Special Online Book Discussion

ABRAHAM LINCOLN Redeemer President by Allen C. Guelzo

On November 29, 1999, Abraham Lincoln Online hosted a live
Lincoln forum with Dr. Guelzo. His new book, an intellectual biography
of Lincoln, was published by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.



Lincoln was said to have mastered the books of Euclid. How do you think this discipline affected his intellectual development?

Lowell S. ... 1999/11/29 - 20:27:00


Lowell S.:

Euclid, of course, is synonymous with geometry, which seems a peculiar text for a lawyer to spend much time with. In truth, Euclid could probably have done little for Lincoln, as Euclid. But if we remember that education in 19th-century America was still heavily-freighted with classical texts, then the study of Euclid fits alongside the other parts of classical learning Lincoln failed to get from not attending college or being "fitted" for college. It was, in other words, a statement of Lincoln's determination to "catch up," in intellectual appearances if not in actual geometry. It's important to remember that when Lincoln spoke of his education being "defective," it was the lack of college education he was mostly lamenting. Nineteenth-century America had little that resembles the structured educational hierarchy we take for granted -- elementary grades, middle school, high school, high school diploma, then college. A young man (and it was really younger males, sometimes as young as sixteen) might have only a smattering of "lower education" -- this was intended to do little more than provide basic literacy and numeracy) and yet be accepted into Harvard College if he obtained a tutor to "fit" him for college by giving him advanced instruction in the classics, and then passing a qualifying exam. Some colleges didn't even have the qualifying exam and provided various forms of "preparatory" or remedial schooling on campus. Any such college education would contain large dollops of classical reading, theological and philosophical instruction, formal writing and debating, and some general bits of "natural science". Literature, business, history -- even the idea of 'majoring' in a subject -- were unknown before 1860, as was graduate education outside of specific professional schools for law, medicine and theology. And in many cases one could get into those schools without an undergraduate degree anyway. Lincoln missed college, not from a lack of our common forms of schooling, but from lack of money. William Barton, in a lecture given at Illinois College in 1924, speculated on what might have happened had Lincoln, like Richard Yates and other penniless contemporaries of Lincoln, been able to make the comparatively short trek from New Salem to Jacksonville and studied under Edward Beecher and the "Yale Band." He might, Barton thought, have become a New School Presbyterian minister!

Dr.Allen Guelzo ... 1999/11/29 - 20:28:45



Do you think a formal education would have had a negative effect on Lincoln's original way of thinking? Was it Herndon who made some remark to that effect?

Thank You for your earlier response.

Lowell S. ... 1999/11/29 - 20:40:07


Lowell S. #2:

Lincoln's mind, in the recollections of his contemporaries, had a "metaphysical" bent, a love for "mathematical exactness about things." Attaching him to academic life might conceivably have spun him in dramatically different directions than those he eventually took into law. On the other hand, it might merely have intensified his decision to become a lawyer, and the end result might have been the same. The point we need to appreciate is that, Lincoln being who he was, and print culture in trans-Appalachia being what it was between 1830-1860, Lincoln had far broader opportunities for interacting with that culture than we have usually recognized. He might have missed college, but he did not miss being shaped by many of the influences that college would only have brought nearer to his doorstep. Where we err is in supposing that, without such a formal educational context, Lincoln had no intellectual context at all. That says more about the compartmentalization of high intellectual culture in our own times than it does about Lincoln. Let's add too the influence of popular culture: too much of our image of Lincoln's Illinois blends shapelessly with Walt Disney, Mark Twain, Day Crockett, and the Hatfields and McCoys. Mass culture images like these have warped our ability to perceive what culture looked like in Lincoln's time, when there was no mass culture, no middle-brow culture, and when high culture nestled without fear right beside folk culture. There was less cultural distance between Lincoln's Springfield in the 1850s and, say, Boston or New York, than there is today.

Dr.Allen Guelzo ... 1999/11/29 - 20:56:34


was Lincoln's's election to president a mandate for the abolition of slavery?

