BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Merrill Peterson, author of “Lincoln in American Memory,” have there really been 420 billion pennies minted over the years?
MERRILL PETERSON, AUTHOR, "LINCOLN IN AMERICAN MEMORY Well, that's what I'm told anyway, and it probably is the most reproduced image in the world, the Lincoln image on that penny. It's the same image since 1909 done by an artist named Brenner in 1909 at the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, and it has not been changed; that is, the front has not been changed. The back has been changed. When the Lincoln Memorial was finished in 1922, they changed the back to include the Lincoln Memorial.
LAMB: Someplace in your book I think you said that 500 people make their living off of Abraham Lincoln directly.
PETERSON: I've forgotten the exact number, but it would be something like at, I would think -- at least that many, I suspect.
LAMB: What do they do?
PETERSON: They are curators, they're authors, they are involved in editing of one sort or another. The Lincoln legal papers, for example, now being edited in Springfield, Ill., is a big project. They are impersonators, performance persons who impersonate Lincoln or interpret Lincoln at historical sites, historical sites themselves, the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop in Chicago, and the Abraham Lincoln Association and whatever staff may be connected with that. I don't know. I've never tried to figure out whether it would be 500, but it would be somewhere close to that. All kinds of museums, of course. In southern Indiana, there are several museums focused on Lincoln's boyhood years in Indiana.
LAMB: Is there any other American political figure in history that would have 500 people working around the name?
PETERSON: Probably not, I wouldn't think so, I don't think that that would be the case. Another thing, I suppose, that should have been included about people who do work for Lincoln is the home site in Springfield, Ill., which is a National Park Service site. Whether you would include those persons, I don't know. They're National Park Service employees, but they are engaged in the interpretation of Lincoln at his home on 10th and Jackson in Springfield, Ill.
I, of course, am close to Monticello, Jefferson's home in Charlottesville, Va., and am very active with Monticello, and that is a very large organization, and I suppose all those persons could be said to be involved with the preservation and interpretation of Thomas Jefferson. And then there are the employees of the Jefferson papers in Princeton, N.J., and employees of various other adjuncts of Jefferson, I suppose. So I think there is quite a bit there. There's quite a bit for Washington, I suppose. I don't know how they would compare, but I suspect Lincoln is probably the largest. Just as his bibliography is the largest, without question.
LAMB: It is?
PETERSON: Oh, yes. I think so without question. It becomes a little bit of a matter of definition, and if you got real precise in your definition of what is a piece of Lincolniana, as separated from the Civil War. Civil War historiography, writing about the Civil War inevitably concerns Lincoln, but it's not specifically about Lincoln. So a lot of those titles get classified as titles in Lincolniana. But there are estimated to be about 16,000 items of Lincoln bibliography today. Eventually, there will be some kind of a guide to that vast bibliography that's an updated guide. There hasn't been one for 60 years, so it needs to be updated.
LAMB: You also did a book on the image of Thomas Jefferson.
PETERSON: That's right. That was my first book. It began as a doctoral dissertation at Harvard and developed into the book that became “The Jefferson Image in the American Mind,” published in 1960.
LAMB: Which image would you personally rather have, the image of Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln?
PETERSON: I wouldn't make that choice really. That puts me in a spot. I don't really think it's a matter of a choice. Obviously, they're both exceedingly important, as is Washington, as are a lot of other figures in American history, I think. There are significant differences between the two men and their place in history. One is that, obviously, Jefferson was a man of great learning, a very bookish man, and a man of the Enlightenment with multifaceted talents and all of that. Lincoln, on the other hand, was not a man who read a great deal, actually, and certainly not a well-educated man. He had damn little education, formal education at all; essentially self-educated and not a multifaceted person.
He was a lawyer-politician. Basically that's it. His career, as history determined, was essentially encased in the Civil War, a fairly brief period. So it did not run over the same period of time as Jefferson and did not involve the tremendous diversity of Jefferson's achievements, which include architecture, education, science and so on. It would be hard to interpret Lincoln in that broad way. Lincoln, I think, is sort of a humanist. He is an American humanist, but he's not a humanist in the sense that Jefferson is, in terms of an educated humanist, a learned humanist, a man of books and learning an so on. I think Lincoln later in his life saw the tremendous excitement of that, but he didn't have the opportunity to do anything about it.
