Abe Lincoln in Retrospect

American Icons, History, People, Traditions
on February 8, 2009

On the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth, historian Harold Holzer explores the attributes that led the frontier storekeeper, lawyer and politician to the White House and secured his prominent place in American history. Holzer, of Rye, N.Y., is the author, co-author or editor of 33 books about our 16th president, including the new Lincoln Revisited and Lincoln: President-Elect, and the Civil War.

AP: What principles and beliefs from his frontier upbringing did Lincoln take to the White House in 1861?

HH: Young Abraham learned the importance of hard work and study on the frontier. Reading was the only form of entertainment and relief from farm labor, and Lincoln discovered early that he loved books, especially the Bible. Work was how one lived, ate, and ultimately escaped poverty and earned a better life. Lincoln did not love the pioneer life, but he learned much from living it.

AP: What life experiences in Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois prepared Lincoln for the challenges he faced in Washington, D.C.?

HH: As a boy in Kentucky, Lincoln learned how hard it was for free labor to compete with slave labor. Early on he knew that the slavery was economically and morally wrong. Indiana was where he learned to read, write and observe people, and where he first read newspapershis window to the wider worldthrough which he later reached the public. Illinois was his incubator for professional life, where he learned to live on his own, transformed himself by studying law and mastered the art of politics.

AP: What Lincoln leadership qualities might President Obama find helpful in the Oval Office?

HH: Among Lincolns greatest qualities were empowering and trusting his gifted subordinates; communicating brilliantly and understandably to the public; maintaining a determined core of beliefs; running his political party like a master puppeteer; and practicing patience as the nations leader. He liked to say he was slow to take an important step, but once he did, he never retreated. Lincoln also had sense of humor: He loved to laugh, and his laughter helped America survive its most tragic period.

AP: What were the most profound decisions of the Lincoln presidency?

HH: Lincoln decided shortly after his election in 1860 that democracy was worth fighting for, and that the United States could never be divided. He also embraced the destruction of slavery, even if it meant redefining the goals of the Civil War in the midst of fighting.

AP: What was Lincoln's greatest failure or shortcoming in office?

HH: Lincoln's patience could be overindulgent, and he took too long to recognize that some of his early military commanders were not capable of winning the war. Also, in his determination to save the nation, he expanded presidential authority as never before by suspending the writ of habeas corpus and closing down newspapers.

AP: What choices did Lincoln make as president that secured his prominent place in American history?

HH: Lincoln knew from the minute he signed the Emancipation Proclamation that he had secured his place in history. He even massaged his hand before he picked up his pen because he was sore from shaking hands with hundreds of guests at a White House reception. He didn't want his penmanship to look shaky. Choosing not to renege on his promise to free the slaves was his most important and historic choice.

AP: Lincoln remains one of the nation's most famous presidents. What is the continuing fascination with our 16th president?

HH: His rise to the Oval Office demonstrated that a person from the humblest circumstances could live the American dream and achieve its highest position. Lincoln also was the nation's first martyred president, seemingly dying heroically and tragically for the nation's sins.

AP: If Lincoln were president today, what might he propose to secure and preserve the nation?

HH: While he would have no clue about todays fluctuating financial markets, insatiable energy appetite, rising health care costs, and technological advances, Lincoln's goal of securing equal opportunity for all Americans transcends time. He lived and died for that principle.