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Harold Holzer’s latest book, Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861 (Simon & Schuster, 2008), focuses on the unprecedented challenges Lincoln faced as an incoming commander in chief. The co-chairman of the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, Holzer has authored or co-authored 30 books on Civil War topics, including the Lincoln Prize–winning Lincoln at Cooper Union.

I’ve heard you pulled Lincoln from a hat. Explain.

I was in a fifth-grade class in Queens, N.Y., and our teacher asked us to draw names out of a hat and write a composition. I picked Abraham Lincoln. When I looked for a book to help me, I was attracted to this very black, shiny dust jacket, The Lincoln Nobody Knows, by Richard Current, who I later came to know and treasure as a friend. From that minute on, I tried to read everything I could about Lincoln.

What prompted you to look at Lincoln’s pre-presidency?

The last book I wrote was about a speech at Cooper Union that made him president. I must confess I enjoyed talking about it during the 2004 presidential campaign, because we were so bombarded with campaign messages that it seemed a quaint thing to start out before audiences saying Lincoln made one speech, repeated it a few times and then never spoke again for the whole campaign. People would cheer wildly. So I thought I would move to the next phase of his life, the interregnum—as I call it— which was really fascinating because America was about to face secession breaking apart the entire country. I thought there would be great lessons for the candidates as well as all Americans as we go through a shorter period—2l⁄2 months instead of four—between the 2008 election and 2009 inauguration.

I also have to give credit to another friend, Jonathan Alter, the Newsweek correspondent, who wrote a book about Franklin Roosevelt’s first 100 days. I particularly loved the part of his book about the four months between Roosevelt’s election and his inauguration when there was a terrible financial crisis. I was struck by how Roosevelt refused to enter into any compromises or deals with Herbert Hoover. Hoover summoned Roosevelt to the White House before the inauguration and said: “You’ve got to sign this joint appeal to the banks. We’ve got to do this together. It’s the only way to save the country.” Roosevelt looked around and said, “You know, those are beautiful drapes. I wonder if they should be in this room or maybe the other room.” He refused to be encumbered with his predecessor’s policies. Lincoln had the same attitude toward [James] Buchanan.

Wasn’t there a backlash against Lincoln’s “folksy” mannerisms?

Absolutely. As late as 1862 Nathaniel Hawthorne thought that Lincoln’s stories were funny but that he was undignified and gave bad speeches. Of course, Hawthorne was a Democrat. What they didn’t appreciate is that Lincoln was inventing a new political dialectic. His refusal to be ornate, to allude to classical literature, and his insistence on using vernacular vocabulary came because he believed that he should write in words that people could understand. Is there anybody who ever made one-syllable words so poetic as Lincoln did in the Gettysburg Address?

Explain Lincoln’s views on race.

Lincoln’s attitudes on race evolved, like most people’s do. He was a Southerner by birth and lived in a state that banned free blacks and had, in essence, black codes. He didn’t know many black people except servants. During the Lincoln-Douglas debates he either didn’t believe, or conveniently said he didn’t believe, that blacks should be jurors or should marry white people. But those were such revolutionary sentiments that to pronounce them would have made him no longer a political possibility in Illinois or anywhere else in the United States, except maybe Massachusetts. I think he did not contemplate blacks as full equals to whites, and that’s why he also supported colonizing blacks back to Africa. But he changed. He grew.

Although he didn’t always favor equality, he always hated slavery and searched for a way to destroy it, even if it meant doing it slowly through the whole rest of the 19th century by opposing the spread of slavery and containing it.

Did Lincoln free the slaves? Yes, I think he did free the slaves. I know that’s not a popular or universally held view these days, and I admit it’s a little bit simplistic, but I think the Emancipation Proclamation redefined the war and actually liberated hundreds of thousands of slaves even before the 13th Amendment.

He must have worked on that document for months.

Yes. Lincoln would write down things on scraps of paper, and he really did put them in his hat. Then, when he was ready to write, he would build his orations, his documents, around these scraps. He never let an idea go by that he thought was good without writing it down.

What is his greatest writing achievement?

The Second Inaugural is extraordinary because it suggests Northerners are equally complicit with Southerners in the sin of slavery. I think the Second Inaugural is like the war itself. The war was originated to prevent secession and preserve the Union, and in the middle of the war Lincoln says we’re also fighting for human freedom. The inaugural speech is the only inaugural address in history that redefines itself in the middle, just like the war. The first half says that this war was caused by slavery, and we’re all responsible.

In the middle of the speech, he stops abruptly—I would love to know how long he paused—and says the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. Then he says, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.” After all that condemnation, he says: “Let’s be charitable toward our enemies. Let’s not bear malice toward any of these people who brought this on. Remember the widows and orphans in peace and justice.” Amazing. He summons all the anger and makes it biblical. He says, “We’re suffering for the sins that we committed. We deserve every bit of this, but it’s our job to forgive.”

How was that publicly received?

Not well. Lincoln was very nervous about it. He said men don’t like to be told that they’ve made mistakes and that God judges them. But Lincoln also said it would wear as well as or better than anything he’d ever written. I think he didn’t realize the Gettysburg Address would become immortal, but he certainly knew the power of the Second Inaugural.

Could Lincoln have averted secession?

He could have accepted the Crittenden Compromise. He was willing to reaffirm the heinous fugitive slave laws, even though Frederick Douglass and others thought it was a horrific thing to reiterate for a Republican president. He was even willing to cautiously support an amendment that said the federal government had no power to abolish slavery. But the Crittenden Compromise would also have extended the Missouri Compromise line all the way to the Pacific and moved slavery west, and that Lincoln would absolutely not allow.

What’s the most surprising thing that you can tell us about Lincoln?

One of his most important qualities was his health. He was only sick once or twice during his presidency. And he was famously strong. He could pick up an ax with his thumb and forefinger and extend his arm out. Younger men traveling aboard a boat with him tried to do that during his trip from Richmond to Washington a few days before he died, and failed. He loved to do that.

Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.