Matthew B. Gilmore
PUBLISHED: MARCH 21ST, 2018
By Matthew B. Gilmore*
In August of 1800, Samuel Harrison Smith wrote to James Madison confirming Smith’s intention of publishing a newspaper in the new capital city (and requesting Madison’s help):
“To James Madison
“From Samuel Harrison Smith, 27 August 1800
“Philada. Aug. 27. 1800
“Mr. Gallatin, some time since, had the goodness to apprise you of my intention to conduct at the seat of the General Govt. a Newspaper on a plan, calculated, in my opinion, to advance the best interests of the Country. Having since matured my ideas, I now do myself the pleasure of addressing you, enclosing the within sketch of my plan.
“It is my wish, and will be my effort to collect into a focus those talents, whose ascendancy, generally speaking, only requires concentration and a correct adaptation to existing circumstances. And if to the number of those who have offered the assistance of their talents, I be permitted to add yourself, you will confer not only an obligation on me, but one also on you[r] Country. The dignified and moderate principles by which I design to regulate my professional deportment induce me with the less hesitation to invite your co-operation. I am with the sincerest Esteem Yr. obt. sert.
“Sam. H. Smith” 
Thomas Jefferson, campaigning for the presidency, had encouraged Philadelphian Smith to move his newspaper, the Universal Gazette, to the capital, in anticipation of his electoral success. In an era of very rough-and-tumble journalism, Jefferson understandably was anxious for the creation of a news outlet to reliably support him. Smith’s wife, Margaret Bayard Smith, was also a great admirer of Jefferson, despite her Federalist family heritage. Writing glowingly, she provides an anecdote of Jefferson as President. About Baron Alexander von Humboldt visiting Jefferson in the Executive Mansion, she wrote:
“[von Humboldt] perceived one [newspaper], that was always filled with the most virulent abuse of Mr. Jefferson, calumnies the most offensive, personal as well as political. ‘Why are these libels allowed?’ asked the Baron taking up the paper, ‘why is not this libelous journal suppressed, or its Editor at least, fined and imprisoned?’ Mr. Jefferson smiled, saying, ‘Put that paper in your pocket Baron, and should you hear the reality of our liberty, the freedom of our press, questioned, show this paper, and tell where you found it.’” 
Smith’s account of early years of Washington is a compilation of her letters, edited by her grandson, are the go-to source for historians of early Washington but are disappointingly barren of references to her husband’s newspaper, the National Intelligencer, first published on October 31, 1800.
The 19th Century
The typical narrative of newspapering in Washington, DC has a familiar, simple arc — starting with the National Intelligencer, published for nearly 70 years beginning in 1800, superseded in 1852 by the Evening Starand lasting nearly twice a long, expiring in 1981; and then the Washington Post, begun in 1877 and grimly hanging on yet today. Washington has had, and has still, a vigorous ethnic and neighborhood press (a story for another column). But that slender narrative arc conceals the abundant (and over-abundant) heritage of the daily press which Washington has passed through the capital.