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February's Book
Lincoln of Kentucky
by Lowell H. Harrison

Bill:
Abraham Lincoln left Kentucky early in his life, but the strong ties that bound him to the Commonwealth remained etched deeply in Honest Abe throughout his years. Lowell Harrison, professor emeritus at Western Kentucky University, has written a useful and authoritative study of Lincoln’s relationship with his native state in Lincoln of Kentucky. bookclub@ket starts now.

Bill:
Well, you know, after thousands and thousands of words written on Abraham Lincoln and so many, many books, Lowell Harrison puts this book together rather recently. It’s interesting to find out new things about him when you thought you had maybe read a few things and read a few books—certainly scholars have read so much, but he finds new pieces.

Gabrielle:
I was pleasantly surprised. I think when I first started reading it, I thought of it as more of a historical kind of—a history book. But he had so many little paragraphs and excerpts from speeches that he had made and letters that he had written that it really gave you a lot of insight to what he was facing during his political career.

Bill:
I think maybe I went into it thinking that it was another textbook—or I guess maybe it can be used as that, certainly; maybe should be used as that. But again, there is so much more that for me made it move better. You sort of felt more comfortable with it than you maybe would a textbook.

Dava:
Well, anyway, it is a history book, you know, if you are going to classify it as such. And of course it does have a lot of dates in it, and this date after this date and that can get just, you know, blah. But what I really liked about this book is that it’s Lincoln of Kentucky. So not only is it about Lincoln, but he spends a great deal of time discussing what happened in Kentucky during the Civil War, the sentiment of the people in Kentucky. I thought that was supremely interesting, too—other than just the things about Lincoln that Lowell Harrison has to say.

Wilma:
Along those lines, I felt the same way. Actually, I kept thinking, well, Kentucky wasn’t very important; I don’t know why he keeps trying to bring that out—how important they were. But he actually indicated this on page 135:

“Kentucky was relatively a much larger and more important state in 1861 than it has been in the twentieth century. Although before 1860 its population was growing slower than that of the nation as a whole, Kentucky still ranked ninth among the states in population. Kentucky was seventh in the value of farms, fifth in the value of livestock ...”

... and so on. And that gave me a really good idea of its place at that period of time and why it was fairly important to not only Lincoln but other statesmen.

Bill:
The technique of using the assassination at the very beginning ...

Wilma:
Excellent. Uh huh. I thought; I thought because ... And I don’t know what you were going to say, but I thought it was interesting simply because it got you into an interesting part of the book, rather than saying, Lincoln was born, etc., etc., or his father was born, you know, and bringing it in that way. I thought it was interesting to have the assassination first, even though it doesn’t tie back in later. I mean he doesn’t pick it back up, but we know what happened. And I thought that was an interesting way to get into the book and to get our interest into it. That’s the way I felt.

Jonathan:
It’s one of the things that everybody knows about Lincoln: that he was assassinated.

Wilma:
Yeah.

Jonathan:
Even in Ireland we knew he was assassinated.

[Everyone laughs]

Jonathan:
And as an Irishman growing up, you know Lincoln as Civil War president. We knew about it, but it’s not something we would ever study at high school; it’s not something that we studied at college, unless you would elect to do so. So it’s the first book of its kind that I have read. I never read a book about Lincoln before. It is a political biography, I suppose, which is claiming to be an academic study. I can’t compare it—I can’t say how original it is or anything like that because I haven’t read anything else on the subject. But as a general reader coming to it, it’s very readable and full of anecdotes and interesting details. And as you said, he is very good at aptly quoting from speeches, letters, in hopes of elucidating some of Lincoln’s attitudes. But I agree with you, Dava, that on one hand it’s a biography of Lincoln, and yet it’s also really a study of the period and a story of the role of Kentucky in the Civil War. I mean, I think that I learned an awful lot about what happened in Kentucky during the Civil War here—quite independent of Lincoln, you know—because it was quite a lot of narrative here just about the battles in Perryville and Richmond and so on, apart from Lincoln’s part in it.

