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Radical Mainers: The Birth of the People’s Press

The Making of Maine’s Working Class: The Birth of the People’s Press

by | Jul 10, 2021

Long before publications like this one, numerous newspapers sought to give voice to the working people of Maine and challenge existing power structures. The emergence of early labor parties and “workingmen’s” organizations in the 1830s and ’40s spawned the launch of a wide array of papers with similar-sounding names: the Maine Working Men’s Advocate (published in Belfast starting in November 1830); The Mechanic: Farmer, and Working-Men’s Advocate (Portland, 1831); Augusta Courier and Farmers’ and Mechanics’ Journal (1831, later renamed the Augusta Courier and Working Men’s Journal, then just Augusta Courier); Portland Courier and Mechanic and Farmer’s Advocate (1832); Mechanic and Farmer (Bangor, 1835); The People’s Press (Bangor, 1836); The Workingman and People’s Press (Norridgewock, 1843), and many others.

The growth of “mechanics’” and “workingmen’s” newspapers tracks with the increasing influence of workers both as consumers of information and as a political constituency that could no longer be ignored. When the Maine Farmer and Journal of the Useful Arts, established in Winthrop in 1833, briefly changed its name in 1842 to Maine Farmer and Mechanic’s Advocate, its editor wrote, “We shall also give as much space to the Mechanics, and we trust that they will see that their department does not fall behind that of the farmer’s in original communications.”

Although not as suggestively named, Portland’s more established Eastern Argus (founded in 1803) started publishing columns by anonymous worker correspondents (bylined “AN ARTISAN” or “A MECHANIC”) during this period. Expressing support for a ten-hour workday, on May 17, 1831, one of those correspondents wrote:

We ask those, who are unused to physical labor, to imagine themselves out-door workmen…compelled to work beneath the hottest summer sun, from half-past four o’clock in the morning until eight o’clock in the evening.

What opportunity do they have to counsel their children and bend aright the tender plant? What time to hold sweet converse with the partners of their bosoms? What time to pursue the news-sheet of the day? What time to cultivate their minds and keep pace with the might improvements of the age, or to gather facts upon mechanics which might facilitate their labors? What time, in short, to develop and improve those holy affections of the soul which brighten the tender ties of the family circle, and give a higher tone to every intercourse of society?

Portland’s The Mechanic: Farmer, and Working-Men’s Advocate seemed to promote the idea of independent political action by reporting on the formation of the Working-Men’s Institution. In general, however, the mechanics’ papers did not break with the two-party system. Their aim was to use populist rhetoric to cater to the interests and tastes of their target audiences, and to convince readers to support their preferred parties or candidates.

The editor of Bangor’s Mechanic and Farmer, John S. Sayward, wrote in the first issue that the paper’s purpose was “to assist and cheer mankind in the various duties of the workshop, the field and the domestic circle; to urge forward correct feelings and action among the practical working-men of the country.”

One of the Argus’ artisan correspondents framed the fight against the city’s ruling class in explicitly partisan terms:

“The upstart aristocracy of Portland — with empty pates and fled shirts — they strut about the streets and prate about virtue and morality, and sneer at the integrity and Patriotism of their betters, the laboring Democrats. Men of sense say — FUDGE.”

Many mechanics’ papers aligned themselves with Jacksonian democracy, but Maine’s Anti-Jacksonians would not concede the workingman’s vote without a fight. The Maine Working Men’s Advocate was published by John Dorr and edited by Samuel Upton, a former politician and chairman of the People’s Society of the County of Waldo, which advocated for universal education, abolishment of imprisonment for debt, and other reforms. According to Joseph Griffin’s History of the Press of Maine, the Advocate’s “political character was decidedly Federal or Whig.” Before the 1832 presidential election, the paper unabashedly supported the National Republican ticket of Henry Clay and John Sergeant.

Another somewhat Whiggish paper, the Portland Courier and Mechanic and Farmer’s Advocate, was edited and published by Seba Smith, creator of the popular fictional political commentator Major Jack Downing. It was issued as a weekly supplement to Smith’s Daily Courier, Maine’s first daily newspaper. Through humorous letters and essays written under the name of Downing, Smith lightly mocked Jackson’s Democrats. The character inspired others, like Waterford, Maine–native Charles Farrar Browne’s “Artemus Ward,” and made the political debates of the day accessible to general audiences.

