4:00 P.M. EDT
MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to the Foreign Press Center. I am over the moon delighted to have with us today Harold Holzer. He is currently serving as senior vice president for external affairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. He has graciously agreed to come down to Washington to talk to you today. He is an expert scholar on Abraham Lincoln. And since tomorrow is the 150th anniversary of the bombing of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, what a perfect time to have a Lincoln scholar with us to talk to you about the crises that Lincoln faced in April of 1861. So I will pass it over to you.
One thing, though, if you haven’t turned your cell phones off, please do so, and Mr. Holzer will speak for about 20, 25 minutes. Then we’ll open it up to a Q&A session. And before we do that, why don’t you just go ahead around the room and introduce yourselves, first. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: I’m Eric Guevara-Frey with the Swiss Public Radio French-speaking program.
QUESTION: My name is Celia Sampol. I’m working for original newspaper in France called Derniers Nouvelles D’Alsace.
QUESTION: My name is Sven Egli Omdal. I write for a group of Norwegian regional newspapers.
QUESTION: My name is Yoshiki Kishida with Japanese JiJi Press.
QUESTION: My name is Thomas Paggini. I’m a journalist for Swiss Italian public radio.
QUESTION: Milan Misic. I represent political newspaper from Belgrade, Serbia.
MODERATOR: Thanks, everyone.
MR. HOLZER: Thank you all for coming. I’m always astonished when people who are covering breaking news, world trouble spots, and crises points will take a moment to talk about history. But maybe it’s as much of a break for you – a pleasant break for you as it is for me to spend a few days in Washington and talk about history. I’ve been here for a few days talking about a book that I edited with a co-author called The New York Times Complete Civil War, which is a collection of the articles that the The Times did from 1861 to 1865, really the – what constituted the first draft of the history of the war. And everything coincided this weekend. You’re being very kind about my coming down for – but I have a whole bunch of events; they all – (laughter).
MODERATOR: They can know that. (Laughter.)
MR. HOLZER: I know. But I do want to talk about the movie premier last night. But that was part of it.
MODERATOR: Oh, yeah.
MR. HOLZER: I went to the red carpet premier of Robert Redford’s new film, The Conspirators. So maybe we’ll talk about that in the question-and-answer period. It was fun, but I had some problems with some of the facts in the movie because I see it in a different way from other people – and just amazed to see the number of stories in this morning’s papers, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, about the sesquicentennial, about the various commemorations. I was about to say celebrations, but that’s the wrong word.
And we talked for a moment about the irony of the fact that the government shutdown might have affected the events at Fort Sumter. How ironic, because Fort Sumter is, of course – was the symbolic flashpoint of state rights and anti-federalism. It would have been almost deliciously ironic if Fort Sumter had not been staffed and manned for the – that I think will be a celebration for the renewal of the bombardment that will take place tomorrow in Charleston Harbor. So we know that it was 150 years ago tomorrow that the Confederates launched their attack on a federal fort in a – the harbor of the first state that seceded from the Union after Lincoln’s election in the city where the secession convention had taken place and where arguably the most radical of the pro-slavery, anti-Union forces were housed.
A little background: I mean, Americans are still, for some inexplicable reason, debating what the cause of the Civil War was. I mean, I think most historians agree that there is no avoiding, as unpleasant as it is, the fact that the cause was slavery. Secession many have triggered the war, but slavery caused secession – the so-called slave power. The North had come to the belief that the Southern stranglehold on all three executive branches of government would go on forever unless – and this is the pure politics of it, without the philanthropic anti-slavery part of it at all, no humanitarianism, just raw politics – that this grip on power would continue unless the spread of slavery could be guaranteed, unless slavery could not – would cease to be extended into new territories automatically, as it had been in the past. And that’s the position that Abraham Lincoln rose on and was elected to the presidency on.
Southerners in the slaveholding states understood this to mean that all new states would come into the Union as free states and what would happen eventually to them is that there would be two new senators every time any state was affixed to the Union, and therefore, inevitably, inexorably, there would be enough of a vote perhaps to threaten slavery, not immediately but eventually. And this was enough to trigger the revolts of 1861 – 1860 and 1861.
What’s amazing to think about, for those of you who were here during the transition from the Bush to Obama presidencies, or for the presidential campaign itself, is that Abraham Lincoln said nothing between his election to the presidency and his departure for Washington in February of 1861 – a few words at a rally that he was accidentally taken to near his home, a few words outside the door of his home a few days after his election, but no policy statement. And really, those are the only two exceptions to his rule of silence. It was believed undignified for candidates for the presidency and presidents-elect to speak on doctrinal issues until they were sworn in. But a lot of people believed that his silence aggravated the situation, made the South more anxious. And his mailbag is filled with letters from people begging him to go to South Carolina, to speak out and oppose the crisis. But he thought it would mean that he was begging for the right to be inaugurated.
