April 1853 a small political squabble broke out on the Senate
floor over the publication of a report by John Russell Bartlett,
the outgoing Commissioner of the Mexican border survey. Prior
to supervising this perennial expedition, Bartlett was a Rhode
Island publisher and a co-founder of the American Ethnological
Society. As a Whig party appointee he was quickly ousted by
the new Democratic administration of President Pierce. His dismissal
was due, in no small part, to an allegedly lenient position
he had taken during the dispute with the Mexican government
over the exact location of the border. It was the Texan Senator
Sam Houston who proposed that, despite his removal, Bartlett
would be authorized to compose a report on the geography, natural
history and indigenous tribes on both sides of the Mexican border.
Houston offered editorial guidelines for the prospective report
-- demonstrating the extent to which senators were involved
in the production of such official documents. The report, he
suggested, should occupy about a thousand pages stretched over
two volumes. The Indian subject matter would follow the example
set by Henry Schoolcrafts volumes on the history and present
condition of the Indian tribes of America -- a mammoth project
that was sanctioned by Congress a few years earlier. The natural
history segment should take after another celebrated government
publication John Fosters report on the Geology
of Lake Superior -- a document that was a model for both exploration
did not expect Bartletts work to be anything but an expensive
document to print. But the whole country between California
and the Atlantic was interested in Bartletts account,
he claimed. To further impress the point he told his audience
that in the distribution of Fosters geological report
to remote parts of the union, many volumes were stolen out of
mailbags much before they arrived to their destinations. Houstons
story was met with skeptical chuckles in the chamber. Somehow
the concern displayed by this rugged Texan towards books and
their publication seemed to be out of place. But Houston insisted.
The book thefts demonstrated, he said, "the great value
of the work, and the great desire of the people for intelligence...
[It] is a cogent reason for an urgent necessity of having the
supply of books increased." He himself was very careful
in sending the books back home, spending hundreds of dollars
protecting them in boxes at least until they reached Texas.
"I am not afraid of the mails being robbed in Texas,"
he declared, prompting another round of laughter.
mannerism aside, in the three decades that preceded the Civil
War, government and especially Congress sponsored a multitude
of publishing ventures. Beginning in the late 1810s Congress
committed itself to fund serial publications that commemorated
federal history -- titles such as the American State Papers,
Annals of Congress, The Documentary History of the American
Revolution or The Works of President John Adams. In the
1840s large printing initiatives shifted to the exploration
of the West. John Fremonts highly-stylized narrative on
his travels across the Rockies to California dazzled the public
mind and heralded a new age of the "Great Reconnaissance"
and western expansion. Fremonts early reports were enormously
popular, issued in 10,000 copies each and republished by private
printers to meet the demand. By the 1850s the routine production
of expeditions accounts became a luxurious affair: large tomes
bound in leather and populated with exquisite woodcuts or hand-colored
steel engravings. The most stupendous of these were the eleven
volumes published throughout the 1850s in the wake of a large
cluster of expeditions to determine the route of the future
transcontinental railroad. The publication of those reports
with their "life-like" depictions of western reptiles
and shrubs cost twice as much as all of these expeditions combined
-- well over two hundred thousand dollars. In addition to such
special enterprises, there was the perpetually increasing volume
of ordinary legislative and executive documents -- petitions,
memorials, resolutions, or the bulky volume of the annual message
of the president.
production and dissemination of printed matter seems to support
the notion that providing information became a vital dimension
of state power and the governing process in the nineteenth century.
Other government actions also helped sustain networks for diffusing
information -- for instance, patronage of Washington newspapers
that articulated the administrations views or the low
postal rates, akin to a subsidy, given to all newspapers. One
of the pillars of this government-sponsored information highway
was the ability of congressmen to use the postal services themselves
free of charge, their so-called franking privilege.
Writing in the context of the present anxieties (or jubilation)
over the demise of print culture in the digital bowels of cyperspace,
Geofrey Nunberg recently pointed, in passing, to the role of
the State in what he otherwise calls the "phenomenology
of information." Nunberg emphasizes both the historicity
of "information" as a recent creation as well as its
material dimensions. Libraries, museums, daily newspapers, card
catalogues, or, in our case, state publications -- all received
their standard modern configuration in the nineteenth century.
These informational genres impose a particular form of registration
on their content and concurrently strive for self-effacement.
