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Who Is Abraham Lincoln?
Think Tank Transcripts:Who Was Abraham Lincoln?
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MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, I'm Ben Wattenberg. It was here at Ford'sTheater in 1865 that America's 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, wasshot by John Wilkes Booth. Afterward, the assassin leapt from thatbalcony shouting, 'Sic semper tyrannus,' or, Thus always the tyrants,and 'The South is avenged.'
Lincoln has been called many things: savior, tyrant, liberator,racist, saint, poet, idealist, pragmatist. It has been said thatevery generation and almost every cause recasts Lincoln for its ownpurposes. Was he really a visionary leader who set out to reshapeAmerica, or was he just a practical politician forced to cope withextraordinary events?
Joining us are three leading American historians: David HerbertDonald, professor of history emeritus at Harvard University, two-timePulitzer Prize-winner and author of the new biography, 'Lincoln';Daniel Boorstin, librarian of Congress emeritus and author of thePulitzer Prize-winning series 'The Americans,' and most recently theDaniel J. Boorstin reader; and Eric Foner, professor of history atColumbia University, editor of 'The Reader's Companion to AmericanHistory,' and author of 'A House Divided: America in the Age ofLincoln.'
The question before us here at Ford's Theater, which is still inoperation today: Who was Abraham Lincoln? This week on 'Think Tank.'
For much of his life, Abraham Lincoln seemed an unlikely candidatefor the title 'savior of the republic.' Born in Hardin, Kentucky, in1809, Lincoln spent his early years as a country lawyer and Illinoisstate representative. He gained national attention by debatingSenator Stephen Douglas during their contest for an Illinois Senateseat. The issue that divided them and divided the country was theexpansion of slavery into the Western territories. Lincoln lost theelection, but won the hearts of most of his countrymen.
Lincoln believed slavery was an immoral institution. He opposedits spread and believed America could not be half slave and halffree. 'A house divided against itself cannot stand,' he said.
In 1860, Lincoln won the presidential nomination of the recentlyformed Republican Party. Many in that party favored his moderateopposition to slavery. Touting his humble origins, his followershailed him as 'Honest Abe, the rail splitter.' In a four-way racethat many said was tearing apart the nation, Lincoln won the WhiteHouse with just 39.8 percent of the vote. After his election, theSouthern states seceded from the Union. Within six weeks of hisinauguration, the Civil War began. On January 1, 1863, with the wardead mounting, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. AfterLincoln was assassinated in this very theater, he was carried acrossthe street. He died the following morning. Secretary of War EdwinStanton said, 'Now he belongs to the ages.'
Gentlemen, thank you very much for joining us. Let us begin with avery simple question. Professor David Herbert Donald, what kind of aman was Abraham Lincoln?
MR. DONALD: If I were going to devise a wreath epitaph for AbrahamLincoln, I would say, 'Savior of the Union, emancipator of theslaves, model of a democratic leader.' That would be my formulation.
MR. WATTENBERG: Okay, Professor Eric Foner.
MR. FONER: Well, I can't disagree with what Professor Donald said.I would just add that to me, Lincoln's greatness is his capacity togrow into those roles. He was a man of his times, but somehow he wasable to transcend his time when it became necessary. And even at thevery end of his life, his views on issues which are so important tous today, such as race relations, were still evolving and movingforward. He was never stuck in a sort of a dogmatic position, andthat I think accounts for his ability to be a great democraticleader.
MR. WATTENBERG: Dan Boorstin, I gather you had a semi-personalencounter with the Great Emancipator.
MR. BOORSTIN: Well, yes, it was a rather intimate encounterbecause when I walked into the office of the librarian of Congressfor the first time --
MR. WATTENBERG: When you were still in that office?
MR. BOORSTIN: -- some years ago, and Ruth was with me, and welooked around the office and we looked in the -- there was a vaultthere -- we looked in the vault. In the vault, there was a box, ashoebox which had a label on it, 'Do not open. Contents of thepockets of Abraham Lincoln on the night he was assassinated.'
MR. WATTENBERG: Wow.
