The Journalists: John W. Forney (1817-1881)

John W. Forney
John W. Forney
John W. Forney
John W. Forney

John W. Forney was something of a political chameleon. He moved from being a supporter of James Buchanan to a supporter of Stephen Douglas to a friend Abraham Lincoln. Forney’s loyalty in the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska fight and in the 1858 and 1860 elections were to Stephen Douglas. In 1858, Douglas told Forney, I shall have my hands full. He is the strong man of his party – full of wit, facts, dates – and the best stump-speaker, with his droll ways and dry jokes, in the West. He is as honest as he is shrewd; and if I beat him, my victory will be hardly won.”1 In July 1860, Pennsylvania Republican Alexander McClure wrote Mr. Lincoln that Forney “is a deadly foe of Douglas! He not only regards him as faithless to principle: but has a personal grudge to gratify because of Douglas’s perfidy to himself.”2

“Forney, a career newspaper man and lifelong Democrat, founded The [Philadelphia] Press as a poverty-stricken little sheet on August 1, 1857,” wrote Robert S. Harper in Lincoln and the Press. “He had served four years as clerk of the House of Representatives and in 1856 was named chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic state committee. As the Democratic candidate for United States senator, he was defeated by Simon Cameron in 1857. When he launched The Press, flat broke as a result of his political campaigning, he purchased type on credit and hired the pressroom of the Sunday Dispatch to print his paper.”3

Meanwhile, Senator Douglas won the 1858 Senate election but lost the 1860 presidential election. Forney’s private allegiances switched before the votes were counted. He played an important role in keeping Democrats divided and helping elect Mr. Lincoln president. According to Robert S. Harper: “When, in December of 1860, The Press endorsed John Hickman, a former slavery-advocating Democrat turned Republican, to fill a vacancy in the United States Senate, it was open admission that Forney had joined the new party. When Lincoln took office, The Press made a public announcement of adherence to his administration by lauding the inaugural address and giving its editorial word ‘to strengthen Mr. Lincoln in all honorable endeavors to promote the general welfare.’ After Fort Sumter, The Press, called the secessionists ‘envenomed and implacable enemies’ and praised preparations for war made by the Union.”4

President Lincoln took a direct hand in advancing Forney’s fortunes. “With the editorial stance of the influential, mass-circulation New York Tribune increasingly uncertain, as Horace Greeley oscillated nervously between support for the administration and alarmed defeatism, the president had suggested to Forney that he turn his Sunday Morning Chronicle into a daily,” wrote historian Richard Carwardine. “Supported by government funds (in payment for printing federal notices and advertising) and given easy access to the White House, Forney developed a newspaper which carried a message of uncompromising Unionism daily to thousands of troops in the Army of the Potomac. His papers would set the tone for the pro-administration press in 1864 by being the first to endorse Lincoln’s renomination, when many other Republican editors doubted his ability to win. The president’s opponents called Forney ‘Lincoln’s dog.'”5 Forney was a faithful and powerful political animal – with newspapers in Philadelphia and Washington and a special edition for the army and California.

Mr. Lincoln rewarded Forney’s faithfulness. In March 1861 Forney was defeated in his bid to be elected as Clerk of the House of Representatives. Forney himself said: “Before I ever saw or knew Mr. Lincoln he wrote me a letter directly after his election in 1860 thanking me for what he was pleased to call my service in resisting the Buchanan administration, and proffering a friendship which never abated. When I was defeated for Clerk of the House in March, 1861, Mr. Lincoln called upon a number of Senators and asked them to vote for me for Secretary of that body.”6 On July 8, President Lincoln summoned his close friend, Illinois Senator Orville H. Browning, to the White House. Browning wrote in his diary that night:

