Newspapers & War Leaders

Abraham Lincoln and Journalists

Abraham Lincoln began his political life as an avid newspaper reader – using his position as a postmaster in rural Illinois to read all the papers that came through his hands. When Lincoln became president in 1861, however he quickly lost his taste for perusing articles about himself and his administration. Having spent a lifetime educating himself by reading periodicals, he had reached a point where the nearby telegraph office in the War Department was a far more important source of reliable information. “Lincoln dismissed press critics,” wrote historian Michael Burlingame, “saying ‘we can afford to pass them by with the dying words of the Massachusetts statesman [Daniel Webster] “we still live.” I am sure they don’t worry me any, and I reckon they don’t benefit the parties who write them.’”1

Newspapers – and newspaper editors – were a vital part of the Illinois in which Lincoln grew to political maturity. It was not uncommon for towns of modest size to have two or more newspapers, each representing a different political point of view. Historian Allen Guelzo observed: “One Peoria editor estimated [that] anyone in the state who could borrow or raise three hundred dollars could set up a print shop and begin issuing a newspaper and, with less than a thousand subscribers, still turn a profit.”2 Lincoln understood editors’ importance as opinion leaders and was solicitous of newspaper editors from the beginning of his political career. Indeed, understanding the importance of the German-American vote in the state, Lincoln in 1859 financed German-American newspaper, Illinois Staats Anzeiger. (President Lincoln later appointed the editor, Theodore Canisius, as U.S. consul in Vienna.) “The Chicago Press and Tribune, along with the Springfield Illinois State Journal, in 1858 had become virtual organs for Lincoln,” noted historian William C. Harris. “They would contribute significantly to his political rise not only in the state but also in the greater West. From an early age, Lincoln had recognized the importance of newspapers, and he had read them avidly for political information and ideas.”3 Guelzo noted the political importance of editors: “In the hinterland, editors of newspaper became the equivalent of national (and state, county, and municipal) party secretaries, using their papers as the vehicles for publishing party news, drawing the party line, and printing the party ballots. And sometimes not just secretaries: in the 1840s, seven onetime editors sat in the U.S. Senate, having risen through the ranks from editors to patronage appointees to candidates.”4

Washington was a multi-newspaper town during the Civil War – hosting the National Intelligencer, Evening Star, Morning Chronicle, National Republican, and Constitutional Union. It was also the headquarters for coverage of news from disparate war theaters. “For newspaper public opinion he cared little,” confirmed Lincoln aide William O. Stoddard. “At one time in 1861 he directed me to make a regular synopsis, every morning, of what I might deem the most important utterances of the leading public journals. I kept it up for a fortnight, and gave it up in utter despair of securing his attention to the result of my labors. He knew the people so much better than the editors did, that he could not bring himself to listen with any patience to the tissue of insane contradictions which then made up the staple of the public press.”5

Still, Lincoln understood the symbiotic relationship between the presidency and the press and used it to his advantage. Some newspaper editors like the New York Times’ Henry J. Raymond, Albany’s Thurlow Weed, and Pennsylvania’s Alexander McClure were also important Republican political leaders and advisors. Some newspaper editors like the Chicago Tribune’s Joseph Medill, New York Tribune’s Horace Greeley and the New York Herald’s James Gordon Bennett were men whose influence Lincoln needed to cultivate in order to preserve northern unity. “Lincoln exceeded all previous presidents in what he did for the newspaper publishers, editors, and reporters who backed him,” wrote historian Charles Bracelen Flood. “A simple form of this involved Lincoln’s increasing the amount of required public notices and other government advertising in their papers, but he also appointed forty journalists to positions that included governor of Utah Territory, consul general at Paris, and commissioner to the Hawaiian Islands.”6
Lincoln used public letters as important instruments of his state policy. The first major instance was his reply to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley’s “open letter” in August 1862. Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “Lincoln’s unprecedented public letter caused a sensation. ‘So novel a thing as a newspaper correspondence between the President and an editor excites great attention,’ noted a journalist; but ’Mr. Lincoln does so many original things that everybody has ceased to be surprised at him, and hence the violation of precedent in this matter does not provoke so much comment as might be expected.’”7 Lincoln monitored both the news and his correspondence for trends in public opinion. Historian Carwardine noted: “From editors and political leaders Lincoln learnt that military events had achieved what the clamor of radical Republicans had signally failed to do: secure unusual political convergence around a policy of military emancipation, since slavery was now increasingly regarded as ‘the lever power of the rebellion’.”8

