In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the written word gripped attention and wedged itself into the fault lines of powerful economic and political debate among Americans (in new and more concentrated ways from the days of marketing the American Revolution to colonists). Henry (Marse) Watterson, the foremost opinion-shaper of the post-Civil War South, stepping into the breach between personal and commercial journalist, used his understanding of international influence on regional events to shape Southern discourse and politics, manipulating his readership to favor free trade and what has now become known as globalization. Bell Telephone Company and its subsequent iterations acted as opinion shapers through aggressive advertisements and timely re-imagining of the Bell brand during a period when the company was desperate to maintain its dominance in the market. The company pivoted from serving an audience of elite captains of industry to an inclusive populist vision.
Historian Daniel S. Margolies, identifies Henry Watterson (editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal from the 1860s through WWI and proponent of free trade, globalization, and sectional reconciliation) as one of the most significant journalistic voices in American history. A strident but effective self-marketer, Watterson used the written word to sway public opinion towards his particular “post-Civil War development.” While fomenting “economic modernization and industrialization, a strong union with sectional equality, and social tranquility free of radicalism from both the left and the right, [Watterson and his aligned New South editors] created a vital connection between the reading public and the policy elites, giving a national voice to southern concerns.” Watterson demonstrates the significance of a newspaper editor’s role in the interpretation of regional versus international significance of events. The popularity of Watterson’s writing and persona illustrates how a familiar face and reputable name can create a brand, complete with accompanying fans.
Watterson tried to “reshape southern politics and economy within a strong national union” and through an irrepressible written voice. He adopted the title of “Marse” (Master) and used it in his own autobiography Marse Henry as a way to exploit the southern, “bon vivant” archetype through which the national press continually depicted him: “playing cards, smoking tobacco, playing the banjo, brandishing pistols…cutting shady backroom political deals.” This caricature catapulted Watterson to celebrity status and “allowed him a certain freedom…in the political arena” from which others could not have profited. In 1908, one journalist wrote of Watterson that for thirty years he had been “the most widely quoted newspaper writer of the country.”
Henry Watterson knew how to play to his audience, so he would write in a style which became known as “southern journalism,” putting a heavy emphasis on southern nationalism and encouraging southern ideals. “He framed the practical benefits of his ideas on all political and economic matters for a descending list of preferred constituencies: Kentuckians, southerners, Democrats, and Americans.” However, whereas southern editors built themselves two sets of vocabulary to use in their publications—one for southerners and one for northerners—Watterson had one vocabulary that united southern and national interests with international affairs. “He distilled his three major goals into an evocative holy trinity of southern freedom and national glory: ‘Home Rule, Free Trade, and Sound Money.’” His global perspective on regional affairs “captured the seamless connections he made between domestic and foreign affairs.”
Watterson’s lack of a split vocabulary indicates that he understood the importance of segmentation, where the one attempting to influence public opinion identifies a target market, determines the likelihood that potential customers outside that market would buy his product, and then proportionally focuses his efforts directly on the primary target. Watterson was not necessarily aiming to develop a readership in the North, therefore he only wrote with the intention of moving the southern voter base. It just so happens that Watterson’s polemical writing was appreciated by both North and South. “There hasn’t been a day in forty years when ‘Marse Henry’ could not wire a signed editorial to any representative newspaper in the country and have it appear on the front page…The New York Herald even ran a column called Wattersonia, which was simply a collection of particularly trenchant quotes from him on a variety of subjects.” The fact that Watterson segmented his audience does not mean that he did not have to sell and persuade that audience, which, in the nineteenth century, was often not as enthusiastic about free trade as he was.
One of the major concerns of the day for the South was the push for free silver. Free-silver proponents worked to sway public opinion towards unlimited coinage of silver to create a more malleable and forgiving monetary supply that proponents believed would lead to greater economic egalitarianism and, in the process, help the nation’s farmers. Farmers (like those in the Cotton Belts of the South) proposed that money be inflated to help them access easier credit and elevate crop price. Watterson, however, decided to vehemently express a view unique to the South, by railing against free silver in order to help elect William McKinley as president—an odd choice for a free trade advocate, but better, thought Watterson, than free silver proponent, William Jennings Bryan whom Watterson was sure would topple the national economy. “The top-loftical, high-falutin, free-silverites…We consider the whole riff-raff of them a lot of crazy children astride a spavined, broken-winded, wooden jackass.”
Watterson was evidently confident in his ability to manipulate southern opinion away from McKinley’s protectionism (tariffs) and back towards free trade. As a free trader, Watterson believed that the future of the South was bound up in the global interaction of free trade. He wrote with a unique view point for the late nineteenth century—linking the events of Europe or Asia with the economic prosperity and future security of the South. In that spirit, Watterson used his columns to exploit any opening in President McKinley’s slow experimentation towards creating a “system of world market expansion” during 1898-1901. Although the McKinley administration tested ideas like: “colonies in a scattered island empire, closed trading systems, or managed free trade,” Watterson saw the answers to both the South’s and the Nation’s prosperity in “the uniform application of the free trade and home rule ideas.” Watterson’s energetic prose sought to persuade the southern voters that “Free Trade would enlarge our markets by a system of international exchange and barter…which Protection has driven off, and give us an equal showing in all the neutral markets.”
Although Watterson relied on pompous language and grandstanding like that which he utilized to sway public opinion against free silver, he always returned to the concerns of southern nationalism—framing his argument from the southern, regional perspective. This unique style earned Watterson the label of “the last of the personal journalists” at a time when commercial journalism was on the rise. Watterson’s focus on the issues pertinent to his regional group encouraged the development of what one might call an “echo-chamber.” The members of such a group re-circulate their leader’s message until it becomes their message.
Though Watterson knew his readership was interested in local affairs, he maintained a solid focus on international affairs and their effects on local events, developing for himself a unique place in the newspaper’s readership. So, when a trade agreement or treaty was signed internationally, for example, Watterson would ask and respond to how it affects the South. Understanding that rhetoric is so much more persuasive when one’s target audience actually wants to be persuaded by the speaker’s platform was a powerful engine for Watterson. He made people believe that he was their mouthpiece. From his position of authority and with his dedicated reader base, Watterson created a new lexicon of southern prosperity.