September 29, 2011
Reading Summary
“‘The Most Powerful Engine of the Human Mind’: The Press and Its Readers”
Jeffrey L. McNairn
This reading focuses on the significance of the newspaper in the 1800’s. McNairn goes
into detail about the positive effects of the newspaper, specifically the way it brought knowledge,
entertainment and political information to people in Upper Canada. Newspapers were “theatres
for discussion” because they encouraged people to read and discuss the issues of the day together
(129). Newspapers provided people with an outlet for critical thinking and encouraged people to
act. Illiterate as well as literate people received information from the newspaper because
oftentimes it was read aloud by one person to a whole group of people in a coffee house or other
informal setting. Newspapers kept political figures in check by calling them out on their mistakes
or lies. By the 1820’s politics had begun to dominate the content of most newspapers.
Newspapers used to be polite and gentle in tone but soon became “political weapons to create
and reflect public opinion” (129).
Newspapers became universal tools of conversation. The opinions represented in the
articles could be read by hundreds of people in many different towns. Opinions of the article
were not clouded by who was speaking or how they were speaking because people often did not
know the author, they were not conversing one on one with the author but reading what the
author had to say. Because of the newspapers ability to reach so many people, it began to
integrate people “into a common political community” (130).
McNairn explains the growth of the newspaper in the 1800’s in Upper Canada: how many
there were, how many people read them, and how it grew rapidly over a short period of time. He
also explains how local news was rarely seen in newspapers because most people would already
know the news before it got to the paper. Most news was not local, and thus applied to more
people than just one town.
He explains the role of the post office and newspaper agents in distributing newspapers.
There was significant growth in the number of post offices between 1791 and 1831 (seven to
more than 100) because of population growth and more newspaper demand. It cost less money to
mail newspapers than it did letters so newspapers could be distributed easily to other towns.
Newspaper editors could send free copies to their colleagues which explains why many
newspapers had the same content.
Much time is dedicated to how many people were reading newspapers in the 1800’s and
how many could afford it. Poor people could not afford it, and women probably did not subscribe
independently of their spouse or father. Illiterate people or extremely poor people could not
afford to be newspaper subscribers, but it is possible they could be newspaper readers. They
could have the paper read to them by a family friend who was subscribed, or go to a library.
Newspapers were rarely read by just one person.
Newspapers encouraged literacy. By 1840 80% of Upper Canada was literate, which was
higher than the rate in Britain at the time. Upper Canada put more of an effort in educating
children to read and write in Sunday Schools and newspapers only furthered this initiative.
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