During November and early December, I logged over 6,000 miles collecting material on Democratic newspaper editors and politicians of the 1860s who opposed Abe Lincoln’s war policies. Some of them opposed the war itself. That could be dangerous amid such polarization, for “loyal” mobs from New England to the prairie periodically enforced their factional ideology with violence, roughing up antiwar editors and destroying their print shops. Federal troops also seized or ransacked newspaper offices when editorial criticism grew too strident — or too persuasive. The postmaster general went so far as to ban some Democratic journals from the mail when they questioned the aims or wisdom of the war too effectively.
Betraying their own profession, pro-administration editors welcomed forcible suppression of their competitors, and even encouraged mob violence against Lincoln’s critics. When a swarm of summer soldiers demolished the Democratic Standard office in Concord and assaulted the staff, Manchester’s Daily American published a list of other dissident newspapers, hinting that they should also be put out of business.
Such assaults on the First Amendment risked a backlash, however. Republicans found it more politically effective to portray the government’s most vociferous critics as traitors who sympathized with the enemy.
During elections they carried that tactic to extremes, often with help from the War Department, under the direction of Lincoln’s most politically corrupt cabinet member — Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Smear tactics reached their peak during the presidential election of 1864, when Army administrators set out to prove that Democrat political clubs planned an armed revolt against the government. Paid informants, including impostors, provided affidavits full of innuendo and exaggeration, or outright fantasy. With straight faces, provost marshals acting as political officers even presented anonymous letters as “evidence” of this diabolical plot.
A few weeks before the election, the War Department published all that claptrap in a sensationalized pamphlet. Meanwhile, Stanton’s judge advocates focused their greatest energy on a series of show trials. Charging a handful of Lincoln’s most venomous antagonists with treason, they presented military tribunals with daily doses of prosecution testimony throughout the autumn, and friendly newspapers fed it to credulous readers. Only after election day did the prosecution rest, preventing contradictory defense testimony from getting into the papers until the political purpose of the trials had been achieved.
History only depresses me when it demonstrates that people never learn anything from it, as recent events in Washington show. The names of the political parties have been reversed, but once again the radical faction is engineering a show trial to discredit its conservative opponents in advance of an election. Democrats spent three years trying to unearth or invent an excuse to impeach Donald Trump, but waited until the final quarter of their four-year presidential campaign to act on their latest pretext. Now they seem intent on running out the clock with it.
The impeachable offenses Democrats howled about in the Mueller report no longer seem to merit prosecution. Instead, the impeachment puppeteers depend entirely on criminalizing a quid pro quo in foreign policy — a demand resembling the strings Bernie Sanders insists he would attach to foreign aid for Israel. The utter impossibility of securing a conviction confirms this reckless undertaking as nothing but political theater for the 2020 election.
During five weeks of driving this fall, I often paused the music of Iris Dement, Alison Krauss, and Heather Pierson to look for some news. The strongest radio signals seem to carry National Public Radio, which was harping on the progress of the impeachment hearings whenever I tuned in. As though they had rehearsed it, NPR anchors posed leading questions and their reporters provided predictable responses in an astonishingly ham-handed effort to persuade listeners that impeachment was right and reasonable.
So poorly disguised a publicity campaign by an outlet I once deemed reliable gave me a new level of understanding for the deep distrust with which Trump supporters regard mainstream media. Their suspicion is not unjustified. The rank partisanship in Civil War journalism differed from the more insidious biases of modern media primarily in the greater transparency with which it was exercised. Today the tendency to interpret events through a partisan lens may be so reflexive for some as to be unconscious — as often seems true with The New York Times and subscribers to its news feed, including this newspaper. The conveyance of customized truth is usually much more blatant on the right, but that makes it easier to detect.
The impeachment of Bill Clinton vastly improved my life by persuading me to turn off my television, once and for all. Back then, Republicans at least identified a credible felony as their pretext, but the obvious dishonesty of their partisan purpose filled me with greater contempt than I thought one political party could ever deserve — until now.
William Marvel, of South Conway, is the author of “Lincoln’s Autocrat: The Life of Edwin Stanton” (University of North Carolina Press, 2015).