Abraham Lincoln was born 210 years ago, but his legacy in America endures to this day.
Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States, and is remembered most for leading the country during the Civil War.
Here are five questions I asked famed historian Doris Kearns Goodwin about Lincoln:
Jim Heath: There has always been this ongoing debate about whether George Washington or Abraham Lincoln is our greatest president. I’ve finally concluded that Lincoln single-handedly accomplishes what all of the founders could not. He definitively answers the question of slavery once and for all. Am I off base with that?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: No, I think that is really well said. The union was still fragile after the founders created this amazing constitution. But you’re right, they didn’t deal with this huge problem that was going to tear the country apart. And at the same time, if the country had been torn apart, if Lincoln had allowed the south to go, then the framers whole experiment would have been undone. The idea that ordinary people could govern themselves. That’s what the framers counted on. This was an era of monarchs and dictators, and the idea that you could just let people govern themselves was so strange, and it’s what’s great about America. Lincoln made that possible, and he knew that’s what he was fighting for. So he saves the union and wins the war and he ends slavery forever. I haven’t lived with Washington the way I’ve lived with Lincoln, so I don’t know him personally, but I would put Lincoln above him.
Jim: When you look at the entirety of Lincoln’s record, he was always anti-slavery. Yet, if you put yourself in his shoes during that time frame, he is a politician. He loses several elections. He’s trying to survive without looking like a radical. So when he advocates colonization, or when he talks about the black man not being equal to the white man, those are minor instances when you look at the entirety of what he stood for and where he took the country. Am I right in interpreting his record?
Doris: I think that’s really important, you have to look at leaders in the context of their times. And even a lot of abolitionists in the north were not willing to talk about true equality for blacks in the north. You had “black laws” in the north, and black laws in Ohio, which didn’t allow blacks to serve on juries or to have any kind of equal rights. And if you had tried to say those black laws should go, you wouldn’t have won an election. But it’s not simply a matter of being political, Lincoln probably didn’t understand then the importance of taking that next step toward equality. It was such a big step to say you can’t have slavery, and we can’t allow slavery to extend itself into the western territories. But as he grew to understand what the black soldiers had done during the war, as he became friendly with Frederick Douglas, he became more aware. Frederick Douglas said Lincoln was the only white man he ever sat with who didn’t give any impression of superiority. Even the abolitionists did. So you have to judge Lincoln on how he grew, not simply on what he said in the 1850’s.
Jim: Proof of his growth might be in the many speeches where he quoted the Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal,” and not the constitution. It was not that he was anti-constitution, but he would add that apology of, “well, the founders meant for slavery to be dissolved by 1808, or whatever period of time.” It seems to me he used the declaration consistently as a way to get around slavery embedded in the constitution.
Doris: Absolutely. And what the declaration provided was the ideal against which you could judge where is society now. Even when he was saying things about ‘I’m not sure if blacks and whites should marry’ or ‘I’m not sure blacks should vote,” he still held that ideal out that at a certain time there’s a hope that we will reach that point where it is possible. And the declaration becomes the standard that the constitution couldn’t, because slavery is embedded in it.
Jim: Does the war settle the issue of “states rights” for him? He had said for months that the south could do what it wanted in an effort to prevent war, but as soon as it started, seemingly it was all union?
Doris: Oh, absolutely. Once the war broke out his primary concern was saving the union. And then the union takes precedence over the individual states, there’s no question about that. But then the next step is then slavery has to be coupled in to saving the union. Those are big giant leaps that a lot of people weren’t willing to make. Even people in the north. They just wanted to fight the war to save the union, not to end slavery.
Jim: Was Lincoln bipolar? A lot of books suggest that’s the only way he got through dealing with all the tragedy of a civil war.
Doris: I don’t think so. You know what I think? I’ve thought about this a lot. Clearly there was a certain kind of depression in him when he was younger, and I think it came from the circumstances of his childhood. But more importantly it came from the gap between childhood and adulthood. He was brilliant, he must have known that, and he thought when he was young ‘I’ll never have a chance to achieve what I hope to because I just don’t have the opportunities’ and that made him very sad. He used to talk about this poetry where there would be an unmarked grave for some kid who had real talent but didn’t have a chance to exercise it. So once he gets into the presidency he’s got the stage on which he can accomplish something important which is what he’s driven by. Even in the worst days of the war there’s no evidence that he took to his bed. That he became dysfunctional. On the contrary, his sense of humor, sustaining the other people around him, and his energy are what people noted. So I don’t think he could have been psychologically bipolar.
Jim: He did seemingly have a melancholy type humor. He would laugh at times people didn’t expect it, and he did dream of his own death?
Doris: It was almost like he knew his own psyche well enough that if he was going into a sad mood, he could knock himself out of it by telling a funny story. They say when he would tell a story he’d laugh and hit his knee, and you’d have to laugh because it was so contagious. And it got him out of his sadness. So he knew himself well enough to know that ‘okay, I’m getting sad so I’m going to read something funny or tell a story’ and I’ll be okay.
Jim: Lincoln admits he’s not a Christian. He defends all faiths, but at the end he makes reference to God but never makes reference to Christ. Could he be elected today with his religious views?
Doris: Even during his time when he was first running for office they talked about him being a Deist, which Thomas Jefferson might have been, which meant you believe in God but you don’t believe God is actively shaping events. He didn’t belong to an organized church, and that did go against him early on, but he somehow managed to get through it. It might be tougher for him today, although I think if people talked to him and knew what an ethical person he was and how spiritual he was, you’d have to argue that is what you hope comes out of organized religion. And the type of person he was, who didn’t retaliate against people who had hurt him, who looked to be kind, he was gentle. If those are the values you’re hoping come from organized religion, they certainly were embedded in this man.
Jim: I think Lincoln is the greatest American who ever walked the face of the earth, and Team of Rivals is the best political book ever written. Thanks for taking time to talk Abraham Lincoln with us.
Doris: You’re very welcome!
Served as President: 1861-1865
Vice President: Hannibal Hamlin, Andrew Johnson
Age at inauguration: 52
Born: February 12, 1809, in Hodgenville, Hardin County, Kentucky
Died: April 15, 1865. Lincoln died the morning after being shot at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C
Married: Mary Todd Lincoln
Children: Robert, Edward, William, Thomas
Nickname: Honest Abe
Watch Jim Heath and Doris Kearns Goodwin: