In Blind Tribute, and in the forthcoming novelette about its characters, The Press Wrestles with the President, Harry Wentworth’s relationships in Lincoln’s cabinet are clearly defined, other than the president himself. It is implied on several occasions that the two men do not see eye to eye, but this, in fact, has nothing to do with slavery or the war itself, but rather Lincoln’s fairly despotic actions toward the free press.
There are few politicians in American history as well-versed and effective at manipulating the news media than “Honest Abe” Lincoln. While he is to be lauded for many stellar achievements, not least the Emancipation Proclamation and the ratification of the 13th Amendment (which tenets are subject to rigorous and necessary debate in other forums), less well-known was his lifelong relationship with the news media of the time, and his use of the popular press to further his agenda.
Lincoln engaged in remarkably little campaigning for the presidency, in comparison to his fellows; instead, the Republican Party, under his leadership, masterfully harnessed the power of the press to take his message to more voters with less effort and less cost than his opponents (both the literal printing press, in the form of pamphlets and leaflets, and the metaphorical press, the media of the time, through relationships with newspapers and newsmen). Lincoln, in fact, quietly owned a German-language newspaper for many years, despite not speaking the language, precisely to move members of that community toward (Whig, turned to) Republican values.
In line with his understanding of the power of the press, were some of Lincoln’s actions in the first weeks of the war to influence (indeed, intimidate) members of the press and, in some wise, take control of the media message wholesale.
Upon his suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus in April 1861, clearing the way for martial law, he either ordered or tacitly approved military action taken against editors who wrote in support of the Confederacy—shutting down their papers, arresting them for “disloyalty,” denying them access to the public mails. Further, after the first Battle of Harper’s Ferry, when the Union lost control of telegraphic communications, Lincoln ordered the seizing of all telegraph lines in and around Washington, DC, to reorganize them into the Military Telegraph Corps. This action, naturally, limited access to news of current events, and gave the Administration (at least temporarily) the near-exclusive right to craft the story told in newspapers in Union-held territory. Throughout the war, the First Amendment was a frequent casualty.
There are arguments to be made that Lincoln’s “media-savvy” is the reason he won not only two terms as president, but also his political seats before that. But more important to this discussion, a president took office in 1861 whose platform, while essentially centrist and conciliatory, still promoted Abolition of slavery. This promise of economic hardship (read: FEDERALIST TYRANNY!) to slave states was embodied in a man who had made something of a lightning rod of himself in the press by ginning up partisan fervor to secure votes.
When combined with a media willing and expected to take sides, and which made the majority of its money and secured most of its influence through political party affiliations and alliances, the Fourth Estate fanned the flames of a simmering conflict, making overt hostilities a high probability. When Lincoln won the presidency, and the threat to the Southern economic system coalesced in the form of a highly visible leader with views antithetical to the fledgling Confederacy, rapid secession and outright war became an inevitability.
Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. Simon and Schuster, 1996.
Holzer, Harold. Lincoln and the Power of the Press. Simon & Schuster, 2014.
As America marches toward the Civil War, Harry Wentworth, gentleman of distinction and journalist of renown, finds his calls for peaceful resolution have fallen on deaf—nay, hostile—ears. As such, he must finally resolve his own moral quandary: comment on the war from his influential—and safe—position in Northern Society, or make a news story and a target of himself South of the Mason-Dixon Line, in a city haunted by a life he has long since left behind?
The day-to-day struggle against countervailing forces, his personal and professional tragedies on both sides of the conflict, and the elegant and emotive writings that define him, all serve to illuminate the trials of this newsman’s crusade, irreparably altering his mind, his body, his spirit, and his purpose as an honorable man. Blind Tribute exposes the shifting stones of the moral high ground as Harry’s family and friendships, North and South, are shattered by his acts of conscience.
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