The Journalists: Joseph Medill (1823-1899)

“Joseph Medill of the Chicago Tribune regarded the President as a kind of personal property, and when his faction seemed not to be securing its share of the patronage he raged: ‘We made Abe and by G- we can unmake him…'” wrote historian David Donald.1 The Chicago Tribune viewed itself as a founding stockholder in the Illinois Republican Party and as such entitled to regular dividends. Medill was editor and co-owner of Chicago Press & Tribune. After a career in Ohio journalism, he was introduced to Charles Ray by Horace Greeley as a possible partner in the purchase of the Tribune in 1855. Cartter later was named to a Washington judicial post.

A year later on May 29, 1856, Illinois Republicans held their organizing convention in Bloomington. Joseph Wilson Fifer later told the story of the Bloomington convention as “Mr. Medill has told it more than once to me.”

Medill said that after the business of the convention had been completed the time came for speech making. [John] Palmer made a great, a powerful speech. [Owen]Lovejoy was there and he made a speech. It was supposed that Lovejoy was the most eloquent man in the State. One other speech or two were made and then Medill said there was a call for ‘Lincoln, Lincoln.’ Lincoln got up back in the audience where he sat and said awkwardly and in a slow sort of way; ‘If there is no objection I will speak from where I am.’ The crowd would not have it that way and called: ‘The platform, platform, Lincoln, the platform.’ He came forward. Medill was there representing the Chicago Tribune, taking notes. Lincoln was introduced and commenced in rather a slow way, but Medill said he could see an unusual determination in the man’s face; he could see a suppressed animation in the man. Lincoln began slowly, but rose as he progressed, and Medill said it was the greatest speech finally to which he ever listened. He said that at times Lincoln seemed to reach up into the clouds and take out the thunderbolts.”2

Over the next four years, the Chicago Press and Tribune acted as a co-sponsor of Mr. Lincoln’s bids for the U.S. Senate and presidency. “No other large paper in the nation was so close to Lincoln and the heart of the Midwest in this campaign,” wrote Lincoln scholar Jay Monaghan. “The Press and Tribune devoted its entire resources to winning the [Senate] campaign. Reporters set to work writing about Lincoln from every angle. A Republican textbook of ninety-four pages was published. Lincoln’s speeches, along with [Congressman] Owen Lovejoy’s, were printed to familiarize the people with the horrors of slavery.”3 On June 25, 1858, for example, Mr. Lincoln wrote Medill to explain his votes supporting the Mexican-American War, which had become the subject of an attack from the Chicago Times. He closed: “It is impossible to refer to all the votes I gave but the above I think are sufficient as specimens; and you may safely deny that I ever gave any vote for withholding any supplies whatever, from officers or soldiers of the Mexican war.”4

Medill was present when Mr. Lincoln prepared his questions for the crucial Freeport debate with Senator Stephen Douglas. The questions which Mr. Lincoln ultimately asked his Democratic opponent helped Douglas win reelection but helped doom his campaign for the Presidency. According to historian Don E. Fehrenbacher, Medill was responsible for a later distortion of what happened at that meeting. “Medill’s recollection was that Lincoln showed him the questions on the train to Freeport and that the objected to the second one because it would enable the Little Giant to escape from a ‘tight place.’ Lincoln stubbornly insisted, however, that he would ‘spear it at Douglas’ that afternoon. Before the debate, other prominent Republicans, at Medill’s urging, argued the point with Lincoln, but to no avail.” Medill’s account of what happened, constructed more than three decades after the event, contained “scarcely a word of truth,” according to Fehrenbacher.5

Mr. Lincoln had written several leaders – including Chicago’s Norman Judd and Ebenezer Peck – to meet him before Freeport debate. In addition to preparing answers to the questions that Douglas had directed to him at the Ottawa debate, they apparently agreed to Medill’s suggestion to “put a few ugly questions” of his own to Douglas. So rather than restraining Mr. Lincoln in his questions, Medill actually promoted a tough approach.6 “Don’t act on the defensive at all,” Medill counseled. “Don’t refer to your past speeches or positions,…but hold Dug up as a traitor and conspirator a proslavery bamboozling demogogue.”7 Medill had continued to give Mr. Lincoln his energetic advice the next year, writing him before he set out on a campaign speaking tour in Ohio:

