Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Bulla: "Lincoln's Censor: Milo Hascall and the Freedom of the Press in Civil War Indiana"

[Lincoln's Censor: Milo Hascall and the Freedom of the Press in Civil War Indiana by David W. Bulla (Purdue University Press, 2008). Softcover, photos, maps, illustrations, tables, notes, bibliographic essay, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 248/356. ISBN: 978-1-55753-473-6 $39.95 ]

In his new book Lincoln's Censor, journalism historian David W. Bulla argues that the popular view of a libertarian press privilege in America is a largely modern phenomenon, cemented by a series of landmark legal antecedents. Although journalistic freedom has always been assumed, 18th century newspapers, by contrast, were partisan party presses, and threats against them by political enemies commonplace. According to Bulla, even by the Civil War period, broad reaching high court legal tests of press freedoms remained in the future. In fact, in the matter of opposition newspaper suppression, one can find plenty of precedent throughout American political history (much of which Bulla summarizes). It was expected that the side in power would actively seek to restrict the publication and distribution of hostile papers. The Civil War would be no different.

The specific period and location analyzed in Lincoln's Censor is the spring of 1863 in Indiana. During that time, the state's military defense was overseen by district commander and West Point trained Brigadier General Milo Hascall. Under the umbrella of department commander Major General Ambrose Burnside's General Order No. 38, Hascall's own General Order No. 9 made opposition to conscription and emancipation tantamount to treason. This measure led to the suppression of eleven Indiana newspapers (all Democratic). Dozens more were unofficially threatened or actively disrupted.

Any useful contextual analysis requires the presentation of a certain amount of background information. What's unusual with Lincoln's Censor is the breadth and depth of coverage. In fact, this background exercise comprises the bulk of the text. An extensive social, political, and legal (specifically, the responsibility-for-abuse clause of the press section of the Indiana Constitution) history of the state is provided, as well as a discussion of antebellum press freedoms at the state and national level. Bulla outlines in some detail the newspaper suppression activities of previous presidential administrations, as well as additional Civil War period examples taken from other northern states.

The author's examination of Hascall's activities led to some intriguing observations. All of the officially suppressed newspapers were located in Republican majority counties, and in mostly smaller towns situated in the far north section of the state. This leads to some interesting questions. Hascall was a native of the area, and perhaps his choices were ones of familiarity, but was it also a carefully crafted strategy of intimidation -- to suppress Democrats in safely Republican areas in order to send a message to the entire state, yet at the same time minimize the risks of dangerous public disturbance in affected towns? Also, at the time of Hascall's actions, the Democrats had recently scored majority gains in both houses of the Indiana legislature and in U.S. congressional seats. The general's suppression effort, claimed to be nonpartisan in nature, could nevertheless be reasonably construed by ideological dissenters as a partisan political act disguised as a war measure. President Lincoln's role in all this was indirect. While he did not order or provide prior authorization for Burnside and Hascall to close critical newspapers and jail their editors, he tended to let his commanders's actions stand while politically expedient. The author's own opinion of Hascall's motivations is a largely benign one, but readers are invited to draw their own conclusions.

Deeply researched, packed with well presented background and supporting material, and accompanied by a host of maps and tables, Lincoln's Censor provides readers with an insightful analysis of wartime freedom of the press in 18th century America and Civil War Indiana in particular. Its keen observations, and important questions raised, provide much in the way of weighty pondering for both Civil War and journalism students. Recommended.

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