With ‘Lincoln’ out on Friday, experts share what they think about Abe
The following article by Christine Miller Ford ran November 14 in the Spirit of Jefferson newspaper, Charles Town, WV. It is reprinted here with permission.
CHARLES TOWN, WV – Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster “Lincoln” is set to hit movie theaters nationwide Friday, so it’s the perfect time to check in with authors, scholars and others from the Eastern Panhandle and beyond to hear why they believe the 16th president remains such a captivating figure. Here are their assessments of Abe Lincoln:
Lois Turco, Two Rivers Heritage Alliance chairwoman
“Why does Lincoln still fascinate us? I think that he had leadership qualities that resonate in today’s 21st century political environment. He seemed to be able to deal with complex ideas and articulate them in simple English. His public addresses still have a powerful impact. He put aside the political ideology of sectarianism and put forward public policies that could move the nation forward together.
“He assembled a ‘team of rivals’ that showed his self-confidence and an ability to listen to dissenting ideas and take them into account and incorporate them to make them his own.
“We are in the midst of the 150th commemoration of the Civil War. We live in a region that was divided by this war. We have overcome the cultural and political divisions and moved forward together. The National Parks Service’s historical parks in our region serve us well as they interpret this American story for visitors from abroad and residents and their families every day.”
Al McGilvray, radio correspondent
“Lincoln is a lot more ‘real’ to most of us because he was the first American President to be photographed as a common occurrence. Thus, he is a real image, not a painting, which can be the interpretation of the artist.
“In addition, he was the president of the United States during the American Civil War. Many families today can still touch an elderly relative who touched the hand of an elderly relative who fought in the war, or cared for a warrior, or looked after the family and home front. The war is still ‘fought’ today in many respects in America, as the divisiveness of the just-election season has proven. Lincoln – what he stood for, how he acted, the demons he fought both personally and professionally – is a symbol of what we are going though today.
“He was one of us – not a well-heeled aristocrat, with a powered wig and knee britches, but a rough-hewn self-made man who pulled himself up from nothing to be (to steal a line from the movie) ‘President of the United States of America – clothed in immense power!’ We should all be so lucky. What also makes him so fascinating is the ‘what if’ factor: What if he survived the assassination? Would civil rights been achieved 100 years earlier? Could he have avoided the Jim Crow era, segregation, ‘Separate but Equal’ and the bloodletting of the 1960’s? Things to ponder.”
Bob O’Connor, historian-author
“I grew up in Illinois, the ‘Land of Lincoln.’ I portrayed Abraham Lincoln in a school play in 8th grade. I was tall and skinny but had to wear a fake beard. I had to memorize Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address for that role.
“All my life I have been fascinated by Abraham Lincoln. I wrote a book ‘The Virginian Who Might Have Saved Lincoln’ about Ward Hill Lamon – Lincoln’s bodyguard, who was born in Summit Point, lived in Bunker Hill and is buried in Gerrardstown – and then later edited Lamon’s only book, ‘The Life of Abraham Lincoln As President’ which was written in the 1880s but had never been published.
“My fascination with Lincoln comes from several directions. He had less than one year of formal education but was said to have been the smartest attorney on the 8th Circuit of Illinois.
“Lincoln was elected with 39 percent of the popular vote in the 1860 election, an election that saw the three other candidates split the vote allowing Lincoln to win. In 10 states he didn’t get any votes and was not even on the ballot. When the Civil War started in April 1861, he was virtually running the country by himself because Congress did not meet until July 4, 1861.
“He was not equipped with the experience needed to be president of the United States, but made his priority saving the nation, a task he himself said was tougher than any undertaken by a president since George Washington.
“I am also fascinated by the animosity the South still has for President Lincoln. They do not realize that on the day Lincoln died, he was the South’s best friend. The Southern states would have been allowed back in the country immediately, if Lincoln had lived. When he was killed, everyone else in the North wanted to punish the states for seceding and made it difficult for them to return. It took them years to be accepted and to have representation in Congress.”
By the standards of the day Lincoln was a dove, but he prosecuted the most destructive war in this nation’s history. —Sean O’Leary
Jeanne Mozier, owner of Star Theatre in Berkeley Springs
“Theater owners get to screen all movies two to four weeks before they are released. It is a legal requirement linked to the fact that theaters bid on opening films and should have a chance to see it first. Not that many do. But there was a crowd for Lincoln – maybe 10 people. It’s often just one or two.
“I felt honored to watch this film. It was magnificent in every way. As if we did not have enough reasons to adore Steven Spielberg, his efforts in bringing ‘Lincoln’ to moviegoers everywhere would clinch it. He did an amazing job as director; every actor in the movie was impressive – there must be something about the 19th century that brings out the best. “Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln gives a profound understanding to the man Thaddeus Stephens (played by the incomparable Tommy Lee Jones) called the ‘purest man in America.’ Sally Fields as Mary Todd Lincoln; James Strader as a sleazy vote buyer … on and on and on. As if all this craftsmanship was not enough, the message of the film, which focuses on Lincoln’s final months and passage of the 13th amendment, the one that bans slavery for every American, is one that everyone still needs to hear. True history has a drama all its own.
“I cannot wait for folks to see ‘Lincoln’ and realize the direct line between Abraham Lincoln, first Republican president, and Barack Obama, first black president. Without Lincoln’s passionate insistence on the 13th amendment, there would be no President Obama. This history shows the original, honorable meaning of the term Radical Republican.”
Tim Rowland, author of “Strange and Obscure Stories of the Civil War”
“What makes Lincoln great to me is his studied absence of greatness — at least as Lincoln saw himself. We can sense this even today, that Lincoln seldom if ever considered himself superior to his fellow countrymen. There was no pretension to Lincoln; he bragged of having no genius. Yet he did have a genius, and it is a very common genius that rests within us all, if we know how to nurture it. It is the skill of humility, of making the people around us feel accomplished at the expense of our own egos.
“Other presidents sit up on a dais. Lincoln sits at our supper table, and listens to what we have to say. He plants in us an inspiration, and then sits back and allows us to take the credit when we succeed. Sure, the war wore him thin at times, but it never seemed to erode his piercing yet respectful assessment of people, or his skill at moving them around the chess board (with or without their knowledge).
“At Gettysburg, Gen. Dan Sickles, who led a parallel life as America’s Scoundrel Laureate, was gravely wounded in a military disaster that was largely his own doing. Sickles, a social friend of Lincoln’s, was among the first of the wounded to be wheeled back to Washington, where he grabbed the president’s ear and laid out an epic tale of his own heroism and how he had been undercut by blundering rivals. Lincoln nodded gravely—and then never let Sickles anywhere near the action again. Instead, as important battles neared, Lincoln always found a mission of ‘crucial importance’ in some foreign nation where Sickles’ talents were required. In short, it was exactly the way the more adept of us might distract a potentially embarrassing uncle at a crucial time in the wedding.
“We can draw many conclusions from this story, but the modern-day lesson would be this: Those who have let us down, or those who have differing views from ours, need not be demonized. Instead, they can be employed to our advantage if we are willing to keep our own self-aggrandizement from steering the ship. Were our leaders of today blessed with the same, unassuming skill, it is doubtful terms like ‘fiscal cliff’ and ‘doomsday budget’ would be uttered with such annoying frequency.”
Don Burgess, Harpers Ferry Historic Town Foundation
“The film ‘Lincoln’ is a must to see to develop a better understanding – less lore and myth – of how Lincoln guided our country through its worst moments and allowed the ideals of American democracy to survive. What Lincoln accomplished was truly monumental. He was a political genius, and most of all, a courageous defender of the United States of America.
“There are many people that might disagree with these statements, but they are wrong. These statements were not made by some famous historian, but by the most famous filmmaker in all of history – Steven Spielberg. This film may eventually be considered a masterpiece – not because Spielberg used masterful special effects, but because he masterfully used the incredible words of Abraham Lincoln and his presence to tell a story.
“This movie is about the political genius of Lincoln in getting the 13th Amendment adopted and slavery abolished. However, it is really a vignette of Lincoln and the issues that faced the nation at that time – and timeless issues that face our nation.
“The issues that Lincoln struggled with 150 years ago are the same ones FDR struggled with 80 years ago, that LBJ fought 50 years ago, and those our current president (and entire nation) are struggling with today: civil rights, racial and religious tension, human rights, states versus federal rights, economic growth, fiscal responsibility, arming the military, political versus military influence, education, poverty – you name it, it’s the same.
