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Hezekiah Niles a patriotic newsmagazine editor in 19th century

"There is a holiness about the Constitution. The peace and prosperity of this Republic, the world's last best hope, must not be haphazarded, much less destroyed, that certain men may rule." — Hezekiah Niles,1828.

The name of Hezekiah Niles is about as far astern as it gets these days, and if it resonates at all, it is probably with historians, professors and students of early 19th-century American history who closet themselves in libraries while poring through dusty bound volumes of his Niles' Register.

But the Niles' Register, which was published in Baltimore and exerted a powerful influence on the early national discourse, was the nation's first weekly newsmagazine.

Niles was born in East Bradford, Chester County, Pa., on Oct. 10, 1777, to a Quaker family. His father was a carpenter and his mother was the daughter of a wealthy Wilmington, Del., merchant.

He attended Friends School in Wilmington before being apprenticed at 17 to Benjamin Johnson, a Philadelphia printer-bookseller.

Niles formed a partnership with Vincent Bonsal, and the two established the printing and publishing firm of Bonsal and Niles in Wilmington. Bonsal also had a print shop in Baltimore.

The firm collapsed in 1799 after an ill-fated venture left Niles $25,000 in debt and bereft of a partner who took the money and vanished.

"Bonsal peace to his soul! — was a bad man. I knew it too late," Niles wrote to a friend years later.

Undaunted, Niles pressed on and established The Apollo, or Delaware Weekly Magazine, and he generated most of the copy.

Niles closed the weekly and left Wilmington in 1805 for Baltimore, where he opened the Evening Post, which lasted until 1811.

Niles didn't stay out of publishing very long. He introduced the Weekly Register, whose first number rolled out of his Water Street print shop on Sept. 7, 1811, 200 years ago this week. He later renamed it Niles' Register.

The Register, which sprang into life with a national circulation of 1,500 readers, put Baltimore on the map as a news center and made its owner-editor a famous man.

In an era with a high casualty rate for periodicals, Niles managed to hang on mainly because his 16-page periodical — which had no illustrations and whose masthead was graced with the motto, "The Past, The Present, For the Future" — arrived on time to readers who paid $5 a year for a subscription.

He charted his publication's course when he wrote that he was "to write for and speak to people — not the learned and wealthy … but the free laboring people, like ourselves, struggling to get a little forward in the world, and educate their children et cetera."

He refused to carry any advertising in the publication for fear it would compromise his ability to write about what he wanted.

"It was perhaps the most widely circulated magazine of the era," wrote Bill Kovarik, a former Baltimore Sun copy editor who is now a historian and professor of journalism at Radford University in Virginia.

Circulation eventually rose and stayed at 4,000 for 25 years.

Niles, Kovarik reported, never took a vacation from his publication.

What drew readers in was his ability to speak directly to them and to be objective in an era when that was far from common.

During the War of 1812 after the British had burned Washington and headed for Baltimore, Niles wrote, "with feelings that cannot be uttered, we devote a considerable portion of the present number of the Register to publish and preserve a body of facts and evidence regarding the proceedings of the enemy at Hampton, that will forever disgrace the British name. Shuddering humanity outlaws the finished villains. …"

Niles also reported that British soldiers abused women, who were "now rendered wretched for life." He implored the Almighty to bring "the thunderbolts of heaven to strike these wretches and clear the earth of such monsters."

When the war ended, Niles filled his weekly with a variety of colorful stories such as "Twenty-four men, in the neighborhood of Bedford, Massachusetts, were recently poisoned by eating cheese that had been colored with red lead." And in an Aug. 28, 1824, article he noted that "eighty-four dogs were killed in one week in the city of Philadelphia."

Perhaps because of his Quaker background, Niles refused to include accounts of duels. He did, however, make two exceptions, when he printed accounts of duels between his friend Henry Clay in an inconclusive match with John Randolph, and when James Barron killed naval hero Stephen Decatur.

Niles fought against the persecution of European Jews and the anti-Semitism that was to be found in the United States. He favored high tariffs, which he felt would encourage American manufacturing. He also supported heavy taxes on whiskey, which combined his sense of morality and sense of business.

But Niles offered plenty of space to those who didn't agree with his point of view.

Niles was also an advocate of compromise and thought it necessary.

"Slavery was by far the most difficult issue for Niles and the nation. He grew up hating slavery, and had been a member of an abolitionist society in his youth," Kovarik wrote in an article recently.

"Yet he pragmatically kept his views out of the Register, since he saw extremism as a greater danger," wrote Kovarik. "For example, in one carefully worded editorial in 1816, he wrote: 'Slavery is more easily reasoned against than removed, however sincerely and honestly desired.'"

In order to avoid conflict, he advocated a program of "gradual emancipation, universal education and compensation for slave owners," Kovarik wrote of Niles' attempt to defuse the issue that eventually helped lead to the Civil War several decades after his death.

Regarding slavery, Niles wrote: "I do not wish to press this subject to its full extent, and I pray to Heaven there may never be a necessity for it, for I would that the United States should be preserved."

Kovarik called Niles "a devoted patriot and an editor with vision. He managed to put aside his own partisanship in order to reach out in the spirit of compromise. He hoped that spirit might hold the nation together. Although his ideas were widely accepted in the North, he found attitudes in the South hardening during his years as editor."

Because of his honesty and forthrightness, the Baltimore editor was notified in 1829 that Niles, Mich., was named for him, and in 1834, a town in Ohio took his name.

He had given up his editorship after suffering a stroke in 1836 and moved to Wilmington. His son was editor until selling Niles' Register in 1839. Its new owner ceased publication in 1848.

When Niles, who had been a member of the Baltimore City Council, died in 1839, The Baltimore Sun in an article announcing his death said he had been an "impartial, accurate and talented annalist."

"His life was well spent. … Such a man is a true patriot, and as long as the United States shall preserve its independence, so long the name of Hezekiah Niles, the founder of Niles' Register, be revered."

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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