Book World: Lincoln Scholars

Allen C. Guelzo and William Lee Miller
Tuesday, February 19, 2008; 3:00 PM

Lincoln scholars Allen C. Guelzo and William Lee Miller, will be online Tuesday, Feb. 19, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss their books, "Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America," and "President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman which are reviewed in Book World.

A transcript follows.

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Allen C. Guelzo: Hello, everyone: this is Allen Guelzo from Gettysburg College. I see Bill is already at work, but I'm at his elbow (electronically) and ready to field questions about Lincoln and Douglas.



William Lee Miller: I am William Lee Miller, and I wrote a book about Lincoln as President. An earlier book--Lincoln's Virtues-- I called an "ethical biography"; this new book is an ethical biography of the greatest of our presidents. and I am here to answer your questions about it. s.


Harrisburg, Pa.: How much was mentioned in newspaper articles and perhaps personal journals and letters as to what Lincoln and Douglas said during their debates? I know there is no transcript, yet I wonder how much history has preserved of their words if not their meanings.

Allen C. Guelzo: There are numerous accounts left by witnesses and members of the audiences for the debates, plus newspaper reporters who actually did publish transcripts (from shorthand) or summations. The transcripts were published in the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Times, and then reprinted in a number of other newspaper. The other summaries and accounts appear in newspapers throughout Illinois and elsewhere across the country.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Did either or both of you read "Team of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin? Personally I found the analysis insightful and it was very informative seeing how Lincoln may have been the unique stablizing force in keeping divergent parties together resulting in keeping the Civil War and its aftermath from spinning out of control. Do either of you have any comments on this book?

Allen C. Guelzo:'Team of Rivals' was a great survey of Lincoln as a manager of several over-mighty national figures. Considering how little experience Lincoln had at the executive level, and how prominent some of these people were -- Chase, Seward, Bates -- he turned out to be endlessly adroit in fending off interference, taking their advice on his own terms and proceeding with his own agenda. It's often said that leadership is the art of getting people to do what you want, and making them think it's what they want. This captures a lot of what Lincoln did, and Doris's book describes it all very well and in a very entertaining fashion.


William Lee Miller: Yes, Doris's book does show Lincoln's great talent as a political manager (the book is a considerable work of "management" also--complicated stories well told). Her book also shows the humanity and complexity of his cabinet, by Doris's digging out of the letters to and from their wives--Frances Seward in particular. There had not been a good book on Lincoln's cabinet for 60 years; now there is this fine book. I made the mistake of saying to her that I did not think the title Team of Rivals would work (although it was surely better than at the title it replaced--"Master of Men")--but Team of Rivals turned out to be exactly the right title--the Rivals for the nomination then were made into a Team by the political genius of their leader.


Templeton, Mass.: I understand that Lincoln was concerned about the rise of corporate power in the United States. What do you think he would make of our corporate-dominated culture today? And secondly, do you think the rise of the corporation had its roots in the North's industrialization during the Civil War, and in Lincoln's own policies?

Thank you

Allen C. Guelzo: Corporate organization in American business and commerce was already well under way by the time Lincoln became president. But all the evidence from his pre-war lawyering days is that he had little objection to the rise of corporations. As a state legislator, he had strongly favored the creation of an Illinois state bank, as well as sponsoring the chartering of public/private corporations like the Illinois Central Railroad. As a whole, the Whigs (and remember that Lincoln was a Whig far longer than he was a Republican) looked upon banks and corporations as a more efficient means of development; the Jacksonian Democrats thought they were the tools of the devil, but Whigs like Lincoln disagreed. During his presidency, Lincoln favored the re-construction of a national financial system, and his most important 'internal improvement' project was the Pacific railroad, which involved federal purchase of the bonds of two corporate giants, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific. True, corporations did not achieve the scale we normally associate with them until the 1880s; but it's still hard to imagine that Lincoln would offered much in the way of determined opposition. Herndon said that they always thanked the Lord when a corporation came knocking at their office door to hire them.


Fairfax, Va.: Seems like Douglas had more to lose than to gain by participating in the debates. What were the strategic reasons that led him argue the issues with Lincoln?

