Holzer on Lincoln and the press

Harold Holzer’s latest book is Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion, which David Reynolds just reviewed for The New York Times.  Here’s a sample of Reynolds’s review:

Abraham Lincoln has been portrayed in many roles — as emancipator, politician, military leader, orator, self-made man and others — but his canny manipulation of the popular press has received little attention. Harold Holzer, a prominent authority on America’s 16th president, opens many vistas on this fascinating topic in his new book, “Lincoln and the Power of the Press,” a monumental, richly detailed portrait of the world of 19th-­century journalism and Lincoln’s relation to it. Holzer demonstrates that even as Lincoln juggled many war-related demands, he kept a close eye on American newspapers and tried to influence them however he could.


Filed under Lincoln Historiography

19 responses to “Holzer on Lincoln and the press

  1. I’m looking forward to reading the book!

  2. Canny manipulation? Influence them (newspapers) in any way he could? How about arresting and imprisoning editors without charge and for an unspecified period of time. What about having government mobs destroy newspapers that didn’t approve of Lincoln’s policies. So much for the First Amendment, habeas corpus and other little matters of civil liberty. In fact, so much for the Constitution!

    • Michael Lynch

      Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution explicitly permits the suspension of habeas corpus in times of rebellion. Could you be a little more specific about the “government mobs”?

      • Habeas corpus can only be suspended by Congress and the Supreme Court ruled that only then when civil courts are no longer in session. Neither was the case under Lincoln. As to the other, it is very well documented if you care to look into the matter.

      • Michael Lynch

        It’s a little more complicated than that. As Lincoln himself pointed out in explaining his initial suspension, Congress wasn’t in session at the time he thought suspension was necessary. Lincoln did not think the framers of the Constitution would have intended a rebellion to run its course without the government using the power of suspension just because the legislative branch wasn’t in session to exercise the suspension power, so he suspended it on his own authority.

        When Congress met that summer, the Senate considered a joint resolution to approve of Lincoln’s suspension of the writ, but it didn’t come to a vote. When Congress convened in late 1862, lawmakers took up the issue again, and authorized suspension of the writ, which went into effect in 1863.

      • No, it is no more complicated than that.

        Lincoln could have called Congress back into session if he felt the need to do so but that does not change the facts that as long as the civil courts were functioning, Congress could not revoke habeas corpus and, of course, Lincoln couldn’t in the first place. He could ask Congress to do so, but unless the civil courts were suspended, he could ask, but Congress could not grant.
        Lincoln had a lot of excuses for his unconstitutional acts but that’s all they were — excuses.

      • Michael Lynch

        Again, the Supreme Court ruling about habeas corpus and military tribunals for civilians when civil courts are functioning came down after Lincoln’s death. Lincoln ignored Taney’s ruling that Merryman should be released in 1861; he did ignore the later Supreme Court ruling that military trials for civilians were unconstitutional, because the ruling came down after Lincoln was dead.

        You can certainly disagree with Lincoln’s opinion that the outbreak of the war constituted an emergency sufficient to justify presidential suspension of the writ, but to argue that he did not believe himself justified in doing so is to ignore every statement he made about it at the time.

        It’s worth noting that Mark Neely, who has produced the most extensive and respected study of Lincoln and wartime civil liberties, argues that Lincoln’s exercise of power was neither unrestrained nor abusive. It’s also worth noting that Jefferson Davis also suspended civil liberties in the Confederacy; I’m assuming you find his actions as alarming as Lincoln’s?

      • The law cannot be changed to suit the situation although that is what we have today. The Supreme Court has shown more than once (alas) that it will abandon precedent to arrive at a “preferred” conclusion. As in Texas v. White when Chase’s Court found secession to be “unconstitutional,” a great many legal and other decisions were based upon “necessity” (and fear of Lincoln’s might) than on law. We’re back to the Smith and Wesson argument.

      • Michael Lynch

        Well, if you’re going to argue that the Supreme Court’s rulings are based on nothing other than convenience or fear, it undermines what you’ve been arguing up until this point, which is that Lincoln and Congress were wrong because they ignored the court’s rulings. If you’re just going to change the subject whenever you can’t prove your point, there’s no need to keep commenting.

      • I am saying two things: Lincoln was wrong (and the rest of the government went with him whether through fear or favor) and secondly, putting a label on a decision whether it be by a President, a Congress or a Court doesn’t make it right. For instance, remember, just after the war began, Congress brought several measures up making secession unconstitutional (with provisions). Well, as Justice Marshall said in Ogden, attempts to LIMIT a power strongly suggests the EXISTENCE of that power, else why try to “limit it?” Yet, as noted, Texas v. White determined that secession was unconstitutional. How did that Court arrive at that decision? Well, Grant and present Justice Antonin Scalia said that that legal conclusion was reached by force of arms. Friend, if your laws are made by “force of arms,” you don’t HAVE laws except for the law of might.

