Friday, March 13, 2009

Lincoln Symposium at the Library of Congress

On March 4, the Library of Congress sponsored a symposium on Abraham Lincoln, held in conjunction with their fantastic bicentennial exhibition "With Malice Toward None" (which I will overview in an upcoming entry). The symposium, held on the 148th anniversary of Lincoln's first inauguration (and, though unsaid, the 144th anniversary of Lincoln's second inauguration), featured six lectures, mostly focusing on aspects directly related to Lincoln's presidency.

I was fortunate to attend the lectures, held in the Coolidge Auditorium in the basement of the Jefferson Building. While the room was warm and there weren't long enough breaks (leading to information overload by the end of the day), the audience was large and rightfully appreciative of the speakers, who offered mostly excellent and accessible remarks.

Yesterday, the Library of Congress uploaded the lectures onto the webcast section of their website, meaning that you can listen to any or all of them -- total running time with introductions and questions is 320 minutes. The first three lectures (Holzer, McPherson, Miller) are here; the second three (Morel, Wilson, Leonard) are here. [Until I attended the symposium, I had no idea that the Library of Congress was putting such things online. Kudos to them for embracing the technology and broadening the reach of the Library's programming.]

While the six lectures were on a variety of themes, it was surprising how there were similar undercurrents throughout several, and occasionally all, of the talks. Race was a key issue in all of the talks in one way or another, owing to the persistent questions about whether Lincoln was a racist throughout his life. Another consistent theme was Lincoln's determined self-improvement: whether learning to be commander in chief, or carefully crafting his messages and speeches, Lincoln was persistent in his attempts to become more capable at his tasks. The most surprising thread through the day was the repeated focus -- and repeated quoting -- of Lincoln's 1854 speech at Peoria, debating Stephen Douglas on the rationale for the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Evidently Lewis Lehrman's recent book, Lincoln at Peoria, is much more influential than I had realized.

A synopsis of the six lectures follows, with highlights of things that piqued my interest in the various talks.

Harold Holzer, co-chair of the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and author or editor of multiple Lincoln books, led off the symposium with the day's most polished lecture, "Lincoln Comes to Washington: The Journey of a President-Elect." Drawn from his newest monograph, Lincoln President-Elect, Holzer presented a balanced lecture of fact, analysis, and colorful anecdotes. He centered his remarks on an extended look at Lincoln's Farewell Address, given to his neighbors at the train station in Springfield on February 11 when he boarded his train to Washington DC.

In perhaps his most interesting point, Holzer paid particular attention to how Lincoln compares himself to Washington: "Today I leave you; I go to assume a task more difficult than that which devolved upon General Washington." Such a blatant equal comparison to Washington was highly unusual, if not almost impolitic at the time. Holzer carefully showed that it's inclusion in these unplanned remarks was not accidental, given that Lincoln uses variations of the comparison in later speeches along his journey from Springfield to Washington. The larger implications of this dramatic comparison, where Lincoln suggests he might be Washington's equal rather than merely his successor, were left unexplored, owing to time constraints and the otherwise general nature of the enjoyable lecture.

Pulitzer-Prize winning historian James McPherson followed with a talk on "Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief," no doubt drawn from McPherson's recent Lincoln Prize-winner, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief. McPherson, a noted military historian, explained that Lincoln had four roles as Commander in Chief: 1) to raise and equip the military, 2) to oversee political strategy related to the war, 3) to oversee military strategy, and 4) to oversee operational strategy. Of these, McPherson was most interested in the fourth, which involved Lincoln planning how to implement his general military strategy through battle campaigns (something modern presidents generally leave to the military leaders). Noting that Lincoln was inexperienced and uneducated about the military before becoming president, McPherson noted how his study of military affairs and tactics led to his evolving skills as a military leader.

Given McPherson's obvious interest in Lincoln's unexpected involvement in military operations, it is curious that he spent little energy comparing Lincoln to his Confederate counterpart Jefferson Davis, who was educated at West Point and had served as Secretary of War. At the war's outset, it was thought Davis might actively lead the Confederate Army as a general in the field; still, he was an active commander in chief too, but of a very different model than Lincoln.

William Lee Miller, author of Lincoln's Virtues and President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman offered a reflection of the comparison between Presidents Lincoln and Obama in his lecture "A New Birth of Freedom." Unlike the preceding talks, Miller's was obviously written specifically for the symposium, and included observations from Obama's inauguration and the bicentennial celebration just three weeks before. The talk was filled with examples of Miller's quick wit and sense of irony, as well as his intellectual curiosity. As many others have, he reflected on how Obama's election fulfills the promise of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and his subsequent support for plans to allow black soldiers to vote. He tied this observation to an argument from his latest book about how the Emancipation Proclamation was more significant morally than legally.

After lunch, Lucas Morel, author of Lincoln's Sacred Effort: Defining Religion's Role in American Self-Government, spoke on "Lincoln on Race, Equality, and the Spirit of '76." The talk served as an exploration of Lincoln's views on race, which recently have received a great deal of scrutiny. Unlike some scholars, Morel defended Lincoln's views on race, arguing that they were progressive. In fact, contrary to those who see some of Lincoln's statements on race as proof of racism, Morel argued that "even his most extreme comments" were meant to nudge his racist audience toward accepting a form of natural equality, like the one implied by the Declaration of Independence. To defend this argument, Morel pointed to Lincoln's "hesitancy" when speaking about race throughout his career, which is certainly an interesting approach to Lincoln.

Douglas Wilson, who spent years co-editing the definitive collection of Herndon's interviews, has recently turned his attention to Lincoln the writer. In his talk, "Words Fitly Spoken: Lincoln and Language," Wilson focused on Lincoln the careful re-writer and editor in preparing his speeches, an extension of his recent study, Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words. Unlike that book, which focuses on the presidential years (and Lincoln's Farewell Address in Springfield), Wilson turned his attention to pre-presidential speeches, but saw the same careful editing from draft to finished product.

Finishing out the day was Elizabeth Leonard, author of Lincoln's Avengers: Justice, Revenge, and Reunion After the Civil War, who spoke on "Ally on the Team of Rivals: Lincoln and His Point Man for Military Justice." Leonard spoke about Joseph Holt, the Kentucky Democrat who became Lincoln's Judge Advocate General in late 1862 and who worked beside Lincoln on issues of pardons in military cases. This was the afternoon's least polished talk, an exploration of Holt's biography, that suggests Leonard is still assimilating her research. While I was unconvinced by her argument -- she twice asked why Holt allied with Lincoln and never gave a satisfying answer -- I was convinced that she could develop a new biography of Holt or a book about the Lincoln/Holt professional relationship.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for attending! And thank you for thanking us. :-)

Matt Raymond
Library of Congress