“Just after the Senate adjourned between 1 & 2 Oclock P.M. Mr [John G.] Nicolay the Presidents private Secretary called & said the President wished to see me. I went up at 3 P.M. found him alone and remained with him til 5 1/2. We had a great deal of conversations upon all matters relating to our present troubles. He is for the most vigorous and active measures to bring the war to a speedy close, and totally opposed to any compromise of any kind or character. We also discussed the negro question, and agreed upon this as upon other things that the government neither should, nor would send back to bondage such as came to our armies, but that we could not have them in camp, and that they must take care of themselves till the war is over, and then, colonize &c. He also expressed me a wish that Forney should be elected Secretary of the Senate. Said he had rendered very important services to the administration, acting in good faith with it, and he doubted whether the support of Pennsylvania could be secured without him[.] He also stated to me the reason of Emory’s restoration to the army – but added that he had no personal desire in regard to his confirmation.”7

A week later, Browning recorded in his diary: “We nominated Forney for Secretary of the Senate I voting for him on the recommendation of the President & others, knowing nothing about him myself. Never having even seen him to know him. We afterwards elected him in the Senate.”8 Two years later in August 1863, presidential aide John Hay reflected Forney’s new status with his own diary entry: “Forney dedicated his new printing office today with a blow-out at the Chronicle Buildings on 9th Street. The President went up.”9

Forney was notable for his gruff statements of his opinions and positions. He was outspoken in his criticism of Postmaster General Montgomery Blair for delivering a speech in early October 1863. Forney had gone to see the President several days later with Congressman William D. Kelley. In the presence of Blair, Forney told President Lincoln that “his conservative friend, Governor [Andrew] Curtin, of Pennsylvania, desired the President to know that if the Rockville speech of Postmaster-General Blair had been made thirty days earlier, it would have lost the Union ticket in Pennsylvania twenty thousand votes,” according to journalist Noah Brooks. “To Blair, Forney also expressed his astonishment that he, a Cabinet officer, should have had the hardihood to utter such sentiments in public just on the eve of important elections in other States. Blair responded that whatever Forney might think of the matter, he had only spoken his honest sentiments at Rockville. ‘Then, said the angry Forney, turning upon Blair, ‘why don’t you leave the Cabinet, and not load down with your individual and peculiar sentiments the administration to which you belong?’ The President sat by, a silent spectator of this singular and unexpected scene.”10 It would be another 11 months until Blair did leave.

Forney was a social animal whose love of liquor and laughter made him invaluable to the President – in the Capitol, in the press and in Pennsylvania. “That Forney was a storyteller full of anecdotes, and a philosopher of so wide a tolerance that he was intimate with both the righteous and the wicked, did not lessen his charm for Lincoln,” wrote biographer Carl Sandburg.11 Presidential aide John Hay wrote that after wandering around Gettysburg on November 18, 1863, he met up with Forney, also there for the cemetery dedication the next day:

He had been drinking a good deal during the day and was getting to feel a little ugly and dangerous. He was particularly bitter on Montgomery Blair. [Isaac] McVeagh was telling him that he pitched into the President coming up and told him some truths. He said the President got a good deal of that from time to time and needed it.
He says “Hay you are a fortunate man. You have kept yourself aloof from your office. I know an old fellow now seventy who was Private Secretary to Madison. He has lived ever since on its recollection. He thought there was something solemn and memorable in it. Hay has laughed through his term.”
He talked very strangely referring to the affectionate and loyal support which he and Curtin had given to the President in Pennsylvania: with references from himself and others to the favors that had been shown the Cameron party whom they regard as their natural enemies. Forney seems identified fully now with the Curtin interest, though when Curtin was nominated he called him a heavy weight to carry and said that Cameron’s foolish attack nominated him.
We went out after a while following the music to hear the serenades. The President appeared at the door said half a dozen words meaning nothing & went in. Seward who was staying around the corner at Harper’s was called out and spoke so indistinctly that I did not hear a word of what he was saying. Forney and McVeagh were still growling about Blair.
We went back to Forney’s room having picked up Nicolay and drank more whiskey. Nicolay sung his little song of the ‘Three Thieves’ and we then sung John Brown. At last we proposed that Forney should make a speech and two or three started out Shannon and Behan and Nicolay to get a band to serenade him. I staid with him. So did Stanton and McVeagh. He still growled quietly and I thought he was going to do something imprudent. He said if I speak, I will speak my mind. The music sounded in the street and the fuglers came rushing up imploring him to come down. He smiled quietly told them to keep cool and asked ‘are the recorders there.’ ‘I suppose so of course’ shouted the fugler. ‘Ascertain’ said the imperturbable Forney. ‘Hay, we’ll take a drink.’ They shouted and begged him to come down[.] The thing would be a failure – it would be his fault… Are the recorders congenial?’ He calmly insisted on knowing. Somebody commended prudence He said sternly ‘I am always prudent.’ I walked down stairs with him.
The crowd was large and clamorous. The fuglers stood by the door in an agony. The reporters squatted at a little stand in the entry. Forney stood on the Threshold, John Young & I by him. The crowd shouted as the door opened. Forney said: ‘My friends, these are the first hearty cheers I have heard tonight. You gave no such cheers to your President down the street. Do you know what you owe to that Great man? You owe your country – you owe your name as American citizens.'”
He went on blackguarding the crowd for their apathy & then diverged to his own record saying he had been for Lincoln in his heart in 1860 – that open advocacy was not as effectual as the course he took – dividing the most corrupt organization that ever existed – the proslavery Dem. Party. He dwelt at length on this question and then went back to the eulogy of the President that great, wonderful mysterious inexplicable man: who holds in his single hands the reins of the republic: who keep his own counsels: who does his own purpose in his own way no matter what temporizing minister in his cabinet sets himself up in opposition to the progress of the age.12

