Online Conversation | Lincoln in Private: Leadership Behind Closed Doors
with Dr. Ronald C. White
On Friday, May 7th we were delighted to host author, historian, and Trinity Forum Senior Fellow Ron White to discuss the themes in his recent work Lincoln in Private.
Lincoln did not have a diary but he developed the habit of writing reflections and ruminations on little slips of paper. These notes, which Lincoln never intended for anyone to see, help us understand the depth of Lincoln’s character and thinking and introduce us to the private Lincoln behind the public Lincoln. In his new work Lincoln in Private, renowned historian and biographer Ronald C. White takes the reader through a tour of Abraham Lincoln’s private notes that illustrate the ways in which he struggled with the national, moral, and spiritual crises of his times, and reflected on the possibilities of God’s purposes during the Civil War. In doing so, White shows the struggles of leadership behind closed doors — and what can be learned from Lincoln’s example.
The song is “With Malice Towards None” – (Piano Solo) by John Williams for the movie ‘Lincoln.’
The photo of Lincoln was taken in January 1862.
Special thanks to Paul Klaassen and Pepperdine School of Public Policy for their sponsorship of this event.
Special thanks to Bruce Van Patter for this illustration created during the event with Ron White!
Transcript of “Lincoln in Private: Leadership Behind Closed Doors” with Ron White
Pete Peterson: Good morning or good afternoon, wherever you might be. I’m Pete Peterson, the dean of Pepperdine’s Graduate School of Public Policy, coming to you here from the dean’s conference room on our Malibu campus. The temperature outside has just dipped below 72 degrees, so I’ve had to come inside for a little bit of warmth. It’s a pleasure to join you all in yet another conversation hosted with our good friends, the Trinity Forum, looking at issues at the intersection of faith, politics, policy, and history. As a policy school that certainly understands the importance of quantitative analysis and analytical thinking, the School of Public Policy also takes the role of leadership very seriously. In fact, one of our most popular classes here is titled Prudence in Politics. It’s a class through which we study the world’s great leaders and the decisions that they’ve made throughout history. And Lincoln takes a predominant role in that class. Understanding why Policy A is better than Policy B quantitatively is certainly important. But we understand here at Pepperdine that it’s leadership— those that are able to capture sometimes often complex ideas to be able to communicate them to the public and lead them through periods of great change and conflict—these are the history makers. And who better to study on that score than Abraham Lincoln?
You know, it was Leo Tolstoy—in evaluating all the great leaders of the world in his time, what he called “the national heroes of his era”— that he ranked Lincoln as the best. He described Lincoln in saying, “His supremacy expresses itself all together in his peculiar moral power and in the greatness of his character.” Now, it could be said that so much has been written about Lincoln, what else is there to learn? But I have no doubt that a historian of Dr. Ron White’s great quality and skill is going to teach us new things about Lincoln today and through his new book, Lincoln in Private. I can’t wait to hear what Dr. White has to say and to teach us anew the importance of moral power and character in our public leaders. So without further ado, I send it back across country to my good friend, Cherie Harder, to get this conversation underway.
Cherie Harder: Thanks so much, Pete, and I just want to welcome all of you to today’s online conversation with presidential biographer Ron White on “Lincoln in Private: Leadership behind Closed Doors.” We’re delighted to once again partner with our good friends at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy, ably led by Dean Pete Peterson, who you have just met. It’s been, as Pete noted, nearly a decade since the Pepperdine School of Public Policy and Trinity Forum started collaborating on programs like this. And it has been such a joy to be able to co-labor with them. Also wanted to thank Paul Clauson, a long time friend of the Trinity Forum, who is also helping to sponsor today’s program and make it possible. Really appreciate it.
If you are one of those people joining us for the very first time and are new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide space and resources for leaders to engage the great questions of life in the context of faith and to better come to know the Author of the answers. And certainly some of those big questions pertain to the way in which character is formed and the implications for our work, thought, and vocation, particularly among leaders. Our guest today, a presidential biographer, has spent much of his life researching and reflecting on just such questions, studying the character, words, and works of great leaders to better understand their story and to learn from their example.
In his just released work, he unearths and analyzes a fascinating collection of personal note fragments that President Abraham Lincoln wrote mostly to himself over the course of his life in an effort to work through some of the most painful and perplexing leadership and personal challenges that he faced. And in doing so, our guest not only offers a compelling study and new insights into the thinking and character of an often-misunderstood leader, but also by implication raises questions about the importance of moral character and reflection in our own time. It’s a fascinating perspective, and it’s hard to imagine someone who could offer it with more historical insight, research expertise, or contagious enthusiasm than our guest today, presidential biographer Ron White.
