James Hilty has long been a leading presidential scholar and expert on the presidency of John F. Kennedy. Although his primary focus has been on presidential administrations since 1928, he has studied the development and cyclical realignment of political parties dating back into the 19th Century. Hilty, who has written numerous books and commentaries, is a professor of history at Temple University and currently is acting dean of Temple's Ambler campus. His perspective on Abraham Lincoln through the long lens of presidential history is both fascinating and provocative as this Kiko's House interview reveals.
Q: American Lincoln is widely considered to be among the greatest presidents in part because of how he grew in office, notably the metamorphosis of his views about African-Americans and slavery. Is that really such an unusual trait in a chief executive?
A: By 'growth" I take it to mean a willingness to change and adapt to circumstances and to be willing to jettison old ideas and accept new. I don't think it's correct to say Lincoln modified his views on slavery -- he had been a Free Soil-Free Labor man for many years and had consistently supported the notion that a man's labor ought to be free, not enslaved -- for neither a slave nor a master would he be. Rather, he changed his views about African-Americans, about their value as men and their rights to be treated as men. The turning point seems to be in 1863 at about the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, after the Battle of Antietam and after he learned of the willingness of freed blacks to serve the Union cause and marveled at their battlefield valor. Also by 1863 it is clear that Lincoln had isolated slavery as the root cause of the war; a fact which angered and alienated many white Northerners and nearly cost him reelection.
Lincoln seems never to have accepted African-Americans as social equals -- although he greatly respected his "friend" Frederick Douglass -- but towards the end of his life he came to think of them as capable of enjoying the rights of free men, including the right to vote, which probably was the reason John Wilkes Booth decided to kill him. So, in many respects, it is proper to say that he was martyred for his beliefs in the rights of freedmen, even if he was at hear never convinced that they were his equal.
Q: Beyond that little dust-up known as the Civil War, no aspect of Lincoln was so controversial during his lifetime than whether he was sufficiently religious because he was not affiliated with any religion although he believed in the Almighty. A president's faith also seems to take on an outsized significance today -- witness Romney's Mormonism and Obama's affiliation with an African-American firebrand preached. Was it always this way?
A: Yes, to a large extent, but rarely was it made an issue. Most of the first 15 presidents were church goers (Jefferson and Jackson were notable exceptions). Jefferson was accused in the 1796, 1800 and 1804 elections of being an atheist. All of the presidents, however, recognized providential forces. Some called upon God, others, like Washington alluded to a higher order or power. Washington added, "so help me, God" to the oath of office and it has been repeated ever since. (Pierce was the only one to "affirm" the oath of office, but he was a very religious man.) Church going was more or less expected on the candidates and the presidents but it was more important to be "God fearing."
Lincoln's speeches often evoked the Almighty and his powers. His second inaugural address can only be described as an extended prayer for the country.
Q: No action taken during the Bush years may have provoked more outrage than the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in holding alleged terrorists indefinitely and prosecuting them before military tribunals, but Lincoln did all that and more. Their rationales were much the same: The fate of the U.S. hung in the balance because of a war, the laws of war are different and the president-commander in chief must be allowed extraordinary latitude to interpret and use these laws as he sees fit. But Lincoln's actions seem easier to justify than Bush's. Is that fair?
A: Yes, because Lincoln and the Union were surrounded by the enemy -- Washington, D.C. was in enemy territory, adjacent to Virginia, Maryland, Delaware (all slave states) -- an enemy that crept within cannon range of the government buildings and an enemy that often drew near enough to kill. Consider, for example, Lincoln's train ride to his inauguration, when it was necessary to smuggle him into Washington because of a plot to assassinate him in Baltimore. Lincoln's use and interpretation of martial law was both creative and necessary. He was questioned whether it made sense to sacrifice the union for the preservation of one law (habeas corpus) -- see William Rehnquist's book All The Laws but One, which insightfully examines the constitutional issue. Although the Supreme Court (Chief Justice Taney) lectured Lincoln on the suspension of habeas corpus, neither the Court nor Congress did anything about it until after the war was over. See Ex parte Milligan (1866). Few loyal Unionists believed that his harsh treatment of the Copperheads in Ohio and Indiana was anything but deserved.
Q: The Republican Party was once known as the Party of Lincoln. What happened?
