BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Mark Neely Jr., author of "Abraham Lincoln and the Promise of America", and then the big title, "The Last Best Hope of Earth", where does that title come from?
MARK NEELY JR., AUTHOR, "ABRAHAM LINCOLN AND THE PROMISE OF AMERICA:" It comes from Lincoln's annual message to Congress of December 1862, and it's Lincoln's description, in a way, of the meaning of the Civil War; that this was being fought for very large stakes for the world and saving republicanism and the republican model of government -- not with a capital R but with a small r -- for the world, and it was in that way the last best hope of earth.
LAMB: What is the focus of this book?
NEELY: I kept the focus on what I call the high road. I felt when I was asked to write this book that Lincoln's biography had, in the last two decades or so, taken a turn that I thought was unfortunate, and that is with a heavy emphasis and absorption with Abraham Lincoln's private life -- Lincoln as a father, Lincoln as a son, Lincoln as a husband. There were many reasons for this, and in some cases good reasons for it. A not so good reason, I think -- we just emerged from the "me" decade, and so there is an emphasis on the individual.
A better reason, many historians now are interested in the role of women in American history, a whole range of history that's not been chronicled substantially. And so when you put the focus on women in the 19th century, naturally it focuses on home and family. Well, in Lincoln's case I don't think this works out very well. Abraham Lincoln loved his family, but historians have not found his family particularly lovable. His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, became eventually, I think, rather grasping and materialistic and complaining. And his children, because both Mary, his wife, and Abraham had themselves had not very happy youths, they wanted their children to have happy childhoods and so they spoiled their children. Their children, to the degree that we can approach them from the few meager documents available, are not especially attractive. More important, it seemed to me that if we focus on these things we are not focusing on what made Lincoln great, and that is essentially the last five years of his life, the presidency.
LAMB: You say at one point that if he'd have died in 1860 we may never have heard of him.
NEELY: That's right. Before that he had a career that by accident really is obscure. The problem there is that Abraham Lincoln, when he first entered on a career in politics, chose to become a member of the Whig Party for deeply principled reasons, but as it turned out in Illinois this was betting on the wrong horse. Illinois was a Democratic state. The Whig Party, the party Lincoln chose, never could muster enough popularity to elect a senator or a governor, and so Lincoln had a quietly successful political career in a party that wasn't particularly successful in Illinois. One of the problems of this for biography is it has given people sometimes a notion that Abraham Lincoln was a failure before the presidency. Well, he wasn't a failure. He went as far as you could go and be a Whig in a Democratic state.
LAMB: What was a Whig?
NEELY: A Whig was, first off, a person who opposed the Democrats of Andrew Jackson. But second, and probably more important and what really drew Lincoln to the Whig Party, was the Whigs had a program for economic development of the West. It emphasized government-built or supported canals and roads and railroads to crisscross the West with a transportation network. It emphasized some substantial banks that would provide a currency -- a sound circulating medium -- for the country, and, sort of surprising for a man born in a log cabin, it was also a party of high protective tariffs to develop manufacturing. This party, then, if you take that program of the party -- transportation, commerce, banks, roads, railroads -- you put it all together and it's essentially a developer's dream. That's what the West needed, and that's what Abraham Lincoln needed. It solved the problems of his youth. He grew up on a hardscrabble farm, first in Kentucky and then in southern Indiana, where if there were no banks you couldn't get a bank loan. How are you going to improve yourself if there is not enough money around, if there's not transportation to market, and these were political solutions to his biographical problems.
LAMB: When did you first introduce yourself to Abraham Lincoln?
NEELY: I don't remember exactly, but I grew up in the South in Texas, a state that seceded from the Union, and I think that the Civil War, for Southerners at least, is inescapable. I was interested in it from an early age. But of course, Lincoln doesn't necessarily for a Southerner figure in the same way he does in my life now. But I went north to college.
LAMB: What town, by the way, were you born in?
NEELY: Amarillo, Texas. I went north to college.
LAMB: Where did you go?
NEELY: Yale, at the time of the civil rights era. Although I remained interested in the Civil War, I think you could say I enlisted my emotions on the other side, and my interest in Lincoln grew from that.
LAMB: What kind of family did you have?
NEELY: Well, not historians. My father was not a college graduate, and my mother was, and that made a lot of difference.
LAMB: What did you dad do?
NEELY: My father was in the wholesale oil and gas business.
LAMB: How did you get into Yale -- from Amarillo to Yale?
NEELY: I was lucky, really. It was a boys' school then. It was much harder for Eastern boys to get in than Westerners.
LAMB: No women there?