So that's one of the major difference. I think another, in terms of the role they have played in American thought and imagination, which is basically my subject, is that Jefferson was a man who essentially appealed to the mind, whereas Lincoln was a man who appealed to the heart. I think Lincoln was very much a man who had sort of an affectional relationship to the American people, or the American people developed an affectional relationship with him. That's partly because of the tragedy, the pathos of the assassination, but it's because of the qualities of his personality, I think, that were so endearing to many people and so mysterious in many ways, that I think the kind of intellectual appeal that Jefferson has had has not really extended to that emotional level.
One thing I found in researching this book, something I hadn't expect at all, was the extent to which everyone who had a memory of Lincoln somehow felt that they had to express it, that they had to write it down or tell about it. So there's immense literature of reminiscence, which is not the case with Jefferson at all. You have some of that, but comparatively little, I think. Most of it, again, is talking about Jefferson and the things he did. It's not talking about Jefferson as a man of sentiment, as a man of humor, as a man of sorrows, all of that which is part of Lincoln, so that's a major difference.
I think, too, with regard to their place in American politics, in the history of American political leadership, if you like, American political history, Jefferson, partly because he was terribly important to the formulation of sort of the fundamental principles of democratic government in America, partly because he was there at a time when constitutions were being made, when governments were being shaped and also because of the dialogue that was set up between Jefferson and Hamilton early in our history that would seem to be opposing political lines or political force and became that throughout our history, that Jefferson has been much more used in contemporary politics through the generations.
I think I say in my book “The Jefferson Image” that you can almost write American political history in terms of what did Jefferson mean, what did he say and so on. Now, there's some of that about Lincoln, but I think partly because his career was so condensed in the Civil War, which was an unusual circumstance and involved such things as war powers, for example, and partly because he was a figure for whom there was so much affection that it was very difficult to be partisan about him, after his death particularly, so he sort of ceased to be. He was used for partisan purposes. Clearly he was used by the Republican Party for many, many years. I think the Republican Party, by the end of the century realized that they couldn't claim any particular ownership of Lincoln, so they ceased being very tough-minded about that, and the Democrats began to claim him, too. But, with Jefferson, clearly, he's been involved in changing politically. He's been in battle politically throughout our history, and I don't think that's been quite the case with Lincoln.
LAMB: When did you first get an idea of doing this book?
PETERSON: Well, fairly recently, as a matter of fact. Well, the first idea goes back to the time I was doing “The Jefferson Image”; in other words, back to the 1950s. At that time I was just reflecting about other distinguished figures in American history about whom it would be interesting to study their posthumous career in American thought and imagination, and I thought, well, Lincoln would be the obvious person that you would want to do in addition to Jefferson. I thought about that and I sort of filed the idea in the back of my mind and rather assumed, clearly that somebody would do it before I could ever get around to it. But I discovered when I was casting about for a new project in 1988 that nothing resembling “The Jefferson Image” had been done for Lincoln. So I began to think about that seriously at that time and began work the following year.
LAMB: You're professor emeritus at the University of Virginia now?
PETERSON: Professor emeritus, University of Virginia History Department.
LAMB: What were you doing in '88?
PETERSON: In 1988, partly because I couldn't decide on a new project at the beginning of that time or at the time of my retirement from the University of Virginia, which was in 1987 or `88, I took a Fulbright to teach at the University College Dublin, so I taught in Ireland for an year. Lived in Ireland, lived in Dublin, and found that quite fascinating. It was an interesting experience. That gave me more time to sort of reflect on what I might want to do next. Then I came back and began the Lincoln book.
LAMB: Where were you born?
PETERSON: I was born in Manhattan, Kansas which was a college town and that was significant for me for my life.
LAMB: Kansas State University?
PETERSON: Kansas State. Well, it was at that time Kansas State Agricultural College, KSAC, and they were called the Aggies, of course, and it was a land-grant institution. My mother had a large boarding house. She was divorced, and she had three sons. She ran a large boarding house for college students, so I got sort of involved with the college at a fairly early age. My mother, I think, always took the view that as long as she was in a college town, her children would have a better chance to get an education, and, of course, that was very wise of her and that proved to be the case. So I began at Kansas State, but because it did not have an extensive Liberal Arts program at that time, I transferred to the University of Kansas, and my degree is from KU in Lawrence, January of 1943.
LAMB: What did you study?
PETERSON: Political science at that time.
LAMB: Where'd you get your Ph.D.?
PETERSON: My Ph.D. is at Harvard, in a special program, a special interdisciplinary doctoral program called the history of American civilization, which was one of the spearheads of the American studies movement which had such a tremendous impact in the whole field of American history, American culture, American literature, various disciplines concerned with the understanding of America in the period after the Second World War. I came out of that in program in 1950.
LAMB: What got you interested in political science?
PETERSON: I got interested in political science I think mostly because of a teacher I had in high school, a man named Perkable. He's the first person mentioned in the dedication of this book. I dedicate it to the memory of three of my teachers. This man W. R. Perkable was unusual, almost an exotic it seems to me as I look back on it, in Manhattan, Kansas. He didn't seem to be at all like hardly anybody else I'd ever known. But he was something of an intellectual, obviously, and he taught the senior year social studies course in high school. I graduated from high school in 1939. In doing that, he himself subscribed to numerous periodicals -- weeklies, monthlies, quarterlies -- and he had these journals in his classroom so that they were available to students, and he tried to get students interested in reading across a wide spectrum of literature and talked a good deal about contemporary books and things like that, particularly those that concerned the political fate of the nation, you might say.
It was a time of totalitarianism, the beginning of the Second World War and all of that. So I think that's what really got me committed to wishing to study American democracy, wishing to study the history of the country and American government and to learn about American society, American culture. When I was in college, the second teacher, also mentioned in that dedication, was the youngest faculty member in political science at the University of Kansas, a man named Hilden Gibson. He got me interested in reading things about -- he got me interested in Marxism, for one thing, but in addition to that, reading things that were involved with the American past and the democratic tradition in America, including Vernon L. Parrington, “Main Currents in American Thought,” which was a great book for me and a very influential one, not one that's much read these days.
It's still consulted as sort of a secondary source, but, you know, it's not any longer much read as an interpretation of America history and culture. But it was an interpretation that was explicitly stated to be a Jeffersonian and liberal interpretation of the American political tradition and the American cultural tradition. So, I was exposed to that and began reading increasingly in that area books by people like Lewis Mumford, who were interpreting American culture at that time, culture of cities, “Technics and Civilization,” books of that sort. I read Alfred Kazin's book, “On Native Grounds,” which was the first real serious and influential effort to synthesize the whole of American literature from about the year 1900. I later learned when I got to Harvard that what I was involved in had a name. It was called the search for a usable past, and so that's what I got involved in and that's what, I guess, I'm still involved in, and a book like this is part of still that ongoing search.
LAMB: As you know and you write a lot about it, there are all kinds of places to go to see things about Abraham Lincoln. You can go to Hodgenville, Kentucky, or Spencer County, Indiana, or New Salem or Coles County, all these different places in Illinois. Have you been to all of those places?
PETERSON: Yes, I've been to those places. I haven't done as much in Spencer County as I probably should, but I've done some of that.
LAMB: When did you start out on that pilgrimage or did you?
PETERSON: Well, I did, fairly soon after I started the research on the book. I worked quite a lot at the Illinois State Historical Library in Springfield, which is one of the great libraries of Lincolniana, obviously, and also at the Lincoln Library and Museum in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which is also a very significant place for anyone studying Lincoln. Those were two of the places, and in connection with that, I visited Hodgenville and I also visited a little place that's not very well known, I don't think, anymore: Lincoln University down at the Cumberland Gap, a small institution started about 1900 with a very strong commitment to educating children of Appalachia in the ideals of Abraham Lincoln.
LAMB: Did you change your mind about Abraham Lincoln from the beginning of this project to the time you finished the book?
PETERSON: I think my respect for him grew, but I think more particularly it just sort of firmed up. I became absolutely convinced that this was a really great figure, a great human being and a great statesman. In that respect I sort of suspected that before, but I hadn't really made that kind of a study of Lincoln. I do not identify myself as a Lincoln scholar, and I didn't set out to become a Lincoln scholar. I set out to write this book. It's about the shadow of Lincoln, rather than the historical Lincoln, though I have to know the historical Lincoln, obviously, and I think there are things in it that are revealing about the historical Lincoln that people might not otherwise know if they read a straight biography.
LAMB: Give us an example.
PETERSON: Well, I think the exposure to this extent to which reminiscences were part of Lincoln's life. I think the fact that I'm able to identify certain books that have been neglected, sort of forgotten -- for example, one by an author Rothschild, “Lincoln Master of Men” -- is probably something that may be of use to more serious students of Lincoln. They might consult that book whereas before they would not have known about it or paid any attention to it.
LAMB: How'd you find it?
PETERSON: I think the discussion of Lincoln's ancestry is something that's sort of been forgotten, but at one time it was terribly important to his life, and perhaps just to bring that back, offer some perspective on that, is useful.
