Who Was Lincoln, Really?

Honoring the two-hundredth anniversary of his birth, Lincoln scholars attempt to cut through myth and legend to reveal the real man.

In American lore, the name Abraham Lincoln stands for many things: gifted orator; champion of black rights; courageous leader who kept a bitterly divided nation from splitting apart entirely.

As Lincoln the symbol has become a rhetorical staple, Lincoln the man has gotten lost, says Fletcher University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. On Monday evening, with Gates as moderator, a panel of Lincoln scholars gathered at the Harvard Kennedy School. In the week of the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, they shared knowledge gleaned from their studies of Lincoln’s speeches and letters and other contemporary sources. They painted a picture of a man who, though extraordinary, was also ordinary--a mere mortal, not a divine, infallible figure.

The panel consisted of:

  • President Drew Faust, a Civil War historian whose most recent book, This Republic of Suffering, explores that war’s massive death toll and how it changed the way Americans thought about death. (Read an excerpt in the Harvard Magazine archives.)
  • John Stauffer, professor of English and of African and African American studies, whose most recent book is Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln
  • Playwright Tony Kushner, whose credits include the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America, and who is writing a screenplay about Lincoln’s life in collaboration with Steven Spielberg
  • New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik, whose book Angels and Ages--about how the world changed during the lifetime of Lincoln and Charles Darwin (who were born on the same day)--was published last week
  • Allen Guelzo, a historian who directs the Civil War Era Studies Program at Gettysburg College and has written multiple books on Lincoln
  • David Blight, a professor of American history at Yale whose focuses include the Civil War, slavery and its legacy, and Frederick Douglass, and
  • Gates, who edited Lincoln on Race and Slavery, a collection of the sixteenth president’s writings and speeches (out in hardcover this week), and produced Looking for Lincoln, a documentary airing on many PBS affiliates this week.

Gopnik recounted how he began to see patterns in Lincoln's prose because he was examining the speeches and writings so closely. Lincoln would lay out an argument in a precisely logical, legalistic fashion, then “slam it home” with a simple, memorable, compelling turn of phrase. And he said Lincoln’s love of reading showed through--in those speeches, Gopnik said he detected echoes of Shakespeare and the King James Bible.

Lincoln's public-speaking skills, and the importance of his presidency for African Americans, have drawn comparisons to the current president. Although Lincoln and Obama may have some political and personal similarities, Blight said--Obama is "also a complicated thinker and a reader"--he would hold back on comparing 2009 to 1861. The present situation is probably more similar to 1933, he suggested; although "Obama does face a profound set of problems," the United States is not at war with itself. 

In response to Gates's question about how Lincoln had dealt with the Civil War’s death toll, Faust said his coping mechanisms certainly did not include denial. She said Lincoln had visited battlefield sites and hospitals filled with wounded soldiers. “He didn’t turn away from the costs”--and, she said, he wasn’t unaffected. “I think Lincoln was depressed by what he had to do.”

Lincoln was not the most personally forthcoming of presidents--his writings contained very little personal reflection, Kushner noted. He said this made it difficult, without taking too much license, to create a character vivid enough for audiences to relate to. But some degree of inscrutability, he added, was true to who Lincoln was: “To make him easily understandable is to lose him completely.”

Responding to a question about what would have happened if Lincoln had lived, Gopnik wondered if perhaps he would not have secured such an esteemed place in history. He recalled President Kennedy’s disappointment upon meeting Jawaharlal Nehru for the first time and finding him to be a mere shell of the brave leader who had agitated for an independent Indian state. Faust had a different take: throughout his life, she said, Lincoln adapted to his surroundings, rather than withdrawing. Noting his changing attitudes toward military service and religion, she said Lincoln “was a learner--he continually evolved.”

The panelists also considered--and debated--Lincoln as symbol. His true commitment to freeing the slaves is questioned by those who argue that ending slavery crippled the Confederate economy and gave the Union army the manpower it needed to win--and who wonder if these were Lincoln’s main motivations for signing the Emancipation Proclamation. Stauffer questioned the efficacy of the proclamation itself, saying, “Slaves freed themselves, first and foremost.”

Other panelists disagreed. Without a legal framework designating the former slaves as people, not property, “all the running away in the world” would not have done any good, Guelzo said. And Kushner said Lincoln’s final speech, given three days before his death, may qualify as the first black-rights speech ever given in the United States. On April 11, 1865, a crowd gathered outside the White House, rejoicing over the news that General Lee had surrendered. Eager to hear from their president, the crowd began chanting Lincoln’s name. Lincoln gave few extemporaneous speeches, preferring to give thoughtfully prepared remarks, but on that night he spoke off the cuff. With mentions of voting rights for blacks and even integrated schools, said Kushner, “It’s obvious he’s moving in a more radical direction, it seems to me.” John Wilkes Booth was in the crowd that night; four days later, Lincoln was dead.

Guelzo, too, agreed that Lincoln really did oppose slavery on principle--but he believed just as strongly in democracy, he said: government by the people had been in vogue in the late eighteenth century, but “then came Napoleon.” By the mid nineteenth century, a different idea had taken hold: “Democracy is weak and unstable….If you just give it a little push, it will collapse in on itself.” Winning the war, then, meant not just preserving the union; it meant keeping alive the idea that democracy could work as a form of government. The symbolic use of Lincoln that rings truest of all, he said, is Lincoln as defender of democracy.


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