        Something is right, legal and constitutional because it IS right, legal and constitutional and not become some “important person” or institution SAYS it is. Law is a lot like mathematics: it’s right or its wrong and it doesn’t matter how many people say that 2 + 2 = 5, the right answer is still 4.

      • Michael Lynch

        What you’re saying is that Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus was wrong because a court said it was illegal, but secession isn’t wrong just because a court said it is illegal. You said that the court’s decision on suspension of the writ proves that suspension of the writ was bad, and then you said that the court’s decisions are based on nothing but fear and convenience based on its secession ruling. It’s a little hard to make sense of an argument that invokes two contradictory notions in support of itself.

      • Lincoln’s act was unconstitutional; secession was constitutional. Read Attorney General Jeremiah Black’s report to President Buchanan. Buchanan demanded that Black find him a CONSTITUTIONAL WAY to end secession and to force those States who had seceded back into the Union. Black tried, but failed. Blacks’ conclusion to President Buchanan was:
        “There was undoubtedly a strong and universal conviction among the men who framed and ratified the Constitution, that military force would not only be useless, but pernicious, as a means of holding the States together. If it is true that war cannot be declared, nor a system of general hostilities carried on by the Central Government against a State, then it seems to follow that an attempt to do so would be ipso facto an expulsion of such State from the Union. Being treated as an alien and enemy, she would be compelled to act accordingly. And if Congress shall break up the present Union by unconstitutionally putting strife and enmity and armed hostility between different sections of the country, instead of the domestic tranquility which the Constitution was meant to insure, will not all the States be absolved from their Federal obligations?”
        Habeas corpus on the other hand could not be more clear. Only Congress could do so but then, only under certain circumstances, circumstances which did not exist. However, even had they existed, that did not move the rights of the Legislative Branch into the Executive Branch. Lincoln acted unconstitutionally on habeas corpus and so many other things. And “motive” is never an excuse for illegal actions. If that were so, then all a lawbreaker would have to do is show a good motive on his part to excuse his lawlessness.

      • Michael Lynch

        Why should we take Black’s opinion as binding, but not the Supreme Court’s in the Texas case?

        As for suspension of habeas corpus, Article 1 explicitly permits it in time of rebellion, which was what the U.S. government considered the Civil War to be in 1861. And I’ve already explained Lincoln’s reasoning for assuming the suspension power when Congress was out of session. If you don’t agree with his reasoning, that’s fine. Nobody is saying Lincoln was infallible. But to say that he suspended the writ with no regard for the law is to ignore the fact that he was able to articulate a basis for doing so, as I’m sure Davis was able to when he suspended civil liberties in the CSA.

      • Why should we take Black’s “opinion?” Because he was a learned man and an honest one — which is more than can be said for Chase who had an “agenda.” In fact, Black WANTED to find secession unconstitutional. But SCOTUS did not find it so until Chase, so Black is right on the evidence and the prevailing legal judgment of the time.

        Again, you go back to habeas corpus as “suspendable,” but NOT BY LINCOLN! As for it being a “rebellion,” that, too, was Lincoln’s determination, not the determination of the law or most of the country at the time. Indeed, Lincoln needed (and arranged for) the ‘false flag’ operation at Sumter to get Northern opinion behind him. Simply put, it is not a rebellion when any party in a compact determines to LEAVE that compact — which is what the Constitution is; secession is merely a withdrawal from that compact.

        However, you are not addressing the fundamental question in the matter. Whether it was determined as a rebellion (wrongly, as it happens!) or anything else, Lincoln had no right under the Constitution to suspend habeas corpus. Still LESS did he have the right to wage war against any State in the Union (see Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution which defines such an act as treason). Your argument for the reasons necessary to permit suspension of habeas corpus still doesn’t address the fact that it was suspended by the President and not the Congress — which is unconstitutional.

        Therefore, my question to you is simple: Do you believe that an act is permissible even if forbidden under the Constitution BECAUSE OF THE CIRCUMSTANCES IN WHICH IT IS COMMITTED? In other words, is what Lincoln did “lawful” because of the circumstances involved? It’s a simple question, but upon it depends upon the foundation of our debate. If you DO believe that circumstances made void the constitutional requirement of Congressional action, then we can no longer have a debate since I do not believe that to be the case and we would be arguing at cross purposes. I believe — and the Founders did as well — that the law is the law (as I mentioned with regard to mathematics) and if it can be abandoned when “circumstances require it,” then you don’t have any law; you have a government of men or a tyranny.

