Potholes on the Information Superhighway: Congress as a Publisher in the 19th Century
by Oz Frankel

In early 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 Schoolcraft’s 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 Foster’s report on the Geology of Lake Superior -- a document that was a model for both exploration and book-making.

Houston did not expect Bartlett’s work to be anything but an expensive document to print. But the whole country between California and the Atlantic was interested in Bartlett’s account, he claimed. To further impress the point he told his audience that in the distribution of Foster’s geological report to remote parts of the union, many volumes were stolen out of mailbags much before they arrived to their destinations. Houston’s 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.

Sam Houston’s 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 Fremont’s 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. Fremont’s 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.

This massive 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 administration’s 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 authorship.

Indeed, 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 Nunberg’s 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.

Relevant 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.

As importantly, 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.

The most 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?"

Congressmen 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.

By sponsoring 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 early 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 Bartlett’s 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 Bartlett’s account circumvented the entire logic of reporting, for evidently the Department of the Interior, its addressee, was quite uninterested in such a document.)

Senator 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 Senate’s 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 Bartlett’s 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, Bartlett’s 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.

Senator 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 accounts.

The ambition 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 project’s 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 Bartlett’s 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. Emory’s 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 Bartlett’s 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 Bartlett’s or Schoolcraft’s. 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 Commissioner’s 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 commission’s artists that had "both intrinsic and mercantile value."

In a reversal of roles, when the first volume of Emory’s 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 Emory’s 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 Emory’s own bloated sense of self.

In more than one way, therefore, the dispute over Bartlett’s 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.

Several 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.

Thus only 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 Clinton’s 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 Starr’s best-selling voyeuristic account of President Clinton’s 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 reform.)

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