Drunk or sober, Forney was a strong and vocal supporter of the President. Several weeks later on New Year’s Eve, 1863, Hay once again spent time with Forney, who was again leading a somewhat lubricated party. “Forney made several very ebrious [sic] little speeches. He talked a great deal about the President. The love of the people for him: his unconscious greatness: the vast power he wields and the vast opportunity afforded to a diseased ambition. ‘If the old man knew the loving thoughts and prayers that are rising for him tonight from Millions of hearts, the unconditional confidence and the loyalty to his person that is felt throughout this land, he could do or be anything he wished. But thank God he is incapable of abusing this trust, and the freedom of our institutions render impossible a devotion to any man at variance with the spirit of our government.” Forney added: “Lincoln is the most truly progressive man of the age because he always moves in conjunction with propitious circumstances, not waiting to be dragged by the force of events or wasting strength in premature struggles with them,” said Forney.13

After the release of the draft Emancipation Proclamation, Forney wrote the President: “Your Emancipation proclamation followed by that suspending the writ of habeus corpus against the sympathizers with secession has created profound satisfaction among your true friends; but it has also multiplied your duties. We shall now be assailed front, flank and rear by our enemies and if we would save the next national House of Representatives the power of the Administration must be strongly felt in every Congressional district in the free states. It is in order to invoke you, in the midst of your many troubles, to look at this subject that I will do myself the honor of paying you a visit on Monday next about 12 O’clock.”14

In June 1864, President Lincoln sent a letter to Erastus Corning and some other Democrats in Albany, New York. Forney was ecstatic: “From a full heart let me thank you for your letter to the Albanians. I have almost committed it to memory. God be praised the right word has at last been spoken by the right man, at the right time, and from the right place. It will thrill the whole land. I am just [pouring?] out a review of it for Marcey’s Chronicle.”15

After the Republican National Convention in Baltimore in June 1864, Forney editorialized that “the nomination of President Lincoln is the work of the people. With what reluctance after his inaugural he undertook his sworn duty against warring malcontents, and how tenderly and how forbearingly he has dealt with armed traitors, history will attest; for the history of Abraham Lincoln for the last three years is the history of the nation. By one party he has been denounced as a tyrant, but the past will be searched in vain for a parallel of one clothed with such vast authority who so little abused it.”16

In the summer of 1864, Forney wrote the President that he needed to go to Europe for health reasons. He said: “I want no office abroad, but I do ask of you some such recognition as will show to the foreigners that you appreciate me.”17 The President replied: “Your note announcing your intended visit to Europe takes me somewhat by surprise. Nevertheless I am glad for you to have the relaxation, though I regret the necessity which compels it. I have no European personal acquaintances, or I would gladly give you letters. I shall be pleased to see you in Washington before you leave, for a special reason, and the sooner you could come, the better.”18

