LINCOLN AND THE POWER OF THE PRESS by Harold Holzer

Abraham Lincoln has probably been the subject of more monographs than any other figure in American history.  In all the books written about our sixteenth president, be it biographies or monographs dealing with different aspects of the Lincoln presidency, the issue of his relationship with the press has not been mined thoroughly.  This gap in Lincoln historiography has been admirably filled by Harold Holzer’s new book, LINCOLN AND THE POWER OF THE PRESS.  Holzer, a leading authority on Lincoln and the Civil War serves as Chairman of the Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation and has authored, co-authored or edited 42 books.  In his latest effort he has done an excellent job in researching and writing about Lincoln’s relationship to the press, how it affected his political career, and how he approached the dissemination of information during the Civil War.  Holzer argues that during the mid nineteenth century through the end of the Civil War, newspapers worked hand in glove with politicians.  A number of newspaper editors held political office at the same time they wrote for, or owned newspapers.  It was very difficult to separate political parties from the opinions of certain newspapers.  In a sense one’s political affiliation was made public by the newspaper they wrote for.  In Lincoln’s case, he became the owner of a local paper in a small town in Illinois whose express purpose was to be a mouthpiece for the then future president, and a means of reaching a particular ethnic group in order to further Republican Party chances in the expanding west.

According to the author it was difficult, at times, to separate Lincoln’s role as a journalist and his role as a politician.  Lincoln’s views on press freedoms and censorship would undergo great changes once he entered the White House, and Holzer does a commendable job following Lincoln’s evolution on constitutional issues relating to freedom of the press and other important subjects.  Holzer’s book is more than a discussion of Lincoln and the press.  What the author has prepared is a wonderful study that devotes a great deal of attention to the major newspapers of the time period and the individuals who made them famous.  The author does not neglect smaller papers and persons of interest who impacted the time period.  The book concentrates on three journalists and their newspapers; Horace Greeley and the New York Journal, Henry Raymond and the New York Times, and James Gordon Bennett and the New York Herald.  In presenting his material, Holzer integrates the lives and events of the period and places them in the context of Lincoln’s views, the prevailing political situation, and the personal relationships that most impacted American history.  Aside from biographies of these journalists and their relationship with Lincoln, Holzer presents a comparative biography of Lincoln and his most important political foe, Stephen A. Douglas.  In this discussion we see the evolution of Lincoln’s constitutional arguments as they relate to slavery, and how the foil of “the little giant,” allowed Lincoln’s analysis of politics and society to crystallize.

(Horace Greeley, founder and editor of the New York Journal)

According to Holzer, newspapers were the most powerful weapons political campaigns employed in the 1850s.  “The mutual interdependence that grew up between the press and politics made for a toxic brew.  No politician was above it, no editor beyond it, and no reader immune to it.” (xiv)  Springfield, Illinois was a perfect example of this toxicity, especially with Senator Stephen A. Douglas and former congressman, Abraham Lincoln in residence in 1859.  If one examines Lincoln’s background one would see a politician constantly courting editors in nearby cities and villages.  In May, 1859 he even purchased a German newspaper as a means of courting an ethnic group whose population was rapidly expanding westward, and would greatly influence the 1860 presidential election.  Holzer accurately characterizes the relationship between Lincoln, other politicians, and journalists as a “sometimes incestuous relationship” as party machines and individual pols sought patronage and other perks from those officeholders with power.  These perks would consist of high paying appointive jobs in the federal bureaucracy, post masterships which allowed further sources of patronage, government printing contracts, a major source of wealth and revenue for newspapers, ambassadorships, etc.  Holzer puts it nicely in his introduction by stating that the book “focuses not just on how newspapers reported on and influenced [Lincoln’s] ascent, but how his own struggle for power, and most of his political contemporaries, unfolded within a concurrent competition for preeminence among newspapermen to influence politics and politicians.” (xvi)

(Henry Jarvis Raymond, founder, editor of  New York Times, Congressman from New York)

