BRIAN LAMB, HOST:
Stephen B. Oates, author of "The Approaching Fury: Voices of the Storm, 1820-1861." What's this two-part series all about?
STEPHEN B. OATES, AUTHOR, "THE APPROACHING FURY: VOICES OF THE STORM, 1820-1861": I'm trying to tell the story of the Civil War, the coming of the war and the war itself, from the shifting perspectives of about 18 or 20 different characters. And I was inspired to do this by the fiction of William Faulkner, who told us that the best storytelling is the storytelling that eschews the omniscient narrator and that lets you see the world through the eyes of specific-- specific characters. And in "Absalom, Absalom," he didn't have an overall narrator; he had several narrators at different time periods trying to figure out the conundrum of old Thomas Sutpen.
In this book, I'm trying to show how hu--the perception of events played such a crucial role in the coming of the Civil War: how Southerners perceived Northerners; how Northerners perceived Southerners; how some Northerners perceived other Northerners; the northern Democrats perceived the no--the northern Republicans. And the--you know, the way we perceive things causes us to behave the way we do. It causes us to act the way we act and causes us to think and say the things that we do. It's common sense, but in most history books, this is left out. You get one point of view and it's the authors, and we forget the points of view of the people involved.
LAMB: Which book is this for you?
Dr. OATES: The number? Sixteen.
LAMB: And a rough sketch of the other 15--in what areas have you have been writing?
Dr. OATES: Mostly in the Civil War, 19th century. Most of it's been biography, but I've been in the 20th century, too. I've done--done biographies of Faulkner and Martin Luther King, Jr. And when I get through with my Civil War saga, "Voices of the Storm," I'm going to do the Cuban Missile Crisis from the same point of view, from th--from three different points of view; from Khrushchev and Jack Kennedy's and Fidel Castro's.
LAMB: Thirteen characters in this book, how did you pick them?
Dr. OATES: Actually, you know, they kind of picked themselves. I'd I liked all of them to begin with, but they each--they have a purpose in the story. We start with Thomas Jefferson because Jefferson is just slapping the side of his head, profoundly upset over the Missouri crisis of 1819 to 1820. It was the first crisis over the territorial issue of slavery, and it was a territorial issue that will ultimately smash the nation up.
And I start with him because he's upset and he says that the--that the threats of disunion here in 1820 cause him to look into the future. And he actually sees the Civil War and he slaps the side of his head and he said, `My God, this country's going to have a blow up. It's going to be a--when it hits us, it's going to be like a tornado.' I'm--to quote him; that's exactly the word he uses.
And he's the first of a whole line of seers that look into the future and see that this territorial issue and, beyond that, the issue of slavery in a nation based on the Declaration of Independence--that this combustible issue is going to blow the sections apart.
LAMB: One of the things I noticed in reading some of your characters: There's a lot of death. A lot of children died.
Dr. OATES: Yes.
LAMB: Henry Clay lost six of his daughters before the oldest was 28 years old. What other examples can you give us of people that lost their young ones?
Dr. OATES: Well, H--William Lloyd Garrison scalded his little baby boy to death, the one he loved most dearly, because of some kind of incredibly crude apparatus where they set him in to try to--he had some kind of clogged-up sinuses and headache and they--and fever, and they thought they could dump him in this boiling water and that would somehow cure him and it scalded him to death. And that's the only issue and only point in that-- in the entire story I've told where Garrison felt any sympathy for Henry Clay, the slaveholder; that they both had lost sons.
And-- you know, end of the Civil War, Lincoln loses a son, Jefferson Davis loses a young son and--and William Tecumseh Sherman all lose a young son. So the death of children is a light motif that goes all the way through this story.
LAMB: In health, Jefferson Davis lost an eye. How'd he do that?
Dr. OATES: Well, the eye was going bad all along, and we're not sure what it is. It was neuralgia in his face. That's what they called it--this burning nerves. It finally got-- it was all probably emotionally related to stress. And it got into his eye. And the crude practice then was, the eye swelled up and, as I describe in the book, some doctor gets a lance and lances the eye in. It just makes you cringe to think about it, the medic--primitive medical practices they used. And eventually, he lost the eye and a gray film formed over it. So when you looked at Jefferson Davis, you saw one eye and the other one had a gray film on it, and it was very disconcerting.
LAMB: So when he was president of the Confederacy, he only had one eye?
Dr. OATES: That's right. And yet, when he was president of the Confederacy, he loved minutia, and he did not let a single document escape that one eye. And he loved to go over the--all the minutia and all the day-by-day appointments and all of the incredible amounts of literature that the administration turned up. His wife said he loved it so much, he brought it home and he was singing. He would be the only person in history who would sing while working over administrative documents.
LAMB: There are 72 chapters...
Dr. OATES: Roughly.
LAMB: ...in this book. And you've got an--sequel to this book coming out.
Dr. OATES: That's right. I've just finished a sequel to it. I've finished a draft; am rewriting it now.
LAMB: When's it come out?
Dr. OATES: Probably late next year. "The Whirlwind of War" is what it's going to be called.
LAMB: And when you open the book and you start to read it and you realize that--well, you--the prologue is the first one with Thomas Jefferson--let me just go to the second one, because I want to show the audience what--what it looks like. Here's the number two, and every chapter has the name of the individual, one of the 13, and the number at the top. And then what do people read in each one?
Dr. OATES: Beg your pardon?
LAMB: What do people read? I mean, what's the point of breaking it up in 72 and having the name of the individuals at the top?
Dr. OATES: Well, because the-- individual is narrating, is speaking and in--describing events in which the narrator was the principal actor, participant or eyewitness. So each time they come on, they're going to tell part of the story for about eight or 15 pages of the coming of the Civil War, and they're dealing with events with which they themselves were the chief participant.
For example, Stephen A. Douglas comes on in 1854, and he describes the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. That was his baby. And that was the act that started the country toward--the inexorable drift towards civil war. So I let him describe why he got that bill enacted and his incredible misperception about how it would be taken in the North.
And then I bring Lincoln on, because Lincoln responds to the Kansas-Nebraska Act and he's part of the Northerners who were so upset that they formed a brand-new political party, the Republican Party. So I've--I watched a lot of movies to find out how--movies that use a number of characters, how the camera segues back and forth. I've studied Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" and "Nashville" and John Sayles' "City of Hope." They--all three use a number of characters. And I watched how the camera segued back and forth so we--what--we would move from one story to another, one person to another, one perceptic--one point of view to another. And it--and it helped me a lot in telling my story that way. And I never let a character stay on longer than about 10 or 12 pages.
