“A Foe as Dangerous as Armed Rebels”: A Review of Harold Holzer’s "Abraham Lincoln and the Power of the Press"

By Alex Andrioli ’18

The beauty of the history field is that we can build upon the foundations of our predecessors and continually improve how we remember and explore the past. This allows for historians to delve deep into a particular subject that is often overlooked, but still has powerful significance. Harold Holzer, the winner of the 2015 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize, accomplishes such a task in his book, “Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion.”

Holzer pairs the familiar subject of Abraham Lincoln with the relatively unexplored relationship Lincoln possessed with the social media of the nineteenth century: the newspaper. Journalism was, and still is, a force to be reckoned with that could make or break a politician’s career. Politics and the press walk hand-in-hand, and Lincoln realized this. “Our government rests in public opinion,” Lincoln claimed. “Whoever can change public opinion can change the government.”

Beginning in the 1700’s, improved printing techniques and “political enthusiasm” brought about the wide popularity of newspapers. Politicians harnessed the “power of the press” to reach a larger audience and spread political beliefs. Papers that sided more with a particular politician or ideology attracted loyal readership and the funds of political parties. Holzer’s work illustrates the “vigorous, often vicious” world of the nineteenth century press that could “distort” the lens through which the public accessed and viewed politics.

The book offers a political biography of Lincoln’s struggle and rise to power through his encounters with the press from the 1830s to the 1860s. Over the years, for example, Lincoln wrote anonymous articles for several papers to voice his opinions, acted as publisher of a German newspaper to corral foreign votes, timed the release of proclamations, and used evasive or inspiring words to evoke the reaction he wanted from the public. These are just a handful of examples of how Lincoln strategically exerted his influence over public opinion through the press.

A satirical cartoon of the temporary suspension of the anti-Lincoln Chicago Times by General Ambrose Burnside in June 1863 for “disloyal and incendiary statements.” E.W.T. Nichols. Oppression!! Suppressing the press. 1863. Library of Congress.
A satirical cartoon of the temporary suspension of the anti-Lincoln Chicago Times by General Ambrose Burnside in June 1863 for “disloyal and incendiary statements.” E.W.T. Nichols. Oppression!! Suppressing the press. 1863. Library of Congress.

However, the chief subject of the book is not the Civil War, but the war waged against the foe that was “nearly as dangerous as armed Rebels: Antiwar, anti-administration, anti-recruitment newspaper editors.” According to Holzer, Lincoln and his administration were fighting two parallel wars: one to preserve the Union and eventually free the slaves and another to preserve the support of public opinion. The latter was especially important to achieve; so much so that the Lincoln administration was occasionally willing to turn “a blind eye to the First Amendment in the interest of national security.” This included banning pro-peace newspapers, shutting down newspaper offices, confiscating printed materials, and imprisoning reporters, editors, and publishers that sympathized with the South or opposed the war in anyway. Although Lincoln and his administration’s actions are at the center of the publication, there is a far larger cast of characters that is interwoven throughout.

Leading political and journalistic figures’ roles in “the most divisive era in American history” determined the course of Lincoln’s career. One of these figures was Stephen Douglas, a fierce competitor of Lincoln for the Senate and presidency for twenty years, whose name along with Lincoln’s was constantly both praised and criticized in the press. As much as Douglas and Lincoln wanted to control the press and “public sentiment,” they first had to yield to the three most influential press gods of the time: “The Old Philosopher” Horace Greeley, “The Little Villain” Henry J. Raymond, and “His Satanic Majesty” James Gordon Bennett.

Greeley of the New York Tribune, an avid abolitionist, offered both “glowing praise and harsh criticism” of Lincoln, while Raymond of the New York Times, “a moderate Republican,” more often than not supported him. Bennett of the New York Herald, “a racist Democrat” and a master of profanity, was Lincoln’s biggest critic. These men either built up Lincoln or tore him down with brute force. With a simple editorial, they could sway the public’s feelings towards the war and the president. The three of them made their livings playing a dirty game, but sometimes Lincoln out-played the masters.

Holzer presents a thoroughly researched and informative history that enables readers to see a side of Lincoln that unhinges their belief in “Honest Abe.” The book unearths the stories of important men that shaped Lincoln as a politician and destroys the ‘marble statue’ icon in order to freely explore the complex human being who was our sixteenth president. Although many academic historians and book reviews have showered praise on the book, the public’s opinion has been a series of mixed reviews. In the comments section on Amazon and Goodreads, many people commend Holzer for the sheer amount research he put into his book, but they feel it is just too much. One reader even said that he felt “physically tired after reading the entire book.”

I read the book over the course of this past summer and I agree with the public. This book is a bottomless well of information with a bibliography that goes on for miles! There was a lot to comprehend and completing the book was indeed a physical feat. But although it could be long-winded at times, Holzer’s book is a valuable addition to the academic research on Lincoln. I recommend reading it in parts over a long period of time, because once you start this 733-page book you’re in for the long haul.


Sources:

Holzer, Harold. Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014.

Holzer, Harold. “Stop the Presses!” Civil War Times, December 2014.

Morris, James McGrath. “Book Review: ‘Lincoln and the Power of the Press,’ by Howard Holzer.” Washington Post. Last modified October 20, 2014. Accessed October 2, 2015.

Perry, Matthew. Comment. August 31, 2014 on “Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public by Harold Holzer.” Goodreads. Accessed October 19, 2015.

Reynolds, David S. “’Lincoln and the Power of the Press’ by Harold Holzer.” New York Times. Last modified October 31, 2014. Accessed October 1, 2015.

Wills, Garry. “How Lincoln Played the Press.” New York Review of Books. Last modified November 6, 2014. Accessed October 1, 2015.

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