Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Lincoln's Campaign Biographies

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Lincoln's Campaign Biographies

Article excerpt

Lincoln's Campaign Biographies. By Thomas A. Horrocks. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2014. Pp. 168, notes, index. Cloth, $24.95).

In a speech given in September 1859, Abraham Lincoln declared that "public opinion in this country is everything" (p. 19). At that moment, he was trying to show how Stephen Douglas and the Democratic Party, by advocating popular sovereignty as a solution to the problem of slavery in the United States, were gradually and steadily debauching public opinion by ignoring the moral evil of the peculiar institution. Lincoln understood probably as much as or even more than other deft politicians of his era the supreme importance of public opinion and its influence in American politics. As Thomas A. Horrocks emphasizes in this brief, but highly informative, book, Lincoln became a master at following the lead of public opinion and knowing how to mold such to his own political ends. "Keenly appreciating the role of print in shaping public opinion," writes Horrocks, "Lincoln, from the beginning of his political career in both New Salem and Springfield, Illinois, and through his years as president, used print, especially newspapers, to further his and his party's agenda" (pp. 19-20). One only has to recall Lincoln's artful use of public letters during his presidency to grasp how well he served as his own public relations man.

By putting Lincoln's adroit use of newspapers, photographs, engravings, and songs into the context of the rising interconnection among print, politics, and public opinion, Horrocks offers new insights into how the media of the time took the images of Honest Abe and the Rail Splitter and used them to introduce Lincoln to the Northern public. Newspapers facilitated a broad public understanding of Lincoln as an ordinary man, a man of the people. These newspaper accounts of Lincoln, particularly in the run-up to the i860 election, provided a foundation for the publication of at least twenty campaign biographies (some raging in length from concise pamphlets and booklets to full-length book) that spread and expanded the candidate's popular image as Honest Abe and the Rail Splitter. Horrocks, who is director of Special Collections and the John Hay Library at Brown University, argues persuasively that these books made a difference and helped Lincoln, a politician who lacked a solid national reputation, win the presidency.

What Horrocks accomplishes in this little book is something that other scholars have largely missed in their more sweeping expositions of Lincoln the politician. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Horrocks points out, partisan newspapers began publishing in vast quantities, not only in the major cities but in nearly every community in America, urban and rural. …

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