At War with the Press

Book Review: Lincoln and the Power of the Press 


Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion

 By Harold Holzer, Simon & Schuster 2014, $37.50

Abraham Lincoln understood the power of the press. From early in his career, he subscribed to multiple papers, courted editors and tracked reports of his remarks. Following the debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858, he gathered newspaper transcripts of his speeches and had them published. Lincoln so firmly grasped the influence of the press that he became a partner in a German-language paper in Springfield—and concealed his ownership.  Newspapers shaped public opinion and “he who moulds public sentiments,” Lincoln proclaimed, “goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.”

That insight from 1858 serves as the epigraph for Harold Holzer’s sweeping work. It has been more than 60 years since anyone has written on this vast topic, and for good reason. A study of Lincoln and the press requires biographical expertise as well as knowledge of the history of journalism. Holzer, of course, is a prolific Lincoln scholar. But earlier in his career he also was a newspaper reporter and press secretary. In this book, he has drawn on a lifetime of experience and study to produce the definitive work on the subject.

Throughout the book, Holzer weaves together Lincoln’s story with an account of the careers of many prominent editors, perhaps none more important than Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald and Henry J. Raymond of The New York Times. Greeley provoked and embarrassed the administration; Bennett once called Lincoln a “joke incarnated”; Raymond supported William Seward in 1860. Each editor was represented in a clippings file that Lincoln labeled “Villainous articles.” The story of Lincoln’s relationship with these men, and how it shaped the war effort, constitutes a central focus of the book.

In one well-known example from August 1862, Greeley excoriated the president in an editorial for not moving against slavery, and Lincoln responded publicly with a piece in the conservative National Intelligencer reassuring Americans that he would not interfere with slavery unless he had to, yet at that moment he had already prepared a draft of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Holzer labels the episode an example par excellence of “Lincoln’s genius for synchronized press manipulation.”

Tempestuous Greeley could be kept in check; Democratic editors opposed to the war posed a more alarming threat. Administration efforts to censor the press included controlling telegraph lines, suppressing military news, shutting down presses and imprisoning newspapermen. Lincoln made few overt comments on the subject in the summer of 1861, as several editors were jailed, but his “silence, defection,  and disinformation,” Holzer notes, amounted to approval. Two years later, again using the device of a published letter, Lincoln defended as constitutional the measures his administration had taken to suppress the rebellion.

Through the lens of Lincoln and reportage, Holzer offers an important perspective on the war and has unearthed fresh material. An added pleasure of the volume is the numerous portraits and cartoons that are not simply illustrative but are made integral to the story he tells. Lincoln and the Power of the Press deserves a wide audience and a place on the list of essential Civil War books.