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Lincoln Fiction & Fact
A new novel about Lincoln examines questions about civil liberties in wartime, staff loyalties and disloyalties, and especially, Lincoln’s priorities
December 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 8
But if you have such a scrupulous concern for truth, why didn’t you just write history instead of writing a novel?
I felt that I could reveal more of the truth by using fiction. I was trying to reconstruct the way it really was. I’d worked in the White House. I’d seen the vorpal blade go snicker-snack. I knew how it was in the cabinet and how different men with different interests operated around the place. So in reading about the meeting of July 22,1862, when emancipation was announced by Lincoln to his stunned cabinet, I felt I had a pretty good idea of the way it really was. If I thought of writing it as history, I was afraid I couldn’t make it come alive.
More important, I think you can get at the truth in a novel without the hangups of a historian. You are freer to say what was in Salmon P. Chase’s mind when he did not embrace emancipation —after he had seemed to be for emancipation all along. Historians can only touch on motives; they can’t really say, “This is what motivated him.” Novelists can.
Why a novel about Lincoln?
All my life I’ve been a Lincoln buff and a Civil War buff—because I’ve felt that that’s where the crisis of American politics lies. At first I was hooked, like most people, on the Sandburg mythology. I remember I went to the Lincoln Memorial during the time of troubles here in Washington, in the seventies after Kent State, and the impression there is of Lincoln in the temple, of Lincoln as demigod. Then I came to feel that you can never appreciate Lincoln encumbered by reverence, or really understand what the Civil War was about, or understand the impact that war has on us today. That’s the root of my interest in Lincoln.
The closer you come to Lincoln, the more you like him. He was wrong sometimes, and could be cruel. But the greatness of Lincoln was his purposefulness. He saw something that few others saw: that the democratic experiment centered on the Union and that majority rule was everything. The minute you allowed secession, you made democracy an absurdity—because what would happen would be continued subdivision. Even the Confederacy, in time, had to recognize its own dangers of secession.
Lincoln had to keep vindicating majority rule, no matter what. Free the slaves or don’t free the slaves, crack down on civil liberties or ease up on them—everything was toward a single purpose, and that was to win the war and, by winning the war, to enforce majority rule. That purposefulness got me. Here was a man who knew his priorities. He had one grand, overriding priority.
The other thing that interested me about those times was the question of the limits of dissent. To what degree must you curtail individual liberties to protect national security? How severely do you crack down on dissenters who may weaken your ability to conduct a war? There’s no straight answer to that. It differs in each case. But the question about the rights and limits of dissent has to be asked. We forget that Lincoln was on the wrong side of the question from the point of view of most of us today. I think historians have been too kind to Lincoln, excusing him, for example, for the way he handled the suspension of habeas corpus.
The right to suspend habeas corpus, while not specifically assigned, lies in the section of the Constitution dealing with the powers of Congress.
That’s right. And when that point was made by Justice Taney at the time, Lincoln and his supporters said, “Well, Congress is not in session; therefore, the Commander in Chief, the President, has the right under the Constitution to do it.” The practical answer to that, of course, would be: “Why don’t you call Congress into session?” Well, he didn’t, in my opinion because he didn’t want Congress looking over his shoulder at the beginning of the war. What you can do with a novel is throw yourself right into the maelstrom of that controversy.
Civil liberties in the Civil War: Do you think that James G. Randall in his Constitutional Problems under Lincoln and Harold Hyman in his A More Perfect Union are too lenient in their judgment of Lincoln?
Yes. I’ve talked to Professor Hyman a couple of times about this. He points out that the Confederates were fighting a real war and appeared for a time to be winning. This was not like in the Nixon days—a bunch of mainly young guys waving signs and shouting. Those fellows back in 1861 were shooting.
I still think that Randall and Hyman err on the side of reverence. Gabor Boritt, the Lincoln scholar who checked my manuscript for errors—and who disagrees with some of my judgments—tells me that new scholarship reveals there weren’t thirteen thousand arrests for dissent, only nine thousand arrests, and that wasn’t so bad. But I think the more we look back, the more we understand that crackdowns on dissent don’t really add to national security. They only exacerbate the dissent and weaken the system. Both on practical and on idealistic terms, repression is wrong. And dissent is not really a danger—unless there’s a riot that stops your recruitment drive when you desperately need the troops.
Sure. That letter to Erastus Corning was a letter that people who love Lincoln wished he hadn’t written. “Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wily agitator who induces him to desert?” That’s good cornball demagoguery, but it’s wrong.