Ron is The New York Times best-selling author of the presidential biographies, A. Lincoln and American Ulysses, on Ulysses S. Grant; as well as the author of Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural; The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln through His Own Words; his forthcoming work, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain: A Biography; and of course, his newly-released work published by Random House Lincoln in Private: What His Most Personal Reflections Tell Us about Our Greatest President, which we’ve invited him here today to discuss. Before doing so, I should also note with pride that Ron White is a Senior Fellow of the Trinity Forum. Ron, welcome.
Ron White: Thank you, Cherie. Wonderful to be with you and everyone who’s joining in today. I’m a fan of you and the Trinity Forum, and it’s a real delight and privilege to be participating again today.
Cherie Harder: Well, it is great to have you here. So as we start off, Ron, I would love just to hear the story of these note fragments that you have analyzed and cataloged and include in the back of your book. What did you discover when you found this trove of personal note fragments? And why did you decide that they were so significant that you needed to write a book about them?
Ron White: Well, in 1863, Lincoln was responding to criticism. He’d received what’s called the Albany Resolves that were criticizing him for his role as president. And an Iowa congressman walked into his office as Lincoln was writing a letter in response. And the congressman said, “Oh, my goodness, this is wonderful that you can simply sit down and write a letter right now.” “Oh,” he said, “no.” He said, “Look.” And there was an open drawer. He said, “I have the thoughts all in there. They’re a bit disconnected, but I’ve been saving them.” Well, he’d been saving them, but we don’t know that he’d been saving them. And so what are these notes? They are untitled, undated, and unsigned. Why? Because he never thought we would ever see them. His secretaries, John Hay and John Nickolay, who found them after his death, called them initially “fragments.” Why fragments? Because some of them are fragmentary. He ends the note in the middle of a word. He ends the note without any punctuation. It’s like you and I might be working on a project, the telephone rings or the ding of the text or the email, and we leave the note. There’re fragmentary. So I called the Abraham Lincoln Papers Project, a new online digital project in Springfield, and I said, “How many do you think there are?” And they said, “Well, we have 111 that have survived through all these years.” I think he wrote hundreds, hundreds more. So in the book we publish all 111 of the notes.
Cherie Harder: So, Ron, I’m curious: this is a fascinating discovery and it’s sort of amazing that these really interesting notes were just sort of sitting around in a library. Why? It’s not like there is a lack of Lincoln scholarship. Why did no one think to really explore and analyze this trove until now?
Ron White: Well, they have done, with some of the notes. And the notes, of course, were spread across huge multi-volume collections of Lincoln’s words, first by Nicolay and Hay, then the so-called Basler collection of the 1950s. But no one had ever looked at them together and seen what might they say. I’m suggesting in the book that here we have a portrait of the private Lincoln behind the public Lincoln. And the question that really got me started was, do we learn something new, something perhaps we haven’t known in the traditional portraits and biographies of Lincoln?
Cherie Harder: So, Ron, this is your fourth work on Lincoln, and I’m sure your fans and your readers realize that this is the third work, three out of four, that deals very explicitly with Lincoln’s words. You’ve written about the Second Inaugural. You’ve written The Eloquent President: Lincoln in His Own Words, and now you are looking at the words essentially Lincoln wrote to himself. And I’m curious why you have picked this particular portal, this keyhole, through which to look at Lincoln’s character. What is it about studying his words in particular, as opposed to say, his policies, the grand sweep of his life? What is it that gives you a unique view of the man through studying his actual writings and speeches?
Ron White: Well, the 19th century, very much unlike ours, was what I would call an oral culture. Words matter. I’m afraid they don’t matter so much anymore. We dash off a text, we dash off an email, and just send it off. Lincoln never would have thought of doing such a thing. I have had fun in speaking about Lincoln’s notes to high school students all across this country, 11th graders who were studying United States history. And I’ll ask at the end of my presentation, how long do you think it took Lincoln to write these notes? And they will say three minutes, four minutes. And I say, how about an hour or two hours? In the back of the room in one particular high school, the faculty was all applauding when I said that. I said Lincoln took time to think about words because, as you suggest, Cherie, words are a portal into one’s character. I think he was very much impressed with Benjamin Franklin, who kind of was charting his own moral development. So Lincoln is not simply writing about issues. He’s also charting his own moral development. What in the 19th century we would call a sort of self-important person, he would call it a self-constructed person. How is a person developing morally?
Cherie Harder: You know, along those lines, just sort of thinking more about the words, one of the things that might strike readers—at least struck this reader—in reading through the actual fragments is how different the vocabulary is. There have actually been different studies that have shown that the words that we favor culturally have changed over time and actually in the last few decades have changed fairly dramatically in that traditional virtue words—bravery, kindness, courage, compassion—are actually used less. Individualistic words, consumer-ish words, and words of domination are actually on the upswing. And one of the things that I noticed in his fragments is there’s very little language of domination. You know, even when discussing his old and long-time rival, Stephen Douglas, the vocabulary used seems very oriented towards exploring the need for wisdom, the curiosity. And I was hoping you could share with us a little bit about Lincoln’s vocabulary and word usage. Was this deliberate? Was this formative or merely reflective? Did it reflect the times or is this something unique to him?
