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Book review: “Lincoln and the Power of the Press: the War for Public Opinion”

For the North, the goal of the Civil War was to reunite the nation. That’s how Abraham Lincoln defined it and why the northern states rallied behind the effort.

Yet, the question of abolishing slavery was always somewhere in the discussion. Many northerners saw it as another, even more important goal of the conflict. Others, though, because of racism or fear of labor competition from free blacks, wanted nothing to do with abolition.

Although personally long opposed to slavery, Lincoln knew as a politician that he could not impose his beliefs on his constituents. Eventually, he was able to sell abolition to the North as a weapon to cripple the war-making ability of the Confederacy. The result was the Emancipation Proclamation.

To get to this point, though, Lincoln had to do what American leaders have always had to do, i.e., shape and shift public opinion step by subtle step. A key moment in that sales job came in August, 1862, when, in a letter to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, the President wrote:

“If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

In Lincoln and the Power of the Press, Harold Holzer describes this letter as “a master stroke” and an example of Lincoln’s “genius for synchronized press manipulation.” Yet, he argues, historians have failed to see the letter for the brilliant political act it was.


holzer -- lincoln and press


Combination waltz and bar fight

It wasn’t simply a letter. It was a public letter — an element of public opinion strategy that Lincoln had developed to cope with newspapers and their editors. At times throughout his political career, Lincoln waltzed with the newsgatherers. At others, it was a bar fight, and these public letters were the equivalent to an elbow to the face.

The great value of Holzer’s meaty book is that it puts Lincoln’s era and career in the context of that combination waltz and bar fight. The ferocious political and personal battles between the press magnates will come as a revelation to most Civil War students, and so will Lincoln’s often (but not always) inspired handling of reporters and their editors.

To an extent unknown now, nearly every U.S. newspaper of that age was a party organ, puffing up party leaders and candidates and ignoring, besmirching or slandering those of the opposite side. (Today’s Fox News and MSNBC pale in comparison.) This is the world in which Lincoln grew up as a politician, and it’s the subject of the first half of Lincoln and the Power of the Press.

As President, Lincoln found that Democratic newspapers, such as James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald, still beat him up every chance they got — but so did his Republican allies, particularly Greeley’s Tribune and, to a lesser extent, Henry J. Raymond’s New York Times.

As the book’s second half details, Lincoln spent his presidency trying to run the country, wage the war and develop policies amid the cacophony of the nation’s newspapers. He had to find ways to woo, threaten, answer, outmaneuver, ignore and take his lumps from Bennett, Greeley, Raymond and their colleagues.


Presidential communication

That’s why his development of the public letter was so significant. Holzer, the author of 46 previous books on Lincoln and his era, writes:

“In doing so, he revolutionized the art of presidential communications. Greeley, Raymond, and Bennett may have continued commenting on Lincoln’s statements, but when the president spoke out in print, their own editorials often seemed more like sidebars. Lincoln had come to realize that he could control ‘public sentiment’ best by bypassing the editors and going directly to their readers.”

These public letters were also a way for Lincoln “to exact a little publicly inflicted vengeance.”

His letter to Greeley, for instance, was in response to a New York Tribune editorial which was “the most savage assault [Greeley] had ever launched against the president.” The editorial accused the President of moving too slowly on emancipation and of “fighting wolves with the devices of sheep.”

Lincoln’s eloquent and straightforward statement overshadowed Greeley’s histrionic editorial and widened the public debate. What’s more, Lincoln “twisted the knife by feeding the text first to the Washington National Intelligencer.” The letter appeared in newspapers across the nation before Greeley was able to put it into the Tribune.


The political equation

Because mid-19th century editors and reporters were part of the political equation, they not only expected to influence the policies of allies who won election, but also expected patronage plums for themselves and their friends.