Bill:
I think somebody also mentioned that this book ... Surely you can’t talk about Lowell Harrison’s writing style in this. It is so full of facts and figures and all of that. But you just mentioned it. It is written in a very nice storytelling style that he uses, and I think that one of the first things that I recognized early on was how human it made Lincoln after reading about him. You learn some things about his growing-up period in Kentucky, where he spent the first eight years of his life before he left Kentucky to move to Indiana, that made me think that he was just one of the men down the street, if you will—one of the boys growing up.

[Everyone agrees]

Bill:
So I think that was interesting.

Jonathan:
Well, I mean, I admire the book. I suppose I have one small criticism, and that is that I came away from it really feeling that Lincoln was always, you know, in control of the situation and in control of himself and always able to come out with witty sayings for almost every situation. I didn’t get much sense of any despair or even anguish in Lincoln, you know. He didn’t really go into the aspect of Lincoln, if he had an aspect like this, which said, you know, where is it going to end? What is going to become of us? It didn’t go into the anxiety of Lincoln so much as Lincoln as poised president. So, in that sense, it seemed a little one-sided to me.

Wilma:
I think I know what you mean, because at the beginning he started out with Lincoln as the person, and he talked about his bouts of depression and so on, and then later it just got into a recount—a more detailed and more academic recounting of what was happening at the time. We kind of lost Lincoln the person. I believe I see what you mean.

Jonathan:
Yeah, that’s exactly what I felt. So I think that there was a short section on Lincoln’s boyhood in Kentucky. Then when he begins the book about the Civil War, it’s more about Lincoln in Washington taking an interest in the war and less of a study of Lincoln as a personality.

Dava:
You know, I think the demands on him were so relentless [that] I could see how it would be impossible for him to be absorbed with anything having to do with himself. Just the constant badgering of people with requests, complaining about this general, that general; what is going on here; people wanting personal favors. I really had never stopped to think about what a wartime president has to face, because he must have never gotten any sleep at all. And really I was just amazed. I never thought about it.

Gabrielle:
I think in his communications he was [doing] less talking about struggles because I think the president is supposed to know what to do. So he may not have confided those types of personal concerns in his letters and writing, and so therefore that is lost. We can’t capture that anywhere.

Jonathan:
One of the impressive things was how well Lincoln seemed to know Kentucky. When he got telegrams or messages from his general in the West, as it was then called, describing campaigns, he knew exactly what was happening where. And there is one quotation from a letter he wrote here which shows his intimate knowledge of the place and also his concern for exactly what was happening. He says:

“How near to Louisville is Buckner? Is he moving toward Louisville? Has he crossed Green River? Is the bridge over Green River repaired? Can he cross Green River in face of McCook? If he were on the North side of Green River, how long could McCook hold him out of Louisville, holding the railroad with power to destroy it inch by inch?”

His detailed knowledge of the tactics there, I think, is very interesting—the view of him in the war room looking at the map and thinking about what is going on, getting these messages from the generals and trying to figure out what is happening. And I think it does give you some sense of the day-by-day tension in the White House as they get messages from the generals saying what happened.

Bill:
Let me go back, though, and ask you to revisit the childhood. As he grew into his teen years and his early life, it seemed to me that Lowell Harrison, through this huge bibliography, traced some of the real flaws that he had to deal with: the uncertainty he had about himself, the self-doubt that he had about his education, his inability to romance women, his lack of real leadership skills. I don’t even know if he was a great lawyer. He certainly had the skill, but he had problems struggling with finances for so many years. I think some of those problems in his life aren’t glossed over, if I can disagree slightly with your assessment a few minutes ago.