He also had the problem of winning by such a small margin in the Electoral College, and by less than a majority – considerably less than a majority – in the popular vote, that he wasn’t even certain he was going to be ratified in the electoral counting until he was on his electoral journey – his inaugural journey.
So seven states really leave the union before his inauguration. He begins speaking out a day before his 52nd birthday, on February 11th of 1861, as he boards a train for Washington. But it’s not a direct route. He’s not doing what President Obama did, which is fly to Washington and then go back to Baltimore and retrace his journey. He’s got a – what admitted was a long, meandering journey. And he decided to go to the northern state capitals, where he had won the most support. So he goes to the capital of Indiana, the capital of Ohio, the capital of New York. It’s in Columbus, Ohio that he actually learns that the electoral votes have – counting has not been disturbed by attack or interruption, which was a genuinely legitimate fear at that point.
The two remarkable things that are happening while – the other remarkable things that are happening while he’s en route to Washington is, one, that a parallel inaugural journey is taking place. Jefferson Davis is going to his inaugural at the very same time, getting the same rave reviews from – that Lincoln is getting. Actually, better reviews, because Lincoln is so exhausted. He actually makes 101 speeches in 11 days. Most of them, “I’d like you to meet my wife,” “This is the long and short of it,” or “I’m happy to see you. I’m sure you’re happy to see me, but I’m getting the best of the bargain.” He always made fun of his own appearance.
But Davis and the South should’ve realized, in a way, that their effort for independence was doomed because of their inaugural journeys. I’ll just tell you how. It’s a – just – it’s sort of an oblique thought, but Lincoln basically went from west to east and then south. And he could’ve gone straight to Washington through a more southerly route. But again, he wanted to hit the hot spots and go through New York. So he went east to Albany and then south through New York City, Trenton, Philadelphia, and to Washington. Davis, who had to go from Point A to Point B, realized that there was no rail connections in the South. The South was so bereft of infrastructure – and that should have been the warning – that he basically had to go from here up to here and then down to here. Should’ve been a warning, but it wasn’t.
So the fact that there was a parallel inaugural journey was remarkable and disturbing, no doubt. The other disturbing thing is that there were efforts in Congress and at an ad hoc convention of senior government officials called the National Peace Convention. They met over at the Willard – which, in a different iteration, it was a hotel even then – to draft a compromise that would avert war. And this compromise was to include a provision that slavery, in fact, could be extended, which was a violation of Lincoln’s pledge and his acceptance of the Republican platform position. So while he wasn’t speaking out, he was trying his best to undermine this with private letters to members of Congress and to delegates saying hold fast as with a chain of steel, no compromise on slavery, the tug has to come, better now than later.
I don’t think any president has ever entered office, maybe with the exception of FDR or, in the same breath, as Lincoln’s winter of secession. Again, it was a period from November to March in those days, not January 20th for the inauguration. But the fact that he had an alternative universe going on in the South with another presidency about to take shape, another country formed, ad hoc and congressional efforts to undermine his line-in-the-sand approach, was difficult.
And then, as many – as you know, 150 years ago in February, he gets a warning in Philadelphia that there’s a death plot against him in Baltimore. Baltimore is a rabidly pro-slavery city. And he has a public schedule in Baltimore, but they tell him, discretion being the better part of valor, don’t do it; don’t go. So he agrees to a secret voyage from Harrisburg back to Philadelphia through Baltimore, and on to Washington at night, wearing a soft hat that he had been given in New York rather than his famous – his signature stovepipe hat. And he’s excoriated for this decision. He’s made to – he’s accused of cowardice.
In fact, I don’t want to blame this on the press, but the New York Times reporter was an embedded correspondent with the inaugural journey from Springfield, Illinois all the way to Harrisburg, and he invents the idea that Lincoln wore an absurd disguise, a Scotch cap – a Scottish tam with ribbons, and a military cloak to disguise himself from his would-be assassin. Joseph Howard was his name. He filed this story. I’ve always thought he woke up in the morning and said, “Let’s do the last leg of this trip,” and they said, “Sorry, but he’s gone,” and he was really angry because he had invested a lot of time in this journey, and his editors expected him to file stories. So he did. He filed a story about Lincoln wearing a disguise.