They endow "information" with its reified material
properties such as uniformity or quantifiability. At the same
time, the semantic features of "information," such
as objectivity and autonomy, reflect the power of institutions
and the practices that surround these objects, such as the authority
of the state or the daily ritual of purchasing and perusing
a newspaper. One element in the creation of these vehicles of
information has been therefore the suppression of explicit authorship,
the elimination of the subject in the language of the document,
and its subsequent replacement with institutional or phenomenal
the modern state created a powerful apparatus, purposefully
devised to provide mass, uniform, transparent and ostensibly
authorless facts, befitting "the age of information";
for instance, the national Census. But rather than offer a master
narrative on the ascendance of the State through dispensation
of knowledge, in what follows I will demonstrate the dissonance
and cracks in the informative performances of the State in the
context of my particular historical episode -- mid 19th century
production of congressional reports, expeditions narratives
and other printed genres. Two arguments are central to my analysis.
Without rejecting Nunbergs insights into the material
and historical aspects of information, I will nevertheless argue
first, that the material facets of state publications -- the
physical properties that rendered them books and artifacts --
often eclipsed any information value, or at least never ceased
calling attention to themselves; and second -- that the making
of government documents actually aggrandized rather than diminished
individual authors and authorship.
to both contentions is the fact that official publications had
numerous and somewhat opposing assignments beyond the façade
of information. For example, the publication of narratives and
scientific knowledge on the west was conceived of as a national
project that glorified both government action and national know-how.
The grandeur of the newly-acquired western empire was replicated
or simulated by the splendor of those volumes. It was manifested
prominently in their aesthetic work that was, besides issues
of content, an effect of tangible aspects such as their binding,
font-size, and quality of engravings. These reports were roving
monuments that could be sent across the nation, or even across
the Atlantic, for inspection and admiration. Washington, after
all, was trying to assert itself against the perceived cultural
and intellectual supremacy of Europe.
official print output was integrated into the exchange relationship
between Congressmen and their constituents. Documents were reproduced
in large numbers, allocated among senators and representatives
and then, duly sent to institutions and individual supporters
in their home districts. For instance, in the papers of Massachusetts
Senator Charles Sumner one may find many personal requests for
particular government publications. In a few cases individuals
were cultivating private collections of such complimentary reports.
Decisions on printing were made with great attention to the
reading preferences of voters. Congressmen were often heard
asking candidly whether a specific document will be sought-after
by the people back home. Official information had a direct political
value as well. Typically, Congressman Abraham Lincoln wrote
on May 1848 to a constituent: "I will place your name on
my book, and send you such documents as you desire, when I can
get them." Lincoln predicted that the publication in question,
which included official correspondence made during the War with
Mexico, would be, when completed, the "best electioneering
document" for his party.
popular publication was arguably the annual agricultural report
of the Patent Office. It was an illustrated volume featuring
a bric-a-brac of reports and correspondence on field cultivation
and animal husbandry techniques around the globe, new seeds
and grafts, lists of farming associations and other such useful
or merely interesting details. By the 1870s this handbook was
printed in a quarter of a million copies. By the conclusion
of the century, 400,000 copies were pressed rendering this the
most widely circulated annual publication of that era. In an
early dispute over the printing of the Patent Office report
representative David Cartter from Ohio argued that Congress
owed the public such an account. Betraying more than a trace
of sectional animosity he said "West of the mountains,
the people got nothing from the Government but intelligence.
Of the 30 million dollars which were annually taken from the
people, to supply the Treasury, why should they not be permitted
to receive back five mills on the dollar, in the way of information?"
also voted for a substantial package of costly books for the
benefit of their own libraries. By the 1850s a bundle of books
for each new member of either house was estimated to be worth
a thousand dollars. To add to the scandal it turned out that
many government publications were purchased from representatives
by private speculators and sold in bookstores in DC, Boston
and other cities to those who did not have the right political
connection to get them gratis.
