On an April day in 1859, the editor of the modest Central Illinois Gazette was busily setting type in his West Urbana office when the paper’s owner summoned him to meet a guest. “Old Abe is here and he wants to see you!” With his sleeves rolled up and some ink smudges on his hand, William Osborn Stoddard reluctantly put down his stick of type for a chat with Abraham Lincoln. It took only an instant for the Lincoln charm to make a convert. “Few men can make an hour pass away more agreeably,” the beguiled editor told his readers a few days later.
In editorial offices across the state, and eventually in other states as well, Lincoln repeated this act. He could frequently be found putting his feet up on desks, telling droll stories, dazzling editors with his knowledge of local politics and leaving in his wake new allies who served him well the following year in his pursuit of the presidency, according to Harold Holzer’s “Lincoln and the Power of the Press.” Lincoln’s early press acumen is only one of many such moments in this fascinating work. In fact, as the author explains, a month later Lincoln sought to further expand his growing press influence by purchasing a German-language weekly with an eye on the rising power of the German vote in the West.
But if Holzer delivered only tales of the press-savvy rail-splitter, he would cover well-known territory. After all, 15,000 books on Lincoln have left little new to discover about him. Rather, Holzer’s ambitious goal is far more complicated and multifaceted.
He first reexamines Lincoln’s life through the lens of the press, “focusing not just on how newspapers reported on and influenced his ascent, but how his own struggle for power, and that of most of his political contemporaries, unfolded within a concurrent competition for preeminence among newspapermen to influence politics and politicians.”
Second, “Lincoln and the Power of the Press” examines how the leaders of this contentious era used — and were used by — the growingly powerful press. “It 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.”
The result is three books in one: a political biography of Lincoln written by a scholar who is among the most prolific chroniclers of the 16th president, a superb and engaging portrayal of the American press during a crucial moment in its history and that of the nation, and a riveting account of the intersection between a man redefining the presidency and a press establishing its modern role.
With nearly 570 pages of text, this is a weighty and rewardingly complicated work that should please readers who flocked to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s equally lengthy “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” Rather than the trio of politicians found in her book, Holzer selects three of the era’s most powerful newspaper publishers: James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald, Henry Raymond of the New York Times and Horace Greely of the New York Tribune.
Holzer’s account of these three larger-than-life figures is simply terrific. Here on full display is Bennett’s genius in producing a newspaper that spoke to and for the people; followed by the eccentric Greeley’s emergence as a rival in a no-holds-barred newspaper circulation war, which Holzer covers like a war correspondent; and, finally Raymond’s sober entrance as the publisher of the New York Times, a paper whose disdain for the hyperbolic style of the era secured a healthy readership. (Note which of the three papers still publishes today.)
While Lincoln serves as the narrative thread of the story, suffering and benefiting all along from the rivalry among the press lords, the genius of this work lies in Holzer’s rendering of the press in the mid-19th century. It was a pivotal moment when newspapers gained economic independence from political parties and obtained massive national readership. While remaining partisan, newspapers became a force in their own right.
Nor was it an inconsequential time. The debate over slavery and the ensuing war severely tested the limits of the First Amendment, and Holzer persuasively argues that the Lincoln administration deserved high marks for choosing to exercise less control over the press than it might have. “Rather than kill the press during the Civil War,” he writes, “the conflict and the Lincoln administration in effect gave it new life — especially if its practitioners were pro-Union and pro-Republican.”
The press partnerships with politicians and the subsequent partisan wars fought among the newspapers, which Holzer narrates with verve, forged the now commonplace alliance between politicians and the mass media, especially with regard to elections. For instance, Holzer recounts how the almost mythical stature of Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech, which helped him secure the presidential nomination, was less a consequence of oratory than the result of carefully orchestrated coverage benefiting both the candidate and the press.
Building on his book “Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President,” Holzer describes an exhausted Lincoln walking to the offices of the New York Tribune, in brand-new boots that painfully pinched his feet, proofreading and editing the speech while keenly aware that the hall had contained only a minuscule fraction of the city’s elibigle voters. Lincoln knew, as other politicians would learn, that the press now tended the gates of power in American politics.
Harold Holzer will discuss “Lincoln and the Power of the Press” at the National Archives on Oct. 23 at 7 p.m.
LINCOLN AND THE POWER
OF THE PRESS
The War for Public Opinion
By Harold Holzer
Simon & Schuster. 733 pp. $37.50