December 3, 2014


Abraham Lincoln: American prophet (James Piereson, December 2014, New Criterion)

Harold Holzer is fascinated by Lincoln's skills as a politician, and in particular by his masterful use of the press to advance his career and the Whig and anti-slavery causes with which he was associated. Holzer, a widely published Lincoln scholar and the Roger Hertog Fellow at the New-York Historical Society, may know more about Abraham Lincoln than any other living person, and it shows in his fascinating study of Lincoln's relations with the press barons of his time. In Lincoln and the Power of the Press, the lofty statesman and savior of the Union gives way to the shrewd prairie politician who was more adept than his better-known rivals in the use and manipulation of the press.1

Lincoln entered the journalistic fray early in his political career, joining with others in 1840 to finance a Whig newspaper to support William Henry Harrison's campaign for the presidency. Throughout the 1840s, he contributed unsigned articles to the local Springfield newspaper, the Sangamo Journal, ridiculing Democrats and supporting Whig candidates and, in particular, the political career of Henry Clay. In this way, as Holzer writes, Lincoln could have it both ways, acting in public as a high-minded lawyer and candidate for office and behind the scenes as a bare-knuckled partisan fighter. Later, when he challenged Senator Stephen A. Douglas for his U.S. Senate seat in 1858, Lincoln arranged for The Chicago Tribune to call for a series of "western-style" debates over the extension of slavery into the western territories. Shortly before, Lincoln had kicked off that campaign with his "House Divided" speech before a Republican assembly in Springfield, which he had typeset for immediate distribution in the offices of the Illinois State Journal. During the debates with Douglas, he made a further arrangement with Joseph Medill, the editor and publisher of the Tribune, to send a friendly reporter to cover the exchanges, certain that Douglas would make parallel arrangements with a Democratic newspaper. The press coverage of those debates helped to turn Lincoln into a nationally prominent political figure, and also into one of the main challengers to New York's William Seward for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860.

Lincoln and the Power of the Press is a particularly valuable study for the light it shines on the openly partisan character of the American press in the mid-nineteenth century. As Holzer writes, "The press and politics often functioned in tandem as a single, tightly organized entity in furious competition to win power. " He focuses on the competition between and among three titans of mid-century journalism: Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, Henry Jarvis Raymond, founding editor of The New York Times, and James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald. Greeley, one of the original crusading journalists, was an off-again, on-again supporter of Lincoln; Raymond, who learned the newspaper trade under Greeley, was the steadier and more reliable supporter; Bennett was the vitriol-slinging inventor of the tabloid press, a fervent Democrat, opponent of Lincoln, and all-around bigot. These three established the template for journalistic competition in the 1850s and 1860s as they built loyal followings around partisan causes (not unlike journalistic enterprises today). All had political ambitions: Greeley wished openly to be designated a U.S. Senator, and attended the Republican national convention in 1860 where he maneuvered behind the scenes to deny the presidential nomination to his fellow New Yorker Seward and to deliver it to Lincoln. [...]

Lincoln redoubled his efforts both to use and to court favor with the press during his presidential years. He leaked reports of battles and presidential orders to favored reporters and at times defended his policies toward slavery and the South in letters to editors. His famed statement--"my paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union"--was contained in a brief letter to Greeley in 1862 in response to Greeley's editorial "The Prayer of Twenty Millions," in which he (Greeley) called for the confiscation of Southern property as a step toward the emancipation of slaves (written at a moment when Lincoln had already drafted but had not yet published his Emancipation Proclamation). Lincoln more or less left it to his generals to monitor and often censor reports from the battlefield, or in some cases even to arrest reporters or exile them from the front. When Lincoln announced stringent rules banning commercial intercourse with the South, many officials and supporters read it to apply to the distribution of news and newspapers. The Postmaster General soon banned the distribution of several Democratic newspapers through the U.S. mail. Lincoln, as Holzer acknowledges, went along with censorship of the press, though he did not necessarily encourage it, in the belief that this, like other wartime measures, was one of those temporary expedients required to save the Union.

Posted by at December 3, 2014 5:15 PM

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