LAMB: By the way, as you know, you helped us on the Lincoln-Douglas debates. In all of the material I've ever read about Stephen A. Douglas, I never, ever read the kind of language that he used in your book.
Dr. OATES: Well, I let him cuss, and I'll tell you why, Brian. In the 19th century, the recorded utterances were highly sanitized. You know, profanity was not permitted. The congressional globe would not have it. Anything published--recollections, reminiscences, Stephen A. Douglas' own stuff that was published--all cut out his profanity. But by everybody's count, this guy was one of the most profane men in American politics, certainly in the 19th century.
Even in speeches in the Senate, according to reporters, he was `damning' and `helling' and `goddamning' all the way through the speeches even with ladies present in the galleries. So I decided to let him--honor his character and let him curse, and he curses with gusto.
LAMB: And-- every--almost every word you've ever seen, it comes out of his mouth in this book. Now is that--did you invent that?
Dr. OATES: No, no. Oh, h--this is--this is--I invented it only by putting it in there, because you can't find it in the record. It's all been expurgated in the record. And so I'm just letting it come back. And I g--I got a sense of his character. In doing these monologues, I had to get into character as an actor gets into character. And when I felt that I was Stephen A. Douglas and a--I-- my-- I steep myself in his words, his speech rhythms--and I could feel the curse words. I mean, it was just natural for me. I knew that's what he was saying. So I'm trying to simulate the way he was. This is as close as we're ever going to get to the way he was.
LAMB: Where is home for you now?
Dr. OATES: It's in Amherst, Massachusetts.
LAMB: And what do you do there?
Dr. OATES: I teach at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
LAMB: In what kind of courses?
Dr. OATES: I teach the Civil War era through film and I teach the Kennedys and the Kennedy era through film. And I teach several honors courses: Civil War through biography, the Civil War through fiction. And I teach an American West course on the Indians and I teach an American West course--the American West through fiction and film.
LAMB: How long have you been there?
Dr. OATES: Since 1968, however long that is.
LAMB: And when did you get this idea of teaching through film?
Dr. OATES: This came to me about seven years ago, when I saw "Glory." And I had been using slides--in--increasingly as documentaries became available, I would use documentaries. But "Glory" and then Ken Burns' wonderful series on the Civil War, in which I participated as a consultant and talking head, convinced me that I needed to use the power of the visual image, and remarkably, that's the most powerful image I know--harness that thing and put it in the classroom.
And I ended up--my classes-- all of my courses ended up history courses through film. History is dead. It can only be made alive by the imagination, either through the written word or playing music or playing simulations of speeches, having actors do that or by the visual image. And the visual image is what I love because it makes it live. And I use "Glory" and I use "Gettysburg" and "Gone with the Wind" and a whole number of documentaries for my Civil War course.
LAMB: How do you do it?
Dr. OATES: I-- in lecturing, I use film and lecture at the same time. I'll--I'll show, for example, a segment on Ken Burns' in 1861, as the war's beginning. I'll show about 10, fif--15 minutes of it, then I stop that. I'll comment and then I'll give a bit of a lecture about what followed and then I segue back to the documentary again. And I'll let him go on for about 10 or 15 minutes, then I come back on and I comment on what we just saw. And then maybe I'll show a different documentary or even part of--part of "Gettysburg," a part of a feature-length film. And then I'll comment again. So we get--I'm segueing as I'm doing in this book between myself and the film that I show in class.
LAMB: What do you see happening? What's happened in the last seven years since you've been doing this with your students?
Dr. OATES: Well, we've had a monumental outpouring of documentaries. I mean, the catalogs are now that thick. When I first started getting them, they were just like this. So, you know, there's a plethora of film to choose from in the 19th century. When you get into the 20th century on something like the Kennedys, it's endless. And it's a wonderful, rich source, and I'm surprised that more people--h--historians are a little slow to get on the contemporary train here, but I think that history through film will be the way of the future.
LAMB: Let me ask it again. The question it--I was trying to get to was, what--what change have you seen in your students since you've been ad--added--since you added the film to it?
Dr. OATES: Oh, my goodness, my class--my class enrollments have doubled. My Civil War class went from 100 to 215 and my Kennedys class gets more than 430. And I draw them from all over the five-college community: from Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Hampshire, Smith College, as well as University of Massachusetts. And I have reporters that come there. And my average grade has--had--went up in--a whole grade--a whole letter grade. I didn't change the tests; I didn't make them any easier. It's just because they were able to see history alive, living for them, and they could relate to real people. And I always get rooms without windows so they can't see the 20th century if we're on the Civil War or, if we're doing the Kennedys, they can't see the 1990s. In--in my classroom, we're either in the 1860s or the 1960s.
LAMB: Why is the Kennedys course so much more popular than the Civil War?
Dr. OATES: It's Massachusetts--the Kennedys of Massachusetts. And the the kids relate to the Kennedy assassination, all three of the assassinations--all four of them, actually. And they-- remember their parents talking about where they were when Jack Kennedy was shot, where they were when Medgar Evers was shot, where they were when Martin King was shot and where they were with--when Bobby Kennedy was shot. They've heard all these stories, and they are particularly enamored of--or, maybe I should say obsessed with, the Jack Kennedy assassination. I do three entire lectures on that and I have guest speakers come in and argue the rival theories and then I give my own. And...
LAMB: Anybody else in the country doing what you're doing with film?
Dr. OATES: I'm sure there must be somebody else around. I'm not aware of it. And certainly not anybody in--where I live is using history. I mean, there are a lot of people who use film and a lot of courses use film from time to time, but I have based an entire history course around film so that I call my--I--in fact, I call both of my classes, `This is a course in visual history. You're not only going to read it and hear it, but you're going to see it.'
LAMB: Let's go back to "The Approaching Fury." Where did you get that title?
Dr. OATES: It's--comes from my characters. Starting with Thomas Jefferson and all the way through until Jefferson Davis says, `The storm has broke upon us,' they use the metaphor of the sectional conflict as a gathering storm, an approaching fury, a coming tornado. They refer to it again and again, `The--the wind blasts of civil war now upon us.' It--it's a--it's amazing that these are people who lived with the weather constantly.
