Six award-winning scholars came to the Library on March 4—exactly 148 years after Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address—to discuss various facets of the 16th president and his presidency.
The speakers were introduced by John Sellers, the Library’s American Civil War specialist and curator of the Library’s Lincoln bicentennial exhibition, “With Malice Toward None.”
Organized by Sellers of the Manuscript Division and Susan Mordan White of the Library’s Interpretive Programs Office, the Lincoln symposium was a companion program to the exhibition. It will be available for online viewing at www.loc.gov/webcasts/.
Lincoln Comes to Washington
On Feb. 11, 1861, Lincoln departed Springfield, Ill., for a 12-day train trip to Washington to attend his first inauguration. En route, he delivered 101 speeches to crowds of people, many of whom had never seen or heard an American leader.
In the symposium’s opening lecture, titled “Lincoln Comes to Washington,” Harold Holzer discussed this historic journey of the 16th president-elect.
Holzer is co-chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and author or editor of 33 books about Lincoln, including “In Lincoln’s Hand: His Original Manuscripts,” the official publication of the Library’s Lincoln exhibition, “With Malice Toward None.”
According to Holzer, Lincoln’s speech upon his departure from Springfield, which has been considered one of his greatest, was not prepared ahead of time.
“Sandwiched between comments on the past and future, he introduced the suggestion that he faced a challenge equal to or greater than that faced by George Washington,” said Holzer. “This was a rather audacious claim considering Lincoln had always thought of Washington as peerless and incomparable. He would repeat this several times on his journey.”
At Lincoln’s first stop in Indianapolis, Holzer said “he detonated a political bombshell” when making comments about states’ rights and secession. For the most part, Lincoln abandoned policy speeches for the remainder of the trip.
His appearances were popular, with each city trying to outdo itself with support and attendance.
“Lincoln really came into his own when he reached Trenton and Philadelphia,” said Holzer.
However, it was in Philadelphia that the president-elect was told of an assassination plot against him in Baltimore. Skipping a stop in Baltimore, he went on to Harrisburg, Pa., and then to D.C., remaining in the public eye despite the danger.
Holzer also discussed what he regards as “one of the most astonishing aspects of Lincoln’s journey to the presidency”—his close relationship with his black valet, William Johnson. Johnson worked for Lincoln for a year before accompanying him to Washington. He went with Lincoln to Gettysburg in 1863 and tended the president through a bout with smallpox.
Holzer said, “The only thing we really know for sure is that in December [of that same year], Johnson died of smallpox. Lincoln had him buried [in what is now Arlington National Cemetery] with the simple ‘William H. Johnson, Citizen’ on his headstone.”
Lincoln as Leader
The evolution of Lincoln from a military novice to what historians regard as “a great war president” was the subject of a lecture titled “Abraham Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James M. McPherson.
“He learned on the job, read and absorbed works on military history and strategy, observed the successes and failures of his military commanders, made mistakes and learned from them, and applied his large quotient of common sense to slice through the obfuscations and excuses of military subordinates,” said McPherson.
McPherson defined the main functions of a commander-in-chief as developing and implementing a national policy, national strategy and military strategy.
After a careful analysis of the president’s performance in each function, McPherson concluded that Lincoln succeeded by “refusing to compromise his policy of preserving the United States as one nation, indivisible, and, after the Emancipation Proclamation and 13th Amendment, forever free; by a national strategy of mobilizing Northern resources and weakening the enemy by destroying its resources, including slavery; and finally, by putting into place a team of military commanders, most notably Ulysses S. Grant, Philip Sheridan, George Thomas and William T. Sherman, who destroyed enemy armies and resources.
“Whether the war could have been won in any other way, with anyone other than Lincoln as commander-in-chief, is, of course, unknowable. But I doubt it,” McPherson said.
A Tale of Two Presidents
University of Virginia ethicist William Lee Miller presented “a tidy capsule of America’s moral history” by comparing and contrasting the inaugurations of Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama in his talk, titled “A New Birth of Freedom.” At the core of both presidencies are issues of racial equality.
Obama acknowledged throughout his campaign that “the presidency of this singular figure in so many ways made my own story possible.” He recently made that statement on the occasion of the 16th president’s 200th birthday on Feb. 12, 2009, in Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Ill., where Obama announced his candidacy two years earlier.
But, noted Miller, rather than quote from any of Lincoln’s most well-known writings, Obama chose instead on that occasion to reference Lincoln’s “fragment on government,” scribbled on a scrap of paper in 1854. Lincoln wrote, “The legitimate object of government is to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they cannot, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, by themselves.”