Was Abrahams election to president a mandate for the abolition of slavery?

Ryan Johnson ... Garner - North Carolina... 1999/11/21 - 20:45:17


Lincoln himself insisted that his election was a mandate only for the containment, not the abolition of slavery. Only the most fiery of the Southern fire-eaters thought otherwise, and that was largely because any president who was even faintly anti-slavery posed a threat to the South in their eyes. Northern abolitionists were mostly convinced that Lincoln was a half-heart, "an old Western Whig" (as Wendell Phillips called Lincoln) who would compromise Henry Clay-fashion at the first sign of objection from slave holders. Only a handful of Northerners, like Gerrit Smith, really believed that Lincoln "is in his heart an abolitionist." In fact, Lincoln himself had long protested that, while anti-slavery for as long as he could remember, he was not an abolitionist, and believed that slave holders had constitutional and legal sanction for slave property. It was to the containment of slavery Lincoln was committed; and he often joked later that he could have done nothing against slavery had not the slave holders brought down their own roof on their own heads by seceding.

Dr.Allen Guelzo ... 1999/11/29 - 19:45:42


Lincoln and racism

I keep hearing about high school and college students who say their teachers claim that Lincoln was a racist. Does anyone take this seriously? Do they have any justification for this belief?

jonathan blanchard (jblanchard@excite.com).. columbus - ohio... 1999/11/21 - 22:07:09


Jonathan Blanchard:

Whether Lincoln was a racist depends very much on how much you are willing to concede to context -- or rather, how realistic you are willing to be about figures from the past. Yes, Lincoln was a racist, if by racist you mean the assumptions and prejudices about racial inferiority which were commonly and unreflectively shared among most 19th-century Americans. Yet at the same time, he also believed that black people were most emphatically people like any other people, with the same natural rights in America as any other American (though with not the same civil rights that they might have enjoyed in an all-black nation). In the right to earn one's bread, Lincoln insisted, blacks and whites were as equal as the word equal can mean -- and when we remember that economic equality and economic opportunity were among Lincoln's highest values, this was saying something much more than what we usually mean by 'racist.' It is worth noting that he never objected to the use of black troops in the War on the grounds of racial inferiority, but only on the grounds of political inexpediency; and that once enlisted, he pressed various state jurisdictions where he had direct influence (such as Michael Hahn's free-state government in Louisiana) to move ahead on limited forms of black civil rights -- again, with expediency rather than inferiority being the limiting consideration. And of course, Frederick Douglass, who admitted that to blacks, Lincoln seemed dull and slow, recognized in Lincoln, as compared to whites, a man who was zealous and swift in bringing down racial oppression. He was, said Douglass in a little-known eulogy of Lincoln in 1865, "emphatically the black man's president."

Dr.Allen Guelzo ... 1999/11/29 - 19:39:40


Lincoln and foreign affairs

Most Lincoln biographers indicate that he had little interest in international affairs and played only a minor role in U.S. diplomacy. On the cover of my book on the international dimensions of the Civil War, "One War at a Time," - arriving this week at bookstores - Seward biographer John M. Taylor states that it "shows that Lincoln had a real interest in foreign affairs and that no major diplomatic decision was reached without his participation and concurrence." Do you comment in your book on Lincoln's international interests and roles? Any comments tonight on this issue?

Dean B. Mahin (DUMahin@aol.com).. Charlotte - North Carolina... 1999/11/28 - 06:14:10


Dean Mahin

I deliberately left foreign affairs out of the book, but only for reasons of space and focus. Lincoln devoted a good deal of his time and attention to foreign affairs, it is true; but international diplomacy was not his long suit, and his command of international law was shaky. He relied heavily on Seward, who had (or had the reputation for having) substantial expertise in foreign affairs. But he did not allow Seward to act as an independent operator, and took responsibility for Seward's actions and comments even when (as in the publication of Seward's correspondence with C.F. Adams) he might have easily shuffled it off. Contrast his protectiveness of Seward with his willingness to cast off Fremont and Simon Cameron on slave emancipation and you'll see what I mean by protectiveness.