NEELY: There were no women then, no. Yale prided itself on being a national school that drew from the whole country, and so they had, essentially, favoritism for people from the West. They could fill the whole school up with Easterners if they wanted to, but they didn't and so it helped me get in, I'm sure.
LAMB: What year did you go there?
NEELY: I graduated in 1966. I went in 1962.
LAMB: What course of study?
NEELY: I was an American studies major, which was a sort of combination of American literature and American history.
NEELY: I stayed at Yale and got a Ph.D. in history then afterwards.
LAMB: A master's in the middle of that or did you just jump to a Ph.D.?
NEELY: Just went right straight to that.
LAMB: Can you remember the first time you said, "I really want to get into this Lincoln stuff"?
NEELY: Oh, yes. It was occupational. After I left graduate school I taught for a year. I taught at Iowa State University in Ames, and then after that I took a job at the Lincoln Museum in northeastern Indiana, in Fort Wayne, Ind., and there my job was all day, every day, to answer the public's questions about Abraham Lincoln. And so I had a crash course in Lincolniana beginning there.
LAMB: But where was it that you said, "I want to know more about this man"?
NEELY: It was there, mainly.
LAMB: At Fort Wayne.
LAMB: But they didn't just find you in Iowa and say, "You're the guy to run this," did they?
NEELY: More or less, yes. I was a historian by trade and interested in the field, but I had no record, really. The record I established after I went to that town.
LAMB: What year did you go to Fort Wayne?
LAMB: Why is there a Lincoln library research center in Fort Wayne?
NEELY: It's a privately supported collection by the Lincoln National Life Insurance Company, which when it took the name Lincoln for their company wanted to pay the Lincoln name back somehow and eventually set up a foundation -- that library and museum of Lincolniana.
LAMB: How much is there?
NEELY: Oh, a lot. It's a very substantial library. It's a heavily paper-oriented collection that is of books, printed materials, photographs, prints, letters. It also has museum artifacts, but they more naturally come to Washington or Illinois.
LAMB: How does it fit in the Lincoln memorabilia and research libraries nationwide? Where are the other places?
NEELY: There are substantial collections in, of course, Springfield, Ill., naturally, and here in Washington, D.C., of course. There are collections in surprising places -- a very good collection at Brown University because one of Abraham Lincoln's private secretaries, John Hay, was a Brown graduate and he left great materials there. There is a very good collection at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, much further west than Lincoln ever got.
LAMB: What it is doing there?
NEELY: Well, it's just a big research library, and they acquired a great Lincoln collection years ago and have kept it up.
LAMB: This book has something to do with Huntington.
NEELY: That's right, because the Huntington, along with the Illinois State Historical Library in Springfield, decided to put together a very large Lincoln exhibit which is still running in California. They wanted the exhibit to be accompanied by a book, and this book is the result.
LAMB: On the back of this book is a flag. What is the significance of it?
NEELY: That's a campaign flag. In the 19th century the American flag is best thought of as a piece of folk art. The flag laws, which rigidly determine how we can deal with the flag now, mostly date from World War I. In the 19th century the flag was unregulated. There was no standard arrangement for the stars, as you can see from that -- the field of stars -- and in political campaigns and rallies they turned the American flag into a campaign item by sewing the candidates' names on the flag. So here we see Lincoln's name and his vice presidential running mate's in 1860, Hannibal Hamlin.
LAMB: Who was Hannibal Hamlin?
NEELY: Hannibal Hamlin was a Republican from Maine, put on the ticket in part to balance it geographically. Lincoln was a Westerner, and they needed a New Englander on the ticket. Also Abraham Lincoln, as I said previously, was a former Whig, now a Republican of course -- a former Whig, but the party was made up of people who were former Whigs and former Democrats. It was a truly new party and so they needed a former Democrat as well, and Hannibal Hamlin fit that, too.
LAMB: Where are you now?
NEELY: I teach at St. Louis University.
LAMB: Why did you leave Fort Wayne?
NEELY: I had worked there for 20 years, and I had begun in university teaching and I felt that -- I hadn't been in exile, I had learned some things and I wanted to go back and try to teach them.
LAMB: In this book, "The Last Best Hope of Earth", is there anything new in here?
NEELY: You know, there is really very little -- if you think of something new as a new letter, there hasn't been anything new in the Lincoln field in 50 years or more; that is to say, something that would significanty alter the historical landscape. No one has discovered a letter that shows that Abraham Lincoln was secretly dealing for a separate peace with Jefferson Davis -- I mean, something that would really change the historical record.
The record has been substantially there for historians to deal with from 1947 on. I say 1947 because that's the time when the Library of Congress opened a giant collection of Lincoln papers. Once they had done that, we've all had the record for us. So in that sense there is nothing new. I would like to think that there is a fresh outlook on Lincoln in the book, but one is not going to discover new facts about his life.
