LINCOLN, Abraham. Autograph letter signed ("A. Lincoln") as President, to James Gordon Bennett, founder and publisher of the New York Herald, Washington, D.C., 28 September 1861. 1½ pages, 8vo, (7 7/8 x 4 7/8 in.). Boldly inscribed by Lincoln at top of page one: "Private & confidential." In very fine condition.
"PRIVATE & CONFIDENTIAL": THE PRESIDENT ASSURES A NEW YORK PUBLISHER THAT HIS WAR CORRESPONDENTS WILL BE PERMITTED EQUAL OPPORTUNITIES TO COVER THE UNFOLDING WAR
An interesting letter, revealing the caution and delicacy Lincoln practiced in handling the nation's news media during the war. Bennett, one of the nation's most powerful newspaper publishers, was the founder and owner of the influential New York Herald. The widely-circulated Herald resolutely opposed the anti-slavery cause but leaned towards the Democratic party, endorsing Stephen A. Douglas in the 1860 elections. Following Lincoln's nomination, Joseph A. Medill, publisher of the Chicago Tribune had sought to convince Bennett not to attack the Republican cause during the campaign, but Bennett proved strongly independent. While military news was generally censored, newspaper reporters and journalists were often permitted--at the discretion of the Secretaries of War and Navy--to accompany Union troops or naval vessels. Here, Lincoln over-rules his Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Wells, who had for unknown reasons refused to allow one of Bennett's reporters on board a Potomac gunboat. Lincoln hastens to assure Bennett that his administration will not discriminate against his reporters:
"Last evening Mr. Wickoff solicited me for a pass, or permission to a gentleman whose name I forget, to accompany one of our vessels dawn the Potomac to-day, as a reporter of the Herald, saying the Sec. of the Navy [Gideon Welles] had refused, while he had given the privilege to reporters of other papers. It was too late at night for me to see the Secretary, and I had to decline giving the permission, because he the Sec. might have a different reason unknown to me. I write this to assure you that the Administration will not discriminate against the Herald, especially while it sustains us so generously, and the cause of the country so ably as it has been doing."
This unusual letter, one of only a handful Lincoln addressed to Bennett, is often quoted in discussions of Lincoln's relations with the press (see, for example, Mark Neely in The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia, p.222). Bennett replied to Lincoln on 22 October, thanking the President for his solicitude, and adding "all my interests and hopes and feelings are bound up with the integrity and success of the government," and expressing "deep sympathy" for Lincoln and his administration in "the most difficult crisis" (copy and transcript courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress).
Bennett (1795-1872), born in Scotland, emigrated to Nova Scotia in 1819, and, working as proofreader and press correspondent, made his way to Portland, Maine; Charleston, South Carolina, Boston and finally New York, where, in 1826, he was hired by Mordecai Noah as the Albany and Washington reporter for the New York Enquirer. His first attempts to start his own newspapers in New York and Philadelphia met with limited success, but in 1835, with capital of about $500, from a cellar on Wall Street, he launched a four-column daily, the New York Herald. The new paper immediately attracted a wide readership by its mixture of public-interest stories, financial news, political commentary and sensational coverage of crimes and disasters. Bennett's was the first newspaper to make extensive use of news transmitted by telegraph, and by 1860 had become one of the most widely circulated and influential papers in the nation. During the Civil War, he employed as many as 60 war correspondents. In the crucial 1864 campaign, the Herald endorsed neither Lincoln nor McClellan, but this did not prevent Lincoln from offering Bennett the post of minister to Paris, in March 1865, an appointment that Bennett declined.
See O. Carlson, The Man Who Made News: James Gordon Bennett (1942).
Published in Basler, 4:539 (with excerpt from Bennett's response).