So Lincoln gets to Washington, goes to the Willard Hotel, a very smart move. He was supposed to stay in a private home, but he wanted to be seen in public, restore his image. He sat for a photograph, which in those days was an elaborate process – a dignified photograph that showed him, he hoped, and some felt, ready for this crisis. His new beard, which was a new thing for Americans; they didn’t know he had grown a beard, by and large. He looked more statesmanlike than the rail splitter who had won the election, because he was so vigorous and a symbol of American opportunity. So he established his credentials. He wrote a very conciliatory, for him, inaugural address in which he promised, for example, to uphold the fugitive slave law, which was pretty onerous, if only the Union would be restored as it was.
I’m sure he wasn’t surprised that even with the beautiful sections in it at the end that President Obama quoted when he was – when he gave his victory speech in Chicago, and appealed to the better angels of our nature – we must not be enemies; we must be friends. I could tell you the story of who wrote that and how it happened later, as sort of an edited peroration to the speech, but it wasn’t enough. But I think for a month, Lincoln still harbored the hope that secession would whither of its own between March and April.
The big issue was this fort. Actually there were a few forts. There were two forts in South Carolina, there were two in Florida, built by the federal government, 40, 50 years before, and now claimed by the seceded states as their property. A very tough question in law, but to accept that the states had a claim would be to accept that they had a separate country, and Lincoln wasn’t prepared to do it.
His cabinet, by and large, urged him not to try to reinforce or even resupply Fort Sumter. First of all, it was untenable militarily. Fort Sumter was built to present an impregnable barrier to foreign invaders, so its thick walls and guns faced the sea. Now the threat was coming from the harbor, from Charleston, and it was weak on that side. It obviously was just a doorway, basically. But Lincoln wasn’t prepared to give it up. He thought if he surrendered Fort Sumter, he would have no case that the federal union was inviolate.
So he decided on a middle course, which was to send supplies but not enforcements. And ever since – oh, he also sent word that that was his intention. It was not a – some people thought that he should supply the fort by night in secret, which was possible then. There were no harbor lights the way there are today. But he decided to tell people – make it known through his emissaries who were still in Charleston that this was going to be the federal policy. By doing so, he’s invited criticism for generations that he knew of the attack, was responsible therefore for igniting the war, the same way that there are those who believe that Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew in advance of the imminent attack on Pearl Harbor but decided to endure it to bring isolationist Americans into a war fever.
Lincoln was lucky – I mean, politicians have to be lucky. He was lucky. Even before the supply ships got there, the forces assembled in the harbor opened fire on Fort Sumter. No lives were lost at all in the 13, 14 hours of bombardment. There was a life lost the next day because the commander of the fort insisted on firing a 21-gun salute to signal his abandonment of the fort. Actually, he wanted to do a 40-gun salute. The new occupiers said no, you can only do 21. But on about the 20th round, the cannon exploded and it killed the person who was – that was the only casualty at Fort Sumter. But one of the shells struck the flagpole that was holding the American flag and it came crashing to the ground. The soldiers ran out and tied it up. They sort of jerry-rigged the flagpole.
And then later, the Southerners who occupied the fort after it surrendered dragged it through the streets and then returned it, soiled, to the Union. This was – I mean, it was a flashpoint in the North. It aroused demonstrations and patriotic fervor. Some people say that, until that moment, American flags were all handmade, hand-stitched, but that demand for American flags became so intense then that that’s when they became manufactured, just to keep up with demand, because of this event 150 years ago.
It’s just – I find it fascinating – I’ve always found it fascinating that there are so many ironies here. When Major Anderson, who was the commander of the fort, got to New York with his garrison, he admitted that he didn’t know whether he was going to be court-martialed or given a parade for surrendering the fort. In fact, he was given a parade. That flag came back and was draped over an equestrian statue of George Washington in New York City, the same statue that was used as a place of demonstration for flags and boat of candles after 9/11. It was an interesting sort of – it was the center of the city in 1860.
He was made the hero of parades when volunteers were called to resist the attack. Lincoln got his way. He ordered a blockade and the call-up of 75,000 militia a few days after Sumter – without the authority of Congress, by the way. Sounds familiar? He didn’t go to Congress for approval. He didn’t go to Congress for a budget; he just did it. Congress was out of session. Lincoln’s response was to call them back into session in July. He didn’t want anybody around between April and July. He wanted to do it on his own.