MR. BOORSTIN: So of course we naturally opened it immediately, andwe found -- among the contents, we found a pair of broken eyeglassesand we found a penknife, a partly broken penknife, but mostinterestingly, a billfold which had two things in it that were quitesignificant: one a clipping of a speech by John Bright in the Houseof Commons, praising Lincoln as one of the greatest men who everlived, which was rather well worn, as if he'd taken it out many timesto read -- (laughter) -- and also a Confederate $10 bill, which wasinsurance I suppose.
MR. WATTENBERG: We hear so much in the folklore about Lincoln,about his rural, backwoods background, he almost comes acrosssometimes as sort of a hick. Is that accurate? MR. DONALD: Well, inthe first place, that's a carefully cultivated image. Lincoln knewthe power of being the self-made man, the man of the people, the railsplitter. He was all of those things, but of course he was a greatdeal more than that. For instance, he had done a lot of manual workin his time, but he didn't like to do physical labor and that's thereason he entered politics and the law. He was not a man of greatsocial graces initially, but his wife helped him a great deal andhelped dress this rather awkward man so that he looked really quiteelegant, and toward the end of his life, he was behaving with somegallantry toward ladies, who he earlier had been --
MR. BOORSTIN: Ben, could I ask a question in that connection?
MR. WATTENBERG: Yeah.
MR. BOORSTIN: Why did he wear a stovepipe hat?
MR. DONALD: I have never known.
MR. BOORSTIN: I have looked in your -- I read your book with greatinterest, but that's one thing that was -- I didn't find in it.
MR. DONALD: It is an odd thing that a man 6'4' would add thatheight. And we have to remember that 6'4' in those days was gigantic.The average height of Americans was of course so much less than it istoday. There were no 7-foot basketball players around the country.And so he was so tall, he stood out in any crowd, and why you wouldadd another foot is beyond me, except he found it very useful forstorage. It was the place that he put his papers, and if he couldn'tfind anything, he would take his hat off and kind of rumble around inthose papers and find the document that he was looking for. That'sthe only reason that I can come up with, but I don't know. He didoccasionally wear what he called a plug hat, a soft hat, but the tallhat was his trademark.
MR. BOORSTIN: One of the difficulties in understanding Lincoln isthat he's been so overlaid with myth and legend. Of course Washingtonwas, too. Washington was mythologized, but Washington was --therewere not so many legends about Washington. There was the cherry treeand there were a few others, Valley Forge and other places. But inthe case of Lincoln, his whole life is full of legend, beginning withhis birth in a log cabin with the Anne Rutledge affair, and so on.
And I think that the reason why he -- one reason why he challengesour imagination and has become so legendary is that he is therepresentative American. Now, you know, when we look at heroes --Carlyle wrote a book called 'Heroes and Hero Worship,' and he saidthat the great figures in history are those who are charismatic, whohave a divine afflatus, who are above everybody else. But Emersonthen contrasted that notion, which he borrowed partly from Carlyle,to the idea of the representative man, the man who embodies thecommon virtues, the common qualities to an extraordinary degree. AndI think that's what Lincoln did.
MR. WATTENBERG: Let me ask a question. You've all sort ofindicated that he both was and appeared to be a man of the people. Itis said by some these days that his early views, at least, wouldtoday be characterized as racist. Was that what Americans were then,or was that what Lincoln coming from -- what the Southern -- a borderstate --
MR. FONER: You have to remember that in the mid 19th century,racist views were very widespread in the North as well as the South,and not only among people who had migrated from Southern states intothe North. Lincoln shared many of those prejudices, there's noquestion, growing up, and as a careful politician, he was not goingto go way out on a limb like many abolitionists did to demand equalrights for blacks in the North.
But on the other hand, he always insisted that blacks wereentitled to the basic rights of humanity, the rights enumerated inthe Declaration of Independence -- life, liberty and the pursuit ofhappiness. Now, we may say, well, that's not saying much, but therewere many Americans -- Stephen A. Douglas, for example -- who saidno, that's only for white people, the Declaration only applies towhites; blacks, Africans have no standing as citizens. After all, theDred Scott decision, the law of the land in 1857, said a black personcannot be a citizen of the United States.
