What Lincoln Could Teach Fox News

To insure a newspaper’s allegiance, Honest Abe bought the paper. Lincoln expert Harold Holzer talks about the relationship between politicians and the press then and now.

Elena Scotti/The Daily Beast

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.

Newspapers in Lincoln’s time were party-affiliated. How close a comparison are MSNBC and Fox News to that today?

I make the point in the book that you could go to New York City and find the very progressive New York Tribune and the very conservative New York World in 1864, the year Lincoln runs for re-election, and the editors of those papers are openly affiliated with parties. The publisher of the Tribune is a longtime Republican and had run for office as a Republican, and the editor of the World is one of the chairs of the national Democratic Party.

Did the reporters and editors put much value on on accuracy and objectivity, or were they more a part of the party machine?

Absolutely, top to bottom—from the publisher and editor down to the editorial staff to the reporters—it was all hewing to the party line. Objectivity was not part of the game. That would not get you a raise and a promotion. Subjectivity and exaggerating the foibles or bad reasoning of the opposition in political coverage was the norm.

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How do you evaluate, then, as a historian how well people were informed about politics if the most available historical record is the newspapers that people read?

That’s something of a mystery. These newspapers are preaching to the converted; Republicans read Republican papers. The only things they read from Democratic papers were digests that their papers would publish every week or so reporting on how foolishly the opposition press had covered the news. When you get voting changes, like when Illinois tilts from Democratic to Republican in 1860 and favorite son Lincoln is running for president, that has as much to do with population shifts as people being converted by newspapers. It is something of a mystery how these elections went back and forth—Democratic and Republican—before the Civil War because people are not getting either objective or opposition arguments in the press.

Do you think that kind of journalism made for good democracy in Lincoln’s time because it promoted engagement or bad for democracy because it obscured reason?

There is objective evidence that suggests that partisan newspapers stirred enough emotion and passion to translate into much greater participating than we have today. In the election of 1860 in which Lincoln won the presidency, 80 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. True, it was 80 percent of white males, but now we stress objective journalism and struggle to get 50 percent.

Garry Wills wrote recently in the New York Review of Books that you were “awed by Lincoln’s skills as a self-publicist.” Does he have that right?

Being reviewed by Garry Wills at all gave me goosebumps. He’s a hero and one of the most brilliant writers about history and modern politics that I know. I wanted to trace the career paths of editors in different regions where Lincoln was practicing politics, so I took him from Springfield to Chicago to the national publishers New York City and Washington. As awed as I am by all of Lincoln’s skills—political, literary and visionary—here’s another area in which he was better than the other guy. He knew this was a way to reach people, and he mastered the technique.

Tell me something interesting—preferably funny—about Horace Greeley.

He was funny looking.

What did he look like?

I don’t know if this was natural or if he had created a character almost like an actor, but Greely affected battered hats, long white coats, one trouser leg inside his boots and the other outside, and his pockets were filled with papers. When he walked, he would amble from one side of the street to the other. In New York City, he was a character who was immediately identifiable. He was prone to support and endorse and obsess about different fads—spiritualism, vegetarianism, utopianism, socialism, universal education—he was ahead of his time on that—and saying everybody should be on bran diets. He invited ridicule from his enemies and his competitors, and they called him The Philosopher because he constantly sermonized on what he considered to be the big issues of the day.

I also find his political ambitions somewhat ludicrous. He was constantly yearning to be a politician and an editor at the same time. Lots of people did that, but Greeley wanted to be governor or lieutenant governor or congressman. At the end of his life, he was a candidate for president of the United States. Nobody wanted to run against Ulysses S. Grant in his second term—he was probably the most popular president of the 19th century—and Horace Greeley was there to accept the nomination of some bizarre coalition and has a nervous breakdown after he’s defeated.

You were co-chairman of the Lincoln Bicentennial, which celebrated Lincoln’s 200th birthday in 2009. Tell me about the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation.

We try to support activities that promote education and public participation about the Lincoln story. We encourage organizations to apply for support activities that began marking the 150th anniversary of everything from the Lincoln-Douglas debates to next spring the end of the Civil War and assassination of Lincoln.

The 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination is coming up in April. What kind of commemorations and events should we expect to see?

I think you’ll see a lot of activity. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is going to display the actual bed where Lincoln died, which is a sacred sort of relic. That’s in Chicago. In Washington, Ford’s Theater will have activities commemorating the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s second inaugural, which was only six weeks before his death. For the assassination, they’re going to have a big exhibition at the new Ford’s Theater Education Center and a new play about the Lincoln assassination at Ford’s Theater.

You got back-cover blurbs on your new book from James McPherson, Amanda Foreman, and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Is that the Civil War trifecta?

[Laughs.] Yes! Doris just wrote a book [The Bully Pulpit], about Theodore Roosevelt and journalists, and it means a lot that she looked at my book that is trying to do the same thing in Lincoln’s world. There is no Civil War scholar better than James McPherson, and Amanda Foreman wrote so brilliantly in her book [A World on Fire] about England and the Civil War.

What other historians of the Civil War period writing right now do you like?

Nobody writes more clearly than James McPherson. He has a new book [Embattled Rebel] about Jefferson Davis as a commander in chief. I’m a big fan of Craig Symonds, who has written some great books about the Civil War. Gary Gallagher writes about the Union and Confederate armies. I could go on and on. William C. Davis has a book coming out [Crucible of Command, which is due in January] that is a dual biography of Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee at the end of the war that is a real page-turner.

Has Civil War and Lincoln scholarship reached a point of going back to the same well of primary sources and recontextualizing previous books?

Part of it is reinterpretation, and that has been going on since the first reminiscences written by the generals who commanded the armies. Each generation of contextualization provides a greater depth of analysis and understanding and interpretation. Part of it is based on evolving attitudes toward African-Americans and women and civilians and the common soldier that have expanded our interpretation of the Civil War.

But it continues to astound me that there are troves of archives that have not been looked at. Scholars are expanding their reach because of the web and finding a lot of new stuff. There is a project going on to redo the papers of Abraham Lincoln, which was wonderfully edited in 1953 but amounted to only eight volumes of text—much smaller than the Grant papers, which has 30 or 40 volumes. There are still Lincoln finds being discovered in the National Archives.

Princeton is still publishing new volumes of the Jefferson papers.

I know! I don’t think any publisher will do 40 volumes like that of Lincoln—I wish they would—but I think we’re going to get something online that will be more complete. It’s astounding 150 years later that there is still a lot of untapped original material coming out on the Civil War.

You have focused on individual events and ideas in your books about Lincoln rather than the cradle-to-grave biographical approach. Why have you not written a straight biography?

I got into the Lincoln field with a very specific specialty in mind. I started writing in my twenties and remember a mentor of mine, R. Gerald McMurtry, who said to find an area to specialize in that no one else had specialized in and become the leading expert. I like projects that evoke specific areas of Lincoln’s life. In the new book, I think I come close to a biography or at least a political biography because I take him from age 21 to his death through the lens of newspapers.

Is there a biography that you think is both a good place to start with Lincoln and a good page-turner?

I think Abraham Lincoln: A Biography by Benjamin P. Thomas, which was published 60 years ago, is magical. It’s one of the books I read when I was a kid. It has a section about life in the White House that made a huge impression on me. In our own generation, David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln is as good as it gets.