Abraham Lincoln was what today might be referred to as a “newspaper junkie.” He was a voracious reader and a staunch supporter of the free expression of opinion, and his political career was intertwined with newspapers.
More than a reader, Lincoln, at times, was a newspaper writer, subscription salesman, editor and even an owner of a newspaper. He relied on reporters, editors and publishers throughout his political journey to help him connect to the voters.
His newspaper missives even led to a “duel to the death” challenge, which, as described later, was averted in part due to the pleading of an editor.
Lincoln’s love of newspapers was evident throughout his career. As postmaster in New Salem, he would read newspapers from different parts of the country that came to his surprisingly well-educated, even sophisticated, Illinois village.
As president, Lincoln sometimes would step outside the White House and ask a startled passerby to send the corner newsboys up the street to his front door. Newspapers served as Lincoln’s window to the world.
In a lecture to his neighbors in Springfield long before he became nationally known, Lincoln said:
“At length printing came. It gave 10,000 copies of any written matter quite as cheaply as 10 were given before; and consequently a thousand minds were brought into the field where was but one before. This was a great gain — and history shows a great change corresponding to it — in point of time. I will venture to consider it the true termination of that period called the ‘dark ages.’”
Newspapers in Lincoln’s day were affiliated with political parties. Newspaper names with words such as “Republican,” “Democrat” and “Whig” all pointed toward those affiliations. Because of that partisanship, even small towns frequently had two or more newspapers.
Today, many of those newspapers have been combined and may no longer associate with a political bias, but those old affiliations are often still found in the names of the newspapers.
For example, The Quincy Herald-Whig, the Macoupin County Democrat-Enquirer in Carlinville, The Gazette-Democrat in Anna and the Bureau County Republican in Princeton.
Lincoln realized that voters could be convinced at that time in only two ways — by voice, as in debates or lectures, and by the press. “Public opinion in this country is everything,” Lincoln remarked.
Because the newspapers were affiliated with political parties, some were pro-Lincoln while others were against Lincoln. The Chicago Daily Press & Tribune and the Sangamo Journal, for instance, were pro-Lincoln. The Chicago Times and the Illinois State Register in Springfield were anti-Lincoln.
To this day, the modern Chicago Tribune still competes with what is now called the Chicago Sun-Times. In Springfield, the Illinois State Journal and the Illinois State Register have long been joined as The State Journal-Register.
Because newspapers in Lincoln’s day were political organs, their editorials and political cartoons were often harsh on candidates they opposed. The Illinois State Register called Lincoln “the ineffable despot, who, by some inscrutable dispensation of providence, presides over the destinies of this vast republic.” The Journal responded by calling the Register’s editor “the agent of Jeff Davis who presides over the Copperhead sheet in this city.”
(A “sheet” is another name for a newspaper. Jefferson Davis was secretary of war for the United States and later elected president of the Confederate States of America. Copperhead was a nickname given to Northern Democrats who opposed the Civil War.)
Because of contrasting political affiliations, newspapers covered Lincoln and his famed debates with Stephen Douglas in vastly different ways. In an effort to make sure his views were represented accurately, Lincoln sent many “confidential” communications to newspaper editors. The Chicago Times defended itself by saying “Lincoln cannot speak five grammatical sentences in succession.”
Suppressing the press
Lincoln tolerated differences of opinion but drew the line at what he considered to be treasonous acts. He explained his attitude toward such attacks in a communication in the middle of the Civil War, when victory was not at all certain, to Gen. John M. Schofield:
“You will only arrest individuals, and suppress assemblies, or newspapers, when they may be working palpable injury to the Military in your charge, and in no other case will you interfere with the expression of opinion in any form, or allow it to be interfered with violently by others. In this, you have a discretion to exercise with great caution, calmness, and forbearance.”
Several hundreds of newspapers were temporarily suppressed by the administration, including the Jonesborogh (now Jonesboro) Gazette in Southern Illinois. Also suspended briefly was the Chicago Times; Lincoln himself rescinded the order and that ended the practice of suspending the press.
The most common reason the administration closed newspapers was for interfering with the draft, either by discouraging men from signing up, encouraging resistance or even physically interfering at draft registration sites.
The New York World and the Journal of Commerce were shut down because they published a fake proclamation in Lincoln’s name. The proclamation called for a draft of 400,000 men into the Army and may have been part of a plot to induce rioting. Lincoln ordered that the newspaper offices be taken by military force.
Next Sunday: Lincoln’s newspaper, first endorsements and the duel.
Material for this commentary was provided by “Family Newspapers,” Volume 5, Illinois Press Foundation; “Centennial History of Illinois,” Vol. III, The Era of the Civil War; James Cornelius, Abraham Lincoln Collection curator, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. This article was excerpted from "Abraham Lincoln: A Press Portrait," by Herbert Mitgang.