Lincoln Fiction & Fact


It’s so hard to make close judgments when an event is unfolding. We know now, for example, that in the 1930s the German-American Bund and its leader, Fritz Kuhn, were a bunch of clowns and, moreover, that the German embassy in Washington regarded them as an embarrassment. But at the time, not knowing these things, a responsible government must take precautions.

Well, Presidents err on the side of safety, and it always seems safer to crack down on dissent—which makes it all the more important for historians to denounce unnecessary crackdowns in retrospect. It’s not the job of historians to accept rationalizations. It’s the job of a historian to judge.

We have a clearer view now of what civil liberties means than we did during the Civil War. Civil liberties evolved when the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments provided the means of extending the Bill of Rights through the process of incorporation. The “clear and present danger” test was not even laid down till 1919. In Civil War days people weren’t thinking about civil liberties with such clarity.

In the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary eras, weren’t we concerned about how we restrict the power of government?

Yes, but even Jefferson, though he was a great believer in the abstract in freedom of the press, sent a letter to Governor McKean of Pennsylvania encouraging him to crack down on Federalist newspapers, under the law of seditious libel. The First Amendment was a restraint on Congress. It was not a restraint on state legislatures.

I don’t think we demean Lincoln by criticizing some of the things he did during the war.

Was it a restraint on the President?

It said Congress shall pass no law.

If Congress shall pass no law, can’t it be deduced that the President shall execute no law?

I agree that Lincoln overreached on habeas corpus, though he did eventually get a law passed. But the body of civil liberties wasn’t as clear in people’s minds in the 1860s as it is today—I hope.

You do think he overreached on habeas corpus?

Well, I would qualify that. I think the drafters of the Constitution probably intended that the power to suspend habeas corpus lay with Congress. I also think that emergency prerogative can be invoked by Presidents only when the life of the nation is genuinely at stake and when it’s purely for the duration of the emergency. If possible, you should get congressional sanction for what you do. The life of the nation was at stake in 1861, and on those terms Lincoln’s action was semidefensible, as one might defend Roosevelt’s policy in getting into an undeclared naval war with Germany in late 1941.

I think that Lincoln didn’t realize the dangerous precedent he was setting for future Presidents. Of course, the answer to that is: When you’re in extremis, the country’s coming apart, and you’ve got a rebellion on your hands, you’re not worried about precedent. Perhaps the answer really is in the Supreme Court’s Milligan decision in 1866, striking down actions of Lincoln’s during the war. I don’t think we demean Lincoln, or reduce his stature, by criticizing some of the things he did during the war. He wasn’t a god; he was a President. He was our best President, but we can learn from his shortcomings and his mistakes.

The major themes of your book are the vindication of majority rule and the problem of defending a democratic government democratically—and then within that framework, the movement of Lincoln’s purpose from the war for the Union to the war to end slavery. Were these things in your mind when you began?

Only some of them were. I wrote this book twice. I wrote a draft, and then, having learned where the theme led me, I went back and rewrote it. The book ends on the first day of 1863. I wasn’t writing a history of the Civil War. I was writing a book about a theme—the irony of losing some freedom in the process of defending and extending freedom. When I finished writing the first draft, then I knew what the book was about. I went back and proceeded to rewrite it.

I developed the controversy over the war power and the need for a President who could defend the Presidency. One thing many Americans don’t know about Lincoln is how he had to resist encroachments on his presidential power: by the Congress, by the radical elements of his own party, by his own cabinet—which nearly staged a coup, with Stanton and Chase trying to tell him how the war should be run—and perhaps by General McClellan, who, for all Lincoln knew, might turn around, change front, seize Washington, and become dictator. There was talk at that time of a military dictatorship. This fighting was all taking place on the Northern side—and we’re not even discussing the threat from the army of the South.

I also became interested in how Presidents manipulate the press. Lincoln had his favorites among the press, as all Presidents do, and he cozened The New York Times and worried about the New York Tribune. But he usually refrained from stopping generals in the field, like Sherman and Grant, from cracking down on correspondents. He took a certain glee in manipulating public opinion.

When you began, did you have the idea of organizing the book around personalities? Each major section pivots on a particular individual.

History is about people, and I enjoyed putting myself inside the head of a character and becoming that character. That’s why I hope there are no one-sided characters there, because as you get inside their heads, you begin to say, “Well, there’s a good reason for this.”