LAMB: In history, where does he fit among persons who have been written about? How much has been written about him compared to all the others?
NEELY: Oh, well, more about him than certainly any other Western secular figure except maybe Shakespeare -- there is a lot on Shakespeare -- but, at any rate, by far the most written about an American.
LAMB: Does he sell?
NEELY: Oh, I think he sells, yes. It is something of a myth that any book with Lincoln in the title will sell. I know a lot of people who write Lincoln books, and we all know what the sales figures are. But Lincoln does sell, sure.
LAMB: Is there any way to quantify how many people in the country pay attention to Abraham Lincoln? Are there clubs or that kind of thing?
NEELY: Oh, sure, there are clubs. There are Lincoln groups. There are Civil War roundtables where the members' interest is mainly in the Civil War but frequently lapses over into Lincoln as well. But a poll, a survey, any kind of very accurate, quantified information I don't think is available.
LAMB: Let's go through the details. Start in the beginning. He was born what year, and who were his parents?
NEELY: Lincoln was born in 1809 in Kentucky.
NEELY: Near Hodgenville, Kentucky. His father was named Thomas and his mother was named Nancy Hanks Lincoln. His mother was illiterate. His father could, as Abraham said later in his life, "bunglingly sign his own name but was otherwise illiterate." Thomas Lincoln, his father, hadn't had many opportunities in life. Abraham Lincoln's grandfather, after whom he was named -- Thomas Lincolns' father, Abraham -- had been killed by Indians while settling a farm in Kentucky, and that left him without many opportunities in life. Even so, he managed to buy with cash three different farms in Kentucky and was attempting to better himself. But he became the victim of the system, and the system was a very bad land-title system. They didn't have title insurance in those days, and so when you bought a piece of land in Kentucky, as Abraham Lincoln's father did, essentially you didn't know what you were getting.
Kentucky was a crazy quilt of overlapping land claims. You were responsible for the survey yourself. The survey was conducted by the system of metes and bounds so that the boundaries of these farms would be described in the documentary record as "trees and rocks and streams," all features of the landscape that moved, and so most of the pieces of land in Kentucky had disputed title. Thomas fell victim to this, and so in disgust left with his 7-year-old son Abraham for Indiana, where the land was surveyed by the federal government and came under the land ordinance of 1785, laid off in neat mile-wide squares, and title was much more secure. So from the Kentucky origins Lincoln then moved with his family to Indiana.
LAMB: Where in Indiana?
NEELY: Far southern Indiana, just across the Ohio River essentially.
LAMB: At some point you say that there is not much information available about his childhood.
NEELY: Right. No one knew Abraham Lincoln was going to grow up to be president of the United States, so there was no one around taking notes on his childhood development. We wouldn't know anything about it at all because Lincoln was a modest man -- he didn't write an autobiography; he didn't keep a diary. He was a genuinely modest man -- a little secretive, in fact, about his past. We do know something about those early years because once he became famous -- actually, after his assassination -- his former law partner, William Herndon, conducted what we would call an oral history. He went and interviewed, either in person or by letter, old settlers in Indiana and Illinois who had known Lincoln when he was a youth, and those reminiscences tell us what we know about the early years of Lincoln's life, substantially. They are fraught with great difficulties in use.
As you can imagine, if someone came to interview you and you'd grown up with Abraham Lincoln and someone asked you, "Did you know Abraham Lincoln?" you'd say, "Sure, I taught him everything he knew." They tend to exaggerate the person's role in Lincoln's life, and they're not altogether trustworthy, but they tell us something.
LAMB: How long did he live in Indiana?
NEELY: Fourteen years. He left the state when he was 21.
LAMB: When did his mother die?
NEELY: His mother died when he was 9 years old, and within a year his father remarried a widow named Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln. She proved to be a wonderful mother. No one, in fact, that I know of in the many books written on Lincoln ever says an unkind word about Sarah Bush Johnston. She was a wonderful mother.
LAMB: How many brothers and sisters did he have?
NEELY: He had a younger brother, who died at a very early age, and an older sister, who died in childbirth. So Lincoln, when he grew up in what we could consider pretty rough circumstances in rural Indiana, he met death at an early age. It left him with a tragic view of life and mixed feelings about his hardscrabble past.
LAMB: When did he move to Illinois?
NEELY: In 1830.
LAMB: He was how old?
LAMB: Where did they move to?
NEELY: They moved first to Coles County, and Lincoln helped his father build a cabin there, but he left his father's roof at that point. In fact, Lincoln did not get along very well with his father. We don't know why.
LAMB: You have no idea, and there is no evidence at all.
