October 18, 2017

Things Worth Reading: Harold Holzer

By In Interviews


“If you want your name to be remembered after your death either do something worth writing or write something worth reading.” – Abraham Lincoln

Photograph by Jackie Neale Chadwick

Harold Holzer, winner of The 2015 Gilder-Lehrman Lincoln Prize, is one of the country’s leading authorities on Abraham Lincoln and the political culture of the Civil War era. A prolific writer and lecturer, and frequent guest on television, Holzer served for six years (2010–2016) as Chairman of The Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation. For the previous 10 years he co-chaired the U. S. Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission (ALBC), appointed by President Clinton. President Bush awarded Holzer the National Humanities Medal in 2008. And in 2013, Holzer wrote an essay on Lincoln for the official program at the re-inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Visit Mr. Holzer’s website: http://haroldholzer.com/index.html

Purchase Mr. Holzer’s books:



OR: Thanks so much for joining us today.

HH: My pleasure.

OR: How did you come to discover Lincoln and decide to devote a good part of your career to Lincoln scholarship?

HH: The inspiration actually happened in grade school. I had a remarkable and creative fifth grade teacher at the time of the beginning of the Civil War Centennial Era when people were very interested in hearing about battle recreations. She came in one day with a hat full of folded up pieces of paper, which each contained the name of a celebrated figure in history and we were asked to line up and choose a name and whatever name we picked, we were assigned to go to the school library. Then we had to write about our figure. I drew Lincoln and so I dutifully went to the library and chose my book and that’s how it began. The book was The Lincoln Nobody Knows by Richard Current, who later became a good friend of mine until his death when he was 100. So, that was a remarkable stroke of luck. The book just gripped me and set me on my way.

I read everything I could at first and then began to get very good advice from people who had been in the field for a long time, which was to find a specialty, preferably one that nobody else had tackled and developed expertise in. I was interested in image making and photography and began specializing in Lincoln iconography. 

Painting by George Healy, 1869.

OR: Would you agree that in the last ten to fifteen years we’ve seen a great renaissance in Lincoln scholarship?

HH: Yes, I do believe that’s true. There have been periods when there have been incredible spikes in interest and obviously, the first one was in 1865 when Lincoln died and another was in 1909 for his centennial and then another in 1961 for the centennial of the Civil War. This one is different. It started mostly because of a book and television series rather than an anniversary – James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom and Ken Burns’ The Civil War. Then it just continued. Altogether it’s been a twenty or twenty-five-year renaissance. 

My concern is that every good anniversary spotlight must come to an end and I was hoping this one wouldn’t, but the sad fact is that history education is not what it once was when I was a kid, and I’m worried that the reader pool will decrease. I think the boom will probably necessarily slow down a bit because we’ve had such an outpouring.

OR: Of the projects you’ve been a part of, have any stood out as something you’re most proud of?

HH: Boy, that’s a tough one. I loved The Lincoln Image, because I loved working with Gabor Boritt and Mark Neely and because it was the culmination of ten years of research in that area of Lincoln studies. I loved Lincoln at Cooper Union because it was about my city and about Lincoln’s time in New York and the fact that it propelled him into the national spotlight. And I also liked Lincoln and the Power of the Pressbecause it was very well received.

It’s like choosing a favorite child. It’s very hard to do. So, it’s always the next one I guess.

OR: How about among books that you were not personally involved in. Are there some books about Lincoln that you think are underrated and people should read?

HH: Stefan Lorant was one of my heroes and mentors and he wrote a book called Lincoln: A Picture Story of His LifeIt almost sounds like a children’s book, but in fact, he was a photojournalist by trade and he invented the template for Life magazine. He created this brilliant chronology of Lincoln photographs – plus a life story around them. I hope people don’t forget that book because it meant so much to me.

Gabor Boritt’s Lincoln and the Economics of the American DreamI don’t think that’s underrated. It’s thirty years old now and it’s never been beaten in terms of explaining Lincoln’s aspirations for everyone.

I think the ones that I like best are the ones that are often celebrated. So, I’ll go with those two choices.

OR: You mentioned your book Lincoln and the Power of the Press. It was extremely well received and won numerous awards. Lincoln seems to have a mixed record on freedom of the press. He certainly felt that he needed to act aggressively at times. What do you make of that? Did he overreact or just took necessary actions in wartime?

HH: Is it possible to say both? 

