The News-Gazette’s roots run straight to the Whig Party of Lincoln's era. By 1859, the paper was called The Central Illinois Gazette, and Lincoln was its man. It claims the distinction of being the first paper anywhere to endorse Lincoln for president, earning its editor a historic position in the Lincoln White House.
Abraham Lincoln had always been a favorite of the Republicans of Champaign County, as well as a villain to the Democrats who supported Stephen Douglas. The pro-slavery Democratic paper in the county, called Our Constitution, used virtually every opportunity to belittle and embarrass the future president. In August 1858, before Lincoln’s Senate contest against Douglas, it wrote what must have been one of the longest sentences in the history of journalism, part of a diatribe against the neighbor from Sangamon County:
“During the twenty years or thereabouts that Mr. Lincoln has been prominently before the public — embracing a number of terms in the State Legislature and one term in the Representative hall of Congress — to say nothing of the time during which he was the leader of the Mexican forces in Illinois — during all this term of years and of services — affording the widest opportunities for the display of that genius which his friends claim he possesses in so eminent a degree — Mr. Lincoln has never initiated or by his influence secured the enactment of any measure that can be pointed out which has to any degree subserved the substantial interests of the people of Illinois or of the country at large.
“If his public career has been remarkable for any one thing more than another, it has been for the complete barrenness of results which has attended it. Of no other man in the State of Illinois who has been afforded as enlarged opportunities as Mr. Lincoln, can it be truly said that he has really done as little good for the State as Mr. Lincoln .”
But the Republicans were the majority party in Champaign County, and Lincoln — who for years had ridden on horseback the judicial circuit that included the county — was warmly embraced by The Central Illinois Gazette.
In what is probably the most famous editorial ever written in a Champaign-Urbana newspaper, the Gazette on May 4, 1859, became the first paper ever to endorse Lincoln for the presidency. The paper had a circulation of about 2,000 at that time. Written by 25-year-old Gazette editor William Osborn Stoddard (who later was hired by President Lincoln to become one of his three private secretaries), the two-paragraph editorial said:
“We had the pleasure of introducing to the hospitalities of our sanctum a few days since the Hon. Abraham Lincoln. Few men can make an hour pass away more agreeably. We do not pretend to know whether Mr. Lincoln will ever condescend to occupy the White House or not; but if he should, it is a comfort to know that he has established for himself a character and reputation of sufficient strength and parity to withstand the disreputable and corrupting influences of even that locality.
“No man in the West at the present time occupies a more enviable position before the people, or stands a better chance for obtaining a high position among those to whose guidance our ship of state is to be entrusted.”
Stoddard not only wrote the editorial but he sent copies of that edition of The Central Illinois Gazette to 200 other newspapers. “Then I waited to see the result of my experiment and it altogether surprised me,” he recalled more than 60 years later for the Atlantic Monthly. “Many of them reprinted it in full, or nearly so, and swung out the name of Lincoln at their column heads.”
He said he had first met Lincoln at the newspaper office in the fall of 1858. “Mr. Lincoln greeted me cordially and plunged at once into the causes of his coming,” Stoddard recalled. “In a minute he had me not only deeply interested but somewhat astonished. I supposed that I knew the people and the politics of that county; he had been told that I did, but so did he. He could ask about the different precincts and their leading men almost as if he had lived among them.”
While some parts of central and southern Illinois supported Douglas in the 1860 election (including Sangamon County where he defeated the county’s favorite son by 42 votes), Lincoln did well in Champaign County, besting Douglas, 1,793 to 1,221. Four years later his victory margin in Champaign County over Democrat George McClellan was 2,116 to 1,133.