ON THE COVER AND IN THE NEWS

On the cover, courtesy of the New York Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is a wood engraving of Ebenezer D. Bassett is from Harper’s Weekly, May 1, 1969. The picture and article announce Bassett’s groundbreaking appointment as Minister to Hayti (the 19th century spelling of Haiti). Bassett was the first black man in U.S. History to be appointed to such a diplomatic post. Although the term ambassador did not come into use until the early 20th century, Bassett’s historic ministerial appointment made him the first black ambassador from the U.S. Harper's Weekly (A Journal of Civilization) was an American political magazine based in New York City. Published by Harper & Brothers from 1857 until 1916, it featured foreign and domestic news, fiction, essays on many subjects, and humor. During its most influential period it was the forum of the political cartoonist Thomas Nast. By 1860 the Weekly’s circulation had reached 200,000. Illustrations were an important part of the Weekly’s content. Since Harper’s was published during a time when the technology to reproduce photos in a newspaper was non-existent, illustrations were made from woodcuts that reproduced the images whether they were photographs or works of art. Harper’s developed a reputation for employing some of the most renowned illustrators, notably Winslow Homer and Livingston Hopkins. Among its recurring features were the political cartoons of Thomas Nast, who was recruited in 1862 and would remain with the Weekly for more than twenty years. Nast was a feared caricaturist, considered by some the father of American political cartooning. He was the originator of the use of animals to represent the political parties—the Democrats’ donkey and the Republicans’ elephant—as well as the familiar character of Santa Claus who became a popular personality in the American Christmas tradition because of Nast’s illustrations. For more information on Thomas Nast’s life and times and his political cartoons see: http://www.thomasnast.com/default.htm

Being featured in Harper’s was the equivalent of appearing in TIME magazine or Newsweek today. Harper's Weekly began publication in 1857 and contained notable coverage of the US Civil War and New York's Tammany Hall. The first incarnation ceased publication in 1916. Brief revivals were made in the 1920s and 1970s. In 2000, an electronic Harper's Weekly Review, a weekly news roundup with links to material on the Harper's website, began. That form of the weekly continues to this day as a digital newsletter that is emailed out each Tuesday morning, Students can receive the weekly newsletter by signing up at the site below.

One of the most fascinating ways to learn about the Civil War is through the original pages of Harper’s Weekly. Students can log on to http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/the-civil-war.htm. The Archive at Son of the South has page scans of most of the issues, 1861-1965, published during the Civil War years and is an invaluable contemporary archive. Students can also log onto the new electronic newsletter of Harpers for coverage of current events from 2000-present at http://harpers.org/subjects/WeeklyReview .

Classroom Activity:
Have students explore both of the above resources on the Internet, as well as several websites for contemporary newspapers and television news stations. In writing or through discussion have students compare and contrast the changes and differences between how news was received in the 19th century and how we receive it today. Have them discuss whether they believe that the news we receive is better, worse, or the same and how it impacts our lives in the 21st Century. What are the dangers and advantages to instant communications and broadcasts of today and the Internet? Being media savvy is an important part of citizenship. Effective citizenship entails making good choices and forming appropriate beliefs and opinions. Understanding the world in which we live and the events that shape it are as important today as in Ebenezer Bassett’s lifetime.