I think if he had the hindsight that we have he probably would look back and say he overreacted. But, I think that’s because dissenting newspapers, like dissenting politicians, didn’t end up prolonging the war very much. At the time he was petrified that anti-war papers would stop people from volunteering for the Army. That was how it all began. Looking back, he would no doubt say that he didn’t need to push back so hard. But, that’s with the hindsight of 150 years. He made a rather good case at the time by saying he was willing to cut off the leg of freedom in order to save the body. He didn’t see any point in preserving one element of the Constitution if the whole country was going to go down and he did what Jackson had done and what others had done.

Unfortunately, people have cited that example in speaking out today against the absolute freedom of the press and speech, which is now a big issue on college campuses – free speech vs. hate speech. That’s being discussed by students with great seriousness by students who claim to be progressive and say that they believe that there should be protection from unpleasant speech. So, my overall view aside from that rambling set of thoughts is if Lincoln had the opportunity to look back with the knowledge we have today, he would have a different attitude.

There was no effort to shut down all democratic dissent, just in particular moments of peril when Lincoln and the Army perceived that peril. The Confederacy was actually more controlled in terms of the press than the Union. I think the other remarkable thing in Lincoln’s favor is that he allowed the 1862 congressional elections and gubernatorial elections to go forward as scheduled and indeed, he stood for re-election himself and let the press go crazy. Once the campaign started, there were no restrictions on anyone because he believed that freedom of choice was more important than purity of press. That’s an amazing feather in his cap and a big entry on the ledger of restraint.

OR: I wanted to ask you about that election because it seems as though there are certain choices that he made – you can argue whether they are constitutional or not and whether they were absolutely necessary, such as the suspension of habeas corpus and dissolving of the legislature in Maryland…

HH: He consistently refused to uphold specific constitutional protections if it meant the end of the country. He once said, in the midst of mass amputations during the War, ‘I would sacrifice a leg to save a body, but never sacrifice a body to save a leg.’ That was one of his homespun ways of justifying crackdowns against free expression. 

What’s remarkable is that he does things like shut down The New York World in May of 1864 for publishing an absurd, fake proclamation. But, by July of 1864, he’s letting The New York World, the same newspaper, publish fake news and scurrilous cartoons and editorials. He didn’t crack down because, as he put it, if you postpone the election or limit the election in any way, the rebels can already claim to have defeated the Union. I think he felt election campaigns were the holy of holies and beyond interference with free expression. He was amazing in regards to that and through his correspondence, we know that he was willing to be defeated and step aside if he lost.

OR: Would you say that at least up to that point he understood the power of the press better than any of his predecessors?

HH: Oh yeah. I think he understood the power of the press and manipulated it better than anybody maybe up to FDR, who was also masterful in a different kind of press era. But in terms of the political press, he engendered intense loyalty from the public and from the Republican editors. Then in 1864, he manipulates Horace Greeley, who was a real pain in the neck, as well as John Henry Raymond, the editor of The Times, a Republican newspaper. Raymond was very despondent over Republican chances in the election and Lincoln had to prop him up. The third of the big three, James Gordon Bennett of The New York Herald, received the ambassadorship to France in exchange for toning down some of his most vitriolic criticism of Lincoln. 

OR: Lincoln was probably the greatest poet and best storyteller we’ve had as president. Even with the armies of speechwriters today, he’s never been matched. What do you think gave him such a powerful poetic capacity?

HH: Many people have asked me that. I have no rational expectation of why somebody’s DNA and experiences formed from a horrible environment that he couldn’t wait to escape and never talked about with any kind of nostalgia would produce such talents. His parents could barely read and his father didn’t encourage him to learn to read, much less write, his way out of that squalor and discouragement. So much talent existed within him, it’s impossible to know where it came from. It’s either fate or God or a miracle or just the way that everything came together and I can’t explain it.

This chromolithograph was made from a painting by Eastman Johnson in 1868 depicting a young Lincoln reading by firelight in his family’s Indiana cabin. Eastman Johnson was one of the co-founders of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

His surviving son didn’t have the same skill and subsequent generations had nothing of the same skill. And as you put it, nobody else in history, certainly no one in political history, could write how he wrote. So, I don’t know how to begin to understand how he could develop that kind of genius, but you know, the Shakespeare family probably didn’t have a lot of writers besides William.

OR: What’s your take on Lincoln’s religious beliefs? Early on in his life, he was absolutely a heretic. But, it seems as soon as he becomes president his writing is drenched in scripture. Do you think he found a belief in God or were those just the symbols most available to him to communicate?

HH: I’ve given this a lot of thought and I used to debate this with Mario Cuomo, who was my boss and my friend and teacher in many ways and with whom I collaborated with on a couple Lincoln projects. Cuomo was a very religious man who went to Mass every morning. 

