Niles Register

Hezekiah Niles – The editor who tried to stop the Civil War.

By Bill Kovarik
Encyclopedia of American Journalism History

New York:  Routledge,  2006

Niles Weekly Register, (1811-1849),  a leading weekly news  magazine with a  national circulation, was founded by Hezekiah Niles in 1811 with the idealistic mission of publishing accounts of      “The Past, The Present,  For the Future,” according to the magazine’s motto.

As an indexed and relatively comprehensive summary of events during this 1811 – 1849 period,  the Register  is considered the paper of record for its age and has long been a favorite resource for historians .

Its usual printing run was 16 book-sized pages,  but it often included  appendices and extra pages. With two volumes per year, or 75 volumes in total, the lifetime volume of the entire Register exceeded 30,000 pages.  The Register was supported by subscription only; it did not contain advertising.

It was founded  in Baltimore by Hezekiah Niles (1777 – 1839) and edited  briefly after 1836 by his son, William Ogden Niles, who said that like his father,  he would edit the Register “without fear or favor, partiality or affection.”  In 1839, the publication was sold to Jeremiah Hughes,  a Whig partisan.   Hughes’ illness in 1848 resulted in the Register’s sale to a Philadelphia printer named George Beatty.  Its last partial volume was printed in 1849.

Hezekiah Niles was a Quaker nationalist whose ideas for economic independence paralleled  those of contemporary Whigs like Senator Henry Clay and economist Matthew Carey.  His Register influenced  a younger generation of writers and publishers such as Horace Greeley and impressed others so much that towns in Ohio and Michigan were named him.

Niles’ original vision of a news magazine  was far ahead of its time.  He believed strongly in accuracy and  “magnanimous disputation,” or rather,  fairness and balance in the editorial agenda.  Although his own editorials favored the Whig party and its “American system,” Niles made a point of including  the widest variety of viewpoints from other newspapers, which he received through postal exchanges.

Niles’ concept of news embraced the broadest scope of human experience. His Register kept close track of economics, technology, science, medicine, geography, archaeology, the weather, and many stories of human interest. There was, for example,  a dog who rescued another dog from a river. There was the case of a blind woman restored to sight, and another  of a slave who killed himself rather than be sold at the slave market. Niles printed many items about ballooning and predicted that someday man would build machines to fly (although he doubted that steam engines could propel them).  Riverboat  steam engine disasters were standard fare, and it is interesting that while  early accounts were short on facts and long on adjectives,  this changed as the publication matured and Niles begin stressing facts over emotions.

Niles Weekly  Register  regularly  reproduced  documents of historical interest .  These included a memoir by Daniel Boone about the opening of the Kentucky frontier,  a 1791 report on manufacturing by Alexander Hamilton, and an 1808 Treasury Department report on roads, canals and public works known as “internal improvements.”

The Register was far more authoritative  and comprehensive than its competitors during the partisan press era,  but its unique position was lost with the advent of steam printing, the telegraph and the Associated Press in the late 1830s and 1840s.

It was not only a forerunner of objectivity and the broad vision of news, but also as a voice of moderation and conscience concerning issues such as slavery and the development of economic independence.  Niles was so far-sighted that as early as 1820 he feared a civil war and worked to reconcile  Northern  and Southern interests.

Further Reading

Earle, W.H., “Niles’ Register,  1811-1849:  Window on the World,”  Journal of the War of 1812 and the Era 1800 to 1840, Fall, 1996 (volume I, no. 5).

Kovarik, William, “To Avoid the Coming Storm: Hezekiah Niles Weekly Register as a Voice of North-South Moderation, 1811 – 1836,” American Journalism, Summer, 1992.

Luxon,  Norval , Niles Weekly Register: News Magazine of the Ninteenth Century (Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1947)

Schmidt,  Phillip R., Hezekiah Niles and American Economic Nationalism: A Political Biography, (NY: Arno Press, 1982), Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Kansas.

Stone, Richard G. Stone, Hezekiah Niles as an Economist, Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, Series L1 No. 5, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1933)