LAMB: Let me jump in on the ancestry, because you do have a section here about the alleged illegitimacy. What was that all about?
PETERSON: Lincoln's first -- one of his first -- biographers, William H. Herndon, had been his law partner and fancied himself as something of a philosopher and psychologist, was very close to Lincoln for 15 years. They were law partners. After Lincoln's death, he was devastated, of course, and he set out to write Lincoln's biography, to, in effect, become Lincoln's Boswell. But he was incapable at that time of really writing the biography. Certainly on his own he couldn't do it. So he made a huge collection of material bearing on Lincoln, and he was, of course, mainly responsible for the story of Ann Rutledge.
LAMB: Who was?
PETERSON: Who was, of course, a young women with whom Lincoln supposedly fell in love at a early age, when he was 23, 24 years of age. She was involved with another man, already engaged to be married, and so there was that difficult complication in their relationship. But the story, as Herndon told it, was that she was not only Lincoln's first love, she was his only love, which didn't go down very well with Mary Lincoln, his widow.
LAMB: He told this after his death? Mary Lincoln was alive?
PETERSON: Yes. Nothing was known about Ann Rutledge until after Lincoln's death. If you could ask Lincoln your question, if he came back and you could ask him a question, one of the first you would ask him is, was there a Ann Rutledge and what did she mean to your life? That story is still believed by most people, but it's been discredited by a good many historians, though there's an effort now among serious scholars to revive it and to restore it to the place in Lincoln's life.
Of course, the significance of it goes beyond the fact that it was just a love affair between two young people. It was that her death -- she then died, of course, very soon, after Lincoln and Ann Rutledge had, according to Herndon, fallen in love with each other, that whole romance had developed. Lincoln was devastated by her death, according to Herndon, and that was the beginning, really, of Lincoln's melancholia. Other people interpret it that her death became the thing that made him feel that he had to distinguish himself in some way to sort of justify her, that it made him a man somehow, finally.
So there's a lot of psychological significance written into the Ann Rutledge affair. I'm skeptical about it; let's put it that way. James G. Randall, who was the leading 20th- century scholar, really the first serious historical scholar about Lincoln, was the one who pretty much undermined that legend and discredited it to the point where it sort of dropped out of scholarly biography, but, of course, it's still very much believed by, I think, many, many people. Probably most people who know anything about Lincoln know about his love affair with Ann Rutledge as a young man and what a tragic thing that was, so that that's widely believed. Of course, in television recreations, docudramas, that's always highlighted. That's the incident around which Lincoln's life was thought to turn. It led to his developing an identity, and it also led to that melancholia that he supposedly had throughout his life.
LAMB: What does it mean to be melancholy?
PETERSON: I meant, in his case, that he was often given to moods of great sadness and sorrow, depression perhaps, but not perhaps clinical depression. There's no evidence at all, I think, that Lincoln was clinically depressed in the sense that he could not function effectively at a job or as a human being. There's no evidence to that whatsoever. He functioned beautifully. But the notion that somehow he was a man given to depression, that it was sort of a sickness that was there and that it came out from time to time is fairly current.
LAMB: I found in your book at one point a discussion about Russell Kirk of the National Review.
PETERSON: A very brief discussion. There is an allusion to him.
LAMB: But the reason I bring it up is that was one of the few times that you could see a modern application of dislike toward Abraham Lincoln, if I read you right.
PETERSON: There is some.
LAMB: Do the conservatives of this country not like Abraham Lincoln?
PETERSON: Well, I think that's an interesting question. Others involved with the National Review, a man named Meyer whom I quote here, who was in the early stages of the National Review an important figure, and also this man M.E. Bradford, whom I discuss at a greater length and who's written quite extensively on Lincoln and generally quite critically. There is an anti-Lincoln tradition in America. I don't deal with it very explicitly in this book. I don't develop it as a line of interpretation because it seems to me it's so minor most of the time, except for the South.
In the South, yes, and I deal throughout the book with the changing Southern image of Lincoln, which has become more and more favorable over time, of course. It was very negative at the beginning but has become more and more positive, I think, to the point where the South accepts Lincoln as a national hero, and they can commemorate him now where they couldn't 40 or 50 years ago very readily or not with great enthusiasm, let's put it that way. But there is an anti-Lincoln tradition quite beyond that. It's in Northern Copperheadism, for example. They hated Lincoln during the Civil War, and they hated the whole tradition of Lincoln. Edgar Lee Masters, I deal with his book “Lincoln the Man,” which appeared in the early 1930s. This was a devastating attack on Lincoln. It was alleged to be a biography, but basically it was an effort to say that Lincoln had destroyed the country by, in a sense, surrendering it to the money powers during the Civil War. Masters was a man who was committed to sort of an old-fashioned populist Jeffersonianism, and he hated Lincoln.
