Sara Gabbard, executive director of the Friends of the Lincoln Collection of Indiana, interviewed Allen Guelzo about his work ahead of his appearance this week as featured speaker for the group's 40th annual McMurtry Lecture series. The scholar on President Abraham Lincoln is director of the Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. Here are excerpts from the interview, which first appeared in the Friends' “Lincoln Lore.”
Q. When you are “on the road” lecturing about Lincoln and the Civil War, what questions do members of the audience ask most frequently?
A. Far and away, the most frequently asked question I encounter from audiences is, “Would things have been different if Lincoln had lived?” What they mean, in most cases, is, would a Lincoln-managed Reconstruction have healed the nation's wounds more effectively than the one we got as managed by (Presidents Andrew) Johnson and (Ulysses S.) Grant, and spared us a century-and-a-half of racial suffering and turmoil?
Q. The subject matter for your books on Lincoln varies greatly. How do you determine the specific topic you wish to pursue?
A. Mostly, I look to ask the questions that haven't been answered, or better, even asked. “Redeemer President” was more of a response to an urging from others than an initiative of my own, but once “Redeemer President” was finished, I realized that the Lincoln field held out more unanswered questions than people suppose. Hardly any reviewer fails to begin a review of a Lincoln book without some useless comment about how many Lincoln books there are and so how can another one be a real contribution. That's pure absurdity.
The Lincoln field is like a meadow over which many wagons have been driven, but most of them follow the same narrow ruts the others have created, while vast stretches of the meadow roll away to the distance, untouched. I have a list of Lincoln book topics that, I loudly lament, have lain unexamined. In fact, many of them are the same topics James Garfield Randall begged students to take up in his famous 1936 address, “Has the Lincoln Theme Been Exhausted?” and that was almost a century ago.
Q. Which book was the most difficult to research?
A. “Gettysburg: The Last Invasion” was an immense challenge because so much existed in the way of memoirs, reminiscences and histories of the battle, some of them written before the last of the battle's dead had been buried. I spent a very long time reading through personal narratives and regimental histories, knowing full well that any one of these I neglected would surely be seized upon by the army of eagle-eyed Gettysburg buffs as some form of fatal omission.
What guided me through this vast literature was a determination to see the battle through the eyes of the 19th century, and cognate 19th century wars. Hence, even as I was steeping myself in Gettysburg sources, I was reading deeply in 19th century European military tactics and procedures, and finding a wealth of comparative insights; for instance, the use of column and line, the efficacy of artillery, the purposes of cavalry, the aversion to street fighting.
Q. A website refers to you as specializing in “American intellectual history.” Do you agree with that definition?
A. That's because I am, at the meat-and-potatoes level, an American intellectual historian. I am, and have always been, fascinated by American ideas, believing that (as the psalmist said), “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” I actually only backed into doing the American Civil War to the extent I have because of Lincoln, and only backed into Lincoln because of the attraction he offered as a man of ideas.
Q. Please rate Lincoln as a commander in chief.
A. I've come to believe that Lincoln was in many ways a better president than he was commander in chief. Lincoln had very little experience in military matters and very little taste for them (something which was reinforced by his Whiggish politics, since the Whigs were the enemies of the “military chieftain,” Andrew Jackson).
As president, he assumed that he could master military affairs the same way he had mastered the law – by reading the standard textbooks, which he proceeded to borrow from the Library of Congress. As the son of a career Army officer and the father of another, I can testify that this is not the path to military understanding.
Q. What is your next project?
A. I've devoted the last six years to writing a biography of Robert E. Lee. I want now to get back to Lincoln, and I have in mind a book which will speak to Lincoln's ideas about democracy. Curiously, he used the word sparingly. Yet, no one in our history has come closer to embodying what we think of as the best in our democracy. The question is whether democracy, as it worked in Lincoln's world, still works in ours.
Those interested in attending the online lecture by Allen Guelzo at 7 p.m. Tuesday should email Lincoln@acpl.info for the Zoom registration link.