Jonathan:
I agree with you, Bill, particularly at the early stage of his political career, where he’s not sure that he is really going to succeed. His doubts are expressed there. I was thinking more in terms of during the war campaign and while he was in the White House. Less of ... There seems to be less introspection there in his character. But I agree with you completely that in the early part of his career he’s not sure he is going to make it. He’s not sure of his popularity, of his future success; and certainly when he gets engaged to Mary Todd, his first reaction is to think, oh, maybe I better break off the engagement. He thinks, can I really support this woman? and it makes him seem very fickle, but he goes ahead anyway.

Bill:
Uh huh, yeah. Did you come away with a different interpretation or understanding of how he felt about slavery and the entire race matter that he was dealing with and how the rest of the country was reacting to it?

Gabrielle:
I think I became more keenly aware of the challenges he faced, because at first I got the sense that it was really a separation between North and South and slavery was a side issue, and he really didn’t want it to continue. But he was OK with leaving the quote-unquote “slave states” alone to govern themselves. But then as they start going through and the Civil War starts developing, you see some of the challenges. And I don’t remember being so keenly aware of that situation that was going on. I kind of tied everything together as one issue, not realizing that they came together.

Dava:
I was just like Gabrielle: I thought this war was completely over slavery and nothing else.

Gabrielle:
Right.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Dava:
And the thing we see is that for Lincoln, it was just paramount to keep the union together. That was his first goal, and he would do anything for that. And I also found it interesting that he really did not see slaves as equals. He didn’t see blacks as equals in any respect. I never knew that.

Bill:
That he had those thoughts?

Dava:
Right.

Bill:
I’m the same way.

Wilma:
Yes.

Bill:
Yes. And you thought the war was about slavery and that he was the Great Emancipator and that it was a clear-cut issue for him, but he struggled with it. In fact, in talking with the author, Lowell Harrison, for our audio interview, which will be on the web site, the question was: Was there some concern among even those surrounding Lincoln, close to him, that he hadn’t really made a definitive statement against slavery? On page 223, in one of the letters that he wrote somewhere near 1862, he says:

“I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution.... If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them.”

And then just a couple of years later—this is in 1864—he writes back and makes a definitive statement:

“I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think, and feel.”

Yet early on in his years, it seemed to me that his quest was to save the union [and] not let slavery expand, not necessarily ban it or speak out against it in the states where it was already established—in Kentucky.

Jonathan:
I think that is a good point. And I think the book makes clear that he wanted to see the end of slavery, but he also understood the mentality of slave owners. And he wanted to stop it spreading, but he knew that it would take some time before slave owners would give up their slaves. He knew it would take a lot of altering of mental attitudes for that to happen. So in a sense, he was ... For that reason, of course, a lot of people were suspicious of him. They thought, he is from the South; he’s from a state where there are slave owners; his wife is from a slave-owning family. Mary Todd had several brothers who were fighting in the Confederate Army, so he was really, in a sense, a man in between. And I think that came through clearly.

Gabrielle:
I agree. I think somewhere in the book he said, “Just because I don’t want a black woman to be a slave, nor do I want her to be my wife either. I don’t want either of those things.” I think he said he believed in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and he felt that that was a given right for everyone. And that’s where I think he drew the line for himself: that everyone, regardless of race, should have those liberties.

Bill:
And you said just a few minutes ago, Dava, that you didn’t realize how conflicted or how difficult it was to be, probably any president, but certainly Lincoln during this time. I just ... I think the book does a real good job of painting a portrait of his loneliness in the decisions that he had to make that were so grave at the time and yet so important. And he called upon a lot of Kentuckians, didn’t he? I mean, he still had those ties.

Dava:
Those were very important to him all of his life. I mean, even from the very beginning of his law career, all three of his law partners were from Kentucky. The three women he courted were from Kentucky. This person was from Kentucky, that person was ...

Bill:
Henry Clay ...

Dava:
The three people he sought most ...

Bill:
... his hero.

Dava:
Yes. His hero.