What I think – the other aspect of this – I mean, this part is – that part is fairly familiar history. The part that I don’t think people realize is how much Washington was at risk between mid-April and May 1st. This city was under sort of an informal siege mentality, with good reason. Both from Maryland and Virginia, there was talk of organizing invasion forces. The Secretary of the War – of the Confederacy announced after Sumter fell that no one knows how great this war is going to be, but I can guarantee you that on May 1st the Confederate flag will fly over the U.S. Capitol Building. And Jefferson Davis – the Confederate president’s wife, sent out invitations to her friends, all of whom had been Washington friends because her husband was a senator for years and Secretary of War for the Union when it was united, she sent out invitations to a White House soiree on May 1st. She said, “Please join President Jefferson Davis,” and the implication was that they would be in control.
And indeed, the tension between Lincoln’s call-up of troops and their arrival was almost more than Lincoln could bear. It was his first crisis. It sent him to bed almost paralyzed with anxiety, headaches, standing at the White House window looking anxiously for troops to come to the defense of Washington. And what happened was the Massachusetts regiment that was the first to hit the streets of Baltimore and had to change train – I forgot to mention that when I talked about how Lincoln decided to go through Baltimore in secret. In those days, the Amtrak lines were not contiguous. There were no Amtrak lines, obviously. Everybody had a separate railroad. So you would arrive from the north and you would have to find your way to another station, another terminus, and go further south. So that’s what happened to the Massachusetts division. They got in their railroad car and the railroad car was taken across the streets of Baltimore by horse, drawn by horses through trolley tracks, which is what happened to Lincoln’s car a couple of months before while he was sleeping at night.
Well, this car carrying the soldiers came under attack and the soldiers responded, and 12 people were killed. And in a way, it was the real opening of the Civil War. And it was also justification and validation of Lincoln’s decision to invade Baltimore. What Lincoln did in the next few hours is welcome the troops to Washington, visit those who were wounded in the attacks in Baltimore, have entrenchments built around Washington to protect it, and one more thing, and it’s important in this age of the Patriot Act and other legislation in the United States that’s subject to a lot of debate and discussion about whether it exceeds constitutional authority: Abraham Lincoln had the telegraph lines to Maryland cut. He had bridges destroyed. He had legislators who had announced their interest in calling a secession convention arrested. And when the circuit supreme court judge in Maryland, who happened to be the chief justice, Roger Taney, issued a writ of habeas corpus demanding that those people be released, Abraham Lincoln said I’m just ignoring it, and if makes a fuss, arrest him; he’s a Marylander, too.
So he abrogated all sorts of constitutional rights, suspended the writ, and prevented Maryland from seceding. Had he not done that – and we can argue the constitutional legitimacy of what he did, but had he not done that, Maryland would have seceded and Abraham Lincoln and his government would indeed have to find a place to relocate, and maybe Jefferson Davis and his wife Varina could have had a party on May 1st at the White House and maybe I wouldn’t be here today. (Laughter.) You’d have a southern historian here to talk about what happened.
So that’s the crisis of April 150 years ago, and I’m glad people are interested in it. And I’d love to answer any questions you have.
QUESTION: Thomas Paggini: I was in Charleston during the weekend, talking to people and seeing all the reenactments were being organized and so on. And you said – you mentioned this earlier, there is still discussion on on what the United States (inaudible) talking to people there in Charleston, an answer I have – often have note, it wasn’t really about slavery, it was about freedom, it was – so I was wondering if you could expand a little bit on the legacy this has still today in the South.
MR. HOLZER: Well, it’s an unfinished work, as Lincoln said at Gettysburg. The debate continues to go on. And the irony is ignored of the fact that what some people could call a fight for freedom embraced the idea of keeping 3 million people in chains. If you look at the state constitution of South Carolina that was created when the state entered the Union – I’m sorry, entered the Confederacy, not the Union, it is a constitution that says that this state and this new confederacy is based on the perpetuity of slavery, the idea of the white race being the supreme race and keeping the other race in a subservient position forever.
That was to me the obvious reason for the war, no matter how much people try to mask it in terms of state rights, liberties, non-interference from the federal government. You can make a very powerful case that Lincoln offered no threats to any slaveholders or any slaves – the slavery as it existed in South Carolina or any of the slave states. He made that manifestly clear. But there are groups in South Carolina, in Virginia, and in other of these states that perpetuate the idea that this was a holy war of independence for a, quote, “way of life,” without saying what the way of life required.
