On this date in 1863 Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton regarding the thorny problem of a free press generally, and an irascible newspaper editor with the Dickensian name of Wilbur Storey in particular.
Storey was the editor of the Chicago Times, a Democratic Party newspaper so opposed to President Lincoln and the Civil War that Gen. Ambrose Burnside lost this temper and sent armed troops into the newsroom to shut it down. It would be as if Gen. Michael Flynn could bring his most private fantasies to life regarding, say, The Washington Post.
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In 2017, The Washington Post adopted "Democracy Dies in Darkness" as its official slogan. Its provenance is not entirely clear and its meaning is adaptable. As fighting words go, however, it pales in comparison to 19th century newsman Wilbur Storey's fiery, if equally fungible, mission statement: "To Print the News and Raise Hell."
Born on a farm in Vermont, Storey apprenticed as a printer in his early teens before a gradual western migration landed him in Lincoln's adopted state of Illinois. Along the way, Storey studied law, ran a drug store, served as a postmaster and inspected prisons. But he loved the news business and kept returning to it, working at newspapers in New York City, LaPorte, Ind., and Jackson, Mich., before finally finding success in Detroit.
In 1853, with a $3,000 stake provided by the Democratic Party, Storey assumed the editorship of the inaptly named Free Press. When I say "inaptly," let me explain briefly. Wilbur Storey and the Michigan Democratic Party certainly believed the press should be free in this country. They just didn't extend that courtesy to enslaved black people. Storey was what was known at the time as a "Copperhead" -- Northern Democrats opposed to the Civil War, mainly on the grounds that they didn't believe emancipation was worth fighting for.
You can see why this put Storey in conflict with Abe Lincoln and the Republican Party, and in 1861 Storey took the fight to Chicago -- an abolition hotbed and the city where Republicans had given Lincoln the 1860 presidential nomination. There, Storey took command of the Chicago Times, a moribund Copperhead newspaper that had been the official organ of Stephen A. Douglas, one of the men Lincoln had bested on his way to the White House.
From that perch, Storey waged a relentless campaign of criticism of the Union cause and the war effort. This put him in conflict with Gen. Burnside, whom Lincoln had recently put in charge of Union troops in that sector -- mainly to keep Burnside from mismanaging any more battles as he had with disastrous consequences at Fredericksburg.
In any event, on June 1, 1863, Burnside ordered the Chicago Times to cease publication. When Storey defied the order, Burnside sent troops. This was more than clearing a city block of protesters to stage a photo op in front of a church. Armed soldiers stormed the newsroom, which they ordered evacuated, before tearing up copies of the paper.
As one might imagine, this didn't sit well with Chicagoans accustomed to reading what they wanted when they wanted. The next day some 20,000 protesters gathered at Courthouse Square demanding the order against the Chicago Times be lifted. Alarmed city fathers feared -- what else? -- a riot. So they let it be known that they were appealing Burnside's orders to a higher authority, namely Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. The appeal didn't take long: Burnside's precipitous action had offended nearly the entirety of Lincoln's Cabinet.
Appreciating Burnside's loyalty if not his judgment, the commander-in-chief sided against his impetuous general. "I have received additional dispatches which, with former ones, induce me to believe we should revoke…the order suspending the Chicago Times," President Lincoln wrote to Stanton on June 4, 1863, adding, "[A]nd if you concur in opinion, please have it done."
The secretary of war did concur and it was done. Afterward, the president and the first lady went to the private Washington home of a supporter to hear a recitation of Shakespeare.
It cannot be said that Wilbur Storey was grateful in victory. Emboldened, he increased the ferocity of his attacks on the administration. In the pages of the Chicago Times, Burnside was forever after referred to as the "Beast of Fredericksburg." This is harsh, but probably fair comment. As for the man who'd restored his First Amendment rights, Storey thanked Lincoln by calling him, in print, "a mean, wily, illiterate, brutal, unprincipled, and utterly vulgar creature," and "a man who jokes while a nation mourns."
If this strikes you as needlessly cruel to describe a president who had lost an 11-year-old son a year before, well, Wilbur Storey was that kind of polemicist. We have them in our midst today, even as things are turned upside down: The would-be censors are now on the newspaper staffs.
Yet Lincoln's advice is as timely now as it was in the midst of the Civil War. In a letter to Burnside, Stanton patiently explained the president's thinking: "The irritation produced by such acts [as closing newspapers] is likely to do more harm than the publication would do."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.