Surely, every debate about Abraham Lincoln has been had, and every story told—from his childhood splitting rails and his battle with depression to his cabinet of former rivals and his assassination. Yet over 150 years after Lincoln’s death, new details about Honest Abe still emerge to surprise us—and even stir up some contemporary controversy.
On Wednesday, Elizabeth Mitchell, author of Lincoln’s Lie: A True Civil War Caper Through Fake News, Wall Street and the White House, visited Zócalo live on Twitter with Break It Up author Richard Kreitner to discuss the little-known 1864 episode that illuminates Lincoln’s authoritarian side and his manipulation of the press. Their conversation explored the relationship between politics, media, and national security in today’s America, and the extent to which it should change how our society understands its 16th president.
In Mitchell’s new book, she focuses on a moment during the Civil War when two New York newspapers published a presidential proclamation from Lincoln declaring a draft of 400,000 additional men for active service. In response, Lincoln declared the announcement a forgery—in today’s terms, “fake news”—shut down both outlets and imprisoned telegraph operators, editors, and reporters, in addition to taking military possession of the Independent Telegraph Company’s New York offices to control the transmission of news. But ultimately, Mitchell found, there may have been more truth to the proclamation than Lincoln was willing to admit.
Today, Lincoln’s shutdowns of telegraph offices would be comparable to shutting down the internet, Mitchell told Kreitner, but pointed out that journalistic standards and readers’ expectations of a free, independent press, were different at the time. Anonymous reporting was a common and accepted practice, she said, describing a separate incident where Lincoln secretly purchased a newspaper in order to influence key voters shortly before an election.
The late 19th-century incident foreshadows contemporary reckonings with executive power and privilege. Mitchell and Kreitner considered the episode’s similarity to Trumpian attempts to undermine trust in the press in recent years. Kreitner also drew a comparison to the January 6 insurrection and the challenge of prosecuting crimes that involve a U.S. president.
“On a certain level,” Mitchell said, “[Lincoln] had an interpretive approach to the executive branch, and I think that the way it’s structured at this point, the executive branch gets that advantage—maybe to a dangerous degree.”
Quoted with Elizabeth Mitchell:
“A president has a lot of power, and they can easily strain past the powers that they are even granted … For democracy to work very well, all the other players in this democracy, which is everyone else, need to be on alert to be pushing for all of the laws that are on the books to be enacted and the protections to be executed.”