Ron White: Well, just cuing in on your wonderful introduction to your comment on the different language, kind of an historical footnote: some years ago, the Huntington Library, where I do my work, put on a marvelous exhibit on George Washington. The New York Review of Books had a review of the exhibit and they said we can review the exhibit in one word: honor. Honor. That was the word that motivated Washington. We don’t use that word at all anymore, honor. So you’re exactly right. Lincoln is using virtue words. This is part of his own moral development. It’s also part of his respect for other people. He will say, for example, in debating with Douglas, “I never question someone’s patriotism. We are simply talking about different policies.” Today we question each other’s patriotism all the time. So this is why, although Lincoln is a 19th century figure—he’s not going to help us with climate change, he can’t advise President Biden on what to do in Afghanistan—I do think his virtue words can help us as we try to become people who are more in touch with values, with, as you suggest, character. This is all about development of character.
Cherie Harder: And that leads obviously to the next question, which is why does it matter, in a sense? You are rather unique among a lot of presidential historians and biographers in that character is something you have repeatedly and explicitly emphasized and really a lens through which you have looked at the personalities of many of our great leaders. But there does seem to be a growing sense that character doesn’t matter. It’s not limited to one particular party. There seems to be a growing—if not consensus, certainly a wave of support in both parties—that it’s simply not essential any longer. As someone who has made character the lens through which you’ve understood leaders, what do you say to those who believe that character is less important than it might have been previously?
Ron White: Well, as you suggest, my whole approach to biography is from what I call from the inside out. I’m very interested in formation, and here the Christian faith is tremendously central in how is a person formed. And so I wanted to discover, how is Lincoln formed? How is Grant formed? How is Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain formed? And I think at the end of the day, character does matter, that policies are important, but policies will come and go. Character is what is lasting. And over the long haul, whoever the person is—we don’t need to think even simply of political figures—leaders in business, lawyers, teachers, presidents of colleges or universities—character is what will endure or what will actually cause a person to fall, whether we know it or not, whether we talk about it or not. Character might sound like an old-fashioned word, but I think it’s the underlying definition of who leaders are.
Cherie Harder: One aspect of Lincoln’s character that was both fascinating and perhaps somewhat paradoxical was his tendency towards peacemaking. He was a litigator who wrote notes discouraging others from litigation and castigating his fellow litigators as fiends, at least the ones who would essentially stir up trouble in order to gin up business for themselves. So he was a litigator who essentially advocated against litigation, and he was a wartime president who advocated for peace. I was hoping maybe you could sort of sketch out for us how his character was formed over those years. Is this something that he seemed to have been born with or did his attitude or stance towards peacemaking and reconciliation change over time?
Ron White: Lincoln spent 24 years as a lawyer, only 12 years in elected political office. I was talking with a whole large group of lawyers virtually on Wednesday in Dallas. And the second note that I use in the book is his so-called “Notes for a Lecture to Lawyers.” We don’t believe he ever gave the lecture, but it’s notes to prepare to give a lecture. And in the center of these notes he makes this assertion: The lawyer as a peacemaker, is a good person. So although Lincoln is thought of as the war president—he had to become commander-in-chief to win the civil war—he was really looking forward to the second term because he thought he was a better peace president than a war president. And I think he learned this from being a lawyer, that you have to, first of all, respect and try to understand the point of view of your opponent, understand it not simply intellectually, but experientially. And so to go to court or to go to law was what was the watchwords of people on the frontier in Illinois. And Lincoln made the observation, you may win the case, but you will lose your friend. You will lose the community. And the so-called winner, he says in these notes, will end up being the loser. And isn’t that true in our litigious society? So I think Lincoln, the lawyer, is very much a part of his formation of how he understands peacemaking.
Cherie Harder: The empathy that you mentioned right then is also a hallmark of these notes. It seems like he is frequently trying to understand the point of view of his antagonist or his enemy or his cabinet member or his wife, as it might be. Where did that come from? Because I can’t imagine that empathy would necessarily have been the chief virtue in backwoods Kentucky.
Ron White: Well, Lincoln’s on a journey, and I think we need to really understand that journey. Sometimes we take someone’s words—I think we’re doing this right now today—”Oh, so-and-so said this in 1994.” And not recognizing that we’re all on a journey. And part of that journey is a faith journey. He’s born in Kentucky, moves with his family as a young boy to southern Indiana. His parents attend Baptist churches there. They’re very, very emotional. It’s part of what we call the Second Great Awakening. And Lincoln is turned off by that emotion. He does what a lot of young people do then and now: he rejects the faith of his parents. He becomes, in his own words, a fatalist. If there is a God, it’s kind of a deistic God, a watchmaker who doesn’t enter into history. But then when life tumbles in, with the death of Eddie, the first son in 1850 at age three-and-a-half, the death of Willie at age 11, and then the crucible of the Civil War. As a young man, Lincoln’s humor could hurt, his satire could bite. He did not have that kind of empathy. So I believe that the journey he’s on, which is really ultimately a faith journey, endows him with a much greater sense of empathy, which we then see at the end of his life in the Second Inaugural Address, when he offers such reconciliation to the people of the South.
