“The Adulteration of Intelligence” (1883) research Note

By Kristopher A. Nelson
in March 2018

400 words / 2 min.
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In 1883, journalist Charles T. Congdon wrote an article, “The Adulteration of Intelligence,” warning about power of the press if misused (and when combined with control of telegraph wires and wire services).


In 1883, journalist Charles T. Congdon wrote an article, “The Adulteration of Intelligence,” warning about power of the press if misused.

He noted, as example, the challenge presented by Jay Gould’s ownership interest in the monopoly (or near monopoly) of Western Union, especially when ownership of the telegraph system was unified with ownership of “wire services” (like the Associated Press). Gould and his associates were in a position to set rates, “to suppress intelligence” (meaning information), “and generally to use the cable, not for the public benefit, but for their own private emolument”:

The simultaneous control of the telegraph, of long lines of railway, and of leading newspapers, by a few men acting in a corporate capacity, or by one man employing the advantages of a corporation, puts the whole public, so far as intelligence is concerned, at the mercy of unlimited power.

Through control of telegraphs and newspapers, “[h]e adds to the advantages of an absolutely unlimited capital something like prescience, if not omniscience.”

But the disparity created men like Gould when they consolidate their power through vast wealth and then dominate politics and life inevitably “leaves the great majority under the weight of comparative poverty.” This, in turn, creates a dangerous risk to society as a whole as the “poor man” asks angry and inconvenient questions—and, then in the face of this inequality and apparant powerlessness, turns to “riot,” “strikes,” and the publication of their own “brood of irresponsible sheets.”

We are going on madly in many things, but in nothing are we madder than in fancying that the giant democracy, which thus far has been kept under tolerable restraint, can always be made to believe what capitalists and the editorial agents of capitalists wish them to believe. The adulteration of intelligence may work in a quite unlooked-for way; the misstatement of social prob lems may end in explosions painful to apprehend; and a people left in ignorance may prove quite beyond the management even of the wisdom which, for a considerable portion of the year, irradiates the city of Washington.