Lincoln and the Power of the Press: the War for Public Opinion, by Harold Holzer ****

lincoln and the pressThis book is for the serious reader. Well researched and creatively conceived, it traces the influence of the newspaper on young Lincoln, and then follows its role in his emergence as a politician, as a contender for the presidency, and later the complicated relationship between Lincoln and the press during the American Civil War. It raises thorny, thoughtful issues regarding censorship; when do we hold the First Amendment dearest above all, and when may its authority be abrogated for the security and integrity of the Union?

It starts a bit slow, and I began wondering whether this would be one of those rare books that I skim and then review, as opposed to reading every word. Still…LINCOLN. I stayed the course and was rewarded. Just be aware that the narrative doesn’t really wake up until about the 30 percent mark.

Lincoln had amazingly little formal schooling. Though this was common among pioneer families at the time, with settlements sparse and young males needed to help with a tremendous amount of hard physical labor, but knowing not only that he became US president, but that he was an attorney before that, I was surprised to learn that most of his reading skills were obtained by reading every single newspaper he could get his hands on, no matter how old it was by the time it made its way to Illinois, which was then considered the northwestern USA. A sister later recounted seeing him turn a chair over and lean against it while he sat on the floor and used the firelight to read by. How many people are sufficiently motivated today to teach themselves reading skills through this sort of very difficult total immersion?

He later fed his newspaper habit by becoming postmaster, and he used this office to read the newspapers being sent by mail before they were delivered to their intended recipients. (He would later use the franking privilege bestowed upon postmasters to send out his own campaign materials free of charge.)

Newspapers were tremendously influential, approaching the zenith of their importance during this time. There was no radio or any other media to spread the news of the nation besides word of mouth. Litigation for libel or slander had not yet blossomed, and so newspapers were often very loose with the facts, and this made it all the more important to read as many of them as possible in order to tease apart truth and rumor.

Young Lincoln left home hoping to become a journalist himself. He was well known as a gregarious fellow who always had a great story ready for whoever wanted to listen. I envision his parents throwing their arms up in the air: all that work to be done at home and where is their son? Off somewhere talking, talking, talking. I also found this tidbit interesting because it contrasts sharply with the haunted and often depressed man he would later become when authority and personal tragedy marked him.

As a congressman and also as a frequent writer of freelance articles and letters to editors, Lincoln marked out his position against the extension of slavery early and with great passion. He called the war with Mexico for what it was: a land grab that would primarily benefit the feudal rulers of the south. At one point he even suggested that the attack against US citizens by Mexican soldiers was a hoax, demanding to know exactly where on the map this had occurred. Folks in Washington DC, Illinois, and even New York sat up and took notice.

Holzer also traces the beginnings of the most notable newspaper publishers of the time. The unfortunate Elijah Lovejoy is dispatched with haste, just as he was in life. Greeley, the bootstrap newsman and fervent abolitionist, at least most of the time, at first spurned Lincoln. For most of both of their careers, they had a strong working relationship, but Greeley was both quixotic and a bit unstable, and he turned on Lincoln at some pivotal times, most noteworthy when the latter was running for re-election. Bennett, founder of the Herald and innovator of a number of the institutional practices that are still in place today, was conservative politically and represented Manhattan’s pro-secessionist, pro-slavery majority. Raymond was Lincoln’s most steadfast supporter and campaign manager the second time around, though he wavered for a brief but terrible time when the tide seemed to turn in favor of the Copperhead Democrats, who wanted to give the secessionist states independence in order to end the war.

In the land of Dixie, there was no debate about Constitutional rights to freedom of speech and the press; newspapers who even hinted at Union sentiments were quickly suppressed without qualm. Despite Lincoln’s suspension of Habeas Corpus and at times the suppression and/or closure of newspapers that either leant aid to the enemy by publishing battle plans before the fights had taken place, or by less overt and therefore more controversial antiwar editorials, he won his office in a fair fight, not attempting to tamper with the electoral process or outlaw the printed word that ran in favor of McClellan, a former general whom this reviewer regards as a treasonous scoundrel.

I confess it gave me a good deal of food for thought. I was a child during the 1960’s and a teen during the 1970’s, but I recall well the controversy regarding free speech, the Vietnam War, and Nixon’s enemies list. If I am in favor of free speech and press during contemporary times, why should it have been different during the Civil War? But I eventually concluded that it was indeed different, and the exasperation of General Sherman toward the press that gave away critical secrets all in the interest of a scoop and the bottom line was entirely correct.

But that’s just one reviewer’s opinion; thanks to Net Galley for the ARC. If you are willing to devote the time and attention this tome demands, you are sure to come away with a viewpoint of your own.

To those interested in the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln, or the history of the American newspaper, highly recommended.

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