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It is easy to forget that Abraham Lincoln was wildly unpopular during the Civil War among the Northern people, most of whom would have voted him out of office if it had not been for impressive Union military victories in the fall of 1864. The divisiveness of Lincoln’s policies and his ability to infuriate his political adversaries is often lost in the sanitized tributes that Americans unfortunately encounter when they first begin their study of the past at historic sites and in textbooks. We grow up believing in the infallibility of Father Abraham—and that is quite understandable. No one can deny Lincoln’s brilliant use of language, his fierce political savvy and his deep devotion to union. His passionate defense of republican government and human liberty, even today, is both spiritually and intellectually uplifting and satisfying. But in preserving the nation, Lincoln confronted immensely difficult philosophical and constitutional issues over his understanding and use of presidential war powers. One hundred and forty-six years after Lincoln first allowed the military to arrest a civilian and detain him indefinitely, some Americans are looking at the war on terror and the Guantanamo hearings and asking not only what Lincoln did as a president in the midst of war, but also how he came to hold the views and values that would influence his actions.

I recently took up these core issues with James McPherson, the most influential Civil War historian of his generation. I was also interested in finding out how he came to study Lincoln and shape his own view of the 16th president and his legacy. As is the hallmark of McPherson’s long and distinguished scholarly career, he shows a remarkable empathy for historical figures without losing his critical eye—he is interpretive without being dogmatic, and he makes history usable today without succumbing to presentism.

What was the first book that you read about Abraham Lincoln? What impact did it have on you?

Probably Benjamin Thomas biography, which I think came out around 1952, and I probably read it in the late ‘50s. It was kind of an eye-opener because it blended a very nice writing style with really solid research. I’ve read quite a few books about Lincoln since then. Some of them have one of those two qualities and some the other, but it’s not all that common to have a book with both of those qualities. It still stands up today in many respects, despite being more than 50 years old.

In reading Thomas, was there something that made you think of Lincoln as a compelling subject for further study?

I suppose there are two things that would attract a lot of people to Lincoln. One is simply the story of his life from the log cabin to the presidency, to see somebody coming from a hard-scrabble background without any family connections making his way forward in the world. It’s a kind of myth of the American dream, which Lincoln not only preached in his own philosophy but also lived and achieved. It’s some of the Horatio Alger convention of American culture that I think attracts a lot of people. So that was part of it. The other part is the leadership he showed during war—steering his way through all the pitfalls and perils of not only a divided nation and the Civil War itself but also a divided North in which he had to both accommodate opposite opinions on what to do about slavery, what to do about civil liberties, what to do about the egomaniacs [laughs] of his administration, and to come out successfully managing all these things at the same time, at great personal cost to his health and to his energy, but he managed to do it. Both of these were—especially for someone at the stage of life I was (a young undergraduate and then graduate student)—very cheerful and optimistic and promising; it’s a promising kind of story. One can be cynical about many aspects of history, but Lincoln’s story encourages the opposite of cynicism in some ways, and that’s compelling.

What Lincoln historical site did you first visit, and again what impact did it have on you?

Probably the first site, which is not exactly an historic site, was the Lincoln Memorial. One of the first things we did after moving to Baltimore in 1958, the year I entered graduate school, was to go to Washington to see all the famous sites, including the Lincoln Memorial. Ever since then I’ve visited about every site there is connected with Lincoln, but I suppose the Lincoln Memorial was the first. That made a big impression on me, as it does, I suppose, on anyone who goes there.

What specific historical questions did you feel you needed to pursue when you started working on Lincoln?

When I was two years into graduate school I had to choose a dissertation topic. I chose abolitionists, from the outbreak of the war through, as it turned out, the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870, as my topic. So my first serious research on anything connected with Lincoln had to do with the abolitionist lobby, you might say, in the country as a whole during the war, pressing for a policy of emancipation from the very onset of the war. Most of them were very critical of Lincoln for his tardiness and for his border state policy, as they called it—you’re familiar with all of that. I think anybody doing research tends to absorb the point of view of the people you’re doing research about, and so, while I was working on that, I was probably developing a more critical attitude toward Lincoln. I asked myself, why did he rescind [John C.] Frémont’s [emancipation] proclamation, why didn’t he move more quickly, why didn’t he see, as Frederick Douglass and others claimed to see, that this was a war about slavery, that you couldn’t fight a war against slaveholders without being against slavery and so on and so forth. So, in my first really serious foray into scholarship that involved Lincoln, I think I took a pretty critical perspective of him. But as time went on, I began to see all the countervailing pressures that he had to deal with and the way in which he constantly moved toward a more radical position on slavery without appearing to do so—sort of backing into the future, bringing conservatives along with him. It took a while for that perspective on Lincoln to develop, but I now see that he probably was smarter than any of his critics on either the left or the right, and that his sense of timing and his sense of the limits of the possible, even in the pressure-cooker situation of the war, was pretty shrewd.

