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Eyewitness 1864: Editors assail Lincoln for his re-election bid

James P. Barr, the editor of The Daily Post, was no fan of Abraham Lincoln.

When the president-elect passed through Pittsburgh on Valentine’s Day 1861, the closest thing to a compliment Barr could manage was to write that Lincoln was not “as ugly in the face as he has been represented.”

When Lincoln was sworn into office in 1861, Barr’s newspaper called his inaugural address “puerile.” The new president’s childish and silly speech would only “dash down the hopes and sadden the hearts of the people.”

The Post was the voice of the county’s Democratic Party, and its coverage of the president became only harsher as the Civil War ground on. Its tone grew more vituperative as the presidential election of 1864 approached.

It called Lincoln a “heartless and unfeeling buffoon President.” His “despicable tricksters” in Washington had promoted “mere poltroons and milksops” to top military posts, prolonging the conflict with the South. “The Administration at Washington has but a single purpose, and that is to secure its own re-election,” the Post said on Aug. 6, 1864. “It cares nothing for the lives and property of the people ...”

Barr and his newspaper flirted with treason that same day in a story quoting a New York newspaper editor named George Wilkes. Wilkes, a former Lincoln supporter, had called on the president to sacrifice his “personal ambition ... and resign.”

At that point Wilkes stepped over the line. Lincoln “should remind himself that Caesar was ambitious,” the editor wrote. His readers would have remembered that Julius Caesar’s ambition led to his assassination.

Two days earlier the Post published a mock-epic poem imagining a conversation between Lincoln and Columbia, a symbolic name for the United States.

Columbia, “careworn and pale,” challenges “Lank Abraham” to defend his presidential record:

“Come, steward,” she said, “now explain if you can!

Why shan’t I discharge you and try a new man?”

The Lincoln in “Abraham and Columbia” has limited his efforts to reading a joke book and humor magazine: “Consulting ‘Joe Miller’ and ‘Vanity Fair.’”

As did the real Lincoln, the Lincoln in the poem repeatedly quotes a proverb from a story about a Dutch teamster fording a river: “Taint safe to swap hosses when crossing a stream.”

If that statement were true, Columbia asks, why did Lincoln replace so many of his generals in the midst of war? Those cast aside by Lincoln included two presidential rivals: John Fremont and George McClellan.

Lincoln’s reply in the poem is hypocritical and self-serving: “What’s sass for the gander aint sass for the goose.”

“Disgusted” Columbia gives up on Lincoln:

“I have kept an old donkey for nearly four years,

Who brings me but scorn and disaster and tears!

I vow I will drive a respectable team,

Though forced to swap horses when crossing a stream.”

“Corduroy,” the pseudonym for the unknown author of “Abraham and Columbia,” and the Post’s Joseph Barr were in for disappointment when votes were counted in November.

Fremont, who agreed to be the candidate of the new Radical Democracy Party, withdrew before the election. McClellan, the Democratic Party’s “peace candidate,” was trounced by Lincoln, who ran at the top of the “National Union Party” ticket.

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© 2014 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Distributed by MCT Information Services

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