A Conversation with Harold Holzer, author of LINCOLN PRESIDENT-ELECT
Q: It’s obvious from reading LINCOLN PRESIDENT-ELECT that you believe Barack Obama and John McCain and, therefore, the country, can benefit from studying Lincoln’s actions as president-elect. What do you think are the most important things they can learn from Abraham Lincoln’s example during the four months he waited to be inaugurated? HH: First: stay true to your original principles and policies between the election and the inauguration. Lincoln vowed he would not allow slavery to expand. Both Congress and a rump “Peace Convention” tried to take the matter out of his hands and allow it to spread anyway. Lincoln bravely decided he’d rather face down session later, even if it meant war, than give slavery new life before he took office. Second, appoint “your” people to office quickly: Lincoln was the first Republican ever to serve, and he filled some 2,000 jobs personally—which gave him a dependable (and dependent) base of loyalty within the government, which he desperately needed. Third, keep communicating. In Lincoln’s era, presidents-elect never spoke on policy, but then, neither did presidential candidates. Things have changed! Lincoln still managed to make his views known, through private letters and occasional talks. Then and now, it’s crucial to keep the American people informed. Finally—and no one has ever done this since—if you want to divert attention from a crisis, do something daring personally…like grow a beard.
Q: Most people believe that during the “Great Secession Winter of 1860-1861” Abraham Lincoln watched helplessly as events he could not control spiraled the nation closer to Civil War. LINCOLN PRESIDENT-ELECT convincingly refutes that belief. As one of the most highly-regarded chroniclers of Lincoln’s life and career, did you already realize just how strong and influential he was prior to his inauguration, or were you surprised at what you discovered in the course of your research? HH: Absolutely not. I went into the project with no pre-conceived notions about this—rather more the opposite, in fact, having been brought up on literature that concluded that these were not Lincoln’s finest moments. The more I read of original correspondence, newspapers, and reminiscence, however, the more I realized there was much more to this story than merely his staggering through the interregnum. Then the challenge became making a narrative out of what is really a very subtle history.
Q: There have already been so many books about Abraham Lincoln—you yourself have now written thirty of them. Is it a constant challenge to find fresh material, or do you believe that as a subject he so is complex that you will always find new facets of his personality or actions to write about? HH: The great thing about the Lincoln story is that even if there is no altogether “new” book to be written (famous last words!), each generation truly requires fresh interpretations of basic stories, which is why every year brings a new bookshelf of re-analysis of so many aspects of the Lincoln story. This tradition is not meant solely to enrich authors, but to reflect shifting viewpoints on issues such as race, family, militarization, presidential power, and a host of other subjects we perennially reconsider in our society. The truly amazing thing is that Lincoln continues to remain such an exemplary part of our evolving national story—ever relevant, ever worthy of reconsideration.
Q: One of the most fascinating sections of LINCOLN PRESIDENT-ELECT describes the media coverage of Lincoln in Springfield and on his inaugural journey to Washington D.C. Was media scrutiny of politicians as intense, and as deliberately inflammatory, in 1860-61 as it is today? HH: It was altogether different. The press—and that’s all it was in 1860-61; no broadcasts or web coverage, of course—was owned and operated by political parties, hence most towns had a Democratic paper and a Republican paper, and Lincoln might be portrayed as a buffoon in the former and a hero in the latter. And certainly the Democratic press strove to tear him down even after he was elected and the country was teetering on the brink of ruin—it held Lincoln accountable even before he had responsibility for steering the ship of state. On the other hand, even the Republican press raised serious questions about his abilities at the outset: he was a dark horse candidate, less well-known than his Republican rivals, relatively inexperienced, considered highly partisan. He certainly had a big job to do winning over the Eastern press establishment, though he managed to do it. Needless to say, there were far fewer “embedded” journalists in Lincoln’s day, a smaller traveling party of press on his train (though by mid-19th century standards it was a huge contingent), and much freer access to the president-elect. Still, when he slipped out of their grasp to evade an assassination plot in Baltimore, they made him pay a huge price: not only because he showed “the feather,” as they called cowardice in those days, but because he had the audacity to leave his press corps behind. I will add that Lincoln occasionally ghost wrote editorials for his hometown paper, which were later reprinted throughout the country. So did his private secretaries. Today such efforts at manipulation would provoke a scandal—Editorialgate.