LAMB: Where did you get this idea in the first place...
Dr. OATES: Well, it...
LAMB: ...and when?
Dr. OATES: I first conceived of it in 1986, and I thought I would write it in the third person then and just wr--write a traditional multibiography and simply take a narrative and switch it back and forth from one point of view to another. A gentleman did that in the Mexican War and I thought I would do it that way.
And then I set down to start writing it three years ago and I couldn't get past the first page because the third person voice was-- would not work for this particular story I had to tell. It seemed to wring all the life out of the character and out of that--out of the characters and out of the time. And so I said, `Well, what the hell? I'm going to try something creative.'
I had read and reread and reread a wonderful novel by David Grubbs called "Voices of Glory" in which he has several characters narrate their experiences in this--this mythical town. And I went back to that and I looked how he did that and I said, `That's--that's marvelous. That's wonderful.'
So I steeped myself in Jefferson's words and just let it flow: his concern, his sadness, his--his--his sense of foreboding that the country is now taking a fateful turn with a --this controversy over Missouri and slavery in the territories and there will be no turning back. And he gets quite passionate. I mean, this is a very passionate man.
And the first person captures the passion and the freshness and the sense of immediacy that that detached third-person voice that biographers and historians have been using forever cannot possibly do.
LAMB: You say in the back that it was the most exhilarating writing experience you've ever had.
Dr. OATES: Absolutely.
LAMB: Why is that? And where did you-- when did you start to get a sense that this was exciting for you?
Dr. OATES: As soon as I started doing it--the first page. And when I got through with Jefferson, I said, `I've got something really hot here.' It's-- in fact, I got nervous. I didn't want to let any of it out. I didn't want to --I didn't want to talk about it because I didn't want anybody else grabbing ahold of it and getting my story.
And I thought-- every time I switched to the characters, when I go from Jefferson then to Henry Clay, I had to stop for a while because I had to get into character. This is a different person. He has a different speech patterns. He has different words. And I had to steep myself in his language and I had to decide which of his words and paragraphs I was going to use to put --together his monologue an-- as a champion of the American Colonization Society and gradual col--emancipation.
And then, if I--when I moved from him to Nat Turner--and I do this because Henry Clay predicted a slave revolt. He said, `It's going to be the awful--awful--a terrible slave revolt. Slaves are just like us. They're going to crave their freedom. And we--if we don't get rid of slavery, we're going to have an explosion.' And--Bang!--the Nat Turner insurrection was the most violent insurrection--slave insurrection in 19th century American history.
And so I had to get into Nat Turner. I had to get into this angry and oppressed black man. And that was a completely different perspective from Henry Clay's.
LAMB: Did you write all of this--I mean, would you--of the 72, when you would sit down with a character, did you stay with that character and write it all out at one point?
Dr. OATES: I switched back and forth. I knew how far I wanted to go. I plotted it. See, I had--each character comes on stage and talks for 12 pages, so that's about 15, 18, 20 minutes if this were on stage. And in--I'd --I saw this as a stage play in my head. And I had--so I plotted out, this is exactly what Clay's going to talk about. Then Garrison's going to react to that. And then Jonh C. Calhoun's going to react to Garrison. And then Stephen A. Douglas is going to react to John C. Calhoun. And there we go.
And then Calhoun dies. And then, in the 1850s, we've got a four-way--a five-way fight going. We've got Lincoln and the Republicans arguing with the southern Democrats and arguing with the northern Democrats. We've got the northern Democrats, with Stephen A. Douglas, arguing with the southern Democrats through Jefferson Davis and we've got the abolitionists, arguments between Frederick Douglass and the political abolitionists and William Lloyd Garrison, who was still in favor of non-violent moral suasion and no political process abolitionism. And all of that was leading to John Brown's violent abolitionism.
So I'm--I've got a theme of abolitionism moving from non-violent protests to political process and protests to violent protests.
LAMB: Any one of these 13 characters you didn't know much about before you got into this?
Dr. OATES: No. I knew a lot about them, and I spent a great deal of time and research, as I hope my references show, almost enough to write a biography on each of them. The one thing that saved me is, I didn't have to do a whole lot about--you know, going back into their earlier lives. I do bring in the earlier life, to some extent, except with Lincoln's because he never talked about his early life. So I didn't do it with him.
LAMB: Let me jump way out of context here and ask you to tell the story about Abraham Lincoln's trip from Springfield to Washington and what happened near Harrisburg. And has that gotten a lot of attention over the years?
Dr. OATES: It has. I'm not sure anybody really believes that there was an actual assassination plot to kill him, and Lincoln himself even had doubts after it was over with. But I don't have any doubt in my mind at all that there was an assassination attempt-- a plot to kill President-elect Abraham Lincoln in Baltimore as he came through in 1861 to go to Washington to to be inaugurated as president.
LAMB: What was your source of that?
Dr. OATES: The--the sources are, in fact, the--What's his name?--that Pinkerton--Allan Pinkerton, the detective from Chicago. And his agents had gone to Baltimore and worked their way into this little pro-secessionist group of violent and determined to take Maryland out of the union that had worked up this plot to shoot him.
LAMB: The--go back to end, though. He'd been elected president...
Dr. OATES: Right.
LAMB: ...got on the train in Springfield, Illinois. Now what was the circumstance between whether or not his wife, Mary, and the kids were going to ride on the same train?
Dr. OATES: Well, there were--there were assassination threats even before he left Springfield, and so General Winfield Scott and William H. Seward, secretary of state, both warned Lincoln, `Don't-- let your family travel with you because God knows what could happen. There could be an obstruction; the train could go off the track.'
And so he told Mary that `You can't come with me,' and she threw a fit and--because she did not want to be separated from him. She got insecure and got migraine headaches when they were separated. And besides, she was a proud woman and a tough woman and she had predicted he was going to become president of the United States when he didn't even believe it himself.
So she thought her place was at his side and she didn't want to ha--be left behind. So they had to work out a deal that he went on another train to Indianapolis and then, after that, they traveled on the same train. It sounds to me like she got the better of the compromise.