And I think for those of you who were here last year when the governor of Virginia announced the commemoration for the sesquicentennial, he announced that it would be meant to honor the brave white soldiers who defended their soil. And he was subjected to an understandable firestorm of criticism, and to his credit he’s really apologized over and over and over again for what he said and has taken major steps to make sure that African American history is studied and slavery is reintroduced into the schools. So he really learned the same lesson. Actually, Haley Barbour did the same thing, but we’ll leave that for 2012. I’ll remember it. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: May I --
MR. HOLZER: Of course.
QUESTION: -- add a question to his. Martin Klingst, Die Zeit, Germany, when you look at the Southern armies and the Southern generals, is it true that (inaudible) General Lee was one that really did not believe in slavery and was more fighting for the independence of the South and for states’ rights but less for continuing slavery?
MR. HOLZER: Well, Lee was one of these guys like George Washington who certainly had a great deal of elegance and charisma and charm and nobility. And he – also like Washington, he married a lady who was very wealthy and had a lot of slaves and happened to have a very nice house on the other side of the river run by slaves, and I think was completely devoted to the slave system. He was known, actually, for slave whippings, so he was not an easy taskmaster, nor was Washington when he had to contain runaways or do what had to be done to keep his, quote, “people,” or his, quote, “property,” in order.
I don’t think it’s – it’s not an accident that Lincoln tried very hard to make an example of Lee. He was a tough one to criticize because of this distinguished air about him and – because he was a very tough opponent on the battlefield. So it was Lincoln’s decision to annex his estate and, to add insult to injury, to turn it into a soldiers’ cemetery. So that’s how the Arlington Cemetery was born.
Lincoln had an African American valet – or I guess we call them body person today – a person who’s closer to and travels with him and helped him get – lay out his clothes and things like that. His name was William Johnson. He had come with him from Springfield, and he went with him to Gettysburg to help him. His name never appeared anywhere. It was only by the luckiest accident that we know anything about him. He – Lincoln got sick at Gettysburg on the way home on the train, came down with smallpox. And Johnson attended him, put a cloth on his head. If Gettysburg had been – the speech had been November 20th instead of November 19th, I don’t think he could have given it because he was so sick. He was out for four weeks. He had a rash on his face. He kept saying, “If there are any people who want jobs, let them come in because now I have something I can give everybody.”
But to make a long story short, a month later, if you look at the Washington newspapers, you’ll read the news that William Johnson has died, and he died of smallpox. I have no doubt that he caught it from Lincoln. But the reason I brought this long and sad story up is that Lincoln had him buried at Arlington, and he bought a headstone that said, “William Johnson, citizen.” And it’s still there; it’s on the tour, not the – it’s not – in the early part of the cemetery, and that’s a big decision by Lincoln because he was – he didn’t even buy a headstone for his own father even though he promised his stepmother he would do so before he left for Washington. He was not a big spender, Mr. Lincoln. For all his other fine attributes, charity is something that alluded him, donation. So this meant a lot to him.
QUESTION: Sven Omdal. And even if the attack on Fort Sumter is the point where – which is commemorated as the start of the war, is there another point of no return, earlier point of no return where war was inevitable? And if so, what kind of compromise could Lincoln have entered into before that to avoid the war?
MR. HOLZER: It’s so interesting because really this was the mother of all government shutdowns in a way in 1861, and it was very similar to that battle except that very nicely the Tea Party people have agreed to stay in the Union for now so they’re not threatening to start their own country. But Lincoln did offer some concessions. I mean, he was prepared – he said – although, I have a suspicion that he didn’t believe that this resolution would pass Congress, so he felt it safe to say so. But he agreed to a provision that slavery would be protected in the new constitutional amendment, protected in law forever, and that debate on slavery where it existed would be forbidden in Congress. It was drafted – it was passed as a 13th amendment to the Constitution.
Another great historical irony, Americans know that the 13th Amendment that was passed by the state freed slaves everywhere. Lincoln was president when that was ratified by – when it was – not when it was ratified, but when it was sent to the states by Congress. In fact, he signed his name to the resolution even though he was not required to in law. But there was a 13th amendment that would have perpetuated slavery. He not only agreed to it, he sent the document out when he became president to all the states as an official act of the chief magistrate and said, “This was just passed by Congress. I am doing my duty as chief magistrate by sending it to you, and you can do what you want with it basically.” So he was responsible for sending out a – it’s called a shadow amendment because by law it still exists. It was only passed by one state, Ohio, and technically it can still be passed if anyone wants to do something unusual for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, that would be unusual.
