In 2014, Harold Holzer published “Lincoln and the Power of the Press” suggesting that Lincoln, from the time he wrote a letter to the Sangamon Journal in 1831, methodically used newspapers for over twenty five years to build a constituency for his future political ambitions to become the Illinois Governor, Senator, Vice President, or even President. Holzer, and other writers who subsequently jumped on the bandwagon (and gravy train), assert that Lincoln was able to get editors and publishers to promote his agenda through friendship, flattery, and even political favors. Further, they claim that after he won the Republican nomination for president in 1860, his manipulations became more frequent and pronounced; then as President, when persuasion did not work, he intensified efforts to control, intimidate, and censor the press. While Holzer tends to give Lincoln credit for some restraint during a violent Civil War, and gives him a generally favorable overview, other writers level more serious, and spurious, charges.
On the other hand, most Lincoln scholars believe that he had no preconceived notion to use the press to further his political objectives until at least 1854. For the most part, he simply enjoyed interaction with the press; whether by letters to editors which were published and would often result in a dialogue, or by personal interviews with reporters, editors, and publishers.
But, by 1854, things did change. Lincoln realized that his rapport with many newspapers provided him with a forum to express his opposition to the expansion of slavery, and could be helpful as he planned to again run for office after a seven year hiatus. Then, as President, he intensified his efforts to manage newspaper coverage of events during the Civil War, providing credence to the charge that he “manipulated” the press.
What were these circumstances that began Lincoln’s evolution from simply enjoying the banter with the press, to then utilizing the press to enhance his political opportunities and further his objectives for public policy, and finally to consider interference with the press?
By 1850, the differences over the issue of slavery began to cause serious unrest throughout the country. Some wanted slavery abolished, others (like Lincoln) wanted it controlled to the limited number of states authorized under the Constitution, and some wanted it not only preserved but expanded to other states and territories. Lincoln abhorred slavery and, in 1854, began to use the public forums he had gained in newspapers over the past 25 years to articulate his opposition to Congressional compromises that would permit the expansion of slavery.
Also, seven years after his last campaign, he began to think about re-entering politics.
In 1854, the first evidence surfaced that Lincoln planned to cultivate editors and publishers who would be proponents for his future campaigns, rather than just publish his public policies. After announcing that he would switch to the new Republican Party, Lincoln called on Joseph Medill, owner/publisher of the Chicago Tribune, who believed that Lincoln could convince members of the dying Whig Party to become Republicans. After his successful alliance with Medill, the Tribune ran numerous articles promoting Lincoln and his political positions and he even used offices at the newspaper when he was in Chicago. And, over the next four years Lincoln cultivated relationships with other prominent editors and publishers as he made a concerted effort to win the 1858 appointment as the United States Senator from Illinois. Although the Democrat party held a majority in the Illinois Legislature, which would make the Senatorial appointment, Lincoln garnered enough votes from non-Republicans to make the selection close; but he still lost to Stephen A. Douglas.
However, he emerged from that race with positive national exposure due to the public interest in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and renewed his efforts for a run for Governor or the next Senate appointment in 1860. To capitalize on the exposure, he regularly sent excerpts from the debates and related speeches to newspapers throughout the North, and he financially helped publish a best-selling book about the debates. After his acclaimed speech in opposition to slavery at Cooper Union in New York City in early 1860, Lincoln assured that the text was provided to newspapers throughout the northern states.
Generally, until he won the Republican nomination for President in June 1860, newspapers in the north were favorable to Lincoln even if they endorsed one of the perceived stronger Republican candidates. Many thought his life story was quaint and would be interesting to their readers, but that he could not win the nomination. However, after his nomination, there was a discernible change in reporting of his speeches, editorial replies to his letters, and observations by publishers of newspapers aligned with the Republican Party; especially if the paper had strongly endorsed another candidate for the nomination, as almost all did.
His honeymoon with the press was over!
Now began what one recent author titled “Lincoln’s War for Public Opinion” and what another, with all of the hyperbole he could muster, called “Lincoln’s assault on the freedom of the press.” And, it is at this period of time (1860-1861) to which those authors who are critical of Lincoln’s relationship with the press can point with some reason to question his motives.
Lincoln embarked on a concerted effort to affect the manner in which newspapers covered his candidacy and then, after he won the election, intensified his effort to manage the press. Among other steps, he invested in a German language newspaper to support his candidacy, and he began to single out certain newspapers for interviews that he expected would lead to favorable commentary in the press.
President Lincoln never held a formal news conference. He preferred to meet individually with reporters, almost always in the presence of one of his secretaries or a Cabinet member. He would also allow reporters to stop by the White House and, if he had the time, would permit a quick meeting; if not, the reporter could jot down a few questions and Lincoln would usually reply within the same day. But, this was not just a courtesy to the press. Lincoln said he usually gained more information than he gave since reporters often had received telegraphed news even before he received official reports.
He also offered certain reporters and publishers favored access to the White House and in return, he expected his administration’s policies would receive positive mention in their papers. Early in his Presidency Lincoln sought to reward John Forney, publisher of the both the Philadelphia Press and the Washington based Sunday Morning Chronicle for a continuing stream of favorable commentary. Forney was not only given a position as “Secretary” for the Republican Caucus in Congress, but his newspapers received regular payments for advertising by the State Department and War Department. Lincoln even occasionally wrote a “position paper” which would appear first in Forney’s publications. Was this good management of the press or was it manipulation?