Allen C. Guelzo: Douglas, who already had more than enough name recognition to get himself elected president, much less senator, had absolutely nothing to gain from leveling the playing field by accepting Lincoln's challenge. In fact, his first instinct was to refuse. But Douglas was a risk-taker by temperament; I expect that this represented another risk he just couldn't resist. He lived to regret it.


Chevy Chase, Md.: Gentlemen: Lincoln's virtues are well documented, morally, politically, interpersonally, etc., through Mr. Miller's first book. It's not easy to be critical of so great a man, but can you help?

I'd submit that picking generals was not a strong suit....

William Lee Miller: After I published a book called Lincoln's Virtues a wit said that my next book should be Lincoln's Vices. But in my opinion that would be a short book! I wrote President Lincoln instead, completing the Ethical biography. I am asked often about Lincoln's mistakes and faults; he certainly made some mistakes. I have chapter in President Lincoln about the Powhatan affair that was a royal screw-up in the early days----right alongside the Sumter affair. Lincoln signed letters he should not signed, and the ship was sent to two places at one under two captains--etc etc. Fortunately, no great harm. Lincoln took the blame and did not do anything like that again.

I do not think you can fault him for picking generals that did not work out, because, as he said to Hay when he went back to McClellan in the fall of 62, we have to work with what we have. The US did not have any big supply of good generals, and some it did have went with the rebels. If Lee had stayed with his country the story would have been different.


San Antionio, Tex.: I would like to have you compare the two hours plus debate between Lincoln and Douglas versus the smart short sound bytes that form the reporting on political positions these days. I personally think it gives the swift boaters of any kind the right of way in our politics. Thank you.

Allen C. Guelzo: Modern presidential debating only started with Nixon and Kennedy in 1960, although the proximity of that to the Lincoln-Douglas centennial is more than accidental. Still, that may be the only way in which L/D and N/K are "proximate." The reason is, I think, the medium. Lincoln and Douglas were talking, but the talking was in terms of logic, development, and reasoning. Television, as a medium, resists those qualities in speaking -- it favors quick cuts, one-liners, and talking points. I think the modern debates are largely the prisoners of the televised medium. I suspect, too, that the modern debates represent the effort of candidates with widely-varying constituencies and special interests to please to tip the hat as quickly as possible to as many of the constituencies and interests as possible. That leaves no time for big-picture issues. Contrast this with Lincoln and Douglas, where the subject was only ever slavery, and the discussion went (by the last three debates) right to the bedrock of what a democracy is all about.


Omaha, Neb.: It seems that there has been a resurgence in interest in Lincoln over the past two or three years. Any theories as to why?

Allen C. Guelzo: I don't know that there has ever been a time when Lincoln didn't stand head-and-shoulders above all other presidents in the historians' eye. But relatively speaking, there have been peaks and a troughs. One peak was in the 1910s-20s; a major trough was in the 1970s-80s. We are certainly on a peak again, something which began in 1994 with Michael Burlingame's 'The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln,' which showed in fabulous detail how many new and untapped sources were available on Lincoln. This was followed by David Donald's 1995 Lincoln biography. And since then, we've really been in a golden age of Lincoln scholarship. Another part of this interest is, I think, a general anxiety, after the end of the Cold War, to find a new basis for affirming American nationhood. And perhaps another, in plainer terms, is the lure of the approaching Lincoln bicentennial.

William Lee Miller: I agree with and learn from what Allen has written. I would add that the civil rights movement--the sea change in racial relations since 1954, or since WW II, had caused the Civil War, and the central figure, to be seen through new eyes, criticized, and then defended.


Templeton, Mass.: Thanks for your thoughtful reply to my previous question about Lincoln's views on corporations. I'm no scholar, but didn't Lincoln also say something about being all for money, but placing the person before money? And what do you think of this quote in the light of corporations, though I cannot vouch for it's accuracy:

"I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. Corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed." -- Abraham Lincoln

Allen C. Guelzo: The quotation is probably bogus, since it comes from no source we can verify. He did speak about keeping the man before the dollar, but he was talking at that moment about slavery, and referring to keeping the humanity of the slave higher in view than the self-interest of the slaveholders. This does not quite make Lincoln a challenger of the corporations; in fact, he prefaced those words by saying that Republicans were for the man AND the dollar.


Lincoln's Actions During War: I'm not a great defender of the current administration, but: it strikes me that people might be a little more understanding of the current situation if they were aware of some of the extraordinary measures President Lincoln had to take during an unprecedented period. Your thoughts?

