John Norvell had written to Thomas Jefferson in 1807 asking his opinion of a career in the press, which Jefferson felt was a dishonorable profession filled liars and with those he viewed, at times, as enemies. Norvell, unlike Jefferson, felt that printing and publishing a newspaper was a useful means of entering and advancing in the world. Newspaper editors’ roles in politics afforded them opportunities to be full participants in the public affairs of the community. Additionally, they were considered to be professional politicians, not neutral in their opinions, but voices of their party.
Since that letter in 1807, over the next twelve years, the young John Norvell worked for a variety of newspapers in the outlands of Kentucky and Maryland. But in 1819, it seemed that he had arrived in the big leagues when he joined the Franklin Gazette in Philadelphia. One can almost imagine his excitement in arriving in the city of American Independence. It probably was in many ways similar to the feelings that refugees from Europe must have experience when viewing the Statue of Liberty. Philadelphia – PHILADELPHIA , no other city in America meant so much to the fledgling United States, and here was young John Norvell, barely 30, in the midst of it all.
It is hard for us today, who live in a highly urbanized America, to understand what it must have been like to arrive in the city of Philadelphia in 1819. At the time there were five major cities in America: Boston, New York, Savannah, Charleston, and Philadelpia. If they were the jewels in the American scene, Philadelphia was the crown jewel. It was an important port city, it had already secured itself a place in history as the birthplace of American independence, it had briefly been the nation’s capital before Washington, DC., and it was at this time a leading political center of the nation. This was the hallowed world of John Adams, Washington, and Benjamin Franklin, the giants of American independence, but it was also, for a small town boy like Norvell, a whirl of people, places, and opportunities.
As the name Franklin Gazette might suggest, and the setting could not help to convey, this was a paper with many ties to Benjamin Franklin. Indeed, his grandson Mr. Richard Bache, the son of Benjamin Franklin Bache published the newspaper and its offices were near the Bank of the United States. Though Bache was a grandson of Benjamin Franklin, his drinking got the better of his editing, and local party leaders needed someone more reliable to run this important journal. They most probably had read Norvell’s work with the Baltimore Patriot and he also came, for his work in Kentucky, with Henry Clay’s recommendation of him as a good party man. Norvell seemed to be the political professional, the expert in campaigning they needed and he was available. Bache himself noted Norvell’s many years experience in the business. Norvell’s immediate work at the Gazette showed he could take on the party’s political opponents as if he had been doing it for years. Less than a year after moving to the city, Norvell had assumed an important, prominent role in democratic party gatherings
Below, the Franklin Gazette from January 18, 1823, note John Norvell’s name on left of masthead as publisher.
Moving to Philadelphia was an important step in Norvell’s fledgling career and along the way he would go on to co-found the Philadelphia Inquirer, and experience a second tragedy that would shape and change his life.
For a detailed look at John Norvell’s early political experience and life see The “Indiscreet Zeal”of John Norvell-.Newspaper Publishing and Politics in the Early American Republic, Jeffrey L. Pasley, Florida State University, a paper presented at the Organization of American Historians Annual Meeting, April 14,1994, Atlanta, Georgia.