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Lincoln and the Press

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Pontius Pilate, in a painting by James Tissot (1836-1902) Pontius Pilate, in a painting by James Tissot (1836-1902)

Today Republicans are often vilified by Democrats for trying to stop a certain class of people from voting. Back in the 1840s , the shoe was on the other foot. One of the revelations of this book by Harold Holzer about Abraham Lincoln’s relationship with the press is that Lincoln actually bought a newspaper. It was no ordinary newspaper, but one published in German, a language he could not even read!

His partner in this weekly, published in Springfield Illinois, was a German named Theodore Canisius who had emigrated to the U.S. in 1848. Holzer writes: “An ardent Lincoln supporter during the recent Senate race (of 1859), Canisius impressed the candidate by working to ensure that none of his fellow emigres would be, as Lincoln put it, ‘cheated in their ballots’- denied the right to vote by having their citizenship questioned. This trick Lincoln believed Democrats ‘sometimes practiced on the German’ to inhibit reliably Republican turnout.”

Reading their newspaper today would be fascinating, but not possible. “Frustratingly,” says Holzer,”not a single issue of the newspaper Lincoln and Canisius cofounded survives.” Canisius was a key figure in securing Lincoln the Republican nomination for President at the convention in Chicago, and just as it is today, patronage was the reward. Canisius was named American consul to Vienna in 1861.

Even though their German newspaper folded, there was no lack of press in the country. “The United States boated more than four thousand newspapers and periodicals, and 80 percent of them could be classified as political. Perhaps it is no coincidence that voter turnout in presidential elections now regularly approached that same 80 percent.” That is about double what it is these days!

I noticed an interesting parallel between Lincoln and Donald Trump, who is currently leading in the Republican bid for the Presidency. Trump has stated several times there is no time for “tone”, instead demonstrating the need for plain language in describing what he sees as the sad state of the country. At the beginning of the Civil War, Lincoln sent a special message to Congress in which he charged that fire-eaters had “sugar-coated” outright treason.

Lincoln holding a newspaper in 1854Lincoln holding a newspaper in 1854This prompted the U.S. government printer, former Indiana journalist John Defrees, to march to the White House to complain that such language “lacked the dignity proper to a state paper.” Lincoln responded: “Defrees, that word expresses precisely my ideas, and I am not going to change it. The time will never come in this country when the people won’t know exactly what sugar-coated means.”

Parallels with the current state of American politics are rife. In 1861 the London-based managing editor of The London Times concluded that Lincoln’s early alleged timidity is responding to Southern aggression called to mind “Pontius Pilate-washing his hands of the affair and leaving both action and responsibility to whoever chose to take them.” Other Southerners accused Lincoln of being the aggressor in the secession crisis that led to the Civil War.

Fast-forward to 2015: “The particular comments of Mr. Huckabee are just part of a general pattern we’ve seen that would be considered ridiculous if it weren’t so sad,” President Obama said. “We’ve had a sitting senator call John Kerry Pontius Pilate. We’ve had a sitting senator, who also happens to be running for president, suggest that I’m the leading state sponsor of terrorism. These are leaders in the Republican Party.”

Mr. Holzer, one of America’s leading experts on Lincoln, was in Miami earlier this year. I asked him what people who are not Lincoln scholars should take away from this book. “When they are discouraged or angered by fighting on cable TV news, that really was the way it began in the country.” Holzer said the book tells of the “weird relations that existed between the press and politics. It’s a forgotten story.”

This is a magisterial look at the interaction between the press and government in the mid-1800s. As much a history of the major American newspaper barons as it is of Lincoln’s interaction with them, this book is essential reading for anyone interested in the development of America’s free press.

Lincoln and the Power of the Press (733 pages) is $37.50 from Simon & Schuster.

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

More in this category: « War and Peace: Grant & Lee
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