In another instance, Lincoln became aggravated by New York Tribune publisher Horace Greeley’s constant insistence that Lincoln give abolition an equal standing with preservation of the Union as reason for continuing the Civil War. After several vicious editorials, the President finally agreed to provide Greeley with a definitive statement on the matter. Greeley considered that he had won a concession from the President and announced in his paper that he had demanded a clarification statement and that Lincoln had conceded. Lincoln then wrote the famous letter in which he said (paraphrased) that his primary goal was the Preservation of the Union and that if he could save the Union by freeing every slave, or only freeing some slaves, or even by freeing no slaves, he would do it. Then late on a Saturday, Lincoln sent the original to Greeley and a copy to the Washington National Intelligencer. Lincoln knew that Greeley did not publish on Sunday but the Intelligencer did, so the “scoop” that Greeley wanted was printed a day earlier in Washington and in all New York papers on Monday. Lincoln’s actions might be considered “manipulation” by some; but others believe that the egotistical Greeley got what he deserved.
There is sometimes a fine line between Presidential recognition and perceived patronage. During his re-election campaign of 1864, Lincoln reached out to James Gordon Bennett, publisher of the very influential New York Herald, who had been highly critical of Lincoln’s conscription policies. Lincoln still thought Bennett was honorable and respected Bennett’s world understanding. Through an intermediary, Lincoln asked if Bennett would consider becoming Ambassador to France, an offer that was intended as a show of respect and to let Bennett know that Lincoln harbored no ill feelings. Bennett graciously declined and the episode resulted in at least respectful relations between the two men. However, the offer became an embarrassment to Lincoln and Bennett when it was leaked to other newspapers which then nearly unanimously called it a pay-off for favorable editorials. Some consider that the episode was a failed attempt by Lincoln at manipulation of the press; but was it?
As President, he did not always have to become personally involved in press management, as he had a ready supply of surrogates. His Generals frequently refused to cooperate with the press and some even detained reporters and publishers. Lincoln quietly supported some but reigned in others. General William Tecumseh Sherman had little tolerance for the press, once saying that he hated “men who will not take a musket and fight, but will follow an army to pick up news for sale.” Sherman even convened a courts-martial to try Thomas Knox , a reporter from the New York Herald who had told the General to his face that he “led with insanity and inefficiency” on the battlefield. The court convicted Knox of the minor infraction of “Accompanying the army without permission” and Sherman’s only available punishment was to thereafter ban Knox from his command. Lincoln, not wanting to embarrass one of his top Generals, waited a few weeks to pardon Knox, but asked the Herald to keep him away from Sherman.
There were numerous instances in which Union Generals suppressed newspapers in captured Southern territory, but those can be justified as war measures in enemy territory. However, there were also several editors and publishers in Northern states who railed against the draft, criticized specific military action, or even disclosed sensitive military tactical plans to the point that local Union commanders considered the comments inflammatory and a danger to either their troops or to public order. In every instance, except one, when such a situation occurred in the North, Lincoln ordered the Commander to cease the censorship preferring to “let the people decide which way to go” as he thought that the “cure was worse than the disease.”
But, there was one instance in which Lincoln directly ordered the closure of a northern newspaper. Since mid-1863, New York City had been a hotbed of draft resistance with large scale riots resulting in several thousand injuries and hundreds of deaths, and federal troops had been required to restore order. On May18th, 1864, the New York World fabricated a story, even forging Lincoln’s signature on a fake proclamation, which declared a new draft for up to 400,000 troops. Public outrage was immediate and dangerous. Lincoln responded the following day in telegraphs to all New York papers in which he called the story false, wicked, traitorous, treasonous, and provided aid to the enemy. But the World not only repeated the concocted story, but added other “invented” material and, as a result, Lincoln ordered the publisher arrested and the newspaper prevented from any further publication. Lincoln later said that he never regretted the decision because New York had been the scene of terrible rioting initiated by opponents of the draft and he saw the fabricated proclamation as incendiary.
Lincoln didn’t mind so much if newspaper articles were critical of him personally. However, he was concerned if an article attacked his decisions as Commander-in Chief as either too cautious or, contrarily, as too aggressive; and he would occasionally issue an open letter that he knew would be published in many newspapers. For example, he quickly and forcefully responded when several publishers attempted to sway public opinion to support a so-called Unilateral Peace Initiative, which called for an end to the war but left the Confederate states as an independent nation. Lincoln was committed to re-unification of the country, and thought the proposal suggested that the sacrifices of hundreds of thousands of soldiers would have been in vain. In this case, Lincoln had the support of most Northern newspapers so he only had to “suggest” that those loyal publishers point out the folly of such a settlement.
In my opinion, Lincoln did not begin to manipulate the press as a young man to promote his political ambitions, he just enjoyed the process. And later in life he generally used his rapport with newspaper publishers to place his political views, and his candidacy, before the citizens; which might, at worst, be called press management.
However, many Lincoln scholars (and I) share the view that some of his actions when he was President are more difficult to defend. So, as President, did he appropriately manage, or inappropriately manipulate (even coerce), the press? Under the circumstances, were his actions justified, or not?
The answers are not so easy, but I give him the benefit of the doubt.
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