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February's Book
Lincoln of Kentucky
by Lowell H. Harrison
Bill:
Dr. Harrison, welcome to the bookclub@ket, and thanks for joining us.

Dr. Harrison:
It is a pleasure to be with you.

Bill:
This is such an interesting book on so many different levels. But for you, as the author and the historian, what are the more important aspects of your research and your writing of this book?

Dr. Harrison:
I was fascinated by the continued connection that Lincoln had with Kentucky after his family left the state when he was just a boy. This really surprised me. When he was in Indiana, for example, he was surrounded by other members of his family, other Kentuckians who had moved across the Ohio River. These were pretty much in the economic social group the Lincolns had belonged to in Kentucky. Then after he moves to Illinois, becomes self-educated, becomes a lawyer, he moved into a higher economic social level. But all three of his law partners were Kentuckians; all three of the women with whom he had more romantic attachments were Kentuckians, including, of course, his wife. His best friend was Joshua Speed of Kentucky. One of his favorite newspapers was the Louisville Journal that was edited by George Prentice. His political idol was Henry Clay, and it just goes on and on. He was very much in contact with Kentuckians after he left the state.

Bill:
I think one of the aspects of your research for me personally, and I think this is what we’ll also discuss on the bookclub on television, is how you put a human face to Lincoln, whom we’ve read about and visited [the monuments to] in Washington and know of, more or less as lay historians, as certainly an important person, but early on you really give us a humanization of this great person. Was that difficult for you? Or is that just the way your research led you to the writing style to bring this out?

Dr. Harrison:
Well, I thought it was important to try to see him as a person. And it’s difficult, I think, in writing history—almost any period—to separate the legends from the real person. And the sort of thing you encounter with Lincoln, his sense of humor for example, I think is important in bringing out the real Lincoln. The fact that he would frequently be late for dinner because he had been reading jokes or telling jokes to the cabinet, things of this sort. He’s a very human individual and also a very complex one as well.

Bill:
In your research as long-time professor and historian at Western Kentucky University, this I’m sure is second nature to you, but also at the same time a challenge: to pull all this together and then put the words on paper, is it not?

Dr. Harrison:
Very, very much so. It’s almost terrifying when you learn that there are over 4,000 books that have been written on Lincoln as a major subject and heaven knows how many thousands of articles and small miscellaneous pieces. There has been more written on him than any person in American history.

Bill:
What are some of the other areas that you think are important to the reader and to someone who is studying Lincoln? The aspects of his life as he was an adult, and as he dealt with the Civil War, as he dealt with the presidency, and the different factions that he had to meet with ... Tell us a little bit about that.

Dr. Harrison:
One of the striking things, of course, is the fact that he was simply a great politician, that he knew how to work with people. He had learned this, I think, pretty much in the legislature in Illinois. And he certainly starts in as president with a cabinet most members of which thought that they were better qualified to be president than he was. And he has to weld them into a working team. It takes him even longer to come up with a good military team. But in time, with Grant, Sheridan, Sherman, Thomas, he accomplishes that. I simply have to admit that the more that I have studied him, the more impressed I have been by him. And in my opinion he is without question the greatest of the presidents that we have ever had.

Bill:
What sort of politician was he before he was elected? Did he struggle for a while in local and state politics?

Dr. Harrison:
Well, he got started very early as a law student. He became a very successful politician. He was a very effective stump speaker, of course. Someone could say, well, he lost to Douglas; but of course you have to remember that in that famous election for the Senate, the election was in the state legislature. Lincoln with the popular vote undoubtedly would have won it, I think. But he was simply a very successful politician. He knows how to work, how to bring people together. And this was invaluable to him, I think, during the period of his presidency.

Bill:
What mistakes did he make?

Dr. Harrison:
There are several, I think, that one might mention. It took him perhaps too long to come to the realization that in order to save the union it was going to be necessary to do something about slavery. And this is one of the reasons that Lincoln is sometimes referred to today as a racist. And in some respects he was. His ideal solution to the racial question was to free the slaves and colonize them somewhere outside of the United States. And it took him a long time to come to the realization that something there had to be done.

He also was sometimes too lenient with some of his military commanders. He had two or three who had bad cases of the slows. They had trouble getting moving as he thought they should move. A prime example of that, of course, that everyone is familiar with is General McClellan in the eastern theater, but he had very much the same sort of problem here in Kentucky with General Buell, who just couldn’t be prodded into advancing the way Lincoln thought he should be advanced.

Lincoln also committed, one would have to admit, a number of illegal, unconstitutional acts—things that he had no right to do as president, but which he felt had to be done or the war might be lost at the beginning. I’m thinking particularly of the actions that he took to make sure that Maryland stayed in the union.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Dr. Harrison:
He violated the Constitution upon a number of occasions. He felt that probably after the war was over, there would be a court challenge to the Emancipation Proclamation, and there would be a good possibility that that famous Emancipation Proclamation would be declared unconstitutional. So to do what he felt had to be done, Lincoln simply didn’t hesitate to push against the very bounds of presidential power.

Bill:
Is it an error or an oversight in history to make the statement, or to be taught early on—and you have corrected this, I believe—to teach that he opposed slavery?

Dr. Harrison:
Lincoln said that he was opposed to slavery from the beginning, and I think this is probably true from very early in his life. But he recognizes that slavery is constitutional, that it is legal, and his solution is that you surround slavery and not let it expand. If you ever have fought with a grass fire, if you can keep the grass fire from burning, from spreading, it will simply burn itself out. And that, I think, is the way Lincoln saw the future of slavery: Don’t let it expand, and it will ultimately become so unprofitable that it will die out. Of course, that was going to take time. He felt that slavery might possibly die out, say, by 1900 or so. But this is the reason that he and Republicans in 1860-61 would simply not accept any compromise whatsoever on the expansion of slavery. He will allow it to continue in the states that have it, including Kentucky. But he will not allow slavery to expand to any additional territory.

Bill:
Give us one anecdote—a lighter moment in the life of Abraham Lincoln.

Dr. Harrison:
When someone asked him about his storytelling and jokes and so forth, he said that if he didn’t laugh, he would go crazy. I think this is probably quite true. It’s the real relief that he had. He had some beautiful descriptions. McClellan always needed more troops than what he was able to provide. I remember Lincoln said that sending troops to McClellan was “something like shoveling fleas across a barnyard. Half of them never arrive.”

Bill:
[laughs]

Dr. Harrison:
And then he had a comment I loved about General Scott, who was a very vain, very pompous individual, although a great general as well. He said that if General Scott had realized what a great funeral he would have had, he would have died years sooner.

Bill:
[laughs] Dr. Harrison, why did you begin your book with the assassination?

Dr. Harrison:
Well, it’s hard. I wanted to catch the attention of the people who didn’t know too much about Lincoln. Everyone knows, yeah, Lincoln the Great Emancipator, Lincoln the legendary figure who was born in the log cabin that he built with his own hands, this sort of thing, and so I wanted to get the attention right away to talk about the reputation that Lincoln had in Kentucky—how we gradually came to accept him in the 20th century. It was more to get the reader’s attention, I think, than anything else.

Bill:
Dr. Harrison, speaking for the panel and everyone at KET, we want to thank you for joining us today. And good luck to you, sir.

Dr. Harrison:
Well, thank you very much.

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