What are the conservative and liberal perspectives on Lincoln, and how do your views fit within that spectrum?

Well, the right-wing camp is, I think, much less vocal and visible in its perspective on Lincoln, but it’s predominantly a Southern conservative point of view that holds Lincoln responsible for having provoked the war in the first place, and second, sees Lincoln as a kind of dictator, riding roughshod over constitutional limitations on presidential powers, and third, sees the abolition of slavery, which of course they don’t hold Lincoln entirely and personally responsible for, as the provocation of this terrible war that led to 620,000 or more deaths in what was basically a needless conflict. Most of what the war accomplished would have been achieved anyhow by 1900, and they see Lincoln as having left a legacy of centralization of national power and a destruction of localism and states’ rights—a negative legacy for the future of American history. That, I think, is the conservative perspective of Lincoln in a nutshell.

And this perspective appeals to those of the Libertarian persuasion?

Yes, Jeffrey Hummel’s book [Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men] probably offers the best expression of seeing Lincoln as a key figure in creating the leviathan federal government that has destroyed civil liberties and individualism in American life. And the left perspective, I think, is similar to the abolitionist and black perspective that charges Lincoln with being a white supremacist. These critics quote his debates with [Senator Stephen A.] Douglas endlessly about that. They say he was a white man’s president, that he was forced reluctantly into emancipation policy, that the slaves themselves took the initiative in making this an abolitionist war, and that the slave perspective was supported by the abolitionists and the abolitionists’ perspective on Lincoln was the right one. Lerone Bennett’s book Forced Into Glory is probably the most outspoken representation of that point of view, as well as the idea that Lincoln wouldn’t have repeatedly missed opportunities to push the country more toward racial justice if he had been a more forth right, vigorous supporter of equal rights.

Where do you fall between these two camps?

I think both of them have a one-dimensional view of Lincoln that fails to grasp the multiplicity of conflicting pressures that in many ways constrained the options that Lincoln had. My own feeling is that if you take the American people as a whole—the white population as a whole—in 1860, then Lincoln was considerably to the left of center on racial issues. I think if you take just the Northern population in 1861, he was left of center, and he had a good sense of the limits of the possible. If he had tried to move any faster toward emancipation and then later in the war had moved faster toward some sort of an equal rights position for the freed slaves he might have provoked a backlash that would have undermined that prospect, that policy. So my own feeling now is that Lincoln’s heart was with the liberals, but he also had a skill for appearing to move reluctantly in the direction they wanted to go as a tactical means of bringing conservatives along. His famous letter to Horace Greeley in August 1862 saying that whatever he did about slavery and the colored race he did because it would help save the Union was an appeal to conservatives to support him. But when he uttered these words, he had already made up his mind about the issue of the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln was bringing them along, and so my feeling now is that he was very skilled at seeking the broad middle and building as much of a consensus as possible for policies that the radicals were actually demanding—without appearing to be in their camp.

Did his administration fail in any way? Are you critical of any particular policies?

I think that on one of the issues the conservatives hammer him on—civil liberties—he might have done more to restrain the enthusiasm of some of the people, first in the State Department and then in the War Department, who arrested a lot of people for what basically was free speech—speaking out against the war. He could have reined in some of that excess enthusiasm. I suppose a good example of that was the arrest of [Clement L.] Vallandigham. Lincoln didn’t even know about that until he read about it in the newspapers, but if he had been more on top of the issue of civil liberties—he was so preoccupied with the military dimensions of what was going on, let’s say in the spring of 1863 when Vallandigham was arrested, that he really didn’t have the time and the energy to devote to that question. But if he had created a climate in his administration to say, yes, we need to deal with the fire in the rear— that is, opposition to the war which actually harms our ability to carry on this war—but we don’t want to commit excesses, that might have restrained some of the arrests for what turned out to be pretty flimsy charges. And I suppose one can also fault some of his decisions on military strategy and operations. I haven’t fully made up my mind on that, especially in withholding troops from [George B.] McClellan in the Peninsula campaign to try to trap [Thomas J. “Stonewall”] Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley, whether that was a wise strategic decision or not. It is a very debatable question.