Forney never left for Europe – perhaps because he could not stand to be away from the presidential campaign. After General George B. McClellan received the Democratic nomination for President in early September, Forney wrote Mr. Lincoln: “Can you tell me whether the arrest of the members of the Maryland Legislature was opposed by General M’Clellan, or whether it was recommended by him? A single word in reply to this will enable me to complete what I think will be a most damaging article to him for to?morrow’s paper. I am in the harness and eager for the fray. The Chicago ticket is a weak one in my opinion, but it will require all our efforts to defeat it.”19

Forney took an active role in the fall campaign in Pennsylvania, communicating directly with President Lincoln when necessary. In early August, he wrote President Lincoln to complain about the interference of the Philadelphia postmaster in the reelection campaign of a Republican Congressman: “The political condition of the district represented by the Hon Wm D. Kelly is such that your immediate interposition is necessary. He is clearly the choice of the Union people of the district for renomination, and I greatly fear if he should be defeated, for that renomination, by the malpractice of partisans who claim to be your friends, that we may lose the election in October.”20 Forney wrote Mr. Lincoln in mid-September:

I have been absent from Washington only three days, and write to you to assure you that our political prospects could not look brighter. And they are improving every hour. Still, there are some things to be done in our State to insure perfect harmony and success in November. [Governor Andrew] Curtin’s friends are cold. I need not remind you of the feud between them and Gen – [Simon] Cameron. We can easily adjust that, but a great deal of good could be accomplished, if we could produce a thorough reconciliation between Stanton and Curtin. I know no more magnanimous man than Edwin M. Stanton. Would he not be willing, for the sake of the common cause, for me to bring Curtin or [Alexander K.] McClure to Washington for a free conference or a “love-feast?” I know you have much on hand, but I commit this case to you, and will have the honor to call on you on Friday morning at 10 o’clock.”21

On election night 1864, Mr. Lincoln was given a telegram from Forney as soon as he arrived in the War Department’s telegraph office to see election returns. The dispatch reported that Mr. Lincoln led in Philadelphia by 10,000 votes. “Forney is a little excitable,” responded President Lincoln.22 Forney himself said he only said Mr. Lincoln “out of temper but once, and that was when I presented him the unanimous confirmation of a certain personage for a high office. ‘Why did the Senate not confirm Mr. ___ and Mr. ___? My friends knew I wanted this done, and I wanted it done to-day;’ and then he used certain expressions against the successful person. I looked at him with some surprise, never having seen him in such a mood, and said, ‘Why, Mr. Lincoln you seem to hold me responsible for the act of the Senate, when you must be aware of the custom under which that body acted.’ ‘Oh, no,’ was his reply; ‘I was not scolding you, my friend, but I fear I have been caught in a trap.'”23

As powerful as Forney was, even he occasionally ran afoul of others in the Lincoln Administration. In mid-March 1862, the Washington Chronicle published a story that detailed Union troop movements. The Philadelphia Inquirer published this report the day after the Forney paper was suppressed:

Secretary Stanton has today issued a written order to General James I. Wadsworth, who is now acting as military governor of the District of Columbia, directing him to suppress the number of the Washington Sunday Chronicle published yesterday and to take measures for the prevention of publication in its columns of any more information of army movements for the enemy.
It also directed the arrest of all connected with the paper, even to its compositors. The Chronicle is a spicy, enterprising sheet, owned by Colonel John W. Forney and edited by John R. Young, neither of whom was the author of the offensive matter in yesterday’s issue. It is believed that this, being the first arrest of the kind, that the warning will be sufficient without harsher measures being resorted to and that the parties implicated will be released without a reprimand. 24

According to Robert S. Harper, Lincoln and the Press, “Forney, who ran in and out of the White House and was as near to Lincoln as any man in journalism or politics, probably had the President smooth things over with ‘Mars,’ as the Chief Executive liked to call the Secretary of War. Nothing further was heard of the case.25

