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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
Right. But the abolitionists were not the majority in the nation. They were not the majority of the Republican party. Had Lincoln been able to win the war the first year, in 1861, then what probably would have happened would have been a gradual emancipation over the rest of the nineteenth century, as sketched out dramatically and beautifully in his Second Annual Message to Congress in ’62.
Do you think he really believed in gradual emancipation as a practicality?
I love that look of disbelief on your face, because it suggests that Lincoln was brilliantly duplicitous—that he didn’t really believe the stuff he was saying, that he had abolition in his heart of hearts all along, and that he was kidding everybody. I don’t think he was kidding everybody. He always held a personal aversion to slavery, but he always had it clear in his mind that that was not his first official priority. His first priority was saving the Union. Second priority was freeing the slaves, slowly, over the course of a generation. And not by stealing property but by paying for the property. Compensated gradual emancipation was his policy.
Sending them to Africa?
Now another strange thing that most historians, with the exception of Gabor Boritt, have neglected is Lincoln’s plan for voluntary deportation of three to four million people—a cockamamie scheme. Boritt’s view, as I understand it, is that this was a form of self-kidding, a denial of reality in order to move past the problem. Or maybe he was saying to the North, “Don’t worry, all these freed slaves aren’t going to come up and take away jobs in the Northern cities because we’ve got this colonization plan. We’ll either send them back to Africa or to develop Central America.” Did Lincoln really think that he could ship the slaves out? In this case I think he was deliberately misleading.
Given your views on the avoidability of the war, whom would you have voted for in 1860?
Why wouldn’t you have voted for Douglas?
I would have voted more for the man than for the policy. I think Lincoln had a lot to offer as a campaigner, and the Democrats were too split between Douglas and Breckinridge to govern. I think the Cooper Union speech pretty much put Lincoln over as the candidate in 1860, and he really did tie Douglas in knots in those ’58 debates.
Would you have had any problem voting to reelect him?
Against McClellan, no. At that point in 1864, you had to make a decision: Do you vote for letting the South secede or fight on to the end for the Union? In that case I would have gone with Lincoln on insisting on majority rule.
As a novelist you give some of your minor characters qualities that make the story more interesting. But are you ever worried about unfairness in such cases? The most conspicuous case I think is that of poor Sen. Henry Wilson. You describe him as having very bizarre sexual inclinations. Is there any basis to that?
Yes, there is a basis to that—the hints dropped by Rose Greenhow, the Rebel spy. There was talk at the time about Wilson’s being too close to “the wild Rose.” But in my underbook I very carefully point out that all the talk about Henry Wilson’s being the source of the information about Bull Run was probably false. Although for dramatic purposes I give Wilson a pretty hard time in the novel, I protect his reputation in the underbook. Now anybody who’s interested in Henry Wilson, who was one of the founders of the Republican party—
And later became Vice-President of the United States.
—and whose desk sat in Richard Nixon’s presidential office for many years, under the false assumption it was Woodrow Wilson’s desk. A slight mistake of identity. But that’s why I provide an underbook—to occasionally rectify an author’s plunges into the dramatic.
To what extent did your own White House experience make any difference in dealing with the Lincoln administration?
Oh, a lot. For example, two members of the Lincoln cabinet referred to a memorial—the word then for a memorandum—promised by Montgomery Blair, the Postmaster General. I’ve been in those cabinet meetings, and I know that you don’t promise them a memorandum without at least sending some kind of innocuous paper the next day, because everybody’s expecting it. So, years ago, I asked the Library of Congress about that Montgomery Blair memo. After a while they called and said, “We found that memo you were asking about filed with the Chase papers.” They sent me a photocopy of it, and it immediately cast new light on the meeting. I had that hunch strictly from having attended cabinet meetings and knowing that if you promise a paper, it must be around somewhere.
Do you think things have changed a great deal? Or is it just the scale that has changed?
The Justice Department in 1861 consisted of eight people. So, yes, scale has changed. And a lot is lost in an enormous executive bureaucracy. The benefits of having a small cabinet nearby are considerable. But any department heads you surround yourself with have their differing motivations and their jealousies and sometimes their hatreds. What we have now in place is a White House palace guard, which I think institutionally is worse than a cabinet that you manipulate or that tries to manipulate you. Yes, my life with Nixon was most instructive when it came to writing about Lincoln.