- - Sunday, February 1, 2015


By Harold Holzer

Simon & Schuster, $37.50, 733 pages

“Public sentiment is everything,” Abraham Lincoln declared during his 1858 senatorial debates with Stephen Douglas. “With public sentiment nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.”

From the 1830s through the Civil War, writes Harold Holzer, a noted Lincoln authority and prize-winning author of “Lincoln at Cooper Union,” with the proliferation of newspapers throughout the towns and cities of the nation, political journalism was the key to manipulating public sentiment.

Mr. Holzer’s objective is to examine Abraham Lincoln’s lifelong involvement with the press, both as an active participant and as a politician using it, in an age in which newspapers “occasionally manufactured politicians, just as politicians often manufactured newspapers … . They became mutually dependent and totally inseparable — weapons in the same arsenal. In some cases it was impossible to determine where one organization ended its work and the other began it.”

During the early brawling years of American journalism, newspaper-spawned disputes, fanned by sarcasm and character assassination, were frequently resolved with fists, whips or canes.

In Illinois, among the political combatants were the pro-Lincoln Sangamo Journal (later the Illinois Daily State Journal) and the pro-Stephen Douglas Illinois Register. The editor of the Journal, “the corpulent but feisty” Simeon Francis, was attacked on the street by the diminutive, cane-wielding Stephen Douglas, infuriated by being compared to a horse thief in a Francis piece. Douglas quickly got the worst of it, and Lincoln would take great delight in the dust-up. “The whole affair was so ridiculous,” Lincoln told a friend, “that Francis and everybody else (Douglas excepted) have been laughing about it ever since.”

Lincoln, since his earliest days in Illinois politics, believed that strong applications of “rustic charm” — flattering, entreating, manipulating — and later, as president, tangible political and even financial rewards, went a long way toward encouraging favorable coverage.

At times he took direct action — in 1859, for instance, buying a German language newspaper with significant reach among the rapidly growing numbers of German immigrants. “For four score years,” writes Mr. Holzer, “his involvement remained largely unknown even to his biographers.”

With the coming of the war and the expansion of American newspapers, influencing public sentiment came to be seen as vital to preserving the Union; and airing deep political and ideological differences in the press could lead to unprecedented measures of censorship. Numerous papers were shuttered for “disloyalty,” their editors jailed or exiled to Dixie.

As reporting became more accurate and immediate, the administration increasingly suspected the worst. In one instance, writes Mr. Holzer, a federal grand jury in Washington even brought charges against the publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer for printing information about “army movements to the aid and comfort of those engaged in the rebellion against the United States.”

But Gen. Lee, as Mr. Holzer points out, did, in fact, follow the war coverage in the northern newspapers. And to guard against damaging press coverage, “the government’s official telegraph line, which made the speedy reporting of battlefield results possible, was moved to the office of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to deny access to unfriendly newsmen.”

Mr. Holzer surveys the growth of papers of all sizes, shapes and readerships, from Chicago to Washington D.C. But much of his focus is on Lincoln’s efforts to influence and manipulate three publishers of what would become national newspapers.

James Gordon Bennett of the popular New York Herald, called the father of tabloid journalism, nicknamed “His Satanic Majesty,” was by all accounts an unpleasant bigot — attacked on the street, caned, mailed a black-powder letter bomb and described by Walt Whitman as “A reptile marking his path with slime wherever he goes.” Nevertheless, his newspapers sold, and Lincoln did his best to court him.

Horace Greely of the New York Tribune, “The Old Philosopher,” was “a self-righteous reformer, passionate but easily dismayed, diverted, and bruised,” who at times fully supported Lincoln, but at others believed he could do a better job of running the country. And Henry Raymond of The New York Times, “The Little Villain,” was widely viewed as a “moderate Republican” and a Lincoln supporter.

These are among the men who wrote what Mr. Holzer calls the first draft of 19th-century history. It’s his hope that his study “will provide a fresh way to examine that first draft in the light of the undisguised philosophies and raw politics that inspired so much of what not only informed, but also divided, those who read and lived through it.”

In that, Mr. Holzer has succeeded admirably, and in the process has brought Abraham Lincoln and the great journalists of his age back to vivid life.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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