So yes, Lincoln by modern standards, appears to have whatProfessor Donald I think called very short-sighted views on race. Butthe other point is, as I said, he evolved, he changed. In his lastspeech, he was calling, or saying at least that he favored givingsome blacks the right to vote after the Civil War, which wascertainly a minority position even after emancipation.
MR. WATTENBERG: What were the -- the essence of theLincoln-Douglas debates? What was that all about? We've heard so muchabout it.
MR. DONALD: Well, the issue, first of all, specifically, is whowas going to be elected senator from Illinois. They were not electeddirectly, but you elected a legislature who elected the senator. SoStephen A. Douglas for the Democrats, Abraham Lincoln for theRepublicans, they were running in 1858.
At issue here, really, is the question of the spread of slaveryinto the national territories, which Douglas had opened in 1854 withthe Kansas-Nebraska Act. And that's what really triggered Lincoln'smajor political career. He found slavery morally wrong. He had alwaysthought slavery morally wrong. Back in 1837, he'd issued a statementin the Illinois state legislature denouncing slavery. But now hefeared that it was going to expand to the North. This then gave theoccasion, first of all, to fight an old antagonist, a bitter rival inIllinois politics on a high moral principle, namely, that slaverymust not be allowed to expand. This did not mean -- as Eric said, itdid not mean racial equality, but it meant no more expansion ofslavery.
MR. FONER: But it also meant, to add to that, the -- in a sense,Lincoln is calling for a national decision about slavery. That's whathe said in the 'house divided' speech, which was the opening shot ofthe senatorial campaign, that this is a decision that has to be madeby the nation, that slavery is going to be stopped from spreading,and as he said, 'put in the course of ultimate extinction.' Now,ultimate extinction may be a long time away, but to Southerners thatwas a very frightening concept.
And Douglas insisted, no, this is a local problem, localitiesought to decide it, states in the South, territories, what is it ourbusiness in Illinois whether people in Kansas or in Mississippi haveslavery or not? And as David said, Lincoln insisted, this is aparamount moral question and it requires a national decision. Itcan't be decided ad hoc in all sorts of different local communities.
MR. BOORSTIN: But don't you think his position there alsoexpressed a certain practical attitude toward the problem, that is, abelief in institutions, not in ideology, not in theories, but in theimportance of the Union, of this institution that had protected 'thefreedom of the free,' which he referred to, and that that wasnecessary in order to perpetuate the life of the nation.
MR. WATTENBERG: That was his single, overriding concern aspresident was the preservation of the Union. That was aboveeverything.
MR. DONALD: Yes, that above everything else because, as DanBoorstin has just said, that was going to bring about the other goalsthat he wished to promote.
MR. BOORSTIN: I did say that --
MR. FONER: Obviously, Dan -- go ahead.
MR. WATTENBERG: Go on.
MR. FONER: All right. What I was going to say is that yes, Lincolnwas devoted to the Union. William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist,burned the Constitution. Lincoln would never have thought of doingsomething like that. On the other hand, to say that he is simplydevoted to the Union, many positions could follow from that. Forexample, in the secession crisis, Lincoln opposed compromise to savethe Union. There were many who said, Well, then, let's give up onthis question of the expansion of slavery, or, Let's draw a linethrough the territories. Lincoln said, No, I'm not going tocompromise the principle of the non-extension of slavery even if itwill settle this crisis of the Union right now. So that Lincoln wasdevoted to the Union, but it had to be a union that stood for certainprinciples, the principle of democracy and also this principle offreedom being the normal national condition and slavery being anaberration which had been put on this course of ultimate extinction.
MR. WATTENBERG: If Lincoln knew, when he became president, that bypursuing this war, 640,000 Americans on both sides would be killed,the largest slaughter of Americans before or since --
MR. BOORSTIN: It was the bloodiest war of the 19th century, too, Ithink.
MR. FONER: Right. MR. BOORSTIN: Anywhere.
MR. WATTENBERG: -- do you think he would have gone ahead?