And things went swimmingly from there until we get to Philadelphia, and this is where Pinkerton comes in. And he meets Lincoln and he's got the president of the railroad with him and he says, `You know, Mr. Lincoln, there's no doubt about the fact that there is a pro-secessionist plot to murder you when you come through Baltimore in a couple days. And I think we ought to get you on the night train and slip you through Baltimore when nobody's aware of it and get you through that city before anything can happen to you.'
And Lincoln said, `I can't do that. I promised tomorrow to speak in Philadelphia at the Independence Hall and to raise the flag, and I got to do that. And I also promised to meet with the Legislature over in Harrisburg. And if, after that, you still think that there is a plot and you think that my life is in danger, then, all right, I surrender myself to you.'
And, sure enough--and his old Illinois friend, Norman Judd, was along and was working with Pinkerton, and Judd was absolutely certain there was a plot. So after Lincoln met his obligations, they disguised him in a cap and an old co--suit jacket so that he looked like a--I don't know what he looked like, but he didn't look like Abraham Lincoln because...
LAMB: Did he have a beard then?
Dr. OATES: Yes, he did. He had grown one. It was a bit--a stubbled beard that a girl in upstate New York had suggested that he--that he grow because he would get more votes. He would be handsomer if--if he had a beard. We'll leave that to posterity to decide whether he was more handsome with or without the beard.
But, in any case, nobody recognized him. He gets in a carriage and they whisk him away to west Philadelphia. And--and from west Philadelphia, they put him on board a train, the rear berth of the--the--the rear car of the train, they put him on the top berth back there where one of the Pinkerton agents had rented for an invalid brother of hers.
And there's the president-elect of the United States crawling in this tiny little berth. It hasn't got anything on it but a mattress. He's so long-legged that he can't--he's all scrunched up here. And the train starts off and he can't stand what he's doing. And he had to tell Mary; had to leave Mary and the children behind. And she cried because she did not want her husband, if--if his life was in danger, to go without her.
But he insisted. If--the arrangements had already been made. Now she is going to come on the regular presidential train, so she's going to be subjected to all kinds of possible harassment. And on this night ride to Baltimore, that's all Lincoln could think about. `My God, what have I done? I've left--my wife and my kids are going to be on that train. They're going to come through and what-- it's--something terrible could happen to them if--in my absence.'
But there's not anything they can do about it. And they get to Baltimore and they have to switch train stations. And so there's a trolley that pulls his car from to one depot to the next. And then, when they get to the--to the--to the depot where another train will connect with them and bring them to Washington, they set there and they set there. This is about 2:00 in the morning. And the only thing they can hear is a drunk outside singing "Dixie," carrying on through the night.
And Lincoln turns to Judd and says, `I reckon there'll be a high old time in Dixie, by and by.' And finally, the train from--coming into Washington picks them up and pulls them without incident on into Washington after that. But, of course, the news leaked out that the president-elect had sneaked through Baltimore and the press made a field day out of it.
The New York Times and a number of other publications talked about how Lincoln was a coward and a baboon and--and particularly a coward for coming in like that. And Vanity Fair, I think it was, had a cartoon of a- scarecrowish Lincoln in Scottish kilts kind of dancing and sneaking his way--with--with a cloak on, sneaking his way in-- into the capital. And the press really demeaned him for all of that.
And then, later that afternoon, here comes poor Mary, and she's got an awful migraine headache because she had just endured the worst episode of her life going through Baltimore. The screaming and yelling of--people yelling and screaming and--`Hurray for Jefferson Davis,' and, `Where's that-- Republican, Lincoln? Goddamn him! Bring him out! Show his face!' And they're not there. And-- Mary said that, `They were looking for you, father,' as she called Lincoln. `They were looking for you, and they leered at us and jeered at us. Oh,' she said, `it was the most miserable experience I've ever had.'
LAMB: Where is the source of that kind of material? Where do you find all the little details about him getting on the train and having the cap on and all that stuff?
Dr. OATES: A--he told a lot of this himself, and Norman Judd wrote an account of it and--and Pinkerton wrote an account of it and reporters dug up some information about it. There was a reporter, by the way, who--who reported--was-- interviewed Mary and got her story about what it was like for her. I think he was with her, in fact. And there was a whole book, in fact, put together of documents that relate to the Baltimore plot.
LAMB: Who did you know the least about of the 13? And- were you surprised by anything you learned?
Dr. OATES: John C. Calhoun. I didn't like him.
LAMB: Who was he?
Dr. OATES: John C. Calhoun was the chief spokesman for the slave South, particularly in the 1820s, '30s, '40s, down to 1850. At one time, he was a Nationalist and a presidential contender, but after the rise of abolitionism in the--1831 and from then on, he was never a Nationalist after that. The turn for him came over the fight over the protective tariffs in the 1820s and early 1830s. But with the rise of Northern abolitionism the-- horrific threat that posed to the whole slave-based way of life of the South, he became the chief spokesman of the South in answer to the abolitionists.
LAMB: Did you--did you not like him when you were finished with him?
Dr. OATES: I liked--I understood him for the first time, because I had to show an equal degree of empathy for all of these characters. I couldn't be partial to one and--more partial to one than to the other because it would show. And I didn't --these characters, as they speak, they have to--if you hear me at all in there--if you hear my voice at all, then I've failed. It has to be their voice. And in order to capture their voice, I have to be them. And in order to be them, I have to be empathetic. So...
LAMB: What was John C. Calhoun's life like?
Dr. OATES: Well, he was--you know, he was not a likable man. I mean, he was humorless and spoke very rapidly and he was abstract. His idea of a good time was to go to his plantation in upstate South Carolina and sit in his study and think about abstract constitutional law. I mean--and Varina Davis, who--when she met him, Jefferson Davis' wife, said that he was as cold and logical as the worst kind of mathematician, which is what he probably should have been.
And it's kind of interesting that a guy who prided himself in his logic should have made the management of human affairs his business. And he once made a comment-- this is--gives you an idea of what he was like as a man. He and his daughter lost a cherished little girl, and the wife was terribly upset, crying and crying and crying. And Calhoun, the logician, says, `Now, dear wife, we may all agree that this is a wretched world. If it is, in fact, a wretched world, isn't it true, then, that she's better off in heaven where she is than she would be if she remained here in a wretched world? So we have nothing to be sad for.'
