The Journalists

On May 30, 1859, Mr. Lincoln signed a contract with Theodor Canisius under which he let Canisius use a printing press Mr. Lincoln had purchased for printing a German-English newspapers. Canisius faithfully exercised his franchise to support the Republican Party and the printing press was deeded to him in December 1860. He went on to perform other faithful services as the U.S. consul appointed by Mr. Lincoln to serve in Samoa.

The relationship between Mr. Lincoln and journalists was generally symbiotic. They used him and he used them. It was natural because the line between journalism and politics was a thin one in the mid-19th century and it was one which Mr. Lincoln himself often crossed. Law partner William H. Herndon observed: “In common with other politicians he never overlooked a newspaper man who had it in his power to say a good or bad thing of him.”1

Newspaper editors played an in important role in politics and a particularly important role in Abraham Lincoln’s political life. Although he was bedeviled by some newspapers during the Civil War, Mr. Lincoln was also supported by key editors at important points in his career. Several Illinois editors were deeply involved in Whig or Republican politics. On February 22, 1856, Mr. Lincoln met in Decatur with Whig editors when they held an organizing meeting for the new Republican Party. “Surely it is significant that only one non-editor was invited,” noted historian William Lee Miller.2

Because of the partisan nature of most newspapers, it was a natural thing to do. As a legislator, Mr. Lincoln had literal entrée to the pages of the Sangamo Journal. Editor Simeon Francis allowed Mr. Lincoln to write editorials. James Matheny recalled that he carried “two hundred of such Editorials from Lincoln to the Journal.”3 In return, editor-publisher Francis looked out for Mr. Lincoln’s political and personal well-being. Mr. Lincoln shaped the content of Illinois newspapers and the editors of those newspapers shaped the coverage of his words.

Illinois journalist Horace White told of meeting Mr. Lincoln the day after Mr. Lincoln delivered an eloquent defence of the Declaration of Independence on August 12, 1858: “On the day following the delivery of the speech, as Mr. Lincoln and I were proceeding by steamer from Beardstown to Havana, I said to him that I had been greatly impressed by his concluding remarks of the day previous, and that if he would write them out for me I felt confident their publication would be highly beneficial to our cause as well as honorable to his own fame. He replied that he had but a faint recollection of any portion of the speech; that, like all his campaign speeches, it was necessarily extemporaneous; and that its good or bad effect depended upon the inspiration of the moment. He added that I had probably over-estimated the value of the remarks referred to. In reply to my question whether he had any objection to my writing them out from memory and putting them in the form of a verbatim report, he said, ‘None at all.’ I accordingly did so, I felt confident then and I feel equally assured now that I transcribed the peroration with absolute fidelity as to ideas and commendable fidelity as to language. I certainly aimed to reproduce his exact words, and my recollection of the passage as spoken was very clear. After I had finished writing I read it to Mr. Lincoln. When I had finished the reading he said, ‘Well, those are my views, and if I said anything on the subject I must have said substantially that, but not nearly so well as that is said.'”4

Mr. Lincoln’s editorial influence extended well beyond Springfield. Charles Ray and Merrill of the Chicago Press and Tribune took particular interest in advancing Lincoln’s senatorial and presidential ambitions – and were never shy about their direct participation in political negotiations. Thurlow Weed, Seward’s political aide and editor of the Albany Evening Journal, played a key role in the 1860 campaign and the politics of cabinet making. Henry Raymond of the New York Times served as chairman of the Republican National Committee under Mr. Lincoln’s administration. President Lincoln’s political brain trust included several reporters and editors – including Weed, Raymond, the Philadelphia Press’s John W. Forney, and Pennsylvania’s Alexander K. McClure. Mr. Lincoln’s cabinet even included one longtime editor and publisher, Hartford’s Gideon Welles.

Mr. Lincoln was accustomed to access to newspaper editors and access to newspaper editorial columns. The presidency left Mr. Lincoln as much time for such diversions although he certainly wrote some anonymously and he did write one column for editor John W. Forney, who was a regular visitor to the White House. Generally, Mr. Lincoln had closer relations with reporters than editors. Once, while attending a weapons test, President examined the way the gun limited escaping gas. “Well, I do believe this really does what it is presented to do. Now have any of you heard of any machine, or invention, for preventing the escape of ‘gas’ from newspaper establishments?”5