MR. DONALD: Well, nobody could have that kind of fore-knowledge.This is as unrealistic as to ask about World War I or World War II orVietnam, as far as that's concerned. You don't know what the outcomeis going to be. And Lincoln when he became president thought that byupholding the Union, by encouraging Unionists in the South, that thesecessionists would change their minds, that many of them would comeback to the Union and that this would be a false alarm. So he didn'tthink he was provoking a major war. He thought he was getting over arather local crisis.
MR. FONER: But Lincoln was willing -- as you show in your book, asthe war went on and it became very clear what kind of war this wasbecoming and how the casualties were mounting and mounting, Lincolnnever said, Well, then let's give it up. He was willing -- he didn'tknow in 1860, but he knew by 1864 what this war was, and there werepeople like Horace Greeley and others who were saying, Well, let'snegotiate, let's have a compromise, let's maybe give up theEmancipation Proclamation. And Lincoln was never willing to do that.
MR. WATTENBERG: What is it that so entrances Americans today andAmericans ever since the time Lincoln was killed --
MR. DONALD: Well, he was --
MR. WATTENBERG: -- about Lincoln? Why has he become probably thecentral figure of our history?
MR. DONALD: Well, he was the first American president to beassassinated. That gives a kind of an aura on him. Second, hepreserved the Union. He was at a major turning point in Americanhistory. He more than any other man was responsible for emancipatingthe slaves. This is not to suggest that slaves weren't emancipatingthemselves in part, but he gave legal recognition to this. So thepositions that he took, the policies he followed ensured that hewould have to have this kind of recognition.
But you have to go beyond that, I think, then to the language andthe rhetoric. There is certainly no other American president who hadanything like the command of the English language. If you look in'Bartlett's Familiar Quotations,' for example, you'll find, oh, a fewquotations from George Washington, more from Thomas Jefferson, mostAmerican presidents no quotations at all. Long pages of Lincoln. Andyou look at them and you say, My, those are his memorable -- I knewthem all the time. They're just like quotations from Shakespeare.Everybody knows them.
And then going maybe one step further, there is just the matter ofcharacter and of personality. This was an enormously engaging man. Hewas a very funny man, the first humorist we've ever had in theAmerican process, and maybe the last one. MR. BOORSTIN: Firstintentional humorist. (Laughter.)
MR. WATTENBERG: What?
MR. BOORSTIN: First intentional humorist.
MR. DONALD: (Laughing) -- Intentional humorist, yes, that is apoint well --
MR. BOORSTIN: There's another aspect to his appeal which I thinkis not unrelated to what you've said, David, and that is he wasreally the American representative man. And one of the reasons wasthat he was the amateur and the man of no considerable -- no militaryexperience, really, directing the largest military operation that hadbeen conducted in this country. And in that sense, he expressed whatI think is a key to democracy, that is, government by amateurs. Andpeople realize that.
MR. WATTENBERG: By professional amateurs. (Laughter.)
MR. BOORSTIN: Well -- well -- they become professional.
MR. FONER: Lincoln is not a --
MR. DONALD: But he is an --
MR. FONER: I'm sorry, go ahead.
MR. DONALD: -- amateur, he certainly is an amateur in the militaryworld, as --
MR. FONER: No, no. No, no, absolutely. But what I was going to sayis Lincoln is not a hero to everybody. I mean, we -- there are andalways have been Americans who have bitterly criticized Lincoln.
MR. WATTENBERG: To this day.
MR. FONER: To this day. In the 1960s, as you suggested earlier,there were black writers who said Lincoln is a racist, or Malcolm Xsaid, 'Take down the picture,' addressing blacks. What he was reallysaying was don't rely on a white emancipator to solve your problems.
MR. WATTENBERG: And there is a whole school --
MR. FONER: Today's there's the Southern League, which callthemselves sort of neo-confederates, who are claiming Lincoln was atyrant who, you know, invaded the South and conquered it and really,you know, destroyed the Union based on individual states. MR.WATTENBERG: And changed the Constitution away from states' rights.
MR. FONER: Yes. They say that Lincoln, by virtue of the Civil War,changed the Constitution from a state-centered document to anationally centered document, which of course I think did happen, butmore after he was dead, through the 14th Amendment and the 15thAmendment, which did shift power in the federal government veryradically.
