School Improvement in Maryland
Clarifications: Each clarification provides an explanation of an indicator/objective to help teachers better understand the skills and/or concepts.

Standard 1.0 Political Science

Topic B. Individual and Group Participation in the Political System

Indicator 1. Analyze the influence of individuals and groups on shaping public policy

Objective d. Explain how the media, interest groups, and public opinion affected elected officials and government policy prior to the Civil War

Clarification

The term public opinion refers to the attitudes and ideas held by significant numbers of citizens on matters of government and public policy. Collective attitudes and ideas regarding public affairs become “significant” when enough citizens hold these views for elected officials to pay attention to them, and when citizens clearly communicate them to the government. Public opinion is influenced by a wide variety of factors, including family, education, the mass media, peers, opinion leaders, and historical events. During the entire course of U.S. history political parties, interest groups, and even individual citizens have devoted extensive resources to planning and implementing strategies for monitoring, influencing and mobilizing public opinion.

Prerevolutionary newspapers and pamphlets played an important role in providing American colonists with public opinion-shaping ideas and information. During this time, weekly publications frequently criticized British colonial leaders and supported the Patriots’ cause. Perhaps the most prominent example of the media’s ability to influence the public during this time period was Thomas Paine’s 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies overall and was reprinted in 25 editions in its first year alone. Common Sense is widely credited by historians with presenting a case for independence rather than reconciliation with Great Britain that appealed to everyday Americans from different backgrounds.

During the early decades of the 19th Century, American newspapers were largely partisan publications that mixed news reporting with subjective analysis of the events of the day. Various newspapers provided multiple perspectives on the same news event, and stories about these events were often filtered through the lens of the writer’s or publisher’s political or social agenda. In the years preceding the Civil War, abolitionist activists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass advanced their case against slavery in newspapers that catered to both African American and largely white readerships. At the same time, proslavery newspapers featured racist and stereotypical depictions of slaves in cartoons, illustrations, and other forms of artwork.

As the 1800’s progressed, advances in printing and paper technology made newspapers and magazines accessible to larger audiences than ever before. First published in 1841, Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune reached a circulation of 250,000 in its first decade, and published influential pro-Republican commentary on important events such as the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford. Later, Harper’s Weekly magazine, featuring cartoons by Thomas Nast and illustrations by Winslow Homer, became a leading source of Civil War coverage for readers in the North.

An interest group is an organized body of individuals who share some goals and try to influence public policy to meet those goals. Although contemporary interest groups often support political candidates who share their goals and ideas, they are unlike political parties in that they do not formally nominate and run candidates for office. While political parties are election-centered entities, interest groups are issue centered.

In Democracy in America (1835), Alexis de Tocqueville noted American citizens’ tendency to join together with others with common interests in forming organizations. “In no country in the world,” de Tocqueville observed, “has the principle of association been more successfully used, or more unsparingly applied to a multitude of different objects, than in America.”

Throughout early U.S. history, groups representing an array of interests employed a variety of techniques to influence the political process. For example, during the tariff debates of the first half of the19th century, mostly Northern pro-manufacturing groups mobilized businessmen and workers alike to call for higher tariffs and to oppose political candidates who they felt threatened their economic interests. The early 1800’s also saw the emergence of trade unions, organizations representing skilled workers from specific industries; and later trade associations, such as Philadelphia’s Mechanics Union of Trade Associations, which brought workers from divergent industries together to advocate for (and later earn) higher wages, improved working conditions, free public education and the adoption of universal manhood suffrage.

In addition, groups representing the interests of social and public-interest reform movements also influenced public policy during this time period. As early as 1794, an assembly of state abolitionist groups voted to petition Congress to end the slave trade and to appeal to state legislatures to ban slavery altogether. Later, the American Antislavery Society, founded in 1833, sent lecturers around the country to educate the public about the brutality of slavery and demand an immediate end to the institution, as well as to advocate for equal rights for African Americans. Interest groups representing a range of other social interests, such as the American Temperance Society, the National Woman Suffrage Association, also were prominent during the 19th Century.

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