Along the way the reader meets a number of remarkable historical figures.  Horace Greeley, the editor, author, and politician is foremost among them.  Holzer parallels the lives of Greeley and Lincoln who experience many similarities in their lives, but never were able to develop trust in each other, thus negating a close relationship.  Greeley’s newspaper was against slavery and its expansion.  Greeley became a thorn in the side of the south and a confederacy that saw him as an abolitionist.  Greely’s paper became one of the most influential in New York and with weekly editions it had influence nationwide.  Greeley had his own political ambitions, and he did not always support Lincoln’s candidacies.  At times the somewhat irritating Greeley caused political problems for Lincoln that he always seemed to manipulate to his advantage.  By 1864, Greeley would oppose Lincoln’s reelection and try to bring about peace with the south.  In James Gordon Bennett we come across one of the most colorful and egoistic characters in 19th century American history.  Bennett, whose loyalty was not to a political party or ideology, but to making money and expanding his own influence.  Throughout the period Bennett’s paper would flip flop on issues as well as support for certain politicians and parties as long as it met Bennett’s personal goals.  He despised Greeley and their “newspaper wars” are fascinating.  At first Bennett supported secession, but morphed into a supporter of the union and abolition after making certain “unofficial” arrangements with Lincoln.  The most respected journalist of the period was Henry Raymond, who despite disagreements over policy with the Lincoln administration remained loyal to the Republican Party, a party he would assume the chairmanship of before the election of 1864.  Raymond is the perfect example of the politician-journalist as he also served in Congress following the Civil War, representing a district from New York City while editing his newspaper.

(James Gordon Bennett, founder and editor of the New York Herald)

The book is more than a history of Greeley, Bennett, and Raymond, but more of a general narrative of journalism before the Civil War dating back to George Washington’s difficulties with the press, and it becomes extremely detailed once the reader approaches the Civil War.  As newspapers were confronted by the major crisis of the period; Bloody Kansas, John Brown’s Raid, the firing on Fort Sumter, Holzer explores each and how individual newspaper and their political affiliates reacted and tried to make the most out of news coverage.  The same approach is implemented in discussing the major battles, political controversies, and personalities that dominate the Civil War.  We meet a president who learns how to manipulate the press and reach the public by writing his own editorials, and issuing public letters to avoid answering to a given editor.  Whether Lincoln is confronted with military failures, difficult personalities like Greeley, Salmon P. Chase, John C. Fremont, or George McClellan; the president is able to control situations and defuse them, or increase tension in order to implement his vision.

A number of issues and incidents stand out, especially censorship, and the 1863 New York draft riots.  After the Union failure at Bull Run in June, 1861 the Lincoln administration was vilified by the Democratic Party press.  In efforts to embarrass Lincoln articles were published that many in the military felt were almost treasonous.  Once Edwin Stanton became Secretary of War there was a crackdown on certain newspapers and their editors and it raised the question of news suppression being a vehicle for censorship.  It is apparent that it was but Lincoln and his allies argued that it was needed in order to safely and effectively prosecute the war.  A number of papers met with government action and Holzer delineates them clearly in detail.  After what Holzer terms, “the Panic of 1861,” ran its course, the Lincoln administration backed off in most cases and freedom of the press was fairly secure for two years.  Censorship reemerges as an issue as the election of 1864 approached and Lincoln was viciously vilified by the Democratic Party press.  When the message of what would be tolerated was provided, once again the Lincoln administration limited action against offending papers.  On the whole Holzer concludes that Lincoln should be praised for the amount of free press allowed during the war as the Confederacy was using the northern papers as a vehicle in ascertaining what strategies to pursue.  In the case of the 1863 New York draft riots, Bennett’s New York Herald stoked racial hatred by publishing rumors to heighten tension.  It directed its editorials at the Irish minority in New York that feared that freed slaves would take their jobs.  The ensuing bloodshed can, in part, easily be placed at the door of the Herald’s editorial offices.

Though the book concentrates on the northern press, Holzer does find time to discuss the state of confederate journalism.  Southern newspapers were at a disadvantage throughout the Civil War, and their newspaper industry was ostensibly destroyed by 1863.  The south suffered from a lack of paper since most paper mills were up north.  Further, with universal white conscription there were few educated males to write for, and administer the news.  In addition, once union forces occupied a given area, pro-confederate editors were seized and their papers shut down and presses confiscated.  Lastly, Union forces controlled most telegraph lines and cut those that southern cities and towns depended upon.

Without a doubt, Lincoln loved newspapers, greatly enjoyed the give and take with reporters, and realized the strategic political importance that the press played in everyday life.  For the young Lincoln they were a source of education, for the mature Lincoln they were a source of political intelligence and a means of influencing public opinion.  The importance of the press during the period under study cannot be under rated as it impacted most major decisions before, during, and after the war.  Taken as a whole, LINCOLN AND THE POWER OF THE PRESS will become the standard work on its subject for historians for years to come.  Its analysis is incisive, and Holzer’s command of the material, primary and secondary, is incomparable.  For those who enjoyed Doris Kearns Goodwin’s TEAM OF RIVALS, Holzer’s new book makes a wonderful compliment as it opens new avenues of thought and discovery.  To Holzer’s credit the book is not just designed for historians of the period, but it should also satisfy the general reader who might be interested in the topic.

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