Forney’s social drinking led to a political scandal at Mr. Lincoln’s second inauguration. As Secretary of the Senate, Forney had a prominent role, but as host, he had spent the previous night drinking with new Vice President Andrew Johnson -had taken a drink on the way to the Capitol to fortify himself against his flu. “I can never forget President Lincoln’s face as he came into the Senate Chamber while Johnson was delivering his incoherent harangue. Lincoln had been detained signing the bills that had just passed the old Congress, and could not witness the regular opening of the new Senate till the ceremonies had fairly commenced. He took his seat facing the brilliant and surprised audience, and heard all that took place with unutterable sorrow.”26

Despite the role that Forney played in that farce, he had a sense of the President’s need for comic relief: “Abraham Lincoln was a character by himself, incomparable and unique. He was among the saddest of humanity, and yet his sense of the ridiculous was so keen that it bore him up from difficulties that would have broken down almost any other man. That he gave way to uncontrollable fits of grief in the dark hours of the war is a fact beyond question – that sometimes his countenance was clouded with sorrow, all who met him know; and yet he could, so to speak, lift himself out of his troubles, and enjoy his own repartes and the good things of others. Nothing gave me more pleasure in my frequent visits to him, as Secretary of the Senate and editor of The Chronicle, than to take with me men who would tell original stories in an original way; for I felt that if I could lighten his cares and brighten his gloom I would be conferring a real favor, and I was never half so welcome as when in such company.”27

Forney wrote in his memoirs: “In many respects Abraham Lincoln had few parallels. He was most considerate of the feelings and deservings of others.” Forney said: “If you visited Lincoln he never wearied you with dreary politics or heavy theories, or glorified himself or his doings. In every crisis he sought the advice, not of his enemies, but of his friends. To his convictions he was ever true, but his opinions were always subject to revision.”28


  1. John W. Forney, Anecdotes of Public Men, Volume II, p. 179.
  2. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Alexander K. McClure to Abraham Lincoln, July 2, 1860).
  3. Robert S. Harper, Lincoln and the Press, p. 110.
  4. Robert S. Harper, Lincoln and the Press, p. 110.
  5. Susan-Mary Grant and Brian Holden Reid, editor, Richard Carwardine, “Abraham Lincoln, the Presidency, and the Mobilization of Union Sentiment”, The American Civil War: Explorations and Reconsiderations, p. 82.
  6. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln, The War Years, Volume II, p. 464.
  7. Theodore Calvin Pease and James G. Randall, editor, The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning, Volume I, p. 477-478.
  8. Theodore Calvin Pease and James G. Randall, editor, The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning, Volume I, p. 481-482.
  9. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editor, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 69 (August 1, 1863).
  10. Noah Brooks, Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time, p. 126-127.
  11. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume II, p. 464.
  12. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editor, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 111-113.
  13. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editor, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 135 (December 31, 1863).
  14. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from John W. Forney to Abraham Lincoln, September 26, 1862).
  15. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from John W. Forney to Abraham Lincoln, June 14, 1863).
  16. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln, The War Years, Volume III, p. 103.
  17. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from John W. Forney to Abraham Lincoln, July 25, 1864).
  18. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to John W. Forney [Copy in a Secretarial Hand], July 28, 1864).
  19. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from John W. Forney to Abraham Lincoln, September 1, 1864).
  20. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from John W. Forney to Abraham Lincoln, August 3, 1864).
  21. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from John W. Forney to Abraham Lincoln, September 14, 1864).
  22. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editor, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 244 (November 8, 1864).
  23. John W. Forney, Anecdotes of Public Men, p. 176.
  24. Robert S. Harper, Lincoln and the Press, p. 180-181 (Philadelphia Inquirer, March 17, 1862).
  25. Robert S. Harper, Lincoln and the Press, p. 181.
  26. John W. Forney, Anecdotes of Public Men, p. 177.
  27. John W. Forney, Anecdotes of Public Men, p. 86.
  28. John W. Forney, Anecdotes of Public Men, p. 166-167.