Patricia Ann Owens
On the morning of February 11, 1861, Abraham Lincoln stood on a platform at the Great Western station in Springfield, Illinois, to bid farewell to friends and to a city where he had lived for twenty-five years. Lincoln expressed his sadness at the parting and his feeling for Springfield: "To this place, and the kindness of these people I owe everything." Lincoln moved to Springfield as a young man, and as the city grew and prospered so, too, did he. His successful law career, complemented by his political ambition, culminated in his election to the presidency in 1860.
The capital of Illinois, Springfield was a political community, and an important part of the community was its newspapers. Avidly read by the citizens, the newspapers related social and government news. By 1854, Illinois was home to more than 150 newspapers, including the Illinois State Journal and the Illinois State Register. Like most papers of the day, they were political organs, preaching the importance of allegiance to party ideas and leaders. Newspapers and their editors held a great deal of power, power to help an aspiring politician like Lincoln.
As a member of the political community in Springfield, Lincoln was associated with city newspapers. Since the press was the primary means of communicating to the electorate the views of office holders and office seekers, it was important for Lincoln the politician to develop a working relationship with the Whig-Republican organ, the Illinois State Journal. The paper became an outlet for Lincoln's opinions through letters to the editor, reports of his speeches, and editorials he wrote.
Lincoln's association with the Journal was more than political; it was friendship too. Lincoln knew Simeon Francis, the editor, perhaps better than he knew anybody else in Springfield except his law partner, John T. Stuart, and his close friend Joshua Speed. The Journal supported Lincoln throughout his rise in politics. In 1864, Lincoln wrote: "The Journal paper was always my friend; and of course its editors the same."
Previous to Lincoln's inauguration as president, the Journal became virtually the official voice of the party. From the time of the nomination until the Lincolns left Springfield in February 1861, national attention focused on Springfield and the Journal. Lincoln refused to make any public statement concerning the impending national crisis for fear he might be misrepresented. Observers therefore sought clues to Lincoln's thought in the Journal. It was among the few newspapers in the country that remained devoted to him during the war years.
The newspapers in Lincoln's hometown were not much different from papers across the nation. At the outbreak of the war, both the Journal and the Register urged men to join the army to defend the country. However, as the war lengthened, the Register cooled in its enthusiasm. The Journal remained loyal to Lincoln and his policies, but the Register criticized the president and his conduct of the war.
On February 11,1861, the day Lincoln left Springfield, the Journal stated its belief in the president-elect's courage to do what was necessary to protect and defend the Constitution. The Register was not as optimistic. It expressed fear that Lincoln was now in a position to make true his declaration of 1858: "This Union cannot permanently endure part slave and part free." The editor hoped "that he may prove less ambitious to be considered a prophet than a patriot."
On inauguration day in March 1861 Lincoln outlined the course he would take against those states in rebellion against the federal government. According to the Register, the people were uncertain what policy would be in regard to the seceding states. The speech said the Register was patriotic but "a mountain of ambiguity." The Journal interpreted the speech much differently. Lincoln, the "true," "brave," "patriot," "statesman," and "noble Chief Magistrate" had "electrified" the nation. People of all parties could rejoice. The Journal acknowledged that the speech might lead to civil strife: "But, thank God, the responsibility for civil war will rest with the traitors and not with the government."
The Register, its columns quiet in editorial comments on Lincoln during March 1861, finally had enough. "The Journal's daily affirmation of unwavering confidence in Mr. Lincoln, with its every accompanying lugubrious commentary, has the right of the 'grave-yard whistle' painfully grating on "IRREPRESSIBLE" ears. Why is it that the Journal has to make daily record of its confidence in the president elect. Is it to create or dispel doubt? This is getting to be a mooted question at Mr. Lincoln's home." The point had been made, but the Journal ignored it; the Journal's expressions of allegiance to Lincoln continued.