Cherie Harder: You mentioned the Second Inaugural Address, and I think one of the most poignant and compelling fragments that you include in your work are his meditations on the Divine Will, which you show in a side by side actually became the basis for the Second Inaugural.
Ron White: We might bring that up, if we can, on the screen to show the actual fragment.
Cherie Harder: That would be great. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on this fragment and how Lincoln changed his mind in seeking to come to better understand the Divine Will.
Ron White: Well, I think life tumbles in for all of us. The death of the two boys, then the crucible of the Civil War: Lincoln very privately is asking himself the question, where is God in the midst of the Civil War? “The will of God prevails. In great contests, each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be”—notice how he underlines key words—”and one must be wrong.” Here we see the logical Lincoln at work. “God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.” And then this extremely profound sentence: “In the present civil war, it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party.” Everyone was coming to Lincoln to say “God is on our side.” He knew they were coming to Jefferson Davis to say “God is on our side.” “Yet God uses the instrumentalities working just as they are to effect his purpose.”
Ron White: Lincoln goes on to say in this meditation—by the way, he didn’t title it; John Hay, his young secretary, found this meditation, this fragment, after Lincoln’s death, and Hay gave it the title. At the end of the fragment, we read the words, “Yet the contest proceeds. He could give the victory to either side any day, but the contest proceeds.” My goodness, Lincoln, you’re the commander-in-chief! You’re supposed to be winning this war! What do you mean, God could give the victory to either side any day? Lincoln never said these words out loud. But if you think about it, they really are the background, the foundation for the Second Inaugural Address, which he will deliver two-and-a-half years later. Now, no one at that audience in March 4, 1865, knew of this address. It would only surface decades later. But this is one more clue as to why the private Lincoln helps us understand the public Lincoln.
Cherie Harder: That’s fascinating, Ron, and one of the things that one notices is the extent to which he wrestled intensely—intellectually, spiritually. There’s not only a real depth of reflection, but there’s also a pretty remarkable reticence and silence. As you noted, he didn’t intend for anyone to see these notes. There’s some profound thoughts there, but they’re all kept under lock and key. And one can’t help but think, gosh, what a contrast to our current approach to public discourse, which, if anything, has a bias towards just an onslaught of the rapid response. One-upmanship, usually necessarily shallow just now because of the volume and quantity. And I’m curious, given your focus on character formation and leadership, how does that affect one’s leadership ability?
Ron White: Well, let’s put that question in context. Lincoln serves one term in Congress. He takes a very unpopular stand against the war in Mexico, challenging President Polk, telling him, “You sit where George Washington sat.” Polk had argued that the Mexicans started the war and Lincoln said, “That’s absolutely untrue; I’m quite convinced the Americans started the war and you’re trying to shift the blame.” So Lincoln comes home and many of his constituents say, “Thank you very much. We’re not going to elect you again.” So he becomes a lawyer full time for five years. Then the Kansas-Nebraska act is passed in 1854. This act will allow slavery to now advance into the new territories—Kansas, Nebraska—if people simply vote for it. And Lincoln is appalled by this. You can vote for something as immoral as slavery? But he does not, as you suggest, come charging right out into the fray. Rather, he takes several months, what I call “holding his fire,” preparing himself before he will speak. And during those three months, he does a lot of reading and some of that reading then translates into the fragments.
Cherie Harder: Some of that reticence has not always been interpreted quite as favorably, especially in recent years, as you sort of just indicated. And in fact, there seem to be a growing number of Lincoln detractors. I think just in the last couple of months, the San Francisco school district renamed their high school, believing that Lincoln had not gone far enough in his policies towards ending the oppression of African-Americans. And as someone who has studied Lincoln for most of your life and knows him as well as anyone, I’d be interested in your thoughts on this growing wave of criticism about a lack of a sufficiently forceful pushback to oppression.
Ron White: Well, I think what’s happening says more about us than it does about Lincoln. Let’s take another flashpoint. It is the so-called Freedman’s Memorial dedicated in 1876. The speaker is Frederick Douglass. And many people have taken Frederick Douglass’s early words in that address where he calls Lincoln the white man’s president, and then they end their essay or their op-ed. They fail to get to the latter part of the address where Frederick Douglass says, well, if he is the white man’s president, he was fast, speedy, quick to take on this issue. Douglass offers him incredible praise. But we end up proof-texting what someone says. We take a slice out of their life and we fail to recognize who they are in their time. I sometimes think we are afflicted by what I call moral superiority. We are so superior to all those poor people who lived before us. There’s no humility in us, even if there was humility in them. And I don’t think the people in San Francisco—in fact, I know this for a fact—they did not consult any historians. The people in Chicago did not consult any historians to ask themselves, could you fill us in with a fuller understanding of who Abraham Lincoln was in this particular episode of his life?