An amazing man. In his defense of slavery--a positive good. He's the foremost leader of the new defense of slavery that emerges from 1831 all the way down until the end of the Civil War. Before then, Southerners had defended slavery as a necessary evil. That was a Jeffersonian argument. But with the forces of abolition seeming to surround them--Mexico became an abolitionist nation, abolishing slavery toward the --in the 1820s. Great Britain abolished slavery of the empire in the 1830s. And there was a powerful and potent Northern abolitionist movement.
Southerners, then feeling themselves a lonely slave outpost in a hostile world, with Calhoun in the, pronounced slavery a positive good. It was good for the blacks and good for the whites and ordained by God from the beginning of time.
LAMB: Who are these photos on the cover?
Dr. OATES: This is Henry Clay, right there...
LAMB: Right there.
Dr. OATES: ...and at the top is Harriet Beecher Stowe. Below her is Thomas Jefferson and Stephen A. Douglas, The Little Giant, and then the other fellow is Abraham Lincoln.
LAMB: Henry Clay--where was he from?
Dr. OATES: He was born in Virginia and went--migrated as a young man, a lawyer and a mentor of Thomas Jefferson--went out to the brand-new state of Kentucky, where he made his reputation and where--where he served. You know, he was a young prodigal son from that state. He--he was a senator early in his 20s, he was speaker of the House in his 20s, and he'd gone on--go on to become one of the great senior senators for the next 30 years.
LAMB: What was his family like?
Dr. OATES: He had-- he dearly loved his wife, but he had--he lost a number of children, and it hurt him. He cried over the loss of his children. My goodness, how he-- you know, he would say, `My God--God--God, your punishments are so severe.' And then-- when he lost his dearly beloved son in the Mexican War, that was one of the most--you know, I cried. I was him, and I'd--there were tears in my eyes. I felt for him terribly over the loss of that brilliant, brilliant, potentially successful son of his.
LAMB: Henry Jr.
Dr. OATES: Yes, Henry Jr. A--and--and...
LAMB: How many times did he run for president?
Dr. OATES: Oh, my goodness, I don't even remember now. He was a perennial candidate, and he probably should have been president. He-- as he said, `I would have made the best president of them all.' Now you got to understand about Henry Clay; he would joke and would say, `I've never met a man who was my superior,' then he would grin, but he meant it. And the only reason he didn't make the presidency was because he lacked a military career. Had he been a famous general, he would have been in the White House at--served at least once, maybe twice. And I think he understood that, that the lack of military success is probably what doomed him.
LAMB: American Colonization Society--who started it?
Dr. OATES: Well, it was founded by him and a number of other guys in Washington, DC, in 1818, 1819, for the--for the purpose of removing the free black population from this country. Now the real purpose of it was to--and it was a private organization. It got its funds simply by soliciting, tried to get some money from the federal government, but whatever philanthropic individuals would give it. But Henry Clay became a leader of it. He was the spiritual founder of it and he be--he served, eventually, as its president. But he was also its most vigorous speaker and champion.
The-- Colonization Society was supposed to induce the Southern states to abolish slavery by a gradual emancipation program because there would be a viable, workable colonization program under way by this organization. That's why it was founded: to induce the states to abolish slavery gradually, and then this organization would colonize the free blacks abroad, because Clay found out in Kentucky, when he first went there--he sponsored a num--one of the group of people pushing for gradual emancipation in Kentucky, and it failed. It failed because there was no colonization program. Most white people were not going to let blacks remain in this country free. If the slaves are liberated, they're going to have to be removed outside the country. Jefferson had argued that in the previous century, and Clay believes it, too. So the Colonization Society was to--was an organization indirectly organized to bring about the end of slavery in this country by a gradual process.
LAMB: How many blacks went to Liberia?
Dr. OATES: Well, he claimed a whole lot, but ultimately, they--there couldn't have been--you know, the society went on beyond the Civil War, and I think the actual number, even after the Civil War, was always around 10,000. In its first 10 years, maybe a handful of thousand--3,000 or 4,000 was all. It beg--it had to be voluntary. And as Frederick Douglass pointed out--the great black leader, the great black abolitionist--Frederick Douglass said, `This is our country, too. Most of us are second-, third- and fourth-generation black Americans, and--and we're not leaving.' And the reason it had to be gradual is because the American Colonization Society didn't have the means to enforce black repatriation. And it failed because perception of events--because the blacks perceived it to be a pro-slavery organization, which it was. That means to say its sole purpose for getting rid of slavery was to get rid of the blacks. And most slave owners were distrustful of it because they thought it was an abolitionist organization.
LAMB: Now what's been the reaction to your book to people that have read it that you know? I mean, other than, you know, the praise you might have gotten in-- what do--what do they think of this idea of this narrative?
Dr. OATES: Well, my students have been doing it for--before me. In my classes--on tests, I would often ask them--I said, `Assume that you're Robert E. Lee and defend your--your strategy and tactics in the Battle of Gettysburg.' And they loved it. And, I mean, they're wonderfully creative. Or I would ask them to be--in my Kennedys class, `Assume that you're Lyndon Johnson and defend your Vietnam policy from 1965 until you step down in 1968.' And I had one woman who was a better LBJ than he was; got his voice perfectly. And I thought, `Boy, what a wonderful way to teach. And why should the kids have all that fun?' And I--so I decided to do the same thing, and the reaction has been overwhelming. I mean, the positive response I've gotten from--well, in the number of readings I've done and my mail--I'm sure I'm going to get some knocks in the reviews when they come out, but I expect that.
LAMB: What does academia think of this approach?
Dr. OATES: Well, at first, I was sure that they would hate it, you know, because you're not supposed-- the old, traditional, historical, academic approach to history is that whatever the documents say, that's all you can say, and you have to stick with the documents. But my feeling about that is that the documents themselves are things that are kept--are records kept by human beings about human beings, so they are subject to the same lies, deceptions, deceits, distortions and other things that the rest of human life is subject to. So just because a document's a document doesn't necessarily mean it's the truth.
Also, there are holes in the historical record that, if you adhere strictly to what it says, then what do you do with holes? Now traditionalist say, `Well, you can't fill in--you can't fill in the holes.' But I did fill in the hole, and I'd like to point that out as an example, if I could, how I used facts creatively. I didn't invent anything, but I used facts creatively. It was the momentous confrontation between John Brown, the violent abolitionist, and William Lloyd Garrison, the non-violent abolitionist, in Theodore Parker's house in Boston in 1857. If I could just see that--it's from Page 202.