Dr.Allen Guelzo ... 1999/11/29 - 19:34:29


Baltimore Plot of 1861

In "Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President" did you leave out all reference to the alleged Baltimore Plot of 1861 because you feel it didn't belong in an "intellectual" biography or because you feel the jury is still out as to its truthfulness? Or was there some other reason? Thank you.

Roger Norton (RJNorton@worldnet.att.net).. 1999/11/29 - 05:59:09


Roger Norton

The Baltimore plot gets only a passing mention because the focus of the book was, as much as possible, on Lincoln as a man of ideas. The significance of the Baltimore plot for Lincoln lay mostly in the embarrassment the decision to dodge into Washington caused him, personally and politically. It inclined him to wave aside concerns for his safety, lest he repeat the embarrassment. in that sense, the Baltimore plot (if it was such) succeeded, since it led indirectly to the carelessness about security which culminated at Ford's Theatre.

Dr.Allen Guelzo ... 1999/11/29 - 19:30:31


Roger Norton:

Given the intentions of the book, I did not deal with the Baltimore Plot apart from passing observation that the embarrassment Lincoln suffered for having "sneaked" into Washington stiffened his resistance to elaborate security measures. In that sense, whether or not there was a real Baltimore Plot is ironically irrelevant: it succeeded, by persuading Lincoln to prefer the kind of laxity that prevailed at Ford's Theater.

Dr.Allen Guelzo ... 1999/11/29 - 21:00:45


Gradual Emancipation

I want to know about Lincoln's gradual emancipation plan of 1862. Was it a "war" measure? Did he see it as a way to end the war? Or was it a way to institute a long range philosophy?

Mike B. (Coh61st@aol.com).. Philadelphia - PA... 1999/11/23 - 21:07:41


Mike B.:
Lincoln had long believed that compensation was a necessary part of any proposal for emancipation. He told Horace Greeley in 1862 that his three ideal features for any emancipation plan were "gradual -- compensation -- and the vote of the people." He looked on emancipation at first as a side issue, even a distraction, although if he had been able to entice the seceding states to abandon secession, he might have floated some form of compensated emancipation at some point in his administration, probably attended by a colonization plan. He introduces his first emancipation scheme in Dec 1861 very much as a war-assistance measure, but in a very particular light: he designed his Dec 1861 proposal for Delaware, the state least likely to be affected by the fate of slavery one way or the other, but significant as a border state. Lincoln's concern at that point was that, so long as the border states remained committed to slavery, the Confederates would fight on in the hopes of enticing them into secession; let them buy into compensated emancipation, and the seceders would abandon hope and come to a negotiated settlement. This optimism was fed by the military successes of Dec 1861-March 1862. But Shiloh, the Peninsula, and George McClellan sobered Lincoln (and many others). The Southerners were not going to negotiate, no matter what the border states did. Hence, the turn to emancipation becomes a different kind of war measure: how can we deprive the Confederacy of the logistical support of black slaves? Or rather, how can we convince the slaves that they have everything to gain by non-cooperation and flight? And of course there was no point any longer in talking much about compensation -- although even in the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation (Sept. 1862) he still held out the carrot of "pecuniary aid" and was willing to toy with some form of compensation to get the South to the peace table as late as the Hampton Roads Conference. Yet, beside all this, Lincoln was really glad to see slavery knocked on the head. He was not insincere about the war-measure rationale, but it was not the only motive he had for promoting emancipation.

Dr.Allen Guelzo ... 1999/11/29 - 19:18:10



Did Lincoln place more importance on the Union and the Constitution or did he feel that the Declaration of Independence and Locke were more valuable to the country?

