Lecturer speaks about Lincoln, media suppression
People gathered Thursday at Washburn University's Bradbury Thompson Alumni Center to hear a lecturer speak about President Abraham Lincoln and suppression of the media during the Civil War.
Harold Holzer, lecturer and author of "Lincoln and the Power of the Press," spoke at the university for its annual Harman Lincoln Lecture.
Before Holzer spoke, university faculty and staff unveiled "The Face of Lincoln," a bronze statue created by former Washburn University (then Washburn College) instructor and artist Robert Merrell Gage.
The statue will be on display at the Mulvane Art Museum.
During Holzer's lecture, he spoke about conflicts between past and current presidents and the press, including extreme measures that Lincoln took to suppress the media.
Holzer said tensions between presidents and journalists dates back to President George Washington, who threw newspapers on the floor and jumped up and down on them because people weren't treating him "like a god" anymore.
Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson also battled the press, Holzer said.
While Holzer touched briefly on other presidents' battles with the media, most of the talk centered on Lincoln. Holzer has written books and essays on the 16th president and serves as chairman of the Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation.
"Lincoln believed that in the case of rebellion, contingency trumped the Bill of Rights and before his inaugural, even though he insisted that the freedom of the press was necessary for a free government, he responded to secession and open warfare by assuming extraordinary and unprecedented powers to hit back against critical newspapers and journalists," Holzer said.
Holzer noted that during the Civil War era, every newspaper publication was openly partisan and every town had a Democratic and a Republican newspaper.
Holzer said that during his research for "Lincoln and the Power of the Press," he found 200 incidences in which newspapers and their editors were blocked.
Some cases included banning newspaper from the U.S. mail, arresting and imprisoning anti-war editors, seizing and destroying press equipment, and suspending publications.
"The truth is, the kickback, the pushback against the press was much more widespread than I think we had any idea of," Holzer said.
He said what may have been the first incident of press suppression during the Civil War occurred in 1861 in Alexandria, Va., when a colonel was shot after pulling down a Confederate flag from a hotel that could allegedly be seen from the White House.
The Alexandria Gazette wrote that it was appropriate to shoot the colonel because he had been removing property that belonged to a "good Southern gentleman." The Union Army eventually closed down the newspaper.
Another incident of suppression occurred in Missouri, where several newspapers were shut down and printing press equipment was hauled away.
"Most of these editors were obliged to sign a loyalty oath before they could leave prison and resume whatever enterprise they were able to cobble together in which they said they would never criticize the Union war effort again," Holzer said.
Holzer spoke of one famous suppression case that occurred in 1863 when a former Ohio Democratic congressman urged people not to volunteer and to resist the draft. The man was arrested by a general and convicted.
An Ohio newspaper that supported the man was burned down. The Chicago Times, which also supported the man, was shut down and its editor was arrested.
"The 1864 campaign and the things Lincoln did to gain re-election remind me that Abraham Lincoln may have initiated surprising and unprecedented crackdowns on liberty of the press because he believed that there was no way to save the Constitution without sacrificing a part of it temporarily," Holzer said.
At the end of his talk, Holzer left it up to the audience to decide whether Lincoln's actions of suppression were justified. But, he said, presidential anger against the media isn't new.
"Lincoln cracked down on fake news, much more than any president before him and any president after him," Holzer said. "Nothing we are seeing is new, and it's always been there, and I think probably as we continue and debate current events, it's good to remember that history is complicated and Lincoln set standards in more ways than sometimes we even like to imagine."