LAMB: Want me to get it for you and...
Dr. OATES: Yes, please. The only source we have for this meeting is the biography by Garrison's sons. All they say is that the two gentlemen met; sparks flew. John Brown approached abolition as an old warrior from the Old Testament and William Lloyd Garrison, their father, approached it in the non-violent passion of the New Testament with Mr. Parker, from time to time, injecting a little Lexington into the controversy. So that's all we have. But this is a momentous confrontation between-- at this very moment when abolitionism is about to take off on a violent turn with John Brown and the Harpers Ferry scheme he's already putting together. And so I wanted to flesh that out. I knew--we know what their views are. They're well-documented, and I have actually documented them and expressed them in other parts of the book. So I just simply simulated what they surely told each other in this momentous confrontation. May I read just a little bit?
`I did not reveal my real objective for being in Boston'--this is John Brown talking--`but I hinted at it in an angry encounter I had with Mr. Garrison in Reverend Parker's house in Boston.
`"Non-resistance," Garrison argued, "is the only course for all true abolitionists. Our movement was baptized in the spirit of peace. If it capitulates to violence, in Kansas or anywhere else, it'll lose its moral power."'
`"Don't give me your milk-and-water pacifism," I cried. "All I hear from you and your followers is talk, talk, talk. Talk won't free the slaves. We need action, action."'
`"Moral suasion, Mr. Brown, is action. It's the power of truth and righteousness prevailing over weakness."'
`"Moral suasion is a failure," I said, "a flat failure. You've preached it for almost 30 years, yet slavery is more entrenched in this country than when you began. Every peaceful solution has failed. The gradual emancipation movement got nowhere. The Liberty Party movement disappeared after a few years. Now we have the Republicans, but they're hopelessly wishy-washy on the issue. All they advocate is restriction. By their own admission, it may take 100 years--100 years for slavery to die out by that method. That's no solution, and neither is moral suasion or any other peaceful approach."'
`We were surrounded by Garrison's friends. "We're for peaceful disunion," one piped up, "no union with slave holders." "That may ease your conscience," I snapped, "but it won't help the poor slave." A minister broke in, "We must give peace a chance, Captain Brown." "Don't talk to me of peace," I said. "How could we have peace when the Supreme Court wages war against black people? How can we have peace when the president of the United States sides with the pro-slavery legions in Kansas? How can we have peace when the president, the Supreme Court, the Congress, the Republicans and the Democratic Parties and the Constitution all acknowledge the right of white men to own Negroes to reduce human beings to property?" I glared at them. "Don't talk to me of peace when slavery, throughout its entire existence in this country, has been a most barbarous, unprovoked and unjustifiable war of one portion of its citizen upon another portion. Don't talk to me of peace when your--millions of our fellow human beings face perpetual imprisonment and hopeless servitude or absolute extermination in utter disregard and violation of all eternal and self-evident truths set forth in our Declaration of Independence."'
`"What you say is true," said Garrison, "but it doesn't justify violence and war." "I think Captain Brown is right," interrupted Reverend Parker, a balding man with thick glasses and a white head and beard. "We need to interject a bit of Lexington into the controversy."'
`"We've reached the point," I said, "where nothing but war can get rid of slavery in this guilty nation. It's better that a whole generation of men, women and children should pass away by a violent death than that slavery should continue to exist another minute in this country."'
LAMB: Now is that on the record somewhere?
Dr. OATES: That is all on the record. There's--none of that is invented. I just put it in that scene because I know these characters so well that I know that's exactly how they'd argue. And some of that they did argue here and there at other places.
LAMB: Who was William Lloyd Garrison?
Dr. OATES: William Lloyd Garrison was the great founder of the immediate abolitionist--non-violent abolitionist movement started in 1831, when he started his Liberator in Boston.
LAMB: The newspaper?
Dr. OATES: The newspaper.
Dr. OATES: And he argued non-violent moral suasion. `We're going to appeal to slave holders; we're going to appeal to the Northerners, who are guilty of complicity to slavery and appeal to their conscience, and the country will all come together and abolish slavery.'
LAMB: What would he have been like to know?
Dr. OATES: Actually, he was very mild-mannered. He had the most incredibly creative vocabulary of in--vindective--an--invective I have ever read in my life, a a literature of vituperation he applied with savage glee for all the slave owners. But when you met him in person, he was just as kind and jovial and--people who met him could not believe that the fiery brimstone abolitionist that sat before them was bespectacled and was as quiet as a New England deacon.
LAMB: Is the Liberator anywhere on file?
Dr. OATES: It is, indeed.
Dr. OATES: Oh, you can get it in most research libraries. And...
LAMB: How-- many copies of there--I mean, how far--how long was it--was he in business with the newspaper?
Dr. OATES: 1831 to 1865. When the war ended, he closed down his shop. He said, `My job is done; slavery is over.'
LAMB: And was it a daily or a weekly?
Dr. OATES: It came out every day.
LAMB: Have you read a lot of it?
Dr. OATES: I read a great deal of it. I had to, because I wanted his--I wanted to get his language. And he had a particularly--I think it was called--a column called The Refuge of Oppression. And he would quote Southern newspapers and he would let Southerners hang themselves by quoting some of the stuff they said in defense of slavery or what the newspapers would admit to so--some of the violence that existed inherently in the system.
LAMB: When it was being published, do you know what the circulation was--how big?
Dr. OATES: It was never much more than about 4,000, 5,000, most...
LAMB: Who read it?
Dr. OATES: Mostly free Negroes and--and the abolitionists who followed--white abolitionists and black abolitionists who followed Garrison.
LAMB: Then you paint a picture of Frederick Douglass, who came along with his newspaper, the North Star, and he was supposed to be a friend of William Lloyd Garrison. What happened when he started North Star?
Dr. OATES: Well, Garrison was--you know, he was proprietary about the movement, and he brought Frederick Douglass into it. And, in a sense, he--while he didn't make Frederick Douglass; Douglass made himself--but he gave Douglass a great start. And Douglass rapidly became one of the best-known orators in the abolitionist crusade. And--and Garrison thought that he had made Douglass and that Douglass was a loyal supporter. And--and Garrison demanded loyal support. I mean, anybody who didn't toe the line--the ideological line that he had--you know, `We're not going to have anything to do with churches. We're not having anything to do with governments. We're having nothing to do with the military. They're all corrupted by slavery.'