Mike B. (Coh61st@aol.com).. Philadelphia - PA... 1999/11/22 - 15:50:25


Mike B. Again:

Lincoln never expressed his understanding of the Declaration and the Constitution in an explicit legal form; in fact, the only time in which he linked them was in a biblical image, speaking of the Dec. and the Const. as being an apple of gold set in a picture of silver. What is evident, however, from the various points at which Lincoln discussed both is
(1) Lincoln revered the Declaration as a universal, foundational statement of human rights, but especially as a statement -- not so much of civil equality (he believed that local communities had a large amount of say in the different civil rights they might grant) as of natural equality and economic mobility. He was especially fond of invoking the Dec. as a justification for a society where social mobility allowed the poor to become rich.
(2) Lincoln thought of the Constitution as providing the best imaginable process for realizing the aspirations of the Dec., so much so that he counseled against amendment of the Const., defended the legitimacy of the Fugitive Slave Law, and, in the midst of the direst national emergency in our history, submitted to the ultimate constitutional demand, the election of 1864.
(3) the unlooked-for events of April-June 1861 forced Lincoln to a series of extra-constitutional (but not unconstitutional) actions, such as calling up the volunteers, purchasing military stores, and suspending the writ of habeas corpus. These actions became ammunition for generations of Lincoln-haters to cast him as a would-be dictator who tore up the Constitution in order to create the first "big government"; and it has led to Lincoln being idolized by Thurgood Marshall and Garry Wills for exactly the same reason. But Lincoln's actions in the spring of 1861 were, by any reasonable standard, unavoidable: Congress could not be assembled (it was still in the process of electing itself, and was not due to assemble for a regular session until Dec 1861). And in the end, Congress confirmed these actions. Far from establishing dictatorship, Lincoln later complained that he would "be blamed for having made too few arrests rather than too many."

Dr.Allen Guelzo ... 1999/11/29 - 19:30:34



How much faith do you have professor in Herndon's belated memories. He has sort of experienced a "come back" as of late. Wilson, Walsh, Burlingame, among others all put a lot of credit in his stories. This includes the ones that deal with Lincoln's personal behavior. These all paint a different radically different picture of the man. What do you think?

Mike B. (Coh61st@aol.com).. Philadelphia - PA... 1999/11/29 - 19:51:45


Mike B. #3:

They sang about Maria von Trapp: How do you solve a problem like Maria? Something of the same thing might be said about Herndon. No one outside Lincoln's immediate family had a closer view of the man than Herndon, nor were many others better fitted by training and temperament to be his analyst. But Herndon made himself notorious in 1866 with his Springfield lectures, especially concerning Anne Rutledge, and very quickly Herndon himself became an issue which it has been hard to avoid taking sides over. It may help to distinguish from Herndon's own recollections and the recollections he collected from others about Lincoln. The work of John Y. Simon, Douglas Wilson and Rodney Davis have established very strongly that Herndon was a remarkably faithful recorder of personal reminiscence from those who had known Lincoln in his youth; and that the coherence of that reminiscence material suggests that the burden of probability falls pretty favorably on both the reminiscences and Herndon's use of them. My own work on J.G. Holland, who took testimony from many of the same sources as Herndon and with largely the identical results, helps confirm that Herndon was guilty neither of prompting or shading that material. Herndon's own recollections of Lincoln, gathered mostly in his letters to Jesse Weik and in the biography Weik helped him cobble together, are another matter, since they were recorded over more than twenty years, and reflect Herndon's sometimes erratic responses to questions and criticisms. He had a weakness for exaggeration -- not the least in instances where he claimed that Lincoln read less and thought more than any other man in America. Leave aside the fact that this statement is incoherent on its face; Herndon proceeded to contradict it in other places by itemizing Lincoln's reading. What he meant to say, by way of florid over-kill, was that Lincoln was his own thinker, and could not be easily pigeon-holed. And yet, even allowing for the exaggerations, there are insights and observations in Herndon which could only have come from intense acquaintance with the man, and which are born out in the recollections of many of Herndon's contemporaries. Herndon's ultimate problem was in angering the wrong people early on, and thereby allowing them to undermine his credibility thereafter. But the credibility, I believe, is there.