As President, some of Mr. Lincoln’s most notable communications as President were to editors. One such event occurred in late March 1864 when Frankfort Commonwealth editor Albert G. Hodges visited President Lincoln – accompanied by Kentucky Governor Thomas E. Bramlette and former Kentucky Senator Archibald Dixon. “They came to express their concern about the dissatisfaction in their state over the enlistment of slaves,” wrote Ronald C. White Jr. in Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural. “Lincoln asked his fellow Kentuckians if he could make ‘a little speech’ about why he felt obligated to change from his inaugural promise not to interfere with slavery to his course of action leading to the Emancipation Proclamation.”6 Mr. Lincoln turned that speech in a letter which he mailed his Kentucky visitors on April 4. Meanwhile, they had returned to Kentucky – “believing that they had been heard. Like many others who entered Lincoln’s office, they went in with their own questions and concerns, not certain they could agree with this tall, awkward president. They left persuaded that they could trust Lincoln about a very difficult and complex issue in their home state.”7

President Lincoln could be freer with those reporters and editors in whom he had confidence – like Noah Brooks and John W. Forney. Three of Mr. Lincoln’s assistants – John Hay, John G. Nicolay and William O. Stoddard – had past and future careers as journalists which they continued from the second floor of the White House with the benefit of pen names. Over a decade earlier, Mr. Lincoln had made some friendships among Washington reporters. Benjamin Perley Poore noted: “The election of Abraham Lincoln as President was very acceptable to the older Washington corespondents. They remembered him well in the XXXth Congress, when as the Representative from the Sangamon district, he was the only Whig in the Illinois delegation, then but seven in number.” Mr. Lincoln occasionally hung out by the House Post Office where story tellers and listeners often gathered. “After modestly standing at the door for several days, Mr. Lincoln was ‘reminded’ of a story, and by New Year’s he was recognized as the champion story-teller of the Capitol.”8

Mr. Lincoln understood that a close relationship with the press would allow him to determine how his message was presented to the public. Shortly after the legislative elections of 1854, Mr. Lincoln wrote editors like the Prairie Beacon’s Jacob Harding asking for help with Whigs elected to the Legislature in the upcoming election to the U.S. Senate. “I really have some chance,” he wrote the Paris, Illinois editor.9 After Mr. Lincoln finished delivering his speech to the Republican State Convention in Springfield in 1858, he immediately gave a copy of the speech to a Chicago Tribune so it could be sent to the Illinois State Journal, where it had already been set in type. Before that issue of the paper was printed, Mr. Lincoln himself proofread the text. After he delivered his Cooper Union address on February 27, 1860, Mr. Lincoln went to the offices of the New York Tribune, sat down next to the proofreader Amos J. Cummings, read the galley proofs of his speech, and then stayed around to proofread the revised galleys as well.

The relationship with journalists, however, was not always smooth. In 1848 Mr. Lincoln was irritated at Whig editors who had not printed either his or other Whig speeches. “With the exception of my own little speech, which was published in two only of the then five, now four Whig papers, I do not remember having seen a single speech, or even extract from one, in any single one of these papers.”10 As President, Mr. Lincoln had the opposite problem. Journalists wanted news – news the President wasn’t always ready to share with them. The Associated Press’s Lawrence Gobright wrote: “Notwithstanding the President’s caution, he was repeatedly astonished to find the keen-scented correspondents publishing important matters in advance of the time designated by himself.”11

President “Lincoln was sometimes distrustful of newspaper people,” recalled Gobright. In 1864, Mr. Lincoln wrote a letter to be read at a Union rally in Springfield, Illinois. Gobright asked Mr. Lincoln for a copy. According to journalist Noah Brooks reporters were stimulated “to the highest pitch” in their desire “to secure an early copy of the document. But to all importunities the president and his secretaries were deaf.”12

President Lincoln’s concern for security was in vain. “I can’t do it for I have found that documents given to the press in advance are always prematurely published,” Mr. Lincoln to the Associated Press reporter. When Gobright argued that his organization had never been guilty of this offense, Mr. Lincoln replied: “I can’t help that – I have always found what I say to be true.” Gobright responded: “Well, Mr. President, it is your own property, and you have a right to dispose of your letter as you choose. Good day.” Gobright made a second request the next day – again without success. But the same afternoon, the letter was published in the New York Evening Post and then transmitted to Washington where, according to Gobright, it “appeared exclusively in one of the Washington journals – the paper to which the President was in the habit of first turning his attention” – namely the Washington Intelligencer published by the President’s political ally, John W. Forney.