“One cannot possibly understand and propose solutions to today’s problems if one is not informed about the origins of the issues and the changes for the better initiated by President Lincoln and also fought for by FDR, LBJ and our entire nation. We are doomed to repeat past mistakes if we are clueless about the past.”
Hannah Geffert, political science professor at Shepherd University
“Lincoln saved our nation and elevated the War Between the States to a war to end slavery. If not for Lincoln the United States might not exist today; and by ending slavery the greatest impediment to our nation living up to its stated ideals was removed.
“Of course we are still striving to become a more perfect union, but without Lincoln the great ethic of the U.S. – that we believe that all people are created equal and that all people are endowed by our creator by certain inalienable rights – would just be words.”
Katherine Walsh Ryan, founder of Ryan Film Institute in Martinsburg
“Historical films that are accurate are a rarity but are great teaching tools for the entire family. Within two hours, a film can convey in both visual and auditory terms what could take many hours to research about a subject.
“As a filmmaker, I watch movies for many aspects: the message, how it is delivered, the plot, dialogue, acting, plus historical accuracy of everything from costuming, set design, locations and mise en scene. I believe this film will get thumbs up on all counts and look forward to seeing it.”
Emily Vaughn, owner of Miss Emily Art
“I think there is a resurgence of interest in Lincoln because we are in the midst of another historical presidency. Whether you agree with Obama’s politics or not, issues of civil rights, racial equality and national dissonance turn their presidencies into historical bookends.
“Lincoln struggled to unite two violently opposed sides, and reached for an impossible moral high ground and vision for the future of the country. In a time of so many ugly political sentiments, his story recalls the passionate feelings crazed optimism many felt in 2008.
“We’re in the thick of it, and Lincoln gives us hope that we can pull through this, that there is president for social reforms, and that history will look back on us favorably.”
Don Silvius, member of the Berkeley County Historical Society
“I think Lincoln will always fascinate Americans. At a time when things were at their very worst for the United States, Lincoln was able to begin the process of bringing it all back together even if there were many people who didn’t want that to happen. As is the case with many who die tragically before their time, his assassination probably added to the legendary status he seems to have.
“There is also that sense of left behind unfinished business. A school of thought exists that, had Lincoln lived, the Reconstruction period that would have followed would have been much less painful. We will never know.
“Lincoln also possessed an almost superhero status, particularly to the slaves he freed. However, for his political adversaries and critics, he was evil personified. After the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War when the slaves were freed, what must have been huge profits were drastically reduced due to the fact that paid laborers would now be required to run the southern plantations. The best way to anger someone is to take their money from them!
“There are, to this day, people who resent Lincoln and he is still a very controversial figure in some circles. He was the first Republican president and was considered by many at that time to be a radical.
“Aside from freeing the slaves, it was thought by some that fighting a war against Southern states was unconstitutional – and then there’s that West Virginia thing. Lincoln created a state from within the boundaries of another state. What does the Constitution say about that?
“And here in the Eastern Panhandle, our area was strategic militarily for both sides during the Civil War. There was a military presence here for the entire war. That’s something none of us can imagine. In any case and for whatever reasons, Lincoln is still very much on the minds of Americans. We certainly can’t say the same for his predecessor, James Buchanan, or his successor, Andrew Johnson.”
Ed Steers, Berkeley Springs-based author of “Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln”
“The American people are fascinated by Lincoln because of his great empathy for people – all people. In all his public actions, Lincoln never distinguished between Northern Americans and Southern Americans. He only recognized Americans. When he said let us “bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan,” he did not say to care for the Northern soldier who bore the battle, or the Northern widow, or the Northern orphan. He included the South as well.
“Lincoln was the first president to openly propose black suffrage, and supported suffrage for women. He believed that every citizen who had a stake in this great country should, by right, be allowed to vote for the people who affected their everyday lives.
“Lincoln’s greatness as a president resided in his vision for the future of the country. His actions impact every one of us to this very day. Of the greatest pieces of legislation in the history of this nation, three belong to Lincoln: the Emancipation Proclamation, the Land Grant College Act, and the Homestead Act.