Let’s pursue the issue of Lincoln and civil liberties further. In your most recent book, This Mighty Scourge, you have an article titled “As Commander-in-Chief I Have a Right to Take Any Measure Which May Best Subdue the Enemy.” Can you give us an understanding of Lincoln’s expansion of presidential powers, and some of the things that his administration did to quell the dissent behind the lines?

The principal things that Lincoln did were, first, to suspend the writ of habeas corpus. He did that on an incremental, step-by-step basis geographically, starting the very first week of the war, enabling the military to arrest and hold in indefinite detention people such as John Merryman, a pro-Confederate Marylander, because they were seen as undermining the Northern war effort. Eventually, in September 1862, Lincoln also authorized the establishment of military courts to try civilians, and the most celebrated such case was the Vallandigham trial in May 1863. There were others in 1864 that eventually came before the Supreme Court, and after the war was over in 1866, in the Ex Parte Milligan case, the court ruled that Lincoln’s military courts that tried civilians in areas where the civil courts were open and operating was a violation of the Constitution. That is the principal area where Lincoln is charged with constitutional violations.

How did he justify these measures?

He justified the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus on the grounds that the Constitution actually permitted such suspension in cases of rebellion or invasion. The chief justice of the United States claimed that this was something the president could not do himself, but required Congressional legislation. Lincoln challenged that ruling by Chief Justice [Roger B.] Taney and said that this was an emergency measure which was justified by his responsibilities as commander in chief in time of war, and basically that was his justification—his presidential oath required him to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, the only way to do that was to win the war, and that was a Constitutional duty that overrode all other duties and all other restraints on presidential powers. So his principal argument was a) the Constitution allowed such violation of, or such suspension of civil liberties in wartime for good cause; and b) the president as commander in chief was the one who had the responsibility and the authority to do it because of his primary obligation as commander in chief to preserve the nation and the Constitution.

Do you think Lincoln’s perception of dissent on the Northern home front was, from what we know of it in recent scholarship, wildly off? Was it exaggerated?

It was not wildly off or overly exaggerated. It may have been somewhat exaggerated— I think that’s an area for legitimate debate among historians. I have a former graduate student, Jenny Weber, who has just published a book on the Copperheads, called Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North, in which she argues that they did represent a real threat to the administration’s ability to carry on this war, that Lincoln did not wildly, not even in a mild way, exaggerate the danger, but other historians have simply taken a different point of view. They see the Copperheads not as a threat, but rather as legitimate opposition, and that the administration magnified the danger for partisan purposes—that is, to discredit the Democratic Party—especially in the 1864 election. This is one of those things that can’t be proved one way or the other. In his two letters to Democrats in New York and Ohio in June 1863—growing out of the Vallandigham case and criticism of it—Lincoln argued that people like Vallandigham did represent a genuine threat to the Northern war effort by discouraging it, blocking enforcement of the draft and encouraging desertions. He believed, therefore, that getting these people out of circulation was a legitimate war power of the president. I’m inclined to say I’m 80 percent in agreement with Lincoln on that, but as I suggested earlier, there were some excesses in this. The arrest and conviction of Vallandigham was probably a bit of an excess, and in fact Lincoln realized that— that’s why he commuted Vallandigham’s sentence from imprisonment for the rest of the war to banishment to the Confederacy. Vallandigham actually ran for governor of Ohio, and a year later he came back to the United States and Lincoln left him alone even though that was a violation of the sentence that Lincoln himself had imposed. Vallandigham became very prominent in the Democratic presidential campaign of 1864. He helped to write the Democratic platform, so I think Lincoln himself realized that maybe the arrest and conviction of Vallandigham was an excess, and he tried to mitigate that.

We often speak of the Lincoln legacy, the Gettysburg Address and his redefinition of the essence of liberty and a broadening of who is entitled to equality in this country. You’ve already expressed some misgivings about Lincoln’s violation of civil liberties. Is there, in fact, another Lincoln legacy in this violation of civil liberties that changed the political culture of this nation?