The Register believed that Lincoln could have prevented the strife between the states. Stephen A. Douglas, the "ever faithful, ever true, the champion of popular rights," could have brought peace to the country. That opportunity had now passed. "Whatever may be our party leanings, our party principles, our likes or dislikes, when the contest opens between the country, between the Union, and its foes, and blows are struck, the patriot's duty is plain—take sides with the 'Stars and Stripes'." This patriotic theme was recurrent in the editorials of the Register. The paper, however, did not endorse the principles of the administration; it condemned them. The Register noted that not everyone agreed with the president and all had a right to express their opinions. This included the paper with "the right of American citizens to criticize the policy of their chosen servants. We intend to do so. Who dare say nay, at the 'home of Lincoln'."
The President's message of December 3,1861, to Congress met the same critical fate. The Register regarded this message "as a production which will add much to the president's limited fame as a statesman, at home or abroad." The Journal stated that the President's message had been cordially received and heartily endorsed by the people. The message was just what was demanded by the crisis, "calm in tone, conservative in sentiment, dignified, businesslike and wise."
Editorials in the Journal and Register commented frequently on the President's Emancipation Proclamation of September 22, 1862. The Register wasted few words: "The President's policy of emancipation is perfectly absurd." The Journal commented, "It is a state paper which forms an epoch in the history of the Government." Both Springfield papers were sure the president and no one else wrote the emancipation message. The Register stated that those whose duty it was to counsel the president were too engrossed in their own promotions to aid or advise the president on this
message. The Journal was certain that the document was written by Lincoln because it was such "a state paper as the man of large heart and vigorous intellect, untrained in the schools, might write."
Editorials in the Journal attacked the Register. The Journal accused the Register of being disloyal, calling it "the secession State Register." The Register's "daily diatribes against the Government" were viewed by the Journal as "cowardly appeals for public or party sympathy." Efforts of the Register were "trifling." A gigantic rebellion was in progress, men were offering their lives to defend the country, and statements of the Register were "coolly coquetting with treason and with fiendish and infernal malignity endeavoring to paralyze the arm of the Government upon the maintenance of which depends the preservation of our liberties."
Several 1863 editorials of the Journal attest to its superiority over the Register. This method of attacking the rival newspaper is illustrated in an editorial of January 8, 1863: "The Register could not make its comments without perverting and misrepresenting our [the Journal] language," and "in fact he [the editor of the Register is utterly incapable of making a point in any other way."
As the editors of the Journal and the editor of the Register continued their daily attacks upon each other, it was necessary for the public to read both papers to understand the accusations. The Register published forceful editorials defending the newspaper's right to criticize the president. The Register labeled the Journal editor as "the debauched and venal scribbler," a man of "feeble intellect" and collectively as "lying thieves." According to the Register, no one looked for an opinion in the Journal editorials because it was "well known for stupidity."
Throughout 1863 the Register continued to attack the president. The Register portrayed Lincoln as a "babbling township politician," "Czar Abraham," and "the obscuring lawyer of Springfield" who by political accident had become president. In its October 8,1863, editorial the Register directed itself to the president: "We have all the time been giving you 'honest counsel,' to which you have paid no attention. We have been unceasing in our efforts to point out your errors, as unceasingly have you persisted in them." According to the Register, if the president had followed its advice, the war would have ended and the president would have the support of the people, which he did not currently have. The Register pledged to continue pointing out errors to the president and in this way "supported" him.
Comments by the Register reflected race prejudice. An editorial of August 25, 1863, had as its subject black soldiers: "To call a negro regiment the equal of a white one, is precisely as absurd as to say that a flock of sheep possesses as much courage as a band of lions." An editorial of September 17,1863, stated "there is no god but Sambo, and Abraham is his prophet." The Journal, always faithful in its support of the war and of Lincoln's call for more troops, reminded the Register that there were "colored soldiers" fighting with Generals Grant and Butler. In April 1864 the Journal chided the Register's alarm that "negroes" should be admitted to the public schools. This would not be the case as the editors of the Journal wrote: "People of ordinary intelligence and good character have little fear of being placed on an equality with the negro."
