- The Washington Times - Friday, January 26, 2007

LINCOLN IN THE TIMES: THE LIFE OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN, AS ORIGINALLY REPORTED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES

Edited by David Herbert Donald and Harold Holzer,

St. Martin’s Press, 402 pages, illus., $24.95.

It is easy to forget that in Lincoln’s day, the “media” consisted entirely of reading material — newspapers and magazines.

The quality ranged widely, and some journals were partisan to a degree that only belligerent bloggers achieve today. There were few trained journalists in the 1860s, and standards were virtually nonexistent. One reporter told his wife that he had accepted $50 from a Union officer for favorable mention in his column. “After all,” he wrote, “If ever a man needed $50 it is I.”

Because of their near-monopoly in news distribution, newspapers were far more influential during the Civil War era than they are today. Thus, Lincoln corrected proofs of his famous Cooper Union speech far into the night to be sure there were no errors.

The New York Times was an influential paper in Lincoln’s time, although less prestigious than today. Under editor Henry Raymond, it was a voice of the new Republican Party, but it enjoyed a reputation for relative objectivity. In circulation, it was a distant second to Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune.

Two distinguished historians have collected articles by and about Lincoln as they appeared in the Times. Their scholarly qualifications are impressive; David Herbert Donald has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for biography, and Harold Holzer has written extensively on Lincoln and his times.

The editors note that Lincoln gained notoriety from his 1858 debates with Sen. Stephen A. Douglas but nevertheless was largely unknown in the East in February 1860, when he was invited to address an elite New York audience at Cooper Union. The Times printed Lincoln’s long speech in full, thus helping him rise from a regional to a national figure. Even so, when Lincoln emerged as the Republican presidential candidate six months later, he was such a dark horse that articles in the Times referred to him as “Abram” Lincoln.

In an era before television, it fell to the press to describe the appearance of the celebrities of the day. Mary Todd Lincoln, in the words of a Times correspondent, “does not chew snuff … does not use profane language, nor does she on any occasion … kick up shindies. … Her head is large and well developed. … Her forehead is broad; her eye clear and intelligent, and rather blue than gray; her nose is — well, not to put too fine a point on it — is not Grecian.”

In contrast to newspapers today, which assume a certain degree of knowledge on the part of their readers, the Times described important events in graphic detail, as in this description of Lincoln’s first inaugural:

“As … the Sabbath gave way to Monday, the 4th of March, the Senate Chamber presented a curious and animated appearance. The galleries were crowded to repletion, the ladies’ gallery resembling, from the gay dresses of the fair ones there congregated, some gorgeous parterre of flowers, and the gentlemen’s gallery seemed one dense mass of surging, heaving masculines, pushing, strggling [sic] and almost clambering over each other’s back in order to get a good look at the proceedings.”

When Lincoln was assassinated four years later, the Times offered similar detail:

“The life’s blood of our noble President had been shed principally upon the upper part of the chair in which he had been sitting, saturating it completely through, and remaining still moist and undried up to a late hour. … Some few drops had spurted upon the jam of the door, and as the murderer stood when he fired the fatal shot, must have sprinkled his knees.”

The Times generally supported the Lincoln administration, but like other Republican papers, it became impatient with what it perceived as the president’s lack of resolution. Lincoln had been in office for just weeks when the Times editorialized, “The country feels no more assurances as to the future — knows nothing more of the probable results of the secession movement — than it did on the day Mr. Buchanan left Washington. It sees no indications of an administrative policy adequate to the emergency — or, indeed, of any policy beyond listless waiting.”

Mr. Donald and Mr. Holzer note that Lincoln was quite sensitive to his press coverage. He viewed critical journalists who garbled or misrepresented his words as “villainous reporters.” On the other hand, he once commented that commendation in the press was “all that a vain man could wish.”

Even with Lincoln’s splendid prose, a book devoted to his speeches and public letters can be heavy going. The full text of the president’s July 5, 1861, message to Congress takes up 12 pages in the book, yet because it is a press version, it is not free of error. At the same time, the reader encounters some gems of Lincoln’s thought.

In declining to address a convention of his critics in 1863, Lincoln defended the constitutionality of his Emancipation Proclamation: “You dislike the Emancipation Proclamation, and perhaps would have it retracted. You say that it is unconstitutional. I think differently. I think that the Constitution invests its Commander-in-Chief with the law of war in time of war. The most that can be said, if so much, is that slaves are property. Is there, has there ever been, any question that by law of water [sic [-] war?], property, both of enemies and friends, may be taken when needed.”

With respect to the Gettysburg Address, the editors properly take issue with the legend that the speech was indifferently received at the cemetery and largely ignored by journalists. The editors state that the address elicited an entirely partisan response: Republican journals praised it; opposition journals condemned it.

“Lincoln in the Times” is not a major work of scholarship. No dates are provided for some of the articles quoted. Nevertheless, it is interesting, knowing what we know of Lincoln from the perspective of centuries, to read what was being said of him in his time.

John M. Taylor of McLean has written extensively on the Civil War period.

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