For Free Press and Equal Rights: Republican Newspapers in the Reconstruction South

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For Free Press and Equal Rights: Republican Newspapers in the Reconstruction South. By Richard H. Abbott, edited by John W. Quist. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004. Pp. x, 266. Preface, introduction, appendix, notes, index. $34.95.)

As the author of fine books on Senator and Vice-President Henry Wilson, the Republican party's dealings with the South, and the antislavery views of Boston businessmen, Richard H. Abbott contributed significantly to our understanding of the politics of the Civil War era. When he died in 2000, Abbott had completed a study of the Republican press in the South. His friend and colleague John W. Quist saw the book through to publication. The result, For Free Press and Equal Rights: Republican Newspapers in the Reconstruction South, is a work of first-rate scholarship that will benefit students of the postwar period and nineteenth-century politics and journalism.

Abbott's study is highly significant in rescuing the South's Reconstruction-era Republican editors from their historical anonymity. Abbott also underscores the crucial role they played. "Southern editors figured more prominently than their northern counterparts in shaping public opinion. Newspapers constituted the only mass medium for the South, which lacked the North's increasingly common publishing houses, magazines, lyceums, libraries, and schools. For most Southerners, their local newspaper was the only source of information from the outside world," he writes (p. 2). But publishing a newspaper was only the beginning. As loyal Republicans in a region in which the party lacked a history, these editors had also to play a disproportionately large role in creating Republican organizations in the South.

They did so, but never easily and rarely without paying a price of some kind. The violence and injustice that southern whites directed at African Americans, carpetbaggers, and scalawags, also plagued newspapermen. Abbott's accounts of canings, whippings, and mob scenes illuminate what should have been obvious: that the Ku Klux Klan and its supporters intimidated not only would-be voters but also those who would serve as their voice.

Yet Abbott also demonstrates that, at times, the worst enemy facing the Republican party could be itself. Just as Republicans differed in the North over the means to the ends they sought, so did their counterparts in the South. …