Abraham Lincoln as Wartime President: 4 Questions for Lincoln Scholar Harold Holzer

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

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Image courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming 2017 CWI conference about their talks. Today we are speaking with Mr. Harold Holzer, one of the nation’s leading authorities on Abraham Lincoln and the political culture of the Civil War era.  A prolific writer and lecturer, as well as a highly sought-after guest on television, Mr. Holzer served for six years as the Chairman of The Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation and for ten years as the co-chair of the U.S. Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.  In 2008, he was the recipient of the National Humanities Medal.  He currently serves as the Jonathan F. Fanton Director of Hunter College’s Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute.  Mr. Holzer has authored, co-authored, or edited 52 books and 560 articles and reviews for both popular magazines and scholarly journals.  His most recent major work, Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War For Public Opinion (Simon & Schuster, 2014), won numerous prestigious awards, including the Lincoln Prize from the Gilder Lehrman Institute.

CWI:  How did Lincoln’s relationship with the Constitution, the American people, his political allies and adversaries change or evolve over the course of the war?  What were Lincoln’s priorities as a wartime president, and how did he strive to balance conflicting priorities?

HOLZER: Lincoln did a Blondin-like tightrope act as Civil War President—Blondin, by the way, was the most famous tightrope walker of his day—most adroitly when he tried to balance the interests, and maintain the support, of both abolitionists and conservatives.  Nowhere was this delicate touch more urgently required than in his effort to maintain the loyalty of the slaveholding Border States, many of whose residents were dubious about Union, and certainly opposed to emancipation.  That Lincoln actually gained support over the years in a once-hostile state like Maryland, where he had been driven in 1861 to wearing a disguise and sneaking through the state to reach Washington for his inaugural, represented one of his greatest political triumphs.  He thought so, too.

CWI:  What historical precedents or past personal experiences did Lincoln draw on to inform his leadership and decision-making as a wartime president?  What aspects of his presidential leadership were mostly, if not entirely new for an American president and the American people?  What were the lasting legacies of his leadership for the presidential office?

HOLZER: Probably the most enduring of Lincoln’s many legacies was the broad assumption of executive power.  He called it the “war power,” said its imposition was required to save the country, and insisted it would be cheerfully relinquished as soon as the war was won. His precedent-setting actions, like raising armies without the consent of Congress, limiting dissent, and imposing military justice, have remained among the founding principles of strong national government, and the dominance of the executive branch, traditions forged in the wake of the Lincoln presidency.  Recent re-examination of these precedents has stirred a new chapter in anti-Lincoln literature.  The most politically conservative of historians now blast Lincoln as the founder of federal and executive overreach.

CWI:  How does a study of Lincoln’s wartime presidency help inform our broader understanding of the complexities and challenges of American political leadership?

HOLZER:  Lincoln teaches us much about the complexities of leadership, particularly how to cut through them… how, for example, to use symbolism, oratory, public appeal, and humor to forge what was almost a cult of personality during his presidency (as well as an un-reconstructable well of opposition).  In other words, amidst unimaginable complexities—new technologies, expanded means of communication, intense press scrutiny (all this sounds a bit like 2016, doesn’t it?), not to mention rebellion, emancipation, new currency and unheard-of taxation—Lincoln always strove to keep the message simple, and his political enemies off guard.  What a master he was at puppet-mastering the media while keeping one eye firmly fixed on the verdict of history.

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Poignant political cartoon published in Harpers Weekly, April, 1865. Image courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia Libraries.

CWI:  There has been significant interest, both amongst scholars and the general public, in comparing and contrasting the wartime presidencies of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis.  In what ways were their presidencies similar or different, and why?

HOLZER:  I think James McPherson has provided the best insights into the presidencies of Lincoln and Davis—both in his seminal works on their accomplishments (and deficiencies) as commanders-in-chief, and in a brilliant article he authored decades ago on their respective communication skills: Davis, through rather tedious, uninspiring prose, and Lincoln often through understandable, appealing metaphors simply wrought but rich in power.  But that’s just the starting point.  First of all, Lincoln was a master politician operating in a political milieu that saw no timeouts during the Civil War; his Confederate counterpart on the other hand was a one-term, non-partisan, unelected President who never had to face re-election.  Where Lincoln multiplied his advantage exponentially was in his genius at reaching out to foes, reaching compromise, making himself accessible, inspiring genuine affection, and, amazingly, seeing war strategy and tactics in their broadest and most modern terms.  Davis was no match for him in any of the categories above.  And here’s one more element worth remembering: Davis suffered from a crippling combination of ailments and diseases during the war.  Lincoln, melancholia aside, maintained amazingly good health and energy.  He was the superior president even in medical terms, and it is fascinating to conjecture what might have happened during the war had Lincoln been a wreck and Davis hale and hearty.

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Alexander Gardner photograph of President Lincoln visiting with Union officers on the battlefield, 1862. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

If you are interested in hearing more from Harold Holzer, consider registering for our 2017 summer conference

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