Tonight after dinner, Harold Holzer spoke to us on “The President, the Press, and the Election of 1864.” Contrasting with today’s pitifully low turnouts, Harold told us that in 1860 and in 1864, about 80% of the eligible electorate voted.
In discussing the press, Harold mentioned that the major cities had at least a Democrat newspaper and a Republican newspaper. Newspapers were part of politics then. They were partisan and made no pretensions of being objective sources of news. Editors were politicians and politicians were newspapermen. In fact, Lincoln himself bought a German language newspaper prior to the 1860 election.
The three most important editors of the time were James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald, the Democrat newspaper, Horace Greely of the New York Tribune, a progressive Republican newspaper, and Henry Raymond of the New York Times, another Republican newspaper. They were the most important editors because their newspapers were the most important newspapers in the country. All the other newspapers took their lead from them. News in the papers ran East to West, not West to East. These papers were not only daily newspapers, but they also had weekly National editions.
Greely was a reform-minded Republican who wanted to gain political office. He was in favor of ending slavery, and while he famously issued an editorial called “The Prayer of Twenty Millions” castigating Lincoln for not issuing an emancipation proclamation quickly enough, he also told Lincoln in 1864 that he should give up on emancipation in order to have peace. Greely got involved in a confederate peace plan to have a conference on the Canadian side in Niagara. Lincoln outmaneuvered Greely and Greely wound up humiliated. Greely became obsessed with getting anyone other than Lincoln elected. He tried to get Grant to run, Sherman, and even Rosecrans. Two weeks after Sherman took Atlanta, Greely even talked to party leaders about having another convention to dump Lincoln.
Henry Raymond was a Greely acolyte who had worked for Greely. Unlike Greely, he was successful as both a newspaperman and a politician. He was the keynote speaker at the first Republican National Convention in 1856 and was a Seward delegate at the Chicago convention in 1860. After Lincoln secured the nomination he editorialized for Lincoln and supported his election. However, in 1861 he wrote an editorial titled “Wanted: A Policy.” This was around the time of Seward’s memorandum to Lincoln saying there wasn’t a policy and offering to be the power behind the presidency. After Fort Sumter fell he wrote another editorial titled “Wanted: A Leader.” Lincoln invited him to the White House and completely charmed him. After that Raymond became an avid Lincoln supporter. In 1864 he was not only editor of the New York Times, but he was also the Chairman of the Republican National Committee and a candidate for the US Congress.
James Gordon Bennett was born in Scotland. He attacked Lincoln mercilessly. He was also accused of fomenting the New York Draft Riot. While other newspapers were shut down, the Herald was never shut down. In 1864 Bennett reduced his venom against Lincoln in return for Lincoln’s offer of Minister to France, which he eventually turned down. While Bennett didn’t support Lincoln in 1864, he also didn’t support McClellan.
Harold believes these three editors played a large role in Lincoln’s reelection.
Harold is a smooth, polished lecturer and it’s a pleasure to listen to him. I think he somewhat overstated the impact these three editors had on Lincoln’s reelection, but I also think he has a point that they made an impact.