What Would Abraham Lincoln Do?

How our 16th President would have reacted to women’s suffrage, same-sex marriage, and other hot-button issues.
Photo: PublicAffairs Books.
Dec 22, 2012
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

In a recent interview with TakePart, Lincoln editor Karl Weber discussed the book’s diverse essays and reflected on how they’ve influenced his own thinking about our country’s 16th president.

You mention in your essay that “Even those who knew Lincoln personally confessed—often with bafflement—his many-sidedness and the essential elusiveness of his character.” What do you feel is the most surprising thing you learned about Lincoln’s personality in editing this book?

That’s a great question because there is so much to learn about Lincoln, and I feel as if I’ve just scratched the surface. One of the things I learned the most about in editing the book, and in particular working with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on his chapter, is the way in which Lincoln’s views on race and on the equality of blacks and whites evolved over his life. I always had a vague sense that that was true, but speaking with Dr. Gates and reading Lincoln’s own writings brought home to me how great a distance Lincoln traveled. He went from being someone who, when he was young, probably unthinkingly accepted the racist notions that most white Americans of his era accepted, to someone who first became appalled by slavery and only gradually, and only as president, came to believe that black people could actually coexist with white people on a plane of equality.

When you read Lincoln’s writings and some of the things he said to people he knew, you realize that it was only in getting to know people like Frederick Douglass and seeing the valor and heroism of black soldiers fighting for the union that his views began to change. It was only experiences like that of the 1860s that made Lincoln realize, “You know these black people could be my equal, could be deserving of the vote, and could be deserving of full citizenship.” One of the tragedies of his assassination is that he didn’t live longer and perhaps come full circle and fully accepting of the notion that blacks and whites really deserved total equality. I think he was moving in that direction and to me it was fascinating to learn that from Dr. Gates.

In Jean Baker’s essay, “By No Means Excluding Females,” she notes that Lincoln supported the concept of fair pay for women. At the same time she doubts that he would have supported their right to vote—although she also speculates that his views might have evolved over time, particularly with his wife’s encouragement. Do you think he would have changed his opinion had he lived, and what factors might have swayed him in one direction or the other?

Again, I think that’s probably true. Lincoln was someone who was remarkably open to growing and learning. And of course the women’s rights movement was just in its very earliest stages during Lincoln’s life, and I think if he had lived until the 1870s, 1880s, or even the 1890s he would have seen the women’s suffrage movement growing. He would have seen women organizing around causes, including temperance and, of course, the vote and from what we know about Lincoln he would have been increasingly impressed by what he saw them accomplishing. So it’s very likely, as Dr. Baker speculates, that he would have gone through a similar evolution to what he did on the rights of African Americans. To make a comparison to our own day, we might have seen an evolution similar to what we’ve seen with President Obama on gay rights and gay marriage. Again, it’s tragic that Lincoln didn’t live to go through that evolution, but it would have been very likely.

Speaking of same-sex marriage, in the book’s interview with Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard he told you that when it comes to that topic, “Lincoln would have just been agog,” and that he “can’t imagine that he would accept the notion of same-sex marriage.” Could you talk a bit about why you either agree or disagree with this viewpoint?

I think Ferguson is right. And I have to say that I’m not an expert on homosexuality, to use that word, but I gather from what I have read about it that even our current notion of homosexuality as being a characteristic that is kind of a lifetime characteristic of a person is a fairly modern notion. My understanding is that prior to the 20th century, it was not uncommon for many men to have some same-sex experiences but that it wasn’t viewed as being a characteristic that marked a person as being a member of a distinct minority.

Ferguson is a really interesting guy in that he’s a lifelong Lincoln buff and spent a number of years just immersing himself in Lincoln lore in order to write his book about Lincoln’s legacy [Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America]. And he developed a very keen sense of what Lincoln’s personality and views were like in his time. Lincoln did have some very deep, close, and warm personal male friendships and it’s certainly not unlikely that there was a physical element to those friendships. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they were sexually consummated, but certainly that there could have been a strong sense of physical affection between Lincoln and another man is not a strange concept. But I think even to classify people as heterosexual and homosexual is probably not something that was commonplace in his lifetime, so it’s really projecting him into another world to talk about gay marriage.

The essay by Harold Holzer states that, “Lincoln was something more than a politician. He was also a celebrity.” And Holzer talks about how Lincoln was remarkably intuitive when it came to the advantages of emphasizing personality over divisive political issues—and how he embraced the medium of photography and the work of painters who were portrait artists. What do you think this tells us about how Lincoln might embrace today’s world of social media?

