Abraham Lincoln

When Lincoln Was a Media Gangster

A new book explores how Abraham Lincoln mastered media manipulation during his rise to Illinois state senator and then as president.

Harold Holzer’s Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion demonstrates that much as we critique contemporary political media for its manufactured outrage and partisan sniping, it’s almost gentile compared to 19th century standards.

That was a time when newspapers were by definition partisan outlets for one political party or another, and Lincoln, it seems, was something of a grand master in the dark arts of innuendo, insinuation and trolling.

Via the New York Review of Books:

[Newspapers were] blatantly biased in ways that would make today’s Fox News blush. Editors ran their own candidates —in fact they ran for office themselves, and often continued in their post at the paper while holding office. Politicians, knowing this, cultivated their own party’s papers, both the owners and the editors, shared staff with them, released news to them early or exclusively to keep them loyal, rewarded them with state or federal appointments when they won.

It was a dirty game by later standards, and no one played it better than Abraham Lincoln. He developed new stratagems as he rose from citizen to candidate to officeholder. Without abandoning his old methods, he developed new ones, more effective if no more scrupulous, as he got better himself (and better situated), for controlling what was written about him, his policies, and his adversaries.

For instance, early in his career, Lincoln and his fiancée Mary Todd wrote denigrating letters to the Sangamo Journal as ”Rebecca,” the former lover of rising Democratic Star.

As he campaigned for Illinois senator, he collaborated with the Chicago Tribune to ensure good coverage. As he began his run for the presidency, Lincoln financed an Illinois paper to do the same.

Later, as president, Lincoln “used patronage to recruit the loyalties of newspaper owners, editors, and reporters on a grand scale. Newspapering became the preferred path to becoming ambassador, port inspector, revenue collector, postmaster, and White House staffer.”

All the while — and even as president — Lincoln wrote anonymous articles for influential papers that praised him and his allies and buried their opponents.

Read on: New York Review of Books, How Lincoln Played the Press.

Image: Fake Abraham Lincoln in front of February 6, 1844 edition of the Sagamo Journal. The paper’s senate endorsement of Lincoln is in the lower right. Select to embiggen.


From Future Journalism Project Producers and Editors.