“Rushing into the acting private secretary’s office, he hastily and impatiently inquired how the agent got the copy of his letter – ‘Who gave it to him” etc. The questions were asked in such quick succession that the alarmed secretary could merely respond that he didn’t know, but that it was certain he did not obtain it there. He afterward made the inquiry, and found that the ‘premature publication’ was made by an enterprising editor, who spread it before his readers nearly a day in advance of its being read the Springfield Convention,” wrote Gobright. Forney rushed a letter to the President:

The appearance of your Letter in the Chronicle of this morning may surprise, but cannot, I hope, offend you, when I tell you it came to us from Gobright, of the Associated Press, and was received and published during my absence, and appears in most, if not all of the other daily papers of the Country. Even the Intelligencer of this morning has an abstract of it. To-morrow we will republish it, accompanied by a strong editorial endorsement. I make this explanation in Justice to myself, after our Conversation yesterday.13

Mr. Lincoln’s contacts with editors in Illinois intensified in the mid-1840s when he was seeking election to Congress. He used his friends with printing presses to force former Congressman John J. Hardin out of the race. “Hardin is a man of desperate energy and perseverance; and one that never backs out; and, I fear, to think otherwise, is to be deceived in the character of our adversary,” Mr. Lincoln wrote to Benjamin F. James on January 27, 1846. James, the editor of the Tazewell Whig, was a frequently consulted by Mr. Lincoln about the course of the campaign and about other editors as well. “I would rejoice to be spared the labour of a contest; but ‘being in’ I shall go it thoroughly, and to the bottom.”14 Editor James upheld Mr. Lincoln’s candidacy, writing in the Tazewell Whig: “We conceive it due to Mr. Lincoln, that the people of this district should pay a substantial tribute to his worth, energy and patriotic exertions in behalf of Whig principles.”15

Historian William K. Klingaman, wrote: “Lincoln treated the press quite differently. Although he granted few formal interviews, he went out of his way to cultivate friendly relations with reporters. Journalists were always welcome at the White House and Lincoln frequently interrupted conferences to answer a visiting reporter’s question or confirm or deny a rumor. ‘You gentlemen of the press seem to be pretty much like soldiers, who have to go wherever sent, whatever may be the dangers or difficulties in the way,’ Lincoln told a reporter for the New York Herald. ‘God forbid I should by any rudeness of speech or manner, make your duties any harder than they are….The press has no better friend than I am – no one who is more ready to acknowledge…its tremendous power for both good evil.”16 Sometimes the degree of access enjoyed by journalists was shocking. In his memoirs, the Associated Press’ Lawrence A. Gobright told the following story:

A despatch was received at Philadelphia and telegraphed to Washington, that our fleet had captured the city of Charleston. The two gentlemen who received the ‘good news,’ proceeded to the White House to communicate it to President Lincoln. It was about eleven ‘clock at night, and Mr. Lincoln had gone to bed. The doorkeeper said the gentlemen could not, therefore, see him. Insisting upon an interview, and being satisfied, from the nature of their errand, that the President would excuse the interruption, they prevailed upon the doorkeeper to disturb him. He soon returned, saying they would see the President in a style of costume in which no other visitors had ever seen him, and this was true. Entering the room, there was Mr. Lincoln, with no clothing on excepting his shirt. He invited his guests to be seated, and he himself took a chair. He inquired as to the date of their news; and on being informed, said he had three days later intelligence, and that ‘the bombardment’ was then going one.
The visitors began to apologize for disturbing his slumber. The President said it made no difference and good-humoredly bade them good night, with a profound bow.
The gentlemen of the party, from whom I obtained this incident, described the President’s appearance as not only novel but ludicrous.17

“Lincoln, though not dependably accessible to reporters, made sure his office door was open when the issue demanded it. Editors in whom he trusted, including the young Noah Brooks of the Sacramento Daily Union and Simon P. Hanscom of the Washington National Republican, were quite frequent visitors, ” observed historian Richard Carwardine.18 He wrote that “the president – and his White House secretaries – had available a variety of means to reward loyalty and broadcast the administration’s unbending Unionism. Lincoln allocated lucrative government printing contracts to selected Republican papers; composed a few articles specifically for newspaper circulation; and carefully placed his public letters to Greeley.”19

Gobright recalled an occasion when there was news of a Union victory which the War Department was withholding from reporters. “Failing thus to obtain them at the Department, several of the correspondents hastened to the Executive Mansion in order to secure the desired information from the President. The Cabinet meeting had just adjourned, and several of the members were leaving the room. The representatives of the press had no sooner sent in their cards to him than he welcomed them in a loud voice. ‘Walk in, walk in; be seated; take seats.’ Before they had time to announce the object of their visit, he remarked: ‘I know what you have come for; you want to hear more about the good news. I know you do. You gentlemen are keen of scent, and always wide awake.’ One of them replied: ‘You have hit the matter precisely, Mr. President: that’s exactly what we want the news.”