This was one of the more fascinating essays to read and edit. It made me have a renewed appreciation for Lincoln’s talent as a politician. And of course one of the things to always remember is that Lincoln grew up in a world where the majority of people were illiterate. He himself was self-taught—he had a couple years of schooling and then taught himself from whatever books he could find or borrow. So he was very much attuned to the thinking of the average person, the type of person who probably reacts to politicians in a very personal way and thinks of them in terms of their image. We sometimes caricature this as, “Who would you like to have a beer with.” Sometimes we even mock voters for voting on that basis. But what’s really happening is that people vote based on their gut sense as to the ethical, moral, and personal characteristics of a politician. That’s probably always been true and was certainly true in Lincoln’s day when politicians didn’t campaign for the presidency, they rarely made public speeches, and obviously there were no television commercials. There were debates at times as we know from the Lincoln/Douglas debate for the Senate, but for the most part politicians won office by allowing people to get to know them as people—and in Lincoln’s case also through the power of his public image.

He allowed himself to be depicted as the rail-splitter candidate—they talked about him having been born in a log cabin and his long lanky frame and his image as an outdoorsman. This probably led millions of rural people to identify with him and made them feel comfortable with him as a representative of their sort of person in the White House. I’m sure if Lincoln were alive today he would clue in to the same kind of strategies, although we’ve now modernized them. He would be comfortable on a television talk show, he would probably do the same kinds of things we saw Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and President Obama do—and all the other skilled candidates. That is, he would deliberately allow sides of himself to show that portrayed him in a good light and also revealed a little bit of what his real character is like. It’s what any talented politician has to do and I think Lincoln would probably be among the most talented politicians we would see today, and he certainly was in his time.

It was interesting to read how politicians were very much in the background when Lincoln was running for office and how during his campaigns it was his representatives who spread information about his background, his image, and created this aura about him.

It was very different. One thing that is a common thread from then to today is the idea of a campaign biography, which goes way back to the 19th century. There were little books put out that were a kind of a biography of the candidate. They weren’t necessarily completely accurate, but they painted a kind of homespun image of the candidate that would play up his heroic characteristics and, to put it in modern language, one that would make him relatable. And that was true of Lincoln and other candidates. The idea of a campaign book coming out to educate people about the background and views of the candidate was one of the techniques that was used then and is still used today. But you’re right, in most ways, political campaigns were dramatically different than they are today.

Overall, taking in all of these essays as a whole, what do you think you learned about Lincoln’s mindset and approach to all these modern topics?

Taking the film, together with what we learned from the book, I come away with a renewed appreciation for Lincoln as an ethical politician. Someone who recognized the constraints that he was dealing with in the American political system. He had very firm moral views on the evil of slavery and the idea of moving America toward liberating itself from slavery and giving all people the chance to make it on their own. It was a very democratic view of human nature in that sense. These were the north stars that guided Lincoln’s presidency. But he was also deeply aware of how divided the country was, of the fact that the South would not give up slavery until it had to, and he also recognized the constraints that he operated under as president.

So what I think the film is about, and also what a lot of the authors in the book wrestled with, is how Lincoln reconciled that deep moral belief in the evils of slavery with his responsibilities and the pressures he was under as president. What we see in the film is the artfulness with which he dealt with the realities of the presidency and of the divided nation to gradually, patiently, and in a self-sacrificial way, guide the country in a direction that it needed to go. And to do so in a way that would enable the country to ultimately be reunited in a constructive way, to come together again as a country while having gone through this wrenching, revolutionary change of having given up slavery and totally changing the economy on which it was based.

I also came away from the whole experience with a deep admiration for what Lincoln as a politician was able to accomplish. He was not a saint, he was not a religious leader, he was not a revolutionary in the sense that the leaders of the Russian or French revolutions believed in tearing down institutions and destroying lives if necessary in order to bring about change and make life better. Instead, Lincoln’s position was one of gradually bringing people around to where they needed to be in order to move the country in the right direction—and to do that in a way that required tremendous patience but ultimately brought about the change that the country needed. We’ve had very few politicians with that instinctive brilliance and we could certainly use more. I hope the politicians of today are studying and learning from Lincoln because without that kind of talent, the divisiveness we’re going through now is going to be much harder to manage.

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