In 1861, the citizens of Forsyth County had limited sources for news. There was no e-mail, no Facebook, no Twitter, no TV, no radio, no telephone. They had five basic ways of getting information: Word of mouth, mail, flyers, public meetings and newspapers. Since the newspapers were connected to the telegraph system, they usually had the latest information first.
Most newspapers of the times were political weeklies. Most of the time their chief interests were promoting their political party of choice and providing entertainment in the form of poetry, essays, short fiction, occasional novel serializations and “travel” pieces. If you knew your literature and your politics, you could figure out a newspaper’s political orientation from reading the entertainment selections. For all, news not connected to politics took a definite back seat.
In 1861, Forsyth County had two political weeklies. The older of the two, the People’s Press, based in Salem, was identified with the Whig Party. The Whig Party formed around 1830 in opposition to Andrew Jackson’s new Democratic Party. They favored a stronger Congress and a weaker President and strong tariffs on international trade. Whig leaders included Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and, in Illinois, a young Abraham Lincoln. Between 1841 and 1853, four Whigs held the presidency: William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore. But by 1850, the party was falling apart over the issue of slavery. Fillmore was expelled from the party and by 1856 the party essentially did not exist. But newspapers like the People’s Press continued to espouse Whiggish ideas for some time to come.
The Western Sentinel, based in Winston, was a wholehearted Jacksonian Democratic organ, which made them a natural enemy of the People’s Press. The party was an evolution of the Democratic-Republican Party founded by Jefferson, Madison and Monroe. Its founding fathers were Jackson and Martin Van Buren, favoring a strong President and a weak Congress, unrestricted foreign trade, and, for a time, slavery. But in the 1850s, the issue of slavery fractured the Democrats just as it had the Whigs. In the run-up to the 1860 election, the party split into three parts: the Northern Democratic Party, the Southern Democratic Party and the Constitutional Union Party, a southernish/borderish compromise between the other two.
In the 1860 election, the three parts of the former Democratic Party won about 60% of the popular vote. But Abraham Lincoln’s new Republican Party, which got almost none of the popular vote in the slave states, won the most populous states and 180 electoral votes, almost 60% of the total. The old, “original” Democratic Party got just 12, dead last. Needless to say, the Western Sentinel went with the Southern Democrats.
Since almost all of the local information in this series is derived from these two publications, a closer, more personal look at the people behind them is in order.
The People’s Press, Salem, NC 1851-1892
Johann Christian Blum, a Salem Moravian, was an entrepreneur. In the 1820s, he arranged to establish a branch of one of North Carolina’s preeminent banks, the bank of Cape Fear, in Salem. There were problems which led to his being forced out, but the branch continued into the middle of the 19th century under other management until, like most southern banks, it folded near the end of the Civil War.
About the time that his association with the bank was ending, he decided to go into the printing business. In 1827 he bought a 17 year old second hand Ramage printing press in Philadelphia and announced that he would begin publishing a newspaper to be known as the Weekly Gleaner. In those days, the Moravian Church was still the governing body in Salem. They were not comfortable with a newspaper published outside their control. Blum promised not to publish anything critical of the local government, but his newspaper lasted barely a year.
Blum’s Ramage press is still in working condition and is on display at the Blum House in Old Salem. A Ramage Press was used to print the first copies of the Declaration of Independence.
By then he had already begun publishing Blum’s Farmers and Planters Almanac. Since it did not contain any controversial material, it became an immediate success. It is still published today in Winston-Salem by the Goslen family.
Blum purchased the local paper mill and made his own ink. The almanac and a vigorous job printing business assured success. By the time of Blum’s death in 1854, his sons, Levi and Edward had taken over the business. In 1851, they founded the Salem People’s Press.
The Western Sentinel, Winston, NC 1856-1912?
John Wesley Alspaugh was born on July 22, 1831 to John and Elizabeth Lashmit Alspaugh. His father was the minister for nearly 56 years of the Methodist Episcopal Church, since merged with Centenary Methodist Church, which was located at the corner of Liberty and Seventh Streets in the town of Winston.
Alspaugh graduated from the Union Institute (later Trinity College, now Duke University) in Trinity, NC in 1855 and studied law in Greensboro under the noted judge Robert Dick. He then opened a law office in Winston. To supplement his income, he took a part time job with the weekly Western Sentinel. Within a year, he was co-editor of the paper, and in 1859 became the editor and proprietor. An avid southern patriot, he steered his newspaper into the mainstream of the secessionist movement.Brown’s School was founded in Trinity, NC in the 1830s as a Methodist institution. It was renamed in 1839 as the Union Institute after local Quakers helped save it from bankruptcy. In 1859 it was again renamed as Trinity College. In 1890 the Duke family agreed to invest heavily in the school, which moved to Durham, NC in 1892 and became Duke University.
He was already involved in politics, serving from 1858 through the end of the Civil War as chief clerk of the North Carolina Senate. After his retirement as editor and publisher of the Western Sentinel in 1872, he continued to practice law and also became a founder, in 1876, of the First National Bank of Winston, serving as cashier until 1892, when he became president.
He was also deeply involved in the affairs of Trinity College, serving as a trustee from 1869 until his death and helping to rescue the chronically bankrupt school long before the Duke family got involved. He helped to finance many local Methodist churches, and is buried in the Mt. Tabor Methodist Church cemetery.
But irony is one of the chief features of human existence. And irony was certainly no stranger in John Alspaugh’s life, because the 1860 census tells us that he was living in what is now the Washington Park neighborhood. Other members of his household were listed as George W. Sites, his 27 year old copy editor, and Bedford Copeland, his 18 year old printer.
The irony arrives as a neighbor. Alspaugh’s residence is listed as census number 1440. The next residence is 1441. That would be the home of one Constantine Banner. You may recall that earlier we published a speech, delivered by Mr. Banner at the mass meeting on December 29, 1860, in which he bitingly questions the sanity of South Carolina’s decision to secede from the union.
Just imagine the chat between those neighbors over the next few months.
John W. Alspaugh, lawyer, banker, politician and publisher of the Western Sentinel.