The President and the Press

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

Colman's Column3


As soon as the president was elected, he tried to co-opt into his project cabinet members and military officers of as wide a political variety as would cooperate with him. He used presidential patronage to gain the loyalty of newspaper owners, editors, and journalists. He enlisted many from the media to jobs as ambassadors, revenue collectors, postmasters or presidential aides as part of his strategy to save the unitary state from secession. The president gave one editor’s son a naval commission, making it unlikely that his paper would oppose a war in which his son was fighting. The president helped another editor to set up a new paper, which was given juicy government advertising. The editor was also given a senior and lucrative government post.

It was hard to manage the press in wartime. The president had to deal with the complaints of some journalists because some of his generals hated to have reporters anywhere near them. Some generals cultivated journalists in order to undermine the president.

The president felt compelled to curb some civil liberties because of war and had no compunction about silencing reporters who knew too much about troop movements. The president tried to stay out of squabbles his generals were having with journalists but many government departments joined in actions to restrict or censor newsgathering. The president generally just let this censorship happen, without taking the blame. Those who tried to bypass the censorship could end up in prison. When one editor was jailed for treason, other editors protested and the president re-opened the paper and released the editor but deported him.

The president could charm those who had been personally insulting to him or who had tried to undermine his conduct of the war. One previously hostile editor received a visit from the president and said: “Few men can make an hour pass away more agreeably. “ The president would make himself comfortable with his feet on the desk, recounting anecdotes , impressing with his knowledge of local politics and leaving behind new friends who could help him in the future.

All this is covered in a new book by Harold Holzer, Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion. Harold Holzer has been an authority on Abraham Lincoln for decades, served as a script consultant to the Steven Spielberg film, Lincoln, and wrote the official young readers’ companion book to the movie.

The book aims, Holzer writes, “to show how the leading figures in the intractably linked world of politics and the press waged a vigorous, often vicious, competition to determine which political belief system would emerge with more popular support and thus shape the national future.”

In 1861, 200 newspapers and their editors were subjected to scattershot menacing by federal agencies, civilian mobs or Union troops. A number of Democratic editors were imprisoned at Fort Lafayette in Brooklyn, which came to be known as the American Bastille. In 1864, more than 30 papers were attacked by mobs.

Lincoln believed that “with public sentiment nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.” The telegraph, the new invention that made instant reporting possible, was moved to the office of Secretary of War Stanton to deny it to unfriendly newsmen.

From his earliest days, Lincoln was an avid reader of newspapers. As he started out in politics, he wrote editorials and letters to argue his case. Sometimes he wrote anonymously and sometimes his wife wrote on his behalf. In 1841, he was challenged to a duel after two had collaborated on a series of scurrilous letters from a fictitious “Rebecca” that vilified James Shields, a rising candidate in the Democratic Party. Lincoln spoke to the public directly through the press. He even bought a German-language newspaper to appeal to that growing demographic in his state. Lincoln massaged, pummelled, and manipulated the three most powerful publishers of the day: James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald, Henry Raymond of the New York Times and Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune.

Even after so many years, there are those who are reluctant to believe that the civil war is over and wish to continue refighting the battles that Lincoln won. The mission of the Southern Sentinel ( is “Don’t settle for what the victors or the media give you as truth, get the other sides of the story before you believe. Be proud of who you are and where you come from. I am here to help teach and learn the Truth, especially when it comes to Southern Heritage, God, and my Family.”

Like the Global Tamil Forum, Southern Sentinel believes the president was guilty of many crimes. Here are some of them:

  • Lincoln waged a war that cost the lives of 620,000 Americans. He murdered 50,000 innocent Southern civilians.
  • He arrested thousands of Marylanders suspected of Southern sympathies, and imprisoned many without trial for several years.
  • He unconstitutionally suspended the writ of habeas corpus.
  • He illegally shut down the presses of critics and imprisoned journalists.
  • He re-instated and promoted an Army officer who had been cashiered for war crimes.
  • He issued an arrest warrant for the Chief Justice when he refused to back his illegal actions.
  • Chief Justice Roger B Taney ruled that Lincoln’s actions were illegal, criminal and unconstitutional.
  • He ordered Federal troops to interfere with Northern elections.
  • He had his Generals burn US cities full of women and children to the ground.

In The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, Thomas DiLorenzo argued that Lincoln instigated the American Civil War not over slavery but rather to centralize power in his own hands. DiLorenzo criticizes Lincoln for the suspension of habeas corpus, violations of the First Amendment, war crimes and the expansion of central government power. He asserts that, during the Civil War, Lincoln repeatedly flouted the law and often suspended the Constitution altogether.

To critics, General Sherman‘s “March to the Sea” was a marauding rampage of robbery, rape, and slaughter. Lincoln’s troops razed the South and doomed to poverty generations of Southerners for many years to come. According to critics, Northern armies targeted civilians and private property as a matter of official strategy.

Native Americans were dealt with harshly as well as militant separatists. Up to eight hundred white settlers were butchered during the first four days of a rampage by indigenous people. Minnesota statehood in 1858 had pushed the Dakota off their native lands. The Dakota were dependent upon government gold annuities that were promised by the land treaties, and upon the foods and sundries peddled by white traders. Government agents paid annuity moneys first to the traders who had given credit to the Dakota for goods purchased at highly over-inflated prices. Those Dakota who refused to give up their traditional ways were in an even worse position and spent many winters in near-starving conditions. In 1862, the financial cost of the Civil War was forcing austerity measures on the federal government, and there were persistent rumours that the Dakota would not get their annuity. After the US Army suppressed the uprising, it established a commission that condemned 303 Dakota men to death in trials that were clearly unjust. The commission had conducted 392 trials, including 40 in one day.

Federal law required the president’s approval of the death sentences. This was wartime; if Lincoln overturned all the convictions, his clemency could have led to mob violence in Minnesota. In the largest mass execution in American history, 38 were hanged on a mass gallows before thousands of spectators. In the next year, there was a punitive expedition against those Dakota who had escaped.

Lincoln is often viewed as a secular saint. It should not be forgotten that he was a consummate politician. He was also Commander in Chief in time of war. He won a brutal war. Harsh measures had to be taken. It is a mistake to think of any politician as a hero. Politics is a rough old trade calling on reserves of compromise and brutality that most of us would shudder at in ordinary life. That is even more so in wartime.