William Lee Miller: All presidents--particularly war presidents, presidents inclined to the imperial presidency--invoke Lincoln as a justification, but they omit these three defenses of Lincoln's strong actions (suspend habeas, blockade, increase army without congress, arrest Maryland legislators, etc etc)

1) the situation he faced was UNIQUE. In his view, the United States was threatened with destruction, ruin, overthrow, perishing (all words that he used) which is not the case for any other president, including the current one.

2) there was specific constitutional provision for emergency measures in the case that he faced--an insurrection--which no other president has faced.

3) He did not contend that his actions were immune from Congressional correction; on the contrary, he specifically said he was acting beyond the present provisions in the expectation that congress would retroactively approve, which they did. He did not say anything like Nixon: if the president does it is legal.

And he did not negate congressional action by "signing statements."


Washington, D.C.: Douglas died roughly two months after the war started. Although he was opposed to secession, did he ever acknowledge how some of his positions -- most notably the Kansas-Nebraska act -- led to the onset of the war?

Allen C. Guelzo: One thing which Stephen A. Douglas was temperamentally incapable of doing was admitting he was wrong. He always believed that 'popular sovereignty' -- the core doctrine of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill -- was the right solution to the slavery controversy; and even though it had failed to solve much of anything in Kansas and Nebraska, he stubbornly insisted that this was because it had never been adequately tested. Surprisingly, right towards the very end, he endorsed the Crittenden Compromise, which would have junked 'popular sovereignty' in favor of a restoration of the Missouri Compromise. Was all of Douglas's promotion of 'popular sovereignty' a plausible device for getting him elected president? With his death in June, 1861, any possible answer to that question went to Douglas's grave with him.


Worcester, N.Y.: In the vast array of Lincoln studies, what do you believe would be the best to recommend for a book club looking to expand their all around knowledge of this man. Not an easy question, I wager.

Allen C. Guelzo: Tell the book club to buy whatever Bill Miller writes.

Okay, seriously: the best one-volume biography of Lincoln is still Benjamin Thomas's 1952 biography. David Donald's 1995 biography is a close second, and close enough that if you can only obtain the Donald rather than the Thomas, your book club will still be doing just fine. I also admire Michael Burlingame's 'The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln' (1994), although this is not a biography, but rather a series of topical essays on such matters as Lincoln's "anger and malice" (now there's a surprise) and the Lincoln marriage (read "anger and malice" first).

William Lee Miller: I would add, buy any book that Allen Guelzo writes. I would add the two fine books by Doug Wilson, Honor's Voice and Lincoln's Sword. And the good short book--if the club wants a swifter view--by Mark Neely called The Last Best Hope.


Sterling, Va.: Thanks for taking my question. There have been at least two books in recent years talking about biological factors in Lincoln's life ("Lincoln's Melancholy" and another book about a particular genetic disorder he may have had). In your opinions, what role should biology play in Lincoln studies? Do you see any sort of biological data having a significant impact on our perception and understanding of Lincoln as a president and historical figure?

Allen C. Guelzo: We still know so little about how the brain interacts with the body chemistry -- or, for that matter, whether we should be talking about the brain or the mind -- that it would be perilous to hazard any guess about the way Lincoln's biological health may or may not have affected him. Of course, we don't have Lincoln on hand to ask him directly; but even if we did, we still might not be able to make sense of how all the parts worked together. We have descriptions of his physical make-up, but those are more matters of describing his appearance. It's simply hard to say, in clinical terms, what the wiring inside the man looked like.


Raleigh, N.C.: Are there any known recordings of the voice of Robert Todd Lincoln, who died in 1926? If so, it might be our best hint as to how the 16th president sounded -- although it was said that RTL was mostly all Todd and very little Lincoln.

Also, there was some dispute as to whether Lincoln's last descendant, Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, may have had a child with his much younger last wife, but the court found against paternity. Has the alleged Lincoln descendant pursued his claim? It would be nice to think that there are still Lincoln-Todd descendants alive.

Allen C. Guelzo: Robert Todd Lincoln did his very best to stay out of the public limelight, generally declining invitations to speak about his father, and refusing seductive inquiries about running for elected office. He was present, however, at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922, and may have spoken briefly there. If so, he may also have been recorded, since audio of other speakers at the dedication of the Memorial has survived.

