Historicizing the Free Speech Debate: Harold Holzer on Lincoln and Censorship

By Annika Jensen ’18

Before attending Harold Holzer’s Lincoln Lyceum lecture entitled “Lincoln and the Press: Master or Monster?” I really believed that today’s media presence was the craziest this nation had ever seen. Mr. Holzer insisted otherwise.


Harold Holzer spoke on February 23 at Gettysburg College. Photograph by the author.
Harold Holzer spoke on February 23 at Gettysburg College. Photograph by the author.

“I invite you to imagine the press culture of the mid-19th century,” the scholar told his audience, proceeding to illustrate the world of partisan journalism of the Civil War era: newspapers had no shame; they were open about their opinions and their agendas, and every aspect of the news was opinionated. Moreover, they were omnipresent, as nearly every major city had a paper for each political party. In the years preceding the war, the press particularly had fun with the Lincoln-Douglas debates, opposing newspapers disputing whether, when Lincoln was carried away by his supporters after one debate, he was lifted up out of the excitement of his followers or his own exhaustion and defeat.

Before getting into the meat of the lecture, Holzer specified that Congress never made or passed any law during the Civil War that acted against the First Amendment. However, President Lincoln and his administration took considerable measures against anti-war and anti-government newspapers that threatened to incite Americans against Lincoln, measures which are still debated on moral grounds today. Throughout the war, the Lincoln Administration and the Union Army initiated the suppression of about 200 newspapers in the North and in border states.

In the early years of the war, as political partisanship began to disintegrate in the South and intensify in the North, press violence became an increasingly common phenomenon. Abolitionist papers were threatened by more conservative media sources, and the presence of anti-war sentiment grew within the world of journalism. The event that particularly incited the Lincoln Administration was the First Battle of Bull Run: while the president was trying to encourage enlistment, the media response to the battle proved disastrous for that cause. Newspapers printed scathing criticism of the Union Army, and it became obvious that a number of powerful editors were not as pro-enlistment as the president would have hoped. In fact, five democratic New York newspapers were indicted after the battle for displaying encouragement for the Confederate Army.

Thus, journalists, publishers, and editors faced strict oversight by the Lincoln administration. The press in border states was monitored especially closely. Some writers were imprisoned, including Francis Scott Key’s grandson, Francis Key Howard. William Howard Russell, an Irish war correspondent, lost his credentials for saying that the Union Army behaved shamefully at Bull Run and left the United States as a result. Furthermore, writers or publishers who found themselves in trouble were tried at military tribunals, not on regular courts. William T. Sherman was known to court-martial journalists, and he banned the press from his camps. Furthermore, there did not seem to be much condemnation of this censorship of the media by Republican editors.

However, Holzer ended his lecture by specifying that Lincoln should not be condemned for the actions he took against the media during the Civil War. Rebellion, Holzer claimed, is a unique situation, and the president would have been wary of traitors and spies. The censorship he practiced was only a last resort or a precautionary measure. Honest Abe does not get a complete pass, of course, but Holzer insisted that the American press has never had complete freedom, nor will it ever. He left his audience with a question to ponder: should Lincoln’s hold on the press be condemned or celebrated?

One thought on “Historicizing the Free Speech Debate: Harold Holzer on Lincoln and Censorship”

  1. Abe gets way too much of a pass here. The excuses for government intimidation and suppression of the press presented are the ones always presented to justify erosion of Liberty

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