Frankly I don’t buy that argument. Lincoln himself once said that he did not consider these emergency suspensions of civil liberties in a crisis such as the Civil War as anything like a binding precedent that would apply in the future, in peacetime, or even in other crisis situations—which he knew might be different from the crisis situation of the Civil War. And while I think it is in fact true that today some of the supporters of the Bush administration’s restrictions on civil liberties cite the Lincolnian precedent, I think that they’re citing that as a way of justifying it and not as a reason for doing it. In fact, the administration probably would have done the same thing if Lincoln had never lived and the Civil War had never happened. And I think that, even to the extent that some people might point to that as a legacy, it’s so far counterbalanced by the positive aspects of the Lincoln legacy—primarily the preservation of the nation through victory in the Civil War and the abolition of slavery—that if you add these onto the scales of the legacy, it’s of pretty minor importance.

I want to stay on this connection to the Bush administration. Is there anything to be gained by making the comparison between Lincoln’s use of war powers and the Bush administration’s war on terror?

I personally don’t think so. The situations are so different. The context of the times is so different. There’s been a lot of water under the bridge in the last 140 years, and to draw comparisons and say that there is a kind of direct connection between the two is pretty tenuous, I think. We’ve had two major world wars in the 20th century and other wars in which there were violations of civil liberties, in which the precedents and the comparisons, I think, are more manageable, more fruitful and more meaningful than comparisons with the Civil War. I am pretty skeptical about saying that there is a comparison or a connection.

Then how do we make the Civil War relevant to Americans today when thinking about contemporary issues—particularly the war on terror and what’s going on in Iraq? Do you feel compelled when teaching to make these links for students who want to find a usable past? As historians we feel that great pressure to be relevant, and I know that can often lead us to stretch comparisons and analogies. But at the same time we still feel that impulse that we want to connect with our students. How do you see the Civil War having relevancy, providing insight and giving us some lessons that we can draw from?

My own approach to this when I was teaching, or when I speak to groups and these kinds of questions come up, is basically to lay out as I do in the Lincoln essay in This Mighty Scourge, the last essay on war powers, what I think Lincoln did, why he did it and what the consequences were, and then let my audience draw their own conclusions. I would do the same thing when I was teaching, whether it was a question of civil liberties or when I would have the students read excerpts from the Lincoln-Douglas debates, in which the race issue was so central, and let them draw their own conclusions. I’d answer their questions about what I thought, but I wouldn’t try to impose any kind of an explicit analogy for the very reason that you mentioned, there are dangers of oversimplification and distortion if you do that. But I was certainly not unwilling to try to venture my own qualified opinions on these things if people ask me questions about it.

What is your next project?

It’s a study of Lincoln as commander in chief, the way in which he had a steep learning curve in determining what to do as commander in chief in terms of military strategy, political policies and the civil liberties issue. This essay will be incorporated into that book as part of it. I see Lincoln’s conception of his function and responsibilities as commander in chief going far beyond the military: mobilizing public opinion, maintaining a strong political coalition supporting the war effort. Emancipation comes into it as part of the effort to weaken the Confederacy and so forth. It will be kind of an updated version of T. Harry Williams’ Lincoln and His Generals, but it will be far more than just Lincoln and his generals because I think he certainly comes to see the function of commander in chief in broader terms than just the military.

How will this diverge from what other scholars have already said about Lincoln?

I’m not sure that it will. There is such a huge scholarship on Lincoln now that it’s pretty hard for anybody to come up with any radical new revisionist interpretation, but what I conceive this book will do is put together a picture of Lincoln as commander in chief that’s more well-rounded than any other single study now. I find that T. Harry Williams, for example, stands up pretty well in many military respects, but he does not talk about the emancipation or civil liberties issues very much. In another book, Lincoln and the Radicals, when he did talk about that, I think he got it wrong [laughter]. So I see this as a kind of a synthesis of a lot of different studies of Lincoln, but informed by my own research in the primary sources to try to see it as much as possible from Lincoln’s own point of view.

For additional reading, see McPherson’s This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War, Benjamin Thomas’ Abraham Lincoln and Jennifer Weber’s Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North.

Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Civil War Times.