MR. WATTENBERG: Where would Lincoln come down today? I mean, if hewalked out of Ford's Theater and went up to Capitol Hill and took hisseat in the Congress, what would -- what do you think he'd be up to?
MR. DONALD: Well, I'll offer that he wouldn't be at all surprised,that for the entire period of his presidency he was sniped at, he wasberated, he was denounced not merely by the opposing party, but bymembers of his own party, that he was so pleased when Congress wentinto recess because he said, 'Finally we can get some business doneon our own.' I think he would find it just like old times.
MR. WATTENBERG: He would not be surprised at the so-called lack ofcivility?
MR. BOORSTIN: Well, I think he would be dismayed at the lack ofconfidence in government because, after all, his whole campaign, hiswhole life was devoted to affirming the importance of a union. That'sgovernment. And nowadays, I'm afraid we find a little too much ofwhat I would call a neo-anarchism, a belief that government's evil atany level.
MR. FONER: That's Lincoln's own party, primarily.
MR. BOORSTIN: Well --
MR. FONER: He would have been surprised by the Republicans thatare all saying this.
MR. BOORSTIN: -- I think he would have been surprised to hearRepublicans saying it.
MR. WATTENBERG: Do you buy that? I don't want to let that gounchallenged. I mean, would Lincoln be a liberal Democrat today?
MR. DONALD: No. I think, first of all, Lincoln was a party man. Hestuck to his political affiliation. He was a Whig after the WhigParty died. He would have been a Republican after the RepublicanParty may in turn die. I don't think he would ever have switched, no.He did not like Jacksonians in general. He would not have been aDemocrat. He would have --
MR. BOORSTIN: But I think he would have in effect. He wentRepublican, didn't he, from Whig?
MR. DONALD: Yes. MR. BOORSTIN: That was --
MR. DONALD: Well, he didn't switch because there was no place togo. The Whigs were dead. He had to go somewhere.
MR. FONER: But he would have, I think, as Dan suggested, felt thatthere are some kinds of problems which a national -- the nationalgovernment has to address, that by simply dismantling the nationalgovernment, you are not going to solve all these problems.
MR. WATTENBERG: Why does Lincoln endure so much more than all theother presidents?
MR. FONER: Well, if I can say -- to begin, Lincoln endures for thereasons we have heard about, as a representative man, his brilliancein many ways. But I think he endures because the fundamental issue ofhis presidency still endures. That is to say, not slavery, but legacyof slavery. What is going to be the status of these people who wereslaves and their descendants in our society? That was unresolved atthe end of the Civil War. Lincoln began addressing it, but of coursewas assassinated, and in some ways, we still have not quite solvedthat problem.
In his second inaugural, he spoke of the 250 years of unrequitedtoil of the slave, and in a sense challenging the nation to thinkabout what the legacy -- what is the meaning of that for Americanhistory? And I -- as long as that problem persists in our society,Lincoln will still have meaning to us.
MR. WATTENBERG: Dan.
MR. BOORSTIN: Well, I think he really does affirm the values thatour nation stands for, and I think people realize that. And I thinkthat the opportunity for people to rise regardless of race, and thatthen having risen, they should have the opportunity to speak theirmind and be themselves, that was the tradition that he affirmed,which I think still is the mainstream of American life.
MR. WATTENBERG: Okay.
MR. DONALD: Following up what my colleagues here have said, I'djust add one more ingredient to Lincoln's perennial appeal. That ishis style as a democratic leader, that is, the slow, cautiousbuilding of a consensus, never going far out front and saying, Thisis the position we must all follow, but working closely with smallgroups -- after all, he had such a minority behind him in his firstelection -- until he could get a consensus and real backing forimportant measures like the 13th Amendment. So that this is a styleof democratic leadership unknown, I think, in foreign countries thatmakes Lincoln a distinctively American figure.
MR. WATTENBERG: Thank you very much, David Herbert Donald and EricFoner, Daniel Boorstin. And thank you. Please send your comments andquestions to: New River Media, 1150 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC,20036. We can also be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or on theWorld Wide Web at www.thinktank.com.
For 'Think Tank,' I'm Ben Wattenberg.
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