Just imagine his foresight. In the middle of a great Civil War with the future of the nation uncertain, Lincoln introduced the Land Grant College Act establishing public colleges and universities in every state including the 11 states that were then in rebellion. Money obtained from the sale of public lands was placed in escrow to be given to all the states when the war ended to be used to establish public colleges. Today there are 71 Land Grant colleges and universities throughout the country as a result of Lincoln’s belief in public education. At the same time, he passed the Homestead Act establishing 3 million small family farms consisting of 640 acres each at no cost to the farmer. This act alone gave rise to the greatest agriculture industry in the world, and resulted in 13 new states carved out of public lands.
“The greatness of a president is measured by the enduring impact their policies have on people not only at the time of their presidency, but into the unforeseen future. By any measure, Abraham Lincoln’s policies built the country into the greatest nation on earth, which is why historians continue to rate him our greatest president..”
Kweli Kitwana, Harpers Ferry artist
“Without Lincoln’s leadership, I shudder to think how long it would have taken to conceptualize, let alone pass both the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution. Had he lived, things could have turned out differently. My hope is his leadership can continue to serve as a model for moral leadership.”
Stephen Skinner, Charles Town lawyer
“Both the legend and reality of Lincoln are what compel us toward him. Because of his strength and leadership, the Union – and the very idea of America – was saved and made stronger.
“Although it is hard to reconcile pure democracy and individual rights, Lincoln showed us that our American struggle is about just that: balancing democracy with constitutional rights. The struggle is as familiar today as it was when West Virginia was born.”
Sherree Casper Grebenstein, Staff Sgt. at the 167th Airlift Wing of the W.Va. Air National Guard
“Had President Abraham Lincoln not gone to Ford Theatre that night, our country might be very different. After the brutal Civil War that fractured our nation, he wanted to allow the South to rebuild without putting roadblocks in its way.
“When Lincoln was taken out of the equation, the North and South were again pitted against each another with the South not being given even footing to try and reinvent itself. The harsh restrictions the North put in place built up resentment that has lasted for generations. I believe had Lincoln served for a full second term, his compassion toward those in the South would have helped heal our country much faster.
“Even now, there is so much hatred. Perhaps had Lincoln been president longer, the country might not be so divided today.”
Sean O’Leary, Harpers Ferry playwright
“I think Lincoln fascinates us as a president because he saved the United States and with it the promise of everything the founding fathers hoped for, everything this nation has become, and everything it might yet be.
“But I think he fascinates us even more as a human being. He, like you and I, had principles in which he believed, principles he articulated in order to be elected president. But, his principles were tested by as great a catastrophe as one person has ever faced – a conflict that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands.
“It would be nice to say that through it all Lincoln adhered to his principles and that’s why he’s a hero today. But that’s not what happened. He didn’t adhere to his principles. He couldn’t, at least not in the naïve form in which he imagined them before being elected president.
“Lincoln was confronted by a situation so monstrous and complex that it constantly pitted treasured principles against one another, forcing him to question them, to refine them, to choose between them and occasionally to sacrifice some of them.
“By the standards of the day Lincoln was a dove, but he prosecuted the most destructive war in this nation’s history. He wasn’t an abolitionist, but he abolished slavery. He was a profound believer in republican democracy, but at times he assumed nearly dictatorial powers.
“And despite all the painful compromises he had to make, Lincoln never tried to escape responsibility by taking either of the two back doors through which many of us run. He didn’t take shelter in dogma. He believed in God, but he knew his choices and the responsibility for the consequences were his alone.
“And Lincoln never gave in to expediency. He might have been forced to sacrifice lesser principles in order to protect the most precious. But he held on to those tightly.
“In the end, I think Lincoln fascinates us because he reminds us that living is damned hard and too complex to allow all of our choices to be guided entirely by a few simple rules handed down in books, by our religion, or even by our parents. Eventually, we all face choices for which we cannot know what’s best. And, at times like that, Lincoln’s example is a comfort because it reminds us that, despite our inadequacy, we can still act conscientiously and even nobly.”
