Research for February 6

 

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break, our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

In these concluding sentences of his first inaugural address in March 1861, Abraham Lincoln expressed fear for his country’s future and urged fellow citizens to remember its past. He was reminding Americans that the Union was the product of their forebears’ struggle to win freedom and to form a national government, based upon republican principles, and to protect that freedom. But when the president was inaugurated, eight states already had seceded from the Union. The implication of that action, as Lincoln addressed it, was that those Americans seemed no longer to hear the “mystic chords of memory.”

Earlier in his speech Lincoln made clear what threatened the Republic. He insisted that “one section of the country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute.” But the question Lincoln did not address in his speech, the next logical question to ask, was Why did the break come? Disunion came after long years of disagreement about the practices of slavery and after numerous occasions on which Americans found ways to set aside their differences on that subject for the sake of trying to create or to preserve a unified nation. This time, efforts to compromise failed. Why had the public mood become so bellicose, and why was conflict among segments of American society so intense that voices of anger, suspicion, hatred, and fear drowned out those of moderation?

Efforts to construct a useful answer to that question need to start with a review of how and why newspapers were able to grow from “in-group” reading matter for political and financial elites into real mass media. True, newspapers were passed from hand to hand and were staples of conversation in taverns and coffee houses, but a press did not exist for the masses through much of the first half of the nineteenth century. By 1850, however, newspapers—thanks to rapid population growth and urbanization, to revolutions in printing and transportation and to a growing reliance on the “magnetic telegraph”—could deliver news and commentary quickly…

…By the 1850s, thanks to railroads and faster printing technologies, newspapers reached almost everyone. Telegraph information—often incomplete first impressions written and transmitted in haste for competitive reasons—flowed faster, feeding public hunger for news and political comment. Newspapers were the primary source of information about what happened in the world beyond each citizen’s realm of experience, and the explanations they provided about events in that larger world were important. Newspaper editors and reporters influenced public opinion through subject matter choices and wording and by the images they evoked, doing much as well to shape the tone of public discourse. Between 1856 and 1861, the pages of those newspapers were filled with emotion-laden epithets such as “barbarians,” “traitors,” “mean-spirited,” “cowardly,” “unprincipled,” and “conspiratorial.”

Through the pages of the newspapers they read, Americans had daily or weekly encounters with other countrymen and other points of view. In the late 1850s, such strangers more often than not were portrayed as evil people who performed evil deeds. Such portrayals both contributed to and reflected the division of the American community that Lincoln addressed. As the new president said, slavery “was the only substantial dispute” touching off the conflict among Americans. It was an issue to which newspapers devoted much space, painting dark pictures of those with whom they disagreed. But the national debate over slavery was placed in the context of loyalty to republican principles.

 

From Fanatics and Fire-Eaters: Newspapers and the Coming of the Civil War, pp. 2-3