In a relaxed manner – physically and rhetorically – Mr. Lincoln proceeded to give the context of victory, the content of the telegram and his conclusions about its importance. “Gentlemen, he concluded, ‘that’s all there is about it. The public will be glad to hear it.” One reporter said: “We shall be very happy, Mr. President, to give the good news that direction.” They left – both the President and the journalists happy for their call.20

Mr. Lincoln, however, was sometimes critical of what newspapers printed. According to Noah Brooks, President Lincoln “often said that the worst feature about newspapers was that they were so sure to be ‘ahead of the hounds,’ out-running events and exciting expectations which were sure to be disappointed.”21 When necessary, Mr. Lincoln was not afraid to argue with editors. On October 29, 1860, Mr. Lincoln replied to a request for a statement of his views from George D. Prentice, editor of the Louisville Journal. Prentice contended that such a statement would “assure all the good citizens of the South and…take from the disunionists every excuse or pretext for treason.”

If I were to labor a month, I could not express my conservative views and intentions more clearly and strongly, than they are expressed in our plat-form, and in my many speeches already in print, and before the public. And yet even you, who do occasionally speak of me in terms of personal kindness, give no prominence to these oft-repeated expressions of conservative views and intentions; but buy yourself with appeals to all conservative men, to vote for Douglas – to vote any way which can possibly defeat me – thus impressing your readers that you think, I am the very worst man living. If what I have already said has failed to convince you, no repetition of it would convince you. The writing of your letter, now before me, gives assurance that you would publish such a letter from me as you suggest; but, till now, what reason had I to suppose the Louisville Journal, even would publish a repe[ti]tion of that which is already at it’s command, and which it does not press upon the public attention?
And, now my friend – for such I esteem you personally – do not misunderstand me. I have not decided that I will not do substantially what you suggest. I will not forbear doing so, merely on punctilio and pluck. If I do finally abstain, it will be because of apprehension that it would do harm. For the good men of the South – and I regard the majority of them as such – I have no objection to repeat seventy and seven times. But I have bad men also to deal with, both North and South – men who are eager for something new upon which to base new misrepresentations – men who would like to frighten me, or at least, to fix upon me the character of timidity and cowardice. They would seize upon almost any letter I could write, as being an awful coming down.” I intend keeping my eye upon these gentlemen, and to not unnecessarily put any weapons in their hands.22

Republican editors were a difficult group of political animals to corral. With some reason, they thought they had elected Mr. Lincoln. And with some reason, they thought they had to the right to dictate policy and patronage. And with greater reason, Mr. Lincoln knew he could never ignore current editors, no matter how troublesome they might be. Friendship and loyalty could be encouraged with patronage although Mr. Lincoln knew its power was tenuous at best. In the fall of 1864, Mr. Lincoln allegedly held out two patronage plums – one to the New York Herald’s James Bennett as Minister to France and one to the New York Tribune’s Horace Greeley as Postmaster for New York. These plums never seem to have been officially extended but the fruit of the offering could be tasted in the editorial support that Bennett and Greeley gave him in the general election.

Relations with editors were tricky because they were often not on good terms with each other – especially in New York and Chicago. Horace Greeley called Henry Raymond, a strong supporter of President Lincoln, the “little viper.” William Cullen Bryant was also alienated from Greeley. Fortunately for Mr. Lincoln, his rivals for the Republican nomination were on no better terms with many editors. Salmon P. Chase “made a major mistake in the fall of 1859 when he refused the invitation tendered to him by William Cullen Bryant and other leading New Yorkers to give an address in the city,” wrote Chase’s biographer John Niven.23 Seward had a running feud with Greeley, who had also been permanently alienated from fellow editor Thurlow Weed who helped give him his start as a successful editor.

