Chase and the Press

My friend Harold Holzer has written a great book, Lincoln and the Press. I could write a book about Chase and the press, starting with how as a young boy he found and read a set of old Federalist newspapers, to teach himself politics. When Chase first arrived in Cincinnati, as a young lawyer, he did not have much legal work, so he wrote articles for the papers, articles which he carefully cut and pasted into a scrapbook.

More revealing, however, are a set of letters in the Union College library from Chase to John Bigelow, a senior editor of the New York Evening Post. From 1849 through 1855, Chase was a federal senator from Ohio; from 1856 through 1860, he was the governor of Ohio. The Ohio press covered Chase carefully, but he understood that in order to achive higher office, he needed national press coverage. So Chase cultivated national editors like Bigelow.

In early 1853, Chase managed to get through the Senate a bill to fund a survey of various railroad routes to the Pacific. Chase provided information about his bill and his speeches to Bigelow, who published a long account in the New York Evening Post, March 14, 1853, including the following:

“It is but just to Senator Chase to say that upon the record it appears that more is due to his tact and discernment in offering the amendment which passed, in the proper way and at the proper time, than to any other person, and he, if any one, is entitled to a principal share of the credit which belongs to the last Congress for an appropriation which will be the means of not only materially expediting the construction of the Pacific railroad, but of commencing it in a safe and judicious way.”

On the next day, Chase wrote Bigelow to thank him “heartily for your kind notice of me and my works in connection with the facts I sent you. So many cold words are directed towards me, that a warm regard is really refreshing.” Chase went on to provide Bigelow some rumors about Washington appointments and at the end asked for extra copies of the Post. Chase probably wanted to send clippings to other editors, to see if they would reprint the Post’sarticle, a common practice in those days.

A few weeks later, Chase wrote Bigelow again, this time from a steamboat on the Mississippi River. Chase started in a light tone: “If this note is a little more unintelligible than common in consequence of undecipherable chirography, place it to the account of the wheezy, huffy, shaking but otherwise very comfortable steamer Prairie State, bound from St. Louis to La Salle whereupon I am at this present writing passenger.” Chase described his visit to St. Louis, the warm reception that he had received, the invitation to speak about railroad issues, which he thought was perhaps the first invitation from slave state leaders to an anti-slavery speaker. Chase forwarded to Bigelow an article from the St. Louis Democrat describing all this, suggesting that he reprint it.

As best I can tell the New York Evening Post did not reprint the St. Louis article, but it did print a letter from a St. Louis correspondent reporting that “we have recently been honored with a visit from Senator Chase. Although on business, and much limited in time, our citizens availed themselves of the opportunity to manifest their respect for him. All parties, without distinction, joined in giving him a hearty welcome, and he was received with the distinguished consideration he deserves.” The author went on to talk about the bonds between Ohio and Missouri: they “have grown up twin sisters in the wilderness, and their commercial emporiums are now the twin cities of the West. They have been born together, and nurtured together, let them not be separated.” Chase himself, in speeches at this time, sounded similar notes, warning against division of the Union.

In March 1855, when Chase’s term as senator ended, and he returned to Ohio, the Evening Post praised him warmly. “We shall miss his eloquence in the debates of that body,” the editors wrote, “the courtesy and dignity which graced the part he bore in them, and his conscientious abstincnce from appeals ot the prejudices of the day; but more than this we shall miss the right- mindedness which made it a pleasure to watch his public conduct and observe his votes.” The Evening Post, which often opposed spending proposals, noted that it “always counted on his opposition to a corrupt or extravagant expenditure or appropriation; and we could always depend on his cooperation to restrain action of the federal government within its proper sphere.”

A year later, however, when Chase was one of the leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, he did not receive the support of the Evening Post. Eastern editors were keen to win the presidential contest, and they believed that to do so, they would need not just anti-slavery votes, which Chase was sure to get, but also anti-immigrant votes, which Chase was far less sure to get. Eastern editors therefore favored John Fremont, the eventual nominee, seeing him as a military hero, without a troublesome track record like Chase or Seward. Editors were far more important in nineteenth century nominations than they are today. There were no primaries; delegates arrived at convnetions without any binding instructions on how to vote. And there were no polls; so the best way to get a sense of what voters were thinking was to read the editorial pages, see what editors were writing. The Evening Post did not go quite as far as other papers—it did not endorse Fremont—but its coverage of Fremont in the weeks leading up to the convention was extensive and favorable. Right after the convention one of Chase’s friends wrote to complain about how “the Tribune and the Evening Post and a hundred other papers” had supported Fremont.

So although Chase’s relations with the press, and the Evening Post, were useful, they were not quite as useful as he hoped or perhaps deserved. I am not sure that Chase could have obtained the 1856 presidential nomination, or that he could have been elected if nominated. But he would have gotten closer to that if he had received the editorial support of the NY Evening Post, the NY Tribune, the Chicago Tribune and other leading journals.