Lincoln Before The War

Harold Holzer – Hunter College

Harold Holzer will present an overview of Abraham Lincoln's pre-presidential life and career through the lens of 19th century partisan journalism, a world Lincoln inhabited with gusto and extraordinary results. "Public sentiment is everything," he said a few years before he won the White House. "He who moulds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes and pronounces decisions." Lincoln really believed in this idea. From the outset, he tethered his ambitions to rise from obscurity to power, to the idea of mastering the press. We will explore Lincoln's political and oratorical development, but through the filter of journalism. Hence we will see Lincoln as a young "op-ed columnist" on temperance; later as the anonymous author of angry anti-Democratic Party editorials, and also as a local agent for the pro-Whig press; as a freshman Congressman yearning for press coverage.

During his long professional life as an itinerant attorney he will find time to court local, like-minded journalists in countless Illinois towns, building a strong and loyal advocacy network that would serve his interests for years. The mature Lincoln will take his speeches to the press and personally supervise their typesetting and publication to multiply their audiences; oversee the hiring of pro-Republican stenographers to make the first transcript ever of a political engagement—the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and he will appeal to the widest possible audience through press reprints following his transformative Cooper Union address (then try to determine what to say next after being so widely published), and he will use his friendship with Republican journalists to organize his 1860 convention victory at Chicago. The class will cover the full development of the early, pre-war Lincoln—even his courtship and Marriage to Mary Todd (a courtship based on newspaper writing!)—but will strike an original chord by emphasizing what historians have long neglected: the importance of the press to politicians, readers, and voters throughout the nation during the volatile antebellum Lincoln era.