It would be pleasant to believe that some of Lincoln's DNA is actively swimming around in somebody's soup, but all the evidence is against it. And of course, there's always the risk that what we might get would be more Todd than Lincoln.


Reston, Va.: Is it safe to say, after having done exhaustive research and study, that Abraham Lincoln was something of a philosopher?

Allen C. Guelzo: A philosopher? No. Not even what we might call an intellectual. But he did have intellectual instincts, a tremendous curiosity on a broad range of subjects, and a near-photographic memory for what he read. He was, at the end of the day, a politician: politics were his heaven, said Herndon, and metaphysics his Hades. But Lincoln did take comfort in ideas and books, more so than almost any other president, and he went to books and ideas in moments of perplexity to sort things out. Philosopher, no, but thoughtful and (as John Todd Stuart said) "surprisingly well-read" for his day.

William Lee Miller: I agree: A philosopher, not exactly. But he did have a strong mind, which sought generalizations as well as particulars. He had a terrific memory, as Allen says; he had great clarity of mind and expression, and he worked to make it clearer--reading Euclid in his early 30s to train his mind. He had a deep realism; he did not deceive or mislead himself, but faced the world he had to deal with AS IT REALLY IS. At the same time, he had a striking moral intelligence, and a confidence in the working of his own mind and conscience. On that DAY ONE we are now hearing so much about (Lincoln faced a DAY ONE that makes the day one of other presidents seem like a day at the beach) he, as a novice without the experience of men like us.

Seward, as a newcomer who rose through his speeches, he had the moral self-confidence to reject the proposals of both his chief military adviser Winfield Scott and his chief political adviser William Seward, and to say, no we will not haul down the flag and surrender Fort Sumter.


Templeton, Mass.: How do you think Lincoln would view the dominance of corporations in our culture today? I understand he was concerned about this when he was president. Also do you think the rise in corporate power has its roots in the Lincoln administration (in gearing up the North to fight the Civil War?

William Lee Miller: It is very hard to answer the oft-posed questions about how Lincoln would respond to some current condition. My favorite story on that count is that the late great Lincoln scholar Don Fehrebacher was asked, during the struggles over bussing for racial balance a few years ago, what Lincoln would say about "bussing" and he thought awhile and then answered : "what Lincoln would say would be: "What's a bus?""

Yes the rise in corporate power had roots in the gearing up for the Civil War. Lincoln was a Whig, a supporter of government aid to expanding industry--to "internal improvements" that supported the growth of business. He was an early capitalist, not one who wanted to preserve some rural paradise. But what he would have made when the gilded age came, and the robber barons et al--well, I would reply the way Fehrenbacher did.


Rockville, Md. : I made the pilgrimage to Springfield last summer and was most impressed with the town, cemetery, train depot, even with the new museum, which had been criticized as a Disney-fied tribute. Your thoughts?

Allen C. Guelzo: I know that some folks have objected to the displays of "rubber Lincolns," animations, and silicone effigies, rather than objects and papers in glass cases. All honor to the glass cases (and there are some in the ALPLM), but I also thoroughly enjoyed the rubber, the silicone, and the celluloid. Maybe it's because I tend to be a very visual person; maybe I'm just a product of the Age of Disney.

No one loves an archive better than I do. (I can smell a good one half-a-block away -- all that brittle papyrus dust is music to my nostrils). But I don't see why we must stall at either/or. The ALPLM has a library with a priceless collection of manuscripts and artifacts (which I have used extensively); and when I need to stretch my legs, I can walk across the street to the museum and relax among the illustrations of Lincoln's life, too. In a way, it reflects the halves of Lincoln's own character -- one all jokes and buffoonery, the other all high-minded seriousness. If he could absorb both into his personality, I think I can, too.


Alexandria, Va.: How did each of you become interested in Lincoln, and are there any other historical figures who you are also very interested in, or who you have written about?

