he says people rarely know fellow members of their country, meet them or hear of them, yet in the minds of each individual, there is a shared image of their communion. One of the key ways we create these shared images is through language, as communicated via common literature. In this case, it would be the language of news. Just think, when we all sit down to read a newspaper, it is an act of simultaneous consumption. We know that that particular edition is being overwhelmingly consumed between this hour and that, only on this day, not that day. There are people at home, in offices, at work doing the same act. It is something that is happening elsewhere, and we have a sense of this. Yet, we may not know that individual precisely; we have an image of someone else doing it. We can “imagine” ourselves being part of a larger community.
It makes sense to extend this to early Cobourg. Here are these subscribers sitting by their fireplaces, reading the weekly Star. The same thing is going on at other homes across Newcastle District and beyond. They are reading the same stories, sharing the same ideas. Together they are learning about flying squirrels. But, they are also sharing experiences, like the trip to Lake Scugog or the farmer from Murray Township recounting those first days living in his new home in Upper Canada. That description is so beautiful; even we can close our eyes and see what he saw.
It only makes sense to think that these shared experiences through the pages of the newspapers gave members of the community a sense of others they would never meet. It also rightly assumes a set of common values. Without knowing each other, these people are forming the basis of a community. And, if Anderson is correct, then here is where the seeds of nationalism are spread.
The results are seen a mere 30 years later when the Sentinel starts publishing. Suddenly, the Prospectus is very different, and the editorial pages are filled with fewer letters interested in Britain and more about what is going on down the street. The authors discuss the politics of the day. And, McAllister defends his editorials from accusations of partisanship. Citizens use the pages to complain about municipal spending, while others defend the council. It is a public debate in all its glory. Still, even with promises of neutrality, McAllister publishes an endorsement of the Tory candidate, then quickly retreats once Cockburn wins. This demonstrates the tough balance for a local newspaper when you live in the community. You can’t hide, but you can change your mind.
The World is more typical of the American partisan press during this time period. During the American Civil War, newspapers played a vital role in advocating social change and taking very strenuous political positions based on ideologies. In many cases, it was the newspaper publishers who were the first political organizers since many fledgling political parties were unable to reach a mass audience to communicate their positions and policies.
This is amply demonstrated in the Cobourg World, where there is more fierce partisanship, both because he clearly defines himself as a servant of the Reform Party in his Prospectus and his pledges to support Methodist morals. In its pages, Cockburn is hammered on crossing the floor to support Sir. John A. Macdonald’s Tories. As said before, the news coverage is far more extensive, with its multiple pages devoted to a single meeting in Grafton. The notion of a news story being equally important, if not more important, than just editorializing.
But, it must be the debates over the future of the railway and the vision for Cobourg’s future that give the clearest picture of a vibrant public sphere existing in the pages of a local newspaper. The back and forth over proposals made within the columns of the World demonstrate how citizens view the role of news media as a vehicle for building consensus. Also note, these are people with a strong sense of their community, who want to shape its destiny. The seeds of nationalism are growing and quickly moving towards full bloom in 1867. The World is publishing at the same time discussions around confederation are advancing.
Tonight I have tried to provide a glimpse into these newspapers, this community, and its social, cultural, political, and economic life. Following the progress of a single paper may provide an insight into the singular vision of one publisher. By comparing three newspapers, it gives the clearest picture of the relationship between the various media, the evolution of public debate, and the role played in forming the community, possibly the nation.
By mapping the changes, it juxtaposes the relationships between the visions of Anderson and Habermas. There are few studies that follow the formation of a public sphere; yet, the evidence shows the role of the early newspapers in Cobourg suggest this emergence takes place on the pages of the local newspaper as we witness the newly settled community of individuals gain a sense of each other through imagined communities and then move forward to deliberate over its future. It is a pattern worth exploring further.