NEELY: None. People can speculate. My own speculation is that Abraham Lincoln was a very ambitious boy and a very ambitious man. His father, by the time his son knew him well, was beginning to lose his ambition. Those farms he'd bought in Kentucky and the sour experience there of having the title spoiled and then moving to Indiana, and he didn't prosper there -- I think these experiences, and also to some degree maybe the people he associated with, sapped Thomas' ambition. And so by the time Lincoln had a conscious view of his father, he may have seen him as somewhat ambitionless. I don't know. That's purely speculation. But at any rate, he did not get along very well with his father and left his roof for good and went to live in New Salem.
LAMB: Where is New Salem?
NEELY: New Salem is a small log-cabin community, a ghost town now, of course, maintained as a park site. But it was a small log-cabin community near Springfield, Ill.
LAMB: How did he become a lawyer?
NEELY: It's interesting that Lincoln became a politician before he became anything else. He opted on a political career. He ran for public office when he was 23 years old in a new state. He lost the first time, but the second time he won.
LAMB: What did he run for?
NEELY: He ran for the lower house of the state legislature. When he went to the state legislature, there he met people with bigger horizons than New Salem. Among them was John Todd Stuart, who was a prominent Whig, and he encouraged Lincoln to study law. Lincoln's prospects, you know, were not very great, and at one point he thought maybe he'd become a blacksmith. He needed some outside encouragement. He just had such meager education -- only a year's formal school. He didn't learn polished grammar until after he was 21 years old. He didn't learn plane geometry until he was 40. He thought his educational background was too limited to become a lawyer, and it took some encouragement from somebody else. But Stuart encouraged him and Lincoln started reading on his own, and by 1836 he could become a lawyer.
LAMB: So in 1832, if my figures are right, he was 23 years old when he ran for the Illinois House.
LAMB: When was he first elected?
NEELY: In 1834.
LAMB: So that would have made him 25.
LAMB: And he was a Whig at that point?
LAMB: We're up to 1835 -- I'm trying to put it in context -- and he lived until 1865.
LAMB: How many times did he serve in the Illinois Legislature?
NEELY: He served four terms in the Illinois Legislature, then there was a brief period in which he doesn't hold public office, but he is basically angling to get to be congressman from his district. Then in 1846 he was elected to the United States Congress. He served one term in that congress from 1847 to 1849, the only national office he held before becoming president.
LAMB: One of the interesting things you point out in the book, and I just never had seen this before, is that in those days elections weren't held across the country at the same time.
NEELY: Oh, yes.
LAMB: How long did that go on in our history?
NEELY: Until after the Civil War, until after Lincoln's era. I think one of the things I wanted to get across in this book, I wanted to try to recapture, since politics were so important to Lincoln, I wanted to get across to the reader if I could the very different nature of the political system in Lincoln's time, and one of the keys to it is that the elections weren't standardized in timing.
Now, we know today, for example, that one of the major differences between the United States and, say, the governments of Western Europe now -- the parliamentary systems that are popular there -- is that we have our elections by the clock. The elections come every four years, the presidential election, whether we want one or not. Then there are the off-year congressional elections. But in parliamentary systems, if the government becomes unpopular and loses a vote of confidence, they hold the election then. So in a sense they hold elections when they need them. We don't. We hold elections when they're constitutionally stipulated.
Well, the trick is, for Lincoln's era those times were not nearly so standardized. Only the presidential election came every four years. The states held their state elections whenever they wanted to. The result was that somewhere in the United States at almost any time there was an election going on. When Abraham Lincoln was president, just to focus on that, the Civil War lasted 48 months, and in 24 of those months there was a major election in the United States. What's the result of that? Well, it meant that not only the politicians but the people as well were constantly preoccupied, excited, agitated, interested in politics.
If you want some proof of that, a perfect proof is voter turnout. We are not content, certainly, but we are used, in these days, to seeing in a presidential election a voter turnout that barely exceeds 50 percent of the eligible electorate. Lincoln, when he was elected in 1860, the voter turnout in the North was over 80 percent of eligible voters, and this in an era when the electoral districts were very large. It might take a day's buggy ride into the polling place -- a day in and out. So it took some sacrifice to vote, but people did in large numbers partly because the political system was very exciting.
LAMB: Four times he served in the Illinois Legislature, the House, and one term in the U.S. House.
LAMB: He got out in 1848, would that be?
LAMB: What did he do between 1849 and 1858, when he ran for the Senate?
