Welcome to Following “The North Star”

Masthead of The North Star
“Our Paper and Its Prospects” in The North Star, December 03, 1847.

Following “The North Star” is a digital history project focusing on the abolitionist newspaper The North Star. The North Star was one of the most well know abolitionist papers of its era. Edited by Frederick Douglass, and briefly co-edited by M.R. Delany, it served as a major mouthpiece for the abolitionist movement. To learn more about the paper and the editors, click here. The paper called for an end to the oppression of Black Americans in the United States, and used the language of the Declaration of Independence and other sources to argue that equality was an important but unfulfilled part of the American political tradition that began with the Revolution. When the paper published its first edition in December of 1847, the editors wrote “The object of The North Star shall be to attack Slavery in all its forms and aspects; advocate Universal Emancipation; exalt the standard of Public Morality; promote the moral and intellectual improvement of Colored People; and hasten the day of FREEDOM to the Three Millions of our Enslaved Fellow Countrymen.”

This project attempts to look at how Douglass and Delany engaged in this task, including what rhetorical tools and arguments they employed. This resulted in some important conclusions about how slavery was viewed by abolitionists in the 1840s, but also highlighted the broader Atlantic world that abolitionists were active in. Often, public history of abolition does not touch on this broader world in great detail. People often are not shown these intellectual connections, nor how they existed in popular media like newspapers. While many are clearly aware of enslavement as part of American political life in this period, there are few opportunities to take deeper dives into primary sources that highlight this status-quo. On top of that, the introduction to the Antebellum period that many people receive often emphasizes specific bills or events without emphasizing how these events impacted the communities that were highly invested in challenging slavery and white supremacist structures in the United States. This project endeavors to be a deeper introduction into antebellum abolitionism through the work of one of its most recognizable champions.

The Approach of Following “The North Star”

This project combines two different ways of approaching texts to build a greater understanding of their contents, and focus greater public attention on Douglass’ work as a newspaper editor. The first approach is topic modeling undertaken using a computer program called MALLET. The second is close reading of the first article of each edition in the Library of Congress collection (137 editions in total). These two approaches allow for a deeper understanding of the paper as a text when combined together by acting as two different “lenses”. In the case of the topic analysis, it is a wide lens that allows a broad overview of large amounts of information and words. Close reading is a much narrower lens, one that picks up significant details that sometimes might be left out when looking so broadly. Combined, they can confront some of the blind-spots of the other. Below is a brief description of the technical details of each method.

Topic modeling is a way that computers can determine how different words are used over the course of a text, and see which words occur in similar places. This method is useful for very large texts like The North Star. Each issue of the newspaper, once edited down, contained approximately 20,000 words. Given that there were 136 issues of the paper, this was more than any one person could hope to read and synthesize. Topic modeling through computer programs can do that work in cases where the size of the text prohibits reading it like a book. The end result of this program is a list of key words associated with topics and a breakdown by document of what percentage of each topic the program has identified in the document. These lists of words may represent topics, but the words themselves do not always offer insight into how a topic was viewed. The lists of key words can offer important context when they include judgements that suggest either support or disdain for particular views or ideas, but these are not always part of a topic. In relation to this, these lists of words are heavily reliant upon human interpretation. Because this analysis requires the interpretation of results from a computer, there is room for competing interpretations. Lists of keywords will be provided alongside all charts/graphs of topic analysis outcomes to help inform how decisions regarding labels were made and to encourage new interpretations. Labeling these lists of keywords for each topic was done by looking at each topic over time, and closely examining the issues of the paper that coincided with peaks in that topic. Not each result of the topic model is shown on this website, 40 topics were generated by this project and some were not included. These included 4 that were made up of errors or context words, 3 unknown entries that could not be identified or labeled with any reasonable certainty, and 3 more that dealt with political parties or were otherwise mixed in their results.

Close reading is the act of physically reading a text, and in this case, determining what arguments it is making and what topics it is focusing on. This project involved the close reading of the first article in each edition of the paper available from the Library of Congress (137 editions). Each article was logged into a database alongside specific topics it touched on and arguments that it made. Unlike topic analysis, this allows for a greater understanding of how specific events were viewed. The first article for each edition of the paper was chosen because they were long enough to be worthwhile for this form of analysis, and represented a closed group. Newspapers in the 1840s did not prioritize information in the same way that we do today, so there was less focus on the front page. At the same time however, the front page still offered important articles and excerpts from books or speeches that clearly relate to the results from the topic analysis. To learn more about the first articles as a group, please check out the First Articles Dashboard.

For more information, please visit the Methods, Data, and Tools page.

Key Themes

In launching the paper, Douglass and Delany sought to challenge many of the white supremacist structures that were deeply ingrained in the social and political culture of the United States. While the overall abolitionist movement shared these overarching beliefs, activists and organizers had different ways they fought for change. The editors of The North Star were highly critical of the United States, and how it failed to live up to the values its founders had championed. They based these criticisms in the words of the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, as well as highlighting enslavement as as morally wrong. Other abolitionist newspapers, like The Liberator published by William Lloyd Garrison, took a different approach and called for a new government in general under the banner “No Union with Slaveholders!”. While abolitionists disagreed about specific beliefs, their overall goal in destroying slavery was the focus. Abolitionists collaborated, both in the United States and with English abolitionists who had already succeeded in abolishing slavery in the British Empire. The North Star drew upon these collaborations, the trans-Atlantic exchange of ideas, and global events to highlight the unfulfilled promises of the United States. To learn more about these themes, see examples of articles, and learn more about the topics the paper covered, click below!