Lincoln reached out even to journalists like Simon Hanscom from frequently hostile New York Herald. Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “During the Civil War, Hanscom would become Lincoln’s favorite journalist. In 1863, the well-informed Noah Brooks…asserted that Hanscom, ‘a pushing and persevering man, has managed to so ingratiate himself with the President that he has almost exclusive access to the office of the Executive, and there obtains from our good-natured Chief Magistrate such scanty items of news as he is willing to give out for publication.’ Hanscom laid the foundations for his status as presidential insider during the 1860 campaign. Lincoln’s cultivation of Hanscom was yet another example of his solicitude for the press and his subtle manipulation of it to ensure favorable coverage for him and his party.”9

President Lincoln worked on the expectations which newspapers created for the war – telling one journalist that newspapers were often “ahead of the hounds.”10 Historian Richard J. Carwardine wrote: “Lincoln himself composed a few articles specifically for the newspapers and gave careful thought to where his public letters should first appear before they were copied Union-wide. He controlled the press’s access to his private meetings, allocated lucrative government printing contracts to selected Republican papers, and rewarded loyal editors and correspondents with well-paid jobs at home and abroad. Unsurprisingly, loyal correspondents made up the presidential trainload to Gettysburg in November 1863, their place on the platform assured; hundreds of local papers subsequently printed and celebrated Lincoln’s speech, in repudiation of Democratic ridicule of a ‘silly, flat and dish-watery utterance’. Probably most important of all, Lincoln, though not dependably accessible to reporters, made sure his door was open when it needed to be.”11

The president worried about newspapers mangling his statements. He declined to give an advance copy to the Associated Press of his letter to James Conkling to be read at a Union rally in Springfield, Illinois in September 1863. According to journalist Noah Brooks, “On the day before its delivery he had refused an advance copy to the Washington agent of the Associated Press, saying that, though solemn promises not to publish had repeatedly been given, he had found the practice of furnishing advance copies to newspaper to be a source of endless mischief. That night the [New York Evening] Post published the letter, and it was telegraphed back to Washington before it was read at the Springfield Convention.”12 Indeed, it had been mangled.

President Lincoln was used to newspaper abuse during the Civil War. When in the newspapers criticized President Lincoln for commenting on Shakespeare to actor James H. Hackett, Lincoln wrote him: I have not been much shocked by the newspaper comments upon it. Those comments constitute a fair specimen of what has occurred to me through life. I have endured a great deal of ridicule without much malice; and have received a great deal of kindness, not quite free from ridicule. I am used to it.’”13

Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s attitude toward newspapers was more conflicted. After all, he made much of his living from writing for magazines and newspapers in the decade before World War II. Still in 1929, Churchill told his son as they drove through Canada: “Fancy cutting down those beautiful trees we saw this afternoon to make pulp for those bloody newspapers, and calling it civilization.”14 On a daily basis, Churchill read nine British newspapers. According to aide John Peck, “He always did this himself and never relied on any press reader or system of clipping or marking. He was an expert skimmer.”15 The newspapers usually arrived at around midnight so Churchill could read them before he retired.16
During the war, Churchill did not always like what he read. “At the War Cabinet on October 7 [1940], Churchill mentioned in particular two Sunday Pictorial articles of September 29 and October 6, the latter of which had contained criticism by H.G. Wells to the effect that until the Army was better led, ‘we stood no chance of beating the Germans’. There had, Churchill said, been ‘scurrilous’ attacks on several members of the Government in both the Sunday Pictorial and the Daily Mirror, and he wanted to consider a criminal prosecution against the two papers,” wrote biographer Martin Gilbert.17 In November 1940, Churchill wrote the New Zealand prime minister: “We dwell under a drizzle of carping criticism from a few members and from writers in certain organs of the Press. This has an irritating effect and would not be tolerated in any other country exposed to our present stresses. On the other hand, it is a good thing that any Government should be kept keen and made aware of any shortcomings in time to remedy them.”18 Churchill occasionally met with newspaper editors “with a view to damping down their criticisms.”19