publishing enterprises, Congress -- a body that enacts laws
-- stepped into the market-place of books. Senators were to
make contracts for engraving and embossing, to choose among
various types of leather, muslin and other binding. This intervention
of a representative body in an actual -- not metaphoric -- line
of production was fraught with tension. Besides, although report-making
constituted an arena of action for government to demonstrate
its might, it was also a domain in which government sometimes
displayed sheer incompetence. At times, it was easier (and as
we have seen cheaper) to send ships to remote oceans or a group
of soldiers to uncharted deserts rather than to publish a book
describing those ventures. The famous Wilkes exploring
expedition to the Pacific Northwest took four years to conclude,
in 1842. The publication of the subsequent reports took another
thirty years but was never actually completed. In 1861 an English
botanist wrote to an American colleague regarding this project:
"Who on earth is to keep in their heads ... such a medley
of books -- double-paged, double-titled, and half finished as
your Government vomits periodically into the great ocean of
Scientific bibliography." The state thus could (and did)
get lost in its printing expeditions. The entire project of
registering and departing information rendered government vulnerable
to the type of criticism that became even more vitriolic in
the twentieth century, namely that government is a compulsive
or an incontinent printer.
as the 1850s, questions were recurrently posed, in and outside
Congress, concerning the duty of government to provide information
and the type of knowledge that lent itself for such circulation.
Some of these issues were evident in the episode with which
I began -- the debate over the printing of Bartletts report.
Senators claimed that some publication initiatives were too
exorbitant and others contained inaccessible piles of details
and were thus practically useless except for wrapping loaves
of bread in DC markets. (It did not escape participants that
the proposed publication of Bartletts account circumvented
the entire logic of reporting, for evidently the Department
of the Interior, its addressee, was quite uninterested in such
Andrew Butler and others remarked that the Senate was asked
to issue a book that was yet to be written, whose actual content
was unknown and the credentials of its authors uncertain. Defensively,
Sam Houston resorted to circular reasoning. To those who maintained
they should not publish a book about which they knew nothing,
he answered that that was precisely why the book should be printed
-- so they could learn something about the topic. This rhetorical
trickery rested on the ambiguity of the Senates double
role as both producer and consumer of information and the further
confusion between lawmakers and voters as readers. Although
Houston himself did not agree with Bartlett on the border question,
he asserted his belief that Bartlett should be given the chance
to present his other findings. "He may give us a very entertaining
lecture upon the manners, customs, and peculiar habits of Mexico."
But Houston was not the most persuasive advocate for Bartletts
report, for the Senator ultimately admitted that he had never
glanced at a government report with the exception of the agricultural
volume. He had no great desire to read any other document either.
Things did not improve when he further conceded that he supported
the publication in part because Andrew Gray, Bartletts
chief surveyor and a prospective contributor to the report,
was a fellow Texan. The Senate finally decided not to proceed
with the debate, thus practically killing the motion.
James Mason from Virginia charged during this exchange that
Bartlett chose various routes that deviated from the vicinity
of the border just so he could collect material for a book.
His colleague Senator Hannibal Hamlin (Maine) maintained that
every author in search of a publication attached himself to
some expedition or survey so he could secure official sponsorship.
Senator Robert Hunter saw in the printing of books at the expense
of Congress two types of hazardous desires: the craving of authors
for personal fame, and the consequent demand of the public to
have books for nothing, an appetite that government would never
be able to satisfy in full. Twenty years later, a Senate committee
would protest that heads of executive bureaus had become aspiring
"book makers." They kept clerks working all year round
obtaining facts and figures with which to inflate their annual
of army officers, lawmakers and others to assert themselves
in print also endowed official reports with a surplus of style.
That style often conformed to recognizable model-narratives
and yet could be considered personal. Government reports, back
then as now, were signed documents closely associated with individuals.
John Fremont -- of the trail to California fame -- made a political
career on the foundation of his authorial voice, becoming in
1856 the first presidential nominee of the Republican Party.
There were also interesting material relationships between government
employees and the texts they wrote in their official capacities.
Officers of the army corps of engineers received hundreds of
copies of their reports for personal use. In the late 1850s
Congress gave Schoolcraft, who was by then sick and bed-ridden,
a special copyright to republish his six volumes on the Indian
tribes of America. In another twist that further exemplified
the confusion over governmental and personal stakes in (what
was in fact) intellectual property, Seth Eastman, the projects
illustrator, launched a counter campaign, demanding proper compensation
for his artwork which he claimed, was entrusted by Congress
to the hands of another man.
The debate over Bartletts report would digress into a
conflict between two authors, pitting Bartlett against his successor,
army corps of engineers colonel William Emory. For the rest
of the 1850s they battled in the papers, directly or through
proxies, over their performance as commissioners and the comparative
value of their respective accounts. Emorys report was
eventually published in a lavish form by Congress. Bartlett
had to satisfy himself with a commercial publisher titling his
1854 book Personal Narrative of Explorations and Incidents
in Texas, New Mexico, California, Sonora, and Chihuahua.
