In the midst of our national panic over the CCP virus, with a pair of doctors essentially running the country via daily press briefings from the West Wing, and the media sniping at President Donald Trump’s every word and deed, it might be wise to step back and see how another commander in chief handled the relationship between the press and the White House during the greatest crisis this country has faced: the U.S. Civil War.
Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, just as the tectonic forces that had been pulling the country apart for decades finally ripped it in half. The slaveholding South, resolutely Democratic, opposed him immediately.
Little more than a month after his election, South Carolina seceded from the Union, followed in quick succession by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, all before Lincoln had even taken the oath of office on March 4, 1861. A month later, the Confederacy fired on Fort Sumter and the war was on.
Thrust into a position no American president had ever experienced before, Lincoln determined at once that there could be no compromise with the South—that either the nation would survive by force of arms or it would perish.
Although it wasn’t until March 1864 that he found the right general to prosecute the war with the same zest for total victory—Ulysses S. Grant—Lincoln’s determination to win by any means necessary saw the nation through. That determination included the suspension of civil liberties, the muzzling of the press, and a blithe disregard for the judiciary that would horrify Americans today.
His actions were fully warranted. Washington sat mostly undefended, directly across the Potomac River from Virginia, the most important state of the Confederacy and the home of its capital, and was located on land ceded for the federal district by the slave state of Maryland.
Although Maryland never seceded, it actively hindered Union troop movements, and was rife with rebels, including John Wilkes Booth, who would later assassinate the president a week after the surrender at Appomattox. In response, Lincoln suspended the constitutional writ of habeas corpus without congressional approval, enabling military officials between Washington and Philadelphia to throw potential enemy agents into prison indefinitely and without trial.
When a man named John Merryman, who had been imprisoned on suspicion of sabotage in May 1861, petitioned for his day in court, the request was granted by Chief Justice Roger Taney, writing in his capacity as overseer of the U.S. District Court of Maryland. Lincoln’s action, said Taney (a racist Democrat, and the author of the infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857) was invalid.
Lincoln simply ignored the ruling, and later expanded his order to include the whole country, justifying the suspension with exigent circumstances. Hundreds were arrested, including a sitting congressman from Maryland named Henry May and former Ohio congressman Clement Vallandigham, a leader of the anti-war, “peace” Democrats known as Copperheads, after their resemblance to poisonous snakes. Vallandigham was tried by a military court for sedition and banished to the Confederacy on Lincoln’s orders.
The president’s actions were approved by Congress, ex post facto, in 1863.
Lincoln and the Press
But it was the behavior of the press that especially infuriated Lincoln, and he waged war on the media of his day with gusto. Pro-Democrat newspapers in the North denounced Lincoln as a tyrant, a despot, a fiend, and a monster for his abrogation of some civil liberties, and many openly advocated for a peace treaty with the Confederacy that would allow the South to maintain slavery.
But as Lincoln and Grant came to understand that the “peculiar institution” of slavery would have to be destroyed, and that what might have begun as a conflict over states’ rights had become a battle to free the slaves, their tolerance for dissent ran out.
In May 1864, Lincoln closed two New York City newspapers, the Journal of Commerce and the New York World, suspended their mailing privileges, and arrested their owners, for publishing a fake news story that he was about to draft 400,000 men into the Union Army. (Just the year before, New York had been rocked by the deadly Draft Riots, which had resulted in more than 100 deaths.)
Lincoln also seized the Independent Telegraph System, which had transmitted the reports. There were similar actions elsewhere; in Lincoln’s view, many papers had crossed the line between opposition and sedition.
For his part, Grant regarded reporters as little better than spies, revealing troop movements to the enemy, while his principal deputy, William T. Sherman, thought they should be shot.
“If I had my choice I would kill every reporter in the world, but I am sure we would be getting reports from Hell before breakfast,” observed Sherman.
In the battle with the Chinese Communist Party virus, Trump has called himself a wartime president, and has even echoed Lincoln in characterizing the coronavirus as “a great national trial.” In response, the national media, which skews almost entirely Democrat, has treated him the same way the Copperhead press treated Lincoln, battering him daily with vituperation and invective that might make their 19th-century forbears blush.
No word or deed goes unexamined, nor hidden “real” motives not sought out. No charge is too slanderous, no ridicule underserved. Any change of mind or of plan or personnel in response to circumstances is instantly mocked and subjected to a generally specious “fact check” by members of the media whose sole frame of reference is partisan politics. Realizing that this is their last chance to bring him down before the election, the ladies and gentlemen of the press have carried water for the Chinese Communists—even to the point of admitting a correspondent from Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV, a Chinese Communist “independent” propaganda outlet, to the April 6 press briefing.
Perhaps the White House Correspondents’ Association would better serve the country if the seats at the CCP virus briefings were filled by science and medical reporters—writers who can ask informed questions of the medical men and women—instead of the usual nattering nabobs of negativism.
A preening political press corps that studiously ignores the incoherent gibberings of Joe Biden, their party’s front-runner for the nomination, in an effort to aid him to defeat Trump can hardly be relied upon for an impartial consideration of the facts when it comes to the administration. Nor can they be counted on to ask non-medical questions that might actually matter, including: on what constitutional grounds has the First Amendment’s guarantees of the free exercise of religion and the freedom of assembly been summarily abrogated?
The answer to that will go a long way toward answering just how serious the pandemic is, under which circumstances the Constitution will be restored, and just how far Trump is prepared to go in his capacity as a wartime president. The dishonest Copperhead media might not like the answer, though; if the virus is as deadly as the president and other world leaders say it is, they may soon find themselves in the same predicament as the newsmen of Lincoln’s day: shut down for sedition. And they will have thoroughly earned it.
Michael Walsh is the author of “The Devil’s Pleasure Palace” and “The Fiery Angel,” both published by Encounter Books. His latest book, “Last Stands,” a cultural study of military history, will be published later this year by St. Martin’s Press. Follow him on Twitter @dkahanerules.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.