An 1836 political cartoon depicting Major Jack Downing (right) battling a hydra with Andrew Jackson (left) and Martin Van Buren (center).

 

Not all “workingmen’s” newspapers sought only to gain an audience of laboring men. Several in Maine represented genuine expressions of working-class political consciousness, and some appear to have been collective enterprises.

The Mechanic and Farmer was originally published by an association of mechanics and farmers under the name John Brown and Co. A small newspaper called the Daily Bee was established in Bangor around 1850 by S.F. Whetmore and a group of journeymen printers. Maine labor historian Charles Scontras thought the Daily Bee may have been organized as a workers’ cooperative.

A handful of papers went far beyond the reformist demands of the workingmen’s associations by calling for the complete transformation of society.

Perhaps the most celebrated of Maine’s radical papers is the Portland Pleasure Boat. The work of mid-19th–century Portland’s resident anarchist-journalist Jeremiah Hacker, the Pleasure Boat agitated against organized religion, government, prisons, quack doctors, flim flammers, capitalism and slavery. Hacker was never one to mince words in his fiery screeds, such as this 1849 takedown of the capitalist owners of the Portland Company:

“While the wives and daughters of mechanics are toiling over their wash tubs, or cooking over hot fires, the wives and daughters of capitalists are murdering pianos, sighing over novels, sauntering with coxcombs or searching for the fashions; and all these things cost money, and this money must, by some kind of hokus pokus means, come from the pockets of the producing classes; if therefore they can wring an hour’s labor each day from each man in their employ, it will aid in defraying their pious expenses, and in supporting them in luxury and idleness. I would not say a word to stir up unnecessary strife between the two classes, but I would be glad if all fanners, mechanics and laborers were aware that they are the only class of people that the world cannot spare — that the other portions of society are chiefly drones and suckers, living on the heart’s blood and vitals of honest industry.”

Another revolutionary periodical published in Maine was John Allen’s The Social Reformer. Allen, a Hallowell radical, was an adherent to Fourierism, a movement based on the ideas of French intellectual Charles Fourier, as popularized in the United States by Albert Brisbane. Fourierism was one of several utopian-socialist movements that took root during the first half of the 19th century. Fourierists (also called Associationists) imagined a society structured around communities called Phalanxes or Associations, where people would live and work together. Allen, along with Mary Poor, the treasurer of a Fourierist union in Bangor, were in attendance at a large movement convention in New York City on April 4, 1844.

Little is known about the beginnings of The Social Reformer, but its publication was announced in Brisbane’s The Phalanx in May of 1844. It was later moved to Boston, where it was taken over by printers at Brook Farm, one of this country’s earliest and most famous experiments in communal living, which had recently been converted to Fourierism. They merged the Reformer with The Phalanx to form The Harbinger, the official publication of Brook Farm,

Subsequent generations of reformers established their own newspapers to advocate for their movements and perspectives. In the 1870s, Solon Chase, the leading light of the Greenback movement in Maine, published Chase’s Chronicles, which later moved to Portland and became the Greenback Labor Chronicle (and ceased publication about a year after). In the early 1880s, Chase also briefly published Them Steers, named after the catchphrase he used in his stump speech for president in 1880 on the Greenback Party ticket (he didn’t win the nomination, but he gained national fame for colorfully using the financial value of his herd to illustrate the need for paper money).

Norman Wallace Lermond, Knox County’s eccentric naturalist and socialist, published several newspapers throughout his long association with various radical movements. These included newspapers affiliated with the Grange movement and with the People’s Party of Maine, and eventually The Maine Comrade, a newsletter he printed while serving as executive secretary of the Socialist Party of Maine. A group of Maine socialists later published The Issue, edited by George Allan England, from 1911 to 1914. (We discussed England in “War Fever and the Decline of the Socialist Party in Maine” [Dec. 2020] and many of these publications and their associated movements will be explored in later installments of Radical Mainers.)

An uncountable number of the hundreds of labor and radical newspapers published in Maine over the past two centures are lost to history, while others are accessible only in fragmentary form — scattered copies buried in archives all over the state. Those that have survived provide invaluable views of the ideas and conflicts that shaped the history of political radicalism in Maine.

Will Chapman is the Librarian and Archivist at Museums of the Bethel Historical Society. Andy O’Brien is the communications director for the Maine AFL-CIO. You can reach them at will@maineworkingclasshistory.com and aobrien2008@gmail.com

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