I don’t think Lincoln ever dropped his dubiousness about organized religion or churches and preachers, with very few exceptions. He did become close to a couple ministers, both in Illinois, and he sought them out in Washington, basically when his children died or when he needed assurance or comfort that there was an afterworld where his sons would be living in paradise. It’s totally understandable that he would be so despondent that he would need that.

So, this is where Cuomo and I would talk and where we would come out. I have doubted his religiosity. My theory is that Abraham Lincoln’s belief in God increased with the casualty rate in the Civil War. You can tell in all the ruminations of “the will of God prevails” and Lincoln’s letter to Eliza Gurney and things like that, that he could not cope, nor could any human being cope, with the immense responsibility and guilt of being the person who is somehow responsible in time and eternity for the deaths of 750,000 people. I just think it’s too much of a burden for anybody to shoulder who is a rational, caring person. Lincoln decided he had to share this burden with God because he couldn’t deal with it and he convinced himself that there was a higher power that was controlling the magnitude and duration of the War.

Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Quaker Minister Eliza Gurney, September 4, 1864. It says:                                                                                                           
Washington, September 4, 1864.
Eliza P. Gurney.
My esteemed friend.
I have not forgotten–probably never shall forget–the very impressive occasion when yourself and friends visited me on a Sabbath forenoon two years ago. Nor has your kind letter, written nearly a year later, ever been forgotten. In all, it has been your purpose to strengthen my reliance on God. I am much indebted to the good Christian people of the country for their constant prayers and consolations; and to no one of them, more than to yourself. The purposes of the Almighty are perfect, and must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail to accurately perceive them in advance. We hoped for a happy termination of this terrible war long before this; but God knows best, and has ruled otherwise. We shall yet acknowledge His wisdom and our own error therein. Meanwhile we must work earnestly in the best light He gives us, trusting that so working still conduces to the great ends He ordains. Surely He intends some great good to follow this mighty convulsion, which no mortal could make, and no mortal could stay.
Your people–the Friends–have had, and are having, a very great trial. On principle, and faith, opposed to both war and oppression, they can only practically oppose oppression by war. In this hard dilemma, some have chosen one horn, and some the other. For those appealing to me on conscientious grounds, I have done, and shall do, the best I could and can, in my own conscience, under my oath to the law. That you believe this I doubt not; and believing it, I shall still receive, for our country and myself, your earnest prayers to our Father in heaven.
Your sincere friend
A. Lincoln.

Quoting the second inaugural address, “if every drop of blood drawn with the lash has to be repaid by one drawn with the sword,” then that’s the judgment of the Lord – it’s not me who’s judgment matters. “As was said 3,000 years ago…” I just think he needed a coping device. I don’t mean to doubt his sincerity because I think his whole being came to believe that it was God that had ordained the War and the catastrophic nature of it.

OR: The second inaugural address has to be not only one of the most beautiful speeches anybody has ever given but also one of the strangest political statements ever made. I’ve tried and cannot think of any other example where the leader of the victorious nation, tells his constituents that it’s there fault the war happened.

Lincoln’s complete manuscript of his Second Inaugural Address.

HH: And he was just about to win the War. It was only six weeks later that the War ended. I agree with you. It’s very condemnatory of his own base.

Whenever I struggle with my own writing – what should the transition be, how do I get out of this paragraph and launch a new one so that it flows from the one before, etc. – I think about the second inaugural. I think about that cascading fire and brimstone rumination near the end, when he blames his own people for this War and then ends with “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether,” and then with only a breath, “with malice toward none, with charity for all…” I would have loved to have witnessed that moment because people must have been staggered by his earlier outburst. Not that it was unplanned, but it was a very tough statement. And then suddenly he’s inviting charity and peace among ourselves and with all nations. He was daring and inventive and fearless in his rhetoric.

Abraham Lincoln delivering the Second Inaugural Address.

OR: What do you make of the movement, that seemed to be growing in popularity a couple of years ago, to take some of Lincoln’s statements and positions and use them to imply that we had gotten the story wrong and that Lincoln himself was quite racist?

HH: I think you have to allow Lincoln to evolve, as hopefully everybody evolves. No one has a fixed position in life. Donald Trump used to be a Democrat, so who knows how our own beliefs will change? Lincoln knew he didn’t approve of slavery from the time he was very young and he had pity towards those who were enslaved. But, he didn’t know any African Americans personally until he met Frederick Douglass when he was in the White House. He also hadn’t met Sojourner Truth until he was in the White House. And he hadn’t seen African Americans bearing arms in military uniforms until he was there. So, thankfully, and to his credit, his views, which may have been limited – but typical in the 1850s – grew into something much more humane and understanding in the 1860s to the point that he became the first president to suggest that African Americans should have the right to vote. That statement was heard by John Wilkes Booth, who thought that Lincoln had gone too far and vowed to kill him because of that statement. 

