Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion by Harold Holzer

Power of the Press - Harold HolzerHarold Holzer shows why he is considered the leading Abraham Lincoln expert as he adds to his tremendous legacy of scholarship. The focus of this latest book is Lincoln’s relationship with the press. It’s important to know that the newspapers of the day were highly partisan and often closely aligned with a particular party or candidate. They were also fiercely antagonistic to each other and to the opposing party. If a politician didn’t have a good relationship with the press, they had no compunction to viciously and directly attacking him, and in many cases, making things up.

The book is broken into two main parts. The first spends a lot of time tracking the three main editors of the influential New York press – Horace Greeley of the Tribune, Henry Raymond of the Times (both of whom supported Republicans), and the openly racist James Gordon Bennett of the Herald (who supported Democrats). While these three often are the main foils, Holzer has no shortage of other key papers and editors to add to the mix. In this first, pre-war, part, Lincoln usually is trying hard to get the big eastern papers to notice him, then mostly an unknown lawyer and one-term congressman in “the west” (i.e., Illinois).

The second part focuses on the direct interactions between Lincoln and the press, again focusing on the three main editors but amply filled in with myriads of other newspaper accounts across the now-split nation. Holzer’s adept story telling follows the action as each editor reports, and often makes, the news. Holzer brings to life key incidents in which Lincoln used the press to his advantage, for example, to prepare the nation for the Emancipation Proclamation in a famous letter to Horace Greeley, as well as many lesser known examples.

For a long book – 565 pages of text, with another 100 or more pages in extensive notes – it moves along crisply, at least for people with some degree of knowledge about Lincoln and the times. I suspect some readers may find it a bit too long, but that would short-change the wonderful value this book provides. Harold Holzer’s book is as powerful as the press were during the Civil War. It’s well worth the read.

David J. Kent is a lifelong Lincolnophile and is currently working on a book about Abraham Lincoln’s interest in science and technology. He is also the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and an ebook Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time. His next book is about Thomas Edison.

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