I send you Douglas’ late speech in Columbus Ohio. You will see the new grounds he takes and the new coloring he gives to his old dogmas I observe that you are invited to make speeches in Columbus & Cincinnati. You will draw big crowds and be well received. I know the Buckeyes well – being raised in that state.
Do not consider me presumptuous for offering a suggestion or two, viz: As you are not a candidate you can talk out as boldly as you please. There is no Egypt in Ohio Any doctrine you can teach in Bloomington will take in Columbus. Cincinnati is nearly as radical as Chicago. They are willing to obey the Fugitive law but want it repealed or modified and have so declared in their platform.
Dont act on the defensive, but pitch hot shot into the back of doughface and pro slavery democracy. Rake down the swindling pretension of Douglas that his Kansas Nebraska bill guarantees or permits popular sovignty. We have made a leading article on that subject in our today’s paper. If you will lay bare the fraud, delusion and sham of squatter sovrignty, you will do our cause in Ohio much service, as it will break the back of the Democratic pretense. You made some strong points in your Chicago speech a year ago on the drift and tendency of the principles of the Democracy, and the duty of patriots to resist the aggressions of the oligarchy Your peroration to the spirit of Liberty was capital. Look over that speech again. Do not fail to get off some of your “anecdotes & hits” – no people relish such things more than the Buckeyes. I have only one word more of advice to offer viz: Go in boldly, strike straight from the shoulder, – hit below the belt as well as above, and kick like thunder.8

Medill first preferred fellow Ohioan Salmon Chase for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. In October 30, he wrote that “Personally I prefer Gov. Chase to any man – believing that he possesses the best executive ability but if he is not considered available is not Old man the man to win with.” Medill added that “the friends of the gallant old Abe will never consent to put the tallest end of the ticket behind.”9 Eventually, Medill helped pushed Chase supporters to Lincoln and guarantee his nomination. Indeed, the Tribune editors operated in their own self interest to promote Chicago as the site of the Republican National Convention. Medill himself personally went to New York in December 1859 for a meeting of the Republican National Committee to lobby for Chicago. Since Mr. Lincoln had not yet emerged as a prominent candidate, the selection of Chicago did not seem to favor one candidate over another.

Meanwhile, the Tribune started boosting Lincoln’s candidacy and Mr. Lincoln started for Chicago before going to New York to give him Cooper Institute speech. Shortly after Medill wrote an editorial endorsement, “The Presidency – Abraham Lincoln,” the future candidate showed them his draft Cooper Institute speech and asked for their suggestions. They diligently provided them before Mr. Lincoln left the next day. When the speech was subsequently published, they looked for signs of their contributions and found none. Dr. Charles Ray said to his partner: “Medill, old Abe must have lost out the car window all our precious notes, for I don’t find a trace of one of them in his published talk here.” Responded Medill: “[T]his must have been meant for one of his waggish jokes.”10 By the time of the Republican National Convention in Chicago in mid-May, the support from the Chicago Press and Tribune was at a fever pitch. On the eve of the convention, its headline read: “The Winning Man, Abraham Lincoln.”11

Medill later claimed to have had a critical role at the convention at a point when Mr. Lincoln was within a few votes of victory. He deliberately sat with the Ohio delegation in order to influence their votes, most of which were pledged to Salmon P. Chase: “After the second ballot, I whispered to [Chairman David] Cartter of Ohio, ‘If you can throw the Ohio delegation for Lincoln, Chase can have anything he wants.’ ‘H-how-d-d’ye know?’ stuttered Cartter. ‘I know, and you know I wouldn’t promise if I didn’t know,”Medill declared.”12 Cartter switched the votes and Mr. Lincoln was nominated.

On May 27, 1860 Mr. Lincoln wrote Congressman Washburne that “this morning my partner, Mr. Herndon, receives a letter from Mr. Medill of the Tribune, showing the writer to be in great alarm at the prospect North of Republicans going over to Douglas, on the idea that Douglas is going to assume steep free-soil ground and furiously assail the administration on the stump when he comes home.” In early September Mr. Lincoln responded to a letter from Medill on political developments around the country. He concluded: “What you say about the Northern 30 counties of Illinois pleases me. Keep good your promise that they will give as much majority as they did for Fremont, and we will let you off. We can not be beaten, nor even hard run, in the state, if that holds true.”13

By the end of the year, Medill was in great alarm – this time about Mr. Lincoln’s prospective appointments to his Cabinet – especially the rumors that Pennsylvania’s Simon Cameron would be named Secretary of the Treasury: “We feared that Lincoln was too much indebted to certain factions and now it is proved. Lincoln is a failure. Perhaps it is best to let disunionists take Washington and let Lincoln stay in Springfield.”14 Medill was furious that Mr. Lincoln was once again ignoring the Tribune owners. He wrote partner Charles Ray: “If the reports from Springfield are true, there will not be one original Lincoln in the cabinet. It will be made up from many of his competitors, and enemies. The Cameron, Seward, Weed, George Low, Caleb B. Smith, Dr. [Charles] Leib, [Chicago Journal’s Charles] Wilson, John Wentworth tribe of thieves, jobbers and peculators will control ‘honest Abe’ body, soul and boots….We made Abe and by G- we can unmake him.”15 Not even the prized appointment of a Tribune staffer – John L. Scripps – as Chicago’s postmaster appeased the Tribune management.