Greeley Biographer William Harlan Hale recalled Greeley’s reaction to Mr. Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech: “Greeley, listening to the gathering force of Lincoln’s words, had reason to ask himself why it was Bryant, and not he himself, who had first seen this star. An ex-Democrat – and the editor of an evening paper, too – had beaten him. But at least Greeley would try to beat the rest of the press with the story. He advanced on Lincoln the moment his speech was finished, asking for the manuscript of his address. He got it and hurried back to the office, ordering that it be run in full. The other morning papers would now have to wait for their full texts until the Tribune released it.”24

In a weird way, this dissension among New York editors eventually worked to Mr. Lincoln’s advantage. When these editors individually opposed Mr. Lincoln’s reelection in the spring and summer of 1864, their personal animosities prevented them from getting together in an effective way. By the time the Democrats nominated George B. McClellan at the end of August, the editors had no choice. McClellan was too potent a nominee to ignore and too unpalatable to support.

Sometimes, however, editors took too great a credit for their role in President Lincoln’s political success. The editor of a small Missouri weekly came to the White House and claimed credit for first suggesting Mr. Lincoln’s candidacy. The editor said “the suggestion was so opportune that it was at once taken up by other papers, and the result was your nomination and election.” Unimpressed, President Lincoln concluded the conversation by saying: “Good-bye. I hope you will feel perfectly easy about having nominated me; don’t be troubled about it; I forgive you.”25

Journalists were among the most important beneficiaries of Mr. Lincoln’s patronage. In appointing one German-American editor to a consulate, Mr. Lincoln said: “Seward, here is a gentleman…who had the good sense to prefer you to me for President. He wants to go abroad, and I want you to find a good place for him.”26 In Lincoln and the Press, Robert S. Harper listed these diplomatic appointments

J.S. Pike, New York Tribune, Minister to the Hague
W.S. Thayer, New York Evening post, Consul to Alexandria.
George G. Fogg, New Hampshire Democrat, Minister to Switzerland
W.H. Fry, New York Tribune, Secretary of the Legation to Sardinia.
Rufus King, Milwaukee Sentinel, Minister to Rome
J.E. Harvey, North American and New York Tribune, Minister to Portugal
Rufus Hosmer, Michigan Republican, Consul to Frankfort
James Watson Webb, New York Courier and Enquirer, Minister to Turkey
Richard Hildreth, New York Tribune, Consul to Tripoli

Harper also listed these recipients of appointments to major postmaster positions:
George Dawson, Albany Evening Journal
A. M. Clapp, Buffalo Express
E. Cowles, Cleveland Leader
W.F. Comly, Dayton Daily Journal
A.P. Miller, Chillicothe Scioto Gazette
A.W. Campbell, Wheeling Intelligencer
John L. Scripps, Chicago Tribune
Peter L. Foy, St. Louis Missouri Democrat


  1. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, editor, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 304.
  2. William Lee Miller, Lincoln’s Virtues, p. 319.
  3. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 431 (William Herndon Interview with James H. Matheny, November 1866).
  4. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, editor, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 340-341.
  5. Francis B. Carpenter, The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln: Six Months at the White House, p. 155.
  6. Ronald C. White Jr., Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, p. 81.
  7. Ronald C. White Jr., Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, p. 82-83.
  8. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 218 (Benjamin Perley Poore).
  9. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 543 (Letter of Abraham Lincoln to Jacob Harding, November 11, 1854).
  10. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 491-492 (Letter to William H. Herndon, June 22, 1848).
  11. L.A. Gobright, Recollection of Men and Things at Washington During the Third of a Century, p. 337-339.
  12. Noah Brooks, Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time, p. 165.
  13. 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 3, 1863).
  14. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 354 (Letter to Benjamin F. James, January 14, 1846).
  15. Paul Findley, A. Lincoln: The Crucible of Congress, p. 31 (Tazewell Whig, February 21, 1846).
  16. William K. Klingaman, Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation, 1861-1865, p. 97.
  17. L.A. Gobright, Recollection of Men and Things at Washington During the Third of a Century, p. 328-329.
  18. 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.
  19. 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. 81.
  20. L.A. Gobright, Recollection of Men and Things at Washington, p. 334-335.
  21. Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. xxx (from Noah Brooks, “Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln” first published in The Harper’s Monthly Magazine, May 1865).
  22. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 134-135 (Letter to George D. Prentice, October 29, 1860).
  23. John Niven, Salmon P. Chase: A Biography, p. 215.
  24. William Harlan Hale, Horace Greeley: Voice of the People, p. 214.
  25. Francis Fisher Browne, The Every-day Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 490.
  26. Isaac Arnold, Life of Lincoln, p. 194-195.