So when Douglass goes to England and then comes back home and tells Garrison, `I think I'm going to open up my own black newspaper to show people that blacks can do this sort of thing,' Garrison said, `They've got a black newspaper. It's the Liberator.' And Douglass said, `Yeah, but you're running that and you're a white man. I want to show that a black man can do it.' And Garrison and his--and his friend in the movement, Wendell Phillips, dissuaded Douglass at this point from establishing a black paper and they went on a tour together. And Garrison fell sick and, at that point, Douglass went on and went back to Rochester and set the paper up anyway. And...
LAMB: Rochester, New York?
Dr. OATES: Yes, Rochester, New York. Set up his own black paper to prove to the American reading public that a black man could not only write an intelligent and analytical and truthful paper but could manage it as a successful enterprise.
LAMB: And did you say that William Lloyd Garrison, a white man, wrote the Liberator that black people read and that Frederick Douglass, a black man, wrote the North Star that white people read?
Dr. OATES: Well, black people read it, too. John Brown subscribed to the North Star. I think the North Star mainly appealed to black people. But it--it was hardly ever a very viable source. I mean, it was-- it had fewer readers than Liberator did.
LAMB: John Brown was from what state?
Dr. OATES: Born in Connecticut, but he spent much of his time in Ohio, and a go-for-broke typical businessman of the 1830s and '40s: always on the lookout for the Big Rock Candy Mountain, moving back and forth for the next big fix and a speculator. He's speculating in land, speculating in--in wool. This was a speculative time, and everybody was doing it and going broke. And Brown failed about as much--may--maybe more than the average guy, but not much more than others.
LAMB: What would he have been like to meet?
Dr. OATES: You wouldn't have liked him and neither would I. He was humorless. He would not have known a witticism if it had come up and kicked him in the pants. In fact, I couldn't find a single joke. And I wrote a biography--a full-length biography of him many years ago, and I couldn't find a single joke that the gentleman ever told. He was a pious Calvinist of the old school and demanded that his children walk the righteous path and got so horrendously upset if they strayed or they questioned or if they got off into some of the newer and less demanding forms of evangelical Christianity. He'd get all upset about that. And he was profoundly upset about slavery because he thought that Jehovah, his god of the Old Testament, in a fit of anger, would simply wipe the United States out, since he believed that the Scriptures condemned slavery--would wipe the United States out and Brown and his family with him, and Brown and his family would never get to paradise if that happened.
LAMB: How many of his own family fought with him?
Dr. OATES: Well, a number of his sons did.
LAMB: You paint some pretty brutal scenes.
Dr. OATES: Yes.
LAMB: Were they-- what's the worst scene that you can remember?
Dr. OATES: The worst scene was the Pottawatomie massacre, but I need to put that in context. He goes out to Kansas because the pro-slavery forces of--of Kansas and Missouri are threatening to, quote, "annihilate every goddamned abolitionist in the territory," and they're threatening John Brown's sons. And by the spring--May of 1856-- five free-state people have been brutally, violently murdered, one of whom was named Brown. And a group of drunken Missouri border ruffians grab--cornered him and took axes to him, cut him up all in little pieces and threw him in a blanket and threw the--and threw the blanket at the front door of--of his wife at the cabin and said, `There's your husband.'
I mean, Brown reads about all that stuff. And a border ruffian army invades Lawrence, the chief priesthood headquarters, and burn it, and that was all he could take. So he and a handful of followers, including several of his sons--they were all part of a larger group marching up from the Osawatomie-Pottawatomie region of Kansas, south of Lawrence, marching up to Lawrence's defense. When Brown heard about the--the burning of Lawrence and heard that a South Carolinian had also beat Charles Sumner, the Massachusetts abolitionist senator, nearly to death in the US Senate, it was more than he could take.
So he goes back to his--where he-- lived on Pottawatomie Creek, south of Lawrence in eastern Kansas, and in the dead of night, he and his Northern army, as he called it, his sons and several of his followers, took five pro-slavery men from their cabins and hacked them to death with artillery broadswords: eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. They got five of ours; now we got five of them. And Brown said, `God is my judge.' And I know that a lot of people will read that and say, `My God, what--you know, what a terrible man John Brown was.' Well, hi --this was war. Those--the cam--this was--there had been a war going on. I mean, they're killing us; we're killing them. And that really did precipitate the Civil War.
And for him--if it--when you read the Old Testament, you know, the Old Testament--as bloody as it can be. And Gideon it is who takes the head of a Midianite and holds it up after he beheads him and--for the praise of Jehovah. I mean--and Brown is like one of these Old Testament warriors, and that's how you have to see him. And he's got the dripping blood of the Old Testament is dripping from his artillery broadswords.
LAMB: Did he make a difference? Did he- have any impact on the fact that there was a Civil War?
Dr. OATES: Well, yes. I mean, his whole plan at Harpers Ferry was to produce some kind of sectional blow-up in which the two sections would come to some kind of blow. And he could not have foreseen the entire Civil War, but something--he--some mighty blow-up of some sort in which slavery would die. He kept saying this. `I'm going to be like Samson. I'm--when I go to Harpers Ferry, I'm pretty sure I'm going to fail there, but I'll so polarize the country that the South is going to blame it, as they did on Nat--with Nat Turner. They're going to blame me on the Republicans and on the North. And I hope it's going to polarize the sections worse than anything. And I'll be like Samson, pulling the temple down.' And he was bloody prophetic.
LAMB: You said, when we started, that you have a two-part series, another book coming out in about a year or so. There are 13 characters in this book and you said 19 or 20 altogether. Who are some of the others that are going to be in the next book?
Dr. OATES: We have some of the same players that will return. Jefferson Davis and Lincoln will come back, Mary Boykin Chestnut will come back and Frederick Douglass will come back. Then we have the generals are added: Sherman, Grant and Lee. And then I have a couple of Northern women: Cornelia Hancock, a young Quaker nurse, who at--in her--early 1820s, goes to Gettysburg after the great battle there and works for three weeks--almost a month, actually--in a horrendous battlefield hospital there--to give you an idea what the Civil War battles were like after they were fought, the human damage that it did. And she's or--she --I got all of her letters out of the University of Michigan and Swarthmore libraries. And her letters are the most descriptive thing. And the odd thing of it is, this young, unmarried, lovely Quaker girl is completely unphased by all this violent mayhem around her. And she was a wonderful nurse. And I'm going to use Var--Mary Livermore, who was a great head of the Chicago Sanitary Commission and is one of the great businesswomen of the war who raises an enormous amount of supplies for Lincoln's army.