Allen C. Guelzo: I suppose I've been interested in Lincoln for almost as long as I can remember. My first Lincoln book was the CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED comic book version of the life of Lincoln, and with that, I was hooked. When I was in high school, I wrote my senior government thesis on Lincoln's nomination in 1860, and drew the ticket as narrator for the school orchestra's performance of Aaron Copland's 'A Lincoln Portrait' (1942). (I still do the narrator's part, as recently as last week with the Illinois Symphony). I wandered away from the subject, though, until the early 90s, when I was working on a project about the idea of free will in American philosophy. I knew that Lincoln had had something to say about "necessity" and "fatalism," and so I began writing him into the book. In fact, Lincoln took over. I wrote instead 'Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President,' in 1999, and I've splitting rails with Mr. Lincoln ever since. If there's a twelve-step process for this somewhere, I haven't found it yet.

William Lee Miller: I had already been seriously interested in Lincoln's Second Inaugural in graduate school. When I went to an Aspen seminar on "American Scriptures" in the summer of1976--the bicentennial of the Declaration--and they discussed the preamble and the Gettysburg Address and much more--but not Lincoln's Second Inaug--I challenged that omission and they said find something on it and to my astonishment, at that time, there was no book or long article that really did it--so I wrote one that attempted to do it justice. Although obscurely published, that essay got a nice bounce. Somehow David Donald saw it, and in his notes to his biography singled it out. I knew that I would come back to Lincoln and that Address. I did other things, on political ethics. But then came the time, and wrote Lincoln's Virtues, which took him up to the presidency, and now l have written President Lincoln which ends with--the Second Inaugural.

I wrote a book about James Madison and one in which the aging John Quincy Adams is the hero..


Ashburn, Va.: Day One? I'm not familiar with that term. Is it that point in time when first faced with an unimaginable crisis?

William Lee Miller: In the current campaign Hillary Clinton contrasting Obama's short experience

with her own long experience has repeatedly said that we need a president who is ready on day one. Others have picked up the phrase.


Dumfries, Va. : Why is Lincoln held in such high esteem when, as DiLorenzo says in The Real Lincoln, every other Western nation solved its problem of abolishing slavery without violence by "compensated manumision."

Allen C. Guelzo: What DiLorenzo misses is that the other abolitions were either very limited (as in the liberation of the serfs by Alexander II) or far away from the metropolitan center of those nations (the French and British abolitions were of slavery in the West Indies). What Lincoln had to face was a culturally and politically cohesive bloc of states comprising half the country, refusing to discuss even the limitation of slavery; while he had only the most feeble means of enforcement. The British and the French could do their emancipating at a distance; Lincoln had armed resistance almost literally at his doorstep. And unlike the tsar, he had no enormous army and navy to defend his decree. Bear in mind, also, that the resort to war was not Lincoln's decision, but that of the slave South. Lincoln would have been happy to have solved the slavery problem by compensation -- in fact, drew up a gradual, compensated emancipation plan as early as November, 1861 -- but no slaveholders were willing to go along with it. Mr. DiLorenzo is comparing apples and oranges, and then complaining why they don't make a salad.


Alexandria, Va.: I have recently become very interested in learning more about Lincoln, and I previously have not read any biographies, and only really know what I was taught in high school history. What are the top few "quintessential" Lincoln books/biographies that a beginner should start off reading? Of course, once I get a good foundation, I will find your books and read them too, but I'm looking for a good place for a beginner to start. Thanks!

Allen C. Guelzo: Welcome to the Lincoln fraternity. I've mentioned the books by Thomas, Donald and Burlingame in a previous post in this chat, so let those stand for my top 1-2-3. I'll add to that Gabor Boritt's great 'Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream' (1978) and Richard Carwardine's 'Lincoln' (2004). That's not mentioning Bill's two books, but I think we're both recusing our own writings from this, aren't we?


William Lee Miller: Thanks for the good questions. This is quite a device--lots of fun, stimulating. My book President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman, which has just been published, is probably the last that I will write about Lincoln, but he will be a source and inspiration for whatever I write next. Thanks to all. Bill Miller


Allen C. Guelzo: Thanks so much for these great questions. It shows, if nothing else, that curiosity about this "reticent, shut-mouthed" man of so much inner privacy but so much humility and wisdom in public life continues to abound. As long as it does, then I think that we show that we all still aspire to find Lincolns among us as our leaders.

I hope you all enjoy 'Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America,' and yes, I DID draw those maps!


"As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master; this expresses my idea of democracy; whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy."

A. Lincoln, 1858


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