The New York Herald, to give an example, continued to
urge for an official edition of Bartletts ethnological
collection. The paper claimed that "Every nation in Europe
possesses such collections, illustrating the history, manners,
customs and arts of their primitive inhabitants." This
celebration of the Indian past, another national project, sought
as its site a museum in Washington (that would become a reality
only in September 1999) or, alternatively, the type of museumification
afforded by books such as Bartletts or Schoolcrafts.
The New York Times joined the chorus. It would have been
to the credit of any government to present the knowledge garnered
by Bartlett to the world, the paper editorialized. "How
differs this from sowing freely and reaping sparingly? -Appropriating
liberally for the prosecution of the work, yet, by refusing
appropriations for publishing, reaping no other fruits than
the Commissioners Personal Narrative." Bartlett
himself wrote that he was denied the privilege that was given
to all other public officers. All reports of American surveys
and explorations (including expeditions to the Amazon) were
officially published and distributed without charge. Emory countered
in the Washington Union alleging that the former commissioner
was still in possession of government property, most importantly,
sketches made by the commissions artists that had "both
intrinsic and mercantile value."
In a reversal
of roles, when the first volume of Emorys report was completed
in 1857 , the Herald attacked it as one of those tomes
crafted to glorify their authors. It was labeled "a ponderous
volume" brimming with expensive illustrations -- 99 steel,
copper and stone engravings and 20 woodcuts. The writer did
not neglect to mention that the engravings were done in Paris
and that foreign artists were preferred to Americans in rendering
this service. The article poked fun at Emorys arrogance
in appending his name to a mountain near the Rio Grande. A sketch
of that mountain was in fact embossed on the cover of the report.
By depicting Mount Emory on the binding, Emory the officer/author
was able to sign or inscribe his report both inside and outside.
The illustration enhanced the function of the document as a
monument. However, its national significance was obviously threatened
by Emorys own bloated sense of self.
than one way, therefore, the dispute over Bartletts report
demonstrated the blurred lines between governmental and individual
ownership of texts, specimens, illustrations and knowledge in
general. The exchange in the press gave ample evidence to the
prevalent uncertainty concerning the role of government in providing
fresh information, scientific and other, to a wide public and
the special mission that government was assigned in representing
and preserving a supposedly vanishing Indian culture.
of the problemtatics that I have surveyed here, rather swiftly,
were generated by the friction among three parameters of the
modern public sphere: first, the requirement for transparency
that encourages lawmakers and bureaucrats to create a public
archive, a double in print for their routine activities; second,
the contending need for a usable, succinct knowledge that resides
outside transcripts of congressional debates or departmental
memoranda, and lastly the literary and material properties of
official documents; facets that were often attached to drives
that originated in individuals but also epitomized the desire
of the state to engage in cultural production. Modern representative
governments attempt to represent themselves back to the public.
The State also often engages in literary and aesthetic representation
of the country, its social "condition," its history
and nature through cultural artifacts -- books and others.
in its simplest form the problem of governments as sources of
information or knowledge can be reduced to questions of veracity
and volume -- although, then as now, these are the most often
articulated challenges against the medium of government publications.
Curiously, it is sometimes unclear whether government tells
us too little or too much. This suspicion endures even from
the vantage point of the 1990s. I will end with two contemporary
examples. First, Hillary Rodham Clintons Health care report.
For conservatives, this gigantic document, thousands of pages
long, signified by its sheer size and unreadability the excess
of an unbridled bureaucracy which they saw as the essence of
the proposed reform itself. More recently, Kenneth Starrs
best-selling voyeuristic account of President Clintons
sexual liaisons combined an excess of detail with a well-groomed
(stylistically excessive) narrative structure. Yet, the parade
of dozens of boxes of evidence whisked into offices on Capitol
Hill only raised suspicion about concealed information. Sometimes
government engages in deception by bombarding us with indigestible
piles of information, by telling us "everything."
(A contention that was first made by the English radical William
Cobbett in the 1830s facing the barrage of official reports
-- "blue books" -- under whose umbrella the British
government enacted a massive and rather oppressive poor law
In his Washington:
Outside and Inside (1873), George Townsend, the Washington correspondent
of the Chicago Tribune, portrayed in great detail the mounds
of printed matter that were stored in the bowels of Capitol
Hill. Under the supervision of the Doorkee