Lincoln, for instance, used the office of the Chicago Tribune as his unofficial headquarters in the city for his presidential run. Later, Tribune editor Joseph Medill, one of the founders of the Republican Party, was upset that the newly elected Lincoln was giving Cabinet positions to “competitors and enemies” to the neglect of friends. He wrote to his partners, “Thank heaven we own and control the Tribune. We made Abe and by G— we can unmake him.” (275)

It didn’t work out that way. In fact, when Medill led a delegation of Chicagoans to the White House to protest military conscription, Lincoln let the editor have it:

“Medill, you are acting like a coward. You and your Tribune have had more influence than any paper in the Northwest in making this war. You can influence great masses, and yet you cry to be spared at the moment when the cause is suffering. Go home and send us those men.”

Some editors solved the problem by seeking public office themselves — a scandalous thought in today’s journalism but fairly common in Lincoln’s age.

Raymond, for example, was a New York State Assembly member and, for one year, Speaker. He served a term in Congress and a term as the New York Lieutenant Governor. He also was the second chairman of the national Republican Party. All while editing the New York Times.

Greeley, as New York Tribune editor, was appointed to finish a term in the U.S. House of Representatives alongside Lincoln. Later, he was unsuccessful in efforts to win appointment to the U.S. Senate, nomination as the Republican candidate for Congress and New York Governor, and election as the party’s candidate for New York Comptroller. He even ran for President in 1872.


Giants of politics and journalism

Raymond, Greeley and Bennett were giants in American politics and journalism for decades, and “Lincoln and the Power of the Press” is as much about them and their antipathy toward each other as it is about Lincoln.

They were three over-size personalities who made their newspapers an extension of their egos. And Holzer, quoting rival editor John Russell Young, notes that the disputes the three had with Lincoln’s policies were rooted in their battles with each other.

“Each of New York’s three reigning press lords, Young believed, hated each other far more than they ever cared about Lincoln: Bennett, still the ‘sinister…lawless, eccentric influence…breathing wrath upon all who would not bow down and worship’; Greeley, the ‘resolute, brilliant, capable, irresponsible, intolerant’ idealist convinced that ‘disputation was the highest duty of man’; and Raymond, who relished ‘the joy of a fight,’ yet possessed ‘no skill in discussing…moral consequences.’ ”

And, then, Lincoln was assassinated, and the three editors, with all those across the North, mourned together, writing nearly identical front-page headlines. Finally, Holzer writes, the three “found something about which they could all agree.”



On April 16, 1865, actor Harry Hawk wrote to his father in Chicago: “On that night the play was going off so well. Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln enjoyed it so much. She was laughing at my speech when the shot was fired.”

Hawk was standing alone on stage during a performance of “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre when John Wilkes Booth killed Lincoln. His letter is one of 86 documents, diary entries, poems, letters and trial testimony included in President Lincoln Assassinated!!: The Firsthand Story of the Murder, Manhunt, Trial, and Mourning (The Library of America), compiled by Harold Holzer — a record of raw immediacy of the nation’s shock and mourning at the tragedy.

Yet, as Martha Hodes shows in her elegant and nuanced study Mourning Lincoln (Yale University Press), the reaction varied greatly. Shock and sorrow, to be sure, but also, in some quarters, glee: “In Boston, an Irish cook made her politics known in front of her employers by ‘laughing all day’ when the news arrived.”

Another of the host of Lincoln-related books being published in February and March is Lincoln’s Body: A Cultural History by Richard Wightman Fox (Norton). This looks at the evolution of the meaning and message that the images of Lincoln’s face and his tall, thin body have undergone in American culture over the past 150 years.

An intriguing entry is from Richard Lowry, a William & Mary professor with a background in literature, cultural studies and visual culture — The Photographer and the President: Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Gardener and the Images that Made a Presidency (Rizzoli Ex Libris). Lincoln saw the political value of promoting his likeness, and Gardner grew in his increasingly subtle portraits of the President. Their “partnership,” Lowry writes, changed the way Americans saw and experienced the Civil War.

Patrick T. Reardon

This review initially appeared in the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row section on 2.8.15.

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