NEELY: He maintained an interest in politics, though not a particularly active political career in that time. He mostly devoted himself to his law practice. Immediately after leaving Congress in 1849, he sought an appointed office from the Taylor administration -- the presidency of Zachary Taylor. He thought he deserved it because he'd worked very hard for Taylor's election, but he didn't get it. It disappointed him. He went home to Springfield and devoted himself more diligently than ever to his law practice, and it's conceivable that he might have left politics had there not been a very big development in 1854, and that was the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
LAMB: In Springfield, Illinois, you have this house. When did he first move into it?
NEELY: He moved into the house in -- you know, I can't remember exactly. It was early in the 1850s, I think. No, he adds to it in the 1850s. He moved into the house in the 1840s. I can't remember the exact date.
LAMB: When did he marry?
NEELY: He married in November 1842.
LAMB: Whom did he marry?
NEELY: He married Mary Todd, Mary Todd Lincoln, also a Kentuckian but who came from a much more privileged background, well-educated. Women did not have many educational opportunities, especially west of the Appalachians. She had been to finishing school. She spoke French fluently. She had an extraordinary interest in politics for a woman in the era, and she was for Abraham Lincoln quite a catch.
LAMB: How did he meet her?
NEELY: I'm not sure. She, of course, moved in the most exalted social circles in Springfield. She had gone there to live with her sister who was married and living in Springfield, and so they met in the political society of Springfield, probably at a social occasion.
LAMB: This picture we're just showing, can you remember how old she was then?
NEELY: She's 44 in that picture.
LAMB: How many children did they have?
NEELY: They had four children, and there, of course, one of the very sad stories. They were all boys, and only one, Robert Todd Lincoln, lived to a ripe old age. He didn't die until 1926. But the other three boys died at early ages -- 4, 11, 18.
LAMB: Why are the three boys you just named buried in Springfield with Mary Todd Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln, and Robert Todd Lincoln and his son, Abraham Lincoln II, are buried out here at Arlington National Cemetery?
NEELY: I don't know for sure. I don't think anybody knows for sure. But Robert, the first and eldest son, in later years had considerable difficulties with his mother when she was a widow. In fact, 10 years after the Civil War was over, he played a role in having her committed briefly to a private asylum as a mental patient. She was there for about four months. This put some distance between him and the rest of the family, so why Robert would mark his space off from the rest of the family space in this way I couldn't say for sure, but he clearly had some differences, particularly with his mother afterward. And, you know, Abraham Lincoln had differences from his father Thomas, and who knows exactly.
LAMB: You talk about a potential duel in Abraham Lincoln's life. What was a duel?
NEELY: Typically, in 19th century America people got so excited about politics that by the time elections rolled around there were often scuffles in the streets, canings of newspaper editors who had printed some calumny about a politician, and so there was a little violence at the polls sometimes. When the political campaigns got very heated and bad words were spoken sometimes, a politician would challenge another politician to a duel. Lincoln was challenged to a duel by a Democratic politician named James Shields, and it's a very interesting event in Lincoln's life. Lincoln avoided fighting the duel. That tells you something about him that's important, and that is that he was to some degree a little exempt from the rougher standards of masculine behavior in 19th century America. He didn't like to hunt. He was not a violent man. Although a good wrestler, he didn't have a vengeful nature and he wasn't about to fight a duel.
So being the challenged party, it was his privilege, of course, to stipulate the weapons. Lincoln stipulated that they would fight with large cavalry broadswords, and with these heavy swords a plank was to be placed on the ground over which neither party could cross, and they were to duel with these swords on either side of this plank. Well, the trick here is that Abraham Lincoln was 6 feet, 4 inches tall and had a very long reach, and Shields was rather shorter. So it was a completely unfair contest and ridiculous. By setting these terms he in a sense is making fun of the institution of dueling, and yet he goes along far enough to set the terms. Later he was ashamed of this and didn't want to talk about it.
LAMB: Did he drink alcohol?
NEELY: He did not. He was a teetotaler, but not self-righteous about it.
LAMB: Didn't he sell it at one time?
NEELY: He did briefly sell alcohol in a little store in New Salem. That goes with his not being particularly self-righteous about it. But he was himself a teetotaler.
LAMB: Did he smoke?
NEELY: He did not use tobacco, which was very unusual in those days -- and, again, here a little bit of an unappreciated advantage that Abraham Lincoln had -- he avoided what we now call diseases of choice. He didn't probably know he was doing it, but by avoiding alcohol and by avoiding smoking he helped his physical constitution. He had fabulous health, and that's a real advantage in a president because as president he had a grueling schedule. He worked essentially from 7 in the morning until 11 at night, and there was no Kennebunkport, no Rancho Mirage, no Camp David, no vacations. He worked almost every day he was president. He worked on Christmas Day. He had a major cabinet meeting in December 1861 on a diplomatic crisis, all on Christmas Day. He worked on New Year's Day, a traditional day for a White House open house, and would shake the hands of thousands of people. He worked every day of the year -- no vacations, a grueling schedule -- and having good health gave him a big advantage.