Cherie Harder: So in just a few moments, we’re going to go to questions from our audience. But before we do, Ron, one of the things I would be most curious about is, you know, generally we personally are formed and are changed by those we know. And any biographer generally knows their subject pretty well. You have just released your fourth book on Abraham Lincoln. So I think it’s fair to say that your knowledge, your familiarity with him, is quite deep and long-lasting. So how has your knowledge of, acquaintance with, clear regard for Lincoln, changed your own life? And in particular, how has engaging so deeply with Lincoln’s private, closeted thoughts approached your own view towards engaging ideas?
Ron White: Well, Lincoln is a person in formation on a journey, and to live with Lincoln 24 hours a day—as my wife Cynthia will say, I may forget something in 2021, but I sure know about 1861. So Lincoln’s whole faith journey is so instructive for myself and others. His willingness to respect other people, his deep empathy and magnanimity expressed towards the South at the end of the Civil War. These are values that one would want to aspire for in one’s own life. And to live with this person 24 hours a day for now a quarter of a century, I hope, I trust, it has had an impact on me as I try to make myself a bit more like the person that I’m studying.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Thanks, Ron. All of our regular viewers will know that you can not only ask a question in the Q&A feature, but you can also “like” a question, and that helps us get an idea of what some of the most popular questions are as we sift through them and Ron starts to field them. So we already have quite a few that have come in. And, Ron, I’m going to toss one to you from George Abdo. And George asks, “Ron, the notes give us a window on Lincoln in private. Were there any personal friends with whom he had correspondence over the years, both before and during the presidency, with whom he was similarly disclosing of such private thoughts?”
Ron White: An excellent question from my friend George Abdo. Yes, his best friend was Joshua Speed, who he first met when Lincoln moved to Springfield on a borrowed horse and walked into the dry goods store and wanted to buy a mattress to sleep on. And he told Speed, I can’t afford it. And Speed said, I’ve got a room up on this top story. Why don’t you come upstairs and you can be with me. [Lincoln] writes to Speed as the Republican Party is being formed that he’s deeply distressed, that although he wants it to be a big tent, he’s distressed by the nativism that is infiltrating the party. This is an attitude against immigration, against especially Catholic immigrants who are coming into the country in the 1840s and 1850s. So he says to Speed, “We began by saying that all men are created equal. It seems that we’re now getting to the point of saying all men are created equal except negroes, except Catholics. And when it comes to that,” he said, “I think I would prefer to emigrate to Russia, where they take their hypocrisy pure and without base alloy.” He doesn’t say this in public, but he’s deeply disturbed by the nativism that’s a part of the Republican Party. He says it in a letter to his best friend.
Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from John Dozier. And John asks, “Given that Lincoln was a man of faith, how would you encapsulate his personal story of faith and how it influenced his private and public life? And what one thing can we learn from him in this regard?”
Ron White: Well, I suggested that he early on was a believer in what we would call fatalism, kind of a determinism. But then I think the missing person in the Lincoln story is the pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Phineas Densmore Gurley. His sermons, Gurley’s sermons, are at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia. I’ve read them. And what Lincoln was listening to was no longer a deistic God, but a God of Providence. What does that mean? This is a personal God who loves men and women and who enters into history. And so when we get to the Second Inaugural, this address is all about Providence. Lincoln will say, “The Almighty has his own purposes.” Now, Lincoln is not arrogant enough to say he knows exactly what those purposes are, but on the other hand, he wants to affirm that along with himself, the soldiers, and the generals, there is an actor in the Civil War. And Lincoln has now come to a very different point in his faith journey to put his faith in the Providence of God.
Cherie Harder: So we have a question from Nita Rice. And Nita asks a variation of a question that you actually pose yourself at the very beginning of your book. Nita asks, “Don’t you find it interesting that Lincoln, being primarily self-taught, is one of history’s most prolific writers? Some things cannot be taught.” Which reminds me of the question that you pose at the very beginning, which is how is it that a man with less than one year of formal education could have become the intellectual giant that he was? So I wanted to pose Nita’s question to you: how is it that he accomplished so much with so few at least obvious resources to do so intellectually?
Ron White: Nita, Lincoln was a lifelong learner. I sometimes chuckle to myself when I visit former students and, depending upon the decade in which I taught them, I will see all kinds of books from that decade. But I don’t see many current books on their bookshelf. So at age 40—age 40!—While Lincoln is traveling the Eighth Judicial Circuit in Illinois, he takes along Euclid with him to try to learn the theorems of Euclid, so that he could better prepare himself to think logically. So this is the key to it. He didn’t read his first formal grammar book until he was age 23. So, yes, he had a very minimal formal education. Boys in that era only went to school in January and February when it was too cold for them to work outside with their fathers on farms. But the lifelong learning, I think, is the key, and hopefully that’s another key to us to become lifelong learners.
Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from our Byron Brown, and Byron asks, “From the Lincoln-Douglas debates, we learn that Lincoln’s highest priority was preserving the Union, not abolishing slavery. Is that accurate? Some of the worst treatments of indigenous people occurred on President Lincoln’s watch. Did Lincoln view the indigenous people as savages not worth protecting?”
Ron White: Well, there’s really sort of two questions, I think, in your comment. First of all, in the Lincoln-Douglas debates it was about preserving the Union. That is the way he understood his task as president at the beginning of his first term: to preserve the Union. And I might just say that in recent years, as people have looked back at the Civil War, some have suggested, well, the only reason for the Civil War that makes any sense is to free the slaves. And we’ve really lost the sense of what it meant for these people to preserve the Union. That was of value. Now, the second part of your question is indigenous people. And you probably are referring to the treatment of Native Americans who are part of an uprising in Minnesota. This has caused some of the outcry against Lincoln that many of these persons were put to death. Often, again, not fully understood, is that Lincoln reviewed over 300 different files and commuted the sentences of many, many, many of these people. So some very fine historians—Sean Wilentz at Princeton University has written about this in a very profound way. But we often take on these issues in a very short hand, one or two sentences, and don’t fully understand it.
Cherie Harder: So a question comes from Jay Welby-Lemen and Jay Welby mentions that power corrupts character. So do Lincoln’s fragments show himself checking his temptations of power that could corrupt?
Ron White: Thank you for that question, Jay. One of the fragments that I found most interesting is in 1855, Lincoln runs for the United States Senate in Illinois. Senators were elected by state legislatures until the 20th century, early 20th century. He leads on the first seven ballots. He is the anti-Nebraska candidate, in other words, the candidate who wants to stop the spread of slavery. But by the seventh ballot, he realizes he’s not going to be able to win. His adherents want him to keep running, but he pulls back, believe it or not, to support a Democrat who actually is also anti-Nebraska, against another Republican who is not. So the Democrat wins the race. Lincoln publicly is very fine about it. “I’m OK.” Privately, he writes this note, because really the debate is really with Stephen Douglas, who wants to extend slavery. He said, “Judge Douglas”—that’s who he called him—”and I met 22 years ago. We were both ambitious. I was probably more ambitious than he. Douglas has risen to the highest eminence, but as for me, my life is nothing but a failure, nothing but a flat failure.” He never would have said that in public. He never would express his feelings in public. Remember, he’s this rational person. But now, at this very low point in his life, he admits his own feelings of failure. In less than four years, he’ll be elected president of the United States.
Cherie Harder: So our next question comes from Keith Jones-Pomeroy. Keith says, “It seems like the study of Lincoln often tends to fall into two categories. The first being the glorification and defense of Lincoln. He was the best! Or two, the criticism of Lincoln, bringing up all the times that he was a man of his times: racist, sexist, etc. How do you balance your own research with an objective stance that isn’t seeking to confirm either the glorification or the tearing down of Lincoln?”
Ron White: That’s a wonderful comment and question. I have to admit to myself regularly that I have a great admiration for Lincoln, but to be an able biographer, one cannot work at that level. You have to enter into the complexity, the contradictions in each of the characters you’re studying. They’re in Lincoln, they’re in Grant, they’re in Chamberlain. There’s no point in writing a hagiography where we’re just going to praise this person. I do want to emphasize, as I have already, that Lincoln is on a journey, that his sarcasm and his bitter humor do seem to go down as he matures, as he steps into greater responsibilities, but also to enter into the contradictions. Lincoln spent 185 days out on the Eighth Judicial Circuit. Mary Lincoln has come in, I think, for far too much criticism in recent years. Hey, he allowed her to be a single parent. I don’t think he gets high marks for often being a very good husband or being a very good father. He wasn’t present to her and to his sons in a way he should have. He was an ambitious person and he enjoyed being a successful lawyer. So just at the very personal level, I think we have to sort of ask some questions of husband and father Abraham.
Cherie Harder: So we have an interesting question from Melissa Espinosa and she asks, “How did Lincoln view the biblical term doulos or ‘slaves’? Did Lincoln have a particular thought on biblical interpretation around the word for ‘slave’?”
Ron White: Well, Lincoln read two strong pro-slavery books, and both of them would—from the Bible—argue that slavery was in the Bible; it was a part of Jewish history; it was a part of the early Christian story. So he had to contend with that. And he doesn’t, in a sense, try to reinterpret the Bible. He actually then uses the Declaration of Independence as the lens by which he will say, and he does say this, that when Thomas Jefferson writes, “all men are created equal,” that he believes that does include African-Americans.
