The Eastern Shore’s Early Free Press

by Dana Kester-McCabe

One of the oldest papers still in publication under its original name in the U.S. began in 1841 in Elkton, Maryland.

For anyone doing historical research, the internet has been a real time saver. In particular, many of our oldest newspapers are now archived and generally available for free, all with the click of a button.

America's earliest newspapers including those here on Delmarva were a lot like the news media we see today but they not necessarily just like today's newspapers. Looking through these old publications I was surprised to see that early on, the front page of local papers was devoted to social news like engagements, weddings, and travel notes; along with amusing poems, jokes, and anecdotes republished from other papers around the country. Hard news and editorials were usually buried sometimes several pages inside.

One of the oldest papers in the U.S., still in publication under its original name, began in 1841in Elkton, Maryland. Its earliest editions are not freely available on line but it history is just the same fascinating. It started out as a partisan response to another paper called the Cecil Democrat & Farmer's Journal. Local Whig party members had a newspaper of their own in the town of Port Deposit, Maryland. But it was a financial failure. So, a few of the undaunted Whigs bought up the equipment and set up operations in a log cabin in nearby Elkton. Wanting to be clear about where they stood politically they called their new paper The Cecil Whig. They hired 23 year old Palmer C. Ricketts to be their editor in chief.

It will be helpful here to be reminded of which political party was which at this time. The Whig Party is the precursor to today's Republican Party. The name was chosen in honor of a group from the Revolutionary War era who fought for independence and against tyranny. It was founded in 1830 by Henry Clay of Kentucky. In short, it was formed in opposition to the policies of President Andrew Jackson and in favor of increasing Congressional and federal powers, modernization, and economic protectionism. The loyal opposition at the time was the Democratic Party who was for maintaining the power of the President, individual states' rights, conservatism, and free markets. By the 1840's the debate about slavery had begun to pick up steam. The Whigs were somewhat divided on this matter while the Democrats were firmly on the side of keeping slavery intact and letting new states decide the question for themselves.

Here on Delmarva the divisions were becoming as bitter as they were in the rest of the country. Slavery was an entrenched institution here. But, the abolitionist movement and the underground railroad were also alive and well. The two parties were now well represented in Elkton and the rhetoric began to really heat up. In 1843 the editor of the Cecil Democrat, Armor T. Forwood, was so angry at Cecil Whig editor Palmer Ricketts for his paper's commentary, that he accosted Ricketts on the street in Elkton. During the heated exchange Forwood began to beat Ricketts with his cane. Ricketts responded with the pistol he was carrying, fatally wounding Forwood.

While awaiting trial Ricketts was allowed to keep up with his work on the Cecil Whig, publishing the paper from his jail cell. The jury ruled that the death was an act of self defense so Ricketts was released. He was heavily criticized by his political rivals after Forwood's death. Nonetheless he remained in charge of the paper until he died in 1860 almost two decades later. During that time he was said to have eventually won the respect and admiration of the entire community, even those who disagreed with him.

Things were equally confusing down the road in Easton. Today's Star Democrat began in 1799 as the Republican Star and Eastern Shore Political Luminary. How is that for a name? Republican here meant they were proponents of Thomas Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party. By 1828 they had competitors: The Eastern Shore Whig and People's Advocate, (another highfalutin' name) - did not support the Whig Party at all. They named themselves for those anti-tyranny Revolutionary war heroes I mentioned earlier. Eventually the Eastern Shore Whig bought out the Republican Star and merged the papers, settling on the name The Star-Democrat in 1896.

Today both the Cecil Whig and the Star Democrat tend to have conservative editorial policies and endorse Republican candidates and platforms. But they are not the overtly partisan publications they started out to be. They and the other newspapers here on Delmarva, many who are still independently owned, are community papers covering local news and issues along with all the other stuff we might say is trivial, but we actually enjoy. We've all heard about media consolidation and how hard it is for our media to remain free of corporate influence. In my opinion the first line of defense in maintaining our freedom is a free and independent press. And, that free press begins at home

So as a little plug for our local newspapers here is what Thomas Jefferson:
"The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."