A: It remained so until 1936 (as far as earning the support of African-American voters) but found itself on the outside looking in at the civil rights revolution when they failed repeatedly (most notably in '60) to remind Northern blacks of what they owed to Lincoln. By the early 20th Century a kind of revisionist history spouted the conventional wisdom that (a.) the Civil War wasn't really about slavery (textbooks often cited other "causes') and (b.) that Reconstruction was an abysmal failure because the Freedmen were ungrateful, lazy wretches incapable of understanding, appreciating or exercising civil rights (see The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind).
Republicans controlled the Northern cities (and the black and immigrant voters) for most of the century after Lincoln's death, particularly from 1898 to 1932., eg., Teddy Roosevelt as an urban (New York City) Republican and Hoover still carried the urban vote despite Al Smith (although not as heavily as his predecessors). Northern blacks in many cities (Philadelphia being a case in point) remained loyal to Republicans for as long as the Republicans were fair to them. After World War II, Republicans basically abandoned the cities -- bailing out of Philadelphia in 1950 -- and found their political futures in the whiter, more conservative suburbs, exurbs and rural areas. By the 1960s the image of Lincoln had vanished from Republican iconography to be replaced by Eisenhower, Nixon, Dewey, et al.
Often overlooked are Lincoln's belief in and pursuit of traditional conservative business values, including the use of government funds and resources (subsidies and land grants) to favor certain enterprises (railroads and western expansion during Lincoln's day and to use discriminatory tax measures and regulatory powers (including deliberately inflating the value of currency through the issuance of "greenbacks") to stimulate business and the use of tariffs to protect business.
Lincoln made most of his money as a railroad lawyer and thought of himself as protective of business interests. He was also a tinkerer and the only president to hold a patent. As president he pushed through acts to subsidize the building of the transcontinental railroad system, whose construction went forward during the war, and to open the public lands in the West to speculators -- and also through the Morrill Land-Grant Act to begin one of the world's great university systems, the state land-grant universities.
Q: As a presidential scholar, what aspect of Lincoln do you find to be the most compelling? And the most overlooked?
A: Two things: His leadership skills and his ability as a communicator, author, poet, literary craftsman. Doris Goodwin's Team of Rivals gets down to the nitty-gritty of his ability to deal with tough, single-minded and strong-willed individuals and to mold them into a team of doers and believers. As a political leader he compares only to FDR for his ability to take diverse, often diametrically opposed people and get them to do what he wanted. His patience and timing at times of crisis were incredible. His tactical knowledge and intuitive insights were marvelously sophisticated.
Presidential leadership skills are rated on two levels: Their ability as mass leaders, bringing the country to find and follow mutual goals; and their ability to lead elites, whether it is the Cabinet, Congress, miltiary or the captains of industry. Lincoln, FDR and Washington (toss in TR, Jackson, Truman, JFK and Reagan) earn top scores in both categories. Lincoln's skills as a military leader are often challenged by the "experts," as are Washington's, but I often wonder why -- after all both men won, and in war winning is what it's all about.
Q: Lincoln would have celebrated his 200th birthday this year if he hadn't picked a bad night to go to the theater. What would he see today that he would have found comforting and even familiar? What would he have found discomforting?
A: He would have been comforted, I think, by the government's participation in the development of the transportation infrastructure -- he was, after all, originally a Whig and devoted to "internal improvements" -- and the interstate highway system, space program, and other government subsidies of business would please him; although he'd probably wonder why the government stopped supporting railroads. He would be please by the state university systems, by the national interest in education, which he valued so much. The interregional trade flows across the U.S. and the nature of global markets would fascinate and please him, but he'd not understand the depletion of America's natural resources and the virtual cessation of American productive capacity.
He would be pleased by the extent to which civil rights are now extended to all, yet curious to know why it took another 100 years to accomplish what was so near in 1865.
Racial mixing was something he never approved of, but I think he would have been awed, but not totally surprised by Obama the man and his presence in the White House.
The size of government and the enormity of the presidency would both amaze and disturb him. He had only two secretaries -- Hay and Nicolay -- and wrote virtually everything himself, including the Emancipation Proclamation in longhand. He had only one small office on the second floor of the White House and he not possibly imagined the Executive Office of the Presidency growing so large. But, then, the largest bombs of his day and the military might he commanded pale in comparison to what the president commands today.
By the same token he would have been discomforted by the president's relative lack of power militarily -- by the paralysis and seeming incompetence of the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan. He would have grown impatient and demanded that if his generals were not going to use their armies then at least allow him to borrow them to get the job done.
He would have thought that contemporary politicians were terribly thin-skinned compared to the personal abuse heaped on him during the 1864 election.