Cherie Harder: Thanks for that, Ron. Another question from Isaac Lassiter: “Do we know from Lincoln’s writings why he did not simply declare all slaves free?”
Ron White: Do we know from Lincoln’s writing? Isaac, that’s a very good question. Well, Lincoln struggled early on and throughout the Civil War with the problem or the dilemma of the so-called border states, four border states. In his wonderful sense of humor, he once said, “I’d like to have God on my side, but I need Kentucky.” And so the point of his Emancipation Proclamation, which is often quite confusing, is that it does not free all of the slaves. And this is a wartime measure. And yet when Lincoln is elected to a second term, he pushes forward to enact the 13th Amendment. And people say to him— And this is the whole part of the movie Lincoln, that people did not take their seats in Congress, believe it or not—they’d be elected in November—not till the following December. Congress only met in the wintertime because these persons returned to be farmers or shopkeepers. So people said, well, just wait until they come back in December of 1865. He said, no, I’m going to get people to change their minds. That’s the beauty of the Lincoln. He signs the 13th Amendment, which does abolish slavery, and then he does something which is quite controversial. The president has nothing to do with the presidential amendment. He actually the very next day sits at a table and signs the amendment. And then he says this: “This is the king’s cure for all the evils.” The king’s cure for all the evils. So this says to me what Lincoln thought about the evil of slavery.
Cherie Harder: Interesting. Thanks, Ron. So we have a question from Douglas Elkins, which is seconded by Fritz Heinzen. And Douglas asks, “Can we glean anything from these notes about his relationship with Ulysses S. Grant?”
Ron White: Not in the notes. I believe and argue that the two had very much a mutual admiration society. Both were men of the West—West being the Midwest in our terminology. Lincoln admired Grant because he didn’t ask for more than he could get. He didn’t imagine the Confederate opposition was larger than it was. These were all characteristics of the previous generals. [Grant] was, like [Lincoln], a very self-effacing—that’s a 19th-century word, we would use the word he was a “humble” person—never egotistic. This was not who he was. He was not a narcissistic person at all. So they admired each other. But they only met, I think, four times in their times together. I’m convinced that Grant never imagined at the moment after Lincoln’s death running for president, but after Johnson’s terrible presidency, Grant stepped forward, never comparing himself to Lincoln, but wanting to somehow carry on Lincoln’s heritage.
Cherie Harder: So our next question comes from Lenore Wibble. And Lenore has sort of two questions there. One, she asks, if Lincoln had no religious allegiance, from whom did he get his moral compass? And then secondly, she asks, who did he read?
Ron White: Well, two parts of your question. He actually, I think, did have a religious allegiance. He did attend two Presbyterian churches, First Presbyterian in Springfield. And here’s an interesting story. He paid for a pew in the church; Mary attended quite regularly. And when the congregation, First Presbyterian, got involved in a row, a dispute, with the presbytery—that’s the governing regional body of Presbyterian churches—the congregation had to come up with three lawyers to represent the congregation in the dispute. Lincoln was one of the three lawyers. They thought he was part of the congregation and the presbytery would never have accepted someone who wasn’t really known to be part of the congregation. His affiliation with New York Avenue is much, much greater. So there’s many wellsprings to his moral compass, to take the second part of your question; the Christian faith is very much a part of it. It’s also the founders. It’s Benjamin Franklin, it’s George Washington. It’s Thomas Jefferson. He read biographies. Parson Weems wrote a terrific biography of George Washington. Parson Weems was himself a minister, and his biography is really all about the moral compass of George Washington. That’s how Lincoln read George Washington. These helped his own moral compass.
Cherie Harder: Thanks, Ron. So we have a question from Michael Pomfrey. And Michael asks, “It seems to me that one of the ailments of our time right now is viewing people and events of the past, not in their own context, with all the difficulties and limitations of the past, but as though these people lived and those events occurred in our present time. Would you comment more on that?”
Ron White: I completely agree with your assessment, and one way I try to look at this is not to say how would an African American or whomever look at Lincoln today, but how did African Americans in Lincoln’s day look at him? I’ve done a lot of studies of the social gospel and movement within Christianity. How did people in that day look at their attitudes? That’s the only fair way. What did these people think? For example, Ulysses S. Grant. Frederick Douglass was a huge fan of Ulysses S. Grant. He campaigned for him two different times. Well, that tells you what the leading African American of the 19th century thought of Grant. So how dare we come and look at Grant, who is obviously a person of his own time, without taking into account the way African Americans of his day looked at Grant?
Cherie Harder: Thanks. So we have a few questions from Stephen McDonald, from Dolores, and others on this general topic. Stephen asked, “John Hope Franklin mentions in his book From Slavery to Freedom that Lincoln thought it would work out better if the slaves were to move to another country. Is this true? How did Lincoln come to change his mind if he did at all?