Jonathan:
It’s interesting how his attitude towards Clay changes, because whereas Henry Clay was his political hero for several years—I was going to say many years, but certainly for several years—and then eventually he had to vote against him ...

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
... because he really felt that Henry Clay is not going to win this election. He just doesn’t have the popular vote. And didn’t he say, I have decided that Henry Clay is too pure a patriot to run for office? As if there were something perhaps unpractical about Clay or something about him that made it hard for him to get votes.

Dava:
Well, I think [Lincoln] was a very practical man. And he did ... He was well within reality, but also this book shows how compassionate he was. And I couldn’t help but feeling, when I read this book, how would it have been if he hadn’t been assassinated, if he had served his second term? And Reconstruction would, I mean from my guess, have been so much more of a smooth process, and you still wouldn’t have people, especially in the South today, still cursing the North. It was just horrible how it happened.

Wilma:
It does give you an idea—and I guess I knew this; I couldn’t not have known it—but it gives you a very specific idea of what his presidency was like. I mean, it was nothing but turmoil. I mean, he never had a time that he could let down. And I guess I knew that, but going through here one page at a time, you know, one year at a time, I thought that that was brought home quite clearly.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
So something Dava was saying earlier about how he had no time whatsoever ... But he was president in a very difficult time, and then was assassinated before anything else was able to even out. On that assassination, too ... I’m sure several people have been to Ford’s Theater, and I visited the little house across the street where Lincoln lay as he was dying. And the room was, I think, something like nine feet across, and I remember thinking how small, how very small that room was.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
So little details like that, I think, brought some things up to the surface for me, and I enjoyed that. I also enjoyed all of the Kentucky town names as the armies went through. I thought, oh yeah, I remember that. And I knew that but I hadn’t thought about it for some time. So I believe the things that we already knew about Lincoln and the things that we know about Kentucky—I think this book brings it together in a nice way. There were some things I thought I knew about Lincoln and really didn’t. You know, I just wasn’t aware; I hadn’t read anything about it for a long time.

Bill:
Had you remembered the circumstances which took him to Ford’s Theater that night and how ...

Wilma:
That was interesting.

Bill:
... he had an opportunity not to go, and wasn’t he asked not to go? Mary Todd, in fact, made a reference to that, and then he needed to go and all of that, and of course that was his fate. What kind of politician do you think he was? How do you compare his political acumen to what goes on today with the politicians that we work with?

Wilma:
Well, there are two things. First of all, the politicians that we work with make a show for the nation. And at that time, of course, the entire nation was not watching him at one time. He had to make a show for the people around him, the people that knew him or the people he came in contact with. So I think being president or being elected president at that time was a very much different thing from what it is now, so I could see a very different type of politician.

Jonathan:
Well, one thing you notice is the different way the campaigns were run ...

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
... in those days from today. I mean, really ... I mean, we read that during his campaign he stayed at home.

Wilma:
I know.

Jonathan:
He was encouraged to stay at home during his campaign. I mean, the word “campaign trail” doesn’t really exist, because he wasn’t even on the trail.

[Everyone laughs]

Wilma:
You weren’t supposed to be too eager about ...

[Everyone laughs]

Jonathan:
I think that it would have been considered ungentlemanly to do that.

Wilma:
Exactly.

Jonathan:
But I think sometimes, Bill, people say politicians today ... They have always said this about politicians: So-and-So, you know, he’s quite a good politician, but he doesn’t seem to have a real vision, or he doesn’t really seem to have anything that he really believes in. And this is something that you hear about politicians; I am not thinking about anybody in particular. But one could never say that about Lincoln, because I think that from the very start, according to the documents here, he was anti-slavery. He wanted to stop slavery; he wanted to stop its spreading, at least. That was, in a sense, the issue with which a lot of people associated with him from the get-go, and I think my impression reading this is that he came across as a man of great moral integrity, and I don’t think that people respected that.

Bill:
Yeah.