The law – I hope I’m remembering this right because I was a political press secretary in the ERA days. But the – when ERA was stalled in the states and not ratified, as you know, Congress passed a law saying every amendment has a finite time, and if it’s not passed by X, it dies. But this is grandfathered, so technically the old 13th amendment is still passable if we can maybe – I shouldn’t even announce that because – (laughter) – goodness knows. So I think there were compromises he would have been willing to do. He wasn’t a warmonger. I mean, he didn’t want to fight the war. But that’s the first flashpoint. My point that I was making about Fort Sumter is that it didn’t have to be the flashpoint. Baltimore was the real start of the war; that attack on the troops is what started the war.
QUESTION: Marcos Bassets, La Vanguardia, Spain. But what you’re saying is actually that Lincoln could have ruled our nation with slavery, even with slavery guaranteed by a constitutional amendment?
MR. HOLZER: He was willing to do it if it would avert war and if the seceding states would return to the Union. As a political genius, he knew that it wasn’t – that they weren’t going to realign that easily. But he was on record as saying he would do that, he would enforce the fugitive slave act which required people to return people to captivity even if they had reached the North. But there were things that – there were things he wouldn’t do. And what he wouldn’t do was agree to slavery extending to the Pacific under any circumstances, and that’s what – he said after that, Mexico, the Caribbean, and the slave power endures forever. So he always sought – he always looked to a way to end slavery, but again, that fine line between making war and making freedom was very difficult. And America was largely a racist nation in 1860. Even in the North, people were – may have been anti-slavery, but that’s probably mostly – except for the very enlightened abolitionists – was because they resented a system that had a labor advantage because the labor wasn’t paid.
MR. HOLZER: It’s complicated. If you look at – I tell people if you compare Abraham Lincoln’s attitude toward African Americans to George W. Bush’s, Abraham Lincoln is going to come up short. He was a 19th century man. He said, two years before he ran for president, that he did not believe that blacks should serve on juries or intermarry. He said it because it was the only way he could remain a viable candidate for senate in Illinois. He didn’t – I don't think he necessarily believed any differently in 1860 when he became president. What he said was in the right to eat the bread that he earns with his own hand, an African American is my equal and the equal of every human being. So natural rights he always believed in. Equal legal rights, we’re not sure about.
But he grows, he changes. He’s always anti-slavery, and the people he knew growing up and in Springfield were mostly domestics. He had an African American groom who took care of his horse, he had servants. He had a barber, who he actually liked very much, defended in a law case. I mean, he didn’t meet Sojourner Truth until he came to Washington. He didn’t meet and become a friend of Frederick Douglas’s until he came to Washington. And by realizing the potential of people and realizing that there were African Americans who were his equal, truly his equals in every way, intellectually included, I think he changed enormously.
QUESTION: Why so many Americans still deny that the slavery was the cause of the war?
MR. HOLZER: It’s a good question. Why are Americans still fighting this war? That’s the other – it’s the parallel question. I think it’s very hard for a defeated people to say we had a bad cause. It’s the one war we fought that where the conquered people, the losers, were in our own country. And to deny that there was justification for their deaths and their struggles and their sacrifices would be to deny their ancestors and deny their whole reason for being, so I think it’s very difficult. And it’s one of the great mysteries of American culture that this war still resonates the way it does. It’s – authors, novelists, historians have written about it. It’s the great unspoken what if that runs through American history, and everyone wants to keep refighting it or rethinking it or re-speculating about it.
But I think – historians have to be tough about the causes and not get caught up in this idea that it was to show independence from federal interference, because you can’t evade the slavery question. But I think it’s all about heritage and family and tradition and what they heard from their own parents and what their parents heard from their parents. And all of this culture of lost causes, it’s called, grew up in the absence of an alternative African American history. African American history wasn’t really taught in colleges and wasn’t taught in certainly schools in the South or the North for years and years and years. So you just sort of have – you have generations that were unschooled in that part of history.
QUESTION: Sven Omdal. Could you compare the commemoration 50 years ago and the commemorations now? How do you find that?
MR. HOLZER: Yes. The obvious thing is that 50 years ago there was a federal commission appointed by President Kennedy – actually, consecrated by President Eisenhower – and he appointed Ulysses S. Grant the fourth or the third to be the chairman of the commission. I know this story because I heard it from the young man who took the – who became the executive director. His name is James Robertson. He’s now an 80-something year old teacher at Virginia Tech. President Kennedy supposedly got to the presidency in January and very soon after, because he loved American history, he called General Grant and others in and said, “So what’s going to be happening as we start the centennial?” And they basically said I don't know. And within days President Kennedy had changed the entire staff of this group, and this young graduate student came on as executive director. He’s actually the man who found Lincoln’s catafalque in 1963 so that it could be used for Kennedy’s coffin when it was put on view at the Capitol Building in November.
