One hundred and fifty years ago, the editorial board of The Sun voiced "profound sorrow" at the "national calamity" of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. It was a mournful expression of loss, not just for the man but for the potential he had to knit the country back together after four years of terrible war.
It was also, we regret to say, an aberration. The Sun's editorial board had been no fans of President Lincoln. Actually, that's putting matters rather mildly. The editors called his election in 1860 an "offensive triumph," referring to him as an "exclusively sectional candidate" who would "rule with authority over the people of the sovereign states, who reject his principles and avowed policy as in direct conflict with their constitutional rights, their institutions, their interests, their equality in general confederacy, their honor, dignity and self-respect."
The following February, when Lincoln's security detail (notably including the famed detective Allan Pinkerton) became fearful of a plot to assassinate the president-elect en route to Washington for his inauguration, he was spirited through Baltimore in secret. Rather than expressing any concern, The Sun's editorials mocked everyone involved, including Lincoln. "Had we any respect for Mr. Lincoln, official or personal, as a man, or as president elect of the United States, his career and speeches on the way to the seat of government would have cruelly impaired it; but the final escapade by which he reached the capital would have utterly demolished it and overwhelmed us with mortification." They added, "We do not believe the presidency can ever be more degraded by any of his successors than it has been by him even before his inauguration."
There was (and remains to this day) some debate about whether the so-called Baltimore Plot was a serious threat, but The Sun didn't wait for the evidence, printing fantastical conspiracy theories about the whole affair and ridiculing the New York papers for believing it.
A week later, the editors carried on in the same vein, finding a silver lining in the security present for Lincoln's inauguration. They called it positively monarchical in nature and suggesting of a ruler fearful of his own subjects. "Yet there are elements of a sweet consolation," they said, in that Lincoln would be unable to wage war on the South if he used the entire army to protect himself.
In a more serious vein, the editors complained that Lincoln was putting his party above the Constitution, and they went on in a robust defense of the nation's odious fugitive slave act. (The editors rather disingenuously said they were avoiding taking a position on the question of slavery, per se, but referred to it as a "prominent constituent element of our organic law" and one that must be defended out of "an honorable obligation to uphold the rights of our fellow citizens against any form of aggression.") Lincoln's first inaugural address they deemed "puerile."
But shortly after the start of the Civil War, federal authorities cracked down on Southern-sympathizing papers in the North, and in Baltimore particularly. Unlike some of his competitors, Sun owner A.S. Abell was never jailed, but he nonetheless held his tongue, saying nothing good or bad about the president for years. The paper made no comment whatsoever on the Emancipation Proclamation, for example, but merely reprinted it and followed up a day later with a brief explanation of how many slaves would be affected by it. Nor did the paper have anything to say about Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Before the vote on Maryland's constitution of 1864, which abolished slavery and declared federal supremacy over the states, The Sun merely opined that the election "was an important one." Of Lincoln's second inaugural address, one of the greatest pieces of presidential oratory, The Sun declared it too brief to warrant comment.
On April 11, 1865, shortly after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, The Sun managed at least a few good words about Lincoln based on terms of the peace that disbanded the Confederate army but allowed the officers and soldiers to return home. The Sun declared that decision indication of "humane and liberal purposes of administration on his part."
But there would be little occasion to see whether the end of the war would bring a permanent turn in the paper's sympathies toward Lincoln. Three days after The Sun's modest compliment, Lincoln was shot at Ford's Theatre. The news reached Baltimore by midnight. Even as the president lay dying 40 miles to the south, The Sun's editors wrote of the "startling, dreadful, absolutely paralyzing intelligence" that had reached them. "But we have not, at the very late hour at which we write, time to say all that the momentous event demands."
That would come two days later. The Sun wrote that Lincoln uniquely "possessed the qualities of head and heart" needed to "mold once more into unity the elements which had been so long discordant." The editors opined that his "humane disposition, his practical views, his skillful treatment of delicate and difficult questions ... had come to be recognized in light of recent events, more fully than ever before, and a degree of confidence and hope had grown up in regard to him, in quarters where, at one time, such a result had not been anticipated." Like, say, the editorial board of The Sun.
—Andrew A. Green, with research assistance from Sun librarian Paul McCardell