By Edward Achorn
It takes a sizeable ego for any president to compare himself with Abraham Lincoln. But President Trump may have had a point in doing so at his recent “town hall” at the Lincoln Memorial.
“I am greeted with a hostile press the likes of which no president has ever seen,” Mr. Trump said, adding, “The closest will be that gentleman up there.”
He gestured to Daniel Chester French’s colossal statue of Abraham Lincoln in the memorial. “They say nobody got treated worse than Lincoln… I believe I am treated worse.”
It is, of course, open to debate whether President Trump is getting it worse than his fellow Republican did.
But the record is clear that Lincoln — now one of our most revered presidents, if not the most revered — was regarded by much of the press of his time as incompetent, tyrannical, and grossly unpresidential.
As I point out in my new book, Every Drop of Blood: The Momentous Second Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, newspapers around America and in England openly scorned the former prairie lawyer and one-term congressman. People found his propensity to tell earthy stories — a gift perfected in the rude taverns of Illinois’ Eighth Judicial Circuit — far beneath the dignity of America’s highest office.
The London-based Standard branded him “a foul-tongued and ribald punster” who was the “most despicable tyrant of modern days.”
Many newspapers attributed the insane butchery of the Civil War — which ended up claiming some 750,000 lives — to Lincoln’s incompetence. Citing Lincoln’s haggard appearance, the Dubuque (Iowa) Herald opined in early 1863: “No wonder the President looks wretched; no wonder he looks as if the ghosts of half a million of his slaughtered countrymen were pointing to their ghastly wounds and accusing him of being their murderer!”
The newspapers of the South were, of course, rabid chroniclers of his perceived flaws. Many of them urged the creation of the Confederacy rather than accept his election. After Lincoln’s re-election in 1864, the Richmond (Virginia) Daily Dispatch found it disgraceful that the supposedly free people of the North had elected “a vulgar tyrant … whose career has been one of unlimited and unmitigated disaster; whose personal qualities are those of a low buffoon, and whose most noteworthy conversation is a medley of profane jests and obscene anecdotes — a creature who has squandered the lives of millions without remorse and without even the decency of pretending to feel for their misfortunes; who still cries for blood and for money in pursuit of his atrocious designs.”
In the North, too, the Democratic press impugned Lincoln’s motives, and worse. During the 1864 campaign, some papers printed false stories about Lincoln heartlessly singing songs and laughing it up at the blood-soaked battlefield of Antietam, where more Americans fell in one day than in any other battle.
“The man who votes for Lincoln now is a traitor and murderer,” wrote the La Crosse Democrat, in Wisconsin. “And if he is elected to misgovern for another four years, we trust some bold hand will pierce his heart with dagger point for the public good.”
Though comedian Kathy Griffin posed with a mock image of President Trump’s severed head, no newspaper I know of has gone that far against the 45th president.
Unlike Mr. Trump, Lincoln — or his administration — sent editors to jail, as a war measure to prevent states from falling to the Confederacy or preventing false information damaging to the Union cause. While denouncing some members of the left-leaning media as purveyors of “fake news” and “enemies of the people,” the current president has not gone that far.
Many in the Democratic press even trashed Lincoln’s great Second Inaugural Address, now regarded as American scripture and chiseled into the wall of the Lincoln Memorial. The Chicago Times denounced it as “Lincolnian,” which modern critics do not consider a failing.
“We did not conceive it possible that even Mr. Lincoln could produce a paper so slip-shod, so loosely joined, so puerile, not alone in literary construction, but in its ideas, its sentiments, its grasp. … By the side of it, mediocrity is superb.”
Lincoln, in contrast to Mr. Trump, generally refrained from criticizing the press, and even at times explained how important a free press was to a free republic. After the tragedy of the Civil War, he called for “malice toward none” and “charity for all” in dealing with former enemies.
It is remarkable that a man so vilified chose to persuade the people, rather than blast his enemies.
(Read more about Lincoln in Edward Achorn’s acclaimed new book, Every Drop of Blood).