One of the problems that conservatives have is the notion that Lincoln took the idea that equality was an important element, not only the American creed but, indeed, that equality was sort of an objective to be achieved through the Constitution and the government of the United States. That is something that has bothered them from the beginning and certainly from the time of the neoconservatism that developed right after the Second World War, and Russell Kirk was part of that. If you look at Russell Kirk's conservative mind -- I think I may have alluded to this in the book -- which was one of the fundamental books upon which the whole rise of the new conservatives of the 1950s was built, there's almost no discussion of Lincoln. There's no effort, certainly, to claim Lincoln as a conservative, but there is basically no attention to Lincoln at all.
LAMB: What year was it that both Democrats and Republicans started claiming him?
PETERSON: I think in the 1930s. That really takes hold at that time.
LAMB: Mr. Roosevelt was president.
PETERSON: Yes. FDR, although he was himself a very strong Jeffersonian and thought of himself as a kind of a new Jefferson, reinterpreting Jefferson for the 20th century and, of course, largely responsible for building the Jefferson Memorial and so on. Still, he also recognized the symbolic value of Lincoln in America and often spoke of Lincoln and manipulated the Lincoln symbol in American politics, in perhaps not a terribly important way, but I quote him; for example, Roosevelt's speech at Gettysburg, also his speech at Wilmington, Delaware. He had sort of the habit of ending his presidential campaigns at Wilmington, Delaware, and he always told a story he got from Lincoln, really out of Aesop, I guess, about two kinds of liberty. One is the liberty basically as defined by the wolf, and the other is the liberty as defined by the person who is menaced by the wolf. He, of course, was siding with the people who were menaced by the wolf.
LAMB: If someone buys your book, they can find out about the statues and the art and the music and the poems and the books. For instance, I want to ask you about this. If you go to Springfield to the cemetery, you find this. Was this a hard thing to get built and what year was it built, do you remember?
PETERSON: Yes, it was built, dedicated in the early 1870s. It didn't prove to be that difficult as it worked out, partly because the efforts that were made here in Washington to build a national monument to Lincoln collapsed. So, the main effort that was then underway was the one in Springfield, his home town, and it was nationally supported. Other states contributed to the building of that monument. It became the major monument erected to Abraham Lincoln in the period after the Civil War and for a long time. There were, of course, other monuments on a smaller scale than that one. That's a fairly elaborate monument. It's kind of a soldiers and sailors monument as well as a monument to Lincoln.
LAMB: Where his wife's buried and three of his four sons?
PETERSON: Yes, it also has a crypt down below, of course. That's a very large structure, but there are lots of other statues, and one of the most important, of course, is the “Lincoln, the Emancipator” here in Washington, D.C.
LAMB: Is that the freedman statue?
PETERSON: The freedman statue.
LAMB: Which is not but about 14 blocks from where we're sitting right now.
PETERSON: That's right. That was dedicated in 1876. It was difficult to get that built. That all began with the resolution of a recently freed woman in Ohio that the Negro people should build a statue of Abraham Lincoln. She said, "I'll donate $5 of my pay to get the fund started," and that's how the fund got started. It was not easy to raise the money for that, and then to develop the conception of it took some time, but it is one of the great iconic sculptures in American history.
LAMB: This is in Hodgenville?
PETERSON: That's at Hodgenville
LAMB: When was this built?
PETERSON: The foundations of it were from about 1909 with the centennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth. The building itself was not completed, I don't think, for several years after that. Dedicated as I recall when Taft was president. Again, I can't remember the facts in my own book, but that was built in that time, and it was built, of course, to house the original Lincoln log cabin or the alleged original cabin. There's been a lot of research and controversy as to how much, if any, of that was really part of the actual cabin in which Lincoln was born.
LAMB: The cabin inside is not the cabin?
PETERSON: Well, probably no. It's understood by the Park Service that it is not. They do not even maintain that it's authentic in that respect, though some of the timbers may be. But that cabin probably got unbuilt and then rebuilt a number of times before it was actually reassembled.
LAMB: Does the national monument still get two million visitors a year?