Perhaps setting the tone for his stimulus package, observed Miller, “President Obama, using words of President Lincoln, thus argued for another newness in our concept of individual freedom: that it does not conflict with common purpose carried out by governmental action but indeed requires such purpose and such action in order to be complete. A current president, arguing for the rebirth of a socially responsible freedom in our own time, found text dating way back … to a thoughtful moment in Lincoln’s life.”
Lincoln on Racial Equality
Lucas E. Morel, professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, posed the question “Does Lincoln still deserve to be called the Great Emancipator, especially if the plight of black Americans did not appear to be his primary focus as president, or at any other time in his public career?”
In a lecture titled “Lincoln on Race, Equality, and the Spirit of ‘76,” Morel asserted that Lincoln’s focus was the union of the American states.
“In preserving the American union,” he said, “Lincoln believed he was giving self-government the best chance to succeed, which was the key to securing individual liberty slowly but surely for everyone.”
According to Morel, Lincoln looked to the “Spirit of ‘76” —the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence — as a model for dealing with the existence of slavery. Slavery was viewed by most white citizens as a necessary evil, but the Founding Fathers intended to wean the nation off the institution, Morel said.
Lincoln once said, “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” According to Morel, this vital document taught Lincoln that slavery was wrong as a political practice, and that liberty was right for all human beings. It also taught him the necessity of preserving the union in order for the American states to secure that liberty.
“The promotion of liberty for all required the establishment and preservation of government by the consent of the governed,” Morel concluded. “Directing the nation’s consent towards protecting the rights of all remains an abiding challenge to each generation of Americans.”
Lincoln and Language
Lincoln’s love of language was the subject of a presentation by Douglas L. Wilson titled “Words Fitly Spoken: Lincoln and Language.”
Lincoln grew up obsessed with words, according to Wilson, co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College in Illinois and author of “Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words.”
“Lincoln had a long-standing preoccupation with words, displaying sensitivity to the diversity of their meanings and a delight in wordplay,” said Wilson.
Wilson cited many examples of Lincoln’s precise understanding and use of language. In his Baltimore Sanitary Fair speech of 1864, for example, Lincoln expounded on the concept of liberty: “… With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor.”
Wilson quoted Lincoln’s stepmother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, on young Lincoln’s passion for clarity of expression: “Sometimes, he seemed pestered to give expression to his ideas and got mad, almost, at one who couldn’t explain plainly what he wanted to convey.”
Lincoln frequently advised his law partner William Herndon not to “shoot too high—shoot low down, and the common people will understand you … The educated ones will understand you anyhow.”
Even as president, Lincoln insisted on writing his own papers, and stubbornly declined offers of assistance. He allegedly said, “No, I shall write them myself. The people will understand them.”
Yet Lincoln employed techniques and devices to keep his simple language quietly electrifying. For instance, he cultivated a keen sense of cadence and developed a variety of rhythmic effects that resulted in a kind of prose poetry.
Wilson said, “If Lincoln’s foremost aim was indeed that of clarity, of being understood by a wide range of readers, he certainly did not sacrifice persuasiveness.”
Lincoln’s Unlikely Ally
Elizabeth Leonard, the last speaker of the symposium, examined why Joseph Holt, who hailed from a family of slaveholders and extremely vocal secessionists, aligned himself ever-so-loyally to President Lincoln.
In 1862, Holt became Lincoln’s judge advocate general of the Union Army and chief of the Bureau of Military Justice. Holt supported Lincoln singlemindedly until the president’s assassination and even beyond, serving as the government’s lead prosecutor in the trial of John Wilkes Booth’s band of co-conspirators.
In addition to his strong ties to the South, Holt was a longtime member and rising star of the Democratic Party, according to Leonard, who is the John J. and Cornelia V. Gibson Professor of History at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. Holt served as President James Buchanan’s commissioner of patents, postmaster general and, in the final months of the administration, secretary of war.
Nonetheless, Abraham Lincoln came along, and Holt became a deeply devoted Lincoln man. Why?
“For one thing, Holt was a profound, committed unionist,” said Leonard. “He was a unionist from way back, and one to whom the idea of dismembering the nation was both abhorrent and absurd.”
Both men shared a fundamental aversion to slavery, viewing it as contrary to every moral principle of justice and humanity. But both men also shared a disdain of extremism and radical abolitionism, according to Leonard.
Holt, himself a good speaker, was drawn to Lincoln’s eloquence and appreciation of the value of education. As a highly successful lawyer, Holt undoubtedly appreciated Lincoln’s practice of law.
The two men also shared Kentucky roots. They were born about 70 miles apart, and there was only a two-year difference in age.
Leonard said, “There were probably many other things about Lincoln-the-man that resonated with Holt’s personal values, including Lincoln’s decency, integrity, honesty and simplicity.”
Donna Urschel, Erin Allen and Audrey Fischer of the Library’s Public Affairs Office compiled this report.