In the spring of 1941, Churchill removed General Archibald Wavell as Britain’s commander in the Middle East. Wavell’s inherent decency was demonstrated in September 1941 when Wavell read a magazine report alleging that Wavell had been removed from his Mideast post because of Churchill’s jealousy of him. “I am writing to the sender of the magazine to say how much I resent this sort of thing and how harmful it is to our cause; if there is anything else I can do to stop it I would of course do it.” By then commanding British forces in India, Wavell wrote Churchill: “You are carrying the heaviest burden of responsibility any man has ever shouldered, and I am very sorry if the Press add to your burdens in this way.”20

Newspaper coverage often aggravated the prime minister. “A few critical or scathing speeches, a stream of articles in the newspapers, showing how badly the war is managed and how incompetent are those who bear the responsibility – these obtain the fullest publicity; but the marvellous services of seamanship and devotion, and the organization behind them, which prove every stage and step the soundness of our national life; the inconquerable, the inexhaustible adaptiveness and ingenuity of the British mind, the iron, unyielding, unwearying tenacity of the British character, by which we live, by which alone we can be saved, and by which we shall certainly be saved – and save the world – these, though fully realized by our foes abroad, are sometimes overlooked by our friends at home.”21

In March 1942, Churchill grew frustrated with newspaper coverage of the war and wrote Australian Prime Minister John Curtin: “A small section of the foreign or overseas correspondents make a specialty of decrying the British war effort to America and Australia.”22 In June 1942, Churchill was infuriated by an article in the American TIME magazine, which he described as a “vicious rag.”23 In August 1942 when Churchill visited Moscow, he joked to Stalin “that he wished he could control the British press as M. Stalin controlled the Soviet press.”24 On occasion, Churchill’s government did. Churchill developed pneumonia is mid-February, 1943. With difficulty, he was forced to rest as his body battled his fever. Martin Gilbert noted that as “Churchill lay ill in London, the extent of his illness [was] a well kept secret.”25

As with most operations of the war, Churchill kept tabs on newspaper coverage – even in America. In September 1943, the half-American Churchill delivered a highly-publicized speech on Anglo-American relations at Harvard University after a summit conference in Quebec. “I should like a tabular report of the reactions of all important Americans newspapers to my Harvard statement, showing which are for and which against.”26 At a press conference at the end of the Quebec Conference in September 1944, Prime Minister Churchill declared: “A curious feature in this conference has struck me. I read some of the papers when I am over here, these great big papers about an inch thick – (laughter) – very different from the little sheets which we get in Great Britain.”27 Churchill then went on to refute what he read.

Compared to Lincoln, Churchill actually had much more ability to control the news at home. For example, Churchill suppressed of a report about the deaths of 172 London residents w killed during a panic at the Bethnal Green subway station because he objected to “giving such limelight to this incident.” He did not want to contradict the government’s earlier contention that there had been “no panic.”28 One issue on which the newspapers did cause Churchill trouble was their pressure to open a second front against Germany in Europe – something Churchill stoutly opposed until he felt that the Anglo-American forces were ready. Leftists saw the second front as a necessary support for the Russian campaign against Germany in eastern Europe. Churchill Historian Richard Holmes wrote that “the ‘Second Front Now’ campaign was taken up by the Daily Mirror and its rival the daily Express, mass circulation newspapers that all politicians took very seriously indeed….the Canadian-born Lord Beaverbrook, proprietor of the Express, resigned as Minister of Supply in order to pursue the campaign and may have believed he was strengthening Winston’s hand against die-hard Tories and Labour anti-Communists alike.”29

