Lincoln experts reflect on his legacy
AS ONE OF the country’s leading authorities on Abraham Lincoln—and co-
chairman of the U.S. Lincoln Bicentennial Commission—Harold Holzer has writ-
ten more than 31 books on Lincoln and the Civil War era, including In Lincoln’s
Hand: His Original Manuscripts with Commentary by Distinguished Americans.
In a Connection exclusive, Holzer asks a handful of contemporary Lincoln
scholars about this historic figure’s words and deeds.
test. It was his wife’s love and support that kept
Lincoln steady on his course. Lincoln had
always been prone to deep melancholy, and
while Mary had a very mercurial temperament compared to her husband, her optimism
and ability to conjure him from his spells of
gloom were critical to his success.
Harold Holzer: Much has been made of
the 44th president’s respect for the 16th
president—but sometimes it has seemed
that he has followed the script of Team of
Rivals in assembling his own cabinet.
How is Obama’s team of rivals like
Lincoln’s? And how is it different?
Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of
Rivals: On the campaign trail Barack Obama
frequently applauded Lincoln’s decision to
bring his three chief rivals for the Republican
nomination into his cabinet, hinting that he
might do the same, if it would help create “the
best possible government.”
What he learned from Lincoln, he said,
was “to not let your ego or grudges get in the
way of hiring absolutely the best people.”
Then when he named Hillary Clinton to his
cabinet, selected Joe Biden as vice president
and included Republicans Robert Gates and
Ray LaHood, it became clear that he definitely
was following the spirit of Lincoln in putting
together a team of strong-minded people
who could question him, argue with him and
give him greater options. The challenge for
the president is to determine when to stop the
internal debates, make the decisions and
hopefully bring the team along.
HH: How did Lincoln’s growing friendship
with Frederick Douglass change Lincoln’s
evolving views on race?
John Stauffer, author of Giants: The Parallel
Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham
Lincoln: Douglass was the first black man
Lincoln treated as an equal. After their first
meeting, Lincoln told a colleague that he con-
sidered Douglass among “the most meritorious men in these United States.” And after
delivering his Second Inaugural, he asked
Douglass what he thought of it, adding,
“There is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.”
Their friendship also helped Lincoln
move beyond the pervasive racism of his day.
They were the preeminent self-made men of
their day, and Lincoln came to believe, with
Douglass, that true self-made men continually evolved. This form of self-making contradicted racism, because racism depended upon
the idea that a white self was fixed, permanently superior to a black self.
HH: Some historians have almost made
Mary Lincoln seem unworthy of her husband. What kind of partnership did they
really have, and how important was she
in her husband’s life and career?
Catherine Clinton, author of Mrs. Lincoln: A
Life: When Lincoln fell in love with Mary, she
was the one with the superior education
(nearly a decade compared with his one year
of formal schooling), and she was the one with
the social and political connections. After a
protracted and turbulent courtship, they married in 1842. Mary Lincoln believed her husband was destined for great things. Before they
wed, she told a cousin “to polish a stone like
that [Lincoln] would be the task of a lifetime,
but what a joy to see the beauty and brilliance
shine out more clearly each day!”
He read all his speeches aloud to her and
consulted her about political issues of the day.
She accompanied him to Washington and
cheered him on through every political con-
HH: Are there still valuable lessons a 19th-
century leader can teach 21st-century
Americans struggling to face new and
Andrew Delbanco, editor of The Portable
Abraham Lincoln: It seems to me there are two
key lessons of Lincoln’s presidency that matter
more than ever today. The first is that the highest calling of a true political leader is to show
the people that sacrifice is necessary to achieve
a better future. This is something that our leaders of recent times seem to have forgotten. The
second lesson is that, while Lincoln was a spirited debater and enjoyed a good political fight,
he always spoke of his opponents with respect,
and never expressed self-righteousness or contempt. In other words, with all his folksiness
and charm, he set an elevated tone for public
discussion of the great issues of the day. It
would help us all if our contemporary leaders
would remember and emulate him in this
respect as in many others. C
The Costco Connection
A variety of books about Abraham Lincoln
are available in most Costco warehouses and
at Costco.com during February.