Q: Though much of your book praises Lincoln for his conduct and decisions as president-elect, it’s clear he made a terrible decision regarding a stop in Baltimore during his inaugural journey from Springfield to Washington D.C. What happened, and why did he later describe it as one of the worst moments in his career? HH: You know, I take Lincoln’s later “regrets” with a grain of salt. Sure, he said he never wanted to slip through Baltimore, but no one forced him to: the decision was his, and all and all, even he concluded that discretion trumped valor. After all, he received independent warnings from two sources that pro-secession rowdies planned to kill him at the depot when he changed trains there en route to Washington (he had to change trains—and railroads—par for the course for rail travel during this period). President-elect Buchanan had actually faced a similar threat four years earlier in Baltimore, and he was a pro-South Democrat! I think Lincoln was wise to avoid Baltimore, but ill-advised to do it the way he did it—ducking under the covers in a train berth, leaving himself in the hands of a detective he hardly knew, and thus taking more, not less, security people along with him. My biggest criticism of the decision, which proved a public relations disaster for him, is that he left his wife and sons behind, knowing that the following day, they would take the same dangerous route he had cancelled, exposing them to the very same danger from which he was fleeing. And indeed they were harassed when they got to Baltimore. I would love to ask Lincoln how he could have abandoned them?
Q: We often read that Lincoln was either an atheist or at the very least a strongly skeptical agnostic. LINCOLN PRESIDENT-ELECT offers a different perspective. How would you describe Abraham Lincoln’s religious beliefs? HH: I hope this does not sound disrespectful, but I really think Lincoln falls into the category of what my late father, a World War II veteran, used to call a “foxhole believer.” That is, the worse things looked, the more he believed in God, Fate, and Divine Will: everyone under fire prays. We know organized religion never appealed to Lincoln, and he was terribly disappointed that his hometown ministers lined up almost unanimously against his election. He thought they were violating God’s injunctions against slavery. From a political point of view, and here again I know I’m being a bit callous, it was very smart of Lincoln to invoke God’s blessings as he left for Washington—God’s and George Washington’s, America’s secular saint—as if he was operating in their holy names. He even invoked God to bless his inaugural address and efforts at conciliation. It’s harder to oppose the Lord than a new president.
Q: During his four months as president-elect, Lincoln was besieged by office-seekers. The general belief is that this dismayed and exhausted him, but you write that he actually found much of the process exhilarating. Why? HH: I argue in the book that we have too long fallen for the myth that Lincoln was harangued and beleaguered by patronage- and favor-seekers, who made his life a living hell in Springfield and beyond. And certainly the audacity of the ill-qualified aspirants, and the pure nuttiness of the lunatics, was probably difficult to take (I particularly love the stories of the man who named his son for Lincoln and then asked him to buy insurance; or that of the local politician who hosted the President-elect during his last visit to his stepmother, then asked him for a federal job in return). But remember this: Lincoln was chosen and elected President to break the stranglehold the Democrats had long had on all branches of government, a dominance that guaranteed the perpetuation (and possible expansion) of the inhumane slave system. It was Lincoln’s job to get rid of pro-slavery, Democratic postmasters, consuls, port collectors, and reorient government (and government workers) toward freedom. Their presence would then help Republicans stay in power, not Democrats. The patronage process was thus a privilege and an obligation, not a burden. It was his job (months before managing a war became his job). And I think Lincoln relished every minute (or most minutes) of it, and was brilliant enough at image-making to cast himself as the poor, exhausted, put-upon executive in the bargain. He was quite an operator.
Q: How is it possible that Abraham Lincoln, a one-term U.S. Congressman and country lawyer, had the intellectual and political sophistication to outthink and outmaneuver seasoned political heavyweights like William Seward and Salmon Chase? What lessons can we take from this? HH: You know, one of his old legal associates once said that he who underestimated Lincoln at a trial often found himself in a ditch. Lincoln was funny-looking, awkward, unconventional, and rather aloof to boot, a homely enigma who was occasionally mocked. But in truth he was an absolutely brilliant strategist and tactician, and gave ground to absolutely no one in matters intellectual and political. Take Senator Charles Sumner—Harvard-trained, intellectual, Boston Brahmin, living martyr to the antislavery movement. Sumner fully expected to dominate the backwoods–bred president-elect. Instead he admitted that he’d never been exposed to such a strong dose of intellectual superiority. The fact is, Lincoln was simply more gifted than his contemporaries in terms of knowing how to combine philosophical aspiration and political reality—the “limits of the possible,” as another historian once put it. He also wrote better, arguably, than any of his contemporaries—even the literary giants of the age. He was a consummate communicator, smart enough even to use his own humble origins and less-than-handsome appearance to his advantage to appeal to ordinary Americans. His emergence of course surprised those who did not know him; not those who had supported or opposed him back home for years. So what lesion can we take from his example? That by saving the Union, he saved the concept that made America unique, and made his own rise possible: the principle that any person can rise from poverty to the limits of his or her potential, based on hard work and educational opportunity. He not only preserved that example—he lived it—as a boy, a lawyer, a politician, a president, and of course as president-elect.