After Mr. Lincoln’s inauguration the editors turned truculent. Medill and Ray quarrelled over the paper’s treatment of John C. Frémont’s military leadership in Missouri; Medill saw his incompetence before Ray. Medill became frequently critical of President Lincoln and moderates within his administration. He repeatedly tried to stiffen the government’s policy, writing President Lincoln after the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861: “The North West will back you with their last man dollar and bushel of corn. The authority of the Govt. must be made good. Do your duty; the people are with you.”16 There was often a note of asperity in his letters. “Our nation is on the brink of ruin. Any steamer may bring the news of European intervention – the people know that when that happens the Union is gone, and the curse of posterity will rest on the memory of those who fooled away the day of grace. The verdict will be, ‘the harvest is past, the Summer is ended, but the nation is not saved. To placate a few hundred Kentucky slave-masters this great Republic was allowed to be shivered by rebellion and foreign intervention,'” he wrote in February 1862.

Medill was a strong supporter of recruiting black troops and ignoring the sentiments of border states on this issue. The attitude of the editors of the Chicago Tribune became a particular annoyance for the President. By 1862, according to historian Phillip Shaw Paludan, Medill “echoed a growing opinion that ‘[General George B.] McClellan in the field and [William H.] Seward in the cabinet have brought our grand cause to the very brink of death. Seward…is Lincoln’s evil genius. He has been President de facto and has kept a sponge saturated with chloroform to Uncle Abe’s nose all the while, except for one or two brief spells.”17

Historian Mark E. Neely, Jr., wrote: “Medill became increasingly exasperated at Lincoln’s Cabinet selections, at the slow pace of the war once it began, and especially at Lincoln’s slowness to move against slavery. His letters became shrill: ‘for God’s sake and your country’s sake rise to the realization of our awful National peril,’ he told Lincoln early in 1862; Lincoln should not shape policies merely to ‘placate a few hundred Kentucky slave-masters.”18 Medill was a strong advocate of emancipation – and strong supporter of the Emancipation Proclamation.

In June 1863, the Tribune’s editors sent a letter to John G. Nicolay in which they complained that were told that the President did not see the subscription to the Tribune which they had sent. Nicolay responded that the Tribune was placed on a table in his office along with other newspapers, where both presidential staff and visitors read it. Then Nicolay proceeded to berate the editors – while denying that he was transmitting the views of the President: “I can assure you of what you ought to be able to guess – that the President’s task here is no child’s play. If you imagine that any man could attempt its performance, and escape adverse criticism, you have read history in vain, and studied human nature without profit. But was it not to be expected that those of the President’s friends, who knew him long and intimately – who understood his integrity and his devotion to the country and the cause entrusted to his charge – would at least abstain from judging him in the blindness of haste, and condemning him in the bitterness of ill-temper? It does seem to me that this much was due to generosity and charity for the fiery trial which he is called upon to pass through here, if not to political or personal friendship.” Nicolay concluded: “Let me add that I desire to continue reading the Tribune – reserving only the privilege of find as much fault with it as it finds with the Administration, which I know is unselfishly endeavoring to do its whole duty in the crisis.”19

It wasn’t the last time the Tribune editors bedeviled the President they helped elect. In 1864, a delegation from Chicago came to Washington protest the state’s draft allocation. Mr. Lincoln rebuked them generally for not supporting the draft and then rebuked Joseph Medill specifically: “And you, Medill, are acting like a coward. You and your Tribune have had more influence any paper in the Northwest in making this war. You can influence great masses, and yet you cry to be spared at a moment when the cause is suffering. Go home and send us those men.”20

Nevertheless, Medill continued to visit to White House. He never made a complete break – even though he sought postponement of the 1864 Republican National Convention in order to find an alternative to President Lincoln or to put some spine in his policies. Medill’s impatience with the President show through a letter he wrote him in February 1864: “It is not very likely that anything I may write will induce you to act on the suggestions offered. Nevertheless I deem it my duty as one of your friends to speak of some things from my stand point. I take it for granted that you desire a re-nomination and re-election, and the most influential and powerful friend you have got is yourself. Without your own assistance the efforts of your friends won’t avail much. You have it in your power by a few simple moves on the chess board to defeat the game of your rivals, and finally check mate them.”21 Sometime in 1864, Medill wrote presidential Nicolay a somewhat friendlier letter:

