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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’ spriorities
December 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 8
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.”
You’re rather sympathetic toward McClellan.
I give him a fair shake. After all, he saved the Union twice. He was one of the great defensive generals. I also resented the way John Hay used him to build the Lincoln myth, by making McClellan look like a lazy, disloyal commander. He was not a great general; he was not a winner. He was only not-a-loser.
But McClellan had his own political purpose as well as a military one. His political purpose was not to “win” the war. He wanted a negotiated peace that would permit slavery in the states in which it already existed and would forbid its extension—which was, of course, Lincoln’s promise at the beginning of the war as well. Lincoln resisted a negotiated peace mightily, realizing it would lead either to secession later on or to the continuance of slavery. But slavery was not the main problem in the first year of the war.
What changes did you make between your first and second drafts?
I developed the characters more. In my first draft John C. Breckinridge was only a symbolic character, a Hamlet, a man who couldn’t decide between North and South—representing the border-state philosophy. Then I realized that he was a hell of an interesting human being. Yet he lacked the central purpose, the central idea, that Lincoln had. Breckinridge foresaw the horrors of war. Lincoln saw the horrors of war, too, but he had something more important in mind.
You are implicitly critical of historians for not pursuing certain points.
One thing that troubles me is the distortion by most historians of the Second Annual Message to Congress, the one with a magnificent passage about the “dogmas of the quiet past,” and our need to disenthrall ourselves, to “think anew and act anew.” But Lincoln wasn’t talking about the Emancipation Proclamation at that point. He was talking about his plan to postpone the slavery issue for thirty or forty years—a planned gradual emancipation, a plan which, when it was not taken up by the Congress, was dropped. Historians have taken Lincoln’s beautiful rhetoric and transferred it to the nonrhetorical Emancipation Proclamation—which, as Richard Hofstadter rightly said, has all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading. A speech about a suggested gradualist compromise should not be applied to emancipation by proclamation just because the language soars.
I resent it when writers use history with a special point of view and twist or warp it.
Do you share the general disapproval of Sandburg’s work?
Yes. And Sandburg drives you crazy because he doesn’t provide any source notes. For the last twenty-five years a whole phalanx of historians has said, “Let’s take a new look at Lincoln.” But most Americans still go for the Sandburg legend. Yet, quite frankly, we wouldn’t be where we are if it weren’t for our having Sandburg’s myth to react to.
I see that in a footnote you take the view that the Civil War could have been avoided.
That’s a great controversy. Breckinridge in my book represents the people who feel it could have been avoided. The Lincoln mythmakers are the ones in the forefront of those saying, “No, war was inevitable, an irrepressible conflict.” I do think that the war might have been avoided by urgent, early advocacy of something like Lincoln’s scheme of compensated gradual emancipation, and by the emergence of a few good realists in the South. But once you accept the thesis that Lincoln was willing to fight a war over majority rule, then the question is, How far back do you have to go to find out when that terrible road could have been averted?
If the abolitionists of the North had been more restrained and had not carried the fear of ending slavery into the hearts of Southerners, then the Northern moderates, like Lincoln, could have stuck with their policy of the containment of slavery, and slavery would have been forced out, or isolated, as America grew, and the natural moral urgency of human beings would have caused the evil to wither away.
You have a dialogue in which John C. Breckinridge says that slavery is getting increasingly unprofitable and so on, and Albert Sidney Johnston points out he’s quite wrong, that slavery is getting more profitable. The prices of slaves are increasing. Why do you think that a system as pervasive as slavery could have been abolished by any other way than by the war?
The key to America in the nineteenth century was growth and expansion, particularly in Texas and to the West. With slavery permitted out there, there would have been an increasing resentment by farmers and others in not only the North but the West at this unfair system that they had to compete with. There would have been economic pressure not only to limit but to reduce slavery without a war. It could have been avoided—at the cost of the continuance of a lot of human slavery for a generation.
Or more. And that’s a great cost. Against that we have to weigh the cost of six hundred thousand lives lost.
And also the cost of the repression of the moral impulses of a lot of Americans.
True enough. Absolutely.