In mid-19th-century America, newspapers were the primary sources of information and opinion. Most newspaper publishers and editors were closely aligned with politicians and, with few exceptions, opinions were emphasized more than news and loyalty to political parties more than the public interest. It was a time of significant change for the newspaper industry with technological innovations such as steam-driven printing presses and, most importantly, the telegraph, making delivery of the news much faster.
In his engrossing and enlightening new book, Lincoln and the Power of the Press, pre-eminent Lincoln authority Harold Holzer explores the complex relationships that influenced the political journalism of the era. He focuses on two of the most widely covered politicians, Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, and the chief journalistic personalities of the day, all from New York City: Horace Greeley of the Tribune, James Gordon Bennett of the Herald and Henry Raymond of the Times. Greeley and Raymond had, like Lincoln, been Whigs who became Republicans. Bennett was deeply conservative and almost always supported the Democrats. Each had strong views and used his paper to influence policy in many areas.
From very early in his life Lincoln devoured newspapers, and they were instrumental in both his rise to the presidency and his leadership while he was president. In his first signed newspaper article in March, 1832, he proposed himself as a candidate for the Illinois legislature. His first major address outside of the legislature was a call for reason in the face of extremist passion, and it was printed in full in a local paper. Lincoln even became co-owner of a Springfield German-language newspaper even though he did not speak that language. He believed that “Public sentiment is everything,” and Holzer shows how he became a master, especially as president, of his rarely acknowledged effort to control the press.
The most important pre-presidential newspaper help for Lincoln came in 1858 when he was the little-known challenger against the well-known incumbent Douglas for an Illinois Senate seat. The Chicago Press and Tribune proposed that the candidates engage in a series of statewide debates. Contrary to the debates’ historical reputation, neither candidate was at his best. And there were problems with the stenographers. They sat behind the candidates and could not always hear clearly what the debaters said, plus they had political loyalties of their own. Holzer demonstrates that the debates achieved their exalted place in history, not because of what the debaters said, but because of what the press made of their words in reprints, summaries and commentaries.
As an ambitious politician, Lincoln spent much time cultivating journalists at their offices throughout Illinois. He continued doing this as president although he never held a formal news conference and except for an 1862 White House visit by Nathaniel Hawthorne, did not grant any major interviews to journalists. He also found a way to reach the public and reduce the influence of newspaper editors by writing what appeared to be personal letters, and then strategically releasing the text of those letters to the press to reach far wider audiences.
The author vividly captures the lives of the colorful “big three” editors and other members of the press as they invented, for better or worse, modern journalism during the most divisive period in our country’s history. As the “first draft of history” was being written, we learn about the raw politics and undisguised philosophies that not only informed, but also divided, readers on issues such as slavery and the Civil War.
Holzer’s book is a fascinating, detailed and very readable look at a crucial aspect of Lincoln’s leadership and political genius. It deserves a wide readership.