LAMB: Was he religious?
NEELY: He may have been religious. He was not conventionally and outwardly religious; that is to say, he was not a formal member of any church. He went to church, he rented a pew, he of course invoked the divinity in his speeches, but what his private religious views were, we don't know. This is typical of Abraham Lincoln's, what I would call his biographical inaccessibility. On these personal and private things, we will never know because he didn't tell.
LAMB: Where do you come down on the Ann Rutledge question, and who was she?
NEELY: Ann Rutledge was Abraham Lincoln's -- the young woman in whom he was first interested, a young woman who lived in New Salem, Illinois.
LAMB: What age?
NEELY: In her early 20s. Lincoln apparently courted her. She died tragically at a very early age, and this saddened him greatly. End of story. That's all we know about it. He was not long afterwards courting another person, so I think that the idea that this somehow altered his life forever after has got to be exaggerated. I think that he had some considerable familiarity with early death in his own family -- a younger brother, an older sister in childbirth, his mother had died. People on the frontier knew about death. And so whatever his relationship with Ann Rutledge, I don't think it had as profound an effect as some sentimentalists in the past have thought. Do I think she existed and that they had a relationship? Yes.
LAMB: Do you ever get into an argument about Lincoln?
NEELY: Oh, yes.
LAMB: When we would find you in a room with other academics, or anybody, really going at it over Abraham Lincoln, what would the subject be?
NEELY: It could be any number of subjects.
LAMB: Pick the best one, the one that you feel the strongest about.
NEELY: The one that I feel the strongest about would be weighing the relative importance of ambition and political principle in his life -- where do you draw the line in Lincoln's life between ambition to gain office from wanting to put political principles in place to make the republic better? You can get historians going on that just about any day.
LAMB: If you were to rate him, 10 being the best score you could give a politician, a president or whatever, where would you put Abraham Lincoln?
NEELY: The greatest president and the greatest politician.
NEELY: Ever, and that's why all of us write about him.
LAMB: But do you find people that write about him that think he was not nearly as great as you say he was?
NEELY: Nobody says he wasn't a great politician.
NEELY: Nobody. Even his enemies say he was a great politician.
LAMB: Does he have an enemy in the academic world?
NEELY: Not many, no.
LAMB: What would Frederick Douglass say about him if he were here?
NEELY: Frederick Douglass, the great black abolitionist of Lincoln's day, of course knew Lincoln personally. After Lincoln's death he gave what I think is the greatest single speech on Lincoln ever given, at the dedication of a freedman's monument to the emancipator.
LAMB: It's over here in Washington, in Lincoln Park.
NEELY: Yes. Douglass stood there on this solemn occasion, and I can't imagine what it was like, but he certainly didn't do what people expected. Here was a monument built with the pennies raised from freed slaves, to a substantial degree, and Frederick Douglass gives the dedication speech and says, "We were only Lincoln's stepchildren. The white people in America were his children. We, the black people, were only his stepchildren. What he did as president, he considered the Union first and my race second." And yet what he said about Lincoln personally -- he knew Lincoln personally -- was quite different, that when he dealt with him personally he had no sense that Lincoln was conscious of his race at all, that he treated him like any other man. And he clearly liked and admired him, but he saw the Lincoln administration from the slaves' perspective and he would like to have seen him move faster.
LAMB: But you could not find anywhere in literature somebody that just said, "This guy isn't anything close to what you all think he is."
NEELY: Oh, you could, certainly. Angry Southerners after the war.
LAMB: But he'd have to go back to after the war. You can't find anybody in the modern day.
LAMB: It's very difficult. The poet Edgar Lee Masters did not like Lincoln and wrote a very hostile book about him, but Lincoln gets very good press, and I'll tell you, I think, why. He was a wartime president and had many bitter critics. He was involved in the race issue, which was even more explosive then than now and also gave him many bitter critics, black and white. But -- and this is an irony -- in 1865, of course, at the height of his powers just as the Civil War was ending, Abraham Lincoln was murdered and overnight he became a martyr to freedom. That had the effect of immediately silencing the critics, and to a substantial degree they've not been heard ever since.
LAMB: Twenty years you spent at the Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne.
LAMB: During that time did you travel to the places where Abraham Lincoln was born and . . .
NEELY: Oh, sure.
LAMB: How have we done as a country in preserving those places? Where do you go? If you wanted to pick a half dozen places to go to be close to where Abraham Lincoln was, where would you go?