Throughout 1864 the Journal criticized the Register. The Register was referred to as "the Jeff Davis sheet in the city." Supporting the rebel cause, encouraging traitors, resisting the draft, and refusing to pay taxes to the government were only a few of the accusations leveled at the Register. Journal editorials were positive and admonished readers to remember their noble cause and "to prosecute the war with increased vigor and bring it to an early conclusion in the complete suppression of the rebellion." An editorial on October 27,1864, answered the Register's charge that President Lincoln made unfit appointments. There was some agreement: the president had appointed George B. McClellan commander-in-chief of the armies of the United States. However, the Journal pointed out that Lincoln "had the good sense to relieve him, and has never made the mistake of making so unfortunate an appointment since."
Lincoln's renomination and the election dominated the editorials in the waning months of 1864. The Register criticized Lincoln for being ambiguous and confusing, crafty, and dishonest. The horrors of war had reached into every household. Thousands of men were dead or maimed, and the casualties were blamed on President Lincoln. People were reminded of
the heavy taxes they were paying to support the war. Lincoln, according to the Register, was the cause of it. When people went to the polls, they should remember that Lincoln would "double or quadruple" their taxes. "Vote Lincoln Out." Lincoln's crimes were numerous, said the Register. His only concern was his own advancement and not the welfare of the country. Lincoln and the other despots in Washington would be forced to succumb to the will of the people come election day. The Register cried, "Long live the republic."
Editors of the Journal believed the only way the republic could live was with Lincoln: the choice of loyal Americans. The Republican party label gave way to the ubiquitous "National Union Party." Their convention met in Baltimore, and Lincoln's nomination for re-election was a mere formality, according to the Journal. It was Lincoln whom traitors hated and feared. But Lincoln was the people's choice; he represented the Union and the federal cause. A change of administration might postpone a Union victory. Both papers encouraged people to vote and to guard the polls against fraud. The Register feared that abolitionists would stuff the ballot boxes. The Journal warned loyal citizens to be on the lookout for deserters trying to vote. It was an important election, and the two papers reflected the concerns of their readers. On November 9, the Journal reveled in Lincoln's re-election: "the end of the rebellion is at hand—let the people rejoice." Jubilance was the antipathy of the Register's reportage after the votes were counted. It viewed Lincoln's re-election as a "calamity" and warned that it meant an end to civil liberty, the unity of the states, and the republican form of government. Their hearts were filled with gloom. The editors reminded their readers that whatever now happened to the country, "no living creature can hold the democratic party responsible."
Events that brought the war to a close also brought together the two papers in their editorial viewpoints. Both carried headlines of Lee's surrender to Grant. The Register praised God for sustaining the army and looked forward to the fruits of peace and good will. Peace and prosperity were also on the mind of the Journal. It predicted that the nation would see new heights of prosperity "such as the nation never saw while the dark pall of slavery rested on half the land."
The papers also shared grief. Columns and columns of news dispatches concerning Lincoln's assassination filled both papers. The Register, forgetting its ongoing criticism of Lincoln, now referred to the martyred president as "kindly," and "beloved of his neighbors." The paper stated that Lincoln had honestly followed the path he thought best for the country, and that he devoted his energies to restoring peace to the nation. "We had come to respect our president—to admire his magnanimity— to love his graceful endeavors in behalf of his country."
The Journal had lost not only a president, it had lost a friend. Editorials eulogized Lincoln and his accomplishments. He was the people's president and they truly
loved him. Springfield citizens felt the loss most deeply because it was "Here his virtues were appreciated and the struggles by which he so worthily arose to such distinction, as well as the difficulties with which he has to contend with through four years of the most stupendous war, were fully understood."
The two Springfield newspapers were party organs and reflected different views of the war and of Lincoln. Their significance is twofold: they were published in Lincoln's hometown and Lincoln had a close relationship to the Journal. An editorial appearing in the Journal on March 8, 1861, summed up Lincoln's relationship with the paper: "Our long acquaintance with Mr. Lincoln, our constant contact with him, and our knowledge of his views led us to make an earnest effort to create a sentiment in the public mind that should harmonize with his own."
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