Jonathan:
But was that wonderful ... about the campaign gimmick where they got a piece of fence from where he was supposed to come ...

Wilma:
Rail.

Jonathan:
... rail fence. And then they actually took that to campaign with and said, this is a piece of fence that Lincoln made with his own hands. And I think the sense that he did come from a frontier family and he came from very humble circumstances and was good with his hands and was a real son of the soil—I think that spoke to people.

Wilma:
And it gave him a hook, too, that rail-splitter name. You know, the rail splitter. People remembered that, so it was a hook.

Bill:
He probably liked that, didn’t he?

Wilma:
Yeah.

Jonathan:
Yeah.

Wilma:
Probably.

Bill:
He seemed to me in certain passages to be concerned, though, about who his opponents were going to be and where their votes were going to come from. Again, he was concerned about that at times.

Jonathan:
Yeah, yeah. Oh yeah; sure, sure.

Bill:
So he had, of course ... He knew that was his future.

Jonathan:
He was trying to predict results; he was thinking in advance of where the votes might go.

Bill:
To a degree, I think, you know he wanted to, of course. He studied what office to run for and if this was the right time to be involved in a particular race. That’s what I mean.

Wilma:
I thought it was interesting in his second term, that Kentucky was one of three states that voted against him.

[Everyone agrees]

Wilma:
I thought that was interesting.

Bill:
Uh huh. What else in the way of really knowing him, maybe, as you’ve not read about him before? We have talked about a few of those things: his relationship with women, let’s say. How would you describe that?

Dava:
Quite awkward ...

[Everyone laughs]

Dava:
... to say the least. I mean, his second relationship ended when he supposedly proposed to a woman that he didn’t realize he proposed to her and was trying to work that situation out. I mean, he had absolutely no finesse with that.

Bill:
That could have made a situation comedy on television these days.

Dava:
That might not have worked out for him, [but] I learned more about Mary Todd; that maybe she was just a little too much, but ...

Bill:
We are going to learn a lot more about that relationship later on in the month [February 2001] on KET, with the presentation “House Divided,” which is really about Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln. So that’s going to be an interesting public broadcasting program on KET.

Dava:
Well, one more thing I wanted to talk about [regarding] Lincoln was [that] I learned from this book how much he relied on himself to do things. You know, growing up on the frontier, having to study his books by the firelight, by the candle, we learned that in school. But then even into the presidency, the book talked about how he couldn’t find competent military help. Nobody knew how to do a thing, and he would go to the library and pore over books of strategy, just think himself how to do things. I mean, the thought of doing that without 15 advisers around you just ...

Bill:
Or a poll.

Dava:
Yeah, or a poll. You just don’t think of that. And my goodness, he put so much effort into everything he did. And I have to admire that.

Bill:
It was a different time. The White House must have been different—not only the people that surrounded him, but the presence that he had there in Washington. I thought the photographs were interesting, didn’t you?

[Everyone agrees]

Bill:
They did such a good job—whether it was Dr. Harrison or whether it was the publisher who put the black-and-white photographs in—I think these are really fascinating. And I know we have Ford’s Theater. You have been to other museums and historical places. But just reading a letter that he wrote: “Yours truly, A. Lincoln.” I mean, we have seen that signature before. I think this was a letter to his relative saying that he couldn’t get him a certain pass to travel from the South to the North, or maybe it was vice versa.

Jonathan:
Well, there was that moment—was it when Mary Todd’s sister wanted to come visit them in the White House during the war?—and she refused to sign the oath of allegiance and the border guards turned her back. Eventually Lincoln gave her a pass even though she hadn’t signed the oath of allegiance. And then he was criticized for having a rebel in the White House. And he rebuked the critic very roundly. He said, “You know, I’ll not ask your advice as to who my guests should be.” He was a staunch defender of his family, even though he knew that they were steeped in gray.

Wilma:
Including his two sons ...

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