NEELY: I would go first to Springfield. The Springfield sites, there are a number of great sites there. They're of substantial size, and I think you can really learn about Abraham Lincoln from going there, easiest. The only home he ever owned is in Springfield, and when you see the Victorian taste in which this home is decorated you'll be reminded that this is a 19th century, bourgeois, Victorian man, which we sometimes forget, who left the log cabin behind. When you go to the state legislature -- the restored state legislature -- you'll say, "Ah, this is Lincoln's real arena here." I think it's very evocative. Also, his tomb is there, and you can see there the great veneration that came to him after his presidency and his martyrdom.
LAMB: What about the Kentucky sites or the Indiana sites?
NEELY: The Kentucky site is, I think, a little less evocative than the Indiana site. The Indiana site is still quite rural and suggestive of this almost wilderness youth that he spent. The Kentucky site houses the alleged -- they call it the traditional -- birthplace cabin in a large marble building that to me is not particularly evocative of growing up in Kentucky. So I think the southern Indiana site is nicely evocative. I also like New Salem. And of course, if you go to Springfield, New Salem is a brief side trip outside of town, and the restored log cabins in the woods there are wonderfully suggestive of what his life was like.
LAMB: You've got a lot of photos of different things in the book, and here is one of them. Who is this?
NEELY: That's Stephen Douglas.
LAMB: And what are we looking at?
NEELY: It's a life mask. Lincoln has two life masks made by -- a sculptor would oil the skin and then make essentially a plaster of paris mask over the face. Of course, he had to leave out the eyes and the hair. In Lincoln's case . . .
LAMB: Which one is this one?
NEELY: That was made by the sculptor Clark Mills. Afterwards he added the beard and the top of the head.
LAMB: Where is this?
NEELY: There are a number of copies of it around, so you can see copies of the Mills mask in various places. That's from the exhibit in California, that particular one.
LAMB: Back to Stephen A. Douglas. Who was he?
NEELY: Stephen Douglas was one of Lincoln's principal political rivals and, of course, his opponent in the famous 1858 Senate campaign and in the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
LAMB: You call them "the most famous examples of political debate in American history."
NEELY: Yes, they certainly are. They are remembered every time we have a presidential campaign today. When we have debates as part of the campaign, I think one is always thinking, one is always hoping that it will somehow rise to the level of the Lincoln-Douglas debates or to the level of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in myth, anyhow.
LAMB: Why do you say "myth"?
NEELY: They were part of the rough and tumble of 19th century American politics. Each was trying to gain an advantage over the other in order to win the election, and so the debates are not philosophical discussions of political principles. They are not glosses on the Constitution. They are not systematic statements of this policy or that policy for the republic. The debates consist of attempts to gain advantage over the adversary in the debate, and, therefore, they lead sometimes to distortions. On the other hand, they are full of illuminating explanations of Democratic and Republican policies of the period. Likewise, they include conspiracy charges -- they were false -- against the other party in the debates. So like all of these speeches from political forums, they have to be dealt with with skepticism.
LAMB: You reprint something that almost every book on Abraham Lincoln seems to pull out from the Charleston debate. You quote Abraham Lincoln as saying, "I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races -- that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality." How does that track with being the greatest politician in history, having that kind of an attitude toward the other race?
NEELY: Lincoln was not a racial equalitarian; that is, he did not believe in the doctrine of racial equality that would measure up to the standards of the 1990s, and that disappoints us. But I think the key in part lies not only to the racial assumptions of his era but to the politics of the era. To understand that statement you need to understand two critical things. One, it was an answer to Stephen Douglas and the Democrats.
In other words, Lincoln would rather not have talked about race at all, but when forced he would say some things like that. Second, and even more important, you've got to understand the political effect of the racial assumptions. Now, Illinois is a perfect example. Illinois was free territory. There was no slavery in Illinois, of course, and yet in 1831, which is just after Abraham Lincoln had moved to the state, the Illinois state legislature passed a law which required a freed black person who wanted to enter the state to settle to post a $1,000 bond guaranteeing his good behavior while in the state.
Well, Lincoln himself made $150 a year at that time, and no black person could post a $1,000 bond. It was, effectively, exclusion from the state. Later Illinois made it even clearer. In the 1848 state constitution, one article of the constitution forbids black people to enter the state to settle, and when they submitted this constitution to the people they submitted the article on race separate from the body of the constitution. So we have in 1848 an Illinois referendum on race, and it passes by more than a 2-to-1 majority. In Lincoln's home county, Sangamon County, it passes by more than a 3-to-1 majority.
Now, that is the common denominator of racial opinion, and Lincoln has to deal with that realistically. Whatever his personal racial views, he cannot ignore those white racial views as registered there. He cannot move too fast. It explains many of the things that disappoint us today; for example, the quotation you just read. It explains to some degree what disappointed Frederick Douglass about Lincoln, that he didn't move a little faster towards emancipation.
