Freedom of the Press? The Suppression of the Christian Observer and the Evening Journal

Like his modern counterparts, Abraham Lincoln’s political success depended greatly on his relationship with the press. While the term “mass media” today encompasses a variety of traditional and electronic formats, Lincoln dealt with only one: newspapers. Maintaining a positive relationship, however, was not simple. Not only were there a greater number of newspapers in the North than exist today, many of these newspapers gave little pretense to “objective” journalism. During the 19th century, many newspapers were party organs, with their editor often striving for political office or seeking to play the role of “kingmaker” in party politics.

Philadelphia’s seven major daily newspapers were no different. The Evening Journal was the lone Democratic organ in sea of Republican-influenced newspapers. The Inquirer, which carried the largest circulation in the city at 60,000, was published by Jesper Harding, whose son George, a lawyer, knew both Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton during the 1850s. When Harding was appointed collector of Internal Revenue in Philadelphia by Lincoln, his other son, William, took over the paper, which was clear in its support for the Lincoln administration.

Another major Philadelphia newspaper, the Bulletin, was an anti-slavery paper with close ties to Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s first Secretary of War. In fact, as the federal government shut down many newspapers for their editorial content, the Inquirer and the Bulletin openly supported these actions.

The partisan nature of these newspapers created a unique challenge for Lincoln at the outset of the War. Many of the Democratic editors were openly hostile towards the Lincoln administration and the conduct of the war and created a clearly adversarial editorial tone that some supporters of the president felt bordered on treason. While Lincoln supported the constitutional rights of a free press, he also recognized that such opposition from the newspapers was damaging to the war effort.

In a controversial series of steps, many opposition newspapers, including two in Philadelphia, were ordered suppressed by the federal government for providing “aid and comfort” to the enemy. The “aid and comfort” found in many offending newspapers often did not take the form of government secrets or military intelligence. Instead, the editorial opinions expressed by these newspapers were enough to draw the attention and ire of the federal government. The cases of the Christian Observer and the Evening Journal vividly illustrate the often fine line between constitutional freedoms provided to the press and security concerns.

Essential Questions

How has social disagreement and collaboration been beneficial to American society?
What role does analysis have in historical construction?

Objectives

  • Students will compare and contrast the use of editorials in Civil War media and current media.
  • Students use critical thinking to analyze the relationship between the media and politics during the Civil War.
  • Students will be able to explain how multiple viewpoints and bias impact editorials.

Suggested Instructional Procedures

1. Have students identify the types of mass media found in our political system. Teachers may also have students examine current newspapers and periodicals to analyze the differences between news articles and editorials.

2. Compare the excerpts of the Christian Observer (the first five listed under Primary Sources) and Evening Journal (the last three listed under Primary Sources) to modern newspapers to determine similarities and differences in reporting and editorial content. These differences can include topics covered, reporter status, thoroughness of reporting, style, etc.

3. Utilize the excerpts of editorials from the Evening Bulletin to illustrate the political attitudes of Philadelphia newspapers that were supportive of the Lincoln Administration.

4. Examine the excerpts of the Christian Observer and Evening Journal and have students determine if the editorial content of those newspapers simply expressed opposition to President Lincoln or instead provided “aid and comfort” to the Confederacy.

5. Discuss the following with students

  • What are the roles and responsibilities of the media in a free society?
  • Are there certain types of material that media should or should not publish?
  • Should the media consider national security concerns when they report and publish?
  • Was the Lincoln administration justified in suppressing opposition newspapers during the Civil War? Why or why not?

6. Have students reexamine the impact of habeas corpus on schools and students. Have students decide if and how this writ meets the requirements of in student handbooks and explain how school would differ with the inclusion or exclusion of habeas corpus.
 

Vocabulary

Civil Liberties: the freedom of a citizen to exercise customary rights, as of speech or assembly, without unwarranted or arbitrary interference by the government.

Writ: a formal order under seal, issued in the name of a sovereign, government, court, or other competent authority, enjoining the officer or other person to whom it is issued or addressed to do or refrain from some specified act.

Habeas Corpus: legal actions determining if detention is lawful

Tribunal: A court of justice

Conscription:  a compulsory contribution of money to a government during a time of war.

Despot: a king or other ruler with absolute, unlimited power; autocrat, tyrant, or oppressor.

1972 War Powers Resolution: US federal law intended to check the power of the President in committing the United States to an armed conflict without the consent of Congress.