Dr.Allen Guelzo ... 1999/11/29 - 20:09:54


Thank you

Thank you professor for your excellent responses.

Mike B. (Coh61st@aol.com).. Philadelphia - PA... 1999/11/29 - 19:55:21


Influence of the loss of Lincoln's sons on his religion

What sort of affect did the death of first Eddy Lincoln at a very young age, and then Willy Lincoln while the family was living in the White House, had upon the religious growth of Lincoln?

Cathy Gillette (gillettefambrea@worldnet.att.net).. brea - ca... 1999/11/23 - 23:59:46


Cathy Gillette:

Lincoln recorded only a few passing comments on the death of Edward Baker Lincoln, although it is possible he wrote the brief poetic eulogy which appeared in a Springfield newspaper after the boy's death. Mary Lincoln's behavior was much more noticeable, and it brought her to James Smith and the First Presbyterian Church. Yet the death of Eddie seems to have some form of softening on Lincoln's infidelity; James Smith is the first clergyman Lincoln seems to have relented and admitted to some measure of intellectual tete-a-tete, and Smith later claimed to have had long discussions with Lincoln on the Bible, providence, and predestination. And it is also true that Lincoln does become, at least publicly, more accommodating to religion after 1850. But remember that 1850/1851 was a trying time for Lincoln on many fronts: his political ambitions seemed to have gone up in smoke, and his father died, so alienated from his only living child that Lincoln made no effort to attend him on his death-bed or attend the funeral. Lincoln had multiple reasons for "softening" any "infidel" bravado. The death of Willie seems to have triggered no particular religious crisis, despite the attempt of later commentators to make it appear so. The most interesting example concerns Francis Carpenter, who claimed in
Six Months in the White House that Lincoln had come to some form of religious experience through the counsel of Francis Vinton. There are several difficulties with the Carpenter story (mostly concerning the time-frame) but Carpenter tenaciously repeated the story, and I believe (like the Newton Bateman interview in J.G. Holland's Life) that it bears some more looking-into. (After all, there was more than one notable clergyman named Vinton in the 1860s -- think of Alexander Vinton in Boston).

Dr.Allen Guelzo ... 1999/11/29 - 19:04:05


Lincoln's character

Defend the statement in the Introduction of your book "Lincoln was a moral rigorist who made a fetish of his own sincerity and honesty....". Do you mean these qualities of Lincoln were used by him for calculated effect?

Gary Flint (gflint@earthlink.net).. Los Gatos - Ca.... 1999/11/26 - 21:27:46


Gary Flint:

It's a case of both/and rather than either/or. Lincoln's cultural inheritance, both religiously from his childhood and philosophically in his rebellion against that religion, taught him to prize the most extreme transparency. Religiously, an all-sovereign God could not be deceived by human insincerity, and it was not wise to trifle with him; in his rebellion against Calvinism, Lincoln, like so many other Victorian doubters, strained to be more truthful even than that, since he had to justify his integrity as an "infidel" against those who supposed his lack of religion would translate into a lack of honesty. But he was also self-aware of the need to project the image of honesty: this comes very much to the fore in his tortured decision to marry Mary Todd, where it is clear that his concern over the appearance of keeping promises and pledges was of greater importance almost than Mary herself. It also appears in an earlier episode concerning Mary Owens, as he tells Elizabeth (Mrs. Orville H.) Browning that he is "Out clear in every sense of the term; no violations of word, honor or conscience" -- and all the while full knowing that his actual behavior was something less than distinguished. In other words, Lincoln was sincere -- well-nigh driven -- in his pursuit of honesty and moral uprightness; but he was also aware of that drive and the importance it had in the eyes of others.

Dr.Allen Guelzo ... 1999/11/29 - 18:54:04


Lincoln's Education

The education of President Lincoln, or rather lack of it, is both legendary and well documented. However, the extent of his accumulated knowledge is extraordinary and covered an incredible variety of topics. What were the sources of his self-education beyond reading material? Was he an active participant of the popular lyceum movement that swept the nation during the first half of the 19th century? Was he a member of a debating society? Did he attend lectures? Correspond with recognized learned men of his time?