LAMB: What about his endorsement of the idea of colonization -- shipping Negroes back to Africa?
NEELY: Of course, it isn't back to Africa. They were all Americans.
LAMB: What did he want to do?
NEELY: Actually, the whole scheme of colonization was completely impractical. Africa was out of the question. It was too far away and too expensive. So by the 1850s, the people who are interested in colonization -- and this would be voluntary movement to Latin American countries, is what they were thinking about. Even so, it was much too expensive to export even the natural increase of population, let alone the bulk of the slave population. Now, Lincoln's interest in this is problematic. There is no doubt about it. Colonization is, what we would say today, a profoundly racist idea. The idea behind colonization, and I think you have to face it squarely, is this: America cannot be a biracial country. If black people are going to be free, they cannot be in America. Lincoln is interested in this idea from at least the early 1850s until 1862. After he announces the Emancipation Proclamation, he never mentions colonization in public again, and after 1864 he has dropped the idea.
Here the key idea is that Abraham Lincoln changed his mind about things. He grew. I like to test politicians not by what they say but by what they do. What did he do that guaranteed a biracial future for America? Well, in 1863 he accepted black people into the Union armies, and everybody knew that you could not ask a man to fight for his country and then say, "Oh, I'm sorry, this isn't your country any longer." That was a step that guaranteed America's biracial future, and Lincoln did it. And so he just changed between 1858 and 1863.
LAMB: Is this your first book?
NEELY: No, it's not.
LAMB: Are there other Abraham Lincoln books?
LAMB: What were the subjects?
NEELY: The first book I wrote about Lincoln was called The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia, and it had several hundred entries on Lincoln -- you know, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address and those things, and brief articles on it. Then I have written a book about Mary Todd Lincoln's insanity trial with a coauthor, Gerald McMurtry, who is now deceased. I have written with Harold Holzer, who is one of your previous guests here, Harold Holzer and Gabor Boritt and I have collaborated on books about popular lithographs of Lincoln. And most recently I wrote a book called The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties, which is about civil liberties in the North during the Civil War.
LAMB: By the way, where do you come down on the photograph and whether or not Harold Holzer's article about the -- you had a photograph out in Fort Wayne. Was it 1837? Or he was 37 years old?
NEELY: Yes, right. He's 37 years old. Eighteen thirty-seven would be a little -- they don't have daguerreotypes types quite yet.
LAMB: But you had the photograph? Was that the original photograph you had in Fort Wayne?
NEELY: No. The earliest photograph is here in Washington. It's a daguerreotype. There is a large photographic collection in Fort Wayne, but we didn't have any photographs there until -- 1857 was the earliest version there.
LAMB: Where do you come down on Harold Holzer's article on the theory of the new photograph?
NEELY: I haven't seen the photograph, and I wouldn't say without seeing it in person.
LAMB: You were at Fort Wayne at the Lincoln research center. What did you call it? A museum?
NEELY: The Lincoln Museum it's called.
LAMB: Okay, what is there that people can see that they can't see anywhere else?
NEELY: Of course, any manuscript there is only one copy of, so any manuscript that these institutions have . . .
LAMB: What was your favorite thing?
NEELY: Oh, my favorite thing? This shows you my taste in Lincolniana, I guess. My favorite thing was the letter that Abraham Lincoln wrote to Gen. William T. Sherman during the Civil War. Sherman was busy. He had just captured Atlanta and was getting ready to march to the sea. But it was a presidential election year, 1864, and in those days they didn't have absentee voting. In many of the states the soldiers who were, many of them, eligible to vote would be campaigning in the South and couldn't vote at home.
And so Lincoln wrote a letter to General Sherman asking him, since there was a very tight state election in Indiana, to furlough as many soldiers as he could to vote in the state election in Indiana. He said, "This isn't an order." Lincoln was commander-in-chief but he didn't order him to do it. But he said, "It's important to the Army that the Republicans win this election." Well, Sherman didn't like politicians.
LAMB: You said he hated politics.
NEELY: Yes. Sherman hated politicians and politics, and he wasn't very cooperative. But it's wonderfully illuminating about Abraham Lincoln's abilities and character. He always took the high road but he never neglected the low road. He knew all the tricks of the trade, and when he needed them he would use them. This is an advantage, of course, that the president has over the opposition party; that is, he could suggest to the generals that they furlough soldiers to vote.
LAMB: The book is called The Last Best Hope of Earth, Mark Neely Jr. is the author, and he is at the University of St. Louis. We thank you very much for joining us.
NEELY: Thank you.
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