PETERSON: That, of course, was something on which there was a long build-up. Yes, I guess it gets close to that, though I believe the Vietnam Memorial today receives more visitors than does the Lincoln Memorial, and I indicate that near the end of the book, that that's one of the evidences that Lincoln's popularity in America is diminishing a little bit because of the passage of time and the amount of sentiment that's gathered around the Vietnam War Memorial. It's become the biggest tourist attraction in Washington.
LAMB: What about myths? What kind of myths still revolve? Did you find many of them as you researched the Lincoln history?
PETERSON: Oh, yes, I think they are still there. At the beginning of the book, I lay out five major themes that I then return to. They don't form the structure of the book, but I return to them off and on during the book. Those themes all involve myth in one way or another. And the myth of Lincoln as a self-made man, which is one of the five themes that I discerned, is clearly there at the time of his apotheosis after his death, the idea that Lincoln, that here as a man born in absolute poverty with almost no education, comes out of nowhere, has no ancestry, no background, no family that amounts to much, and yet he achieves all this greatness; so that belief that a common, ordinary person in America can excel and arise to the highest office in the land, log cabin to the White House. We had other examples of that before Lincoln. William Henry Harrison at least professed to be one of those. But Lincoln as the exemplar of that in the sense of that he was so disadvantaged in his early life.
How much that still holds with young people today is an interesting question? I think it's diminished. I don't think young people are as much inspired by that as they were two, three generations ago and in the generations since Lincoln's death. I think that that's diminished. But Mario Cuomo, as I cite in the last chapter in my book, is one of those who argues, yes, this is still living and this is terribly important to the whole idea of opportunity in America democracy, in American culture, which is so fundamental to our existence as a nation. Cuomo makes speeches about this and insisted that it was terribly important in his life that Lincoln was a hero to him and a model to him, and he thinks he's still a serviceable model in that regard.
LAMB: What's the best-selling book of all time on Abraham Lincoln?
PETERSON: Used to be said, I think, by some -- it's not really a book, though. It's a booklet, "The Perfect Tribute," by a woman named Mary Shipman Andrews, and it's a story about the Gettysburg Address which is not true and is pure fiction. But it has probably been read by more people, or least it was -- I'm not sure anymore -- it was, say, by the middle of the 20th century. It was still being read that much and there was a television drama done only about five or six years ago, despite the fact that it's totally discredited by historians as having any historical value. It might be a good story. Beyond that the most read book, I'm not sure what it would be. It would vary, I suppose, over time. I'm not sure which would be the most read beyond that. There have been a lot a popular books. Ida Tarbell was one of the most interesting sort of popular writers about Lincoln and very good. She was a fine scholar as well.
LAMB: What year?
PETERSON: She began in the 1890s as part of McClure's magazine which was a muckraking magazine. She's better remembered, of course, as one of the first muckrakers and particularly the muckraker of John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil. But she had also this other string in her bow, which was there before. Well, not before, because she was born in the oil region of Pennsylvania and grew up in that area and went to Allegheny College and so on. But she became early on interested in Lincoln, and Lincoln remained at her side the rest of her life, while she turned to lots of other things that were closer to the contemporary, the present-day political scene. She wrote books that were very personal about Lincoln, that did indeed develop this conception about Lincoln as a warm, generous human being, also somewhat folksy and all of that. Of course, Carl Sandburg in the 20th century -- I suppose Sandburg's work has maybe sold more -- except, no, now I would think maybe Gore Vidal's “Lincoln” is perhaps the book on Lincoln that's probably sold more than any other, which is a historical fiction.
LAMB: Was it accurate?
PETERSON: No. Well ...
LAMB: It made people mad.
PETERSON: It made a lot of people mad; it made a lot of historians mad, because Vidal -- not just in that book but in others as well -- has always tried to have it both ways, to say that everything I say is grounded in historical fact, every interpretation, every character, every event I describe and so on, grounded in historical fact. But then he embroiders the fact to the point where it's very difficult to know where the historical fact ends and the embroidered fiction begins. He's, of course, a great writer. There's no question about that. He is a great figure in American literature. I don't have any doubt about that.
To some extent I believe that book does a disservice to our understanding of Lincoln, because it's not a book that ever gets inside of Lincoln's head, as I say, because he's a character in the book only insofar as he's perceived by other characters, you see. So, if Chase says such-and-such or John Hay says such-and-such about Lincoln or this is what Lincoln was believing at such-and-such a time, well, Vidal can say, "Well, look, I'm not saying that's what Lincoln was believing at that time, My character John Hay is saying that." So it fudges the whole question of what is the truth and what isn't. That book in hardcover and then paperback has had an incredible sale. I don't know exactly what the figures are. Then, of course, it was made into a television drama, docudrama.