During World War II, Churchill never felt the fury of editorial criticism the way President Lincoln did during the Civil War. “Few presidents suffered more from editorial abuse than Lincoln,” observed journalism historian Edwin Emery. “Opposition editors and disappointed favor-seekers accused him in print of vicious deeds, which the patient President usually ignored. He was falsely accused of drawing his salary in gold bars, while his soldiers were paid in deflated greenbacks. He was charged with drunkenness while making crucial decisions with granting pardons to secure votes, and with needless butchering of armies as the result of his lust for victories. Once he was accused of outright treason. Typical of his press detractors was the La Crosse Democrat, a Wisconsin weekly, which said of the draft: ‘Lincoln has called for 50,000 more victims.’”30 British newspapers were often nasty to the Lincoln administration. Lincoln aide William O. Stoddard reported that especially Charles Mackay of the Times of London, who was particularly vicious, “went to the White House at Saturday’s reception, seemingly forgetting all he had said and written for the English public concerning the lady of that house. I doubt if he will make many more call there.”31

“Violent criticism, attacks, and denunciations, coming either from radicals or conservatives, rarely ruffled the President, if they reached his ears,” wrote painter Francis B. Carpenter who spent several months at the White House. “It must have been in connection with something of this kind, that he once told me this story. ‘Some years ago,’ said he, ‘a couple of ‘emigrants,’ fresh from the Emerald Isle,’ seeking labor, were making their way toward the West. Coming suddenly, one evening, upon a pond of water, they were greeted with a grand chorus of bull-frogs, – a kind of music they had never before heard. ‘Ba-u-m!’ – ‘B-a-u-m!’ Overcome with terror, they clutched their ‘shillelahs,’ and crept cautiously forward, straining their eyes in every direction, to catch a glimpse of the enemy; but he was not to be found! At last a happy idea seized the foremost one, – he sprang to his companion and exclaimed, ‘And sure, Jamie! It is my opinion it’s nothing but a “noise!”’”32

In their own ways, both Lincoln and Churchill tried to contain and direct the noise.

For Further Reference

  1. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 144.
  2. Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America, pp. 97
  3. William C. Harris, Lincoln’s Rise to the Presidency, p. 113.
  4. Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America, pp. 96.
  5. Michael Burlingame, editor, Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Report of Lincoln’s Secretary: William O. Stoddard, p. 148.
  6. Charles Bracelen Flood, 1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History, p. 24.
  7. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 401.
  8. Richard J. Carwardine, Lincoln: Profiles in Power, p. 205.
  9. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 669.
  10. Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 54.
  11. Richard J. Carwardine, Lincoln: Profiles in Power, p. 264.
  12. Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 66 (October 2, 1863).
  13. CWAL, Volume VI, p. 559 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to James H. Hackett, November 2, 1863).
  14. Richard Langworth, editor, Churchill by Himself, p. 55 (August 11, 1929).
  15. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 894.
  16. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 117.
  17. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 830.
  18. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 918.
  19. John Colville, The Fringes of Power: The Incredible Inside Story of Winston Churchill, p. 396 (June 7, 1941).
  20. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 1197 (Letter from Archibald Wavell to Winston S. Churchill, September 20, 1941).
  21. Richard Langworth, editor, Churchill by Himself, p. 56 (June 25, 1941).
  22. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 80 (Telegram from Winston S. Churchill to John Curtin, March 23, 1942).
  23. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 118.
  24. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 180.
  25. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 343.
  26. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 494 (September 10, 1943).
  27. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 967 (September 16, 1944).
  28. Norman Brook, Diaries of Cabinet Secretary Sir Norman Brook, March 4, 1943, New York Times, January 2006.
  29. Richard Holmes, In the Footsteps of Churchill: A Study in Character, p. 225.
  30. Edwin Emery, The Press and America: An Interpretative History of the Mass Media, p. 237.
  31. Michael Burlingame, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, pp. 139 (February 19, 1865).
  32. Francis B. Carpenter, The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln: Six Months at the White House with Abraham Lincoln, pp. 154-155.
Posted in Essays