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In 1898, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture (1893-97) J. Sterling Morton returned to his journalism background to establish a newspaper called the Conservative in Nebraska City, Otoe County. During its four years of publication, from July 14, 1898 to May 29, 1902, the Conservative addressed a broad range of national and local issues and enjoyed a circulation of more than 14,000. Issued every Thursday, the Conservative was printed in a magazine-style, three-column format and ranged from 10 to 20 pages per issue. Morton published the newspaper himself through his Morton Printing Co. and edited it personally until April 24, 1902, when poor health forced him to turn over editorial duties to his son, Paul Morton. The paper continued afterward under the title of the Nebraska City Weekly.
Although the Conservative had no official political affiliation, it mirrored Morton’s views as a long-time adherent of the conservative monetary and economic policies that prevailed within the Democratic Party until William Jennings Bryan gained control in 1896 on the platform of free coinage of silver and government intervention in the nation’s economy. In the first issue, Morton announced that the paper would be published “in the interest of conservation of all that is deemed desirable in the social, industrial and political life of the United States.” In practice, this editorial stance translated into a staunch and unrelenting denunciation of bimetallism and the policies of Bryan and the silver wing of the Democratic Party. Morton used the paper to campaign for the creation of a new “Conservative” party to be formed by “a realignment of the best elements of existing political organizations,” but nothing came of his crusade. The Conservative also articulated Morton’s long-held views that individual and corporate enterprise should be free of government interference or regulation. His paper vigorously defended labor and constantly criticized extravagant government spending. All Americans, in the Conservative’s view, were constituents in a general laboring class, and struggles between money and muscle were politically instigated, not the result of class divisions.
In addition to focusing on economic and political issues, the Conservative reflected Morton’s life-long interest in agriculture and horticultural development in Nebraska and the Great Plains. Morton’s proposal to set aside a day to plant trees, called Arbor Day, was first implemented in Nebraska in April 1872, and the idea subsequently spread across the United States and to other countries as well.