LAMB: Now, your book is published by Oxford. Did you go to them or did they come to you?
PETERSON: Oxford University Press, as it happens, has been my publisher for 35 years, my first book and so on.
LAMB: Did you say to them, "I want to do a book on the Lincoln image"?
PETERSON: That's right.
LAMB: What was their reaction about sales on it? Did they feel it would sell?
PETERSON: Yes, I think almost anything on Lincoln will sell.
LAMB: That's what I was getting at -- does it still sell?
PETERSON: It still sells, and the book is doing well from that standpoint, for me anyway. I'm a historian, not a popularizer, but I try to reach a fairly broad audience in the way I write. It's not highly technical; it's not highly analytical. I try to communicate with a fairly broad audience. I tell the story in there about Christopher Morley, one of the American humorists of the early half of the 20th century, one of the Algonquin group, I think -- at least on the outside of that. He was in publishing and he said the ideal title for a book is "Lincoln's Doctor's Dog," because you hit on all three subjects over which there's a lot of sentiment -- Lincoln and doctors and dogs. Then he actually wrote a story called "Lincoln's Doctor's Dog" to prove his point. Not a very good story.
LAMB: Your first chapter is called "The Apotheosis." What does that mean?
PETERSON: "Apotheosis" means making into a God, making immortal. I suppose in a more civic context rather than an ecclesiastical one, entering a pantheon, in the sense of a civic pantheon, and the idealization of Lincoln as a hero and saint, and that takes shape during the apotheosis. One of the interesting questions that one has to ask right at the outset is, would Lincoln have been as famous if he had died a natural death or if he had lived longer and died a natural death perhaps? To what extent did the assassination -- in the circumstances of that time, right at the very end of the Civil War, one day after the American flag was raised again in Charleston, South Carolina, on Good Friday, which immediately, of course, evokes the whole symbolism of Christ -- to what extent would he have become such a saint and hero if that had not happened?
I think there was plenty of evidence that Lincoln was being recognized as very great man both in America and abroad for a year or more before his death, certainly after his reelection as president and his second inaugural address, which was actually only about six weeks before his death. He was being recognized by learned, educated people, not only in this country but around the world as a very great man.
LAMB: What's this?
PETERSON: That is an example of the apotheosis, of course. That is a graphic illustration of it, and, of course, it shows George Washington as well, so the Lincoln-Washington relationship is often there and the whole question of whether Lincoln was the greatest man in American history or Washington was the greatest man in American history. I think up until 1900, nearly everyone would have said Lincoln was the greatest man in American history except for George Washington. But I think after 1900 that began to change, and now there would be less agreement on that.
LAMB: If you go back to that funeral again, 20 days it took to get him buried?
PETERSON: That's right.
LAMB: How come?
PETERSON: Because he was transported across the country on a funeral train.
LAMB: Up through New York?
PETERSON: Yes, all the way up through New York. Basically the funeral train on his trip home to Springfield followed the route that he had taken from Springfield to Washington in 1861 to be inaugurated president, with some variations but very minor ones. It was an incredibly moving event, with tremendous impact on the minds and emotions of the American people. Then there were other events after that even. There was a national fast day proclaimed for Lincoln, a national day of mourning for Lincoln even after the funeral, proclaimed by President Johnson. There were a lot of things that had to do with the closure of the Civil War.
LAMB: President Andrew Johnson.
PETERSON: Andrew Johnson, right.
LAMB: When you go back and think through the years of the books that have been written, is there one that gives you the best overall objective background? Which one would you buy?
PETERSON: I think for a full biography, I would still probably buy Benjamin Thomas's “Abraham Lincoln,” which is still in print, I believe, with Knopf. That was a book written in the 1950s, and it was immediately recognized as an outstanding work of biography, both from a literary standpoint as well as a scholarly, historical standpoint. I think more recent works, Mark Neely's new book “The Last Best Hope,” which is written in connection with the exhibit out at the Huntington Library and which undoubtedly, I guess, you've talked about with him in that interview, is a superb, fairly brief, compact biography, that is exceedingly sharp and penetrating about Lincoln, not only his various actions but about character and personality as well.
LAMB: How long did you spend at the University of Virginia?