Connie Boone (LaTulip1909@aol.com).. Appleton - WI... 1999/11/26 - 22:23:56


Connie Boone:

Lincoln's lack of education, contrasted with his rise to the highest office in the land, makes for one of the great stories of the Republic. Actually, when one considers that the limited schooling he had (perhaps four winters' worth by his own reckoning) was all by subscription -- in other words, his father had to pay for it, since there was no public schooling system in Kentucky or southwestern Indiana, Lincoln did no worse than many others of his generation on the frontier. Certainly, what we know of the reading he did in school was substantial. In his New Salem days, he was noted as an assiduous reader, and participated in a small-scale debating society; he was also a great talker about books, and impressed Caleb Carman as a surprisingly well-read young man. As a lawyer, he needed only a comparatively limited repertoire of reading, but William Herndon's description of the reading on offer in the Lincoln-Herndon law office suggests much wider intellectual horizons, including both American and English philosophy, religion and political economy. Lincoln's particular favorites in the last category were J.S. Mill, Henry Carey, and above all, Francis Wayland. Even in the White House, he told Noah Brooks that he "particularly liked" Bishop Joseph Butler's famous
Analogy of Religion (1736) and hoped to "get at" Jonathan Edwards's Freedom of the Will (1754). He was, in sort, a far more literate president than we have given him credit for; and his intellectual contexts gave far more important shape to his political life than we have given them credit for.

Dr.Allen Guelzo ... 1999/11/29 - 18:42:34


Fables & Parables

President Lincoln loved to disarm, dismay and delight his audience whether a large gathering or individual cabinet officers, generals and journalists with humorous, but poignant fables and pertinent parables. What was the source of his repertoire? Did he relate oral tales from his youth, repeat the published wit of Artemus Ward et al, or did he simply make up charming anecdotes to fit the need of the moment?

Connie Boone (LaTulip1909@aol.com).. Appleton - WI... 1999/11/26 - 22:22:19


Connie Boone addendum:

I notice that I forgot to respond to two sub-questions of yours. Yes, Lincoln did participate in the lyceum movement: his first major recorded speech was delivered to a young mens' lyceum in Springfield in 1838 (one of at least two such lyceums in Springfield) and later wrote two lectures -- or rather two parts of a single lecture -- on Discoveries and Inventions, which he took briefly onto the lyceum/lecture circuit. No, there is no surviving correspondence between Lincoln and "great thinkers." Being a man of ideas (which he was) and being an intellectual (which he was not) are by no means the same thing. This distinction has, unfortunately, kept us from seeing the man of ideas, and that has posed a particular problem for Lincoln biography. Mark Neely has described, following Benjamin Thomas in Portrait for Posterity, how Lincoln biography has tended to separate into "private" and "public," with the models for the first category being Herndon and the so-called neo-Herndonians (Burlingame, Wilson) and the models for the second being Nicolay & Hay and J.G. Randall. Of the two, Mark N. clearly prefers the latter: if it were not for the last forty-eight months of his life, Neely asks, who would remember A. Lincoln? There is merit in Neely's complaint; but it also means denying the shaping influence of Lincoln's early life. The problem arises when we define "early life" in the terms Herndon loved, those of temperament, genetics, subjectivity. If those are the only alternative to the public Lincoln, then I'm inclined to agree with Neely. But they aren't. Lincoln's ideas -- shaped by the triple context of his ancestral Calvinism, his embrace of the long Enlightenment and its doubts, and classical liberal political economy -- provide a bridge between the private Lincoln and the public Lincoln which allows a better measure of reconciliation between the two.

Dr.Allen Guelzo ... 1999/11/29 - 21:13:03


Back to ALO Home

© 1999 - 2020 Abraham Lincoln Online. All rights reserved. Privacy Policy