A Democratic Southern Perspective on the Berlin Conference

Most Americans did not have access to Congressional debates about whether the U.S should recognize the sovereignty of King Leopold II of Belgium's Congo Free State—which prompted the convening of the Berlin Conference—or discussions of U.S. engagement with the "African Question." [note 1] They turned to newspapers to glean any information about the major international issue for the West at the time—the present and future state of African affairs. U.S. media coverage of the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 was extensive, with articles published in the major coastal newspapers and dailies in the South, West, and Midwest, attesting to the scope of American interest in European designs on Africa.

The Evening Bulletin (sometimes Daily Evening Bulletin) was as daily newspaper published in Maysville, Kentucky. Founded in 1862 by James J. Ross and George S. Rosser as the Dollar Weekly Bulletin, the paper underwent several incarnations and name changes, briefly ceasing publication from October 1864 to January 1865 during the Civil War. Although Kentucky was a border state at the time of the paper's publication, politically the daily was Democratic, and would remain so until its final print. An alternative Republican paper, the Mayville Republican did not appear until 1867. [note 2]

Maysville has deep historical roots in the eighteenth century Ohio Valley river trade. Founded in 1787 as Limestone, it would eventually emerge as "the major port of entry" to the state via the Ohio River. Although the Second Continental Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance that same year forbidding slavery in the territory (future Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan), the town benefitted from its location on the river that literally divided "slave" and "free" territories. (Kentucky became a state in 1792.) Located in Central Kentucky, Maysville became "the seat of Mason County" in 1848 known for its shipping and ship building industries. [note 3] Slaveholders lived in antebellum Maysville, and after 1865 the free black community expanded. By 1883, Maysville had a sizable and notable African American population. Reverend Elisha W. Green pastored the First African Church serving as a community leader. (He also pastored a church in nearby Paris.) Green's stature rose when he filed a harassment suit in 1883 after white men, serving as chaperones to twenty-eight white college women, assaulted him for refusing to give up his railroad seat to one of the students. Despite these types of physical assaults reflective of a broader Jim Crow social and political culture, Maysville's African American community was politically active. The Bourbon Democratic political culture that dominated the state and the white racialist ideology that posited blacks to be biologically and socially inferior to whites failed to halt Black agency. [note 4]

The Evening Bulletin's interest in the Berlin Conference most likely stemmed from its editors' political allegiance to the Democratic Party. In their first issue (June 19, 1862), Ross and Rosser declared: "The Democratic party have assumed the right cause and must go ahead, its mission is to bring the country back to the practice of those virtues proclaimed by the founders of this glorious Republic." [note 5] Ross died in 1880 and Rosser began publishing and editing the paper with M.J. McCarthy. In 1881, the editors announced their decision to "issue a daily" because they "were unwilling that the Republican should have an opportunity to traduce our civilization and slander our people six times a week to our one opportunity of defending them." [note 6] Given the editors reaffirmation of the paper's political orientation one year after the Democratic National Convention of 1880, it is probable that both men embraced the politics of the "New South" which championed diversified agriculture, economic trade bolstered by revenue-raising tariffs, and limited white immigration. [note 7] In terms of foreign policy, the paper covered international affairs, printing articles on U.S.-British relations and work on the Panama Canal, to mention a few. Most Democrats during the late nineteenth century expressed concerns about of U.S. involvement in European entanglements (as did their Republican counterparts), often proclaiming adherence to the Monroe Doctrine, so it was not unusual to limited coverage of foreign affairs. [note 8] However, this changed in 1884.

In 1884, Chester A. Arthur was still President; however, Grover Cleveland took office in 1885, becoming the first Democratic President since before the Civil War. Cleveland's deliberations on the conference and later decision to recognize the sovereignty of the Congo Free State in September 1885 may have influenced the Bulletin's coverage of the conference and its aftermath as relevant to establishing "legitimate" trade with Africa. From September 1884 to August 1885, the Bulletin published full length articles and "brief news" items (often only one sentence in length), addressing matters related to the Berlin Conference. The articles selected here reveal that the newspaper's interest in the events leading to the conference and its immediate aftermath were primarily threefold: (1) the "diplomatic negotiation" of the "Congo Question" (the status of the Congo Free State and provisions made for the navigation of the Congo River), (2) the contributions of the American delegates attending the conference, and (3) the U.S. government's position on the General Act of the Berlin Conference. The Bulletin's coverage of the African Question revealed no clear position on the desired outcome of the conference. While the newspaper demonstrated some affinity for Henry M. Stanley, detailing his work in the Congo and noting his presence at the gathering, no editorials appeared on the actual political issue at hand. Were Europeans justified in their desires to annex territories, set up protectorates, and establish spheres of influence in Africa? In addition, was Leopold's Congo claim legitimate according to international law?

While the Bulletin remained neutral in its reporting on the Berlin Conference, it did however, place the conference in the context of what scholars term the "new imperialism" emerging in the late nineteenth century. In its October 14, 1884 article, " Diplomatic Negotiation ," the paper followed its brief coverage of the upcoming conference with a discussion of European (French, German, and English) expansion in the Pacific Islands and commerce with Australia, as well as the pending opening of the Panama Canal. On the latter issue, readers most likely knew of the outbreaks of yellow fever and dysentery among the canal workers and France's failure to complete the project under the De Lesseps Compagnie. Notably, there is no mention of U.S. expansionism or movement toward empire.

As some scholars have argued, new forms of nationalism often tied to acquisition of overseas territories emerged during the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries. [note 9] The "scramble for Africa" was a process that influenced the forging of new national identities where citizens proudly proclaimed their allegiance to "the empire" and basked in the prestige that accompanied empire-building. The United States had begun this process in earnest in expanding westward and by 1898, it would claim its own colonies and annexed territories. The Bulletin championed the Spanish-American War and from 1898 to 1904 focused most its international coverage on the treaty with Spain, the war with the Philippines and its aftermath, and Cuban-American relations. However, in 1904, the newspaper turned its attention again to Africa, sporadically reporting on controversial events unfolding in the Congo Free State.



1. See Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the U.S. 1906 , 1907 , and 1908 . [back]
3. F. Kevin Simon, ed., The WPA Guide to Kentucky (Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1939), 363. [back]
4. Charles L. Davis, "Green v. Gould (1884) and the Construction of Postbellum Race Relations in a Central Kentucky Community," The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, 105, No. 3 (Summer 2007): 383-384, 390-391, 396; "About Evening bulletin. (Maysville [Ky.]) 1882-1883," Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers . [back]
5. Editorial, "A Word with Our Friends," The Dollar Weekly Bulletin, June 19, 1862. [back]
6. Editorial, Daily Evening Bulletin, November 26, 1881. [back]
7. See C. Vann Woodward's classic study, Origins of the New South, 1877-1913: A History of the South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1951). [back]
8. Jay Sexton, The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2012), 8-13. [back]
9. See Eric Hobsbawn, The Age of Empire: 1875-1914 (New York: Vintage, 1989); C.A. Bayly, "Nation, Empire, and Ethnicity, c. 1860-1900" in The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914 (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2003), 199-244; and Emily S. Rosenberg, "Introduction" and "Currents of Internationalism" in Transnational Currents in a Shrinking World: 1870-1945 (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), 1-42. [back]