LAMB: Can you do anything else with this series? I mean, is there...
Dr. OATES: Well, I--and one more character.
LAMB: Oh, OK. Yeah.
Dr. OATES: The last character to come on with a coda to wrap it all up is Walt Whitman, who gave a little-attended but profoundly moving and insightful talk about Abraham Lincoln's death and what that meant for the coalescing of a nation and the creation of a nation. And I'm going to bring him on and let him give that talk. And it's a coda that talks about how the final, agonizing, terrible death of Lincoln was what really finally brought us together as a country.
LAMB: Anything--is there a movie out of this?
Dr. OATES: I hope so--at least a stage play. I mean, I could already see--in fact, I've already been given a--a generous offer to bring this out on audiocassette. They're very excited about the different actors they can get to come on to read the parts. And I could see it as a stage play and I could see it as a documentary put on A&E or maybe get Mr. Turner to do something with the Turner Network.
LAMB: HarperCollins--have they always been your publisher?
Dr. OATES: They have been for nearly all of my books--my major books.
LAMB: And after this--you say after this next book, you've got another one already in mind.
Dr. OATES: The Cuban Missile Crisis.
LAMB: And wh--using the characters again?
Dr. OATES: Yes. I'm going to write from the first per--in the first person and from the viewpoints of Jack Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro.
LAMB: Of all the characters in this first book, who is the toughest to write?
Dr. OATES: John C. Calhoun, the toughest to bring alive and the toughest to--to get empathetic with, because the cause that he is defending is a loathsome cause for a 20th century sensibility such as myself or anybody else. And he's on the wrong side of history and he doesn't know it. I thought the most difficult guy would be this--this really weird fellow in there, George Fitzhugh, but I found him so incredibly funny, and he is really kind of a wacko and...
LAMB: Who is he?
Dr. OATES: ...th-- he's--well, he was actually not anybody that--exc--except for a journalist and a--a propagandist in defense of slavery in the 1850s. And he wrote the farthest-out defense of slavery, posted the flag farther out than any other defender did. And he--he also got up a definitive and--well, not accurate--a criticism, a critique of capitalism and the way the Northern capitalists exploited their workers. And his idea was, you know, he wanted a rope--put a rope around the world and pull everybody, the whole world, back to feudalism and enslave everybody. All workers, white and black, should be enslaved and will bring back feudalism and the--the noble lords and--when everything was fine and wonderful.
And the man who read him and took him seriously was Abraham Lincoln. And Lincoln argued with him in his speeches against Stephen A. Douglas in 1858.
LAMB: As you know, we're right in the middle of our Tocqueville tour and--or, it's not quite started, but it will. But the reason I bring it up is that when Alexis de Tocqueville came to the United States in 1831, this in the middle of your book here, what would he have found here? What was the atmosphere in this country?
Dr. OATES: He would have found, first of all, an extraordinarily decentralized agricultural country that's not even a country yet. It's more a--a loose confederation of localities and rampant localism and only a handful of people around who, like Henry Clay and Webster and a young Abraham Lincoln growing up, who had any national vision whatever. And he would have found the growing slavery problem. He'd came in 1831--was the year of the Nat Turner insurrection. It was the year that Garrison started publishing his Liberator. And it was de Tocqueville who said this slavery thing is going to tear the country up.
LAMB: Nat Turner, also a lot of violence.
Dr. OATES: Oh, it is-- that was a-- I'm --I was in the civil rights movement and I was a disciple of Martin Luther King, so I'm a non-violent man. And yet, I could understand why Nat Turner would be driven to retaliate against a violent system by retributory violence.
LAMB: Who was he?
Dr. OATES: He was a young black--he was a black fellow born in South Hampton County, Virginia, in 1800, the same year that Jefferson was elected to the presidency. He was a slave. And he was extremely bright, precocious, learned how to read. Didn't --couldn't even remember how he did, but somehow, he did. And his old Methodist owner thought he was just the brightest little kid--`bright little darky' is what he called him. This young boy, by the time he was eight or nine years old, had memorized the entire Bible. And so the old master liked to trod out his little bright darky and show him off to itinerant Methodist preachers who came by to spend the night and drink some of the apple brandy that the old master made.
So the master and the slave boy's grandmother and mother and everybody else on the plantation said, `This boy's too bright to be a slave.' The old white man is saying it, too. `He's too bright to be a slave. He'll never amount to anything if he remains a slave. He's too smart for it.' So he grew up thinking that there was a promise of freedom. But when he came to manhood, he was not free. His master--first master had died, the son had inherited him and the son had sent him to the field. And that started the rage. And it went on. He got married; he had absentee children. And--and the more he thought about slavery, the angrier he got about it. He found abundant examples in the Old Testament where--where slavery was supposed to be banned by the Scriptures.
LAMB: Decapitated 10 children's heads?
Dr. OATES: Yeah. And then he finally got in his insurrection, the rampage through South Hampton County, decapitated 10 children in Eli Waller's family.
LAMB: So--South Hampton County, where?
Dr. OATES: Virginia, right on the North Carolina border. It was--and the the insurrection lasted just about a couple of days was all before the superiority of white firepower, with the federal forces thrown in as well, put it down.
LAMB: We're about out of time. I want to ask a couple quick questions.
Dr. OATES: Sure.
LAMB: Where's your home originally?
Dr. OATES: I was born in the Texas panhandle and I went to college at the University of Texas at Austin.
LAMB: What'd you study there?
Dr. OATES: I ended up studying history. I started off in business.
LAMB: And where did you get your PhD?
Dr. OATES: I got BA, PhD and MA degree all from the University of Texas at
Austin. I loved it there.
LAMB: What was your specialty?
Dr. OATES: I-- th-Civil War.
LAMB: And your dissertation?
Dr. OATES: Yes.
LAMB: We are out of time. And here's what the book looks like. It's called "The Approaching Fury." And our guest is Stephen B. Oates. And we thank you very much.
Dr. OATES: Thank you, Brian.
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