Ron White: Wonderful question. Yes. What you’re referring to is the American Colonization Society, which was founded in 1817, and it was a movement to, in a sense, missionize Africa. It helped found the country of Liberia. It’s again been much misunderstood. You can certainly see the racism in it. Lincoln does in his journey [believe] that perhaps it would be better if African Americans would move to Africa. It will be difficult for African Americans and whites to live together. But interestingly, what we fail to understand is there were African American leaders of the American Colonization Society because they wanted to send missionaries to Africa to Christianize those who lived there. So Lincoln does support that movement all the way up as far as early 1862. And then he’s silent, and he moves forward with the whole movement ultimately to emancipate the slaves. But that was a part of his early thinking.
Cherie Harder: Thanks, Ron. I’m actually going to combine two questions, one from John O’Brien and one from Fritz Heinzen. And John asks, “Did any fragments surprise you as revealing a different thought direction that you weren’t expecting?” And Fritz asks, “What missing papers or documents of Lincoln or Grant would you most like to see discovered for your perusal?”
Ron White: John and Fritz, if that’s the John I think it is, hello, good to hear your question. The admission of defeat. Two fragments where he’s reading proslavery writers and just explodes at the end of the one. He uses triple exclamation points again and again and again. “How in the world can someone avow a Christianity that would treat others so miserably?” I’d like to find more fragments because I’m sure he wrote hundreds more. What might have happened to them? Well, when Abraham and Mary were leaving for Washington to assume the presidency, she did what many 19th-century people did. She had in the back alley what she called her burn pile. Men and women, husbands and wives, burned their personal correspondence. This was their correspondence with each other and they didn’t want posterity to see it. Lincoln rented out his home and I think he wondered or worried if he kept some papers there in his home, would his renters find them? So it may be that Lincoln might have destroyed some of these. Then his papers were under the custodianship of his son, Robert Todd Lincoln, and Robert Lincoln kept his papers, moved them from place to place as he moved from place to place. Maybe Robert might have also said, you know, these are just notes and fragments. I don’t think these are, they’re not public papers, I won’t keep them. So I would like to learn more about that. Lincoln didn’t keep a diary. He didn’t live long enough to write his reminiscences, as Ulysses S. Grant did. Oh, I’d like to read that book.
Cherie Harder: Imagine that. David Schwartz asked, “What did Lincoln want to accomplish in his second term after the war? How did he plan on uniting the country?” David says that he thinks this might be very applicable to today’s vitriol.
Ron White: Well, the key to it is in the Second Inaugural Address at the very end: “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” Lincoln actually started thinking about what we would call Reconstruction as early as 1863. And in a dramatic move unpopular with many in his own party, he suggested that if only 10 percent of the population of Louisiana, for example, would agree to come back into the Union on Union terms, ultimately to support the 13th Amendment, and then down the road it would have been 14th and 15th, that would be enough. So if you can believe this, this surprised me: After Lincoln’s death, there was actually some sort of private conversations that became public where some key Republican senators actually said to each other, “We are glad that Lincoln’s no longer here. He was too soft. We are going to punish the South.” And that’s what they attempted to do. So the question I think I’ve been asked is what would have happened if Lincoln lived? He had won a decisive victory in 1864. Sadly, the Southerners began very quickly to reinstate slavery under the guise of segregation. But Lincoln would have been the best person to try—try—to offer reconciliation to the South.
Cherie Harder: So for our final question, I’m going to paraphrase one by Claire Likert, who asks, what do you believe or what opportunities do we have as laymen to engage in the kind of moral development that Lincoln seemed to try to take on quite consciously and is sort of illustrated in these writings?
Ron White: Well, thank you for the question. I’m sure we’re all, in one sense, asking that question. We might imitate Lincoln. We might begin to try to write more notes to ourselves, to keep a diary, to keep a journal, to track our own moral development or our own faith journey. That was a practice of people in the 19th century. I think it’s being revived by some in our own time. But I think it’s a wonderful practice by which we can chart our own growth.
Cherie Harder: Ron, thanks so much. Ron, the last word is yours.
Ron White: Well, all of us are familiar with the various crises that we are enduring, starting with the pandemic and the economic dislocation, hate against Asians, racial injustice, climate change, we could go on and on. But I think the one that concerns me—because I’m really focused on young people—is that during this pandemic, we’ve discovered young people have spent even more time on their screens, even more time. And the only way to do what Lincoln does is to allow ourselves the time to think, to contemplate, to write. This does not come quickly. This is not a text. This is not an email. And so I guess my learning or my plea would be to follow the example of Lincoln and to get the diary, to get a journal, to just spend the kind of time. This is what allows Lincoln’s moral growth. Cherie, you’ve announced, and I love the way you say this again and again, the focus on character. But our own character is being formed. And how is it formed? It will be formed as we take the time to write our own faith and spiritual journey.
Cherie Harder: Ron, it is always a pleasure. Thanks so much for joining us. Thank you to all of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.