Harold Holzer says Lincoln was shrewd in his manipulation of the media

Historians in the News
tags: Lincoln



So many books have been written about Abraham Lincoln—an estimated 16,000—that the Ford’s Theater Center for Education and Leadership in Washington has a 34-foot tower of Lincoln books that stretches three stories into the spiral staircase in the building’s lobby.

“They should just keep adding books until it busts through the ceiling and becomes the tallest thing in Washington,” says historian Harold Holzer, who is well represented in that tower, having written or edited 30-plus books about Lincoln. Holzer’s new book, Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion, a biography of sorts, traces Lincoln’s professional life through newspapers and through his interactions with the major newspaper publishers and editors of the day.

Holzer and I spoke recently about how newspapers in Lincoln’s time are similar to today’s politically polarized media, his all-time favorite Lincoln books, and how Lincoln scholars are still finding new things to say about the sixteenth president.

So, first things first, why in the world did Abe Lincoln buy a German language newspaper?

He bought it for a very simple reason: Immigration was a big issue in the 1850s. It divided the political parties as much as it does now, though in the Lincoln era each party wanted its own immigrants to come in and the other party’s immigrants to be banned. Irish immigrants were more likely to vote Democratic, and German immigrants voted Republican.

Lincoln wanted to make sure that as the German immigration wave spread west into Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, that the voters there would be not just Republican but pro-Lincoln. He wrote a contract that said all the editor had to do is remain conformable to the national and state Republican Party, do it for a year until the election was over in 1860, and then he could have the press back. Lincoln didn’t even want anyone to know he was the publisher. And at the end of the campaign, Lincoln gave the newspaper back to the editor and even appointed him to a diplomatic post to make sure he would have a nice living for the next four years.

Would that kind of publication be akin today to having a campaign blog or Twitter feed?

It’s hard to make a precise analogous comparison, but I think it’s more than that. Secretly buying a complete publishing operation to be produced in a language that Lincoln didn’t understand and aimed specifically at keeping a voting block loyal to a party would be beyond the pale today. Maybe the analogue would be organizations backed by people like the Koch brothers or George Soros moving in and doing campaign ads without identifying themselves...





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