PETERSON: Oh, 25 years.
LAMB: Where did you go between the Ph.D. at Harvard and Virginia?
PETERSON: I taught a Princeton for a while, but basically I was at Brandeis University. I had two periods of duty at Brandeis University; one when school was just beginning and then I went off to Princeton for a while and I went back to Brandeis and I came to the University of Virginia from Brandeis in 1963. So I've been at the University of Virginia from 1963 until I retired, which, I guess, was 1987, though I keep forgetting. I'm not really retired. I'm really retired from teaching, but, of course, I continue to do research and writing.
LAMB: On your students, did you find them having more interest in learning about Jefferson or Lincoln?
PETERSON: Well, I didn't teach Lincoln.
LAMB: You never taught Lincoln?
PETERSON: No, never, never really taught Lincoln. I, of course, taught the survey course. I taught American political thought and, in that connection, the Lincoln-Douglas debates. I used those as source material. I think that Lincoln's rediscovery of the Declaration of Independence and of its crucial significance in American history, which discovery he made in the 1850s, was one of the most important things that ever happened in American politics.
I think that is now well recognized by historians as well as political scientists like Harry Jaffa, who was one of the first in the 1950s and `60s to sort of return that dimension of Lincoln -- Lincoln's grasp of the moral imperatives of the Declaration of Independence for defining the meaning and purpose of this country and defining the meaning and purpose of our politics. He was one of the first to do that and to bring that back into the front of our consciousness. I think that was terribly, terribly important. But I never really had come to grips with Lincoln as an historical figure, to say nothing of his image, until I really sat down to do this book. That's one reason I did it, because it would give me an opportunity to learn about Lincoln, which I wanted to do, but I'd never had the opportunity.
LAMB: Let me ask you about former Senator Albert Beveridge, who wrote a lot about Abraham Lincoln. I think I remember you saying that he wasn't fond of the Lincoln-Douglas debates being very important.
PETERSON: That's right. Neither was James G. Randall.
LAMB: Based at the University of Illinois?
PETERSON: That's right.
LAMB: Where do you come down on the importance of them?
PETERSON: Oh, I think they were important, but the assessment of -- I don't have any doubt about their importance. I think their importance was very great from the standpoint of Lincoln establishing himself as a leader of national stature. That was in 1858. He had never had that before. The debate generated so much interest nationally that it helped Lincoln to establish himself as a national figure. Then he made his great Cooper Union address in January of 1860, and that sort of introduced him in the flesh to Eastern audiences.
The debates were also important because it helped Lincoln define what was at stake in this coming struggle. What was at stake, as he increasingly defined it, were the fundamental principles upon which this country rested and which had been there at the foundations of the country, July 4, 1776. At Gettysburg he talked, of course, about fourscore and seven years ago, 1776, and that we were refounding the nation on those same principles. I think that's something that Jim McPherson, Mark Neely, many other scholars -- Don Fehrenbacher, another Lincoln scholar -- are now inclined to converge upon, agree that that's one of the great significance of Lincoln, and it contributed greatly to his fame, not only in America but to his fame worldwide.
LAMB: We've only got about a minute or so. I'm going to ask you some quick questions. Favorite place to go see Abraham Lincoln? Monument?
PETERSON: Oh, I would say the Lincoln Memorial, without any question.
LAMB: Favorite painting?
PETERSON: There were not too many great paintings of Lincoln but the Healy, I guess. The Healy painting that hangs in the White House which has Lincoln like this was part of a group painting but then separated out as a portrait.
LAMB: Your favorite book to read?
PETERSON: I can't answer that. There are too many.
LAMB: Your favorite Lincoln speech?
PETERSON: Oh, I think the Gettysburg Address, but a very close second would be the Second Inaugural.
LAMB: The worst thing you've seen in all the stuff you've rummaged through that you thought was a travesty or totally off-base or has gotten much more publicity than it deserved over the years?
PETERSON: I don't know, I think Lyon G. Tyler's long campaign against Lincoln's reputation. He was a son, actually, of President Tyler and the president of William and Mary and edited William and Mary Quarterly back in the 1920s and `30s and maintained a long campaign against Lincoln. I think that was pretty bad, but I'm not sure exactly how to classify it as the worst.
LAMB: I assume this is a picture from the Lincoln Memorial here on the cover.
PETERSON: That's right.
LAMB: This is the book, “Lincoln in American Memory,” by Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Virginia, Merrill Peterson. Thank you very much for joining us.
PETERSON: All right. Thank you.
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