Ken Sullivan, executive director of the West Virginia Humanities Council
“I think most Americans agree that Abraham Lincoln was our greatest president, literally the person who saved the nation. Had the South won its independence, there is no reason to think that secession would have stopped there. It is at least as likely that our country would have shattered into a series of squabbling banana republics on the South American model, none of them capable of the greatness that we have in fact attained in the 150 years since Lincoln held us to the fire.
“And I think it is that – holding us to the fire – that accounts for Lincoln’s spiritual or mystical status, which is probably the larger part of his legend. The blood sacrifice of the Civil War was an awful, horrendous thing, numerically greater than all our other wars put together and from a population a fraction of what we have now. Lincoln held us to that, taking the responsibility on himself while recognizing that the actual price was being paid by others, North and South. It is almost as if his death, as awful as it was, was in atonement, and certainly his assassination sealed his martyrdom. ‘Now he belongs to the ages,’ as Secretary of War Stanton said at the time.”
Kendra Adkins of Four Seasons Books in Shepherdstown
“A customer was just in looking for ‘A Team of Rivals’ by Doris Kearns Goodwin [a book drawn on for Spielberg’s film]. I asked her why Lincoln still fascinates. She thinks there’s a tie to President Obama. Regardless of your personal beliefs, we are witness to a historical presidency and people are looking for touch points to relate to. Lincoln is topical because he is a president that struggled with public opinion, but he continued to make human and civil rights a priority despite opposition.”
Dave Tabler, editor/publisher of AppalachianHistory.net
“Lincoln was born in Hodgenville, Ky., which is a bit far west to properly be considered part of Appalachia. His mother Nancy Hanks, however, was born in what is today Mineral County, West Virginia, in the Eastern Panhandle, and his father was born in Rockingham County, Virginia, along Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains, so there can be little question that young Abraham was raised in a household that conveyed what we would consider the ‘Appalachian values’ of the 19th century Scots-Irish.
“Lincoln’s love of storytelling and joking was perhaps the most publicly displayed of these values instilled in our nation’s most ‘uncommon common man.’ Early in his presidential career this trait gave Lincoln’s Cabinet members and generals the impression that he was a rough-hewn frontier yokel, someone lacking gravitas. A recent New Yorker profile of Lincoln’s Secretary of State William H. Seward captured the attitude perfectly. “[Seward] thinks he has Mr. Lincoln sure,” reported the New York Herald in 1861, “and delights in introducing him to everybody, on the same principle which leads children to display their new toys.”
“Lincoln’s longtime law partner back in Illinois, William Herndon, knew this was strictly a façade, a position Lincoln took to get things done. Herndon observed that in fact Lincoln was ‘fiercely ambitious.’
“They say I tell a great many stories,” Lincoln said. “I reckon I do; but I have learned from long experience that plain people, take them as they run, are more easily influenced through the medium of a broad and humorous illustration than in any other way.”
John Doyle, House of Delegates
“What made Lincoln a great president? I think it was a combination of personal courage, dedication to principle, deep understanding of policy and outstanding political skill.
“He saved the Union because he made clear that for him this goal superseded all others. He agonized over whether to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, deciding to do so because he thought that move would better help save the Union. He made the same decision about the admission of West Virginia to the Union, for the same reason.
“But he made major accomplishments in other public policy areas in spite of and in the midst of conducting the war that saved the Union. He believed in infrastructure and education. During his presidency the transcontinental railroad was begun with major help from the federal government. Congress passed the Morrill Act, which established our system of land grant universities – the biggest reason that our country developed the finest higher education system in the world). None of this would have been accomplished but for Mr. Lincoln’s superior dealmaking prowess.”
Layne Diehl, attorney
“Lincoln was so transparent in his own fallibility that it is interesting now to look back and see that such a very flawed and troubled man could have led the country through a most desperate and pivotal time in our history.
“As I look around me, it seems that racism and intolerance continues to be a fundamental flaw in American culture. As the leader of a divided nation, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and while we may all look back now and say that was the right thing to do, in the moment it may not have been so clear.
“For all of us who continue to struggle with racism and intolerance, Lincoln’s struggles may in some way still represent the struggle in each of us today. Lincoln fascinates us and perhaps motivates us to recognize our own humanity and to make decisions, particularly civic-minded ones, in a way that seeks to reconcile our own humanity with the hope of something better.”