I am gratified at the president’s treatment of you and what he said in relation to my self. I was a little chagrined last May when I was in Washn. and could not get to see him I called four times and sent in my card each time, but was not received I thought it was unhandsome on his part but perhaps he was too busy. I have done as you know, first and last, a great deal for L. but never asked a personal favor of him to the value of a cent in return. We have accorded him a hearty support in any act of his, that was entitled to our backing. Of course we could not commend the proslavery features of the first 18 months of his administration. But while he has been true to anti slavery principles we have stood firmly for him and if he has chalked out a straight anti slavery policy for the future we are for his re?election against all others.22

“Medill often opposed Lincoln, but the pressure from the President’s friends in the Windy City was too great to permit the editor to line up with [Salmon P.] Chase,” wrote historian William Frank Zornow.23 According to historical writer Joseph Waugh, “By and large, [Medill] still supported his old friend. However, he was a radical in his convictions, tenacious in his policies, active and industrious on behalf of causes dear to him and often maddened by Lincoln’s hesitant, plodding approach to matters Medill thought urgent. Medill was an intense Republican who put the party above Lincoln in his scale of priorities. Occasionally he berated the president editorially, but he was convinced that God meant him to be reelected and there wasn’t anything that could be done to prevent it.”24

When Medill had been in Washington in May 1863, he had written: “Not having either time or inclination to hang round waiting rooms among a wolfish crowd seeking admission to your presence for office or contracts or personal favors, I prefer stating in writing the substance of what I would say verbally. Your army is melting away rapidly by battle, disease and expiration of term of service, and there is great delay in putting the conscription act into effect.” He then proceeded to give his advice on the Army draft.

The end of the war and the death of Mr. Lincoln did not end the Tribune’s role in Lincoln Administration controversies. A year after President Lincoln’s death, Ward Hill Lamon had a feud with Horace White of the Chicago Tribune. “It so happened that the despicable faction which he, as a hireling served, gave Mr. Lincoln’s administration about the only serious trouble it ever had,” wrote Lamon. “He himself was the ‘On to Richmond’ correspondent of the Tribune, and the mischief he did was precisely commensurate with his mean ability. Mr. Lincoln gave one of the Tribune editors the lucrative office of postmaster at Chicago, and another the largest cotton permit ever issued, (by the way, this was given to the only gentleman I ever knew connected with this filthy sheet,) and the Tribune office controlled a large amount of executive patronage in Illinois; but this generous effort to appease their cormorant appetites only stimulated them to publish more venomous and mendacious assaults upon him and his policy.”25

Medill was elected mayor of Chicago in 1871 before returning to running the Tribune for the remainder of his life.


  1. David Herbert Donald, Lincoln’s Herndon: A Biography, p. 153-154.
  2. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 154 (Joseph Wilson Fifter, speech to the Illinois Bar Association, 1880).
  3. Jay Monaghan, The Man Who Elected Lincoln, p. 179.
  4. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 473 (Letter to Joseph Medill, June 25, 1858).
  5. Don E. Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s, p. 124-125.
  6. Jay Monaghan, The Man Who Elected Lincoln, p. 124-126.
  7. David Herbert Donald, Lincoln, p. 217.
  8. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Joseph Medill to Abraham Lincoln, September 10, 1859).
  9. Reinhard H. Luthin, The First Lincoln Campaign, p. 73-74 (Letter from Joseph Medill to Archibald W. Campbell, October 30, 1859).
  10. Jay Monaghan, The Man Who Elected Lincoln, p. 142-145.
  11. David Herbert Donald, Lincoln, p. 248.
  12. Melvin L. Hayes, Mr. Lincoln Runs for President, p. 61 (Saturday Evening Post, 1899).
  13. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 111 (Letter to Joseph Medill, September 4, 1860).
  14. Jay Monaghan, The Man Who Elected Lincoln, p. 202-203.
  15. Jay Monaghan, The Man Who Elected Lincoln, p. 204.
  16. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Joseph Medill to Abraham Lincoln, April 15, 1861).
  17. Phillip Shaw Paludan, The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, p. 171.
  18. Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia, p. 208.
  19. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 115-116 (Letter to Chicago Tribune, June 19, 1863).
  20. Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher, editor, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 326 (Ida M. Tarbell interview with Joseph Medill, June 25, 1895).
  21. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Joseph Medill to Abraham Lincoln, February 17, 1864).
  22. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Joseph Medill to [John G. Nicolay], [1864]).
  23. William Frank Zornow, Lincoln & The Party Divided, p. 34.
  24. Joseph C. Waugh, Reelecting Lincoln: The Battle for the Presidency, p. 142.
  25. Ward Hill Lamon, Ward H. Lamon and the Chicago Tribune, p. 5.