Abstract: A Webb of Lies: How Business Decisions Shaped Public Opinion in the 1830s

Stephen Campbell


The spending habits and business techniques employed by New York newspaper editor James Watson Webb have important implications for what historians call the "Bank War," as well as for broader discussions of the communications revolution and public sphere of the early nineteenth century. Most accounts of the Bank War tend to focus almost exclusively on elite politicians; doing so, consciously or not, robs editors of their individual agency. Webb's experience shows us that editors' business operations were intimately connected with, and often influenced by, party attitudes, personality traits, and lifestyle choices. While managing his newspaper, Webb accumulated suffocating debts in purchasing the latest technology and prioritizing prestige and image. Efforts to reduce these debts through stock speculations backfired, and Webb's abrasive personality alienated untold allies. Despite lengthy subscription lists, political connections, and generous loans from the national bank, Webb's business faltered. High rent and payment for workers' wages implied only modest profits at best. Lavish spending in his personal life, moreover, crippled Webb's ability to repay his loans. All of these factors helped undermine bank president Nicholas Biddle's ability to run an effective media campaign.