      • Michael Lynch

        So your argument as to why Black’s decision is binding and Chase’s isn’t is based on the fact that you personally think Black was an honest and smart guy, whereas Chase was a crook. I’m afraid that’s not a very sophisticated nor persuasive line of legal reasoning. Using that standard, I could just as easily say that Taney’s 1861 ruling that Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus was wrong was an invalid ruling, just because Taney was obviously pro-slavery and didn’t like Lincoln, and therefore had an agenda.

        I’ve already gone over Lincoln’s reasoning for why a presidential suspension on his own authority was valid. The argument isn’t that Lincoln said an unconstitutional act is permissible based on circumstances; his argument was that his action could, in fact, be justified under the Constitution. His point wasn’t that it’s okay to violate the Constitution. His point was that, with Congress out of session, an emergency presidential suspension did not violate the Constitution. It’s pointless to claim that Lincoln was trying to say it’s okay to overstep the Constitution when his argument for suspending the writ was that it was, in fact, constitutionally valid.

        As for your claim that most of the country at the time did not consider the South to be in rebellion, I’m afraid the historical record of the prevailing sentiment at the time doesn’t back you up. There was widespread support in the U.S. for Lincoln’s initial call for troops, which treated the Confederacy as in a state of rebellion.

        If you’re just going to keep repeating that Lincoln’s suspension was unconstitutional, you’re frankly wasting everyone’s time by commenting here. We’ve already established that Lincoln presented a constitutional justification of his unilateral suspension of the writ. Nobody’s saying you have to agree with his justification, but you do have to address it if you want to have this discussion. Again, Lincoln’s argument in favor of a presidential suspension of the writ wasn’t that the circumstances made it okay to violate the Constitution. His argument was that the circumstances meant that a presidential suspension was NOT a violation of the Constitution.

      • Habeas corpus did NOT have to be suspended; but even had it been necessary — and it was not! — it was unconstitutional for Lincoln to do so. He started a war and then complained that because of it, he had a right to destroy the Bill of Rights. That’s akin to murdering your parents and throwing yourself onto the mercy of the court because you are an orphan.

        However, you still haven’t answered my question. As far as what Lincoln believed, well, Lincoln wanted an all-powerful central government and initiated the bloodiest war in the history of the nation to achieve that. Sadly he was successful and we suffer for it today. He also created an income tax which was, again, ALSO unconstitutional and on and on.

        But my question remains. Do you believe that Lincoln was right? If so, why? Obviously, you cannot site the Constitution. Even Lincoln’s idolators do not do so; they admit he acted against the Constitution, but they support him anyway because of the situation. That’s called “situational ethics.” Do you believe as do they? That is, that Lincoln was “right” because of the circumstances? As noted, you CANNOT claim that he was acting under the Constitution.

      • Michael Lynch

        I don’t think he was right or wrong. I try not to moralize when I think about history. What I’m saying is simply that Lincoln was able to articulate an argument as to why his suspension was both constitutional and necessary. You seem either unwilling or able to grasp that fact. I don’t know how else to state it: Lincoln did argue that his suspension of the writ was constitutional.

        The things you’re upset with Lincoln about–suspension of habeas corpus, taxation, an invasive central government–were also undertaken by Confederate authorities. If you’ve got a problem with those actions, there’s no reason to let the Confederate government off the hook for doing the same thing.

      • Michael Lynch

        I forgot to mention that the Supreme Court ruling stating that the suspension power does not grant the government the authority to try civilians in military courts when civil courts are open was handed down after the war was over, and after Lincoln’s death. You may have that ruling confused with an earlier ruling by Chief Justice Taney stating that residential suspension of the writ was unconstitutional. Lincoln ignored that ruling, for the reasons I mentioned in my earlier comment. He thought federal authority to suspend the writ in a time of emergency was not nullified just because Congress wasn’t in session, even though the suspension power is in Article 1, which outlines the powers of Congress.

  3. Yes, Article 1 certainly does pertain to Congress. As for poor Taney, Lincoln tried to throw him in jail when he found the President’s actions unconstitutional. Lincoln couldn’t find a US Marshal willing to do so, but it was enough that the threat was there — such as the federal military surrounding the homes of judges who were to go to court to rule on habeas corpus cases — that Lincoln prevailed. It was a case of a Smith and Wesson beats four aces but it had NOTHING to do with legality or constitutionality.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s