But so there was a federal commission, and it got its act together very quickly. But it was a total mirror of the civil rights struggles that were going on at the time. The Southern people – the Southern delegations fought with the Northern delegations. When Kennedy got to Charleston, he watched the bombardment, the bombardment that took place 50 years ago, it was reenacted. And Kennedy liked that kind of thing. He liked the fireworks and the excitement. But there was an African American member of the centennial commission to stay appointed by a Northern state. When they got to South Carolina, she was told that she could not stay in the same hotel as the Northern members. Kennedy ordered the entire commission at a U.S. naval base nearby. He would not let them all stay at any hotel.
And throughout the next four or five years, there were constant fights as the Civil Rights Movement took shape. There were charges that demagogues were trying to use the centennial to embarrass the South and create momentum for the civil rights legislation. They didn’t want Dr. King to speak at the – they didn’t want to march on Washington. They thought it was taking advantage of the anniversary year of emancipation. So it was ugly. And in the end, it was insubstantial. I mean, I was a kid. I was – I won’t say exactly – let me see, how old was I when it started in 1961? I was 12. I should realize that it was 50 years ago. And I had fun, because I didn’t have a conscience, but I had an interest in military history and in history, so I was having a ball reading reproduction newspapers and watching Carl Sandburg on television. But it was totally without admission of the slavery issue.
So now we have much more consciousness about that. Virginia is sponsoring a huge African American education project, so, in fact, is South Carolina. There’s still a resistance to it from others, but the school systems in the states are doing what they are supposed to be doing, and that’s the major difference. But if you – there was a wonderful book called Troubled Commemoration about the 1961 to ‘65 debacle and the fighting about civil rights within the commemoration.
QUESTION: Martin Klingst. Could you tell us a little about the debate about the Confederate flag? I know it was down in South Carolina they removed it from the capitol dome. And – but actually, I look at it when there was Martin Luther King’s day (inaudible) in 2008 and Obama was speaking in front of the capitol. But actually, they changed – they put it on the bottom of the stairs and actually can see it more visible than it used to be when it was on top of the capitol.
MR. HOLZER: The – as far as I can tell, the objection to that flag, to the stars and bars, is that it was used as the emblem of resistance to civil rights, is that it made its real entrance into the culture in the 1960s and was imposed onto state flags at that period. And it is not the Confederate national flag; it’s the battle flag, so it has extra and challenging meaning because it’s a flag that suggests resistance and violence. And the objection to is that it was used by Lester Maddox and George Wallace and all those folks who opposed integration. So I sympathize with it enormously. And since it doesn’t play a major role in the Confederate nationalism so much as it does in a 20th century anti-integration, pro-segregation policy, it’s a tough battle. But I understand the objections to it fully.
QUESTION: Could you say something about how Abraham Lincoln is being perceived in the South today? When you go to the Lincoln Memorial, it’s like a holy place up here. But how is he conceived in South Carolina and –
MR. HOLZER: Well, I think there are actually – Lincoln’s image itself ring in two quarters, I think, among the most progressive people and also among African American his reputation has declined since the 1960s.
MR. HOLZER: Well, I want to answer your Southern question first. I think he’s generally perceived as the enemy still in many Southern quarters because, by his signature and his encouragement, the war that some Southerners believed he would never wage to gain control – federal control back in the South was waged. Because of him, to their perception, lives were lost, their ancestors were lost, their culture was destroyed, their homes, their possessions, their cities. And I think in many quarters, he’s seen as someone who abrogated constitutional rights, who was a dictator, who was a tyrant. If you read John Wilkes Booth’s rantings in his diary, it’s racist. And he definitely – there was a racist slant to his attack – his motivation for his plot against Lincoln. But it was also that he thought Lincoln was a tyrant. The word “tyrant” appears, and I think that there’s still a lot of that in the South.
In the African American community, there has been a constant, growing – constantly growing movement to give African Americans themselves more credit for stimulating their freedom. That is, the African Americans who fled into Union lines before the Emancipation Proclamation and sort of forced Lincoln’s hand in many ways because they were so numerous, and they had no real status in law, although the military recognized them as contraband of war. Hence, they became known as contraband.
So there’s a constant debate about how much credit Lincoln deserved. And it’s hindered by the fact that he said racist things in his past, that he talked about deportation or colonization until late in his presidency, told African Americans to their faces that we could never live together, we should be separated, go to Africa or the Caribbean where the curse is not upon you, things like that. So it’s tough. With more knowledge and more vigor in the African American community about their control of their own destiny, to – for Lincoln to maintain this great white father image that he had for so long. So he’s sort of under siege from the left and the right here, as the – different from the iconic figure he was once regarded as universally in the North.