So, anybody who says to me that Lincoln’s heart was not in abolitionism or in social and political equality, doesn’t know the story of his last speech and the reaction to it.

He did state in the Charleston debate against Douglas in 1858 that blacks shouldn’t be jurors and that they’re not his equal. But, when he begins he says that ‘some of you may have heard that Judge Douglas thinks I believe in equality,’ and there’s laughter because the vast majority of white voters in 1858 thought the notion of eventual race equality was absurd. He was on the progressive end of that spectrum, but not yet as tolerant as William Lloyd Garrison. He was a man of his times, but at least he saw the evils of slavery and continued to grow as a politician, as a leader, and as a person.

Then in 1862, he said that he thought it was necessary to pave the way toward emancipation, which he thought would have a tough time winning support unless he positioned it as a military necessity. But when he signs the Emancipation Proclamation, he says that his whole heart is in it, and that was the greatest act of the 19th century. So, there are two sides. He’s got to win the politics and he’s got to win history, but he’s willing to concede a little on the history to get the politics right. I think we should be a little more sophisticated about appreciating and analyzing what happened.

OR: What’s your take on the controversy over Confederate monuments?

HH: I wrote a two-page op-ed in The New York Daily NewsI’ve come a little more away from the preservation perspective for preservation’s sake than that I held even just a few weeks ago. I would like to have a lot more community and historical discussion. I would like good works of art to be preserved because I worked in an art museum for 23 years and I hope some reverence for art has rubbed off on me. 

On the other hand, there’s a long tradition of iconoclasm. Victoria statues were toppled in Canada after the Confederation ended. In New York, we pulled down a statue of King George to make bullets in the Revolutionary War. It’s not a new phenomenon. Too many of these Confederate statues went up in many places as a message to people of color that they were not going to rise up. We’ve been too insensitive about that message. I see the art side. I see the white supremacy side. Sometimes it takes some catastrophic things to happen to move the discussion.

We saw in the horrible slaughter in Charleston, Governor Nikki Haley saying enough with the discussion about the Confederate flag. It’s over. And it took a conservative to end it and say we just have to do this. Charlottesville, allegedly to protect a statue, will forever be identified with radical white supremacists and neo-Nazis. That’s the kind of cataclysmic moment that changes the discussion. Too much of the time is spent lionizing Lee, Jackson, and Davis. Davis in particular never made sense to me. But, the pendulum has swung dramatically to the other side and it’s probably not going to come back.

Lincoln’s body lying in state in New York’s City Hall.

OR: Do you speak often in the South?

HH: Does Miami count? I’ve spoken in North Carolina and Texas and I speak at the Museum of the Confederacy every few years in Richmond. I must have spoken at other places in the South. Well, Atlanta. I’ve spoken at both the Atlanta Historical Society and the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library.

OR: I remember from Ken Burns’ Civil War, Shelby Foote relating a story of calling a descendent of Nathan Bedford Forrest and saying that the War produced two geniuses: Abraham Lincoln and Nathan Bedford Forrest…

HH: I still remember that. He said it in a very homespun way like ‘the War produced only these two geniuses.’ A very down-home way of saying it. I don’t know what he was talking about. I don’t know why he would portray Forrest in that manner when he slaughtered African Americans who had laid down their arms and re-enslaved blacks and was the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. I found it very odd. 

OR: I think what I was trying to make sense of is the part where Foote said that Forrest’s descendants were upset at being compared to Lincoln. I was wondering if your experience in the South was still similar to that.

HH: I didn’t know that. I think the anti-Lincoln movement has been very successful in the South. It’s been adopted by the extreme right wing. I think in some degree it’s not just sectional, it’s philosophical and political.

OR: Are there any projects you’re involved in now or are there books we can look forward to in the near future?

HH: Yes, I just finished one. I’ve written 52 books, but I’ve never done a cradle to grave biography of anybody. So, this is a biography about Daniel Chester French, the sculptor of the Lincoln Memorial. And then I’m working on a book that I hope to have out in time for 2020 that will be about Lincoln and immigration. 

OR: We’ll look forward to those and really appreciate your time today.

HH: Great speaking with you.

The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.


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