December 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 8
A new novel about Lincoln examines questions about civil liberties in wartime, staff loyalties and disloyalties, and especially, Lincoln’s priorities
This interview took place at the end of May in William Safire’s office at the Washington bureau of The New York Times. Safire is a trim and affable man of fifty-seven. We had first met in 1971 at the house of the Washington columnist Rowland Evans, Jr. Our host had advertised Safire in advance as the compulsively alliterative speech writer for the then Vice-President, Spiro T. Agnew (“the nattering nabobs of negativism”), and also as one of the few members of the Nixon troupe who dared circulate at large in Georgetown. While disapproving of Safire in principle, I found him, as too often happens, quite amiable in practice.
My suspicions were not, however, entirely dispelled. When the Times took him on as a columnist a couple of years later, I reproached Arthur O. Sulzberger, the Times publisher, and predicted that the paper would regret the decision. I could not have been more wrong. While I don’t suppose I agree very often with Safire’s political ruminations, I have come to admire him for his independence of mind, for his capacity to dig out news as well as to opine about it, and for his literary exuberance and wit.
What subverts those who deplore Safire’s politics most of all is his infatuation with the English language. Even his most resolute critics succumb to his weekly column on linguistic use and abuse in the The New York Times Sunday Magazine. Safire’s Political Dictionary is a most valuable and entertaining work. The first edition came out in 1968 under the title The New Language of Politics. The Political Dictionary, a third edition, was published ten years later. I keep urging Safire to get out another edition in order to incorporate new words added to the language of politics by the Reagan administration, such as sleaze.
Safire’s zeal for politics and for words is matched by his zeal for American history. He is a buff of the first water. In 1985 he founded a society of former presidential speech writers, and seeking a name for the group, he uncovered the forgotten figure of Judson C. Welliver, who adorned the administration of Warren G. Harding as the first full-time White House speech writer. (At the last annual banquet of the Judson C. Welliver Society, Welliver’s delightful daughter appeared and stole the show.) Safire’s bookshelves are lined with scholarly monographs, and he relishes unmasking professional scholars as much as he relishes unmasking professional politicians. He is hardly infallible on either political or historical questions; but his mind is open, his apprehension is quick, and his curiosity unlimited.
I am still not clear how he ever found time both to ride daily herd on politicians and weekly herd on writers and also to turn out Freedom, his twelve-hundred-page novel. Anyway, there it is—and every enthusiast for the history of the Republic will find both instruction and enjoyment in it.
Freedom is a historical novel about Lincoln and the Civil War. You must have been in mid-passage when Gore Vidal’s Lincoln came out in 1984.
Right, and I worried about whether he would cover the same themes that I was covering. But I relaxed when I read it because he covers four years of the Presidency and I cover twenty months. He sticks to Lincoln and I go out in the field. We’re dealing with the same characters, but our themes are different.
Do you feel that you’ve learned anything from the historical novelists?
I learned a lot about frustration. I would read a historical novel and wonder what was true and what wasn’t; and it bothered the hell out of me. I resent it when writers use history and overlay it with a special point of view and sometimes twist or warp it. I’m hooked on full disclosure. And I decided that the best way to achieve it is to say to the reader: “This is true; this is not true; this character’s real; this character’s not; here’s what I’m doing. Join me. And if you don’t like it, write your own book.” At least I’m not misleading the reader.
I think that your appendix of sources and commentary, which you call the “underbook,” is a brilliant device that I’ve never seen before. Was that in your mind from the beginning?
Freedom had a long genesis. I started about ten years ago and made my deal with Doubleday about eight years ago, just on the basis of an untitled novel about Abraham Lincoln. That got me started putting the words together. My pledge to myself was that I was going to do an underbook. I didn’t call it that at first, though; I called it “source notes.” I could do as a novelist what I could not do as a columnist, which is to reveal my sources. I guard my sources carefully in my column, but in a book the fun is to say, “Here are four sources, the fifth one is unreliable, and here’s what I think of the sources.” Historians do that all the time. I’m doing it for the novel reader. By putting it in an underbook rather than footnoting, I’m saying, “This is a novel.” Read the novel first.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Your scenario requires that abolitionists be moderates and gradualists. But would not this scenario have been impossible—just because of what you called a few moments ago the “natural moral urgency of human beings”? How can you blame the abolitionists for being immoderate? After all, slavery was really a terrible thing.
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.