There are many African American historians like Skip Gates who remember Lincoln’s portrait hanging in their parents’ homes. And it changed with Dr. King. Dr. King’s portrait came first, alongside – so this was in the days when people still put – hung up pictures in their homes. Now they’re all on screens and screen savers and things. But first came Dr. King and then Malcolm X. And when Malcolm X came, Lincoln – Dr. King moved over and Lincoln vanished altogether. Now there are African American heroes, heroes for freedom that could replace the great emancipator as – of equal stature. Maybe it was inevitable, but I’d like to think that there’s a – Lincoln deserves enormous credit for the emancipation part of the story, as complicated as he made it by couching it in military terms and as complicated as the whole story is, like the whole Sumter and secession and war story.
MODERATOR: We have time for one more quick question. (Inaudible.)
QUESTION: Martin Klingst. Could you – well, all presidents like to draw parallels to former presidents. And Obama started with Lincoln and he ended up with Ronald Reagan. (Laughter.) But –
MODERATOR: Two Republicans.
QUESTION: What parallels can you see or what –
MR. HOLZER: Well, first I would point out that every – almost every American president has seen a bit of Lincoln in themselves. And even before they do, they try to identify with Lincoln. This was certainly true of the Republicans in the 19th century. Theodore Roosevelt was a huge – as we move into the 20th century, was a huge fan of Abraham Lincoln, carried – he wore a ring with Lincoln’s hair in his – in the signet ring, a lock of Lincoln’s hair, given to him by John Hay, his Secretary of State, who had been Lincoln’s clerk in the White House. There was a continuum. He had seen Lincoln’s funeral in New York City as a child. Then Woodrow Wilson decided that Lincoln was really his guy. And there was a huge fight in the newspapers, Democratic and Republican editorials, unheard of that a Democrat should claim Lincoln, particularly a southerner. He said he was from New Jersey, but he was really from Virginia.
But Wilson, Taft, and TR all fought for who was going to be around to lead the Lincoln Centennial. Wilson cited Lincoln as a reason to go to war in World War I. And then FDR, who did not get the black vote in 1932 – it was so reliably Lincoln Republican that it voted for Herbert Hoover, amazingly enough, in 1932. FDR thought that this had to change, so he began quoting Lincoln during the Depression, saying Lincoln would’ve fought the Depression, Lincoln would’ve created the NRA, the WPA, he would have packed the court, et cetera, et cetera. He even hired Robert E. Sherwood, the playwright who wrote Abe Lincoln in Illinois, as his speechwriter, peppering Lincoln in the discussion. I mean, what happened was that the – eventually, the black vote was Roosevelt’s and it has stayed reliably Democratic ever since.
But I’ve talked about Lincoln with four presidents. But even before that, I mean, Lyndon Johnson says, “I’m not leaving Vietnam; Lincoln would not have left Vietnam.” Richard Nixon said Lincoln would never give in to congressional critics. He didn’t testify to the Committee on the Conduct of the War; I’m not testifying before the Ervin committee; I’m locking myself in the White House. They all do it. George W. Bush had his White House portrait painted in front of a picture of Lincoln – a painting of Lincoln called “The Peacemaker.” He loved Lincoln. And you know what his – is this going too long? I just want to tell my presidential stories for a minute.
MODERATOR: Just a couple more minutes.
MR. HOLZER: All right.
MODERATOR: We love presidential stories.
MR. HOLZER: President Bush saw that he had in common with Lincoln that they both left a child buried in their home cities before they left for the presidency. Bill Clinton, huge Lincoln fan. President Bush talked about Lincoln and the suspending the writ and emergency powers. President Obama, a student of Lincoln, announced his candidacy on the steps of the Springfield state capitol. I’ll tell you one thing that those two had in common. They were both pre-presidential bestselling authors. Abraham Lincoln’s Lincoln-Douglas Debates was a big bestseller and so was Obama’s book. And Obama’s a great student of Lincoln. I think he’s gone on to Roosevelt, maybe a different version of Roosevelt, not a different version of Reagan.
So it’s great fun. That’s a whole track I love to talk about, how the American presidents always try to see Lincoln in themselves. If they see should themselves in Lincoln, that would be better for all of us. But it never ends.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Mr. Holzer.
MR. HOLZER: Thank you.
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